All Hell’s Eve

Despite the losses to the Japanese bombardment group off of Cape Esperance, the transport group managed to safely unload its troops and heavy cargo onto Guadalcanal. Yamamoto ordered another run to build up an overwhelming superiority of troops on the island. He assembled another transport group to deliver two more regiments of infantry, with a company of tanks, and two batteries of heavy artillery to Guadalcanal. Since the Japanese had not encountered any American battleships, he concluded that he could risk some of his to escort the convoy, sweep away any remaining American cruisers and destroyers, and then smash Henderson Field with their big 14”guns. This should prevent the Cactus Air Force from attacking the slow convoy as it made its way down the Slot.

On 13 October, the two fast battlecruisers, IJS Haruna and IJS Kongo, sprinted down the Slot ahead of the transport group accompanied by just one cruiser and a few destroyers. They encountered no opposition from Rear Adm Scott’s Task Force 64 which was refueling far to the south at Espirtu Santo, the main American naval base in the South Pacific.

At 0133, on 14 October, 1942, the Kongo and Haruna opened up with their combined sixteen 14” guns, and 32 6” guns from just 16,000 yards off shore. (To put this into perspective, a 14” shell is 356mm, and a 6” shell is 152mm. Most mortars flung at FOBs in Iraq and Afghanistan were 82mm, and the vast majority of the rockets were 107mm or 122mm. The “Big One” that landed outside the dining facility on Camp Victory in 2007 was a 203mm.) For 90 minutes, the Kongo and Haruna fired 973 14” high explosive shells and an untold number of 6” HE shells at the Marine and Army perimeter on Guadalcanal, most of which fell on the small space occupied by Henderson Field. That’s one massive shell every six seconds, and making a conservative estimate that the 6” guns fired three times as fast, that’s one smaller, but still pretty big, shell landing every two seconds; for an hour and a half. It was the heaviest and most concentrated shelling Americans experienced since World War One 25 years before.

The attack caught the entire airfield by surprise. Most Marines casually disregarded the inaccurate Japanese artillery fire or the nightly bombing raids by the notorious “Washing Machine Charley”, who did little but keep everyone from getting any sleep. Vandergrift’s intelligence officer briefed a “shoes off night” because of the victory at Cape Esperance. The concussion from the first shells physically threw everyone out of their bunks. In seconds, 1200 US Army, Navy and Marine Corps personnel sprinted to their trenches, while being thrown about by the explosions. Each shell took a truckload of dirt out of the island and flung it into the air, along with anything else nearby. The ground heaved as if it was an earthquake. One Marine ammo handler said it took him over two minutes to reach a trench a hundred yards away because he would get up, take six or seven steps and be tossed to the side by the next shell, and dazedly repeat the process until he reached the woodline. He was one of the lucky ones.

After “The Bombardment” stopped, and everyone dug themselves out of their foxholes, they found the airfield ablaze and wrecked seemingly beyond repair. The airfield personnel suffered 41 killed and about 200 wounded. 48 of the 90 aircraft of the Cactus Air Force were destroyed, and the rest damaged to some degree. The airfield facilities were flattened including the repair and parts huts, the maintenance area, and the makeshift tower. Vandergrift’s Headquarters took a direct hit, and so did his tent. The runway was cratered and unusable without significant reconstruction. Most of the shell holes were “deep enough to hide a jeep”. The most damaging though was the fate of the stockpile of aviation gas. It was completely destroyed. As far as the Marines knew, there wasn’t a gallon of avgas on Guadalcanal that wasn’t already in an aircraft’s tank. Even if the Cactus Air Force had the aircraft to stop impending the convoy, it didn’t have the fuel to keep them in the air.

The night of 13 to 14 October 1942 would go down in Marine lore as “The Night”, or “All Hell’s Eve”.

The Japanese bombardment group sprinted back up the Slot. And the transport group would continue on, safe in the knowledge that the Cactus Air Force wouldn’t come for them when the sun rose.

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