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.

There were also some happier moments for Puller. On the morning after the battle, the commander of the 164th Regiment gave Puller some words of encouragement. “Colonel Puller, I want you to know how happy I am to have my men blooded under you,” the officer said. “No man in my outfit, including me, had ever seen action, and I know our boys couldn’t have had a better instructor. I wish you’d break in my other battalions.”

If Puller was flattered, he did not let it show. Instead, he replied with a left-handed compliment. “They’re almost as good as Marines,” he told the bemused officer.

Medals for Puller and Basilone

Puller was awarded a third star for his Navy Cross for the night’s action. According to the citation for his decoration, “He prevented a hostile penetration of our lines and was largely responsible for the successful defense of the section assigned to his troops.”

Puller would receive two more Navy Crosses—at Cape Gloucester, New Britain, in January 1944, and at Koto-Ri, Korea, in December 1950. When he retired in 1955 with the rank of lieutenant general, Puller was the most highly decorated Marine in the history of the Corps.

Sergeant John Basilone received the Medal of Honor for keeping his machine-gun crews supplied with ammunition and for manning a machine gun himself. He was credited with stopping a Japanese charge singlehandedly and “gallantly holding his line until replacements arrived.” Basilone was killed on Iwo Jima in February 1945.

Guadalcanal: An “Island of Death”

The night had been a complete disaster for the Japanese. Not only had every attack failed to capture Henderson Field, but the failure of so many determined charges made by veteran troops began to wear away at morale throughout the Army. Reports that Guadalcanal was an “island of death” began to circulate even in remote outposts.

An interrogation session held after the battle gave a pointed indication of why Japanese troops had no success against the Marine positions in spite of their determination. “Why didn’t you change tactics when you saw you weren’t breaking our line?” Puller asked a prisoner. “Why didn’t you shift to a weaker spot?”

“That is not the Japanese way,” the prisoner replied. “The plan had been made. No one would have dared to change it. It must go as it is written.”

The inflexibility of the Japanese officers contributed to their loss of Guadalcanal. In February 1943, less than three months after Hyakutake’s disastrous attempt to capture Henderson Field, Japanese forces evacuated the island, abandoning Guadalcanal to the Americans.

This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons