The Japanese counterattack in Guadalcanal was a harrowing slog through thirty-five miles of brutal jungle—with all but certain death waiting at the end.
Maj. Gen. Masao Maruyama was not a man given to doubts.
Soon after arriving on Guadalcanal on October 3, 1942, the general had issued an order declaring that there was “no position” that could not be breached by a simultaneous rushing attack. Even the Americans’ seemingly impregnable perimeter defenses guarding Henderson Field could be swiftly penetrated—provided that proper “control” of the troops was maintained. And once the Americans lost Henderson, they would swiftly be driven off Guadalcanal for good.
So confident was Maruyama of quick victory that the officers and men of his 2nd Division, as they embarked for Guadalcanal from the Dutch East Indies, were told to carry only essential field equipment and ten days of rations. All nonessential material would be left behind at Rabaul or in the Shortlands.
Guadalcanal, and Henderson Field most of all, had become a festering sore to the Japanese since the American landings on August 7, 1942. In September several Japanese attacks on the air field had been beaten back in brutal fighting that left their forces shredded. Finally, on September 28, the Japanese Seventeenth Army issued a decisive order. The 2nd Division, reinforced by elements of the 38th, would finish the job.
Within two weeks, some nine thousand troops were pouring onto the island. Though harassed by the “Cactus Air Force” flying out of Henderson, the convoys of fast destroyers that deposited the Japanese ashore each night made it through mostly unscathed. With the arrival of the 2nd Division Headquarters Company, Maruyama wasted no time ordering the 4th and 124th Infantry Regiments to begin an immediate advance. The two weeks beginning October 6 brought skirmishes, artillery barrages, and air raids of mounting ferocity. Shells from 150mm howitzers rained down on the airfield. Incendiary white phosphorous shells fired by the marines set the grass ablaze; an eerie combination of rain, fog, and smoke filled the jungle night.“13th: Air raid three times today. Hit the airport hard and damaged our fuel supply. Shelled from battleships from 1:00 AM until daybreak—stayed in foxhole all night—no sleep, no food, one meal today,” wrote Michael J. O’Dea Jr. of the 6th Naval Construction Battalion. “Two shells near my foxhole—dirt struck my neck—one killed and seven wounded near my tent. Fired at from hills nearby—this has been our worst day and night. Army landed today; shelled for four hours tonight. 14th: Air raids all day—bombs dropping all night. Haven’t slept for 48 hours—will try and get a few hours sleep tonight. 15th and 16th: These last four days can be explained as plain Hell.”
The Japanese plans called for the 2nd Division to concentrate its components at the head of the Matanikau River. The night preceding the attack, they were to advance to positions approximately 325 feet in front of the enemy. Then, under cover of heavy artillery fire, they would strike simultaneously from three directions and seize Henderson Field in one blow. H-hour was set for 5:00 p.m. on October 21.
To reach the southern airfield perimeter undetected, Maruyama had set his engineers to work on a Herculean task, cutting a narrow trail through the jungle. With no road-building equipment, the Japanese engineers simply had chopped their way by hand using axes, saws, and machetes. Their horses had been left at Rabaul and, with no significant motor transport, the necessary eight hundred tons of supplies would be carried to the jungle front from as far away as Cape Esperance.
The thin path ran southward from the Seventeenth Army assembly point at Kokumbona, turned east to cross the Matanikau and Lunga Rivers south of Mount Austen, then followed the Lunga north, downstream, to a point near the American lines. Fifteen miles of the thirty-five-mile trail ran through the bottom expanse of Guadalcanal’s jungles where enormous trees, thick vines, and slippery hills with dense undergrowth made walking difficult for a soldier. The overhanging forest blotted out much of the sun and strictly limited vision.
Still, the advance began well. Capt. Jiro Katsumata, commanding the 11th Company, 29th Infantry, was part of the 2nd Division advance. In notes he later drafted, he gave an unusually intimate narrative of battle from the Japanese perspective.
On October 16, Katsumata’s men had joined the main force and set off along the trail toward the airfield. They found the first day’s march to be relatively effortless as they passed through coconut groves along the coast, then over a range of hills inland.
On the second day, however, they entered dense, hilly forestland and Katsumata noted how the trail had become so narrow that they had to travel single file. They soon approached a series of hills slick from the rain and covered in thick undergrowth. Katsumata wrote that progress was slow in the hot, humid jungle, and the hills were so steep that ropes, blocks, and tackles had to be used to haul the 70mm cannon up the inclines. By the third day, the men were slowing even more, becoming exhausted. Katsumata sent his NCO along the line to lash the men with canes in a desperate attempt to drive them forward.
Sgt. Hisakichi Hara of the 230th Infantry described the conditions vividly:
“For a painful time before nightfall, vines armed with thorns wrapped around our necks and we continued stubbing our toes on tree roots and projecting rocks. After a few days of this, our uniforms were in tatters and we had many open sores constantly irritated by being soaked with sweat. [The jungle was filled with] rotting trees and luminous insects, which we took and smeared on the backpacks of each man, so we could see the [one] in front as we marched.…We trudged on at the bottom of an ocean of foliage that denied us the benefit of sunshine, in extreme discomfort. The trail had taken us through the jungle, but now high and steep mountains thrust up before us. Sweat streamed from us as we marched, and a canteen full of water was a lifeline. Scrambling up and tumbling down, we kept going. Thinking to fall by the way would be the end, we shrugged off the shadow of death and I urged myself on, saying, ‘We have not yet engaged in battle with the enemy. Dying here would be dying in vain.’”
The toil was even more grueling for the artillery units assigned to move the heavy guns. Forty men in two teams were required to transport each gun over the narrow trail, with seven men needed just to carry the frame. In addition, as would be done elsewhere, each soldier had been ordered to shoulder one shell plus his pack and rifle. The men dragged the guns up and down the hills in the stifling heat. After a few days the overtaxed force began dropping the heavy armament shells trailside.
As the column fell further and further behind schedule Maruyama ordered a delay in the planned combined attack on the airfield by twenty-four hours. He put the men on half-rations of raw rice—cooking fires were banned to avoid alerting the enemy. On the fourth day, Katsumata recalled, machine guns, mortars, and boxes of ammunition began to litter the trail as the men sought to rid themselves of everything except their most essential equipment. After five days Katsumata’s 11th Company had covered only twenty-six miles. Again General Maruyama ordered a postponement in the attack.
As Sergeant Hara recalled, “On the 20th, the date set for the offensive to begin, we had finally reached the Lunga River crossing, but there was no airfield and there remained 15 to 20 kilometers of rough trail still ahead. That evening we began to make the crossing. The provisions we brought with us had already reached bottom; being only enough for one day remaining.” Still, one thought kept them going: “Soon we feast on Yankee food! Roosevelt rations, breakfast biscuits, and coffee.”
Pending the attack order, Capt. Sumito Meada, commander of the 1st Independent Tank Company, reconnoitered coastal areas suitable for tank action. On October 19, Meada sent two tanks along the coast route, but found the area near the Matanikau River basin especially sandy. The next day another party was sent out, accompanied by a platoon of infantry; they Meada approached Maj. Gen. Tadashi Sumiyoshi to suggest that the tanks should not attempt to cross the sandbar, but only be used to break through the airfield defenses. The general’s response: “The plan stands.” On October 21 another set of tanks set out to explore the river basin, hoping to find more suitable ground. Again they were fired on by marines. But while the tanks escaped damage, this third encounter left the Americans with little doubt as to keen Japanese interest in the sector. As a result the marine troop strength was boosted on the east bank.
It is understandable that the Japanese fully expected to surprise the Americans, especially considering that the jungle and mountainous terrain allowed them to remain hidden from the Cactus Air Force. However, the Americans were well entrenched in positions on the ridge mounds in anticipation of an attack, and cannoneers of the 11th Marines could zero in firepower for any threatened sector. Moreover, the delays and an ensuing communications muddle ensured that the swift “knock-out blow” instead became a two-night dragged-out battle.
At 2:20 p.m. on October 23, an order went out to Meada’s tank company that the attack due to begin at 5:00 p.m. had been delayed by twenty-four hours. But the message took four hours to reach the unit, which by that time had already begun its move toward the west bank of the Matanikau.
Meada’s company included 104 men in four platoons with one Type 95 Ha-Go light tank and nine Type 97 Chi-Ha tanks. As they burst out of the jungle by the riverbank, Meada’s tank commanders tried a tactic that had been successful in China. Three tanks began firing their short-barreled 57mm guns at the other side, hoping the Americans would return fire and expose their positions. However, the marines had become combat-wise and held their fire until the tanks had cleared the jungle. (The last tank, Captain Meada’s Type 97, developed engine trouble and remained behind.) Then, as tracers from the marine gunners set the brush on fire, the tanks were fully silhouetted and became choice targets to a formidable array of marine firepower from well dug-in positions: 75mm antitank guns mounted on halftracks, 37mm antitank guns, 75- and 105mm artillery. In a series of barrages encompassing a 600- to 800-yard-wide boxed-in area between the Matanikau River and Point Cruz, the marines on the far bank opened up with everything they had.
With the loose sand hampering movement, the support infantry took a beating as they fought to cross the sandbar. Sgt. Shohei Haga remembered: “Others who were in the front line, undeterred, hurtled over the dead and penetrated.” The first tank was that of the 2nd Platoon leader, 1st Lt. Tsukasa Ikeda; it was disabled when Pfc. Joseph D. R. Champagne of Company M, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, slipped a grenade in the tracks. Its engine was still running and as the tank backed away from the barrier, the halftrack of 2nd Lt. Thomas C. Mather opened fire at point-blank range. Lieutenant Ikeda’s tank slid sideward twenty yards into the water. Ikeda and his gunner, Sgt. Nagayoshi Miyashoita, were killed, though two others escaped.
Then one after another the remaining eight tanks were knocked out: stopped dead in their tracks, bursting into flame, or tipping into the river.
The Japanese assault had been halted so suddenly that the few surviving infantrymen withdrew. Around midnight, however, the 4th Infantry Regiment made another attempt to charge across the river farther upstream, but that effort also was blunted. When it was over, the 1st Marines listed twenty-five killed and fourteen wounded; they estimated the Japanese losses at six hundred.
On the afternoon of the next day, October 24, the 2nd Division finally reached a position two miles south of Henderson. The 9th Company under Lt. Yukio Makita was then sent forward to probe the American defenses, and Captain Katsumata’s 11th Company was ordered to follow. The 11th and 9th Companies set off at 3:00 p.m. in heavy rain through the thick jungle. By nightfall they had made little progress and had seen nothing of the Americans. The darkness settled in so completely that it was difficult to see the man in front, and Katsumata and his men soon lost contact with the 9th Company. At that point he ordered his troops to place their hands on the shoulders of the man in front, and in this manner they pushed on. At eleven o’clock they found an American telephone line, which they cut; but having realized this might alert the Americans, Katsumata ordered his men to search along the line and eliminate any American listening post they found.
As Katsumata’s men traveled down the cable, a voice from the jungle called his name. It was Lieutenant Makita; he and ten of his men had been moving back when they heard Katsumata’s troops. Makita explained that after being separated from Katsumata’s company they had advanced until they came to a field crossed by a line of barbed wire. Second Lt. Kimio Nakagome of the 2nd Platoon had wanted to lead a patrol through the field, but Makita denied the request, as it might draw the attention of the Americans and subvert the regiment’s attack later.
Now Katsumata and Makita decided to return to the spot, and Katsumata sent a squad to the right to reconnoiter. Across the field he could see what appeared to be a line of empty trenches. Suddenly a burst of machine gun fire came from their right, toward the squad he had sent out. As the men hurried back, a second machine gun opened up on the left. Katsumata realized that the two guns would have to be destroyed before he could move across the field. But his men were wet, tired, and hungry, and also probably apprehensive and frightened at the thought of their first attack against the Americans, and Katsumata was concerned that some of them would panic or get lost in a night attack. A major who had just arrived suggested a short rush, keeping most of the men together: one squad would go to the right to destroy the gun there while Katsumata led the rest across the field, then turned left to take the other weapon from behind.
The rain had stopped by then; the clouds were beginning to break up, and the moon shone through occasionally. Across the field Katsumata could see a large tree and told his men that it would be their initial objective, after which they would swing to the left.
The men ran forward thirty yards, then hit the ground. The Americans were still firing intermittently, but the tracers were passing over their heads. Katsumata, lying prone, could not see the tree, but after a word to an NCO he crawled forward twenty yards until it was within his vision. As he turned to go back to his men he was horrified to see them all suddenly get up, start shouting, and charge over to the left. He quickly ran after them, calling for them to lie down and be quiet. But it was too late. The American machine guns lowered their fire and the men in one section were cut to pieces. Dozens fell with bullet wounds in their chests, waists, or legs. Worse, they had run into a minefield, and a line of explosions erupted among them, flinging men into the air. From the light of the explosions the rest of Katsumata’s men could be plainly seen, and the American fire instantly shifted to them.
Within moments, Katsumata caught up with his men and ordered them to lie down. From the darkness nearby, a soldier shouted that he had found some barbed wire. The captain realized that they could not stay there with fire from both flanks and barbed wire ahead, and thus he crawled forward to the wire, then worked his way along it until he came upon a part that was only two feet high. He called to his men that the wire at that point was low enough for them to jump over it.
When Katsumata stood up to go over the wire two bullets immediately hit him. One grazed his right cheekbone, tore his helmet strap, then took off his right earlobe. The second grazed his right knee. He hardly felt either projectile as he jumped over the barbed lines, running forward some twenty yards before falling to the ground. Above the din of the continual firing and the screaming of the wounded, Katsumata called repeatedly to his men to join him. A short time later from out of the night 1st Lt. Kanichiro Shirai of Headquarters Company and two others appeared. The firing stopped and Katsumata sent Lieutenant Shirai back to the wire to bring the rest of the men. After several minutes Shirai returned alone: he had found no one alive.
Not long after that Katsumata heard the rustling of grass about fifty yards to his left. Suddenly he heard the voice of Lieutenant Nakagome shouting “Kogeki! Kogeki!”—“Attack! Attack!”—and the rush of men toward the wire. Katsumata instantly called a warning to them, but at that moment the American machine gun fire broke out again from both sides. The agonized screams of the wounded filled the night air, yet above it all Katsumata could hear Nakagome still urging his men forward: “Kogeki! Kogeki!”
Then a piercing scream of pain, after which he heard Nakagome no more. The firing continued for several minutes. The cries of the wounded and moans from near the barbed wire were everywhere, but eventually they faded and Katsumata was almost overwhelmed by the silence. As the moon broke through the clouds, he looked at his watch and could see the hands near midnight, only thirty minutes since he had led his men into the field.
Then the shelling started. Most of the barrage landed in the jungle on the other side of the field. Unknown to Katsumata at the time, the shelling broke up Japanese forces moving toward his position. A shell-burst nearby tore off the top of a tree, sending it crashing to the ground only ten yards from Katsumata’s small group. Sensing potential shelter, the men crawled toward the huge tree and hid beneath it. A short time later a shell hit near the barbed wire and shrapnel whipped through the air, hitting the captain in the right ankle, Lieutenant Shirai in the left leg, and one of the soldiers in the hip. A few minutes later more shrapnel tore into the chest of the second soldier, who died within minutes. Throughout that night, the three survivors huddled close to the ground as the shelling continued.
Katsumata hoped that his comrades’ successive attacks would sweep toward his position, but as the night wore on the charges became fewer and weaker and he realized that if they stayed there, they would be shot by the Americans as soon as the dawn broke. Shirai thought it would be impossible to get back and that they simply should commit suicide before the Americans found them. As Shirai raised his pistol, Katsumata put his hand on Shirai’s shoulder and told him they could do that at any time, but they had to try to make another attack before dawn.
Machine gun fire was still kicking up the dirt nearby, but after watching for a clear run Katsumata dashed to the wire. When he reached it he found four or five of his men dead, hanging over it. He climbed across and in short dashes made his way back through the field, once stumbling and falling, then discovering he had tripped over the feet of a dead soldier. Looking around, he saw a group of almost fifty other dead nearby.
Near dawn a runner found him with a message to report to brigade headquarters, some one thousand yards to the rear. When he arrived, he was surprised to find that no one seemed to know what had happened during the night.
On the murky night of the twenty-fifth troops of the Seventeenth Army struck in the same fragmentary manner as the previous night. The first wave was stopped cold, but others plowed ahead. When the Japanese reached the top of a key ridge near the airfield—Bloody Ridge, newspapermen had named it after a horrific battle there in September— the marines knew they were in a life and death struggle. Marines prefer to kill at a distance—four hundred, two hundred, a hundred yards tops. This night was one of close-hand terror.
Typical of the courageous battling on Bloody Ridge was the story of twenty-four-year-old Platoon Sgt. Mitchell Paige. The section chief would receive a Medal of Honor for his actions that night. His machine guns, with their timing cams modified to double the fire, were set up bordering the edge of the jungle that neared the ridge. When the enemy broke through, Paige and his machine gun crew of thirty-six was the only force standing between a wall of Japanese and their plan to shove the marines into the sea. He directed the fire until all of his men had been killed or wounded; then he single-handedly manned the first gun until it was put out of action by a burst from a Japanese weapon that shattered the firing mechanism. He took over another gun, then continued moving from weapon to weapon. When a new enemy force broke through, he picked up a forty-pound belt of ammunition, laced it around his shoulder, cradled the .30-caliber weapon in his arms, and headed for the oncoming Japanese, firing as he ran back and forth. The enemy must have thought a whole company was up there.
Some 2,500 Japanese had attacked Paige’s platoon. The next morning 1,000 bodies were scattered in front of his position.
The unsuccessful night attacks of October 25–26 marked the end of the ground phase of the October Guadalcanal counteroffensive. John E. Stannard, a sergeant with Company E, 3rd Battalion, 164th Infantry Regiment (Americal Division), would write: “The carnage of the battlefield was a sight that perhaps only the combat infantryman, who has fought at close quarters, could fully comprehend and look upon without a feeling of horror. One soldier of Company E, after a walk among the Japanese dead, said to his comrade: ‘My God, what a sight. There’s dead Japs stretched along the edge of the jungle for a half a mile. There must be hundreds of them—all dead.’”
Later that day the bulk of the Japanese forces withdrew. The exhausted and bewildered troops called Guadalcanal Jigoku no shimu—“hell’s island.” The equally war-weary marines referred to the campaign as “our time in hell.” Both were right.
Excerpt from Hell’s Islands: The Untold Story of Guadalcanal, by Stanley C. Jersey (Texas A&M University Press, 2008).
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.