Edson’s Ridge – Guadalcanal
Now It Begins
On the 12th of September, Kawaguchi had finally assembled two of his three battalions at the jump-off point, the northern slopes of Mount Austen. The last battalion had not yet caught up. No matter, the attack would proceed without them. The force had suffered horribly from the difficult trek across country and was hardly in shape for what was to come. National pride, however, more than compensated for the physical maladies and the troops proceeded to the departure line.
An afternoon rain had drenched the 600 Marine defenders along the ridge and as night fell, the waterlogged troops sought some comfort and much needed rest. It was not to be. At 9:00 PM, a green flare was dropped from an overhead Japanese patrol plane. In less than half an hour, enemy ships began to bombard the ridge. The larger 8” shells from a cruiser had the sound of approaching freight trains as they passed overhead, but most failed to hit their target. The Marines were largely unscathed, just shaken.
The cacophony of the naval shelling ended and was replaced by the "whoomp" of mortar fire that peppered the ridge. That was joined by machine gun fire and shouts from the darkness, “US Marines be dead tomorrow! US Marines be dead tomorrow!” This was accompanied by the men slapping their rifle butts in unison as they advanced.
The charge was hard and fast. Japanese grenadiers came first, followed by riflemen and light machine gunners. They moved in columns abreast, their line stretching back into the blackness. Attempting to use the darkness as their ally, however, resulted in mass confusion among Kawaguchi’s forces. They became disorganized and the result was a series of smaller close-in fights, with fists, feet, bayonets, trench knives and entrenching tools. Men struggled with men and strangled the life from them. It soon degenerated into a mindless melee where neither commander had control. The battle raged in each foxhole where a man fought to either conquer or repel.
Suddenly the Raider’s line was penetrated! With some Japanese breaching the line. Seven Marines were cut off and never seen again. Their bodies weren’t even found after the battle. Sadly for Kawaguchi, the advantage could not be held. The Japanese had spent themselves and could not hold their breakthrough. By 5:00 AM they had withdrawn back into the dense jungle.
The Grim Reality
The Raiders were stunned and hurt. Furthermore, their pride had been dealt a blow. The Japanese had driven them back. Losses that night forced Red Mike to consolidate his lines and withdraw further back on the ridge. With leaden feet, moving like zombies, the Marine Raiders and Paratroopers shuffled back to new positions. No sleep and the intense heat continued to suck at their energy. One man in three had become a casualty in the first attack.
One third of Edson’s strength was gone. Now 400 able bodied Raiders and Para-Marines would try to hold a line 1,800 yards long against over 2,000 enemy troops. It was one Marine for every five yards against five Japanese soldiers. The odds were grim to say the least. Edson knew that Kawaguchi was not finished. There would be another attack and he had to be ready. Talking among his men, Edson flatly stated to them, “It is useless to ask ourselves why it is we are here. We are here. There is only us between the airfield and the Japs. If we don’t hold, we will lose Guadalcanal.”
On the other hand, Kawaguchi, while disappointed that the ridge had not been taken, was still in good spirits. The enemy had been pushed back and seemed to be in disarray. One more push, then over the ridge and the Japanese Army would present to Admiral Yamamoto and the Emperor a lovely present: Henderson Field. He was so anxious to get started that he scheduled this attack for 6:30 PM. It would all be over by midnight and the prize would be his.
The Japanese leaders at Rabaul were puzzled. Radio contact with the troops on Guadalcanal had been lost. But surely the airfield was now in General Kawaguchi’s hand. Lined up along airfield, transports filled with troops and equipment were ready to be on their way to make their landings at Henderson Field, now most assuredly in friendly hands. Then the retaking of the island could be completed.
Just to be sure, four scout planes were sent to reconnoiter the area. When only three returned some hours later, riddled with antiaircraft fire, it was deemed wise to hold off on the movement of the air transports one more day!
The Final Push
The attack began promptly on time. Kawaguchi would not wait for the preliminary shelling by offshore naval guns tonight. Nor would he hold up on the attack until the remaining battalion of his brigade had fully arrived. The 2,100 of Japanese finest should be able to easily sweep aside what puny resistance remained. Reports from scouts indicated that the enemy lines had shrunk and there had been a withdrawal.
The effeminate Americans would undoubtedly collapse with just a little more pressure. This final thrust would secure his dream of triumph. He was extremely anxious to gain his glorious victory. As darkness descended over the ridge, the Japanese mortars began spitting out a new rain of death on Marine positions.
Red Mike, however, had been busy all day. As most of his men tried to get a few hours of sleep, the Colonel ran from one place to another, preparing for the next attack that would surely come that night. He first secured the close artillery support of the 11th Marines 105mm howitzers, commanded by Colonel Pedro de Valle. In addition he moved back and forth across the ridge, finding better positions for his heavier machine guns.
Mortar crews under Edson’s guidance had zeroed in on what would be most likely the lanes of approach by the enemy. Finally, he had done all he could. Wearily he returned to his command post, close to the front lines, informing his adjutant, “Nothing to do now, but wait for it to happen.”
In only an hour, it did happen, or at least it began. The usual flare fell from the sky, this time dropped by “Louie the Louse,” and the attack began. The distant darkness of the jungle suddenly seemed to open up in dozens of different places where tiny men in khaki uniforms were spat out from the thick foliage. “Oh, Lord!” Cried a lookout. “Here they come!”
And come they did! This time firing from the hip, the attackers moved briskly toward the foot of the ridge. Marine rifles and machine guns split open the blackness and produced horrid screams of pain from below. Then 105mm shells, whooshing low over Marine lines crashed into the valley just ahead of them. Marine Bill Keller thought they were too low. “ I wasn’t about to stand up, for fear of losing the top of my helmet.”
The ranks of the Japanese were ripped apart by the explosions. The battlefield teemed with flashes of light and the roar of so many weapons firing simultaneously was terribly unnerving. In minutes, the lower slopes were dotted with dozens of bodies, some very still, others writhing in pain in the midst of the grass fires ignited by the falling shells.
Japanese machine guns, located in the fringes of the jungle, watched for the flashed of the heavier American .50 caliber guns. Once found, the Japanese sprayed them mercilessly. As a gunner fell, a loader, or ammo carrier instantly replaced him. One heavy machine gun team was killed, one by one, to the last man in less than thirty minutes.
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