August 21st, 2017 marks the 75th Anniversary of the WWII “Battle of the Tenaru”, also known by the U.S. Marines who fought it, as the “Battle of Alligator Creek”. This was the first engagement of U.S. and Japanese land forces to fight in WWII. The fierce, but one-sided, battle took place on the island of Guadalcanal, in the British Solomon Islands, on 21 August 1942.
In April 1942 the Japanese occupied Guadalcanal and by July had started construction of an airfield that would became the locus of the entire Guadalcanal campaign.
On 7 August 1942 the 1st Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal, Florida and Tulagi, and took possession of the airfield which they named Henderson Field.
The Japanese, for their part, were determined to retake the airfield and expel the American forces. On 19 August the Imperial Japanese Navy landed a detachment of the IJA 28th Regiment under the command of Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki consisting of 916 men.
Ichiki was a proud and supremely confident commander. His orders were to scout out the American positions and to await the arrival of the remainder of his regiment, about 2,300 men. Instead, his plan was to press his detachment immediately into battle with the Marines at Henderson field.
According to Wikipedia, his journal entry for 18 August was:
“18 August, landing; 20 August, march by night and battle; 21 August, enjoyment of the fruit of victory” – Wikipedia, “Battle of the Tenaru”
Ichiki had an intelligence briefing that indicated 2,000-10,000 U.S. troops were in place around Henderson Field. Evidently he disregarded the higher estimates in the report because his battle plan was to march about 800 men of his detachment straight down the shoreline and make a full frontal assault when they encountered the American lines.
The commander of U.S. Forces on Guadalcanal, General Alexander Archer Vandegrift did not anticipate an attack from the east and therefore concentrated his defenses along the west side of the “Alligator”/Tenaru River. They were well entrenched and equipped with water-cooled .3o caliber machine guns, 37mm cannons with canister rounds, mortars, Browning Automatic Rifles, and of course the ’03 Springfield bolt-action rifle.
100 of Ichiki’s troops began their first assault across a sand bar at the river’s mouth. The barrage commenced with rifle fire and mortars at about 01:30. Along with machine gun fire, the 37mm canister rounds were devastating, most of the charging Japanese were annihilated on the sand bar.
The second wave of 150-200 troops came at about 02:30. Again, across the sand bar, and met with a similar fate. Ichiki refused suggestions to withdraw.
After regrouping, the Japanese tried a mortar barrage but this was met with return mortars and 75mm artillery fire from the Marines.
At 05:00 a third wave was attempted by way of wading into the surf, hoping to make an assault on the west bank of creek. This wave was repulsed with machine gun and artillery fire, again with Ichiki’s men sustaining heavy casualties.
After daybreak, the Marines decided to counter-attack. Planes from Henderson Field strafed the coconut grove where pockets of remaining Japanese were hunkered down. In the afternoon 5 M3 Stuart Tanks attacked the grove with machine gun and canister munitions. They also used the treads of the tanks to roll over bodies to ensure that none remained alive to continue the fight.
From Wikipedia: Alligator Creek Aftermath. The fate of Col. Ichki is not entirely clear, his was either killed in action or committed ritual suicide. Only about 30 members of Ichki’s detachment survived their deployment to Guadalcanal.
The U.S. Marines on Guadalcanal learned some very important lessons from this first encounter with the Japanese soldier. As an enemy he was ruthless, tenacious, cruel, and could be counted on to always fight to the death. He would give no quarter and ask none. This was the lesson learned early and became an organizing principle for the remainder of the Pacific Campaign: The way forward to was to “kill Japs”. Admiral “Bull” Halsey, famously said about his plan for victory, simply “Kill Japs! Kill Japs! Kill more Japs!”
But, also important, the Marines learned that the Japanese were not invincible. As a matter of fact, and this was borne out by history, the United States Marine Corps would never lose a battle to the Japanese in the Pacific Campaign.
Further it was clear, early on, that this war with Japan would not, and could not, be waged under any semblance or concept of the “rules of war”. For instance, the “rule” that medics and corpsmen were not to be targeted (or armed) had to be dispensed with almost immediately. The Red Cross symbols were removed and medic and corpsmen were armed because the Japanese would target them on the battle field. Interestingly, this was not true for the European Theater. For the most part, the German regular army (the Wehmacht) respected the Geneva Convention, at least with respect to Allied Soldiers (see “Citizen Soldier“).
On a personal note: My father was in the 1st Marine Division and a Guadalcanal veteran. He was not at the Battle of Alligator Creek. He was a member of the engineering battalion that worked on Henderson Field. He told us stories of how they would quickly repair the field with crushed coral to fill in bomb or shell craters and then replace the “landing mat” and keep the field open. It’s somewhat amusing, but sometimes it wasn’t enemy action, but carrier pilots that created work for the engineers: by extending their landing hooks as they would in preparing for a carrier landing, the hook would catch the landing mat and pop, pop, ping, ping, the mat would fly all over the field!
In August of 2013 we (my wife and I) were privileged to be able to tour Guadalcanal and especially Henderson Field where my father served our country as a U.S. Marine. He was only 20 years old at the time. Besides Alligator Creek, were able to visit Beach ‘Red’, Edson’s “Bloody” Ridge, Mt Austen, the Matanikau River etc. Here is a photo gallery from our trip to “Alligator Creek”:
Below is a Photo Gallery for Hell’s Point Explosive Ordnance Training Area. This area is the battle ground of the Tenaru and much of the unexploded ordnance may be from the battle. Native Solomon Islanders still encounter dangerous munitions in farming and building activities.
Thank you. This post is dedicated to the United States Marine Corps 1st Marine Division and to the men who fought this epic battle 75 years ago.
God’s speed, Les B Galt.
Update: 2 October 2017
This Clip from the great 1952 Documentary Film Series “Victory At Sea” sums up very nicely the contemporary attitudes of Americans regarding the battle of Guadalcanal. It enshrines the U.S. Marine victory along side the Greeks at Thermopylae, the Colonialists at Valley Forge and the British at Waterloo. (pretty good company!)
From Pacific Wrecks:
During the Battle of the Tenaru on August 21-22, 1942 this area was at the western edge of the battlefield and many Japanese Army soldiers were killed on the beach nearby. Afterwards, the area was nicknamed “Hell’s Point“.
Lt. Col. Joe Mueller’s “Guadalcanal 1942: The Marines Strike Back”
Thanks to Wikipedia