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"Not a Name, But an Emotion"

A Return to "The Ridge"­Guadalcanal Plus Sixty

First Division Marines storm ashore across Guadalcanal's beaches on 7 August 1942. The invaders were surprised at the lack of initial enemy opposition.

By JOSEPH N. MUELLER

Col. Joseph N. Mueller, USMCR (Ret.), the historian for the 1st Marine Division Association, has written several articles and a book on the Guadalcanal campaign of 1942. He has traveled extensively in the Solomon Islands, often with groups from Military Historical Tours, and visited all of the major battlefields in the Solomons. He is a sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department.

In the first week of November 2001, a group of six U.S. citizens and one South African gathered in the air terminal at Los Angeles International Airport. The seven, part of a tour group organized by Military Historical Tours of Alexandria, Va., was poised to travel to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Their mission: to commemorate the 59th anniversary of the epic campaign fought on that remote island during the first year of battle following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II. The tour group was composed of U.S. veterans, historians, and students of history who desired to learn more about the battle.

Prior to departure, the group's members began to bond. Many questions were asked about the campaign of nearly 60 years ago. Dr. Louis Ripley, a U.S. Navy doctor during the battle, wondered aloud about Tulagi. He wanted to know how the island looked today compared to what he remembered from his wartime experiences. As the only World War II veteran in the group, Ripley was our only link to the past.

As the group's historian, I shared as much information as I could, based on my several trips to the region during the past two decades. I also explained to the other tour members what they could expect to see on their visit. The effects of urbanization are manifest, but the islands still maintain their natural beauty. Some areas are virtually unchanged from the time of the epic events of 1942.

After finally boarding our airliner, we embarked on a journey that would eventually take us to a small 90- by 30-mile island. It was this island, Guadalcanal, that captured the free world's attention (and the Empire of Japan's) for six months--from August 1942 to February 1943. Guadalcanal was a unique battle--and not only from the standpoint of its duration and its land, air, and sea fighting. More importantly, the outcome of the hard-fought campaign always seemed to be in doubt until the bitter end. The words of naval historian Rear Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison ring true: "For those who fought there, Guadalcanal is not a name, but an emotion."

Red Beach and Alligator Creek

As our airliner broke through the clouds and began to bank for its landing approach, all eyes fixed on the irregular mass of terrain below--Guadalcanal. Clearly visible to the trained eye was Red Beach, where the first assault Marines stormed ashore on that fateful day, 7 August 1942. As the landing craft approached the beach, one group of Marines, feeling they would probably be killed, stood up and sang the Marines' Hymn.

The plane flew westward toward Alligator Creek, where the first Japanese counterattack was turned back. As it passed over Lunga Point and turned south, then east, our small band passed over Fighter Strip No. 2. It was from this strip that U.S. Army P-38 fighter planes launched on their mission to intercept and shoot down the plane carrying Japanese Admiral Isoruku Yamamato. The mission, described as an attempt to disrupt enemy leadership and war plans in the Pacific, also equated to justifiable retaliation for Yamamoto's role as the architect of the 7 December 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

As our pilot began his final approach for landing, "Bloody Ridge," where Marine Raiders turned the tide of the Battle for Guadalcanal, came into view. As the landing gear dropped and the plane continued its descent, a flock of white cockatoos took to the air. They were a far cry from the Japanese Zero fighter planes and U.S. warplanes that once prowled the same sky.

Our plane landed and taxied to the gate at Henderson Field, named after Maj. Lofton R. Henderson, a Marine dive-bomber pilot who was killed during the Battle of Midway. The ghostly wartime control tower still looks down on arriving visitors. After checking through customs, we departed for our temporary destination at the Honiara Hotel. The hotel, located west of the Matanikau River, is situated well within the perimeter of the Japanese defense lines in 1942.

The next day our group proceeded from the hotel eastward to the American Battle Monument on "Skyline Ridge." U.S. Army soldiers who fought there during the battle gave the ridge its dubious name. During the battle they were subjected to immediate, and lethally accurate, Japanese rifle fire whenever they were silhouetted on its crest.

The story of the Battle for Guadalcanal unfolds amidst the somber atmosphere of the marble monuments located on the top of "Skyline." Each phase of the campaign is recounted on the huge tablets. A bronze relief map in the northwest corner of the ridge gives perspective to the panoramic view of the entire western region of the island. From this key terrain feature, one can easily see the Matanikau River Valley, site of some of the bloodiest fighting of the Guadalcanal campaign.

To the north, where the Matanikau River meets the coast, Marines made at least three major attempts to cross the river at its mouth. Farther downstream, where the first small creek flows into the river, is the spot where Maj. Kenneth D. Bailey was killed. Bailey, the executive officer for Lt. Col. Merritt A. Edson at the Battle for Bloody Ridge, was attempting to rally the Raiders at the river crossing when he was hit by Japanese rifle fire. Bailey was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry.

The same small stream, which meanders into the area from an adjoining valley, was prominently mentioned in John Hershey's book, Into the Valley, which describes the exploits of Capt. Charles Rigaud's H Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in the October 1942 battle to force a crossing at the Matanikau River. Looking across the valley to the hill immediately to the east one can plainly see the hill on which Lt. Col. Samuel Griffin was wounded by a Japanese sniper.

Looking north to the distant Iron Bottom Sound--named after the many U.S., Australian, and Imperial Japanese Navy ships sunk there--one sees the outline of Savo Island. On the night of 9 August 1942, Vice Adm. Gunichi Mikawa led a flotilla of Japanese ships past two U.S. Navy picket destroyers and destroyed one Australian and three U.S. cruisers--the greatest loss in capital ships suffered by the U.S. Navy since Pearl Harbor.

Leaving the monuments, the tour group headed east for Alligator Creek--named by the Marines for its crocodile population. It was at this stagnant stream that the first major Japanese attempt to recapture Guadalcanal was repulsed. Like the Battle of Bunker Hill--which was, in point of fact, fought on Breed's Hill--the so-called Battle for the Tenaru River was actually fought at Alligator Creek. The reason for the confusion was the inaccuracy of the Marine Corps' maps, which confused the eastern complex of the Tenaru with Alligator Creek.

The Battle of the Tenaru River, fought on 21 and 22 August 1942, saw Marines throw back an elite Japanese force led by Col. Kiyono Ichiki (who committed suicide after his failed assault). Marine Pvt. Albert Schmid earned the Navy Cross during the battle for manning a machine gun after the gunner, Johnny Rivers, was killed. Despite being blinded, Schmid kept the gun in operation and, assisted by Lee Diamond, broke up several determined Japanese attacks. Actor John Garfield later portrayed Schmid in the Warner Brothers classic movie Pride of the Marines.

"The Ridge"

Leaving Alligator Creek, our tour headed up to Bloody Ridge itself. This small knoll at the outer edge of the Marine perimeter was the scene of one of the most pivotal land battles of the Pacific War. "The Ridge," as it was called back at that time, was planned to serve as a rest area for the Marine 1st Raider and 1st Parachute Battalions. Battalion was a misnomer for the two units. Both had fought heroically on the island of Tulagi, the capital of the Solomon Islands, 25 miles north of Guadalcanal. Both also had fought at Tasimboko, about 12 miles east along Guadalcanal's coast. By the time the two battalions arrived at the Ridge, the ranks of each had been reduced by more than half of their original numbers.

It was this small composite force, commanded by Edson, that turned back the most determined Japanese attack of the campaign. The attacks ran from 12 to 14 September. The Japanese, led by Maj. Gen. Kiyotake Kawaguchi commanding a brigade of infantry, attacked the Marines frontally in a two-pronged maneuver. Had Edson not held the Ridge, the Japanese likely would have captured the 1st Marine Division's command post, overrun Henderson Field, divided the Marines' perimeter, and thrown Marine command and control ashore into chaos.

We postulated how such setbacks might have allowed the Japanese to achieve not only a tactical victory but also a strategic turning point of the war. Had U.S. forces not won the Battle of Guadalcanal, the war in the Pacific would have been prolonged indefinitely. Who is to say what direction it might have taken before victory was won? Edson was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic achievements.

As we moved along Bloody Ridge, we were shown where the axis of the Japanese attack was concentrated. Edson's command post, the communications center, and the aid station were clearly identified. The remains of Raider and Parachute foxholes stood out, as did the debris of the battlefield. Standing on the Ridge and reflecting on the death and destruction of nearly six decades ago was arguably the most meaningful moment any of us experienced during our visit. My new friends said that they felt that they had stood on the Little Round Top of the Pacific War.

Service and Sacrifice

Over the next few days the tour group also visited the U.S. Army battlefields in the vicinity of Mt. Austen, the main Japanese stronghold on Guadalcanal. Such battlefields as the Galloping Horse, Sea Horse, and Snakes Back ridges were pointed out. These terrain features received much notoriety in James Jones's book, The Thin Red Line, and in the movie of the same name. It was here that the U.S. Army--more specifically, the 25th Infantry Division (Tropic Lightning)--drove the Japanese out of the critical high ground in late December 1942 and early January 1943.

We also visited the island's western battlefields. The hills west of the Matanikau River were covered in detail, and we saw the gorge where then-Lt. Col. Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller's 1st Battalion, 7th Marines annihilated a Japanese regiment in October.

The tour was not devoted totally to the land battles of the Guadalcanal campaign. A day's boat trip to Tulagi offered an ocean perspective of the several naval engagements fought in waters surrounding the island chain. The group explored Tulagi first, then the twin islets of Gavutu and Tanambogo. It was here on 7 August 1942 that the Raiders, the Parachutists, and the 2nd Marine Regiment, assigned to the 1st Marine Division, experienced particularly heavy fighting. Among the other areas explored were the Florida Islands--home to many of the supporting naval facilities such as torpedo boat bases, seaplane bases, and supply and storage facilities.

Our visit to Guadalcanal was nearing its conclusion, but we first honored the fallen warriors of the past. On 10 November a Marine Corps Birthday Ball was celebrated to commemorate the deeds of those heroic Marines and intrepid Sailors who fought in the 'Canal's many land and sea battles. On 11 November a more somber ceremony commemorated the sacrifices of all members of the armed forces of all nations that had participated in the campaign.

With each passing day, the generation of Americans who fought at Guadalcanal is steadily passing from our midst--slipping slowly out of focus as their sharp recollections are relegated to the pages of history. My military tour group left Guadalcanal with the strong belief that it is incumbent on future generations to honor the sacrifices of those brave warriors who served before us. As Fleet Adm. William F. Halsey Jr. observed, the campaign on Guadalcanal stopped the Japanese advance in the Pacific during World War II. After Guadalcanal, he said, the only way the Japanese war machine moved was backwards.

As the tour ended, we again visited Henderson Field to begin our return journey. There, we reflected on what we had experienced. Many of my associates remarked that they had a much greater appreciation of the history of the campaign--and the courage of and sacrifices made by the men who fought it. The official battle histories record that more than 23,000 Japanese died during the six-month campaign. U.S. ground forces lost nearly 1,600 men killed and more than 4,700 were wounded, the majority of them Marines. In addition, many brave Sailors died in the dark waters surrounding the island.

Guadalcanal soon faded into the distance as our plane gained altitude, but it will never be erased from our memories.


Editor's Note: Military Historical Tours and the U.S. Marine Corps will commemorate the Guadalcanal Campaign's 60th anniversary with a return visit to the island this month. *


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