The history of the Pacific war can never be written without telling the story of the USS O'Bannon. Time after time the O'Bannon and her gallant little sisters were called upon to turn back the enemy. They never disappointed me.
Out-numbered, out-gunned, during the dark days of '42 and '43 they stood toe-to-toe with the best the Japanese Fleet could offer--and never failed to send them scurrying home with their tails between their legs.
No odds were ever too great for them to face. They fought battleships and heavy cruisers; escorted vitally needed supply ships for marines on Guadalcanal; bombarded Japanese positions; aided in dangerous rescue operations; and derailed the Tokyo Express so often that the Japanese admirals ran out of excuses.
No medals, however high, can reward the gallant men of the tin-can fleet for their brave deeds. In her darkest hour their country called. They answered with flaming guns and high courage.
WILLIAM F. HALSEY
Admiral, U.S. Navy
IN TRIBUTE TO THOSE WHO FOUGHT IN THE BATTLE OF GUADALCANAL NOVEMBER 13 - 15, 1942
To the superb officers and men on the sea, on land, in the air, and under the seas who in the past five days have performed such magnificent feats for our country. You have won the undying gratitude of your country and have written our names in golden letters on the pages of history. No honor for you could be too great, my pride in you is beyond expression. Magnificently done. May God bless each and everyone of you. To the glorious dead, hail heroes - may you all rest with God. (At left, O'Bannon crew picture)
William F. Halsey
Admiral, U.S. Navy
A leading magazine (LIFE) of the time reported the worries that the American public had to face in November of 1942:
Most worrisome of all was a little island 5,000 miles across the Pacific, which few had even heard of six months ago. What happened on Guadalcanal suddenly became more important to the average American than any event in his daily life. There, surrounded by Japanese and American fleets, whose mysterious movements left the whole issue in doubt, a few thousand young men represented for the time being all the offensive land power that the greatest nation on earth has mustered. In the emotional heat of this fact the happy war began to boil and bubble away like meaningless vapor.
Background to my personal story:
It is hot and it is miserable, it is Guadalcanal at dawn on August 7th, 1942 . The Marines have landed and, as usual, soon have the situation well in hand. The small force of Japanese troops and laborers at the airstrip have been taken completely by surprise and are heading for the hills. From a military view point the only other real estate of value are the nearby small islands of Tulagi and Gavutu which are also a part of this operation. There the Japanese are putting up a furious battle but are being whittled down rapidly. On the whole, the operation is going better that expected. Casualties are light and stacks of Japanese supplies are taken intact. This includes such luxury items as canned crab meat and a refrigeration plant (below) complete with cold beer. The Battle of Guadalcanal begins this day and by late afternoon, the man in charge of this bold operation, Major General Vandegrift (below), moves his command post ashore. Whether or not anyone had the foresight to save the General a cold beer is not known.
To the north at the Japanese naval stronghold at Rabaul, confusion and frustration run high and at Truk, the "Japanese Pearl Harbor," radio messages arrive telling Admiral Yamamoto (picture below) of the slaughter of his forces. This is probably upsetting to the Admiral since up to now he has been the one handing out the punishment and undoubtedly finds being on the receiving end little to his liking. The Admiral acts quickly however and orders an immediate counterattack. Lady luck smiles on him. A major air attack group is sitting on the ground waiting for take-off orders to attack Allied positions in New Guinea. Orders are quickly altered and this air group, almost a hundred strong, is in the air and on its way to Guadalcanal.
Arriving in early afternoon, lady luck is no longer smiling as the high level bombers encounter heavy cloud cover and can do little damage to the American fleet. Dive bombers do better however and score a hit on a destroyer inflicting some damage. Our landings are interrupted by this attack but resume as quickly as the Japanese planes depart. The air arms of both sides suffer casualties but this has little effect on the landing operations.
August 8th, day two and the Japanese Air Force is back. This day the attacking bombers avoid American fighter protection and zoom in on the landing operation. The ships however pour devastating fire into the slow moving torpedo planes. The planes do only moderate damage to the landing force and in two days the Japanese lose 36 planes attacking our ships while we lose fifteen aircraft in defense of the landings.
August 9th, day three and Japanese Admiral Mikawa makes a daring move to help his beleaguered countrymen and moves out of Rabaul with a fast moving task force consisting of seven cruisers and one destroyer. Unfortunately for the Americans, the admiral's force avoids detection and sneaks into the channel off Guadalcanal at night sinking four of our large cruisers (one, the USS Astoria shown above) and one destroyer. The admiral gives the U.S. Navy its most humiliating defeat in history. Not wanting to give the Japanese reason to celebrate, our navy keeps the details of this engagement quiet but this encounter seriously jeopardizes our marines on shore. Our navy is claiming this engagement a victory but Marines pulling American sailors from the waters off shore are quick to note there are no Japanese sailors among them. At Rabaul, as a consequence of this easy victory, the Japanese are celebrating and anticipate that the remaining U.S. forces will be disposed of easily.
While our navy is licking its wounds, the marines are doing much better. They continue their advance encountering many Korean laborers who quickly are taken prisoners while the search goes on for the few remaining Japanese troops. For the 16,000 Americans ashore, there is a short but relatively pleasant interval with time for leisure activities. Top priority is given to souvenir hunting and letter writing using fancy Japanese rice paper. There is also a brisk trade in Japanese occupation scrip and Japanese cigarettes. One sergeant starts a flower-arranging class using a beautiful illustrated Japanese book as text. Japanese records played on a liberated Victorola provide background music.This idyllic scene as shown below in a LIFE magazine picture will not last long.
The Japanese high command quickly decides on a new plan of action. They pick the man who was originally scheduled to take Midway had the naval engagement there permitted a troop landing. He is now dispatched and ordered to retake Guadalcanal. This man is Colonel Ichiki an expert infantry tactician and all-purpose firebrand. His impetuous actions in 1937 at the Marco Polo Bridge in China is often marked as the beginning of World War Two. (1)
August 12th, day 6 and the airstrip at Guadalcanal (picture below) is named Henderson Field in honor of a fallen hero from the battle of Midway, Major Lofton Henderson. The field is declared ready for service this day but unfortunately no American aircraft are available for assignment here. Japanese aircraft however are making almost daily use of the field as a bombing target.
August 19th, day 13 and Japanese destroyers deposit Ichiki and his advance-echelon troops at Guadalcanal at one o'clock in the morning. Landing is made at this early hour to avoid possible harassment from the air. The colonel and his 900 troops land undetected and begin their march toward the airport without waiting for the additional troops that are following a few days behind. They make it to a tidal lagoon known as Alligator Creek where they encounter the U.S. First Marines. The Japanese have such contempt for the American fighting ability that they charge blindly. A furious battle ensues and the Japanese are quickly and completely annihilated. So crushing is their defeat the Colonel Ichiki and many of his staff commit suicide to redeem their honor. This has the unfortunate consequence that his few remaining troops are left without officers to lead them. The LIFE magazine picture at left shows the results of this battle. Colonel Ichiki is shown in the insert.
Overconfidence and arrogance combined with an outstanding performance by the First Marines have proved Ichiki's undoing. In this first real test between the Americans and newly arrived a Japanese shock troops, the myth of Japanese invincibility is destroyed and the question of the willingness of the sons of democracy to stand up to almost certain death is answered. (2)
August 20th, day 14 and the escort aircraft carrier Long Island launches 19 F4F and 12 SBD aircraft from 190 miles south of Guadalcanal. By late afternoon the marines at Guadalcanal hear the distant drone of aircraft engines and for the first time see planes other than Japanese as the Dauntlesses and Wildcats arrive landing in clouds of dust. Pilots and crews are taken back by the wild joy of the Marines who toss their helmets in the air and cheer. Younger Marines shed tears and old timers are not ashamed of their moist eyes. No event in this campaign does as much to boost the morale as this arrival of the first American planes.
August 24th, day 18 and on the naval front, the Japanese decide to capitalize their victory of the 9th by sending down an armada to wipe out the remnants of the U.S. Navy and at the same time reinforce their remaining land troops that are now few in number and of limited effectiveness. But this time, the Japanese are not so lucky at sea. The U.S. Navy is able to regain some of its prestige by sinking one of their aircraft carriers, a destroyer, a large troop transport while seriously damaging a cruiser. This victory is accomplished largely by the outstanding performance of U.S. airmen. This is to be known as the Battle of the Eastern Solomons and credit for the victory goes to Rear Admiral Norman Scott. The picture below on the right was taken while he was still Captain. American losses include damage to the aircraft carrier Enterprise forcing its return to Pearl Harbor for repairs. This victory keeps the Japanese from landing the troops necessary to start a major drive to retake Henderson Field.
August 28th, day 22 and the Japanese bounce back and again attempt to land troops this time by the use of destroyers. The destroyers however must accomplish their mission during the hours of darkness to avoid the planes of Henderson Field. This attempt costs them one destroyer sunk and two damaged. Undaunted, further attempts are made using this method and by the end of the month the Japanese succeed in bringing enough soldiers to the island to enable a major assault at the time of their choosing.
Having learned the hard way that the Marines are not going to be a pushover, the Japanese take their time and plan carefully. Their buildup continues through the early days of September and the date for the next attack is set for September 12th. On this date, another crucial attempt to retake the airfield will be made under the command of Major General Kawaguchi.
Kawaguchi was originally scheduled to land and take the Fiji Islands in July but the Japanese set back at Midway placed him here on the last day in August. With the general comes 1200 fresh soldiers delivered by destroyer convoy. Counting the troops shuttled in earlier by destroyers, his force reaches 6,200 strong. Kawaguchi feels confident this will be more than enough men to retake the airfield.
September 12th, after waiting for darkness, the Japanese troops hurl themselves against the Marines with devastating losses to both sides. Heroic efforts by Marine, Navy and Army Air Forces along with superb Marine ground fighting stop Kawaguchi from taking the airfield. "Kawaguchi pointed his command group at the ridge, but he too found the terrain so difficult that he sidestepped west to the Lunga River and began to wade north up the stream bed itself. When the depth and flow rate became too much, the general crawled out of the water onto the east bank near dawn. There he issued orders for his fragmented command to reassemble for a new effort the night of the 13th. The muddy, wet, and mad general's exasperation was intense; he reported that "because of the devilish jungle, the brigade was scattered all over and completely beyond control. In my whole life I have never felt so helpless." (2) His mood was not improved during the day when American bombing and shelling smashed his communications equipment.
Major-General Tiyote Kawaguchi, shown above left, was relieved of all commands following this battle and would not be called upon by the Japanese High Command for further duty until close to the end of the war. This picture was taken while he was an American prisoner of war.
September 13th, as darkness fell, Kawaguchi makes another major attempt to move forward. Unknown to the Major General, he had, after three days of horrible conflict, brought his troops to the edge of Henderson Field and had a clear path to the field open to him. Japanese aircraft were ready to assist if he could get word to headquarters requesting their help. With his communication equipment destroyed, Kawaguchi was unable to get a message through to request his much needed help. He has failed to take the airfield and has no option but to retreat. He would soon find that the jungles of Guadalcanal could exact a toll more deadly than the bullets of the US Marines. However the Japanese High Command still believes that the airfield is about to be taken and holds a unit of zero fighters ready to land at the airfield as soon as confirmation of the victory has been received. They await Kawaguchi's report.
September 15th, Kawaguchi's battle report reaches the 17th Army's High Command with the admission that the attack has been a costly failure. The news creates severe shock and disbelief. Emperor Hirohito is informed of the defeat. Imperial General Headquarters makes a crucial decision. It is clear that at this remote island a decisive battle will be fought, therefore decisive forces must be committed. The Imperial Headquarters, the Combined Fleet, and the Japanese 17th Army mesh a plan that recognizes that Guadalcanal could be the pivotal battle of the war and that a total commitment must be made. The Japanese set everything in motion for a major offensive.
September 17th, although the defeat of Kawaguchi is considered a great victory for the Americans, it is costly and the marines are in desperate need of supplies and reinforcements. Accordingly, Admiral Turner lands the 7th Marines at Guadalcanal but at the cost of the U.S. aircraft carrier Wasp, torpedoed while supporting the landing operation. The same spread of torpedoes sinks a destroyer and damages the battleship North Carolina sending it back to the States for repair. Nonetheless, over 4000 troops with supplies are landed to bolster the marine position. However, U.S. Naval strength is now at a precarious level and the Navy's ability to protect the Marines on shore is questionable.
October 11th, the new Japanese offensive to retake the island calls for major shelling of the airfield and a massive landing of troops. The U.S. Navy manages to intercept the Japanese warships before the shelling could be attempted but is unable to stop the troop reinforcement effort. Since more damage is handed out to the Japanese than is received by our forces, this last engagement is considered an American victory and it is the first time a Japanese ship as large as a cruiser is sunk solely by U.S. Naval efforts. This battle is to be known as the battle of Cape Esperance and credit for the American victory again goes to Admiral Scott.
October 13th, the Japanese retaliate by sending down massive numbers of planes, ships and troops. This concerted effort all but overwhelms the Americans. The worst shelling that the Americans have to endure occurs this ,night. Two large battleships each mounting eight 14 inch guns are joined by nine destroyers and a cruiser. What takes place is one of the most concentrated shellings in history in terms of rapid saturation of an area. Pilots and marines in their foxholes shake uncontrollably as "the ground shakes with the most awful convulsions." (4) The Japanese 17th Army gauges the effect as equal to shelling by a thousand field guns. Unfortunately, there are no American naval units available to come to the aid of those ashore as the ships that fought two days earlier are refueling. There are not enough remaining ships in the area in sufficient numbers to challenge the Japanese. The Japanese therefore are able to place major reinforcements ashore and increase their troop deployment to almost 15,000. Additional shelling is continued by cruisers and destroyers. The American position on Guadalcanal is now at a crucial point.
Back in the States, the epic dimension of the battle is now being realized. The New York Herald Tribune editorialized on October 16th: The shadows of a great conflict lie heavily over the Solomons--all that can be perceived is the magnitude of the stakes at issue. (5) On the same day an editorial printed in the New York Times sounded as if the end was near: ....Guadalcanal. The name will not die out of the memories of this generation. It will endure in honor. (6)
October 26th, the Japanese lash out again with an attack group consisting of two heavy and one light aircraft carriers backed by the battleships Hiei and Kirishima, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, seventeen destroyers and fourteen submarines. Against this force, the Americans throw two heavy carriers, (the Enterprise and Hornet), two battleships (the Washington and South Dakota), four heavy cruisers, five light cruisers and twenty destroyers. In a two day air battle, the carrier Hornet is sunk and the Enterprise damaged enough that it was forced to return to Pearl Harbor. Two of the three Japanese carriers were damaged, one light and one heavy but they would be back in action in a matter of weeks, but no additional Japanese troops made it to Guadalcanal.
The Japanese now believe they have eliminated all carrier threat and are now ready for a new attack with high prospects that they can finally drive the Americans from the island of Guadalcanal.
Chapter Two - My personal Story