The Battle of Edsons Bloody Ridge - Guadalcanal September, 1942

By John Dudek 02 Aug 2013 0

Perhaps the most savage and bloody, yet largely uncelebrated or remembered, military campaigns in the Pacific War between the US and Japan, revolved around the steamy, tropical Island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands chain.  For well over six months the marines, army, naval and air forces of the Japanese Empire and the United States were locked in a bitter struggle of unending mortal combat on land, sea and in the air.  At the battle?s conclusion, the two tottering combatants were left standing toe to toe like two bloodied, bruised and exhausted, punch-drunk fighters in a boxing ring, still throwing bludgeoning haymaker punches at the other until only one was left standing. This was the battle that broke the back of Japanese aviation in the Pacific leading to the first truly resounding Japanese defeat of their combined arms, to be followed by an unending series of defeats leading to their eventual surrender at Tokyo Bay in 1945. 

For six months in 1942, the outcome of the Battle of Guadalcanal rested upon the slimmest of razor?s edge margins, with neither Japan nor the United States seemingly being able to land the final decisive and telling blow to win it. The battle could easily be called the ?Stalingrad of the Pacific War.? 

There was nothing really remarkable about the Solomon Islands before the war. They were a steamy, hot and humid, malaria mosquito infested backwater of coral islands located near the equator; a protectorate of the British Empire. They were inhabited by Melanesian natives, and ruled by British Colonial Office overseers sent from the UK to keep the peace and provide administration. Their chief export products were gold, wood, copra, coconut and palm oil; all native to the islands. 

In the early days of the war, soon after seizing the key Australian base of Rabaul at the far northern end of the island chain, the Japanese sought to establish further air bases in the southern Solomon Islands in an attempt to interdict the key US military supply lines with Australia. They established a seaplane base on the island of Tulagi, and soon landed a much larger force of construction troops across the channel upon the considerably bigger island of Guadalcanal and began building a base of operations and an airfield large enough to operate their medium bombers from. This beehive of Japanese construction activity did not long escape the attention of Allied reconnaissance aircraft. In the days preceding the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, 1942, a US Navy task force centred around the aircraft carriers Yorktown and Lexington, attacked and bombarded the seaplane base at Tulagi doing a great deal of damage to both the Japanese island installation, and the shipping anchored there. 

Upon seeing the intense Japanese military build-up in the southern Solomon Islands, with its potentially dangerous future strategic impact upon the fighting already going on in near-by New Guinea (not to mention, the real possibility of them severing the US-Australian supply lines), Allied Strategic planners began planning an amphibious invasion assault on Tulagi, Guadalcanal and the other smaller Japanese occupied islands clustered close by. The under strength US First Marine Division was selected to be the spearhead of the invasion assault force, with a second brigade of marines to be transported in from US Samoa as soon as enough transport shipping space became available. The operation was entitled ?Watchtower?, but the haphazard manner in which it was quickly thrown together soon had the Marines referring to it as ?Operation Shoestring.? 

Following a US naval bombardment, the Marines came ashore on Tulagi, Guvutu, Tanambogo and Guadalcanal Islands, on 7 August, 1942, either killing virtually all of their Japanese garrisons, or in the case of the much larger Guadalcanal, driving them off into the surrounding jungle. On Guadalcanal, US Marines seized the base and its unfinished airfield largely intact. Huge warehouse supply dumps of food supplies, fuel and construction equipment fell into their hands with nearly no shots being fired. Capturing these food supplies would soon pay off big dividends when the US Marine garrison ran short of supplies. Inquisitive US Marines soon found the island?s huge liquor warehouse, where thousands of cases of Japanese beer, sake and liquor were stored.  Before long, hundreds of marines hauling ammunition carts could be seen around the defence perimeter, carrying off the huge treasure trove of liquid consumables. 

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For a short time, the invasion was almost a pleasant endeavour.  Marines worked hard all day in the sweltering equatorial heat, stringing barbed wire, digging defences, going out on patrol, all the while awaiting the day of the inevitable Japanese counterattack. Come sundown, the marines would break out their beer and sake, and enjoy the sweet life for an all too short period of time. One marine later said. ?It is indeed glorious to eat the enemy?s rations of tinned crab and other of his food delicacies, while drinking his beer and wine.? 

The Japanese counterattack was not long in coming. Bomber and fighter aircraft were soon flying the 650 miles from their airfields at Rabaul on a daily basis to attack the US invasion force anchored off Lunga Point. In addition, the Japanese Navy quickly sent a large task force of heavy cruisers and destroyers from Rabaul to attack the US invasion fleet that was still unloading supplies for the Marine garrison on Guadalcanal.  This resulted in the night time Battle of Savo Island, whereby US and Australian warships were caught completely by surprise. One Australian and three American cruisers were sunk, and one American cruiser and two destroyers were damaged in the savage, one-sided battle. In spite of his ships suffering virtually no damage during the battle, the Japanese task force commander, Admiral Mikawa, foolishly chose to withdraw his ships back to Rabaul rather than attack the now defenceless American troop and supply transports. The following morning the remaining Allied warships and transports upped anchor and fled the waters around Guadalcanal, leaving the marines there ?bare-assed? and with little food or ammunition on hand. Commanding General Vandegrift immediately placed the Marine garrison on half-rations, ordered his men to dig in and finish building the airfield, while they awaited the return of the US Navy. 

By August 20 the airstrip was finished, and two squadrons of 19 Marine Wildcat fighters and 12 Dauntless dive bombers were ferried in by the light escort carrier USS Long Island. With the air strip (known as Henderson Field) now in business, and with its own aircraft on patrol overhead, the skies over Guadalcanal were no longer uncontested Japanese airspace. By the end of the month over 64 US aircraft were based at Henderson Field, with more flying in every week. This made Japanese seaborne reinforcement attempts to their Guadalcanal garrison virtually impossible during daylight hours. 

In the many land, sea and air battles around Guadalcanal that followed over the coming months, the Japanese displayed incredible courage, savage tenacity, utter devotion to their Emperor and a seemingly natural talent towards fighting jungle warfare. At the same time their reinforcing units were constantly under attack by US air, sea and land attacks, and rarely arrived on Guadalcanal at anyway near full strength or unscathed.  The Japanese troops on Guadalcanal were oftentimes on the verge of complete starvation because of a total breakdown in their logistics, yet they still fought fanatically to the death, with very few being captured. 

On Guadalcanal there were frequent Japanese small attack incursions made into the Marine defence perimeter. In fact, many of the infiltrating Japanese got well behind the main line of resistance to attack softer targets of the Marine rear echelon. On one day a small scale attack was made upon a Marine chow hall, and the cooks there found themselves fighting hand to hand with half-starved Japanese invaders before a Marine security detail could dispatch the invaders down to the last man. Hours later, a grizzled old Marine cook regaled the men waiting in the food line about his fight to the death with a Japanese NCO during the attack, embellishing the story with each retelling. Finally, an old Marine Sergeant, who was waiting in the line and tired of hearing the cook?s war stories, spat out his cigarette butt, squinted, tilted his head and cut the cook down to size by yelling: ?What did you do Sunshine?  Hit him in the head with one yer? own pancakes?!?         

The US Marines of the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal consisted largely of long service veterans, shot through with a number of fresh recruits who?d enlisted immediately before, or right after, Pearl Harbor. It was this veteran breed of ?Old Sweats? who would leaven and square away these new marines. Mid-1942 represented the death knell of the "Old Guard" professional US Army, Navy and Marine Corps. The men who after the Great War of 1914-18 had continued to soldier-on throughout the thankless, mean and thread-bare days of the 1920's and 30's, until the great pre-war military expansion program created a primarily conscript army, navy and marine corps after 1940. 

These pre-war Marines were a hard-headed, hard-drinking, leather-lunged lot. Incredibly and artistically profane, whilst being complete and utter professionals in every aspect of their deadly craft; knowing all aspects of the savage, killing art of soldiering from muzzle to butt plate. They were familiar with everything about their terrible profession, from the breaking down and repair of a water-cooled Browning machinegun in utter darkness, to the tying off of a life-saving tourniquet with one hand, while tightening its knot with their teeth. Incredibly cynical, yet fiercely and utterly dedicated to their cause, men like these had earlier in the war hurled death and destruction, while roaring murderous defiance into the face of their Japanese enemy on Bataan, Corregidor and Wake Island, before cursing them with their final breaths. These were not only the men who absorbed the first blows of war after Pearl Harbor, they were also the men who trained the brand new crop American civilian armed forces, turning them into a professional fighting machine who eventually took the best the Axis could throw at them, before beating and destroying the Germans, Italians and Japanese from one side of the world to the other. 

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The six month long battle of Guadalcanal has been described like most battles to be long periods of hunger, weariness and seemingly endless,  boredom, followed by moments of sheer, extreme terror. Night time on the island was not a period to catch up on one?s sleep. Land crabs scurried around the Marine fox holes all night long making a shuffling noise. Added to this were the actions of Japanese infiltrators who tried to attack sleeping marines in their foxholes. In one such instance a low-crawling Japanese soldier fell into an occupied Marine foxhole. The Japanese soldier shouted in perfect English ?I?m too young to die!?. The marine who stabbed him to death replied, ?So am I!?, before throwing the body back out of the foxhole. In the early days of the campaign, English speaking Japanese soldiers would often try to taunt the marines into shooting at them and give away their positions by cursing and making threats upon them or their cherished institutions. ?Marine you die!? or ?All US Marines be dead tomorrow!? were common taunts until the marines began replying ?And you?ll eat s*** first you b*******!!!? ?C?mon in here and we'll see who dies!? One night, a thin, reedy-sounding Japanese voice was heard shouting from the jungle.  ?Marine you die!  Blood for the Emperor!?  A marine soon shouted back.  ?To hell with your god-damned Emperor!  Blood for Franklin and Eleanor!?  This resulted in all of the nearby marines hurling curses and invectives at the unseen enemy, shouting that Japanese Premier Tojo was a buck-toothed b******, while questioning the lineage of the entire Japanese Imperial family to such an extent that a Marine Gunnery Sergeant finally had to shut his men up. All was quiet for several seconds until that same reedy voice again shouted angrily from the jungle ??F*** Babe Ruth!? 

Following the disastrous defeat at the Battle of the Tenaru River, where a Japanese detachment of over 900 men was largely destroyed after making suicidal frontal assaults upon Marine positions, the Japanese decided to substantially reinforce their troops on Guadalcanal. Their 35th Infantry Brigade, and other Army and Special Naval Landing troops, were sent to Guadalcanal aboard a number of Japanese light cruisers and destroyers. They were transported to the village of Tasimboko, near Taivu Point, some 20 miles down the coast from the US Marine perimeter. This marked the beginning of the ?rat-runs? of the ?Tokyo Express?, in essence using speedier Japanese destroyer transports to quickly bring in their reinforcements and supplies, while using the cloak of darkness to insure the safe delivery of both their troops and supplies.  This was done because whilst the Marine aircraft based at Henderson Field insured the waters around Guadalcanal were American by day, it was an entirely different story once darkness fell and the Tokyo Express came out to play. 

By early September well over 6,000 Japanese reinforcements had been brought to the island. Their commander, General Kawaguchi, planned an attack upon the Marine perimeter, and he and his attack force began the long march through the jungle on 7 September leaving only 250 men behind to guard the village of Tasimboko. The US Marine commander, General Vandegrift, learned the Japanese were massing for an attack on his lines and ordered the combined 1,500 men of the 1st Marine Parachute and 1st Raider battalions to be sent over from Tulagi to reinforce his men. They were to be delivered as soon as they staged a surprise assault landing at the Japanese village of Tasimboko. The landing was soon made and the Japanese rear guard at the village quickly driven off by a highly effective, enveloping Marine attack. 

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 Gen. Kawaguchi

 

 Afterwards the hungry Marines were once again completely overwhelmed by the many captured warehouses, stuffed-full of canned food and liquor supplies, that had fallen into their hands. Orders for the destruction of all the foodstuffs were given, and the marines were soon hauling hundreds of bags of rice into the surf, while 50 other marines poked holes into the tens of thousands of cans of Japanese tinned food with their combat knives and bayonets, knowing full well the heat and humidity would quickly spoil their contents. The abandoned Japanese artillery positions were also destroyed, as was their short wave radio station, and the remaining warehouses and infrastructure were burned to the ground. Marine officers turned a blind eye to the numbers of enlisted men found carrying captured canned goods, and half gallon balloon shaped bottles of sake back aboard their landing craft.  However, perhaps the greatest indignity heaped upon the Japanese defenders was the capture of General Kawaguchi?s dress uniform, the very one he planned to wear at the coming US Marine surrender ceremonies on Henderson Field. The uniform pants were quickly hauled aloft to the top of the main mast of the US Navy transport for all to see, both on land and at sea, as they passed by. 

 Upon returning ashore to the Marine lines at Lunga Point, Marine Raider-Parachute Battalion Commander Colonel Merritt ?Red Mike? Edson told his men they were going to a rear echelon rest area along a series of ridges near Henderson Field and ordered them to dig in and fortify the ridges. In reality, Marine Intelligence had informed Edson that this was the likely avenue of approach of Kawaguchi?s attacking force.  Edson?s troops dug in and strung barbed wire, while 11th Marines artillery commander, Colonel Pedro De Valle, registered the entire grid area with his artillery support at his immediate rear. The first inkling the marines atop the ridge had about being attacked was when Japanese bombers began dropping bombs on their positions during air raids on September 11th, soon followed by a Japanese naval bombardment after nightfall on the 12th.  Marines were heard shouting derisively to each other ?Some damned rest area!  Some damned rest area!? as they dug-in even deeper into the ridges. 

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The first Japanese infantry assaults came screaming out of the jungle at around 9 o?clock that evening, and the marines absorbed the first blows before throwing them back with the aid of their bayonet fixed rifles, machine guns, supporting mortars and artillery. A second attack was later made against the Marine?s right flank, but it too was thrown back.  Yet a third attack came boiling out of the jungle, and it was also defeated. By 2:30am the Japanese attacks had ceased, and Edson radioed General Vandegrift that all was secure along his ridgelines. On the morning of September 13th Edson called a meeting of his dead-tired company commanders, telling them to have their men string more barbed wire and get some sleep because the first night?s attacks had been only a series of probes on their lines. The Japanese would surely be back that night in force. Edson also consolidated some of his forces. He pulled his positions back about 400 yards to a line stretching from the Lunga River up to a ridge some 150 yards south of Hill 123. Around and behind Hill 123 he placed five companies of Marines. Any Japanese attack waves assaulting those hills would have to advance across 400 yards of treeless open ground in the face of interlocking bands of Marine automatic weapons fire, and the firestorms of artillery fire brought down from Colonel Pedro De Valle?s nearby 11th Marine Artillery Regiment. Edson?s marines were now utterly exhausted, hungry and low on ammunition and grenades. Knowing full well the condition of his men, Edson spoke to them late that afternoon saying: ?You men have done a great job, and I have just one more thing to ask of you. Hold out just one more night. I know we've been without sleep a long time. But we expect another attack from them tonight and they may come through here. I have every reason to believe that we will have relief troops here for all of us in the morning.? It was said Edson's speech "raised the spirits" of the Raiders and prepared them for what lay ahead. After gulping down a hurried meal of cold canned C-Rations, the marines hunkered down in their foxholes and went to full alert around dusk. 

 Meanwhile and not far away Japanese General Kawaguchi exhorted his own men in that same fashion, encouraging them to fight as bravely as they had the night before and win the major victory needed to break the American hold on the island. His own artillery train of light field pieces had arrived that day and would soon add their own fires of destruction to the Japanese naval bombardment that was to take place that evening.  Kawaguchi still had some 3,000 men against Edson?s 850 Marines. 

True to their word, seven Japanese destroyers put the Marine?s ridge line under naval gunfire around dark. There was a new moon that night and full darkness quickly descended upon the island. A Japanese battalion attacked a Marine Raider Company on their right flank and forced them to withdraw back to Hill 123. While continuing the attack under very heavy defending Marine artillery fire, the Japanese battalion eventually went to ground well behind the Marine lines. After going without food for the past few days, the famished Japanese paused to eagerly feed upon a treasure trove cache of captured ?K? and ?C? rations. Around 3am the Japanese renewed their attack on the Marine lines. but their battalion was largely destroyed in the fierce fighting that soon followed. 

At nearly the same time, Kawaguchi?s 2nd Battalion prepared for their own attack from their jungle positions south of the ridge. US Marine observers soon spotted dim flashlights from distant Japanese troop assembly areas, and called down a massive artillery bombardment that smothered that position in a hell storm of flashing fire, shrapnel and death. Some 300 Japanese troops assaulted the Marine held Hill 80 with fixed bayonets as the Japanese own barrage of artillery and mortar fire struck the ridge top. Colonel Edson saw the fighting there was quickly becoming hand to hand, and the two companies of Marine Para Marines and Raiders were in danger of being overwhelmed. Edson picked up a field phone and rang up the hill position command post to order a withdrawal to another position well to the rear. A Japanese accented voice replied: ?My situation here is excellent Colonel Edson!  Thank you Sir!?  Edson?s communication wire had been cut by the Japanese! So he grabbed a leather-lunged NCO and gave him a command. The marine cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted at the top of his voice. ?Red Mike says it?s ok to pull back!!?  Both Marine companies disengaged and fell back to Hill 123 shielded by the fires of the 11th Artillery, who momentarily kept the attacking Japanese at bay saving the marines from possible destruction. 

Company sized contingents of Japanese infantry infiltrated behind the Marine lines, causing a great deal of confusion in the rear areas as the two companies of Para-Marines withdrew to Hill 123. The Marine withdrawal threatened to become a rout until Colonel Edison, Major Ken Bailey and other Marine officers began cursing the flagging Marine troops, before herding them back into positions around Hill 123. Edson shouted. ?The only thing the Japs have that you don?t is guts!?.  The Marines returned to their vacated positions and all too soon encountered another series of fierce battalion-sized frontal assaults upon the hill. The Marines shot both Japanese attacks to pieces, but their own numbers atop the hill were dwindling. Edson began feeding in two companies of Para-Marines into the fighting around midnight in order to reinforce his fading numbers of troops around and atop the hill. With fixed bayonets they swept through and killed all of the Japanese infiltrators who had earlier overrun the former Marine foxholes, and soon re-joined their Marine brothers still fighting on the horseshoe shaped hill. 

All the while Marine artillery fire flashed and exploded among the oncoming waves of Japanese infantry, or blasted their known assembly areas to the rear. Marine observers called for close-in artillery fire down to the unheard of ranges of 1,600 yards from gun tubes to impact areas, and the Japanese suffered hideously high casualty numbers as a result.

One Japanese survivor later reported that only 10% of the troops in his unit survived the artillery fires brought down by Colonel Pedro De Valle?s 11th Marine Artillery Regiment who fired some 2,800 artillery shells that night alone. 

Fierce, suicidal Japanese frontal attacks continued throughout the night, and the fighting oftentimes continued to be hand to hand. Said Marine participant Captain William J. McKennan: "The Japanese attack was almost constant, like a rain that subsides for a moment and then pours the harder...When one wave was mowed down - and I mean mowed down - another followed it into death." Edson continuing to feed fresh troops into the fight throughout the night, bringing in the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment into the line, who held it against a number of other Japanese attacks until after the sun rose. Edson, when not in his command post giving orders, was standing and moving among his men along the front lines, exhorting and encouraging them, trying to raise their spirits. Marine Captain Tex Smith, who observed Edson for most of the night, said: "I can say that if there is such a thing as one man holding a battalion together, Edson did it that night. He stood just behind the front lines ? stood, when most of us hugged the ground.? 

The sunrise of September 14th did not bring about an immediate end to the Japanese infantry assaults, but it brought out swarms of US Marine and Army fighter and dive bomber aircraft from nearby Henderson Field, who quickly began bombing and strafing Japanese troop concentrations and their assembly areas just inside the jungle canopy.  This quickly broke the back of all further organized Japanese resistance. 

By noon of 14 September General Kawaguchi knew he?d been beaten, so he ordered the battered remnants of his shattered brigade to disengage and march to safer positions deeper into the jungle. US fighter planes and dive bombers continued to harry and contest the withdrawal of the Japanese for much of the way. Kawaguchi?s troops were now starving and utterly exhausted. His brigade had suffered well over 800 KIA, and hundreds more of his wounded would soon join those already killed in action before they could ever return for medical treatment at Tasimboko Village some 20 miles away. 

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The fighting atop Colonel Merritt Edison?s Bloody Ridge was by far the fiercest, most-bloody and savage battles the Marines had encountered on Guadalcanal so far. For the Japanese, it was a complete and utter defeat. The Japanese High Command?s realization that there were more than a few thousand Marines on Guadalcanal caused the temporary suspension of their offensive operations on the island of New Guinea.  After delivering massive reinforcements to Guadalcanal during the next few months, the Japanese mounted a huge ground offensive there in the final weeks of October 1942 at the Battle for Henderson Field. This hoped for victorious battle resulted in an even more decisive defeat for the Japanese. 

For their valorous actions above and beyond the call of duty during the savage two day battle, Colonel Edson and Major Bailey were later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Unfortunatel, for Colonel Edson, post traumatic syndrome would later claim him and that heroic,  hard-fighting man would one day commit suicide. 

After the war, General Vandegrift commented about Guadalcanal, stating that the Battle of Edson?s Bloody Ridge in September was the only time during the six month long campaign that he had serious doubts about what the outcome of the battle would be, and that had the Japanese succeeded, "we would have been in a pretty bad condition."

Historian Richard B. Frank recently commented in his book on the Guadalcanal campaign, "The Japanese never came closer to victory on the island itself than in September 1942, on a ridge thrusting up from the jungle just south of the critical airfield, best known ever after as (Edson?s) Bloody Ridge.? 

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 ?Red? Mike Edson

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