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.
Just like Nimitz, Yamamoto’s biggest issue in the South Pacific was fuel. Tokyo is actually farther from the Guadalcanal than Pearl Harbor, and like the Americans, the Japanese lacked sufficient tanker capacity. But by October 1942, the Japanese had finally committed to destroying the Americans on Guadalcanal, and enough fuel was allocated for Yamamoto’s big battleships to operate from their anchorage at Truk. For lack of fuel, they had been sitting there for months, derisively referred to by the overworked destroyer and cruiser sailors as “Hotel Yamato” and “Hotel Musashi”.
After the battles at Coral Sea, Midway, and the Eastern Solomon’s, Yamamoto had a healthy respect for American airpower, and Henderson Field was an unsinkable aircraft carrier from which the Cactus Air Force sank everything that came down the Slot in daylight. The only option to neutralize Henderson Field was a run down the Slot at night by fast battleships which could pummel the airstrip. Then, sufficient troops and heavy equipment to secure the island could be landed on Guadalcanal from the big slow transports that Japanese couldn’t use as long as the Cactus Air Force roamed the Slot. Thereafter, Japanese troops on the island would be of sufficient quantity to be able to penetrate the Marine perimeter, and overrun the airfield. With the airfield out of action, Yamamoto could then send the Combined Fleet, spearheaded by the mighty Yamato and Musashi down the Slot without fear of air attack from Guadalcanal, and decisively defeat the American Fleet. The fast battleship run was scheduled for the night of 15 October. Until then, the Tokyo Express would put every ship it had into reinforcing Guadalcanal, and bombarding the airfield in preparation.Throughout September and October, Maj Gen Vandergrift’s Marines on Guadalcanal had defeated everything the Japanese had thrown at them, but the Tokyo Express continually poured fresh troops onto Guadalcanal. Even U.S. Marines can’t hold out indefinitely. Additionally, the poor rations, constant fighting and the debilitating effects of living in the jungle were taking their toll on the Americans. Though they would never admit it, the Marines needed help. That help would come in the form of the US Army 164th Inf Regt, from the Americal Division which was formed from the AMERIcan defenders of New CALedonia. The convoy from New Caledonia was escorted by cruisers and destroyers of Task Force 64, led by Rear Admiral Norman Scott.
When Scott took command of the American escort force, he was keenly aware of the sorry state of American surface forces. He was not about to repeat the same mistakes as his predecessor, who had been ignominiously defeated at The Battle of Savo Island in August, known amongst the crews as “The Battle of Five Sitting Ducks.” To Scott, night surface action was about one thing, and one thing only: “the first effective salvo, though the second and third didn’t hurt the cause either.”
To this end, Scott instituted a night gunnery training program that had his crews at general quarters every evening and early morning conducting gunnery excercises. He designated areas of the sea and squared his captains off against each other. During these gunnery drills the turrets were offset several degrees so the shells safely landed behind the target. But the big splash to the stern let the opposing crew know without a doubt when they were “hit”. And everyone had friends on the Vincennes, Quincy, and Astoria, resting below in “Ironbottom Sound”. Battle Drills became second nature. Moreover, Scott changed the culture of his surface ships. He lobbied to have his cruisers operate independently of Adm Turner’s transports when they weren’t directly involved in actual escort missions. After Nimitz’ visit to the South Pacific in early September, Scott was granted his wish. His command was elevated to a separate Task Force, Task Force 64, on par with Turner’s transports and Fletcher’s carriers. Scott changed his mission from escort to “screening and attack”, and let his captains know that he intended to take the fight to the Japanese. The Tokyo Express had to be in and out of the waters around Guadalcanal before the sun rose. That made them predictable. Scott planned to exploit that.
Scott got his chance on the night of 11-12 Oct 1942. Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto was escorting a massive Tokyo Express Run of almost 11,000 Japanese troops, and included two sea plane tenders that carried much needed heavy equipment such as trucks and artillery pieces. Goto’s run was divided into two groups, a transport group with a bombardment group in the lead. As Scott’s task force was escorting the 164th to Guadalcanal, coastwatchers and reconnaissance planes spotted Goto. Scott sent the transports safely away with a few destroyers, and moved to ambush the Japanese north of Guadalcanal’s Cape Esperance. Just before midnight, the Japanese bombardment group, consisting of three cruisers and two destroyers, was picked up on radar and Scott ordered his column of five destroyers, and three heavy and two light cruisers, to change course in order to cross the Japanese T. Goto, whose ships relied on flares and visual identification, and had no reason to expect cruisers in the area from the so far passive Americans, had no idea what was about to hit him.
Unfortunately for Scott, the watch officer of the lead cruiser, the San Francisco, didn’t turn where the lead destroyers turned, and instead turned turned simultaneously with the lead destroyer as soon as the order was given. In Army terms, he executed a “Left Flank, March”, instead of a “Column Left, March”. The rest of the formation followed. This put the lead three destroyers out of position, and even worse, in between the Americans cruisers and the Japanese.
For several critical minutes, confusment reigned in the American formation as Scott and his captains attempted to ascertain the exact location of the destroyers in order to prevent fratricide. All the while, the Japanese closed the distance, to the point where they became visible in the darkness. One exasperated gunner complained, “What are we doing? Waiting to see ‘the whites of their eyes’?” The captain of the new light cruiser USS Boise finally said, “I know what I’m shooting at”, and opened fire. Everyone else followed suit.
American naval doctrine at the time said that distances less than 17,000 yards were “close contact”. Off Cape Esperance, they were less than 4000, and closing rapidly. At this distance, it wasn’t the big manually controlled 8” guns of the heavy cruisers that would be responsible for the bulk of the damage, but the radar controlled rapid fire 6″ guns of the American light cruisers, the Boise and Helena. The Japanese complained they fired “like machine guns”, and at a distance where it was impossible to miss. It also didn’t help that the Japanese ships were initially loaded with high explosive rounds to bombard Henderson, not ship killing armor piercing rounds. The two American light cruisers savaged the two lead Japanese cruisers.
However, not everything worked in Scott’s favor. In the confusion, fire control was lacking and the task force’s fire was not distributed properly. The lead Japanese cruiser, the Aoba, took the bulk of the fire while the rear most Japanese cruiser was initially not fired upon at all. And the Kinugasa made the Boise pay for firing first. Even worse, the American heavy cruisers lacked the new fire control radars of their little brothers, and inadvertently fired upon the wayward destroyer squadron, sinking one and damaging another. In less than 30 minutes, one Japanese cruiser and one destroyer were sunk, with the rest badly damaged, at the cost of two American cruisers and one destroyer damaged and another sunk by friendly fire.
The Battle of Cape Esperance was the first time the US Navy defeated the Japanese in a surface action in World War Two and provided a much needed morale boost to the Allied destroyer and cruiser crews, who up to this point were consistently outperformed, out-maneuvered and out-gunned by their Japanese counterparts. However, the confusion caused by the San Francisco cost the Americans dearly. In addition to the ships damaged, and sailors killed and wounded in battle, the Japanese managed to unload all of their reinforcements on Guadalcanal. Many Marines and soldiers (The US Army’s 164th Regt would land a day later on the 13th) would pay a heavy price for Goto’s successful Tokyo Express run, even if he didn’t survive to see it
The attritional battle for Guadalcanal would continue.
The Japanese offensive in early 1942 against the Allies in Burma wasn’t stopped by any successful defensive action on the part of Allied troops, but by the monsoon and lack of supplies. The British just retreated to India faster than the Japanese could advance. Furthermore, the British retreated towards their supply depots while every step forward took the Japanese further from theirs. Moreover, Japanese supplies couldn’t come directly from their bases in Vietnam due to the harsh terrain of the northern Thai Highlands and the Shan Hills of eastern Burma, both “foothills” of the Himalayas. They had to be shipped down around the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, and then back up to Rangoon, where the transports made excellent targets in the confined waters for Allied submarines. In order to mitigate this extended logistics chain, the Japanese decided to build a railroad through the forbidding jungle and over the steep mountains from Bangkok to Thambyuzayat, Burma, where they could be easily ferried to Rangoon. This would cut weeks off the supply timeline, and save countless ships.
To construct the 250 mile long railroad, the Japanese conscripted 270,000 local civilians, many of whom supported the Japanese (Thailand was a Japanese ally in World War Two), and 61,000 British, Australian, Dutch, and American prisoners of war taken during the successful Japanese campaigns in Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies. The 330,000 workers were overseen by just 14,000 Japanese. Their treatment ranged from lethal neglect to sadistic torture and mass murder. The terrain of western Thailand and southeastern Burma is some of the most forbidding terrain on the planet, and consists of thick jungle, steep gorges, and fast flowing rivers.
The most famous portion of the Burma Railroad was the Bridge over the Mae Klong River, a tributary of the Khwae Noi River whose valley the Burma railroad followed. On 4 October, 1942, the first Australian troops arrived at a prisoner of war camp at Tamarkan, Thailand. They would start work two days later on two bridges over Mae Klong River. Bridge 277 was a temporary wooden trestle bridge. It would be used until Bridge 278 was completed further upstream. Bridge 278 was a permanent metal and concrete structure assembled from a Dutch bridge dismantled in Java and transported to Thailand. The workers were given just 250 grams of rice a day to eat, in addition to what they could scrounge from the jungle. On 6 October, the Australians and British at Tamarkan numbered 1700.
Bridge 277 was completed in February, 1943, and the Bridge 278 in October 1943, about the same time the Burma Railroad itself was completed. The Burma Railroad was completed ahead of schedule but nearly 66,000 workers died as a result, including 1300 during the construction of the Mae Klong bridges. Just 400 remained to repair the damage caused by Allied air attacks later in the war.
The plight of the prisoners at Tamarkan and the construction of Bridge 277 was immortalized in the 1952 of the fictional book “Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai” (The Bridge on the River Kwai) by Pierre Boulle, and the 1957 David Lean movie of the same name, starring Jack Hawkins, Alec Guiness (Obi Wan Kenobi), William Holden and Sessue Hayakawa. “Kwai” (Burmese for water buffalo) is an English bastardization of “Khwae” (Burmese for tributary). Surviving British and Australian workers despised the movie for the “wonderful” treatment of the Allied characters by the Japanese, and Japanese veterans called the movie racist because they were depicted as unable to complete the bridge on time without the willing help of the Allied prisoners.
In 1970, the Thai government renamed to the Mae Klong River to Khwae Yai (“Big Tributary) due to tourists wanting to see “The Bridge over the River Kwai”.
“As British historian Paul Johnson wrote, ‘The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which have been to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.’
Throughout early September, 1942, the Japanese 17th Army at Rabaul ferried thousands of troops down New Georgia Sound, better known as “The Slot”, to Guadalcanal in a nightly ritual the Marines referred to as “The Tokyo Express”. Because of the aircraft on Henderson Field and the carriers USS Hornet and Wasp, the Tokyo Express would speed down the Slot at night, unload troops and cargo on Guadalcanal’s north tip, shell Henderson Field, and depart before they could be sunk by Allied aircraft in the morning.
By the second week of September, the Japanese were ready to attack. On the evening of 11 September, 6000 men of MG Harukichi Kawaguchi’s reinforced 35th Brigade (of which Ichiki’s Regiment was the vanguard) began the 17 mile approach march through the jungle to Henderson Field. At dawn on the 12th, they attacked the Marine perimeter.
LtCol Merritt Edson, commanding 900 Marines of the 1st Marine Raider battalion and the remnant of the 1st Marine Parachute Battalion, fought off Kawaguchi’s relentless assaults over the next two days. The Japanese launched waves of banzai charges and the Marines engaged in brutal hand to hand combat to stop them. Nonetheless, Edson’s men were forced back along the length of “Bloody Ridge”. In several instances the Japanese broke through to Henderson Field’s flight line where support personnel had to throw them back, or were turned back by Marine gunners firing over open sights at the charging Japanese. In the end though, the Battle of Edson’s Ridge shattered Kawaguchi’s brigade.
On 15 September 1942, LTG Harukichi Hyakutake, commander of the Japanese 17th Army, received the news of the defeat and after receiving concurrence from Yamamoto and the Imperial General Staff, suspended all other offensive operations in order to reinforce Guadalcanal. Yamamoto was seeking the “Kantai Kessen” or decisive battle, with the Americans specifically the US Navy. Yamamoto felt that the battle for Guadalcanal would draw the US Navy into the open where it could be destroyed in a single epic confrontation. Once the bulk of its navy was sunk, America would surely sue for peace, just as the Russians did after Tsushima 40 years before. Japanese operations in the Pacific for rest of the war can be characterized as the search for the Kantai Kessen with the US Navy.
1500 miles away, the Japanese on New Guinea were within sight of Port Moresby (and almost certain capture of the island), when Yamamoto’s order gave the Australians some very much needed time to reorganize. The Japanese would never threaten Port Moresby and the Australian mainland, again.
Rommel needed to attack. Every day he was getting weaker and the British were getting stronger. The ships and planes of Malta were wreaking havoc on his convoys and he was beginning to regret the decision not to invade the small island after his victory at Gazala (the supplies for Operation Herkules, the invasion of Malta, were pushed to him to continue his pursuit further into Egypt). A thousand miles from his ports in Libya, the very trucks delivering the fuel were using the bulk of it. Nevertheless, he had defeated a succession of Eighth Army commanders, Cunningham, Ritchie, and Auchinleck, and now it was the turn of the newest Eighth Army commander, LtGen Bernard Montgomery.
Monty wasn’t the first choice for the next Eighth Army commander. After Auchinleck fired Ritchie and took command himself, LtGen William Gott was chosen to succeed Ritchie. However, he was killed when his plane was shot down on his way to the front. Montgomery was the next choice.Montgomery might have been an arrogant martinet that was difficult to deal with, but he was a master planner, first class trainer of men, and he wasn’t afraid to sack an incompetent officer. Most importantly, he had an unshakable conviction in inevitable victory. Monty despised defeatism in all its forms, and this included even prudent measures in case Rommel broke through at El Alamein. As soon as he took tactical command of the Eighth Army from Auchinleck , the first thing he did was order worked ceased on defensive positions around Alexandria and Cairo. Rommel would be stopped at El Alamein, or they would die trying. In a popular story at the time, Monty said of his appointment, “After having an easy war, things have now got much more difficult.” A friend tried to encourage him, but Montgomery stopped him and said, “I was talking about Rommel”.
The British defenses were strengthened along the coast road but gradually thinned the farther south Rommel went. There was an obvious gap far to the south where it was clear the British intended Rommel to attack. But he had no choice. If he couldn’t have the element of surprise as to the location, he would have it with the speed and tempo of his breakthrough. Rommel planned to be through the minefields before the British could react. This would allow him time to establish a hasty defense with his 88mm anti-tank guns and easily defeat the inevitable British counterattack. Once the British tanks were destroyed, he would breakout into their rear areas and then isolate and begin systematically destroying the British defensive boxes. Once that happened, the British would withdraw, as they always have. On 30 August 1942, Rommel struck, and he quickly broke through the minefield. He brought up his long range anti tanks guns and awaited the British armor.
But they never came.
Rommel continued his advance, confident that he would soon come upon British rear area units and supply depots. What he ran into was massed dug in armor and anti-guns on Alam Halfa Ridge, far behind the British main line of resistance.
In previous engagements in the Western Desert, Allied reconnaissance would identify Rommel’s panzers, and the British armoured brigades would charge forth in the grandest tradition of the Scots Greys and Household Cavalry of yore. And they would be massacred by Rommel’s 88s. The number of times in the past 18 months that a few panzers were used as bait for waiting 88s were almost too many to count. But cavalry “attacks”, that’s what it does. At least until Monty came along.
Much to the disgust of his armour and cavalry officers, Monty forbade them to attack, and ordered them to dig in on Alam Halfa Ridge and wait for the Germans. The defensive boxes along the frontier were in strong positions and could survive isolated for a few days. As the Afrika Korps and the Italian XX Corps through the south, they were extending their vulnerable supply lines to air and artillery attack. The battle proceeded just as Monty predicted.
The Germans and Italians saw themselves for the first time on the receiving end of long range anti-tank fire, and as they got closer to Alam Halfa Ridge, massed tank fire in a well-rehearsed engagement area. Furthermore, the Eighth Army was the beneficiary of Roosevelt’s pledge to reinforce Egypt after the fall of Tobruk, so the British sported more American tanks in the form of Honeys (Stuarts) and the newer Grant tank with its hull mounted 75mm gun and turret mounted 37mm guns (known as the Lee in America. The only real difference was the shape of the turret). German and Italian infantry assaulted the Commonwealth positions in order to expand the gap and take pressure off the fight at Alam Halfa, but although there was some hard fighting, they were unsuccessful.
Rommel was saved from being cut off and destroyed by an unfortunate turn of events. After Rommel was decisively engaged on Alam Halfa Ridge, Montgomery gave orders to limit tank losses so as to not jeopardize the upcoming decisive counteroffensive. However, the 4/8 Hussars (the combined 4th Queen’s Own and 8th Royal Irish Hussars) saw an opportunity to raid Rommel’s supply lines and did so to great effect: they shot up and destroyed almost 57 trucks and lorries. This unfortunately forced Rommel to send the Italian XX Corps back to secure his extended line of logistics. This act and the lack of fuel eventually forced Rommel to withdraw completely the next day. However, it also saved him when Montgomery’s counterattack to cut him off on the east side of the frontier minefields ran into the Italians, who were thus in position to throw back the British and Kiwi attack. They did so handily.
By the evening of 4 September, 1942, Rommel was back in his start positions, prepared to defend. However, the Eighth Army didn’t attack. As Auchinleck had discovered the year before, the only way to assure Rommel’s defeat was to have an overwhelming preponderance in supplies. Otherwise, the offensive would fall just short, and then Rommel would be in position in Libya to mass supplies more easily. This is exactly what happened to Operation Crusader. It was better to keep a starving and thirsty Rommel in Egypt where his fuel and ammunition had to endure Malta’s, the RAF’s and the LRDG’s raids, not to mention his own trucks guzzling his tanks’ fuel, before it arrived at the front. All the while American lend-lease equipment poured in to Haifa and Alexandria, a short drive away.
Montgomery estimated he’d need another month.
German General Frederick Von Paulus’ Sixth Army was finally within striking distance of Stalingrad. Throughout late July and early August of 1942, General Wolfram Von Richthofen ‘s 4th Air Flotte, the most powerful air formation in the world at that time, was isolating Stalingrad as they approached. Richthofen’s bombers sank every ship and ferry on the Volga that connected the city to the outside world.
On 23 August 1942, those bombers turned Stalingrad into rubble in preparation for Sixth’s Army attack and created a firestorm that killed thousands of civilians and turned the rest homeless. Many civilians had evacuated Stalingrad in the previous weeks but on Stalin’s the order most were stopped and put to work strengthening the defenses of the city, or continued to work in the factories, in particular the Volograd Tractor Plant which was retooled to produce T-34 tanks.
Across the city, the commander of the Soviet 62nd Army, Lt Gen Vasily Chuikov, deployed support personnel and civilian militias as the first line of defense against the Germans in order to preserve his Soviet regulars. After the bombing, the German’s attacked and ran into fierce resistance, particularly from an anti aircraft regiment made up exclusively of women and girls, supported by brand new T34 tanks manned by workers from the tractor factory. Once the Germans broke through the first line of defense, Chuikov ordered his units to stay close enough to the Germans to hug them, thereby mitigating the Germans superior firepower. By the end of the day, the Soviet soldiers were contesting every street, alley, sewer, house and room of Stalingrad.
The Rattenkrieg, “Rat’s War”, had begun.
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.