Edson’s Ridge – Guadalcanal
With the die cast as to priorities in the Second World War, there was little that could be accomplished in the area of grand offensives in 1942. The catastrophic defeat suffered by Japan at Midway had begun to shift the hitherto nearly unimpeded offensive impetus from the Japanese to the United States.
The losses suffered in two days of air and naval combat 1,000 miles east of Pearl Harbor had stunted the growth of the “Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,” and had begun to place the enemy in a defensive posture. The moment had to be seized, however, by the United States, and there was little available with which to do it. Most of America’s military output was going out as Lend-Lease for the fighting in Russia and North Africa, or it was destined to be a part of Operation Torch.
In the Pacific, three US carriers and a contingent of cruisers and smaller ships darted around, looking for the right place and time for another victory. More was needed, however, and it would have to be a ground conflict in which America emerged triumphant. It was the United States that carried the biggest burden in the Pacific fighting and very little of positive effect had as yet been accomplished.
The Battleground is Chosen
The fall of Wake, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaya were severely depressing and gave the initial impression that the Japanese army was invincible. That was not the case, however, and it would be the Marines of the 1st Division that would prove such a hypothesis to be full of holes. The Japanese soldier, even with distinct advantages, could be conquered. He was vulnerable. He did make mistakes. He could be killed! It would be left to 11,000 battered and tattered Marines over a period of four months, in a seemingly God forsaken place called Guadalcanal, to make that point very clear.
And just what was this unknown piece of earth nearly lost in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean? It was an island, typical of so many in the Pacific. From a distance, it did indeed look like a paradise. Once on it however, one’s point of view quickly changed. The 90-mile length of the place is drenched with rains. Use Tulagi as an example. The annual rainfall average there is 160 inches, four times the normal amount in most areas!
The rains were at their worst from November to March. Everything stayed wet. The jungle floor, covered by huge rain forest trees, could not dry out. Mold and mildew devoured everything! It had 100% humidity all day, every day, and sometimes worse! Guadalcanal is also volcanic. It has a central spine of jagged peaks, covered with tropical rain forest, rising in places 8,000 feet above sea level. To the southwest the mountains slope fairly sharply to the coast. In contrast, on the northeastern side, the land is more open, even to the point of some wide plains, with numerous rivers and streams slicing it up.
These plains had been partially cleared for coconut plantations. What remained, or the larger part of the island was covered by huge trees, dense brush, and open spaces covered with kunai grass, at times reaching skyward to a height of seven feet. Calling it grass is a misnomer. The blades are thick and coarse, with cutting edges like a saw. It was definitely not the tropical paradise presented by Hollywood. If this were paradise, every Marine on it would prefer to live without enjoying that “pleasure!”
On disembarking onto the island, the first thing you would notice was the smell. No, not a smell, it was a gut-wrenching stench. Guadalcanal stank! Superabundant vegetation, quick to rot in the rich, hot, humidified sea air, turned to queasy slime beneath the thick canopy of trees that blocked out much of the sunlight. The odor was one of continual rot. The dank, rotting odor permeated everything on the island.
This atmosphere gave opportunity for the cultivation of every type of oniferous insect alive, including malarial mosquitoes and nameless bacteria. This continual dampness, cultivator of every type of creature to make a man’s life miserable, only added to human discomfort. The heat, under such humidified conditions, was almost unbearable. To men burdened with equipment, it was physically exhausting just to move in such weighted air. Instead of walking, one felt as though he were swimming.
The tropical jungle itself was alive, but resembled a malevolent beast, arrogant and cruel. Its foul breath was a hint of what lay within its bosom. This included serpents, crocodiles, and centipedes, which could crawl across the flesh in the night as one, slept fitfully, leaving a trail of swollen skin. Land crabs scuttled over the jungle floor in the night, sounding amazingly like an infiltrating Jap to a fearful ear.
There were also scorpions, lizards, leeches, wasps as long as your finger, and spiders as big as your fist. The mosquitoes were everywhere, all the time, and carried with them all sorts of disease, primarily the dreaded Malaria. Around its fetid shores, hungry sharks swam, waiting for an unsuspecting meal. They were always hungry.
The Marines Have Landed, and the Situation…?
August 6th, 1942, and the Marines of the 1st Division were going ashore at Guadalcanal. Anticipated tough resistance never materialized. In a matter of hours, the first Marine scouts, under occasional sniper fire were at the edge of the partially constructed enemy airfield on the northern end of the island. The Japanese garrison, instead of fighting, simply melted away into the jungle, leaving bowls of warm rice and saki still on the dining tables.
It had been only eight months earlier that Admiral Nagumo had moved into position off Pearl Harbor with six fleet carriers for the initiation of the war. Now an American invasion fleet was entering what the Japanese considered inviolate territory. Their mission was conquest. Capturing the airfield on Guadalcanal and stopping the Japanese from cutting the supply lines to Australia was their primary mission.
The three leaders of the invasion stood on the deck of the carrier Saratoga, lost in a heated discussion. Admiral Jack Fletcher, weary and fearful of the loss of one or more of his remaining carriers, was adamant. He would stay two days to cover the landings, and then he would withdraw at least 100 miles to the southeast.
He had 89 ships under his command and 19,000 Marines ready to do their job, the largest invasion force ever assembled up until that time. Yet the naval commander still was uncertain. He could not risk the three last carriers, Saratoga, Wasp, and Enterprise. Vice Admiral Kelly Turner, in charge of landing operations argued fiercely against such a move. He was a man of bushy brows, always furrowed into a half-frown, rimless glasses and a vocabulary that would make an old sailor blush. He never hesitated to speak his mind and was doing so now. Such an action was suicidal and would more than likely sacrifice the entire Marine division. They needed support! They could not possibly hold without it.
The third party in the discussion was General Alexander Archer Vandergrift, who was in command of the 1st Marine Division. He noticed the uncertainty in Fletcher’s voice, the weariness in his eyes and became concerned. Joining in the argument, Vandergrift strongly appealed the cause of continued naval support for the landings. It was all to no avail. Not two weeks, not five days, but at most two. Fletcher shook his head and turned away, saying as he did so, “This conference is dismissed.”
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