The Tokyo Express and the Battle of Alligator Creek (Tenaru)

Although the Marines didn’t appreciate it at the time, Fletcher’s carriers prevented the Japanese from landing transports full of Japanese troops and supplies, because the slow and heavy transports couldn’t make the trip to Guadalcanal and be back out of range of Fletcher’s aircraft before dawn. So instead of transports, the Japanese used the fast destroyers of Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka’s 2nd Destroyer Squadron. They couldn’t carry a fraction of what the transports could, but they could make the trip and be back before they were inevitably strafed and bombed by American planes, that ironically appeared over the Solomon’s with the rising sun. On the evening on 18 August 1942, Tanaka made the first of many nightly runs down the Slot to deliver men and material to Guadalcanal from Rabaul, soon dubbed by the Marines as “The Tokyo Express”.

The Tokyo Express’s first passengers were the 917 men of Kiyanao Ichiki’s 28th Infantry Regiment. The Japanese 17th Army (similar to a American army corps) was committed to the fight along the Kokoda Track in New Guinea, so troops from the Philippine’s had to be detached and sent south piecemeal. The first to arrive was Ichiki’s men.

The 28th Infantry Regiment suffered from “victory disease”, in Ichiki’s own words, as if it was a good thing, and they weren’t going to wait for Tanaka to bring more men. Ichiki was going to attack as soon as possible – the 11,000 men of the 1st Marine Division dug in at Lunga Point around Henderson Field be damned.

Ichiki’s confidence, though foolhardy, was not entirely misplaced. The 28th was a veteran outfit of the war with China, the Soviet Union in 1939, and Philippines’ campaign. The Marines on the perimeter had no experience beyond dealing with the harassing attacks by the labour and construction battalion that had fled into the jungle as they landed.

But the Marines were fast learners, and the aggressive and persistent harassment by the construction battalion had taught them nighttime noise and light discipline the hard way. Furthermore, the coast watchers had warned of Ichiki’s landing, and on the evening of 19 August, Ichiki’s reconnaissance patrol was ambushed and destroyed. The Marines knew first line Japanese assault troop were on the island and prepared accordingly. They didn’t, however, expect Ichiki to attack so soon.

As soon as Ichiki landed, he quickly led his men to the north coast of the island to the east of the American lines. Just after midnight on 21 August, Ichiki’s men blundered into the Marine lines as they attempted to cross the Ilu River, dubbed by the Americans “Alligator Creek” (There are no alligators in the Solomon’s, only crocodiles.) The Marines were waiting for them.

Ichiki was surprised at contact with the Americans so far from Henderson Field, but decided to attack anyway. The Marine position was strong, but furious banzai charges starting about 4am threatened to overwhelm the defenders and break through nonetheless. That they did not, was almost entirely due to six heavy machine guns and a 37mm anti-tank gun firing canister rounds from the battalion weapons company attached to the defenders the evening before. For four hours these guns massacred wave after wave of Japanese crossing the shallow river. Even so, it was a near run thing as accurate covering fire raked the American positions as the swarming Japanese consistently got within hand grenade range, and even overran several before being pushed back by counterattacking Marines.

One water-cooled Browning .30 Cal was crewed by PFC Al Schmid after his gunner was wounded, and the other assistant gunner killed. The wounded Schmid continually loaded and fired the heavy gun himself under the tutelage of the badly wounded gunner who couldn’t move to help and broke up several assaults. An hour before dawn, Schmid was struck by grenade fragments in the face, and was blinded. Despite not being able to see Schmid continued to fight: the blind Schmid pointed and fired the gun at the gunner’s directions, who had painfully managed to position himself to observe the attacking Japanese. They continued this until the sun came up. 200 Japanese bodies were found in and around their machine gun.

At dawn, a Marine battalion counterattacked down Alligator Creek and pinned the remainder of Ichiki’s regiment against the coast and the Ilu River lagoon. There they were systematically destroyed by the assaulting Marines, assisted three Stuart tanks, whose obsolescence mattered not against the trapped Japanese. A four plane flight of Wildcat fighters, newly arrived to Henderson Field the day before, joined in with their combined 16 .50 Cal machineguns. Ichiki, watching from the bank and recognizing the magnitude of his failure, calmly stood up, straightened his uniform, and walked toward one of the tanks.

790 of the 805 attacking Japanese were killed, just 15 were captured. The starving and haggard remainderof the 28th Regiment, left behind as a rear guard, would shock the rest of Ichiki’s brigade spreading tales of the American’s defensive firepower, when they arrived via Tanak’s Tokyo Express eight days later. Upon learning of Ichiki’s and his men’s fate, the astonished Admiral Yamamoto ordered a proper reception for the Marines on the Solomon Islands.

Admiral Fletcher would get his battle with the Japanese aircraft carriers.

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