Reduced to desperate conditions, many Japanese lay among their own casualties, played dead, and when marines drew near rose up to throw hand grenades at them
MHQ, Autumn 1999
Editor’s Note: The late William H. Whyte, author of the classic study of corporate conformity, The Organization Man, was a 23-year-old first lieutenant when the marines landed on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. Whyte served throughout the campaign as the intelligence officer for Lt. Col. William “Wild Bill” McKelvy’s 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. Whyte, a 1939 Princeton University graduate, represented the marines’ “new breed.” Colonel McKelvy, a veteran of the “banana wars” in Central America, was never completely sober during the Guadalcanal campaign after he confiscated a supply of Japanese sake and whiskey. McKelvy represented the corps’ “old breed,” who were forced to assimilate wartime marines such as Whyte.
We were well into the Guadalcanal campaign now, and still we had no decent maps. This didn’t deeply concern McKelvy because he couldn’t read maps anyway. But he did love a touch of showmanship, and when he discovered that one of our men, Corporal Wike, was a pretty fair draftsman, he decided to have some fun.
I instructed Wike to draw up a battalion map using all his skills at lettering. It was a handsome affair, completed in a tent at night by the light of an acetylene lamp, full of redundant details. The lettering was especially impressive. “North Coast of Guadalcanal—Lunga Area,” it said. “Third Battalion, First Marines, Lt. Col. William N. McKelvy commanding.”
McKelvy loved it and he would drag me along with him on visits to other units, ostensibly to inspect their maps. Our visit to his best pal, Col. Lenard Cresswell, commanding the 1st Battalion, was a case in point.
“Where are your battalion maps, Charlie?” McKelvy asked.
“Charlie, you should have a battalion map like this,” at which point he signaled me, the straight man in this performance, to reach into the aluminum container I happened to be carrying and unroll Corporal Wike’s work of art. Cresswell and all the others would be suitably impressed. McKelvy, of course, would then stride away, shaking his head in feigned disbelief at the mapmaking ignorance of his fellow battalion commanders.
McKelvy spent hours looking at the maps we collected as the campaign wore on, though most of them were fairly useless. He would brood over possibilities these maps seemed to suggest to him. It was another rare performance—the great American strategist making his plans; a foeman worthy of the steel of those Japanese strategists across the river, who were no doubt studying their own maps.
During the lull following the September 12 Battle of Edson’s Ridge, we began serious efforts to improve our knowledge of Japanese positions and Japanese morale through sophisticated patrolling beyond our perimeter. Patrolling heretofore had not been one of our strengths. A few days after we landed, a captured Japanese sailor told us the whereabouts of a number of Japanese soldiers and sailors and said they might be ready to surrender. Our division intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Frank Goettge, decided he would lead a 25-man patrol to locate this unhappy pocket of Japanese fighting men. He and his party, which included the surrendered sailor, left by boat the night of August 12. The minute they stepped ashore, Goettge was killed by enemy fire—as was the Japanese sailor. Except for two or three survivors, the rest of the patrol was wiped out as well.
The Japanese sailor probably told us the truth, as far as he knew it. The fact is, Japanese prisoners—they were enlisted men, never officers—were usually in a state of shock, trembling and sometimes making hand gestures, pleading to be killed. One of my jobs was to take the captured soldiers up to division headquarters, where they would be interviewed by Maj. Edmund J. Buckley, a former missionary fluent in Japanese and a true expert. “The war is over for you,” he would say. “The lieutenant here tells me you have fought well.” That was always well received and had an enormous effect on the prisoner. Buckley would continue with soothing words, and soon the prisoner would begin telling us what he knew.
The prisoners were confined to an enclosure near the field hospital. The sign said Camp Tojo, or something very much like it. The sergeant in charge was a jolly fellow, and he became quite friendly with his guests. He gave his prisoners considerable freedom. One morning, I was awakened by a touch on the shoulder and found a Japanese soldier staring at me. “My God,” I thought to myself, “they’ve broken through.” But, of course, they had not; the Japanese was a prisoner, and he simply wanted to collect my laundry to be cleaned at the Tojo Laundry.
Generally, we treated the prisoners with kindness. Occasionally, though, they were shot, much to the chagrin of those who had hoped to interview them. Invariably, these killings were committed by rear-echelon troops seeking to demonstrate misplaced valor.
Division commander Maj. Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift became so impatient with what he perceived to be our lack of patrolling skills that he assigned Lt. Col. William J. Whaling, executive officer of the 5th Marines, to form a special unit of men for scouting and sniping. Most of his men had been hunters in civilian life, and many of them became serious characters in the great Marine Corps tradition.
I don’t recall Whaling’s operation having much effect on us. We went ahead with patrolling, learning our lessons along the way. Jungle patrols were damn hard work. I described this situation in a letter to Dad [William Whyte Sr.] and Margaret [Whyte’s stepmother]:
When the battle dies down, there is ceaseless patrol activity in the jungle—a sort of no man’s land. The terrain is fascinating—steep grass-covered coral ridges, deep ravines you have to climb down hanging onto vines like a monkey to keep from falling. The trees are tremendous—giant dilo trees as high as 180 feet and banyan and eucalyptus trees almost as large.
You have no idea of how tiring a patrol is. The heat is terrific and because of security measures you’re loaded down with ammunition, grenades, emergency rations, machetes, etc. We usually carry two weapons, one of them a Thompson or Reising submachine gun.
Trying to get up the slippery banks of the many mountain-fed streams (torrents after a rain and it always rains in the mountains) is the worst part as you have to keep your weapons out of the mud.
Last but not least are our jungle friends—the Nips. You have to watch every clump of bushes for snipers and machine guns. You also have to listen to the birds and distinguish between the real McCoy and the phony birdcalls the Japs use.
We ran into a bunch of Japs some time ago. I had a patrol of six and myself. Our mission was to locate the Jap positions as our offensive began at dawn the next day. We spotted one area in front of a 75mm gun a friend of mine had taken the breechblock out of earlier (while the Japs slept). His patrol was pumping Tommy guns at them, so we swung north and went through the jungle up the beach and went along the ridges to the north, finding two Jap 37mm guns emplaced and camouflaged at a bend in the road. As the gun crew was obligingly sleeping or eating somewhere we tinkered with the guns with the aid of a screwdriver until it would take a mechanical genius to put them back together again (still have a breechblock as a souvenir).
We then skirted the coral formations (caves, etc.) along the shore until I spotted what appeared to be a marine standing up behind a sort of coral “igloo” with a gun port in it about 20 yards away. Then I heard the Jap birdcall signal (one long note, one short) and the marine turned around and saw me. For a marine he looked very, very Japanese. I shot at him with my .45, missing him quite completely. I ducked for cover (as my Nipponese was likewise doing) and the rest of the patrol flopped down into firing positions behind logs, trees, etc.
We had evidently surprised the gun crews of the 37mm for they started rushing around for cover by the little coral “igloos.” Fortunately all three men on our left had Thompsons and three Japs who tore across for cover were literally torn to shreds. The rest of the Japs started shooting (at what I don’t know as their shots came nowhere near us) and jabbering quite excitedly. A couple stuck their heads up to see what was going on. The man on my right got one and I got the other.
Finally all shooting stopped but a machine gun to our left opened up. As we were about 3⁄4 of a mile away, we knew that an exit would not be injudicious. We threw our grenades and then withdrew one by one, the remaining men increasing their fire to make it sound like we were being reinforced.
The Japs on our left must have thought we were a small army, as they never bothered us. We must have sounded like one! Six men, three Thompson submachine guns, three Reising submachine guns, five rifles, three .45-caliber pistols plus a weird assortment of grenades, knives, and wire to fix up booby traps. The men were all ready to go and get the Jap headquarters and were grinning broadly as they pulled out their knives and looked at me as if to ask could they rush in. As later events proved, the place was honeycombed with machine-gun positions so I still believe discretion is the better part of valor!
I didn’t mention in my letter home that we did lose one of our men, Pfc Dix, to enemy fire during our withdrawal.
We had two patrols that day. The second was led by my old friend from officer’s candidate school, Harold “Ramrod” Taylor. He commanded our battalion’s mortar platoon, and for days he and the men in their observation post had been looking in vain for some Japanese 37s that were hurling shells at our position. But all they could see were the white cockatoos endlessly fluttering above the foliage that screened us from the enemy positions.
Taylor marched into McKelvy’s tent and asked permission to take a patrol out there and destroy the guns. It seemed preposterous—the enemy was solidly entrenched on the steep ridges. There was undoubtedly a heavy screen of forward observers and snipers, not to mention close infantry support of the gun positions. However, McKelvy, like everyone else, was sick of the shelling, so at last he gave in to Taylor’s request.
Ramrod asked but one thing—24 hours to lay his plans. He was a perfectionist, and he wanted to make this patrol as perfect as he could. He spent the rest of the day with me, the intelligence officer, minutely examining a recent aerial strip of the territory across the Matanikau River. Yet even with the use of stereo glasses there was no clue to any enemy activity. Shell holes, native tracks, Melanesian huts, yes—but no telltale blast-flattened grass or fresh trails. With no indications to go on, the two of us could only examine the enemy capabilities, and by making a study of the terrain, list them in order of probability. We even made a mud castle showing what we knew of the Japanese positions on the other side of the river.
Since the shells were high-velocity 37s, all deeply defiladed (deeply sloped) places could be eliminated. What we were looking for were spots with moderate defilade and covered ravines leading to them for supply routes. We finally picked five locations that seemed to fulfill our requirements and numbered them on the photos. It was now mid-afternoon, time for the Japanese gunners to begin throwing their usual four o’clock salvos at the ridges. By listening carefully to this gunfire, we were able to eliminate two of our locations as being too far south.
So now we had three possible locations. We then determined a route that would allow Taylor to pierce the enemy screen of observers and snipers, bypass strongpoints, and reach our target locations under cover. We also figured out a primary and alternate route to get the hell out of there if things went wrong.
We set out at the same time (I described the results for my patrol in my letter home). Taylor and his little group of volunteers—everybody wanted to go with Taylor—cautiously paddled across the river in a rubber boat at dawn, silently alighted on the west bank, and crept slowly through the dense canebrake. Wordlessly, the men followed in file behind Taylor as he skirted along the wooden slopes of a ravine that he knew would lead him near Location No. 1. At length he reached it, took out his aerial photograph, checked it to make sure of just where he was, and then sent his first scout forward to reconnoiter the spot.
The scout crawled slowly up the little gully until he had come almost to the top, but looking around he saw no gun—only a pile of dried grass. It was then that a small breeze stirred and he caught the sickly muskish odor of sweat and Japanese perfume. Crawling up the grass pile, he brushed some grass away—and stared straight into the muzzle of a Japanese 37.
He summoned the rest of the patrol, and they came forward immediately. It was at that crucial moment they heard the sharp barking of a dog. To their horror Taylor and his men peered down into a ravine and saw that the barking was coming from a mean-looking cur who was frantically trying to awaken his Japanese masters who were peacefully sleeping in their bivouac at the bottom of the ravine.
Determined to profit from this display of typical Japanese overconfidence, Taylor told his men to sit tight at Location No. 1 while he lone-wolfed it to Location No. 2. Arriving there he was greeted with the sight of another 37, visible at close range through its camouflage. As he approached the gun, Ramrod looked down into the ravine at a group of native huts and saw four Japanese soldiers watching his every move. Taylor hesitated for a moment and then waved at them cordially. Just as cordially, the Japanese waved back. As they lazily watched him, Taylor calmly removed the vital parts of the gun’s breechblock, stemming his instinctive desire to shoot and run. The gun dismantled, he waved again to his new friends and walked back slowly along the ridge, hunching over to make himself as diminutive as possible.
Reunited with his men, he tarried only long enough to leave a calling card—a message of greeting—in the gun barrel. He and his men followed the main withdrawal route and re-entered our lines, mission accomplished.
Two days later, McKelvy asked that we repeat our patrols, with Taylor following the same route. This was an incredibly stupid mistake.
We pushed off before dawn, again by rubber boat. Ramrod’s group turned left and began climbing the steep ridge. I turned right with my patrol, heading on a different route for Point Cruz. Ramrod and I had agreed there was a strong chance that there were some high-ranking Japanese officers there. Capturing them would be a great coup.
Eventually, we came upon a sudden opening in the thicket, and there, just in front of us, stood a dozen Japanese soldiers. They had been cooking something over a fire, and they were as surprised to see us as we were surprised to see them. We had the drop on them and opened up with everything we had. Both sides fired; both sides missed.
My men were not all for rushing forward to capture or kill these soldiers. Instead, we opted for discretion, moving across the sandbar to the safety of our own positions. I was taken to see “Red Mike” Edson, a colonel commanding the 5th Marines, who was readying his men for an attack. I told him what I had seen and emphasized the dangers of his Point Cruz position.
“Thank you,” Edson said. “You’ve had a hard day, lieutenant, so why not relax a little and let me carry on and run the regiment.” It was about then that I shuddered. You never can help shuddering, just a little, when you’ve done something like this. I had volunteered, and I was lucky.
Not so Ramrod. When we were fighting our way out of Point Cruz, we thought we heard some whistling noises, maybe signals from Taylor. They were shots, and some of them must have killed my friend.
We learned later that the Japanese had been waiting for Taylor’s patrol at Location No. 1. When they attacked, Taylor turned to his men and told them to run for the river while he held off the Japanese. They refused. He ordered them to leave. Reluctantly they left him and headed for home. From the sound of the heavy firing it was obvious that Taylor was preventing the Japanese from making any kind of pursuit. About the time his men reached our lines, the firing stopped. It meant one thing—Taylor was dead.
We mourned his loss. We berated our complicity in going along with McKelvy’s insistence of retracing the route of Taylor’s first patrol. In the end, we insisted McKelvy put Ramrod in for a Navy Cross. He didn’t want to—he never sought recognition for any of his men—but this time we refused to back down. Ramrod Taylor received a Navy Cross (and when the battle was over and we were headed home, so did Bill McKelvy).
Through these combat patrols (and the interviews with prisoners captured during them) we compiled some helpful information about our enemy. Col. Clifton B. Cates, our regimental commander, put a lot of it together in an intelligence report dated September 6, 1942.
[Japanese officers] all carried sabers and automatic pistols of various makes, ranging in caliber from .25 to .38. The Nambu automatic pistol (model 1925), cal. 7mm, was found on several officers. The 8mm cal. of the same make was carried by many of the noncommissioned officers.
The individual soldier carried two types of rifle—one…the model 1905 and the other, the model 1919 of the same make. [Ed.: The standard Japanese rifles of World War II were the Ariska Model 38 (1905) 6.5mm and Model 99 (1939) 7.7mm.] Bayonets are carried by every soldier and are very sharp, and with a hooked ring to catch opponent’s blade. In hand to hand fighting, it was noted they held their bayonets in their hands and used them as swords. They all carried hand grenades and used them frequently, but they had a very small bursting radius.
The Nambu light machine gun (cal. 7.7mm) was an effective weapon, and they used light and portable grenade throwers (model 1899) to considerable advantage.
In general, Cates said, the Japanese equipment is far inferior to ours in every respect. With the exception of their 7.7mm machine gun—the Nambu—their weapons look like our 1898 vintage. Cates might have added that the marines who landed on Guadalcanal were still carrying the old bolt-action 1903 Springfield rifle, itself a pretty good carry-back to 1898 vintage. When the Army troops relieved us, they carried the new semiautomatic M-1s, giving them, on paper at least, a lot more firepower. Our Reising submachine gun was a loser too. It was a flimsy weapon, constantly jamming and breaking down. Those of us who carried it popularly called it the “Rusting gun.” We gave up on it early on, and thereafter trusted the old Thompson submachine gun to balance things out.
The pack carried by individual Japanese soldiers was always scrupulously clean. We found it contained camouflage nets for helmets and shoulders with twigs and grass woven into them; a three-piece set of cooking utensils; two or three cans of food, sweet cakes, bread and rice; an extra pair of shoes, either sneakers or hobnailed; underclothes, socks, and toilet articles.
Almost every soldier carried a diary, something we did not allow on our side. Sometimes, we found, they carried opium. In some of the packs were small Japanese flags with writing scrawled on them. Each soldier carried a first-aid kit containing two sterile triangular bandages and two picric acid gauzes for burns. Officers and noncommissioned officers carried heavy leather dispatch cases, with notebooks, and crude maps.
Their tactics, Cates reported, were puzzling. In the first fight, the Battle of the Tenaru, the Japanese relied on the surprise of a quick assault in large numbers and supporting fire from heavy and light machine guns and portable grenade throwers. Rather than keeping low to the sandpit, which closes the mouth of the Tenaru River, they charged standing straight up with small intervals between them. On receiving our fire, they continued to expose themselves with utter disregard for life. Those who were able to reach this side of the river were in great confusion and for the most part leaderless. The officers, who led the advance across the sandbar, were the first to be shot.
They showed a tendency to bunch up, so that sometimes three or four machine guns were placed so close together they were within bursting range of one of our heavy mortar shells. Five men were seen taking cover around the same tree. They were experts at camouflage, but their marksmanship was poor.
Reduced to desperate conditions, many Japanese lay among their own casualties, played dead, and when marines drew near rose up to throw hand grenades at them. Suicides were numerous when capture became evident. During hand-to-hand combat, the Japanese emitted wild yells and brandished their weapons fiercely.
Cates noted something we had found again and again—Japanese, close up, had what we found to be a distinctive odor. “You can actually smell a Jap at a good distance,” is the way Cates put it (it is possible, I suppose, that they could smell us, too). “They use some kind of powder which permeates the atmosphere and our men on the front lines can sometimes tell when they are near. The odor is a sweet sickening one, but it is perfume compared to a dead Jap [after] a few hours exposure to the hot sun.” The smell, two days after the battle of the Tenaru, made a lot of us lose our lunches.
I took a stab at examining Japanese fighting skills, with some criticism of our own performance, after one of my patrols, and I put it down in writing (a copy of which is reproduced in Cates’s unpublished manuscript).
1. Most noticeable fact was—amazing lack of precautions taken for security. Patrols got within 15–20 yards of enemy groups and opened fire first. Enemy propensity for leaving guns unattended inexplicable. Either morale at such a state they don’t give a damn, or else on basis of previous experience in Java and Malaya totally unprepared for enemy patrol activity. Evidently expected us to remain behind our barbed wire defenses, as had previous opponents.
Terrain ideal for use of large vine-covered trees as CPs [command posts]. High ground to south of beach as plenty of high knolls and ridges commanding all approaches to bivouac areas and gun positions. (Enemy does use birdcall warning system—one long, one short—enemy approaching but does not exploit it fully.)
2. Enemy tactics: Terrain superb for long-range sniping. High ground descending steeply to river in vicinity of bend offers covered positions with FULL VIEW OF OUR LINES AND ACTIVITY BEHIND OUR LINES. Sniping could be done at range of 150–1,000 yards with an abundance of lucrative marine targets always in sight. Yet, despite the fact the enemy was bivouacked in this area, there is no evidence of any sniping. Rather they evidently kept close to the caves they had constructed in the sides of the ravines.
NOTE: Observing from enemy territory, our camouflage and camouflage discipline is almost nonexistent. Enough activity and noise could be observed of our lines and of the ridges behind to keep a dozen enemy CPs snowed under sending dope in. If bush hides our bivouac areas, enough yelling and shouting is furnished to give away the position. Sandbag emplacements were very easy to spot and a continual flow of traffic over the ridges was always in evidence. Jeep drivers’ racing of motors accurately designated the course of our roads. On the other hand, all enemy positions…were skillfully camouflaged with leaves and branches. However, the enemy nullifies the camouflage effect to a great extent by engaging in loud and excited jabbering back and forth when under fire.
3. Enemy morale: Low. Members of outposts probably physically weak and suffering from hunger, and probably very unhappy about the whole thing. They made no effort to retrieve their dead comrades lying within 200 yards of them, nor did they take advantage of their excellent observation at the mouth of the Matanikau River to harass us with sniping.
We all believed we were beginning to win this crucial battle, but we still had a long way to go.
McKelvy’s 3rd Battalion fought in several important engagements during the campaign. Early in November, General Vandergrift commended McKelvy and the 3rd Battalion for “noteworthy performance of duty during the period 9 October 1942 to 1 November 1942.” Whyte left Guadalcanal at the end of the campaign with a serious case of malaria that lingered for years. He spent the rest of the war lecturing and writing at the United States Marine Corps Staff and Command School at Quantico, Virginia, on the fighting qualities of the Japanese soldier. On the basis of the stories he had written in the Marine Corps Gazette, he was hired by Fortune magazine after the war ended.
William H. Whyte died earlier this year. His book A Time of War, from which this article is excerpted, was published by Fordham University Press in 2000.