Though the battlecruisers didn’t return, Yamamoto’s cruisers worked over Henderson Field every night. The Haruna and Kongo drank too much fuel, so he didn’t send them back down the Slot after their devastating raid on Henderson Field on the night of the 13th. For the American Commander – South Pacific, Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley, that was just as well. The overworked and stressed Ghormely had barely left his flagship at the docks in Noumea since the Marines landed on Guadalcanal. The French colonial authorities on New Caledonia refused to give him any administrative space on the island, so he and his staff worked out of the dank corridors of the supply ship USS Argonne. If he wasn’t a broken man before, October 13th, 14th, and 15th, 1942, broke him.
The Haruna and Kongo’s bombardment put the Cactus Air Force on the canvas. If they would have come back, it would have been over. As it was, it took Herculean efforts to patch the airstrip; not to mention fly 55 gallon drums of aviation gas to the island, or even worse transport them by submarine. 30 or so replacement aircraft were ferried over from “Button” i.e. Espirtu Santo, but there simply wasn’t enough fuel for all the missions. A few frugal supply officers with some foresight stashed some fuel in the jungle, and the mechanics drained every drop from the destroyed aircraft. But it was barely enough for a single sortie. The Japanese convoy was unloading tanks and heavy artillery at Tassaforanga Point barely ten miles away, in full view of Marine scouts, but just out of artillery range. The Cactus Air Force put a dozen fighters and dive bombers into the air but only managed to damage just three transports, and after they had already unloaded.
By the 14th, the Japanese had control of the Slot. Their two fleet carriers were on the prowl, and now it was the Americans turn to only operate around Guadalcanal at night. Rear Admiral Scott’s Task Force 64 was held back against the multitude of Japanese ships in the area. A convoy with avgas and ammunition sent that evening was turned back after it was spotted by the ever present Japanese submarines, and its escorting destroyers damaged or sunk by air attack. The only available aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet, was enroute with the battleship South Dakota, but to Ghormely they weren’t enough except to cover the evacuation of the Marines and Army personnel after the inevitable Japanese onslaught on the Henderson Field perimeter.
The Japanese had at least 20,000 fresh assault troops on the island. The Marines and Army had 23,000, but Vandergrift had an entire perimeter to defend. Vandergrift’s spoiling attacks and raids over the Matanikou River broke up obvious Japanese concentrations in September, but in the second week of October they were death sentences – there were too many Japanese. And the Americans were tired. Two months of constant vigilance and fighting in the jungle was a long time, and with little sleep. Washing Machine Charley started off as a joke, but two months of being violently woken up every night was no laughing matter. Dysentery, malaria, and jungle rot, among many other horrible tropical diseases, took their toll.
It was even worse for the pilots.10-12 hour daily missions broke lesser men. According to medical interviews after the battle, at four weeks of constant operations off of Henderson, a pilot began to slack off mentally, not scanning the sky, inadvertently daydreaming during a mission etc. and made himself an easy target. At six weeks, a pilot began to slack off physically, i.e falling asleep at the stick, and accidents and crashes increased exponentially. At seven weeks, if he didn’t crash, the pilot was a flying zombie. “You might as well paint a flag on some Jap’s plane.” October 15th was exactly six weeks since the first pilots arrived on Guadalcanal.
That afternoon, Vandergrift asked Ghormely for another entire division to clear teh Japanese from the island. His men were in no shape to conduct offensive operations, and even if they were, it was all they could do to secure the perimeter. The 164th was badly needed, but much to its commander’s chagrin, Vandergrift broke it up and gave each one of his regiments an army battalion, if only to stiffen the line with fresh men. The 164th’s regimental headquarters company became the airfield quick reaction force, to plug the gaps from the inside. Vandergrift had no way to stop the Japanese build up if the Navy wouldn’t.
That evening after the air attack on the transports and in the midst of a bombardment from the new Japanese cannon, the fuelless pilots and ground personnel were told to find some rifles and attach themselves to the nearest Marine unit. Vandergrift’s staff came together to plan the evacuation and began burning their papers.
Just before midnight, Vandergrift sent a terse message to Ghormely. It read, “Security of Cactus depends on additional forces not now in sight. Cannot remain effective indefinitely under such conditions.”