Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift could finally start to breathe a bit easier. After a rocky start, the men of the 1st Marine Division had consolidated their perimeter around Guadalcanal’s vital Henderson Field, turning back two major attacks by Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi’s 35th Infantry Brigade. The first attack had come from Colonel Kiyono Ichiki and his crack 28th Regiment.
Attacking Marine positions along the Tenaru River late in the evening on August 20, 1942, the Japanese assault ended in a bloody shambles, as 777 of the colonel’s 916 men became casualties. A second attempt by 3,000 soldiers to push the Americans off Mukade Gata (Ridge Hill) on September 12 produced similarly bloody results. The bulk of what remained of Kawaguchi’s shattered command retreated to the west, but small parties of his soldiers, cut off from their units, struck out on their own to the east.
Having held Henderson Field, the Marines now faced the task of destroying the enemy on both sides of the island and trying to secure, once and for all, the first steppingstone in the Solomon Islands chain. While much attention was focused on Japanese positions on the western part of the island, General Vandegrift knew he would have to do something about roving bands of enemy soldiers reportedly in and around Aola. Following the series of brutal encounters with the Japanese, however, Vandegrift did not have enough men left to launch a full-scale attack in two directions. Instead, the “Old Breed” commander decided to send a small raiding party from nearby Tulagi Island to neutralize Japanese strongholds around Aola.
Aola Bay was about 33 miles east-southeast of the Marines’ Lunga defensive perimeter, which was maintaining a fragile hold on Henderson Field while keeping the Japanese on the western side of the Matanikau River. In considering their assignment, the staff of the 2nd Marine Regiment decided that a strike on the known enemy outpost at Gurabasu would be the most effective means of eliminating the eastern threat.
To map out the attack strategy for Gurabasu, Major William K. Enright and Captain Richard T. Stafford, the commanding officer of Company C, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, flew from Tulagi to Guadalcanal on October 6, 1942. Their purpose was to confer with Captain Martin Clemens, commander of the British Solomon Islands Defense Force, and the staff of the 1st Marine Division. Clemens had received a layout of the Gurabasu outpost from Sergeant Francis C. “Pete” Pettus of the 1st Raider Battalion, who had led a party of Marines and Clemens’ scouts to reconnoiter the enemy lookout station. With that information in hand, Clemens devised a tentative assault plan. The group discussed the strategy and concluded that a strong force was required to clear the area. With a scheme in mind, Enright and Stafford returned to Tulagi.
Now it was time to work out the details. Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Hill would coordinate the movement of his three companies from their base on Tulagi to a landing area in Aola Bay. The Higgins landing craft available to transport the Marines were too slow and noisy to make the journey alone, so Hill’s eight craft would be pulled by YP-239 and 284, two yard patrol vessels known as “Yippees.”
The mission did not get off to an illustrious start. At 2100 hours on October 9, 1942, one of the towed landing craft capsized, the 60mm mortar it carried dropping to the bottom like a rock. Eighteen of the 21 Marines and sailors were thrown overboard and drowned.
In front of the remaining boats in the flotilla was YP-239, which carried Hill, his battalion headquarters and sections of A and B companies. Unfortunately for the Marines, as they approached the coast of the island, they could not make out Aola Bay. Having little time to lose, Hill took a native guide, jumped aboard a smaller boat and headed to shore. With the guide’s help, the colonel was able to find the correct landing beach and rendezvous with Clemens. The party then built a large bonfire to serve as a beacon.
Hill took a quick look at his map and headed for Ruavatu via Gegende. Following in his wake were Corporal Daniel Pule’s section and 30 carriers. According to Clemens, Hill’s team was to prevent any retreat from Gurabasu while also dealing with Ruavatu and Koilotumaria. Clemens then met with Captain Stafford to plan the attack on Gurabasu.
Company C, supported by the weapons section, would move out of Aola and up the government trail for about four miles to the village. Part of the force would then cross the Gurabasu River above the village and come in from the other side. If everything went well, the Japanese would have to defend against simultaneous attacks from two directions. Although the distance was only four miles, the passage would be difficult. Along the route, the raiders would have to cross a series of steep, slippery hills that were always wet and a 150-yard-wide swamp. Another problem was that the raiders were not in top shape. The Marines were tired, edgy and hungry — not to mention somewhat shaky after a punishing night at sea and the loss of more than a dozen of their comrades.
Stafford, Clemens and the rest of the team headed for their objective at midnight. Almost immediately the column began to spread out as men became separated in the dark. To prevent the force from breaking up, Clemens had each man place a piece of phosphorescent rotten wood in his belt.
Clemens recalled that the Marines also had difficulty with noise discipline. “My lads scouted ahead silently and, although within the company, the noise was terrific, it was very quiet two hundred yards ahead with the scouts. At 0530, the machine gun platoon branched off to take the eastern position. My natives preceded them and scouted while they got into position. I went with two rifle companies right around the flank to the west. A sharp rain shower added to our safety. They reached the fork in the Gorabusu [sic] River, just south of Gorabusu Island, early in the morning. Shortly after 0800, Company C crossed the stream and started to advance across the island.”
With everything ready, the scout commander later recalled how the attack unfolded. “On reaching the target area, someone ordered ‘fire,’” Clemens said. “All the Jap rifles were stacked. Only a few were awake. When they saw us, they panicked; a totally bald Jap, sitting in the early sun, yelled at them to grab their rifles. A BAR man alongside of me shot him in the head and he collapsed. The Japs, still in their beds, never got out. Many enemy were running.
“In one shack there was a Nambu light machine gun between some cots. About that time, 1st Lt. Justin G. Mills informed his troopers that there were some wounded Japs. And that they should be shot. There were three Japanese at the base of a large Banyan tree, one enemy moved to sit-up, Mills shot him; ‘Rubber Nose’ Murray put his bayonet on his ’03 and struck the other two; but he shut his eyes beforehand.”
Captain Stafford arrived, clean and well shaven — unlike his bedraggled enlisted men. He wanted Lieutenant Mills to come with him and the platoon. Stafford had been informed that two Japanese soldiers were in cover not too far away, and he wanted some prisoners.
The captain’s group was quickly pinned down by enemy fire. Grabbing what protection they could, the Marines began searching for the source of the incoming rounds. Suddenly, a corporal standing against a mangrove tree began to curse. A sniper had hit his backpack, blowing a hole in his poncho. Another shot soon followed and the sling on the corporal’s rifle was cut in two, along with it the tip of Private James Maxwell’s left pinkie. Stafford stood up and shouted, “Rush ’em men!” The enemy sniper, however, put a dumdum bullet in the captain’s right eye, collapsing part of his head.
The shocked Marines raked the area with fire. Believing the coast was clear, the men prepared to move when Corporal Bill Dothan yelled out, “Don’t go out there, you’ll get killed!” There was another shot, and then sudden quiet. Heads started popping up, and one of the men finally said that the final sniper had been killed. Clemens and the remainder of the group moved forward and began checking around the huts. They discovered 29 dead Japanese soldiers in the bivouac.
After making sure everything was secure and checking the area for additional enemy troops and anything of intelligence value, Clemens and one of his scouts wrapped Stafford in a poncho and tied his body to a pole so he could be carried back to the beach.
Meanwhile, Corporal James Sorensen was with Hill’s group. “A and B companies’ detachments left Aola about noon with four of Clemens’ scouts led off by my squad, third platoon, acting as a point for the rest of the column,” Sorensen said. “The party moved out on an overgrown jungle trail from the rear of Aola and headed southwest toward the upland. The trail was narrow, the men could only move in a single file. The trail became a well-worn rut as rain from the hill country ran down it in a stream. Eventually, they were moving along in ankle-deep water on the trail. They continued on up and down razorback ridges, down cliffs and through the jungle again, crossing a black 150-foot swamp on a 10-inch board base used as a bridge. Two of Clemens’ scouts went ahead to inform the village [Gegende] of the Marines’ arrival. The party moved into the village just before dark. The village was like a wooden fortress, with a woven fence of poles. The villagers became the guards and let the tired troopers sleep.”
The respite was short. At 0630 on October 12, the group headed out again. “The village lay ahead, fenced in by a rickety, broken-down stockade,” Sorensen said. “We spread out and scouted the perimeter under cover of the stockade. We could not see nor smell any Japanese. The village was empty, except for the debris left behind and a gutted pig still hanging from a tree limb.” Further investigation led the party to the conclusion that the Japanese had left earlier that morning or late the previous day. Some of Clemens’ scouts carried out their own investigation and learned that about 200 of the enemy had been in the village for about three days. They also learned that the enemy detachment had several automatic weapons and it was believed they were headed toward Koilotumaria.
Information in hand, this column set out after the Japanese. Along the way, a shot rang out. Thinking they were in the midst of an ambush, the Marines dived for cover only to learn that Private Joseph L. Sparks had been accidentally shot and killed by one of the other men. Picking themselves up, the Marines moved on.
The thick terrain was slowing everyone down, so not long after the unfortunate friendly fire incident, Sergeant John Denley led the 3rd Platoon of Company A down one trail while the other men traversed a parallel path. Farther along, the two parties stopped, and Sergeant Wilbur Burgess was called forward to confer with the others and to make a brief foray to survey the area ahead.
“At that moment,” Sorensen later recounted, “silently coming from the jungle onto the trail was a single Japanese. He was about 50 yards away on a sandy beach, gazing through binoculars in the direction of Point Taivu. He was on the shoreline wearing only a loincloth — just before or after a swim, as his uniform was neatly stacked near the shore. Burgess, an old-timer and former China Marine, brought him down with one shot. He was buried about 10 yards from shore, next to a trail.”
Although the large enemy formation had not been found, the group’s initial target at Gurabasu had been eliminated. Hill radioed division headquarters and was instructed to continue his patrol — hiking from Aola to Kukum, destroying enemy formations encountered along the way. It would be a 30-mile jaunt through some of the island’s most inhospitable terrain.
Hill called for volunteers. Company C was asked for a platoon, and the other two companies in the battalion were told to take as many as would be willing to come along. From Company A, 28 men stepped forward. Burgess and 2nd Lt. Byron T. McMichaels formed three squads from this group, with a corporal acting as a squad leader and another as an assistant. Company C offered 13 men, and Company B provided 31. A few other volunteers were given radios or instructed to serve as corporals. The size of the force reached 80 men, commanded by Lieutenant Thomas K. Leineweber.
Tired as the men were, and with many already suffering from the strain of the landings and combat around Gurabasu, even worse was that more than a dozen were now sick with the debilitating effects of diarrhea. In such a physical state, Hill estimated it would take Leineweber’s column three days to complete the patrol.
Those who had not been selected to join Leineweber were picked up from the beach at Aola and transported back to Tulagi on the afternoon of October 11. At 0900 the next day, Leineweber set out. His men headed down the government trail, fording the river at its mouth and returning to the wreckage of the earlier encounter with the enemy. From there, the group pushed down the trail to reach the village of Rego about six miles inland and eight miles from Aola.
“It was tough going,” Sorenson remembered. “We crossed four or five rivers ranging from waist deep to shoulder height, extremely difficult on the short troopers. The foot trail was bad, with trees blocking it at several points with loose sand. The sand, ankle deep, made walking very difficult besides slowing down the troops.” At 1400, the patrol came to a large plantation.
From the plantation, the Marines hiked inland. “The squad had to walk, Indian style, single file,” Sorenson said. “The trail was practically overgrown plus thorny vines, and it began to seem like an everlasting journey, instead of six miles. The weight of the automatic weapons plus the heat was unbearable, like steam; we panted and gasped. Our group passed a couple of native farm clearings in the jungle where they had planted pineapples, mango, papaya, and banana trees. Orders were not to disturb the gardens. As the party filed out of the jungle and into Rego [there was a] village assembly of about a dozen huts on either side of the path. It was perched on a fifty-foot bluff overlooking a fast-moving stream, the sign of good cold water. That night no Japanese, but herds of mosquitoes.
“Next morning, we retraced our steps toward the ocean, all six miles of it. Clemens’ scouts said ‘that there were about a dozen Japanese sailors holed up in a village near the beach.’ We leathernecks hiked all morning and finally struck the area of the government trail, which, according to the natives, ran directly behind the village. Here the patrols split up, and formed a skirmish line. They tiptoed right through the jungle to the village, but no Japanese, although there were signs of their presence. Our party pulled out and kept to the beach trail; crossed several deep rivers that day and later discovered an accumulation of Japanese supplies. Here we found rubber boats, at least 100, stacks of blankets, gas masks, and life preservers, which were destroyed.
“The patrol passed through about 10 villages that had been pillaged and burnt by increasingly desperate bands of Japanese soldiers. Late in the afternoon, we crossed a stream and on the other side was Sergeant Major [Jacob] Vouza waiting for Carlson’s Raiders.”
Vouza was the head constable of the Solomon Islands, and Clemens’ chief scout. Leineweber’s troopers moved to an unknown village on the beach and set up camp for the night.
According to the plan, by the end of the third day, Leineweber was supposed to be at Lunga. The condition of the men was appalling. They had not shaved in more than a week or washed with soap. Some had toes cracked open like ripe cherries from huge blisters and cuts; others had severe dysentery. None, however, wanted to be left behind and despite its condition the group moved out promptly at 0630.
Along the trail were shattered gun parts and wrecked light field pieces; stores of ammunition had been heaped and burned. On the sides of the track was more gruesome evidence of the enemy’s passing. Marines came across clumps of rags that investigation revealed were full of bones. Some of the bodies lay by themselves, but others had been piled in groups of 30 to 50.
The clusters of bones went on for a half-mile. But not all the Japanese had been killed. At one point, Sergeant Burgess observed three Japanese soldiers moving by themselves. Taking part of the squad, he set off to outflank them. As the Marines moved along, they were alerted to a nearby Grumman F4F by the fighter’s coughing engine. The plane was flying perilously low and the pilot seemed unable to control it.
Corporal William W. Rogal saw the fighter hit the water and sink about 100 yards offshore. He swam out to the plane and hauled the semiconscious pilot back to land. While this was in progress, the patrol stormed out to the beach area as a protective screen. A group of F4Fs flew low over the site, the pilots looking for their downed comrade. Lieneweber’s men signaled that everything was under control, and soon a Higgins boat was dispatched to pick up Rogal and the rescued aviator and return to the Lunga compound. The other Marines kept walking.
The exhausted column traveled the last 13 miles to the relative sanctuary of Lunga in only five hours. The bone-weary men examined their swollen feet and enjoyed their first hot meal in a week. Hill’s men had done what they had been ordered to do, plus a lot more. They eliminated the threat posed by the Japanese garrison at Gurabasu and cleared the way for Evans Carlson and his 2nd Raider Battalion to embark on its epic “Long Patrol” a few weeks later.