Gung Ho: The Long Patrol
By R. R. Keene - Originally Published November 1992
It would be remembered as one of the great combat patrols in the history of the Marine Corps.
It continued for nearly a month of miserably hot and rainy days and nights from early November to early December 1942 and covered 150 miles of South Pacific-island jungle. "Carlson's Raiders" rotted the clothes off their bodies, pursuing Japanese on Guadalcanal who, in a dozen fights and ambushes, lost 488 men exterminated by the relentless Raiders.
Colonel Toshinaro Shoji of the pursued Imperial Japanese Army seemed a man possessed. He drove his men hard and mercilessly into the jungle to put as much distance between him and the Marines as possible.
A few days earlier at Koli Point, east of the Marine perimeter, Col Shoji had started out with more than 2.500 officers and men. He received orders to pull back to the upper reaches of the Lunga River. Shoji tucked the orders away and marched 2.000 of his troops back toward a place called Tetere. He left 500 men to fight a rear-guard holding action to keep the Americans busy at Gavaga Creek while Shoji and his main force swung south.
Shoji did not like leaving his men behind and realized it would be costly. However, if he could only break clear of the Americans, he might have time to reorganize, resupply, reinforce and retake the offensive.
Naval and Army Air Corps aviators off carriers and from Henderson Field had been cracking the backbone of the 38th Japanese Division. The aviators had bombed their ships and equipment, and strafed their reinforcements. To be a Japanese on Guadalcanal in November was to be an endangered species hunted without pity.
Ashore, the commander of the First Marine Division, Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift tightened the noose around the beleaguered Japanese forces whom he would cut off and destroy. Vandegrift was encouraged by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, recently named commander. South Pacific area after VAdrn Robert L. Ghormley was relieved. Halsey was the positive, aggressive commander that Adm Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean areas, had been looking for. When asked by a reporter during his visit to Marines on Guadalcanal how he proposed to win the campaign in the South Pacific, Halsey answered, "Kill Japs, kill Japs, and keep on killing Japs."
Thus, MajGen Vandegrift ordered the 2d Raider Battalion into action. The battalion had arrived via Pacific stops, after the raid on Makin Island in August, and was still commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson. Neither Carlson nor his men were initially popular with their fellow Marines. Many thought that the 2d Raiders' initial assignment of ?helping guard construction details near Guadalcanal's Aola Bay accurately reflected the combat value of Carlson's battalion.
The raid on Makin had made banner headlines. "Gung ho," a Chinese phrase which Carlson brought with him from his days as an observer with the Communist Chinese Army fighting the Japanese, loosely translated means "work together." It, with the concept of elite Marine Raiders, had started to catch on Stateside. There was even talk of a movie called "Gung Ho." Other Marines, particularly those in the 1stMarDiv on Guadalcanal, had taken to using Gung ho less kindly. Most translations were unprintable, but one claimed that Gung ho meant "Which way's the photographer?"
Vandegrift sent an air-dropped dispatch on Nov. 5 to Carlson and his Raiders at Aola approximately 20 miles east of division headquarters. His instructions were to turn over Aola security to an Army infantry battalion and on Nov. 6 start inland, find, pursue and destroy Japanese forces in the area commanded by Col Shoji.
The Raiders' route would take them well inland. The plan involved moving via strong and aggressively led patrols that fanned out in advance of the Raider command group with the main body following. Carlson configured his forces' advance to where it allowed him the maximum mobility in the jungle and a minimum of inertia. Thus, it was possible to strike quickly and fight with great strength from unexpected directions, and at any point of contact with any Japanese force they encountered.
The Raiders advanced in a westerly direction nearly eight miles inland through a chain of villages until they reached the village of Binu on the Balesuna River. Binu would become a base of operations for the foreseeable future and contact was made via small patrols with Marine units operating east of Koli Point from the Lunga Perimeter. Aside from accidental contact with small groups of isolated, lost and wandering Japanese, no action of significance was fought until Carlson's Raiders came across advance elements of the 500-Japanese force that Shoji had left for a rear-guard action.
It was around 10 a.m., Nov. 11, when a patrol from Company E, 2d Raider Bn met up with elements of 1st Bn, Seventh Marine Regiment and learned of a Japanese breakout. Ten minutes later, the Raiders of "Charlie" Co. reported to Carlson that they were "heavily engaged with a superior enemy force three miles southwest from the battalion base at Binu."
Easy Co. made its way up the west bank of the Metapona while Dog Co., to the north, moved directly toward the reported action. Contact with the Japanese had been made.
Carlson concentrated his force of 400 at Binu and let the fog of war clear a bit. The next day he had the area closely inspected once more, and Carlson concluded that the area had been organized for occupation by a force of battalion strength.
Meanwhile, the Japanese at Gavaga made repeated attempts to break out, and some did. However, the bulk of the force was helplessly penned by fire to the south, east and west. Vandegrift's Marines knew the life spans of their enemies were down to only a few more hours. On Nov. 12, the Marines killed the remaining Japanese who stood their ground (450 of the 500 soldiers Shoji left behind).
To the south and west, Col Shoji with his 2,000-man force could hear the firing and shuddered. His sole consolation was that the sacrifice of 500 good men had created a diversion which allowed his main force to get a running start toward the south and away.
From the dense jungle growth, coastwatcher Martin Clemens' native scouts watched every move Shoji made. The natives were led by a man who, in August, had been tortured and left for dead by the Japanese. Fully recovered and vengeful, Constabulary Sergeant Major Jacob Vouza took pains to precisely track the movement of Shoji's force. With his scouts and carrying party, SgtMaj Vouza detailed Shoji's movements and reported for duty to Carlson.
Carlson prepared to break camp and strike out for the Balesuna River in an effort to cut through the jungle and catch Shoji. He wasn't sure what size force he'd encounter except that it would be larger than his own. Carlson, nevertheless, had a plan and what he had learned during his years in China would now be put to good use.
Carlson had noticed something else and later reported: "We found notices written on paper and tacked to the trees indicating where various [Japanese] companies were to go. Our outguards began shooting enemy messengers who attempted to enter, apparently thinking the position was occupied" by their own people. During the day and night of November 12 we killed 25 messengers who tried to enter. One was an officer."
Other intelligence and evidence led Carlson to believe that the enemy was in position to his front. He called for artillery fire on the suspected enemy position.
It proved prudent. Artillery hit the rear of Shoji's column and the Raiders were attacked by a Japanese force two companies strong. Col Shoji cursed, wondering how and by whom his movement had been discovered. In an effort to scare and shake off those following him, Shoji ordered four other attacks similar in size that afternoon. Movement through the jungle was tough enough, but harassing and interdiction fire from howitzers of 1st Bn. 10th Marines made Japanese control and coordination of their attacks nearly impossible. Marine cannoncockers, however, were having better luck. Though they could not adjust fire by observation, they found they could, via radio information from the Raiders, put rounds almost perfectly on target.
The Japanese were pulling back, recoiling like a hand from a flame. Carlson's men were doggedly pursuing them, whittling away at what was left of the 230th Infantry Regiment.
On Nov. 12, SgtMaj Vouza led a war party of natives and Raiders along barely perceptible native jungle trails near Asimana. a village on the upper Metapona River. From the river came the sound of splashing and men laughing.
The Marines and natives smiled at each other. This was going to be almost too easy. A company-sized force of Japanese had taken the time to refresh themselves in the river and bathe. For the Japanese, bathing is more than a cleansing of the body, it is a social ritual of pleasure and relaxation. It must have been too tempting even for officers and noncommissioned officers who should have known better, for those men, too, were naked in the water, temporarily forgetting about the horrors of war. Even their pickets were too busy watching the bathers to hear Carlson's men silently surround them.
The last sounds they heard were the explosions of grenades, the slap of bullets and their own screams. The massacre turned the river red in less than a few minutes. No one survived and 120 bodies, white except for their infantrymen's tan, dotted the shoreline or drifted pathetically on the water.
Vouza's scouts guided the Raiders who traveled very light, living on a ration of rice, raisins, tea, and bacon. They hit like a pack of wolves stalking a large herd of caribou, and the herd was running scared.
The small Raider force ate away, gnawing and tearing at the larger enemy's haunches. It was Carlson at his best, leading Raiders trained for such action. They struck Shoji's column 12 times. They'd fall on the Japanese flanks and rear, viciously striking and vanishing almost as suddenly. It was a simple tactic that Carlson had seen Mao Tse-Tung's Chinese guerrillas use successfully again and again against the Japanese army years earlier.
Now, Carlson's Raiders marched parallel to the main column of retreating Japanese. They sometimes were off to the right side of the Japanese and sometimes they moved to the left side. The retreating Japanese looked with caution to the left and right for the Raiders. They also looked in fear to their rear, for that was where the Raider patrols struck the most. If the patrol closed with a large number of Japanese, the Marines would open fire, forcing Shoji to send reinforcements to his rear. That's when Carlson concentrated his firepower and struck the flank.
The Raiders killed nearly 500 men of the 230th Regiment, a few at a time, with this tactic. But over the next five days they would not catch Shoji, who ran in fear, never sure of who was pursuing him and never wanting to find out.
It was around Nov. 17 that the Raiders realized that the 228th Infantry and remnants of what was once the 230th Infantry had made good their escape.
Coincidentally, that was the same day that Vandegrift called Carlson to the perimeter for a conference.
"Calling in Evans Carlson, I asked him to extend his patrol to include the Mount Austen area, mopping up where he could and destroying some bothersome enemy artillery if possible," Vandegrift would later relate.
"Carlson took back with him an Australian guide [and] a number of native scouts. Operating in the southern area for the rest of November, Carlson's patrol, which we supplied by airdrop, accomplished everything I hoped for. . . ."
The missions Vandegrift wanted Carlson to accomplish were:
1) To locate and explore the suspected trail behind Mount Austen to Kokumbona;
2) To determine the presence or absence of enemy concentrations south of the airfield, for it was still felt that the enemy might be planning an attack from that direction;
3) To seek out and destroy the enemy artillery that had been shelling the perimeter from the hinterland;
4) To seek out a trail to the tip of Mount Austen from the south. It had been reported by patrols from the 1st Marines that such a trail existed, but there was no adequate information of it.
The civilian assistance Vandegrift spoke of consisted of the Australian guide named J. V. Mather, native bearers, and Tabsui, a scout from Malaita and a member of the native constabulary.
The Raiders began the second half of their patrol on Nov. 24. They were further augmented by Able Co., which arrived from the New Hebrides. Operating from a base on the upper Tenaru Valley, the first missions were chiefly reconnaissance. The Raiders then established subsidiary bases on the left and right fronts of the battalion headquarters. From these positions they conducted thorough searches while at the same time improving lines of communications to the battalion headquarters.
On Nov. 28, the Raiders found the Japanese artillery position they'd been sent to locate. It was on a ridge between the Lunga and Tenaru Rivers. The gun was gone, but 75-mm. ammunition was left in its cases.
Meanwhile, a group of Raiders operating north of the headquarters came across a well-defined trail leading from the upper Tenaru across the hills to the Lunga River and up the eastern slopes of Mount Austen. Carlson figured it was as good a place as any to move the base of his patrol.
Why he chose that particular position is somewhat of a mystery because his report explained that: "On November 30 the movement forward was resumed. The entire battalion crossed the steep ridge separating the two valleys. Ropes were required to scale the cliffs, so steep was the slope."
However, his report went on to say: "On the west side we found a telephone line leading from the artillery position to the west down a narrow ravine. The trail and wire emerged into a large bivouac on the south bank of the Lunga."
Here the Raiders found what was once a large Japanese bivouac. Also, there was an abandoned 75-mm. mountain gun and a 37-mm. antitank gun. It seemed that the Japanese were calling it quits. . .almost.
Fox Co. was sent to patrol the area more thoroughly. A squad-sized patrol from Fox Co. stumbled, in the blinding rain, onto 90 to 100 Japanese camped on a rocky slope. The surprise was mutual. Several important things saved the Marines from annihilation: The squad had the presence of mind and instinct to immediately attack with their automatic weapons, and the Japanese, who had earlier stood down, had for some reason stacked their arms. When the shooting stopped, 75 Japanese were dead. One Marine would be shot dead by a sniper the next day.
December rolled in with an airdrop of food for the battalion via R4D aircraft from Henderson Field which made seven flyovers, dropping precious supplies from their cargo doors. The Raiders recovered more than 75 percent of the supplies.
It was also on Dec. 1 that Vandegrift ordered Carlson to return to the perimeter. Carlson had accomplished all his missions with the exception of verifying the existence of the southern trail up Mount Austen. It had been a long patrol and his men were tired, but it was important that the matter be cleared up. He asked that his patrol be extended a few more days. The next day he fanned patrols out to the west and southwest. They found another position and parts of another gun.
Also, orders came in, leaving no doubt that Carlson was to begin his movement toward the perimeter. Carlson had no choice but to comply and begin the movement. However, he split his battalion, sending part of it down the Tenaru, retracing their earlier route. They entered the Lunga Perimeter on Dec. 4. Carlson kept the second part of his command with him to enter friendly lines along the Matanikau River, and investigate Mount Austen en route.
The next report came on Dec. 3 from Mount Austen. Carlson's investigation had turned up unoccupied enemy positions at what he described as the "hub of a spider web of ridges." It was there that the Raiders also turned up a Japanese combat patrol. Bullets flew; mortar rounds were fired. The ensuing two-hour fight ended when Carlson managed to pull off a double envelopment. In the process, the Raiders killed 25 Japanese. Four Marines were wounded, one fatally. The Raiders had scouted all of Mount Austen they cared to. On Dec. 4, they began their march in earnest to the Matanikau and eventually the perimeter.
Five hundred yards from the point of departure. Baker Co.. in the lead, ran into an ambush and one Marine was killed. The Japanese, seven of them, were firing from individual fighting holes, and were well-camouflaged. Once more, Carlson ordered a double envelopment, and once again he pulled it off. Two more men were killed and two wounded before the enemy force was wiped out.
Late in the day. the battalion entered Marine lines at Matanikau and the long patrol was over. They had swept the jungle from south of the perimeter to well north of Vandegrift's headquarters. It had cost them 16 dead, with 18 wounded, including one native scout. By all accounts it was a success.
However, any combat veteran knows that victory and defeat are great impostors. The Raiders had performed well, and earned the respect of their fellow Marines, but the idea of an elite corps within an elite Corps was too controversial. Historians say that "some admirals were eager to create more Raider battalions and use Marines only in small units." The Corps' generals, then as now, knew they must keep their divisions.
Carlson would receive his third Navy Cross, and eventual promotion, but would never command troops directly in combat again. In a Corps which prided itself on colorful and controversial characters. Carlson may have been too independent-minded, too much a maverick, and was suspected by some of being too much a socialist.
After Guadalcanal, Carlson was made executive officer of the new 1st Raider Regiment commanded by Col Harry B. Liversedge. LtCol Alan Shapley. who survived the explosion of OSS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, took command of the 2d Raiders. In 1944, the Raiders were absorbed into newly reformed Fourth Marine Regiment.
Carlson and the Raiders, however, secured a place in history that many of their detractors did not. Fellow Raider, historian and retired Brigadier General Samuel B. Griffith would later explain, "Carlson also introduced his concept of the 'Combat Group' squad organization to the Marine Corps. In each group he placed an automatic rifle. This triangular organization endowed the squad with unprecedented tactical flexibility. As later modified by the 1st Raiders, the squad was expanded to three four-man 'fire teams' plus the squad leader. This latter organization quickly became standard in the Marine Corps."
The following were used as references and are recommended for further reading: "History of Marine Corps Operations in World War II. Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, Vol. I" by LtCol Frank O. Hough, Maj Verle E. Ludwig, and Henry I Shaw Jr.; "The Battle for Guadalcanal" by Samuel B. Griffith II, BrigGen. USMC (Ret): *"Once A Marine: The Memoirs of General A. A. Vandegrift, Commandant of the U.S. Marines in WWII" by A. A. Vandegrift as told to Robert Asprey; *"The Old Breed: A History of the First Marine Division in World War II" by George W. McMillan: "Helmet for My Pillow" by Robert Leckie: "Strong Men Armed" by Robert Leckie: "A Brief History of the 4th Marines" by James S. Santelli; *"Our Kind of War: Illustrated Saga of the U.S. Marine Raiders of World War II" by R. G. Rosenquist, Col Martin J. (Stormy) Sexton, USMC (Ret), and Robert A. Buerlin; *"The Guadalcanal Campaign" by Maj John L. Zimmerman. USMCR: *"Guadalcanal: Starvation Island" by Eric Hammel; "Semper Fidelis; The History of the United States Marine Corps" by Allan R. Millett; *"The U.S. Marine Corps Story" by J. Robert Moskin; *"Soldiers of the Sea: The United States Marine Corps 1775-1962" by Col Roben Debs Heinl Jr., USMC; and "Special Marine Corps Units of World War II" by Charles L. Updegraph Jr.
*Available through MCA Bookservice. 1-800-336-0291.