The Battle for Henderson Field lasted for six months. At the start of the battle, The Empire of Japan was on the offensive, ever expanding. When the battle ended, the Empire of Japan was on the defensive, ever shrinking.
For those who were there, Henderson Field was no big deal at the time. It was mostly mud, or dust, depending on the weather of the moment. A landing strip of crushed coral had been laid down at its center. If you were American, it was a place that had to be held at all cost or, if you were Japanese, it was a place that had to be retaken at any cost. Located on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Island chain, the airfield was undoubtedly the most important Pacific battlefield of World War II. Fifty warships from the world's mightiest navies are resting on the bottom in Sealark Channel attesting to the price that had to be paid by any nation hoisting their flag over Henderson Field.
During the Coral Sea battle (early May, 1942 while Japan was still extending its empire), search planes from the carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5) spotted a large area being cleared on the island of Guadalcanal in what was obviously an airfield under construction. This verified reports that were being received from Australians who remained on the island after the Japanese occupation and were living in hiding, watching Japanese activities. The field was nearing completion and the Japanese named the field the Lunga Airdrome after the river that ran along one side of the field. It was a complete facility, with hangers, barracks, mess halls, machine shops, radio facilities, ice house, power plant and even a pagoda like control tower complete with air raid siren. Sadly missing were drainage ditches and radar facilities.
Planes from the Lunga Airdrome would be able to sweep the area to the south and could sever the eastern link between the United States and Australia. In the United States, plans were formulated to take the airstrip at the earliest possible moment. That moment, just in the nick of time, was August 7th, 1942. American Marines landed on the beach near the field with little opposition and soon would reach the field that Japanese troops and Korean construction workers had quickly vacated. The Japanese troops, completely surprised and greatly outnumbered, expected friendly planes would soon arrive and drive the Americans off. The small Japanese forces on the small islands of Tulagi, Gavutu and Tanambogo, to be taken as part of the operation, were putting up a stiff fight however, but would only manage to hold out until sunset of day two.
The American invasion was ruining the day for Japanese Aviation Pilot First Class Saburo Sakai. He and the other pilots of the combat hardened Tainan Air Group (naval air group) were sitting in their planes on the runway at the Japanese air base at Rabaul in the Northern Solomon Islands. Sakai and his fellow pilots were baking in the torrid sun while waiting for take-off orders to attack a newly established Allied fighter base on the eastern tip of New Guinea. The heavy flight jackets were comfortable at high altitudes but a little warm while sitting on the runway. Finally, word was received that the flight was canceled and that all pilots and crews should assemble in the command post.
There Commander Tadashi Nakajim announced that a powerful American force was attacking the Japanese base at Guadalcanal and Tulagi at that very moment. That things were not going well was obvious from the message from the garrison at Tulagi. Their last radio message pledged that troops there would, "fight to the last man." Excitement started to mount when the Commander announced, "Today, you are going to fly the longest fighter operation in history."
Never mind that Pilot Sakai's "Zero" fighter plane would be at its operational limits and that the "Vals" (dive bombers) would be well beyond their range and would, at best, end up having to be ditched at sea. At least the "Bettys" (long range bombers) would be able to make it back easily providing they survived the trip. The whole operation had a bad ring to it. However, all groups were airborne without incident by 0930. Pilot Sakai was a bit disheartened as he noticed that the Betty bombers had not taken time to switch their armament from bombs to torpedoes. This made them much less effective against warships.
On the positive side, Sakai was pleased that he would have a chance to take on U.S. Navy pilots who were reputed to be the best the Americans had. Pilot Sakai leveled off at 13,000 feet with seventeen other zeros and looked down at the twenty - seven twin engine bombers that he and his fellow pilots were escorting. Nine dive bombers were part of the group but they were without Zero escort. Theirs was to be a bad day. From 13,000 feet, it was a beautiful site of sparkling blue water and lush green tropical islands as the air group passed over the southeastern tip of Bougainville Island heading south toward the American invasion force.
Fifty miles from the Guadalcanal, Sakai was able to see orange flashes against the blue water and realized the forward element was getting a warm reception. As the distance closed, he was able to see more warships and transports than he had ever seen before. He noticed the ships were showing white wakes indicating that they had received advanced warning and were underway and therefore more difficult targets. Australian coast watchers on the island of Bougainville had sighted the Japanese planes as they passed overhead and forwarded a warning to the Americans at Guadalcanal. The Americans were waiting and were prepared for the Japanese attack.
As Zero pilot Sakai watched the Betty bombers making a slow turn as they started their bombing run, he saw for the first time something that he would soon become quite familiar with, the Grumman F4F or Wildcat fighter as it was called. About eight of these stubby fighters were attacking the bombers. As Sakai turned his plane to respond to the American fighters, he saw several of the Bettys burst into flames. Rattled, all of the bombers released their payloads while still four miles up missing all the rich targets below. The bombers then turned to make a fast exit for home. So much for the often heard tales that the Japanese were eager to die for the Emperor.
Sakai's eyes were glued to the action as he watched more Wildcats joining in to attack the bombers. He was anxious to test his newly updated Zero. The 200 additional horsepower and clipped wings promised superior maneuverability to those Zeros that had been at Midway. Would it make a difference? As he closed with the Wildcats, he knew he would not have long to wait for the answer.
Soon there were dogfights with acrobatics all over the sky but the Zeros were quickly proving their superior maneuvering ability as one by one the Wildcats were blown out of the sky. Nine of the eighteen Wildcats were shot down in short order. Sakai however was battling for his life with one very competent Wildcat manned by Lt. James J. Southerland from the American aircraft carrier Saratoga. In a deadly aerial duet of lightning turns, sudden shifts in throttle and bone-crushing spirals, the Zero proved its superiority and as Sakai pumped round after round into cockpit of the Wildcat. Yet amazingly the plane kept flying. Finally Sakai aimed carefully with his canon and put a shell into the Grumman's engine and it exploded in flames. Sakai watched as its pilot drifted down after his parachute snapped open. The American pilot looked dead to Sakai.
Realizing there was more work to be done, he and another Zero closed in quickly on what he thought was another Wildcat. Flying behind and slightly under the tail of the plane he opened up with a burst. A little late, he noticed the plane was not a Wildcat but was a Dauntless dive-bomber. He quickly fired 232 rounds at the Dauntless but with its newly added extra armor, self-sealing fuel tanks and twin .30-caliber machine guns in the rear cockpit, it was proving a real adversary. A blast from the SBD rear gunner shattered and blew away the canopy of Sakai's plane. Then there was another blast from the Dauntless gunner. For Pilot Sakai, there was a terrible pain as if someone had thrust knifes into his ears. The world suddenly turned red. Next it was total blindness. As Sakai drifted into unconsciousness, his Zero rolled over and he headed upside down toward the sea.
Sakai, with 59 kills to his credit, was not going to die easily. He would wake up just in time to pull his plane out of a steep seaward dive only to pass out again and again. His vision started to clear somewhat as tears cleared the blood from his eyes and he thought maybe he could make it back to base. As he started to pass out again, he considered crashing into one of the American warships. Since he was probably going to die anyway, his thought was that he might as well take some of the enemy with him.
Finally the cold air blasting into the cockpit revived him enough that he was able to check his instruments only to find that he probably didn't have enough fuel to make the return trip anyway. Best to crash into the enemy and die like a samurai. Feeling somewhat stronger though, he checked his fuel more carefully and decided that by using a really lean gas mixture and by flying as low and slow as possible, he might be able to make the 500 miles to Rabaul. Using familiar volcanic peaks to guide him and then skirting the coastline of the islands that he was familiar with, he finally was able to make out the airfield at Rabaul. First try at the field found him nearly crashing into a line of Zero planes but on the second try, after circling the field four times, and with the gas gauge reading empty, he put his Zero on the runway. Fellow pilots, who had returned some time earlier, friends and ground crews came running out calling his name, "Sakai, Sakai, Sakai, you made it, you made it." But Pilot Sakai wished they would keep quiet as they were keeping him awake when all he wanted to do was sleep.
For Sakai, his injuries were so serious that it would take 20 months before he would be able to fly again. For Lt. Southerland of the Saratoga, he would be picked up from the water, patched up and would be back flying again before Sakai. Such were the advantages of having your home base nearby and of having a plane with good armor protection. For the nine accompanying Aichi "Val" dive bombers, reputed to be the best dive bombers in the world and piloted by highly trained pilots, none would return.
No such horrible adventures were being experienced by the Marines on the ground although their objective -- the airstrip -- was not reached on day one. Trouble unloading equipment on the beach and the almost impassible jungle held them back. On day two however, the Marines were roaming the field with conditions that could be considered almost pleasant. The sound of an airplane engine caught everyone's attention on the field and Marines looked up to see a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 fighter as it swept in low over the jungle as if to land on the crushed-coral runway.
As the Zero pilot buzzed the field, he looked down and was startled and amazed to see enemy troops along the runway and in possession of the field. His job was to land and determine if the field was suitable for the long-range bombers that would be flying in. Obviously, the field was not suitable. What a difference a day makes. The Zero made a hasty exit.
Day two on the field and again conditions were pleasant with some Marines even appearing to be enjoying themselves. But not so for the American Navy off shore. Japanese Air craft returned in strength as torpedo planes managed to 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 did only moderate damage to the landing force and in first two days of the invasion, the Japanese lost 36 planes attacking American ships while only fifteen aircraft were lost in defense of the landings. So far, the Americans were having all the luck.
Day three was to change all of this as the Imperial Japanese Navy sprang to life. A strong Japanese naval force under Admiral Gunichi Mikawa headed south. Detected early by Australian patrol aircraft, the Admiral thought he had little chance to arrive at Guadalcanal undetected. When spotted, he changed direction and speed hoping to cast doubt as to where he might be heading and what he might be up to. Would this simple ploy be enough to fool the Americans and Australians?
If Admiral Mikawa had doubts as to the success of his mission, Seaman Kurato Yoshiie, searchlight operator on Mikawa's flagship, had even more. He and his shipmates had heard rumors of the terrible losses at the Battle of Midway and now the Americans were actually attacking an island held by Japanese forces. Looking up at friendly aircraft as they returned from the day's sortie against the enemy landing forces, he saw that they were so depleted in number that they didn't even bother to fly in formation. At the evening meal, he found he had no appetite but ate anyway fearing this might be his last.
Had Seaman Kurato realized how completely Admiral Mikawa had fooled his enemies, he may have been able to enjoy his meal. It was not to be his last. The Japanese force eluded all spotters and patrol aircraft and was not seen again until its guns were pouring a devastating fire into the American and Australian ships. Mikawa had caught his enemy ships completely by surprise with their crews not even at General Quarters and, if fact, still sleeping. In this daring midnight raid, Admiral Mikawa gave the American Navy its most humiliating defeat in history by sinking three heavy American cruisers, one Australian heavy cruiser and one American destroyer as the Allied force cruised along the Guadalcanal shoreline.
The American marines were jumping for joy while they watched the big ships exploding and sinking offshore. They thought they were witnessing a major Japanese defeat. The following day when they learned the truth that the ships exploding and sinking were American, the marines began to realize their predicament. The warships that had been such a comfort to watch as they maneuvered offshore had all disappeared. The American Marines now began to view with great apprehension the Japanese aircraft overhead and the Japanese warships that were just a few miles from the newly taken field.
How was it possible for eight Japanese warships, after being spotted early in the day, to continue their journey without being seen again until they commenced firing? Besides being extremely lucky, Admiral Mikawa could take credit for having completely fooled his enemies. His change of direction and speed when spotted caused his opponents to conclude that his force, if it were heading for Guadalcanal, would not reach the Allied position until early the following morning.
The fatal mistake made by the Allied High Command was a failure to assume the worst possibility until proven otherwise. Blame fell mainly on the shoulders of Australian Admiral Victor Crutchely (recently of the British Royal Navy) who was in command at the time and on American Admiral Turner who had concurred with Crutchely's assessment of the situation. It would be some time before the American Navy would relinquish control of its ships again.
In this War of the Pacific (the Japanese name for World War II), the Japanese had been fairing quite well. The smashing of the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor had made them the strongest naval power in the world. The American victory at Midway still left them with a preponderance of naval power. The number, size and power of their battleships was awesome. In Japan, the news of Admiral Mikawa's great victory put the country in a state of euphoria as proof of the supremacy of the Japanese navy. The Japanese people had not yet been informed of their navy's defeat at Midway.
But for Admiral Yamamoto, the Combined Fleet Commander, there was little euphoria. He saw that Admiral Mikawa had failed to attack and destroy the transports which would have turned his tactical victory into a decisive strategic one. For Admiral King, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Navy, on learning of this debacle stated, "The whole future then seemed unpredictable."
In the days that followed, the marines along with the newly formed Construction Battalions (called CB's) finished the airstrip, smoothing and lengthening it (using captured bulldozers). The field was soon christened Henderson Field after Marine Major Lofton Henderson, who died leading a dive-bomber attack in the June 4 Battle of Midway. As fast as the field was made ready though, the Japanese came in and bombed it from one end to the other. So the field had to be refinished on a daily basis if it were ever to be used. But as the days passed, it seemed pretty much a waste of time since no American airplanes were to be seen. All planes that could be spotted sported the emblem of the rising sun. Ships sailing by were too far away to be recognized by their flags but the shells they were firing in the direction of the field revealed their identity all too well.
By August the 19th the Americans had been on the field for almost two weeks and the Japanese High Command believed it was high time for the Americans to be thrown off the island and the airfield built by Japanese be restored to its rightful owners. Accordingly, Colonel Kiyono Ichiki was dispatched with an advance force of almost a thousand troops to make this happen. To insure his force could initiate a surprise attack, it was landed at night. Since no American planes had yet occupied the field as yet, he could have saved himself this inconvenience.
Undetected at the beach, his troops moved quickly toward the field. The colonel's contempt for the American's fighting ability now served him poorly as he sent his crack troops forward without even bothering to send out advance scouts. The U.S. First Marines, although young and inexperienced, were waiting and were able to pour a devastating fire into the advancing troops. The blind banzai charges that worked so well in his battles with the Chinese failed him here as he allowed his troops to be ground up unmercifully by American automatic weapons and artillery. The Americans were not going to be thrown off the island this day thanks to the colonel. The colonel did restore his honor in the traditional Japanese manner. This custom was to rob the Japanese of some of their best and most experienced leaders and in this case, it left the few remaining troops without leaders as those in command had taken their own lives.
With the Japanese Navy in charge at night however, new leaders and troop replacements were being brought in by destroyer and preparations were being made for the next attack. In the meantime, it was back to high level bombing and shelling at night as the Japanese marked time. Fortunately, since the field was deserted, there was little damage that bombing and shelling could do except to make a lot of big holes that had to be filled when the Japanese airmen or warships left. Henderson Field was proving easy to bomb but, unlike an aircraft carrier, difficult to sink.
Such was life for the American 1st Marines on the Island of Guadalcanal in mid August of 1942. As the days ground on, marines began to fear there might never be any American planes sent to the field, perhaps this first invasion had been a mistake for the Americans and the Marines would be left to "wither on the vine." Except for lone, cruising B-17 patrol craft, the Marines saw few friendly aircraft for almost two weeks after the withdrawal of the Navy carriers on the night of 8 August. Word of an immense build-up of Japanese troops and ships was not setting well with Marine Major General Archer Vandergrift. It was not likely that the Japanese would make the mistake of attacking blindly again. American morale was beginning to drop.
In the days that followed, the pace slowed somewhat as both sides prepared for the next engagement. The American Navy cruising in from the south of the island and out of range of Japanese search planes, was able bring in small reinforcement convoys. The Japanese were bringing in larger reinforcements and supplies at night in what was the beginnings of the "Tokyo Express" or "Tojo Express" as some marines called it. As an added feature, the Japanese cruisers and destroyers would lobe shells over into Henderson Field and "Louie the Louse" or "Washing Machine Charlie" (as this Japanese patrol craft was known -- its two engines were not synchronized) would drop a bomb or two out of the night sky. At least, the Americans were not going to be allowed to get a decent night's sleep.
Marine Pharmacist's Mate First Class Louis Ortega wasn't planning on a getting a decent night's sleep anyway since he and his corporal buddy had the midnight to 4 guard duty. His platoon had just been deposited on the island a few days earlier along with some badly needed supplies. Both were sitting on top of the heap of boxes to pick up any possible breeze that might be passing by. The corporal turned to Louis and said, "I wonder what the hell we're sitting on?" "He pries open a box, sticks in his bayonet." "Hey, peaches!" " He just passed one over to me when kaboom! I went flying on my ass. A spotlight came on from the sea and the shells started coming and the trees were falling. It was a mess. A shell cut off the top of a palm tree which fell on me. It was a Jap submarine came up and threw in a couple of shells. Then it disappeared. One guy was wounded."
The victory at Savo Island had the Japanese Navy regaining some of its former contempt for the American Navy and on August 19, a light cruiser was still patrolling off shore at Guadalcanal during daylight hours. With no planes yet on the runways of Henderson Field it did not appear to be in any danger. However a patrolling B-17 up from New Hebrides Island to the south spotted the cruiser and banked for a bombing run. Since the big bombers remained at a relatively high altitude to avoid anti-aircraft fire, Japanese warships usually took their chances with the bomb and did not take evasive action. Marines on the shore at Guadalcanal were delighted to see dark brown smoke pouring from the stern as the ship headed for open sea -- and sank. As one Japanese destroyer captain, with similar contempt for the bombing accuracy of the high flying B-17s, said when his ship took no evasive action and was hit, "They've got to get lucky sometime."
With the Wildcat's engine roaring wide open, Marine Captain Marion Carl kept his eyes fixed on the Flight Controller. Off to the side, Carl could peer into the faces dozens of sailors and officers who were waving him on and yelling their heads off in admiration and encouragement. When it seemed like the engine was about to explode, there it was: the flight controller, with a dramatic sweep of his arm and a crouching at the knee, pointed down the flight deck and zoom, the plane is on its way -- as dramatic as a scene from Shakespeare.
All of this action was happening on the flight deck of the American escort carrier USS LONG ISLAND (ACV - 1) sailing 200 miles southeast of Guadalcanal. To get the aircraft up and off in a hurry, the ship's catapult crew was called upon. This carrier, not all that large to start with, appeared to quickly shrink in size as his Carl's plane gained altitude. He watched as the rest of fighter squadron and bombers joined the formation in this history making flight. All realized that they would be first planes to land on what was Japanese territory just weeks ago. It's off to Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. It is August 20th and day 14 in the Battle of Guadalcanal.
In the air were two Marine squadrons, Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF-223) with 19 Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighters under Major John L. Smith and Marine Scout or Dive-Bombing Squadron (VMSB-232) with 12 Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers under Lieutenant Colonel Richard C. Mangrum.
In the heat of late afternoon, marines milling around at or near the Henderson Field could hear the engine drone of distant aircraft. Word was out that American planes might be on the way and could arrive soon, but many doubted it. As the sounds grew louder, they did seem to have a somewhat different ring than the Japanese planes. Finally the planes were spotted were recognized as Wildcats and Dauntlesses. Morale soared as officers and men lined the field to watch the planes arrive. Landing in clouds of dust, the pilots and crews of the planes were taken back by the wild joy of the Marines who tossed their helmets in the air and jumped and cheered with tears running down their faces. "I was close to tears and I was not alone," said Maj. Gen. Archer Vandergrift, the Marine ground commander, "when the first SBD taxied up and this handsome and dashing aviator jumped to the ground, 'Thank God you have come,' I told him." Henderson Field had just sprung to life.
If the marine fliers were told to "settle in and make yourselves comfortable," they never heard it. Within hours they were called upon to help turn back a Japanese infantry assault that was advancing on the marine lines. The next day, they were called upon to provide a welcome for a Japanese bomber group coming down from Rabaul. The bombers were being escorted by 13 Zeros. This was the first time Marine Major John L. Smith and his fighter squadron were to see action and it would be against a crack naval air group led by Lieutenant Shiro Kawai. The best the Marines could put into the air were four Wildcat F4Fs.
The two forces met head on. Perhaps it could be considered some kind of a victory for the Americans since all four Wildcats survived although two were damaged and one crashed making a dead-stick landing. No zeros or bombers were shot down but Major Smith thought the skirmish "did a great deal of good" by giving his fliers a better idea of what the Zero was capable of and how durable the F4Fs were. Smith's attitude at this point should have merited some sort of commendation. However, a few days later Captain Marion Carl, the Engineering Officer of the group, who had downed a Zero at Midway, managed to shoot down two bombers and another Zero. Needless to say, the air group's morale soared.
Two days later, the Army Air Force's 67th Fighter Squadron under Army Captain Brannon, not to be outdone by the Marine and Navy fliers, flew in five long-nosed Army P-400's arriving at the field on August 22nd. The Army, alas, not being equipped with aircraft carriers, was forced to equip their fighters with belly tanks and island hop all the way from New Caledonia shepherded by B-17s. Gasoline consumption had been predicated upon low engine speed, a lean mixture, a 15-mph tail wind.
The P-400's flew on the deck, at 200 feet, through mist and low hanging clouds. In clear spaces, they spread out. When the weather worsened, they snuggled under the navigating B-17's wing. A second B-17 followed with rubber boats, to be tossed to the pilots if they balled out. In less than four hours of flying, all five planes were set down on the Lunga air strip. The following day, Lieutenant Robert E. Chilson with 30 enlisted men of the 67th's ground echelon arrived off Lunga in the cargo ship USS Fomalhaute (AK-22) and when Captain John A. Thompson brought in nine more P-400's on 27 Aug, the Army Air Force 67th Fighter Squadron was ready for action.
On the 23rd of August, the Japanese Navy was on the move again to retake Henderson Field. This time it would be a Combined Fleet operation with overwhelming forces and directed by Admiral Yamamoto himself. The force would consist of 3 aircraft carriers, 2 battleships, a seaplane carrier, 45 other surface vessels and 9 submarines. Opposing this force would be 3 aircraft carriers, the new battleship North Carolina, 9 cruisers and 17 destroyers and the planes of Henderson Field, though few in number.
Known as the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, the U.S. Navy under Admiral Scott was able to regain some of its prestige by sinking the small carrier HIJMS Ryujo. Torpedo and dive bombers from the U.S.S. Saratoga (CV-6) in a coordinated attack placed bombs the length of the carrier deck and then went on to damaged a seaplane carrier and a light cruiser. In return, Japanese dive bombers damaged the carrier Enterprise and a destroyer. All forces, both Japanese and American, retired to lick their wounds. The Japanese troop ships returned to base without landing reinforcements.
This "win" for the Americans did not sit well with the Japanese and made conditions worse as they vented their anger on the troops at Henderson. In the following three weeks, Japanese land and carrier based squadrons attacked the U.S. beachhead ten times, averaging more than 30 aircraft per raid. Bombing raids by Japanese "Betty" bombers, escorted by Zero fighters, came down the Slot from their base at Rabaul.
Since it took over four hours for these air groups to reach Guadalcanal, Australian "coast watchers" would have ample opportunity to spot the Japanese and report their progress to headquarters at Henderson Field. This early warning system allowed the Wildcats to get airborne in time to get up to altitude to meet the raids (most of the time). The U.S. fighter pilots were almost always outnumbered, yet they tenaciously attacked their foes without hesitation. The Japanese raids were usually sent home with losses and sometimes the losses would be heavy. The long trip home for Japanese planes meant that the seriously damaged would rarely be able to survive the four hour flight.
The constant stream of Japanese aircraft coming down from Rabaul gave Fighter Pilot John L. Smith (commander of VMF-223) and his Engineering Officer Capt. Marion Carl plenty of opportunity for combat and they soon became the first triple aces of the U.S. armed forces in World War II. By August 30th, another fighter squadron arrived at Henderson. This squadron (VMF-224) was headed by Major Robert E. Galer. Still the F4F Wildcats were nearly always outnumbered. Since the Army's 67th Fighter Squadron's Airacobras were no match for the Zeros, they usually and wisely refrained from joining the combat. Even so, after only 4 days of operations, only 3 of the original 14 P-400's survived in commission by September 1, 1942.
Such heavy losses for this type of aircraft caused General Vandergrift to report back to Washington that the P-400 was "entirely unsuitable" for operations on Guadalcanal. But the war had to be fought with weapons presently available and considerable numbers of P-39's (slightly modified P-400's) were on their way to Pacific theaters. The recommended solution was stripping the fighter to lighten it. By the end, of September 42, the P-39K minus 650 pounds of its original equipment had achieved a service ceiling of 27,000 feet, and the Bell aircraft's performance against the Japanese eventually reached heights far above that of the old P-400's-the "klunkers," as the 67th Fighter Squadron dubbed them.
By the last week in August, Japanese troops and supplies were being brought down almost daily from the islands they held in the Northern Solomons; Buin, Bougainville, Shortlands, New Georgia, Kolombangara and Santa Isabel. These bases were easily re-supplied from Truk, Rabaul and New Britain. Troops and supplies were loaded on fast cruisers or destroyers to come down "the slot" at night, then these ships would stand off Henderson Field, shell it and then return to the safety of the central Solomons by daylight. The ships would even be out of range of the B-17's which had to fly up from islands far to the south.
Marine Louis Ortega spent his first few days on the beach. "Then we marched in to the bush and were assigned positions. I dug a little slit trench, put my foot in it and thought, "That's deep enough." Then put a piece of tin over it, then some palm trees. A few days went by while we were getting organized. We weren't moving anywhere. Then came the first air raid. Everyone just sat out there and watched. "Wow, look at that one over there." Suddenly shrapnel from the antiaircraft started falling. I got in to my trench. I learned two things. When you build a foxhole, build it deep.
And secondly, never go it alone. When you're by yourself you think and your mind starts doing all kinds of weird things. You hear the swish of a bomb which sounds like shaking tin foil. Then the ground shakes and then you wait for the next one. And the ground shakes again. By that time you really want some company. With two people in there you learn one thing. Look at that sonofabitch, he's scared as hell. And he's looking at you and saying the same thing. Oh, I'm not scared, he's scared. With someone else there, you're able to compensate for the fear but when you're alone, you sweat. You knew when an air raid was coming. Every fly, bird, every insect seemed to head for a foxhole. And sure enough, soon the bombs started falling. I don't know how the insects knew it.
The following day there was another raid and a bomb hit close by. The edge of the crater was 3 yards from my foxhole and caved it in. I saw that and I began digging deeper. We dug it so deep that you could stand up in it and still be underground. And being Americans, we liked our comfort so we put matting around it. We put two stools inside. We put logs over it and sandbags on top of those and ponchos to make it waterproof and then poured dirt on top of that. What we had was a pillbox. There were always flies all over the place. the coconut groves had been unattended for years. The coconuts were rotting. There was a difference to the smell of the jungle. The rot, the dampness. Some places the sun never shined."
On the last day of August, Major General Kawaguchi arrived at the Japanese base on Guadalcanal and was ready to lead his ground forces, now 6,200 strong, to victory. All he had to do was to capture Henderson Field and waiting aircraft from Rabaul would pour in troops and supplies. He was supremely confident but then, so was Colonel Ikchi. Careful plans were laid to take the field on September 12th. Bombers hit at Henderson Field by day and cruisers and destroyers shelled it by night. In a battle where the jungle was as much the enemy as the Americans, the General and his troops fought courageously and desperately but failed to reach Henderson Field on the 12th as planned.
In support of Kawaguchi's attack, the Japanese Navy mounted a particularly heavy shelling on the night of September 13th. The General mounted a three-pronged assault against the Marines. Two of the attacks were contained, but the most vicious struck at the position held by Colonel Merritt A. Edson's 1st Raider Battalion at Lunga Ridge just south of the airfield. All night the Japanese drove against the ridge. Colonel Edson's men were forced off the crest and down on the other side. Only the inner perimeter defense stood between the air strip and the Japanese. Snipers broke through and the field was brought under mortar and artillery fire. Radio Tokyo announced that Henderson Field was retaken.
But, with his communications equipment smashed by Army fighter pilots (flying their "klunkers") the preceding day, the General was unaware that a clear path to the field was open to his troops. Not knowing that Henderson Field was within his grasp and with time running out until daylight, he issued the orders for his troops to fall back in what would become a disastrous retreat through the jungle. General Kawaguchi's failure to take the field created a shock for the Japanese High Command and the importance of the field was finally being realized. Japan had reached the fork of the road. The road to victory or defeat would wind through Henderson Field. For the Japanese, it was time to get really nasty.
For those Americans whose days were spent at and around the Field, it was obvious that the old routine was still in effect and General Kawaguchi's defeat had little affect on the day's routine. Gone were those "almost pleasant" days of early August as, at about noon, enemy bombers would arrive, 18 to 24 strong, high in the sun in a perfect V of V's, escorted by 20 or more Zeros in flights of three. Beautiful to see -- but not when viewed from the field. Coming down from Kahili field on Bougainville or Buka field on Buka Island, the formation would bend its course around the islands to avoid being spotted. About 150 miles from the field it would trade altitude for speed and come in on its bombing run fast, reaching speeds of 250 mph.
When a radio warning was received, a captured Rising Sun flag was hosted over the pagoda. Every flyable aircraft would taxi around the bomb craters and head for the runway. First planes on the runway took off first, two at a time, SBDs or P-400s. Once aloft, the F4Fs, after test-firing, would climb for altitude while the SBD's and P-400's flew off to work over Japanese ground forces. The plane crews worked until the black flag went up, then they hit the foxholes. The Army's 67th Fighter Squadron's ground crews shared the Marines' hardships on Guadalcanal, even voluntarily manning the forward foxholes on nights when a break-through seemed possible. The Army, Navy and Marines worked as one team.
General Kawaguchi's offensive had failed to take the airfield but it had cost the Americans heavily and there was an immediate need for fuel, food, ammunition and reinforcements. Within two days (Sept. 17th), Admiral Turner moved a naval force up to alleviate the problem and landed over 4000 troops of the 7th Marine Division along with supplies and fuel. Departing ships were able to evacuate 162 of the wounded and even took 8 Japanese wounded with them. But the cost of the reinforcements and supplies was high. A Japanese submarine was able to sink the carrier Wasp (providing air cover) sending it to the bottom. The same spread of torpedoes damaged the battleship North Carolina sending it back for repairs and damaging a destroyer so badly that, after receiving a temporary patch up, it sank while trying to make it back to the States.
On October 11th, in the early afternoon, search planes from Henderson Field discovered two Japanese cruisers and six destroyers heading down The Slot. Intensive air raids on Henderson Field during the afternoon denied American search planes any further opportunity to track these ships. An American force under Admiral Scott's with the heavy cruisers USS San Francisco (CA-38) and USS Salt Lake City (CA-25) and light cruisers USS Helena (CL-50) and USS Boise (CL-47) with attendant destroyers, cruised off Rennell Island, out of range of Japanese air search but within 5 hours' steaming of Savo Island.
The American Admiral calculated that the Japanese fleet could be off Savo Island an hour before midnight. He therefore bore north, expecting to meet only the force reported during the early afternoon. The admiral was unpleasantly surprised to find the enemy's armada had grown in size but, fortunately for the admiral, the Japanese navy was just as surprised at his being there, which proved their undoing. When the USS Helena opened fire, the Japanese force had not yet closed for battle. In the action that ensued, known as The Battle of Cape Esperance, the Imperial Navy lost a heavy cruiser, three destroyers for a total of 565 men. American losses were one destroyer (the USS Duncan (dd-458) with 175 killed and a number wounded. The greatest damage however was to the pride of the Imperial Navy that delighted in its superiority at night fighting. The Japanese were unable to shell the field but were able to land a considerable size reinforcement. The loss of their first heavy cruiser in a naval engagement would require quick retaliation.
Two days later, October 13th, was to be the day of revenge for the Japanese. The day started well for the Americans however as two transports landed 210 men of the First Marine Air Wing, 85 Marine replacements, and 2,850 men of the 164th Infantry Regiment. The Army unit, a National Guard unit from North Dakota, introduced a distinctly Scandinavian character to the front lines. The superior character of this regiment was reflected in its vibrant leader, Lt. Col. Bryant E. Moore, a West Pointer. It would take all of their superior character to survive this day. Supplies, rations, and vehicles followed the troops to add to the local inventories.
The first air raid of the day eluded detection by the coast watchers as 27 bombers and 18 fighters headed south. The newly installed radar picked up the attackers as they neared the island and the defenders, 42 Wildcats and 13 P-39s, rose to defend the field. Although the P-39s could reach an altitude 15000 feet higher than the older P-400s, they were still 3000 feet short of reaching the bombers at 13,000 feet. Only one bomber was downed with the loss of one Wildcat. The first hint of something unusual came when Japanese bombardiers applied their skills not to sink the Transports offshore but to put thirteen holes in the runway with heavy damage to the newly installed metal matting.
The 2nd Japanese air raid for the day (the 61st for the field) was greeting by only 12 Wildcats. Captain Joe Foss led one group of four Wildcats and managed to get himself shot down but was able to glide back to the field with a wind-milling propeller. His buddy, Colonel Richard Mangrum, the inspiring leader of VMSB-232 dive bombers (and one of three survivors of the group), was transferred out and departed from Henderson Field. It turned out to be a very good day to make one's departure. Afternoon search missions from the field sighted a large number of warships heading south.
Towards evening, the first shells, in what was later to become a typhoon of shells, hit Henderson Field. These were fired from a Japanese field piece about three miles from the field. Annoying, but not deadly, some of the shells hit the western end of the field. Marines would eventually refer to this annoyance as "pistol pete." Darkness brought Japanese aircraft, setting off sirens and sending the Americans back and forth from beds to dugouts and foxholes. Then at 1:30 am, the irregular chug (like a popcorn machine, said Captain Joe Foss) of a Japanese observation plane, "Louie the Louse," became audible.
A minute later, two huge behemoths, the battleships Kongo and Haruna, eased past the south side of Savo Island and slowed to 18 knots. Gunnery officers aboard aligned their range finders on a trio of reference lights twinkling along the Japanese-held coast. Overhead "Louie" bracketed Henderson Field with flares, casting pale illumination over the entire area. At 1:33 am, the Kongo belched her first salvo, followed a minute and a half later by the Haruna. The first rounds hit west of the runway, but Japanese gunners marched salvos back and forth across runways and parking areas as well as into the groves north of the airfields, which housed most aviation personnel.
Pharmacist's Mate First Class Louis Ortega was looking for a respite from battle. He had been on the line facing Japanese troops for almost a month and was pulled back to Henderson Field for some rest. "We were laying down in our pillbox. A whistling noise and then boom! "What the hell was that?" And then another one. For the next 4 hours we were bombarded by four battleships and two cruisers. Let me tell you something. You can get a dozen air raids a day but they come and they're gone. A battleship can sit there for hour after hour and throw 14-inch shells. I will never forget those four hours."
One after another, American planes, ammunition and gasoline dumps became kindling for raging fires that within ten minutes turned the night into a garish semblance of daylight. The ground shook as if an earthquake had hit while dust and smoke nearly solidified the very air. The plain spoken Captain Foss, who freely admitted he shook uncontrollably, simply said: "It seemed as if all the props had been kicked from under the sky and we were crushed beneath." One near miss flung General Vandergrift to the floor of his vulnerable dugout in a heap "without hurt except in dignity." "A man comes close to himself at such times," the general later reflected.
At 2:13 am, the Japanese battleships checked fire while turning. During the lull, Navy pilot Lt. Frederick Mears joined about seventy men who piled into trucks to drive to the beach to escape the main impact area. "Men were yelling, even crying and trying to hide behind one another or force their way to the bottom of the trucks," he recalled. When the Japanese were ready to fire again, they found that the smoke and fire ashore had obscured all reference points somewhat dampening their accuracy. Plus, both ships had exhausted their bombardment ammunition and had to switch to armor piercing shells which were less effective against the "soft" airfield. One of these shells scored a direct hit on the command post of the 11th Marines but miraculously caused no fatalities.
On other ships of the Japanese taskforce, excitement spread as topside sailors thought the scene resembled the great Ryogoku fireworks display and provoked "spontaneous cries and shouts of excitement." Revenge could be sweet for the Japanese navy.
Sitting across the sound in Tulagi harbor were four PT boats (patrol craft) that had just arrived two days earlier. Under the command of Lt. Comdr. Allen Montgomery, the newly activated group awaited suitable targets before venturing out to test their skills. The roar of the 14 inch guns convinced the group that suitable targets certainly worthy of their attention had arrived. Charging into the fearsome Japanese taskforce perhaps indicated a lack of wisdom for Montgomery but certainly not a lack of courage. The PT boat commanded by Lt. Robert L. Searles fired four torpedoes, three of which malfunctioned, at what was identified as a light cruiser. Robert's brother John, commanding PT-60 claimed two hits on a Japanese ship but, since no Japanese ships were hit that night, they were probably just gun flashes.
Several of the PT's had narrow escapes with destroyers and eventually the destroyer Naganami ended up chasing PT-60. The PT's escaped using smoke screens, zigzagging and by the judicious dropping of depth charges. Although none of the torpedoes hit, Admiral Kurita observed the gun flashes and surmised they depicted an embroilment of his screen with a submarine. Since the scheduled completion time for the bombardment was near, he decided to terminate it five minutes early. At 2:56 am, the guns fell still and hulls began to strain as the force moved out at 29 knots. The two Japanese battleships fired a total of 973 shells.
For the remainder of the night, Japanese aircraft kept up random bombing and the Japanese howitzer (Pistol Pete) began lobbing more shells onto the field. There would be no end to the torment this night. With the first rays of daylight, men emerged with bloodshot eyes to scan the devastation: Henderson Field unusable; virtually all aviation gasoline burned; only seven of the 39 dive bombers could fly and none of the torpedo bombers. More luck though with the Wildcats though. On the newly constructed fighter strip located a short distance from the main strip, 24 of the 42 Wildcats were undamaged as well as four of the P-400s and 2 P-39s.
For the now veteran Marine Louis Ortega, he remembered, "The next morning when they stopped shelling, there was a haze over the whole area. Five miles of coconut groves were gone! Where the day before you had miles and miles of coconut trees, now 5 square miles were wiped clean. Every tree was gone. The airfield was destroyed. And over on Point Cruz you could see six Japanese transport ships merrily unloading troops."
Amazingly, all the high explosive and steel killed only forty-one men of the over 20,000 present in and around the field, proving that a foxhole that you could stand up in, had merit. For the North Dakota National Guard unit's first day, they had withstood a 24 hour baptism of fire and emerged with only 3 fatalities. Perhaps a good omen for the group.
The good times continued for the ecstatic Japanese troops nearby who were witnessing the fires and explosions that continued throughout the morning. The bad words that that the Japanese soldiers had for their navy on previous days were quickly forgotten. The Japanese 17th Army headquarters gauged the effect as equal to the shelling of a thousand field guns. A very happy Admiral Yamamoto declared the American aircraft at Henderson Field "suppressed" and ordered his forces at sea to head south to find and destroy the remnants of the U.S. fleet. Apparently unnoticed by the Admiral was that after this "thousand field gun shelling," Henderson Field, unlike an aircraft carrier, had not sunk an inch.
Back in the States, "the bombardment" and the landing of massive reinforcements by the Japanese had high ranking American military and civilian officials apprehensive and, in some cases, in despair. The desire to unmask the perilous situation of their countrymen on Guadalcanal to the public -- or as some astute observers believed, to prepare the nation for a defeat -- triggered a major shift in the public information policy of the United States government and the armed services during October.
Contributing to the information problem was the shortage of newsmen on the scene. Since the reporters' living accommodations were about on par with that of the troops, this insured that there would not be a problem with an overcrowding of news personnel. In fact, after the bombardment one newly arrived reporter departed on the next available transportation leaving behind even his personal belongings. Those that remained such as Robert C. Miller and Richard Tregarskis were rated highly however.
Another factor that was keeping the American public in the dark was voiced by Reporter Clark Lee who accused naval officers, particularly Annapolis products, of regarding the ships of the Navy as their own private property, instead of the property of the American people. These navy officers had rejected all suggestions that this was a people's war and that, within reason, the people should be kept fully informed of how it was progressing.
The first sign of a change in the information policy came after New York Times military affairs reporter Hanson Baldwin returned from his trip to the island in September and cleared a series of articles for publication beginning September 27. For the first time the American people acquired a frank picture of the tenuous grasp the marines maintained on a small fraction of Guadalcanal's coastline. He reported, "that the United States had "nailed the colors to the mast" over Henderson Field and that the stakes were high, "perhaps eventual victory" in the war itself.
The third week of October the marines and soldiers enduring Guadalcanal monitored radio broadcasts from the States saturated with a chorus of doomful projections of their prospects. A reporter demanded of Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox: "Do you think we can hold Guadalcanal?" Knox's reply was: "I certainly hope so and expect so... I will not make and predictions, but every man will give a good account of himself." But for the troops, the great majority remained confident and recognized, in the words of Marine Colonel Cates, that, if the situation was "no pink tea," they did not need "weak-kneed reports by some official about our precarious situation."
While the American Navy was getting a "kick in the rear" by the public at about this time, the Japanese Navy had no such problems. There were no Japanese reporters nosing around and asking embarrassing questions aboard the huge battleships sitting in the Truk atoll. Aboard the battleship Yamato, Lt. Kojima Kiyofumi enjoyed white rice for breakfast with "delicious" side dishes. A little to the south, Japanese army troops were "skin and bone" on "Starvation Island."
The pressure to institute changes in the way news was provided by the Navy was not lost on Admiral Chester W Nimitz, the top Commander in the Pacific. Changes would soon become evident.
On October the 15th he read a message from Admiral Ghormley (Commander of the SouthWest Pacific) containing his resignation: "My forces are totally inadequate to meet the situation." Nimitz had already exhausted the material assistance he could provide. He discussed this subject with his staff on the night of October 15th. The New York Times correspondent Hanson Baldwin had already said after his trip to Guadalcanal that the greatest obstacle to American success was leadership.
For the approaching crisis, Nimitz wanted an intelligent and dedicated officer who could inspire men to feats beyond their know capabilities. Admiral Turner was out primarily because of his role in the Savo Island battle. Just off the sick list was Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, a sailor known and admired throughout the navy as a fighter, especially by the enlisted men. Nimitz's choice of Halsey was forwarded to Admiral King and a quick "Affirmative" was returned. One of Halsey's first orders to the fleet: henceforth naval officers in the South Pacific would remove ties from tropical uniforms.