Guadalcanal: 40 Years Ago

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By P. L. Thompson - Originally Published August 1982

Forty years ago this month, the First Marine Division went ashore on the little-known island of Guadalcanal. It was the first landing by American troops on enemy-held territory in World War II. The Marines, alone at times, and greatly outnumbered for much of the battle, defeated the best the enemy could throw against them.

Marines who served there way that, years later and without warning, something can trigger an emotion or a thought that brings back the stark reality of the tropical nightmare that was Guadalcanal.

"I can still vividly remember every minute of every hour of every day of that campaign," said Thomas D. Smith, Jr.

Smith, forty years ago, was better known as Pvt "T. D." Smith, of "A" Company, 1st Marine Raider Battalion, First Marine Division.

"T. D." and several friends reflected on the battle recently with other members of the Edson Raiders Association at Quantico's Staff NCO Club.

"I believe that of all the great battles of the Pacific World War II, Guadalcanal was by far the most personal," said Smith.

"On Guadalcanal, I was a private-hell, we were all privates. Years later, in Korea, I was a captain and was for too busy and had too much to do to be scared. But, a private never really knows what's happening, and on a pitch dark night, the fear and loneliness can be almost heavy enough to breathe," he recalled.

Smith, Arnold L. Nadiau and Ashley R. Large were discussing the nights of September 12-13-14, of 1942. The three former marines had spent those long nights on a ridgeline, just amile from Guadalcanal's Henderson Field.

The ridge had several names, according to which history book you read. It has been called "Edson's Ridge," "Bloody Ridge," or " "Bloody Nob," but the men who were there still refer to it as "The Ridge."

If you can find photographs of it, the ridge doesn't look too imposing. Somewhat over a thousand yards long, it rises out of the jungle, switching back and forth, like a snake.

On those nights in September 1942, Edson's 1st Raider Battalion, Supported by members of the 1st Parachute Battalion, manned the foxholes. So thinly spread were they, there was only one Marine, every five yards, the length of the ridge.

In front of them were the nearly 4,000 Japanese of the Kawaguchi Brigade.

"We had been patrolling out in front of the ridge for a couple of days and we knew they were coming," said Smith.

"We spent the days digging in and laying wire in front of our positions.

"When it got dark, our platoon sergeant, Joe Buntin, came by. I asked him where the route of egress was in case we had to get out of there. He said, 'There's no route out of here; we stay in our damned holes and die.' I never thought any of us would get out alive," Smith admitted.

According to some military historians who have written about Guadalcanal, the ridge was the most critical and desperate battle in the entire campaign.

If the Raiders and parachutists had broken during the Japanese attack, Henderson Field would have been lost and a wedge driven deep into the Marine perimeter. In that case, perhaps the Marine toehold on the island would have been pried loose.

Ashley R. Large was in a unique position. He was the 1st Scout, of the 1st Squad, of the 1st Platoon, "A" Company, of the 1st Raider Battalion, First Marine Division. He was out front, as usual, on the ridge and just 17 years old.

"I felt-in fact, I think we all felt-that Colonel Edson had committed us, and by hell we were going to die there or save Henderson Field. We were going to win, or it was all over," said Large.

"Just after dark, about nine or so each night, they would come yelling, screaming and really making a racket.

"They came in groups, by themselves, in twos and threes, but they kept coming," Large recalled.

The Kawaguchi Brigade was an elite unit. Its commander, General Kawaguchi, already had drawn up the surrender papers he would have the Marines sign after his unit broke their line.

It was not to happen.

"The two things to remember about the Raiders is that we had a bunch of good Marines. The other thing is that we had the best leadership from top to bottom that any unit ever had," said Large.

Two of those leaders, Colonel Merritt "Red Mike" Edson and Major Kenneth D. Bailey, received the Medal of Honor for their work on those terrible nights.

Smith said, "Edson was like a damn cheerleader, up and down the lines, directing fire with a flare pistol, yelling orders and moving from place to place. He seemed to be everywhere at once."

Major Bailey, Commanding Officer of the Raiders' "C" Company, also spent those nights rallying the troops and trying to fill the gaps created by the Japanese. He did this despite a severe head wound.

"Major Bailey led his Marines in several hand-to-hand fights for nearly ten hours. He was like a wild man," Large said with admiration.

Arnold L. Nadiau was a private first class and 19 years old. He was with the Raiders' heavy weapons section.

"I'm not like 'T.D.' Smith. So much happened during those three nights, it all nins together. Really, the only thing I clearly remember was the constant machine gun and mortar fire. I threw grenades for three days. The big thing was the exhaustion and the hunger," said Nadiau.

Then, in afterthought, he refreshed his memory. "I also remember the artillery folks, the 11th Marines. They were firing so close over our heads, I swear you could have reached up and grabbed the rounds right out of the air.

"Their firing was tremendous. I understand they had to pour water on the barrels to keep from burning them out."

Sometime later, so the story goes, a Japanese who had been captured asked to see the Marines' "automatic artillery" that had helped destroy the Kawaguchi Brigade.

Each night, Pvt "T. D." Smith could hear the enemy all around his posilion.

"On the first night, I could even see two of them, with a machine gun, behind me, but I couldn't risk shooting in that direction for fear of hitting the Marines back that way," recalled Smith.

On the morning of the 13th, Smith had another shock.

"Just about first light, I could see a Japanese machine gun emplacement that had been fortified, not 25 feet in front of me. They were all dead, but still, that close, it really hit me....

"The second night was much like the first. You just couldn't see anything. You could hear them all around you, hear them coming, see their flares, so I just kept throwing grenades and hoping to hell it was doing some good," said Smith.

Some of the enemy managed to infiltrate the Raider lines, all the way to the Division Command Post, but the Marines beat them back.

By the early morning hours of the 14th, Col Edson reported to Division that the ridge would be held. The attacks lessened as the night wore on. By dawn, the attack was over.

The Kawaguchi Brigade had been broken.

"Shortly after the battle of The Ridge," said Smith, "I met Major Lew Walt for the first time." (General Lewis W. Walt later retired from the Marine Corps as the Assistant Commandant.)

"We were told we were going to be pulled off the island, so we were waiting. I kept seeing smoke from a number of fires, back in the jungle.

"When Lew Walt came by, I asked him what the smoke was and he said, 'Son, those are Japanese cooking fires, and we'll probably have to go down there and get them.' When he said that, my stomach almost fell out," Smith said, holding his mid-section.

The Raiders left Guadalcanal, however, and were disbanded, their members serving in other battles with other units throughout the Pacific campaign.

The defense of Edson's Ridge by the Raiders and the 1st Parachute Battalion may well have been the most important battle of the Guadalcanal campaign, but it was only one phase of a long and difficult engagement.

Other Marines fought just as hard and with as much valor as the defenders of The Ridge.

Since its inception, during the Civil War, a grand total of 300 Medals of Honor have been awarded to Marines. Six were earned by First Division Marines on Guadalcanal.

Besides Col Edson and Maj Bailey, four other members of the Division were honored for actions above and beyond the call of duty.

Sergeant John Basilone, serving with the 1st Battalion, Seventh Marines, in the Lunga area, was largely responsible for the annihilation of a Japanese regiment. He held them off with only two sections of heavy machine guns.

Platoon Sergeant Mitchell Paige (now a retired colonel), as a member of the 2nd Battalion, Seventh Marines, led his machine gun section until all of his men were either killed or wounded in action. Alone, he manned his guns until reinforcements finally arrived. Paige then led them in a bayonet charge, breaking the Japanese attack.

Corporal Anthony Casamento (awarded his Medal of Honor in September 1980, 38 years after his actions) as a member of the 1st Battalion, Fifth Marines, near the Matanikau River, singlehandedly repulsed multiple assaults by the enemy, holding his key position until help arrived. He had suffered 14 wounds.

Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift (later Commandant of the Marine Corps), as the Commanding General of the First Marine Division at Guadalcanal, was also awarded our Nation's highest decoration for his "tenacity, courage, resourcefulness and inspiring leadership against a strong, determined and experienced enemy."

While the Marines of the First Division went all out to protect their small toehold on the island of Guadalcanal and its allimportant airfield, the First Marine Aircraft Wing also added some names to the Guadalcanal pages of the history books.

Sometimes alone, almost always outnumbered, the Marines of the "Cactus Air Force," as it was called, added eight more names to the list of Medal of Honor recipients. Those eight Marine pilots accounted for 142½ enemy aircraft by the end of the war, the majority of which they shot down while flying defense or attack missions from the 'Canal's Henderson Field.

Major Gregory Boyington (now a retired colonel) and Captain Joseph J. Foss (later governor of South Dakota) were the highest-scoring "aces" the Corps has ever produced. Boyington's total was 28; Foss accounted for 26 of the enemy's aircraft.

Besides Boyington and Foss, the other aviators who were awarded the Medal of Honor while flying from Guadalcanal were 1stLt Kenneth Walsh (21 aircraft shot down); Maj John L. Smith (19); 1stLt James E. Swett (15 ½); Maj Robert Galer (13); LtCol Harold Bauer (11); and Capt Jefferson J. DeBlanc (9).

Guadalcanal was unique in several respects. It was the scene of the first amphibious landing by American troops since 1898, It was also the first successful offensive against the enemy in a land engagement, by American troops, during World War II.

The honor of conducting the first landing by American troops on enemy-held territory in the war went to the 1st Battalion, Second Marines, when they landed at Florida Island, near Guadalcanal.

There were also some valuable lessons learned at Guadalcanal. Perhaps the most important was the fact that it was a successful experiment in amphibious landings, proving that the concept established by the Marine Corps could indeed work.

Lessons learned on the 'Canal enabled the Corps to refine its amphibious doctrine and make it much more effective as the war progressed.

Guadalcanal also proved to the American public that the Japanese were not the invincible jungle fighters they at first seemed to be. They could be beaten....

The Marines of Guadalcanal, alone at times, and greatly outnumbered for much of the battle, had defeated the best the enemy could throw against them. Along with the naval victory at Midway, the Guadalcanal campaign is now considered by historians to have been the turning point of the war in the Pacific.

Long after the battle, Japanese commanders conceded the point that Guadalcanal was their first and most important loss. Their advance had been stopped forever.

One Japanese general officer went so far as to describe Guadalcanal as the "graveyard of the Japanese Army."

To the Marines who served there, and to the American public at home, the victory at Guadalcanal became much more than a battle-it became an emotion that helped give our country the will to win.

There are four lines of poetry that best sum up the campaign for Guadalcanal. Used later at other battles and in other wars, it first appeared on a grave marker in the First Marine Division's cemetery on Guadalcanal:

And when he goes to Heaven,

To St. Peter he will tell:

Another Marine reporting, sir,

I've served my time in hell.