Chapter 2: Guadalcanal, 7-9 August 1942

The Landing

When Task Groups X-Ray and Yoke separated northwest of Cape Esperance at 0240, the former group made for the Red Beach transport area off Guadalcanal in a double column at 12 knots. No enemy activity was observed, and the preliminary naval bombardment of the coastal area, which began at 0513, aroused no response. The X-Ray shipping reached its transport area at 0645 and began to lower the landing craft. Across the channel, Group Yoke likewise arrived at its assigned area off Tulagi without incident at 0630 and straightaway got the word from Captain Ashe that H-hour would be 0800. The units slated for Florida Island would hit their beaches first, as will be described in the next chapter.

The division's command post in the McCawley broke radio silence on 0519, and eight minutes later General Vandegrift set the H-hour for his side of the landing at 0910. The bombardment ships worked through their fire plans, and then as news of the successful landings on Florida and Tulagi reached Vandegrift, the first waves of assault troops moved toward the beach.

Map 14: Initial Dispositions, 7 August 1942

Three planes from the Astoria   flew liaison missions in the Guadalcanal area while three from the Vincennes performed the same duty above Tulagi. An additional three aircraft, from the Quincy, were available for artillery spotting over Guadalcanal. During the ship to shore phase, these aircraft marked the beach flanks with smoke to assist naval gunfire and to guide the landing boats. Vandegrift and his division air officer held this use to be unwarranted and unnecessary.

But Admiral Turner considered it necessary to "accurately mark the extremities of the landing beaches" as directed by the operation order, and he marked them for twenty minutes. The planes made eight runs at extremely low altitudes, four runs on each beach extremity. Vandegrift pointed out that this would result in a serious if not complete loss of planes if the beaches were defended--this loss at a time when aircraft are critically needed as "eyes" to gain information about the progress of a landing.

Actually the liaison planes over Guadalcanal's random clouds and splotchy jungle furnished Vandegrift precious little information. It was not the fault of the pilots, however, since there was very little to see anyway. In the tense period of this first landing on a hostile beach, the sins were more often those of commission rather than omission. One pilot reported "many enemy troops" only to admit, under questioning for more explicit information, that his "troops" were, in fact, cows.

Other than the cows there still were no signs of activity around Lunga at 0859, 11 minutes before H-hour, when an observation plane from the Astoria reported that no Japanese could be seen in that area. But 14 minutes later the same pilot spotted some trucks moving on the Lunga


THE ORIGINAL HENDERSON FIELD, target of the 1st Marine Division's assault at Guadalcanal, as it appeared shortly after its capture. (USMC 108547)

TRANSPORTS AND CARGO SHIPS STAND OFFSHORE as vitally needed supplies for the 1st Marine Division are manhandled by members of the Shore Party. (USMC 51369)


airfield several thousand yards west of the landing beach.

Meanwhile the 5th Marines (less 2d Battalion) had crossed its line of departure and moved into the 5.000-yard approach to the beach. Naval gunfire lifted inland as the craft neared the shore, and minutes later, at 0910, the assault wave hit the beach on a 1,600 yard front and pushed into the sparse jungle growth beyond. With Lieutenant Colonel William E. Maxwell's 1st Battalion on the right (west) and Lieutenant Colonel Frederick C. Biebush's 3d Battalion on the left, the beachhead expanded rapidly against no opposition. A perimeter some 600 yards inland soon established a hasty defense. The line anchored on the west at the Tenaru River, and on the east at the Tenavatu River, and reached on the south an east-west branch of the Tenaru.1

Regimental headquarters came ashore at 0938 to be followed two minutes later by heavy weapons troops. Landing of the reserve regiment, Colonel Cates' reinforced 1st Marines, already was underway. Beginning at 0930, this regiment came ashore in a column of battalions with 2/1 in the van followed by the 3d and 1st Battalions in that order.

Artillery came next, and the units partially bogged down. The howitzer men admitted later that they had taken too much gear ashore with them. Prime movers for the 105mm howitzers did not get ashore initially because there were not enough ramp boats for this work, and one-ton trucks proved too light to handle the field pieces. Needed were two-and-a-half-ton six by sixes and ramp boats to put these vehicles on the beach simultaneously with the howitzers. Such prime movers were authorized, but so were a lot of other things the Marines did not have.

In spite of these troubles, the artillery units reached their assigned firing positions by making overland prime movers out of amphibian tractors that began to wallow ashore heavy with cargo.2 One in position, however, the gunners found the amphibian was a creature of mixed virtues: tracked vehicles tore up the communications wire, creating early the pattern of combat events that became too familiar to plagued wiremen.

Meanwhile the light 75mm pack howitzers had made it ashore with little trouble, and the advance toward the airfield got underway. At 1115 the 1st Marines moved through the hasty perimeter of the 5th Marines and struck out southwest toward Mount Austen, the "Grassy Knoll." Cates put his regiment across the Tenaru at an engineer bridge supported by an amphibian tractor, and the 1st Marines progressed slowly into the thickening jungle. Behind, to extend the beachhead, 1/5 crossed the mouth of the Tenaru at 1330 and moved toward the Ilu. Neither advance encountered enemy resistance.


Colonel Cates realized almost at once that it would be impossible to reach Mount Austen as his day's objective. The so-called Grassy Knoll, visible from the ships, could not be seen from the beach. It commanded the Lunga area, but it lay much farther inland than reports of former planters and schooner pilots had indicated.

Under heavy packs, sometimes excessive loads of ammunition, and with insufficient water and salt tablets,3 the 1st Marines by late afternoon had struggled but a mile when General Vandegrift ordered the regiment to halt, reorient, and establish internal contact. The men dug in a perimeter in the jungle, some 3,500 yards south of the Ilu's mouth where 1/5 had ended its advance, to set up for the night.

In spite of the breakneck pace with which the shoestring operation had mounted out and thrown itself in the path of the Japanese advance along the Solomon chain, the landing was a success. Although the lack of opposition (on the Guadalcanal side only) gave it somewhat the characteristics of a training maneuver, the need for additional training that Vandegrift had hoped to give his men in New Zealand became apparent. The general criticized the "uniform and lamentable,"4 failure of all units to patrol properly their fronts and flanks.

Logistical difficulties were worse. movements of supplies from the landing craft to the beaches and then to supply dumps soon began to snarl. Admiral Turner blamed this on the Marines' failure to understand the number of troops required for such work, failure to extend the beach limits promptly enough and, to some extent, a lack of control and direction over troops in the beach area. But the trouble and its causes were neither as clear-cut nor a damning as that. Marine planners had foreseen a dangerous shortage of manpower at this critical point, but under the uncertain circumstances on this hostile beach they felt they could allot no more men to the job than the 500 from Colonel George R. Rowan's 1st Pioneer Battalion. Vandegrift did not want working parties to cut the strength of his fighting units to a level which might risk getting them defeated.

Hindsight now makes it clear that the supplies mounting up as a juicy beach target jeopardized the operation more than a call for additional working parties would have done. There were hardly enough Japanese fighting men ashore on the island to bother the Vandegrift forces, but if enemy planes from Rabaul had concentrated on hitting the congested beach they would have played havoc with this whole venture. Marines were aware of this risk, but they also expected to run into a sizable Japanese force somewhere in the thickening jungle. The people in the shore party would just have to work harder.

Sailors joined the pioneers but the beach remained cluttered in spite of this help. Needed, division officers reported later, were "additional personnel in the proportion of at least 100 men for each vessel discharging cargo across the beach."5 It was not that this problem had never been thought out and planned for in fleet exercises over the years. It was just that this was "Operation Shoestring." The situation became so bad during the night of 7-8


August that the landing force had to ask the ships to stop unloading. There had been air attacks that afternoon, and more were expected on the 8th. The exhausted workers needed time to clear the beaches and spread out the gear so it would be less of a target.

Fortunately the air attacks during the day had concentrated on the shipping. At about 1100 on the 7th a coastwatcher in the Upper Solomons passed the word on the watchers' network that about 18 bombers were on the way to Guadalcanal. This warning was relayed to Guadalcanal through Brisbane within 25 minutes, and the planes arrived at 1320. The destroyer Mugford suffered 20 casualties under a 250-pound bomb hit, but it was the only ship struck by the attack. Antiaircraft fire downed two of the twin-engined Type 97s. Later in the afternoon, at about 1500, 10 Aichi dive bombers had no luck at all, but fire from the ships scratched another two Japanese planes. Other planes from both these attacks were downed by Fletcher's carrier aircraft.

At 2200 on 7 August, Vandegrift issued his attack order for the following day. Plans had been changed. Since Mount Austen was out of reach, and because only 10,000 troops were available in the Lunga area, he ordered an occupation of the airfield and establishment of a defensive line along the Lunga River. Positions east and southeast of Red Beach would be maintained temporarily to protect supplies and unloading until shore party activities could be established within the new perimeter.

At 0930 on 8 August the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines and Company A, 1st Tank Battalion crossed the Ilu River at its mouth and advanced cautiously westward along the beach toward the Lunga. At the same time the 1st Marines moved from its night perimeter. Contact between units within this regiment was faulty, but by nightfall Lieutenant Colonel Lenard B. Cresswell's 1st Battalion had overrun the field and reached the Lunga. The other two battalions, slowed by difficult terrain, advanced about 500 yards an hour and bivouacked for the night south of the airfield.

Along the beach, 1/5 and the tanks met the first scattered resistance as they passed through the area in which the main Japanese force had been located. A few prisoners were taken, and intelligence indicated that the enemy was in no position to attack the superior Marine landing force. Continued lack of resistance elsewhere seemed to confirm this, and at 1430 the Marines contracted their front, crossed the Lunga by a bridge immediately north of the airfield, and advanced more rapidly toward the Kukum River, a stream in the western fan of the Lunga delta.

With Company D leading, this advance came upon the main Japanese encampment area at 1500. The enemy force, obviously smaller than anticipated, had retreated in evident haste and confusion. Large quantities of undamaged food, ammunition, engineering material, electrical gear, and radio equipment had been left behind. Although some improperly indoctrinated Marines began to destroy this gear, that tendency soon was halted, and in the next few weeks these men would lose their contempt for this windfall of material.

Except for token resistance from some of the straggling Japanese attempting to flee west, air action constituted the enemy's only effort to hamper the Marines. At about 1100 Coastwatcher Cecil John Mason,


Pilot Officer, RAAF, warned from his Bougainville hide-out that a large number of planes were winging toward Guadalcanal. In another hour some 40 twin-engine torpedo planes appeared over the area to find the task force, alerted by the warning, maneuvering at top speed while employing evasive tactics.

A torpedo sent the destroyer Jarvis limping southeast for the New Hebrides. She was sunk next day by an enemy air attack. The transport Elliot, set afire when an enemy plane crashed aboard, had to be beached and destroyed by her sister ships. Survivors went on board the Hunter Liggett.

Ship antiaircraft fire and fighter planes from Admiral Noyes' carriers shot down 12 Japanese planes, and shore-based antiaircraft accounted for two more. Still others were splashed by carrier-based fighters west of the transport area. A total of seven American planes were lost.6

The Japanese Retaliate

These early attacks hampered Marine operations and unloading, but the beachhead continued to grow. The Japanese had no intentions of giving up their positions in the Southern Solomons without a fierce fight, however, and early on 8 August a task force of five heavy and two light cruisers and a destroyer made ready to strike American shipping in Sealark Channel.

After rendezvousing at St. George's Channel off Rabaul, this force steamed south along Bougainville's east coast until it sighted an Allied patrol plane observing its course. Reversing, the ships made back up the island coast until the plane departed. Then turning again, they sailed between Bougainville and Choiseul northeast of the Shortlands and set course down "The Slot" toward Guadalcanal.

World of this approaching force reached Admiral Turner at 1800, and, when Admiral Fletcher notified him shortly thereafter that the carrier force was to be withdrawn, Turner called Vandegrift to the flagship McCawley and informed the general that, deprived of carrier protection, the transports must leave at 0600 the next day.

As early as 2 August Admiral Ghormley had known of Fletcher's intentions to retire the carriers before D-Day plus three.7 At 1807 on 8 August Fletcher cited fuel shortage and plane losses that had reduced his fighter craft from 99 to 78 and again requested permission to withdraw until sufficient land-based aircraft and fuel were available to support shipping.8 It seems that Ghormley had not really expected this problem to come up, in spite of Fletcher's announcement about this matter at the Fiji rehearsals. But now that Fletcher was making the request, Ghormley gave his approval. Ghormley explained later:

When Fletcher, the man on the spot, informed me he had to withdraw for fuel, I approved. He knew the situation in detail; I did not. This resulted in my directing Turner to withdraw his surface forces to prevent their destruction. I was without detailed information as to Turner's situation, but I knew that his forces had landed and that our major problem would become one of giving every support possible to Vandegrift.9


Vandegrift held that retirement of the ships would heave him in a "most alarming" position.10 Division plans assumed the ships would remain in the target area four days, and even than all available supplies would prove scanty enough, such was the haste with which the assault mounted out with less than the normal minimum in basic allowances. But a withdrawal early on 9 August would take much of the supplies and equipment away in the holds of ships and leave beach dumps in a state of chaos. The "shoestring" of this first Allied offensive seemed to be pulling apart. This was the first of the operation's many dark hours.

While Vandegrift conferred with Turner, the Japanese ships, elements of the enemy's Eighth Fleet, approached Savo Island undetected by destroyers Ralph Talbot and Blue on picket duty northwest of that small island. They slipped past these ships toward the two Allied cruisers, HMAS Canberra and the USS Chicago, and destroyers USS Bagley and Patterson which patrolled the waters between Savo and Cape Esperance. Farther north cruisers USS Vincennes, Astoria, and Quincy and destroyers Helm and Wilson patrolled between Savo and Florida. Down the channel two cruisers with screening destroyers covered the transports.

With seaplanes up from his cruisers to scout for the Allied ships, Eighth Fleet Commander Rear Admiral Gunichi Mikawa steamed southeast until he sighted his enemy at about the same time Allied ships in Sealark Channel received reports of one or more unidentified planes. But Admiral Mikawa's surface force still was undetected at 2313 when these reports came in. Admiral Turner had estimated that the Japanese ships would hole up in Rekata Bay on Santa Isabel Island and strike at the amphibious force with torpedo-carrying floatplanes.

At 0316 Mikawa ordered independent firing, and torpedoes leaped from their tubes two minutes later. Japanese floatplanes illuminated briefly. The Canberra caught two torpedoes in her starboard side, the Chicago lost part of her bow, and then the Japanese turned toward the Allied ships between Savo and Florida.

The resulting melee was one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the U.S. Navy. The Vincennes and the Quincy were lost; the Australian Canberra burned all night and had to be abandoned and sunk; destroyer Ralph Talbot was damaged, and Astoria went down at noon the next day. Fortunately Mikawa retired without pressing his advantage in an attack on the amphibious shipping farther down the channel, and Admiral Turner, delaying his departure, ordered unloading to continue. Late in the afternoon the transports got underway for Noumea, leaving the Marines on their own with four units of fire and 37 days' supply of food.

Even when loaded in Wellington the level of supplies and ammunition had been considered slim. That original loading of 60 days' supplies and 10 units of fire was respectively 33 and 50 per cent below the 90-day and 20-unit levels then considered normal for operations of this kind.11 Now the ships had taken part of these loads


away, leaving a most inadequate fraction behind. And with air support so sketchy, there was no way to know when the transports could come back again. The stacks of captured Japanese rations began to gain in importance if not in palatability.

According to the war diary of the Commander, Task Force 62, the following troops were left in the Guadalcanal-Tulagi area when the transports and supply ships withdrew:

The 2d Marines under Colonel John M. Arthur had formed the division reserve and was originally slated for the occupation of Ndeni, but all its battalions now were in action in the Tulagi area. The regimental headquarters remained afloat, however, as did working parties from all companies, most of the Headquarters and Service Company, Regimental Weapons Company, administrative units from the various battalions, and G and Headquarters and Service Batteries of 3/10.

The sudden withdrawal of the transports carried these units, which totaled about 1,400 officers and men, back to Espiritu Santo where they were used to "reinforce the garrison there," according to the reports of Admiral Turner. On 14 August, Turner ordered Colonel Arthur to report for duty with the Commanding General, Espiritu Santo. But a few days later Colonel Arthur and a small number of his officers and men got back up to Tulagi.12

There seemed no question in Turner's mind about his unrestricted claim of "possession" of the Marines in his area. If his handling of Colonel Arthur was a rather ungenerous bypass of General Vandegrift's command territory, the admiral's plan for those Marines who remained at Espiritu Santo was an even


more glaring example of his theory of personal command possession. He ordered those "idle" 2d Marines to form a "2d Provisional Raider Battalion." Then he wrote to Admiral Ghormley recommending an overhaul of all Marine regiments in the Amphibious Force, South Pacific. All regiments then would contain raider battalions which could be sent out on special missions. Turner said he did not think Marine regiments would be suited to operations in the Pacific. "The employment of a division seems less likely," the admiral added. He would use raider battalions like building blocks, and fit the landing force to the special problem. Obviously, he expected the Pacific war to be small and tidy.

Admiral Ghormley answered that Turner ought to hold up such reorganization until he found out what the Commandant of the Marine Corps thought of all this. Admiral Ghormley then sent this letter and his endorsement to the Commandant via Admiral Nimitz at Pearl Harbor. Nimitz agreed with Ghormley, and he stressed the "extemporized organization of Marine Forces should be made only in case of dire necessity." Nimitz then forwarded this correspondence on to Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb, Marine Commandant.

General Holcomb responded to Nimitz that the latter's objections had surely stopped Turner's plan without the need for the Commandant to add other objections, but Holcomb noted "with regret" that Turner had not seen fit to ask General Vandegrift about this plan to reorganize his troops.

This reaction from Nimitz, and the arrival at about that time in the New Hebrides of the "authentic" 2d Raider Battalion of Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson, caused Turner to halt his plan to turn all Amphibious Force Marines into raiders. But it took the admiral much longer than this to abandon his theory that these Marines were direct "possessions" of his.13


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[1] In early maps the names of the Tenaru and Ilu Rivers were incorrectly transposed. In this account the names will be applied to the correct rivers, but the name, "Battle of the Tenaru," will be retained to identify the August battle at the mouth of the Ilu.

[2] The amphibian, later to be used to transport assault troops from ship to shore, started its war career here in a modest manner. Its "usefulness exceeded all expectations," the Marines reported, but at the time nobody considered the strange craft capable of much more than amphibious drayage. The following day (D-plus one) on Gavutu an amphibian would create rather dramatic history by attacking a hostile cave, but such bravery was never recommended, even later when these craft entered the heyday of their more important role.

[3] Medically speaking, the weight of individual equipment was excessive in most cases for men who had been cooped so long in steamy holds of ships and fed short, and sometimes inferior, rations. FinalRept, Phase II, 6.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Ibid., Phase V, 7.

[6] CinCPac, "Preliminary Report, Solomon Islands Operation," August 1942, 4.

[7] ComSoPac War Diary, 2Aug42 (located at NHD).

[8] Ibid., 9Aug42. For a detailed discussion of Adm Fletcher's withdrawal of his carriers see also Struggle for Guadalcanal, 27-28, 117.

[9] Ghormley MS, 93.

[10] Final Rept, Phase II, 13.

[11] Division staff officers admitted later that supplies for 60 days represented more gear than their slim fighting outfit could handle logistically at the beach. They recommended that levels should be pegged at 30 days for general supplies, 50 days for rations. The lower level of 10 units of fire was just right, they added; no attempt should be made to carry 20 units into future landings. FinalRept, Phase II, 17.

[12] CTF 62 War Diary, September and October 1942.

[13] ComPhibForSoPac ltr to ComSoPacFor, 29Aug42; ComSoPacFor ltr to CinCPOA, 6Sep42; CinCPOA ltr to CMC, 24Sep42; CMC ltr to CinCPOA, 3Oct42.

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation