May 30, 2019
The Japanese attacked on two successive nights, September 12-14, but piecemeal, because they had gotten spread out trekking through the jungle. The first attack came through this valley just east of the Lungga River (looking south from the US positions atop “Hill 2”).
On the second night, the Japanese attacked along the ridgeline from Hill 1 (in the distance) to Hill 2 (where I’m standing). Both attacks were successfully repulsed.
US Marine standing on Bloody Ridge, south of Henderson Field, after the battle in mid-September.
Dead Japanese soldiers on Bloody Ridge after their unsuccessful night attacks in mid-September.
I asked my local guide on Bloody Ridge whether the vegetation or topography had changed at all. He said he asked a US veteran of the battle, who was touring the site again, the same question, and the veteran said it looked exactly the same.
After the successful defense on Bloody Ridge, the Marines were finally able to bring in enough men and supplies to start building up a full perimeter around Henderson Field, in every direction.
Through the center of it ran the Lungga River, which this picture shows (looking south) from the window of my plane when I landed at Henderson Field.
The Marines also established a more offensively-oriented position further west, at the mouth of the Matanikau River. You can see it across the river here, from the vantage point of the US Memorial. The post-war capital of Honiara has since grown up around this area.
In September, the Marines started sending out patrols beyond their perimeter to probe for Japanese activity and weaknesses.
But there were also severe setbacks. On September 15, a Japanese submarine torpedoed and sank the aircraft carrier USS Wasp, forcing the Navy to send the USS Hornet as a replacement. Attrition was taking its toll.
Still, the Navy was learning to take the offense. On the night of October 11, in the Battle of Cape Esperance, a cruiser force under Rear Admiral Norman Scott blocked a run of the Tokyo Express. Both sides got bloodied, but it was a far cry from the disaster at Savo Island.
The Battle of Cape Esperance demonstrated that the US Navy surface fleet could hit back against the Japanese Imperial Navy, even at night.
But just two days later, on the night of October 13, the Japanese battleships Kongō and Haruna showed up and bombarded Henderson Field. The shelling, which deeply rattled the US defenders on Guadalcanal, is depicted in this clip from “The Pacific”:
By mid-October, this US situation on Guadalcanal was becoming critical. The Cactus Air Force was running out of planes and fuel. And bit by bit, the Tokyo Express was delivering more Japanese troops to the island in preparation for a big new offensive.
The Japanese had now landed artillery guns (the actual remains of which I saw here, at local “museum” in the Japanese-held zone west of Honiara) which could hit Henderson Field day and night – though with less devastating effect than the naval bombardment.
Lying next to them, here, is the turret of a US light tank, as well as the first US flag pole that flew over Henderson Field.
Here’s the nose-window of a Japanese “Betty” bomber from Rabaul that got shot down over Guadalcanal, and the wing of a Japanese Zero fighter (next to a woman mowing the grass with a machete).
The giant folding wings of a Grumman TBF Avenger carrier-based torpedo bomber, with early-war USA insignia on them, probably part of the Cactus Air Force at Henderson Field.
A Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter, the workhorse of the American air patrols defending the skies over Guadalcanal. It was less agile than the Japanese Zero, but could take a lot more damage (unarmored Zeros tended to blow up when hit).
The remains of an SBD Dauntless carrier-based dive-bomber, with its distinctive flaps, likely part of the Cactus Air Force, which played a key role in hitting the ships of the Tokyo Express whenever they got caught out in daylight.
The bulk of Japanese forces were now landing and consolidating to the west of the American perimeter. There were now nearly 20,000, outnumbering the US Marines.
Though often low on supplies, they were secretly cutting a path, the “Maruyama Road”, that swung south through the thick jungle leading to Bloody Ridge, this time from the west.
One of the small mountain guns which Japanese troops lugged along the “Maruyama Road” through the jungle at Guadalcanal, to provide close support for their planned infantry assaults to capture Henderson Field.
There was – and still is – this myth that the Japanese were crack jungle fighters. In fact, most Japanese soldiers, raised in a largely urban environment and temperate climate, suffered greatly in the jungle on Guadalcanal, at least as much as the Americans.
This realization, by the British fighting in Southeast Asia, gave rise to the expression “The Jungle is Neutral”, which went on to inform – some would argue misinform – US thinking in the Vietnam War.
The idea being that if the tropical heat and humidity, and thick and unfamiliar vegetation, impose hardships on your own troops, they impose equal hardships on the enemy. (Which may not be quite as true if you’re fighting locals).
It was at this critical point, October 18, that Nimitz reluctantly relieved his friend Admiral Ghormley, who he worried had been infected with defeatism, and replaced him with William Halsey as overall commander in the South Pacific.
Halsey’s appointment immediately boosted morale. He was seen as a fighter, and a hands-on commander. Someone willing to take risks to beat the Japanese on Guadalcanal.
The wave quickly crested, on both land and sea. On October 23, the Japanese launched an attack across the Matanikau River to the west – as a diversion to their surprise all-out assault to take Henderson Field, once again from the south by way of Bloody Ridge.
Wrecked Japanese tanks at the mouth of the Matanikau River, now on the built-up eastern edge of the post-war capital of Honiara.
The main Japanese assault on Bloody Ridge was fought off in part due to the bravery of Sergeant John Basilone. His actions are depicted in this clip from “The Pacific”, and won him the Medal of Honor.
John Basilone’s Medal of Honor citation can be read below. He survived Guadalcanal and toured the US to help sell war bonds, but returned to battle and was killed on Iwo Jima in 1945. He’s one of the main characters portrayed in “The Pacific”.
The USS John Basilone (DDG-122), the second US Navy destroyer to be named after him, is expected to be commissioned soon.
Looking southeast from Bloody Ridge today, the place where Basilone fought is the clump of green trees just behind and left (to the east) of the ridge.
The Japanese assault on Henderson Field was intense, and almost broke through. But the cost of the failed attack was horrific. Up to 3,000 Japanese soldiers were killed (half the attack force), compared to just 86 of the defending Americans.
But early in the battle, Japanese ground forces sent a radio message that they had CAPTURED Henderson Field. That was wrong, but in response, the Japanese Navy ordered its main carrier fleet in to finish the job.
Admiral Halsey, throwing caution to the wind, sent in his only two remaining carriers, the USS Enterprise and USS Hornet, to meet them, and the opposing fleets clashed in the seas east of Guadalcanal in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.
Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter on the USS Enterprise on 24 October 1942, as it heads into the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.
Japanese Zero fighters and Val dive bombers on the carrier Shōkaku preparing to launch for an attack on US carrier forces the morning of October 26, 1942
TBF Avenger torpedo bomber preparing to take off from the USS Enterprise on October 26, 1942. Crew are holding up signs telling the pilot the latest known location of the Japanese carriers.
The sky fills with anti-aircraft fire as the USS Enterprise comes under attack from Japanese carrier planes in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.
The crew of the Japanese carrier Shōkaku fights fires on the flight deck after the strike by US carrier aircraft, during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.
Somebody has done a pretty neat job depicting the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands using CGI, and it’s worth a watch here:
Damaged Japanese bomber dives towards the carrier USS Hornet, and seconds later hits, during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.
F4F Wildcat fighter plane skids across the flight deck as the USS Hornet makes violent evasive maneuvers to avoid attacking Japanese dive bombers.
The USS Hornet, crippled by Japanese bombs and torpedoes, sinking. Its loss, leaving the US with just one (heavily damaged) carrier in the South Pacific, was a heavy blow.
The wreck of the USS Hornet, sunk in October 1942 in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, was only recently found on the ocean floor.
The crew of the USS Enterprise conducts a burial at sea on October 27 for crewmen killed during the battle the day before. 262 American sailors and airmen were lost in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.
But while US sunk no Japanese carriers in the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands, Japanese losses of aircraft and – more crucially – irreplaceable pilots was devastating, and effectively put their carriers out of commission.
Fully half of the trained pilots who had taken part in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, less than a year before, were now dead.
Back home, all eyes were on Halsey and Guadalcanal, the only place in the world – so far – where US ground troops were fighting the enemy in sizable numbers.
And fighting they were. US Marines attacked west across the Matanikau River and surrounded and destroyed Japanese troops holding Point Cruz. Here they are dragging bodies of Japanese soldiers from their bunkers on Point Cruz.
Point Cruz is now the main port area of the post-war capital of Honiara. You can see the mouth of the Matanikau River, also now inside the city, just to its right.
Here’s a video of the container port at Point Cruz as seen from the sea.
The main boat landing at the western base of Point Cruz, in Honiara. The tiny peninsula, now filled with docks, warehouses, and fuel storage tanks, was once a battlefield for US and Japanese troops.
The Japanese realized that destroyer runs by the Tokyo Express just weren’t enough to supply and reinforce their men on Guadalcanal. They needed to send in cargo ships, and the only way to do that was to send in their big battleships to shell and destroy Henderson Field.
Japan’s big-gun battleships would clash in two night engagements with US naval forces – once again, the waters surrounding Savo Island.
In the first battle, in the early morning of November 13, the US rushed a force of outmatched cruisers and destroyers on a nearly “suicidal” mission to block a taskforce led by the Japanese battleships Hiei and Kirishima from reaching Guadalcanal.
The “Cruiser Night Action”, also called the “First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal” was a confused slugfest that one participant called “a barroom brawl with the lights out”.
The fighting was horrific, with ships exchanging fire at brutally point-blank range in the dark. Twisted steel, fire, and torn limbs covered decks running with blood. One participant compared it to a scene from Dante’s Inferno.
The US commander, Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan, and his second in command, Rear Admiral Norman Scott (the victor at the earlier Battle of Cape Esperance) were both killed on the bridges of their warships, in the melee.
Four US destroyers and one cruiser, the USS Atlanta, were sunk outright. Three other US cruisers were badly damaged and nearly sunk. 1,439 US sailors were killed in action.
But the Japanese battleship Hiei was crippled in the battle, and sunk the next day by US planes off Savo Island – a huge victory. The battleship Kirishima was forced to turn back, and Henderson Field was saved – for the moment.
One of the US ships that was badly damaged was the cruiser USS Juneau. With the rest of the task force, it limped its way back to New Caledonia and safety.
On board the USS Juneau were five brothers from Waterloo, Iowa: the Sullivans. The brothers enlisted together in January on the stipulation that they serve together on the same ship, a request the Navy reluctantly honored – then vigorously promoted for publicity purposes.
The USS Juneau was limping along south of Guadalcanal when a torpedo from a Japanese submarine hit it from out of nowhere. The ship … evaporated. It exploded and sank in the terrible blink of an eye.
The other US ships, severely damaged and just as vulnerable to submarine attack, could not stop to rescue survivors. Halsey relieved the captain of the USS Helena, Gil Hoover, for failing to do so, but later regretted his harsh judgment.
Out of a crew of nearly 700 men, about 140 survivors of the USS Juneau ended up in the water, many severely injured. After days drifting at sea, just 10 were found alive. The rest had succumbed to their wounds or been eaten by sharks.
Sharks. Time to mention sharks. The warm waters around the Solomon Islands are full of them, including deadly hammerheads once you get beyond the reefs. When a ship sank, even if there were rescue ships nearby it was a race between them and the feasting sharks.
Four of the Sullivan brothers were killed instantly when the USS Juneau exploded and sank. The fifth and eldest survived but, driven mad by grief, swam out from the life raft in search of his brothers and was never seen again.
In 1944 a wartime film was made about them called “The Fighting Sullivans”
After their deaths, the parents of the Sullivan Brothers toured the country helping to sell War Bonds. In 1943, their mother launched a destroyer (DD-537) named after them. She smashed the champagne bottle … then moments later fell to the ground sobbing.
Today the USS The Sullivans (DDG-68) is the second ship to bear their name and memory. Its ship’s motto is “We Stick Together”.
In “Saving Private Ryan”, Tom Hanks’ character briefly mentions the fate of the five Sullivan brothers as the rationale for their mission (Ryan’s brothers have all been killed, so he is to be sent home).
Like the USS Wasp, the wreck of the USS Juneau was recently found at the bottom of the sea off the Solomon Islands.
Here is an interview with one of the handful of survivors from the USS Juneau. The video says only six were rescued (not 10).
The Japanese were making one more go of it, however. The battleship Kirishima, undamaged in the first battle, would try to slip in again to bombard Henderson Field, joined by the cruisers Atago and Takao plus destroyers. Here they are en route:
Halsey had no choice. He had to detach his two battleships, the USS Washington and USS South Dakota, from protecting his carriers and send them into the dangerously restricted waters off Savo Island to beat back the latest threat.
The US battleship task force was led by Rear Admiral Willis “Ching” Lee. His nickname came from his pre-war time in China. He was a Kentucky boy with a flair for mathematics and a keen understanding of radar.
As his ships approached Savo Island, their compasses twitched noticeably due to all the steel wrecks beneath them, on the bottom of what was now dubbed “Iron Bottom Sound”.
On the night of November 14, using his radar to maximum effect, Lee saw the Japanese battleship Kirishima and its task force coming and opened fire with his powerful 16-inch main guns.
Three of his four destroyers screening his battleships were sunk, and the USS South Dakota was damaged, but the USS Washington blasted away until the Kirishima was sunk, and the other Japanese ships fled.
Four Japanese transport ships, rushing to deliver supplies and reinforcements under cover of the battleship task force, were forced to beach themselves on the northwest coat of Guadalcanal. When dawn arrived, they were bombed and set on fire by US warplanes.
One of those transports beached on Guadalcanal was the Kinugawa Maru. The wreck along the beach, here, is pictured after the war.
And here is what can be seen of the Kinugawa Maru today, after an Australian salvage company took most of what was above the waterline in the 1950s.
The wreck of the Kinugawa Maru – destroyed in the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on November 15, 1942 – is an easy swim from shore.
A video I took snorkeling over the remains of the Kinugawa Maru off the coast of Guadalcanal.
The outline of the wreck of the Kinugawa Maru, as seen from the air.
Rear Admiral Willis “Ching” Lee being awarded the Naval Cross by Admiral Halsey in January 1943, in recognition of his battleships’ decisive victory off Guadalcanal on November 14-15.
It wasn’t clear at the time, but the battleship battle in mid-November was a decisive turning point. With the US controlling the sea and air around Guadalcanal, it became increasingly difficult for any Japanese supplies or reinforcements to get through.
By the end of November, out of the 30,000 Japanese soldiers on the island, just 4,200 were fit to fight. By the end of December, 100 were dying each day from starvation.
At the same time, the US was landing fresh Army troops to replace the exhausted US Marines. The Army’s arrival on Guadalcanal is what is portrayed in the novel and movie “The Thin Red Line”.
Meanwhile, the departure of the Marines from Guadalcanal is portrayed in this scene from “The Pacific”:
US Army Major General Alexander Patch (farther right) assumed command of US troops on Guadalcanal in December 1942.
American radio intercepts were hearing of something called “Operation Ke”. In fact, it was an operation to secretly withdraw Japanese troops. But they assumed it was another big push to reinforce Japan’s position on Guadalcanal.
So the Americans launched a big offensive to root out the Japanese from the high grounds overlooking the coast, in positions colorfully named the Gifu (on Mount Austen), the Galloping Horse, and the Sea Horse. (The modern capital of Honiara lies along the coast in this map).
Mount Austen is now home to the Japanese Memorial on Guadalcanal.
From the Japanese Memorial, you can see the back side of Mount Austen that made up the heavily fortified hilltop position called “the Gifu”.
One of the Japanese pillboxes that made up the fortified Gifu position on Mount Austen.
From atop the American Memorial on Guadalcanal, looking south, you can see the hilltops that made up the Galloping Horse and the Sea Horse.
The 1962 novel “The Thin Red Line” by James Jones, an Army veteran of Guadalcanal, depicts the battle for the Galloping Horse, the Sea Horse, and Kokumbona (a town west of modern-day Honiara), renamed as “The Dancing Elephant”, “The Sea Slug”, and “Bunabala”.
This scene in “The Thin Red Line” depicts the initial approach of US Army troops to these well-fortified hilltop Japanese positions on Guadalcanal.
These two scenes in “The Thin Red Line” depict US soldiers taking the heavily-fortified bunkers atop the Galloping Horse and the Sea Horse in January 1943.
This two scene in “The Thin Red Line” depicts the taking of a Japanese base area on Guadalcanal (perhaps at Kokumbona), and the abject condition of the Japanese defenders, cut off from supplies and reinforcements.
This photo, taken further west of Honiara, shows what these hills looks like before urban development set in. It’s also (not coincidentally) where those scenes from “The Thin Red Line” were filmed.
An injured American soldier from the 35th Infantry Regiment is prepared for evacuation from the front lines on Guadalcanal on January 15, 1943.
Wounded US Army soldier is assisted off of the front line in the hills near Guadalcanal’s Matanikau River on January 15, 1943. This area is now the outskirts of the post-war capital of Honiara.
Japanese prisoners captured by US troops on Guadalcanal in the closing months of the battle for the island.
US Army troops on Mount Austen on Guadalcanal.
US supplies piling up on Guadalcanal. By the start of 1943, the US now had 50,000 troops on the island.
US troops building a bridge across a river on Guadalcanal. Virtually no infrastructure existed on the island before the battle.
Local Solomon Islanders bringing US supplies up to the front lines on Guadalcanal.
American artillery firing on Japanese positions on Guadalcanal, in the closing days of the campaign, with hard-won victory assured.
Guadalcanal is now safe enough for the top brass to pay a visit: Secretary of the Navy Frank Know, General Patch, Admiral Nimitz, Admiral Halsey, and General Collins.
The Japanese were successfully able to evacuate 10,652 men from Guadalcanal, in early February.
On February 9, 1943, General Patch declared Guadalcanal free of Japanese forces: “Tokyo Express no longer has terminus on Guadalcanal.”
The Japanese ground commander, Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi, also recognized the reality of defeat: “Guadalcanal is no longer merely a name of an island in Japanese military history. It is the name of the graveyard of the Japanese army.”
The US victory on Guadalcanal coincided with other signs that the tide of World War II was turning. In October, the British defeated Rommel at El-Alamein in Egypt, and in November, US forces landed in Morocco and Algeria, on the other side of North Africa.
And on February 2, 1943, an entire German army surrendered at Stalingrad, after a campaign that run roughly the same length as the battle for Guadalcanal. It is considered the key turning point on the Eastern Front.
But Guadalcanal, like North Africa and Stalingrad, was no sure thing. Historian James D. Hornfischer writes: “An American defeat was strongly possible well into November.”
But at Guadalcanal, Hornfischer continues, “the Japanese saw for the first time the terrifying aspect of the American nation resolved to total war and bent to slaughter.” Japanese morale, bolstered by early victories, was shaken, and would not recover.
As Admiral Halsey put it:
The US lost nearly 7,000 men killed in the Guadalcanal campaign, including 5,041 sailors and 1,592 Marines and soldiers. That’s more than 3 times as many men killed at sea as on land.
The Japanese lost anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 men, most on land, and only about 8,500 in combat. As this poster at the Henderson airport terminal gives unsettling evidence, to this day many of their bodies have never been found.
While the fight for Guadalcanal was won, the battle for the Solomons – and my own trip – was far from over. Click here for Part 3, to read the rest of the story.