Friday, August 21, 2015


The Battle of Tenaru River by Tom Lovell

Exactly two weeks after landing, the Marines on Guadalcanal face their first challenge from the Japanese for possession of Henderson Field when Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki, believing promotion and glory will be his with an easy victory, leads his 1,000 man force (the 28th Infantry Regiment that was to have occupied Midway Island) in an night assault, without orders from above (more of the detachment is on its way, but Ichiki attacks anyway), on the American defensive positions near Alligator Creek (the Marine name for the Ilu River and its residents, and a misnomer ... there are no alligators present on the island, only crocodiles!) and the Tenaru River.
 JapaneseColIchiki.gif Ichiki

Aware of activity in the jungles to their front along a tidal lagoon where ocean, land, and waterway meet, the 1st and 2nd battalions of Colonel Clifton B. Cates' (who will rise to command of the whole Corps in 1948) 1st Marine Regiment await attack from a defensive line made up of machine gun nests, rifle pits, 37mm anti-tank guns armed with canister shot, and the fire from pre-registered 75mm and 105mm artillery ... and a thin line of barbed wire.  Shortly after midnight the Japanese begin testing the strength of the Marine line.
Clifton B. Cates.jpg Cates

A nightmarish affair, the struggle to break through to Henderson Field becomes a series of clashes over the next sixteen hours in which the pitch dark night and jungle quiet explodes ... and the night is rent with the screams and moans of the dying and the wounded.  Taking place at around 1:30 in the morning, the first Japanese charge consists of 100 men running as fast as they can across the sandbar while screaming "Death to Babe Ruth" and other pithy sayings, and firing their weapons at anything moving to their front.  Repulsed after one hour of fighting that in spots becomes hand-to-hand, assault number two that gets underway with about 200 Imperial troops at 2:30, ends as the first did ... with more Japanese bodies littering the beach. Trying something a little different after two failures, for try number three to break the Marine line, Ichiki sends troops wading into the ocean surf to flank Cates' position ... an effort that is once more greeted and then blunted by artillery rounds, machine gun fire, rifle and pistol slugs, and Marine fists ... resulting in even more Japanese casualties (only 128 men of Ichiki's force will survive the battle)!

Area of Battle

Typical of the ferocity of the fighting, and the Marine efforts that will result in victory are the efforts of one, three-man machine gun crew that is credited with killing 200 Japanese soldiers.  Cpl. Lee Diamond, PFC John Rivers, and Pvt. Albert Schmid all win the Navy Cross for their actions defending the Marine line, but pay a horrific price for their tenacity ... Rivers is killed, Diamond is hit in the arms and hands by bullets and grenade shrapnel, and Schmid is blinded by a grenade explosion, but continues to fire the position's gun with the guidance of Diamond's eyes (an early American hero of the war, Schmid will have a 1945 Warner Brothers movie made about his life called "Pride of the Marines," starring John Garfield as the blinded soldier).
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Schmid and Wife
L to R - Anthony Caruso as Rivers, Dane Clark as Diamond,
Garfield as Schmid
Movie Poster

Unwilling to retreat in defeat (or unable in the dark with blistering Marine fire being sent their way), daylight finds the Japanese still clinging to the eastern bank of the creek, sniping at Marines, and making small rushes at the American line ... clinging on to their positions until the Marines launch a counterattack.  Led by Lt. Colonel Leonard B. Cresswell (a CHEESE relative?), the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment crosses the creek upstream above the battle area, and envelop Ichiki's position from the south and east.  Completely surrounded, the Marines slowly push the remains of the Japanese force into a small coconut grove that is soon turned into an abattoir ... planes from Henderson Field strafe the area, Marine infantry continues to blast away, and in the afternoon five M3 Stuart tanks roll through the grove firing their machine guns, hitting anything that moves with canister fire, and rolling over both dead and living bodies (1st Division Marine commander, Major General Alexander Archer Vandegrift, a Medal-of-Honor winner on Guadalcanal and future Corps commandant, will write that, "the rear of the tanks looked like meat grinders").
Vandegrift in Command Tent - Guadalcanal, 1942
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The Coconut Grove

The battle is over by 5:00 in the late afternoon (Colonel Ichiki either commits ritual suicide, or is blown apart by a tank ... his body is never located), but as it will be throughout the war in the Pacific, the killing continues anyway, as the Marines experience for the first time the Bushido code of the Japanese in action ... up close, and very, very personal.  As curious Marines begin to come to the area looking for souvenirs, and policing up the battle area, they discover that dead looking bodies aren't always dead and several soldiers are wounded by Japanese who suddenly rise up and start shooting or throwing grenades.  War to the no-quarter end, lesson learned, for the rest of the war to rather be safe than sorry, Marines will bayonet or shoot corpses before getting too close.
Sandbar Japanese Dead at the mouth of Alligator Creek   

The other lesson from the battle is even more important ... after knowing nothing but victory, the Japanese soldier has been defeated for the first time in the war ... more carnage and tears coming, but the Marines now know what the defenders of Wake Island discovered just days after Pearl Harbor ... given adequate support, the Imperial Army of Japan can be defeated.  

Corpses In The Sand - The Morning After

Why today mattered ... 8/21/1942 ... it mattered because the Marines hold on Guadalcanal!
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