On the humid morning of August 19, 1942, infantrymen from Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines carefully eyed the landscape for any signs of Japanese soldiers as they slowly made their way through the thick jungle on the island of Guadalcanal, located in the Solomon Islands. Led by Captain Charles H. Brush, they had orders to follow the coastal road to the Koli Point-Tetere area.
Father Arthur Duhamel, a Catholic priest from Massachusetts who resided on Guadalcanal, had informed an earlier patrol that a large enemy force was nearby. Coast watchers also verified that the Japanese had established a radio station near Taivu and that they had the Marines under constant surveillance. Several days later, Brush’s 60-man group was dispatched to destroy the communications building and equipment.
At noon, the leathernecks stopped to eat and take a break from the intense tropical heat. As several Marines neared a clump of fruit trees, they saw a Japanese patrol casually strolling by and “not in military formation.”
Brush sent the majority of his men in a frontal assault while one platoon scurried around the enemy’s right to outflank them. In less than an hour, 31 enemy soldiers lay dead. The Marines had lost three killed and three wounded.
Searching the bodies, the Marines discovered quite a few documents that looked official. Brush commented years later: “With a complete lack of knowledge of Japanese on my part, the maps the Japanese had of our positions were so clear as to startle me. They showed our weak spots all too clearly.”
The young captain also noted that this group had possessed “an inordinate amount of rank” and their uniforms were in pristine condition. This could mean only one thing: they had just arrived on Guadalcanal as an advance party for a much larger force preparing to attack the Marine perimeter at Henderson Field. Knowing he had unearthed some vital information, Brush sent his runner back to headquarters to give the papers to the G-2 Section (Intelligence) to study.
Ninety miles long and 25 miles at its widest point, Guadalcanal was of strategic importance to U.S. strategy in the early days of World War II. Since landing on August 7, the Marines had spent a considerable amount of time expanding the airstrip. Named Henderson Field to honor Major Lofton Henderson, a Marine pilot killed at the Battle of Midway, the airstrip would prove invaluable in the months to come.
Ironically, the main island was quickly seized because few enemy soldiers were stationed there. The first week saw the majority of ground combat on the neighboring islands of Gavutu and Tanambogo where the Raiders, paratroopers, and elements of the 2nd Marines fought a tenacious foe. Some Japanese soldiers spoke perfect English as they attempted to taunt the leathernecks with: “Die, you dirty bastard Marines, die!” In the end, however, the enemy would die in fanatical suicide charges, a trademark of the Japanese for most of the war.But then things started to disintegrate as the Japanese delivered a stunning blow to the American, British, and Australian navies on the night of August 9, 1942. The enemy, more adept at night fighting, sank or severely damaged a number of cruisers and destroyers during the Battle of Savo Island. With the sinking of these ships, the Marines onshore dubbed Sealark Channel “Iron Bottom Sound.”
Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner also informed Maj. Gen. Alexander A. “Sunny Jim” Vandegrift, commanding the 1st Marine Division, that he had to weigh anchor and withdraw. This departure of the fleet left the Marines virtually stranded. Turner’s transports had unloaded only half of the much-needed supplies for Vandegrift’s leathernecks. Also, with no naval gunfire support, the Marines were vulnerable to Japanese air, land, and sea assaults. The enemy could now travel unimpeded to deliver supplies and reinforcements from Rabaul down the Slot, a channel running from Bougainville in the Northern Solomons to Guadalcanal in the south.
On August 15, a few transports did manage to slip the enemy gauntlet and drop off additional food, ammunition, bombs, and aviation gasoline to the leathernecks. Although life on Guadalcanal was miserable, the Marines could get some comfort knowing that their presence had upset the timetable for the Japanese takeover of New Guinea. Enemy planners expected a quick victory against the Marines since they firmly believed that they were “haughty, effeminate, and cowardly” and also had “no stomach for fighting in rain or mist or in the dark.”
Lieutenant General Haruyoshi Hyatutake, commanding general of the 17th Army at Rabaul on the island of New Britain, had the unenviable task of ousting the American invaders from Guadalcanal so Japan could continue its conquest of the Pacific. Resembling a college professor rather than a senior military officer, Hyatutake assembled 6,000 troops to retake the airfield. Unfortunately, he had grossly underestimated two things—the size of the American force and the tenacity and will of the Marines to hold on to Guadalcanal.
The Marines also had another asset at their disposal—a top secret code-breaking group that worked in Washington, D.C., Hawaii, and Australia. The job of these codebreakers was to intercept, decode, and analyze the data on the enemy. This was an enormous task because of the difficulty of the Japanese language. In spite of this, cryptanalysts deciphered the message about the impending invasion and delivered it through channels until it reached Vandegrift just prior to the Japanese landing.
“Sunny Jim” had to Make a Decision… Attack or Wait for the Enemy to Come to Them.
When Brush’s runner arrived at headquarters, the information was handed over to the division intelligence officer, Captain Sherwood “Pappy” Moran, who had lived in Japan prior to the war and spoke the language. Examining the documents in his “fetid, blacked-out intelligence shack,” Moran concluded that they were indeed part of a larger force that had departed Truk and had recently disembarked on Guadalcanal.
Despite this knowledge, Vandegrift was still in a quandary. The papers did not reveal the size or plans of the Japanese troops. “Sunny Jim” had to make a decision: attack or wait for the enemy to come to them. He chose to defend the perimeter and not pursue offensive operations. The enemy could stage a two-pronged maneuver, and the leathernecks already had enough ground to defend without weakening it further by sending troops out to pursue the Japanese. Also, Vandegrift’s men were low on fuel and ammunition and this in itself “precluded expenditure of the amounts required for an all-out attack.”
Orders were issued to Colonel Clifton B. Cates, commanding officer of the 1st Marines and a veteran of trench warfare in World War I, to lengthen his lines. Cates turned to Lt. Col. Edwin A. Pollock, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, to prepare his men for the seemingly inevitable attack. A veteran of the Banana Wars in Central America, Pollock was a no-nonsense Marine. His battalion stretched for 2,700 yards. A thousand yards of this was along the Lunga coast and the remainder covered the Ilu (Tenaru) River’s western bank.
The poor quality of the maps possessed by the Marines during the initial invasion led to several of the rivers being identified incorrectly. Pollock’s positions were actually on the Ilu River, dubbed Alligator Creek by the local residents (although crocodiles, not alligators, inhabited the river), not the Tenaru. The Marines thought this was the Tenaru River, which was actually located farther to the east. Alligator Creek was in reality a tidal lagoon, separated from Sealark Channel by a sandbar. This spit ranged in size from 25 to 50 feet wide and about 100 feet long and protruded approximately 10 feet above the water. It was particularly vulnerable to an enemy assault.
It was here that Pollock placed several platoons from Battery B, 1st Special Weapons Battalion strengthened by two rifle platoons from Company H. Machine guns of .30- and .50-caliber and 37mm antitank guns dotted the area protected by sandbags and logs found nearby. Not equipped with gloves, the riflemen nevertheless strung razor-sharp barbed wire to further impede the attackers’ progress. This area would be known as Hell’s Point by the Marines when the fighting was over. And it would be a name well earned.
In addition to fortifying the spit, one platoon from Captain Martin Rockwell’s Company E and Captain John Howland’s Company F dug in along the center of the perimeter. The other two platoons from Company E and the remainder of Company H, under Captain James Ferguson, augmented by heavy weapons, covered the river approaches. Captain James Sherwood and his Company G (minus 1st Platoon) were in battalion reserve. Immediately behind the riflemen were the mortar sections standing by to deliver much-needed support during the attack.
While Vandegrift was deploying his forces and preparing his lines, the Japanese were busy as well. General Hyatutake selected the 28th Infantry Regiment, 7th Division to spearhead the assault to retake Guadalcanal. Led by Colonel Kiyono Ichiki, it had been one of the units slated to assault Midway Island prior to the crushing naval defeat suffered by the Japanese in June 1942. After the Japanese Navy’s loss at Midway, however, Ichiki’s men steamed toward Japan to reorganize and get some rest.
With the rapidly changing developments on Guadalcanal, those orders were changed, and they went to Truk. Boarding a half-dozen destroyers, the reinforced battalion, an estimated 800 men, disembarked unnoticed on Guadalcanal near Taivu on August 18. Ichiki’s luck ran out when the reconnaissance patrol he had sent out was ambushed by Brush’s platoon the following day, alerting the Marines to their presence on the island.
When the exhausted survivors from the ill-fated patrol returned to relay the horrifying news that most of their comrades been killed, Ichiki wasted no time in ordering a company to come to their aid. By the time they arrived on the scene, it was too late. Ichiki left behind a burial detail and continued his march westward toward the Marine perimeter. Just before dawn on August 20, the battalion arrived at the small hamlet of Rengo, where Ichiki decided to camp.