a Name, But an Emotion"
A Return to "The Ridge"Guadalcanal
First Division Marines storm ashore across Guadalcanal's beaches
on 7 August 1942. The invaders were surprised at the lack of initial enemy
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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. *