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Japanese troops hit Guadalcanal expecting an easy conquest, but got a brutal surprise.

“Forward!” Second Lieutenant Gorō Ohashi of the Japanese 28th Infantry Regiment, sword in hand, shouted into the midnight darkness. “Follow me!”

Ohashi’s platoon, 34 strong, followed their leader down the riverbank and onto a 100-foot sandbar connecting the east and west sides of a tidal lagoon on the north shore of Guadalcanal. A river the soldiers called the Nakagawa fed the lagoon, where the tide was now high. Moving briskly through a foot of water beneath the eerie green glow of flares, the Japanese infantrymen, carrying grenades and with bayonets fixed on Arisaka rifles, advanced in four columns, half an hour into August 21, 1942. The men had not even reached midstream when sparks erupted from the far bank. Machine-gun fire arced “like crimson blossoms” around Ohashi and his men, “bright as searchlights.” Many men toppled, groaning; one felt boots on his back as three soldiers who had been following him pressed on.

Atop the higher far bank, behind a log-and-earth emplacement, U.S. Marine private Al Schmid of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, an assistant gunner on a heavy machine gun, thought the figures on the sandbar looked “like a bunch of cows coming down to drink.” Schmid’s gunner, Private Jack Rivers, had tilted their .30-caliber water-cooled Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) down and to the left and was raking his targets at 125 rounds a minute. Some 30 yards to the right, Private First Class James “Bull” Warren, behind his .30-caliber, was providing crossfire. Schmid and Rivers could hear the chug-chug of a slower-firing air-cooled .50-caliber whose gunner, Private First Class Elmer “Slim” Fairchild, also had the sandbar in his sights. Behind the Marines spread a portion of the Tenaru coconut plantation. A few thousand yards back stood the nearly completed enemy airstrip that had been the point of the American invasion two weeks before, on August 7, 1942. The Japanese had come to take back control of their former holding.

On the east side of the lagoon, 2nd Company commander Captain Tetsurō Sawada, who had ordered Ohashi’s platoon to cross the shallows, watched the slaughter. Some of his troops had survived the withering enemy gantlet and gotten across. Sawada sent a runner to learn their situation. Wounded while on the far bank, the messenger reported that Ohashi, who was badly shot up, said that attacking without support, as his platoon had, was hopeless.

Sawada agreed with the unfortunate junior officer’s assessment. In 1939, under similar circumstances at Nomonhan, on the border between Mongolia and Manchuria, Sawada had seen Soviet troops dominate Japanese soldiers. It was fruitless to keep sending men in columns against a foe who was established firmly on higher ground and bringing to bear heavy interlocking fire. Better to spread the four infantry companies along the east bank to draw fire, prompting the enemy troops to reveal their positions, strength, and firepower.

Not all the Japanese who had gotten to the far bank were laid low. One had stabbed BAR gunner Private Andy Dillman, who was covering the west end of the spit, and thrown a grenade into Dillman’s gun pit. Another grenade had knocked out Corporal Glenn Campbell’s 37mm gun, incapacitating one more American barrel aimed at the sandbar. Where the bar met the bank they were assaulting, several Japanese had entered Corporal Jim Oliff’s 37mm emplacement; Oliff’s men killed them. More bayonet-wielding enemy soldiers fell on the west bank by the lagoon mouth, as E Company’s third platoon emptied Springfields and Brownings as fast as they could.

These were the opening minutes of what became known as the Battle of the Tenaru, a brief—barely 17 hours—but pivotal facet in the Guadalcanal campaign. Due to a pre-invasion map mix-up, the Marines, who were there to keep the island and the airstrip they called Henderson Field in American hands, mistakenly referred to the river feeding the lagoon as the “Tenaru”; the true Tenaru River was several miles east. (Later, some Marines would refer to the fiercely contested lagoon as “Alligator Creek,” the river’s correct name.)

The young Marines along the river had never seen action. Their opponents, Japanese troops from a storied regiment, had come to Guadalcanal convinced success awaited them, as it so often had awaited Japanese soldiers since the early 1930s. Their commanders even had a phrase for the attacking troops’ exhilarated state of mind: “victory fever.”

Sure that he knew the key to overcoming the Americans, Captain Sawada found Major Nobuo  Kuramoto, leader of the battalion assigned to over never been in combat, refused to shift tactics. He demanded to see the sandbar. Brushing aside Sawada’s warnings, Kuramoto and his adjutant went there—and immediately fell dead, riddled by American machine gunners’ bullets.

Stunned, Sawada set out for the rear to find Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki, the 916-man force’s commander and author of the futile sandbar assault. At Ichiki’s command post, Sawada said that the situation demanded reinforcements and a better crossing point.

“There is no choice but to attack now,” Ichiki replied.

Sawada asked that Ichiki observe firsthand where Ohashi and his men had stepped off and Kuramoto had fallen. The two, with Ichiki’s adjutant, advanced to the mouth of the lagoon. There the dogged Ichiki reiterated his belief that the sandbar was the easiest route to the airfield because it led directly through shallow water and continued the path his men had taken along the coast from their landing site. He dismissed the notion that this was a kill zone. Was it not the way of the Japanese Imperial Army to march to an enemy position and charge through any obstacle, regardless of the losses?

A graduate of the Imperial Japanese Army Academy who had taught at the Infantry School, Ichiki, 49, totally embraced army doctrine emphasizing “intense spiritual training and bayonet-led breakthroughs to compensate for opponents’ material superiority.” He had assumed command of the 28th Infantry Regiment in July 1941, but had not been with the unit at Nomonhan two years before, when more heavily armed Soviet troops had savaged its outgunned second battalion.

Ichiki and his detachment were the point of a lance the Imperial Army had let fly at Guadalcanal. The island, named by Spanish explorers for a village in Andalusia, was in British hands with the rest of the southeastern Solomon Islands when the Japanese seized northern Guadalcanal and Tulagi, just north, in May 1942. At Lunga Point on Guadalcanal’s north shore two Imperial Navy construction battalions immediately began building an airstrip. From that field, land-based Japanese warplanes would be able to interdict the air and sea routes linking the United States and Australia.

However, on August 7, in the hurried assault that opened the Allies’ Pacific campaign, 18,000 men of the 1st Marine Division (Reinforced) landed on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and neighboring Gavutu and Tanambogo. Fighting was heavy on the smaller islands, but Guadalcanal, whose Japanese presence consisted mostly of conscripted Korean laborers, was a cakewalk— until Japanese counterattacks by air and by sea on August 8–9 defeated a U.S. Navy task force supporting the invasion. Without completely emptying its transports, the American navy pulled out. The stranded Marines completed the airstrip, naming it after Major Lofton Henderson, the first Marine pilot to die at Midway. On August 20, Marine Wildcats and Dauntlesses landed, the nucleus of a flying circus that would expand to include U.S. Army and Navy planes and raffishly be christened the “Cactus Air Force” after the island’s code name. The months-long fight for Guadalcanal had begun.

The next counterstroke came late on the night of August 18, when Japanese fast destroyers landed part of Ichiki’s command at Taivu Point, 18 miles east of Henderson Field. Because ships were in short supply, Ichiki brought less than half of his 2,300- man complement and only two artillery pieces; slow transports were delivering the rest. Along with his best troops, well-armed and supported by Type 92 7.7mm heavy machine guns nicknamed “jukis” and 50mm grenade squads with stubby-barreled monopod launchers that the Allies misnamed “knee mortars,” Ichiki had as artillery his two 70mm howitzers. Upon landing he decided not to wait for the balance of his force but—leaving a support cadre at Taivu Point to await the second echelon—advanced that same night on the enemy-held airfield, certain he was marching to victory. Japanese intelligence estimated that as few as 2,000 U.S. Marines held Guadalcanal.

By this time, Major General Alexander Vandegrift and the 1st Marine Division had steeled themselves for the inevitable attempt to drive them into the sea. Defenses around Henderson Field included 75mm howitzer batteries two miles west of the river, 81mm mortars a bit closer, and along its west bank, antitank and machine guns. At midday on August 19, a Marine patrol ran headfirst into a party Ichiki had sent westward to probe American defenses.

Upstream from the river’s mouth for several hundred yards along the west bank, Lieutenant Colonel Edwin A. Pollock had arrayed two platoons of E Company of his 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, along with some 50 men of his weapons company’s mortar platoon. There were also five 37mm antitank guns loading canister rounds that sprayed slugs like buckshot, and six .30-caliber heavy machine guns. South of Henderson Field, artillery crews from the 11th Marines’ 3rd Battalion were ready with a dozen 75mm pack howitzers. This was the contingent Ichiki’s sally had encountered in the first hour of August 21. Now the Americans, including troops in reserve that held two platoons of Pollock’s G Company, awaited the enemy force’s next move.


Drawing his sword, Second ūzo Kudō, a platoon leader of the pared-down 1st Company, stepped onto the sandbar to guide his four squads to the far side. Amid tracer rounds and canister shot, Kudō, 23, pressed ahead 10, 20, 30 yards. He was nearly to the opposite bank, a trail of dead and wounded behind him reddening the shallows, when he went down, mortally wounded.

Ichiki was beginning to think Sawada might be right. Unless he suppressed that American fire, he would only be grinding up personnel. He called for heavy machine guns and 70mms to cover a full-strength charge across the sandbar. As that assault took place, First Lieutenant Magozō Maruyama’s 3rd Company, supported by engineers and also covered by heavy machine guns, would cross upstream.

Lugging eight Type 92s, First Lieutenant Shigenao Komatsu’s 109 men emerged along the river’s east bank and proceeded to a point 75 yards upstream of the lagoon’s mouth. Four squads spread out and set up jukis, then two more, and, at the far end of the 55-yard machine-gun line, a final two squads emplaced guns. The men and their weapons were out in the open. Further upstream, a wrecked American Landing Vehicle Tracked, popularly referred to as an “amtrac,” lay in the river shallows, nearly touching the east bank.

Downstream at the sandbar, First Lieutenant Yusaku Higuchi should have been leading 105 men in the third Japanese attempt to cross, but he only could muster 60—all that were left after the second charge consumed Kudō’s platoon. To compensate, Higuchi would have the remnants of Captain Sawada’s 2nd Company—some 60 officers and men—and about 90 men from Ichiki’s Engineer Company. Bringing up the rear of the 280-man force were First Lieutenant Toshirō Chiba and his 4th Company, minus one platoon. Chiba was in overall command, as Sawada was remaining in reserve.

Around 3 a.m. Higuchi rallied his men.

“Higuchi Company, attack!” he shouted. “Attack!”

Preceded by the engineers, Higuchi led his force onto the sandbar. Bayonets fixed, their watery path illuminated by parachute flares, they rushed into the shallows in columns of four, followed by Sawada’s men. Chiba’s complement of 70 soldiers waited on the shore. Grenade squads fired at enemy gun emplacements. Komatsu’s eight heavy machine guns opened up, as did one howitzer of the battalion gun platoon.

With enemy soldiers again streaming their way, Marine machine gunners Jack Rivers and Bull Warren put their Brownings back to work, for the first time drawing enemy machine-gun fire. Japanese gunners also were shooting at Slim Fairchild’s .50-caliber and Jim Oliff’s 37mm, whose crew had repositioned that antitank gun to fire canister straight down the sandbar. This was no blind suicide attack, and many Japanese got across, charging into a platoon of E Company. Second Lieutenant John Williams and his men responded, as before, with Springfields, BARs, and hand grenades.

Upstream, Maruyama’s soldiers, realizing that the water at Ichiki’s crossing was deep, nonetheless obediently waded in, rifles high. Engineers joined them. At midstream, chest-deep water obliged all the men to dog paddle into concentrated machine-gun and canister fire. Some turned back.


Rivers, his assistant Schmid, and Warren recognized the chatter of a Nambu light machine gun, but could not pinpoint the weapon’s location. In foxholes along the Marine line, the mortar platoon’s night watch detachment heard “jabbering,” then came under the green light of a flare followed by sweeping machine-gun bursts. A pair of Brownings was lacing the swimmers and the guns supporting them. Corporal George Parker’s 37mm began firing canister shells. Even so, some Japanese reached the higher bank to engage Americans hand-to-hand. A first lieutenant—certainly Maruyama— killed Corporal Charlie Karp with a sword before another Marine shot him dead. Some of Maruyama’s men returned to the east bank.

The Marine howitzers south of Henderson Field went into action. “Fire mission, azimuth 828, range 3500, battery ten rounds!” I Battery executive officer First Lieutenant John Bradbury called to section chief Sergeant Bob Askey. At 4:03 a.m. Askey’s crew rammed in a high explosive shell and fired, as did the three other gun crews. In 180 seconds, they sent 40 shells onto the enemy beyond the river’s east bank.

Near the river’s mouth, Second Lieutenant George Codrea led his G Company platoon against Japanese troops breaking into E Company’s line. Crouching in a deadly enemy crossfire, Codrea’s lead group confronted screaming Japanese soldiers, dispatching most in one-on-one fighting. Hit in the left arm by knee mortar shrapnel, Codrea kept leading. Out of his line of sight, Second Lieutenant Bob Smith’s G Company platoon charged the Japanese with rifles and BARs.


God damn, they got me in the eyes!” Al Schmid screamed. A Japanese grenade exploding in Schmid’s machine-gun pit had blown the water jacket off his crew’s .30-caliber heavy gun and peppered Schmid’s face with shrapnel. A burst, apparently from the unseen Nambu, had killed gunner Jack Rivers. The grenade that blinded Schmid wounded squad leader Corporal LeRoy Diamond. Bull Warren’s gun had gone dead, as had Fairchild’s .50 caliber—Slim had caught a Japanese slug in the hand. No American machine guns were firing at what Marines were now calling “Hell’s Point.” Neither was Jim Oliff’s 37mm, disabled by a hit to its traversing mechanism.

As dawn neared, visibility improved. Pollock decided he had to go after those enemy machine guns, including the mystery Nambu, which the morning light had shown to be on the wrecked amtrac. Pollock called up the mortar platoon’s two functional 81mms. Under his direction, the mortar men, their tubes nearly perpendicular, knocked out several heavy machine guns along the east bank and the Nambu in the amtrac hulk.

Pollock ordered F Company’s 3rd Platoon, led by Second Lieutenant Ed Craig, to the front to support G Company’s two platoons. However, Craig wrote later, enemy machine-gun rounds, “like thousands of bees,” felled several men, stalling his platoon’s progress. Knee mortar shells cascaded onto Craig and his troops. Up ahead, G Company men found and killed the enemy soldiers on Hell’s Point and upstream. At 7:22 a.m., Craig watched as a few hundred feet away 75mm rounds from the howitzers south of the airstrip began raining onto those Japanese troops still remaining on the far side of the river.


Ichiki’s rear guard and other Japanese troops who had not crossed the river remained on the east bank. “We aren’t going to let those people lay up there all day,” Vandegrift’s operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Thomas, declared at the 1st Marines command post. To envelop the enemy, Companies A, B, C, and D of Lieutenant Lenard Cresswell’s 1st Battalion would cross a dry riverbed 3,000 yards south, swing north, and trap the remnants of the enemy force.

By 11 a.m. Cresswell had begun his maneuver, with Captain Charley Brush’s A Company and Captain Nikolai “Nick” Stevenson’s C Company charging the Japanese flanks. Snipers took a toll on Brush’s 2nd Platoon, but otherwise A Company encountered little ground-level resistance. Stevenson’s men used bayonets to finish off a platoon-size group whose commander played possum and tried unsuccessfully to kill Stevenson with a grenade. At mid-afternoon, barely 15 hours after Ichiki’s first attack, five light tanks of the Marines’ 1st Tank Battalion mopped up with machine-gun and 37mm fire, weaving among the coconut palms, at times crushing enemy soldiers beneath their treads. Sawada died in the tank attack; Ichiki and his adjutant killed themselves.

About 35 wounded Japanese backtracked along 15 miles of beach to Taivu Point, where they were met by the support troops and a platoon of Chiba’s 4th Company that had arrived late to the battle and turned back. Ichiki’s second echelon appeared on August 30, eight days overdue; the half-starved condition of their surviving 123 comrades shocked the latecomers.

For the first time in the Pacific, Japanese soldiers had lost a major battle, breaking the “victory fever” that for years had emboldened Imperial Army forces. At the cost of 35 dead and 75 wounded, the Marines had nearly annihilated their attackers, killing 790 of the 875 men who had set out from Taivu Point. Young Americans—mostly in their teens—who had been rushed through training and into combat had shown that the empire’s brave and battle-hardened soldiers, while willing to fight to the death, were not invincible after all.


Originally published in the December 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.