Here's What You Need to Know: The myth of the Japanese soldier as a “superman” was shattered at Guadalcanal.
Scanning over the maps unfolded before him in the division operations room, Colonel Gerald C. Thomas, 1st Marine Division G-3 officer, turned and muttered: “They’re coming.”
Colonel Merritt A. “Red Mike” Edson, commanding officer of the 1st Marine Raider Battalion, agreed. But from what direction? Pointing to a prominent ridge line on an aerial photograph, “Red Mike” softly whispered: “This looks like a good approach.”
Edson ran his finger along a ridge that was dominated by three hills. Protruding like a large fishhook, the slender hill mass provided the much-needed cover for the Japanese to attack and seize Henderson Field, the airstrip whose construction had been begun by the Japanese and finished by the Marines after they had landed on August 7, 1942. Now, on September 9, a month after the all-important airdrome had been established, the enemy realized its value and was preparing to destroy it and its Marine defenders.
Since seizing a portion of Guadalcanal, the 1st Marine Division had assumed a more defensive posture. Edson, an aggressive leader, was determined to take an offensive one. Called “Red Mike” because of his carrot-colored hair, the Raider commander had demonstrated his leadership abilities in the war-torn jungles of Nicaragua in the 1920s and 1930s. Lieutenant Colonel Samuel B. Griffith, the Raider executive officer and Edson’s second in command, had known Colonel Gerald Thomas since they had served in China together years earlier. He informed his friend that Edson was a brilliant tactician and strategist. Soon, Thomas experienced firsthand what Griffith was referring to. It wasn’t long before the pair were good friends.
Major General Alexander A. “Sunny Jim” Vandegrift, 1st Marine Division commanding general, had a huge area to defend. His Marines were thinly stretched along an 8,000-yard beachfront perimeter. This extended from the Ilu River to an area just west of Kukum. Also, the lines bent 1,500 yards inland on their east and west flanks.
Marines Search for Japanese Troops
The big questions for the Marines were the whereabouts of the Japanese and their next move. On the morning of September 6, Edson, Thomas, and Lt. Col. Merrill Twining, the assistant division G-3, met to discuss the impending operations. The leader of the Raiders strongly suggested that a raid on the eastern part of the island would produce good intelligence on enemy troop movements.
While Griffith’s men were heading back from a raid on Savo Island in the destroyer transports Little and Gregory, Edson was already planning his next move: Cape Esperance. He sent a message to Griffith to have the men remain on board the two ships, but it did not arrive in time. Edson quickly went to the beach area to intercept the Raiders and have them remain on board. However, upon arriving there he discovered one of the companies had already disembarked and the other was preparing to. He decided to postpone the Cape Esperance incursion for 24 hours.
This seemingly unimportant chain of events had significant consequences later that evening. The Japanese destroyers Yudachi, Hatsuyuki, and Murakumo destroyed the two APDs at dusk as they were heading for Lunga Point. Vastly outgunned by the larger enemy ships, over 500 shells were lobbed at the tiny pair of transports. The screws from the enemy vessels killed some of the sailors who had abandoned their burning ships. The Little sustained 22 killed and 44 wounded. The Gregory lost 11 killed and 26 wounded. It was a tragic loss, and would have been even more so if the two Raider companies had been on board the boats. With the sinking of the APD Calhoun by enemy planes on August 30, the Navy’s transport fleet had been cut in half.
Intelligence had also been flowing in from Australian coastwatcher Martin Clemens and his contingent of native scouts. They informed the Marines that there were large numbers of “Japan man” arriving near the village of Tasimboko. Original reports had placed enemy troop strength at 200-300 in the Tasimboko area, east of Henderson Field. Edson jumped at the chance to get the Japanese. The 1st Marine Raider Battalion, with the 1st Marine Parachute Battalion attached to it, would land 3,000 yards east of the village and strike Tasimboko from the rear. Vandegrift, a cautious individual by nature, nonetheless hastily approved the raid.
“A Stroke of Genius on the Part of Nobody Except Our Good Lord.”
As dawn broke on September 8, the APDs McKean and Manley plus two patrol boats, dubbed Yippies, appeared off Taivu Point. As the Leathernecks were getting into their Higgins Boats another incident unfolded that one Marine later said “[was a] stroke of genius on the part of nobody except our good Lord.”
In the distance an American convoy of several cargo ships and five destroyers was heading west toward Lunga Point. The few Japanese defenders witnessing this mistakenly thought a full-scale invasion was about to commence, and they scattered into the jungle.
As a result, the Marines waded ashore without opposition. The beachhead was hastily secured, and the riflemen began their inland trek toward Tasimboko. Advancing cautiously, the Raiders found two unmanned 37mm antitank guns belonging to the Japanese 8th Independent Antitank Company and an array of supplies. Edson realized that the enemy was indeed here—and in larger numbers than they had anticipated. Clemens’ scouting reports proved to be correct. Edson wasted no time in calling in air strikes from the 1st Marine Airwing, dubbed the “Cactus Air Force,” situated at Henderson Field. He informed Vandegrift that he had “landed in the rear echelon of a sizable Jap force.” Ignoring orders from division to withdraw, Edson chose to gamble and push on.
Spraying Howitzer Bullets at the Marines
At 0800, another series of strikes was requested and delivered as the Raiders splashed across the Kemah River. Spotting enemy troops on the other side, the infantrymen fired upon them. As the firefight grew in intensity, the Japanese let loose with a 75mm howitzer. As the Raiders kept up their assault, the Japanese fled, abandoning the fieldpiece to the Marines.
Unable to envelop Tasimboko from the south as he had originally planned due to the depth of the river and swampy ground, the wily Edson modified his scheme. As he ordered his men to move down a “narrow corridor,” Major Lloyd Nickerson’s Company B spotted Japanese moving eastward. Fearing a trap, Edson had Captain John Antonelli lead a patrol from Company A to outflank them.
As they neared Tasimboko, the Raiders unearthed additional medical supplies, foxholes, and slit trenches. Moving on, they also uncovered canned meat, crackers, backpacks, and life preservers. With this revelation, Edson was convinced a large enemy unit was moving in the area. It was, in Edson’s words, one of the more “exciting moments” of the whole Guadalcanal campaign.
Captain John Sweeney’s 1st Platoon of Company B was the vanguard for the assault on the village itself. Suddenly, shells from a 75mm artillery piece detonated in the treetops. The white-hot shrapnel fell upon Captain Rex Crockett’s 2nd Platoon, killing one Marine and severing the arm of another. Moving swiftly, Sweeney’s infantrymen eliminated the enemy operating the gun.
Moving farther, the Marines encountered a machine-gun nest. As Sweeney ridiculed the Japanese by hollering “Baka,” meaning “you fool,” three Raiders outflanked the enemy’s position and quickly silenced it.
With 60mm mortars being the heaviest weapons in their arsenal, the Raiders needed more punch to drive the enemy from their lairs. Edson hurriedly called for additional air support. Soon, Curtiss P-40s, led by Captain Dale Brannon from the U.S. Army Air Corps’ 67th Fighter Squadron, were circling overhead. Just before noon, Company E of the Raiders and the Parachute Battalion, or “Chutes,” arrived to bolster the ranks of the Raiders.
Sky-High Morale After a Successful Raid
Still disregarding orders to reembark, Edson ordered his men to destroy the enemy’s supplies and weapons. Rice, canned goods, and a radio generator were put to the torch. The breeches of the guns were removed and tossed in the water. Captured documents, papers, and notebooks were kept. By late afternoon, the Marines were aboard their vessels, most laden down with cans of food and bottles of sake, and steaming away from Tasimboko. The swirling black smoke from the fires could be seen for miles.
The Tasimboko raid was a great success. The Marines, at the cost of two killed and six wounded, had captured valuable intelligence data. The bodies of 27 dead Japanese were counted. In addition to the seizure of the all-important Japanese documents, the operation helped raise the confidence of the troops. “Our morale was sky high after Tasimboko,” boasted Marine Raider Frank Guidone.
Upon his return to division headquarters, Edson briefed Vandegrift and his staff on what he found. “This is no motley group of Japs,” he remarked. He was convinced that a large enemy force was preparing to strike the Marine lines. After viewing the captured documents, Captain Sherwood “Pappy” Moran, the “one man Japanese language section of the division,” as Griffith referred to him, immediately concurred. Emerging from his squalid, blacked-out intelligence shack, Moran relayed the news to Thomas and Edson. The enemy was massing for an attack.