Since the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese way of war in the Pacific can be characterized as the search for the “Kantai Kessen”, or Decisive Victory, that would end the war, just like the victories that defeated the Mongols in the 13th Century, brought the Tokugawa Shogunate to power in the 17th, or defeated the Russians in the early 20th. In late September, 1942, Yamamoto belatedly recognized that the Americans were committed to holding Guadalcanal, and therefore it could be used as bait for a decisive victory over Nimitz’ Pacific Fleet.
The problem was Henderson Field. It had to be captured or neutralized before Yamamoto would risk Nagumo’s remaining carriers and the Combined Fleet’s battleships in the South Pacific. At great pains, the Tokyo Express put two divisions of Gen Harukichi Hyakutake 17th Army on Guadalcanal. They had the task of securing Henderson Field. When this was accomplished, Yamamoto would unleash Nagumo and the battleships to sink the remains of the US Pacific Fleet as it inevitably came to the support of the Marines on Guadalcanal. After several delays, Hyakutake was scheduled to attack on the 23 October, 1942.
But the impenetrable jungle creased by steep ravines south of the airfield meant that the 2nd Sendai Division was still not in place by the afternoon of the 23rd. Hyakutake ordered another 24 hour delay. But the message never reached the fixing force that was to attack across the Matanikau River. At dusk on the 23rd, two Japanese regiments surged across the shallow water and along the north beach led by nine Type 97 medium and Type 95 light tanks. The Banzai didn’t even make it across the river. Marine artillery and 37mm anti-tank guns made short work of the tanks, while the waist deep Matanikau made a perfect moat that slowed the Japanese charge down just enough to prevent any breakthroughs. 600 Japanese died in the attempt with an unknown number of wounded. The Marines had about 50 casualties.
The attack did cause BGen Geiger to shift some forces west in response to the attack (Vandegrift was meeting with Halsey at Noumea on the 23rd and 24th) to cover the southern flank of the Lunga Point panhandle, which was normally only covered by patrols. They arrived just in time to stop the late flank attack on the Matanikau River line. However, this left Edson’s Ridge and 2500 yards of the southern perimeter covered by just LtCol Lewis B “Chesty” Puller’s 1st Battalion of the 7th Marines. But the Japanese attacked there in September and were slaughtered. They wouldn’t do so again, or so the thinking went.
Unfortunately, Chesty Puller’s patrols completely missed the buildup of the 2nd Sendai Division over the previous two weeks. But it mostly wasn’t their fault. The Japanese assembly areas were much further south than they expected. Not that Hyakutake planned it that way. Most of his men thought they were four miles from Henderson Field, but they were actually eight. The Japanese had complete disregard for the Marines and didn’t even conduct reconnaissance in the direction of the airfield, no checking routes to the assault positions, no recce of the defenses, nothing. They figured they’d just do a movement to contact, roll over any Marines they encountered, and seize the airfield.
And had the entire division attacked at the same time, they would have at least broken through to the airfield. However, on the afternoon of the 24th, Mother Nature dropped a thunderstorm on the island that threw the Japanese approach marches into chaos. Between the driving rain, and the marches north being almost double the distance than they were expecting, the Japanese attacked piecemeal against Puller’s Marines.
Around 2130 that night, one of the Marine listening posts rang up the headquarters, Puller answered.
“Colonel, there about 3,000 Japs between you and me.”
“Positive. They’ve been all around us singing and smoking cigarettes heading your way.”
The first attacks began at 2200 and lasted all throughout the night, as individual Japanese units made contact, they attacked. The listening post was mistaken, there wasn’t three thousand but over seven. However, the piecemeal attacks allowed Puller to reinforce threatened parts of his line. Near continuous artillery support and canister fire from the anti-tank guns broke up the attacks. Still, the night was a near run thing, and his headhunter’s staff fought off their share of Japanese. And his water-cooled machine guns got so hot that the water evaporated and had to be replaced with only liquid readily available, urine. Puller requested help and received it from a battalion of the US Army’s 164th Infantry. As the soldiers filtered into the line the next morning, Puller attacked some stubborn Japanese that had pushed a bulge into his line. That was as far as they would get.
The Japanese attacked again on the night of the 25th, and received the same fate. By the morning of the 26th, Hyakutake called off the relentless but futile attacks. His men had suffered over 3000 killed, and many more wounded, most of whom would be found dead by the advancing Marines and soldiers in the months that followed.
Hyakutake’s assault on Henderson Field was a complete failure. But Yamamoto wouldn’t know that for several more days. In fact he believed the exact opposite: on the evening of the 24th, with the second phase of the battle barely begun, a Japanese soldier reported that he saw green and white flares over Henderson Field, the signal that the air field was captured. The flares were almost certainly American. Nonetheless, Hyakutake’s staff triumphantly reported to Yamamoto’s headquarters that the airfield was secure. Yamamoto ordered his fleet south.
At that moment, 900 miles further south, Vandegrift met with his new boss Halsey. Halsey asked him if he could hold, and Vandegrift replied, “I can hold, but I’ve got to have more active support than I’ve been getting.” It might as well have been a shotgun blast to Halsey’s chest. Even though he had been in charge less than a week, it was unfathomable to him that anyone would think his Navy was not doing its job. Halsey assured him that would change.
On the evening of the 24th, signals intelligence picked up a massive increase in Japanese traffic, and a bit later in the nearly full moonlight, US Army Air Corps long range reconnaissance spotted the bulk of Yamamoto’s fleet heading south. Just before midnight, Halsey sent a message to his commanders that resonated throughout the theater. It said simply,
“Strike – Repeat, Strike.”