Harrowing Fight for Henderson Field: How U.S. Marines Repelled Japanese Attacks

Harrowing Fight for Henderson Field: How U.S. Marines Repelled Japanese Attacks

Tough U.S. Marines stood firm against repeated Japanese attacks to hold the vital airstrip on Guadalcanal.

Here's What You Need to Know: The Marines knew that the Japanese were not about to give up.

“Colonel, there’s about 3,000 Japs between you and me.”

Sergeant Ralph Briggs telephoned the command post of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment at about 9:30 on the night of October 24, 1942, to report what he had just seen. The telephone was picked up by Lt. Col. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, the battalion commander. Sergeant Briggs and 46 other Marines had been sent 3,000 yards in front of the American lines to warn of any movement by enemy troops.

Colonel Puller asked the sergeant if he was certain that the Japanese were on the move. “Positive. They’ve been all around us, singing and smoking cigarettes, heading your way.”

The Japanese had been trying to retake Guadalcanal’s airfield, which the Marines had named Henderson Field, ever since the Marines had captured the half-finished runway on August 7. The airstrip was named in honor of a Marine flier, Lofton R. Henderson, who had been killed at the Battle of Midway.

During the past 21/2 months, Japanese warships had bombarded Marine positions, and reinforcements had attacked the dug-in Marines throughout August, September, and October. The Marines always managed to hold off the Japanese attacks—at the Battle of the Tenaru, at the Battle of Edson’s Ridge, and in several other vicious encounters along the Matanikau River, which formed a natural defensive barrier protecting the western approaches to the airfield.

But the Japanese refused to be deterred and kept sending reinforcements by way of the nightly runs by Japanese destroyers, which the Marines nicknamed the Tokyo Express. Another convoy of reinforcements had come ashore on October 15. Everybody knew that it would just be a matter of time before the enemy launched yet another attack against the Marines defending Henderson Field.

“It Looks Like This is the Night”

The new Japanese offensive would be personally commanded by Lt. Gen. Harukichi Hyakutake, commander of the Japanese 17th Army. He had been on Guadalcanal for the past two weeks and had brought the 17th Army’s artillery with him, including 100mm cannon and 150mm howitzers. He was determined that this attempt to capture Henderson Field would succeed and intended to use all the forces at his disposal to overwhelm the Americans.

“The time of the decisive battle between Japan and the United States has come,” Hyakutake said on October 22. He was so certain that he would win this battle that he assigned his staff to begin preparations for accepting the surrender of all American forces on Guadalcanal. He wanted the surrender ceremony to be the envy of every unit throughout the Japanese Army.

Hyakutake’s first attack began at dusk on October 23. An artillery barrage lit up the sky, prompting a Marine officer to remark, “It looks like this is the night.”

Attacked by Japanese Tanks

After the artillery came the tanks, nine or 10 of them, depending on which source is consulted. The Marines could hear them before they actually caught sight of them, clanking and clattering eastward along the coast toward the river. The first tanks that came into view were two Type 97s. One of them was stopped by a 37mm antitank gun. The second managed to make its way through the Marines’ barbed wire, where it overran a machine gun position. But luck was with the Marines. The tank ran up on a tree stump and came to a complete stop, making it a stationary target.

A Marine private reached out of his foxhole and slipped a hand grenade under one of the treads. The explosion blew the tread right off, sending the tank reeling into the surf of the Sealark Channel. A half-track went after it and destroyed the tank with its 75mm gun.

The remaining tanks did not fare any better. A barrage of flares gave the Marine antitank gunners a clear view of the approaching armor. Every one of the advancing tanks, including two 71/2-ton Type 95s, were knocked out before they could do any damage to the defensive perimeter. In the morning, their burned-out hulks littered the sandbar.

According to plan, two battalions of the 4th Infantry Regiment were to start their attack on the Marine lines behind the tanks. But the Marine artillery had the Japanese infantry zeroed in. A total of 40 howitzers supported by mortar fire had the range and dropped more than 6,000 rounds on the Japanese before they had the chance to mount any attack. The Marines could hear the screams of the Japanese during short lulls in the firing. Losses among the Japanese units were not detailed, but Marine patrols discovered about 600 dead when they examined the area the next day.

The attack of October 23 was over by midnight, a complete failure. The Marines knew that the Japanese were not about to give up and would almost certainly try again on October 24. This suspicion was confirmed when a Japanese officer was spotted studying the American lines through binoculars. The Marines spent the rest of the day repairing barbed wire around the perimeter and digging their foxholes a little deeper.

With the approach of dusk, General Hyakutake began moving again. He planned this attack to the west of the previous night’s action. The sector he had targeted was under the command of Lt. Col. Puller.

Chesty Puller: Banana War Legend

By the beginning of World War II, Chesty Puller was already something of a legendary figure throughout the Marine Corps and had already won two Navy Crosses. He had fought in more than 40 engagements during the “Banana Wars” in Haiti in the 1920s. Puller received his commission as a second lieutenant in 1924 and served two tours of duty in Nicaragua—in 1930 and again in 1932. In 1930, he was awarded his first Navy Cross. Two years later he received his second for showing “great courage, coolness, and display of military judgment.” He was called Chesty because of his massive barrel chest, although his most visible feature was his prominent chin, which one writer described as looking like “a bulldozer blade.”

“Blood for the Emperor! Marine, You Die!”

The Japanese force consisted of two wings that had a combined strength of three rifle battalions. This meant that Puller’s force was outnumbered three to one. The left wing, commanded by Maj. Gen. Yumio Nasu, passed within hailing distance of Sergeant Briggs’s outpost. The Japanese came so close that one soldier tripped over a Marine’s helmet. The right wing veered off to the west, and only one of its battalions made contact with the Marines. This unit, the 1st Battalion, 230th Infantry, began shooting at about 10 pm. After that, the firing was almost incessant.

Shortly after Colonel Puller spoke with Sergeant Briggs about the 3,000 Japanese, the telephone rang again. A company along the line reported that Japanese troops were cutting through the barbed wire along its front. Puller now knew that the enemy had made contact with his men, but he also knew that he had a problem. Sergeant Briggs and his detachment were still in position 3,000 yards to the front and would be directly in the line of fire when Puller’s Marines started shooting.

Puller telephoned Briggs to take his group to the left and to keep moving until they passed through the American lines. “Don’t fail, and don’t go in any other direction,” Puller warned. “I’ll hold my fire as long as I can.”

Briggs brought most of his men through the Marine lines the following day. Of the 46 men in his detachment, three were killed and 10 wounded. The last member of the unit turned up two weeks later.

While Puller held his fire, a shouting match broke out along the perimeter. A Japanese voice yelled, “Blood for the Emperor! Marine, you die!”

An American voice shouted back, “To hell with your Emperor. Blood for Franklin and Eleanor!” A tirade of insults and obscenities followed in two languages.

An Ill-Advised War Cry

Finally, Puller decided that he had waited long enough. “Commence firing!” he called over the telephone. Machine guns and rifles immediately opened up all along the perimeter, and artillery began firing from behind the lines. By this time, Japanese engineers had already begun snipping their way through the Marine barbed wire while infantrymen crawled toward the perimeter. In the excitement of the moment, some of the men stopped their silent crawl through the high grass and stood up. Others began shouting an edgy war cry.

This was exactly what the Japanese company commander did not want to happen. The shouting may have raised morale among the men, but it also called American mortar fire down on them. Machine-gun crews were also alerted by the noise. Blasts and fragments from the mortar shells combined with the massed machine guns killed most of the men before they could get near the barbed wire.

The machine guns that did the most damage were commanded by Sergeant John Basilone, who actually learned the finer points of handling the weapon during a stint in the Army. Because of his Army training, he was acknowledged as one of the outstanding experts of the .30-caliber machine gun in the Marine Corps. On this particular night, Sergeant Basilone needed every bit of his expertise and training. After the attack had been beaten off, Basilone had to send men beyond the perimeter to reduce the pile of Japanese bodies. The dead were stacked so high that they were blocking the line of fire of his machine guns.