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Posts Tagged ‘Guadalcanal’

It’s been a really long time since we visited the Second World War battleground of Guadalcanal.  Of course, it’s been a while since we discussed any topic at all on these pages.  But I’m around this evening, so we should look at something.  As you probably well know, Guadalcanal (the largest of the Solomon Islands) was the site of a pivotal six-month battle during 1942.

The First Marine Division had come ashore on the 7th of September – exactly nine months after Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, achieving a measure of surprise of their own – and, with a bit of help from the Navy, had taken command of the situation.  But the cost had been high.  The cemetery on Guadalcanal held the bodies of 650 Marines.  Nearly 1,300 had been wounded, and more than 8,500 had suffered through crippling tropical disease, namely malaria.  They, along with their leader General Alexander Vandegrift, were ready for a rest.

And on December 9, 1942, that rest began.  Transports unloaded the last of the Army’s American Division, and General Vandegrift turned over command to Army General Alexander Patch.  The ceremony had little fanfare.  Richard Frank writes that the departing General read “a concise letter that paid generous tribute to the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who had worked, fought, and died side by side with his marines.

For another two months, Americans would still fight and die on Guadalcanal.  But for the First Marine Division, the end of this battle was drawing to an end.

Recommended Reading:  Guadalcanal

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For the Japanese military, 1942 was a study in contrasts.  The first half of the year was filled with heady exhilaration, as victory after victory was achieved with stunning speed.  One by one, each objective was marked off the list.  It started at Pearl Harbor and was quickly followed by the Philippines, Burma, Singapore, and Malaysia.  All over the central and south Pacific, Japanese forces pushed their American, British, and Australian counterparts back.  As May rolled around, Australia looked ripe for the picking.

It was then that things begin to change.  The Americans fought the Japanese to a draw in the waters of the Coral Sea.  A month later, Admiral Spruance’s forces shocked a vastly superior Japanese force at Midway, taking down four Japanese carriers and halting Japan’s advance in the central Pacific.

Of course, a defeat at Midway didn’t cause the Japanese Navy to simply roll over or run away.  In fact, the Japanese, despite their losses, were still in a much better position than the Americans, who still could only boast a single aircraft carrier to cover the entire Pacific.

At this point, the Japanese started looking for ways to strengthen their perimeter.  As early as mid-May, they had been scouting the Solomon Islands, and before a month had passed, the decision was made to build an airfield on the largest of the islands – Guadalcanal.  The second week of June, even as final plans were still being made, the first Japanese soldiers arrived, with the task of building a wharf. Before too long, heavy smoke hung in the air as large areas of grass were burned on the Lunga Plain.

And on July 6, 1942, the first serious forces arrived on Guadalcanal.  A twelve-ship convoy landed, disembarking 2,500 men of the 11th and 13th Construction Units.  Their job was to build an airfield.

Not a single one of these 2,500 men could have possibly known that, just the day before, the American military (through its knowledge of Japanese codes) had discovered Japan’s interest in Guadalcanal.  Suddenly, Admirals King and Nimitz were also interested in owning this piece of real estate as well.

And thus was set in motion the single most pivotal land campaign in all the Pacific War…the Battle of Guadalcanal.

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In all of our time together, we’ve spent plenty of time on and around the island of Guadalcanal.  It’s no secret that the battle for this large chunk of rock and trees was absolutely pivotal in wresting the initiative from the Japanese in the Pacific War.  But in all of our time spent concerning this largest of the Solomon Islands, we’ve talked very little about Admiral William Halsey.

Let’s do that for a couple minutes this evening.

At the time the Battle of Guadalcanal was being fought, Bull Halsey was a man on the mend.  The 60-year-old had been debilitated by an extremely irritating skin disease, so much so that he had been forced to give up his command just before the Battle of Midway in June of 1942.  Fortunately, as we well know, Admiral Raymond Spruance was more than adequate as his replacement.  Now with October passing, Halsey was ready for command again.

It’s just a shame that, this time, he was called on to replace Admiral Robert Ghormley.  Halsey and Ghormley had been friends for nearly 40 years, and there was a bit of discomfort for both men.  But it was clear that, for the South Pacific Fleet, change was needed.

Richard Frank gives his thoughts in Guadalcanal, his terrific one-volume account of the battle.  “However sympathetically Ghormley’s situation is viewed, his relief was amply justified.  Contemporary explanations for Ghormley’s replacement share the common theme that he lacked aggressiveness, but this was really a symptom of defeatism, a disease that had become rampant at his headquarters.”  Frank continues on that the Admiral had become a workaholic, denying himself recreation and exercise, which led to exhaustion and a general malaise.

With a nickname like “Bull”, it’s easy to picture Halsey as a the proverbial “bull in the china shop”, displaying a certain amount of recklessness and ram-rodding impetuousness.  Frank sets the record straight.  “He was not so impulsive as the nickname ‘Bull’ (which was not used by his friends) suggests, but he always displayed a certain indifference to detail that looked like carelessness.”

And whatever indifference to detail Halsey displayed was quickly forgotten on October 20, 1942.  It was then, just two days after Halsey had taken command, that the Japanese sub I-176 put a torpedo smack dab in the middle of the USS Chester’s starboard side.  The Northampton-class heavy, cruiser was rocked, but not sunk, and casualties were relatively light (11 killed and a dozen more wounded).

It’s probably no small coincidence that, also on this day, Halsey gave the order that all naval officers in the South Pacific would dispense with wearing ties with their tropical uniforms.  Frank continues, “Halsey said he gave this order to conform to Army practice and for comfort, but to his command it viscerally evoked the image of a brawler stripping for action and symbolized a casting off of effete elegance no more appropriate to the tropics than to war.”

For Admiral Halsey, the gloves were coming off at Guadalcanal.  Round 1?…The Battle of Santa Cruz.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal

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The Marine landings on Guadalcanal may have caught the Japanese military by surprise, but it shouldn’t surprise us in the least that they, at this stage of the Pacific War, responded rather quickly.  We’ve already talked a bit about the Japanese “response from the air”, but their surface vessels weren’t far behind.

In addition to all the aircraft stationed at Rabaul, the newly-formed Japanese 8th Fleet had also dropped anchor there.  This force of cruisers and destroyers was commanded by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, a steady and rational leader.  When messages of invasion began coming in from Tulagi on the 7th of August, he immediately gathered his men, hoisted the anchors, and made for the Solomons.

Mikawa’s plan for a night attack during the evening of August 8/9 gave his immediate superiors pause, and for good reasons.  There was precious little information coming from Guadalcanal concerning the size of the enemy forces.  Were there carriers?…battleships?  It was assumed that the transports would be well-protected, and Mikawa’s fleet, while powerful, might be signficantly smaller than that of the U.S. Navy.  And while the Japanese were excellent naval night-fighters, fighting an unknown enemy at night was fraught with peril.  But Isoroku Yamamoto, knowing Mikawa to be a cautious fighter with a good head on his shoulders, gave his blessing.  Mikawa was off…reaching Bougainville at dawn on the 8th, where they were spotted by Australian reconnaissance.

Meanwhile, on the other side…

As the night of August 8th was ending, the U.S. leaders were meeting.  General Vandegrift (in charge of the Marines on Guadalcanal) met with Admiral Fletcher and Admiral Turner (Fletcher’s boss).  Turner informed Vandegrift that Fletcher was moving his carriers to the south due to reports of Japanese forces coming from the north.  Vandegrift was livid…there were still tons of supplies to be unloaded for his troops on the island, and leaving them now would put them in a terribly vulnerable position.  But Fletcher had already made up his mind and Turner backed him.  Vandegrift would have to get settled in, at least for the moment, on his own.

Savo Island is small and conical-shaped, sitting about 10 miles off the northwest coast of Guadalcanal.  And from the north, Mikawa’s forces were closing in for the kill.  Now General Vandegrift hadn’t been left totally alone.  British Admiral Victor Crutchley’s fleet of cruisers and destroyers were operating near Savo as a screening force, and it was they who were punished by the Japanese.

I say “punished”, because that’s precisely what Mikawa’s smaller force did in the early morning hours of August 9, 1942.  Crutchley’s forces didn’t spot the enemy first, and when they did, they were concerned about firing on their own ships.  The Japanese Eighth Fleet used this small window to tremendous advantage.

When the sun rose on Savo the following morning, four heavy cruisers had been sunk, with another badly damaged.  Nearly 1,100 sailors had perished.  And Mikawa’s forces were long gone, have suffered little damage and 58 killed.

Much has been made of Mikawa’s decision to withdraw.  His opposition had been plastered, and there was nothing between him and the largely exposed (and mostly helpless) 1st Marine Division just forty or fifty miles away.  He polishes off the enemy ships, moves a bit south, lays waste to the Marines with heavy gunfire, and the Guadalcanal operation is an unmitigated U.S. disaster two days after it starts.  The U.S. campaign in the Pacific would have been set back indefinitely.

But Mikawa was operating at night with only the information he had.  He knew there were enemy carriers out there, he just didn’t know where.  It never entered his mind that Fletcher had moved (or even would move) them south, and reconaissance couldn’t locate them.  The Admiral also knew he had no carrier support with him, and against enemy carriers he would have been at a colossal disadvantage.  So while it was a terrible mistake on his part to pull back, his decision (made at 2:20 in the morning) was the right one.

The landings on Guadalcanal and the capture of its airfield were a real boon to U.S. military morale…the first time U.S. forces had taken the fight to Japanese-controlled soil.  The Battle of Savo Island was a sobering reminder of just how tough and resourceful the enemy was gonig to be.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal: Starvation Island

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It’s been a few days since anything has come from this keyboard.  For some odd reason, there’s a “topic gap” in the first week of August.  I’m sure that historical things have happened during those days, but nothing that grabbed my attention.  So either I need to read some more, or widen my circle of interests.  Anyway, the spreadsheet has stuff on it for today, so let’s chat for a few minutes.

When the U.S. Navy began shelling Guadalcanal in the early-morning hours of August 7, 1942, it caught the Japanese garrison stationed there completely by surprise.  The same held true for the small nearby island of Tulagi and the twins of Gavutu-Tanambogo (I call them “twins” because they were small islands joined by a man-made causeway).  Frantic messages from the defenders (many of them in uncoded, plain-language text) were sent up the equally-surprised Japanese chain of command.

The Japanese had a bunch of planes at their main base at Rabaul that were being prepared for attacks on U.S. air bases in New Guinea, but were quickly retasked (and re-armed with torpedoes) to support their brothers-in-arms in the Solomon Islands.  Among the attackers were 18 planes of the elite Tainan Air Group, and one of its premier aces was Petty Officer First Class Saburo Sakai.  Boarding his Zero and taking off in the morning, he and his fellow pilots joined the fray over the Guadalcanal early that afternoon.

After downing a Wildcat and a Dauntless dive-bomber, he turned to attack another group of Wildcats, only to discover too late that they were also Dauntlesses.  The SBD featured a rear tailgunner that could give an attacking pilot grief.  But Sakai was attacking several of them with only a wingman, so nearly all the return fire was concentrated on him.  The barrage of gunfire shattered his plane’s canopy and a bullet hit him in the head.  Recovering a bit, he found himself blinded by blood, paralyzed on his left side, and hurtling toward the Pacific Ocean.

He pulled from the dive and got out of the action enough to take stock of his situation, which was grim to say the least.  His left side was truly paralyzed (the bullet had punctured his brain), and his right eye was also blind, even after removing the blood.  Saburo Sakai now faced a nearly-impossible 565-mile return flight to his base.  Blood loss threatened a fall into unconciousness, but he kept himself semi-alert with the help of the searing pain caused by slapping his own head wound.  And in one of the more remarkable flights of the entire War, Sakai (with only one eye, one arm, and one leg functioning) nursed his crippled plane (and his more crippled body) the entire way home…a five-hour flight.

The young pilot endured a long surgery (without any anesthesia) and made a partial recovery (the vision in his right eye never fully returned).  He convinced his superiors to let him fly again, and survived a kamikaze mission late in the War (when he was unable to locate enemy ships).  And in a testament to the Japanese military’s reluctance for advancement, this talented and tough pilot (a fighter ace a dozen times over) would not be promoted to Ensign (the next level above Petty Officer First Class) until two years later.

Sakai survived the War.  And after being surrounded by death for years, and experiencing his own incredible escape from its clutches on that day over Guadalcanal, he vowed to not so much as kill an insect.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal

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Today we bid adieu to the USS Chicago.  The heavy cruiser was sunk off Rennell Island, situated roughly 200 miles straight south of Guadalcanal, during the afternoon of January 30, 1943.  The Chicago was part of a task force that was sent to Guadalcanal due to increased enemy naval activity in the area.

The U.S. Navy had incorrectly assumed that a flurry of recent Japanese movements were the first moves in another offensive action in the area.  So Admirals Nimitz and Halsey deployed as large a force as possible.  The USS Enterprise (recovering from war wounds sustained near Santa Cruz)  was augmented with carrier USS Saratogo.  And a bevy of heavy cruisers and destroyers, including the Chicago, was ordered to rendevouz, under the leadership of Admiral Richard Giffen.

In reality, the Japanese were getting their ducks in a row to completely evacuate Guadalcanal.  Operation Ke was now underway, and the Imperial Japanese Navy was working to keep the soldiers on the ground safe.

Giffen’s force was attacked in the final hours of January 29th and, despite the cover of darkness, they gave a good account of themselves.  But a couple of enemy aircraft shot down near the Chicago silhouetted her against the darkness.  Japanese Betty torpedo bombers targeted her, and hit her with two torpedoes, killing the engines and leaving her listing and dead in the water.

Her sister ship USS Louisville began towing the damaged Chicago out of harm’s way (shown above), but she was found again the next afternoon by enemy torpedo planes and hit with four more torpedoes.  At this point, she rolled over and sank.

Looking back, the loss of a single cruiser doesn’t seem to be much in light of the reality that the U.S. was just about to wrest its first major chunk of Pacific territory from the enemy.  But the naval side of the 7-month struggle had been sprinkled with bad decisions and a tendency to underestimate the enemy’s capability while simultaneously acting with a bit too much self-confidence.

The loss of the Chicago was, in some ways, the proverbial broken record.  Admiral Giffen’s push to reach his sector caused him to move his forces in predictable patterns.  At one point, he even gave up the standard zig-zag movements.  These tactics angered Admiral Nimitz a lot, though he didn’t replace Giffen who, despite his errors off Rennell Island, was a capable Admiral with significant experience.

The sinking of the USS Chicago, and the loss of 62 of its men, left a bitter taste to mingle with the sweet when Guadalcanal was secured a week later.

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For two months, the Japanese had been trying to keep their soldiers on Guadalcanal supplied with food, ammunition, and replacement troops.  They had been less than successful in doing so.  The combination of the U.S. Navy and the Cactus Air Force (stationed at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal) was enough to keep the Japanese attempts at resupply at bay…barely.  No one should think that this was a cake-walk.  The Japanese often taught the U.S. Navy hard lessons at places like Tassafaronga Point and Santa Cruz, but they could never really deliver the blow that kept American forces off their backs long enough to get supplies ashore.

Oh sure, supplies were landed.  But all too often, it was a scant portion of what was required to feed the men, who pointedly referred to their locale “Starvation Island”.  As December was passing, the Japanese Combined Fleet decided that continued operations on Guadalcanal were pointless.  And so they drew up plans to focus instead on New Guinea, which meant the abandonment of Guadalcanal to the U.S. Army (which was now relieving the Marines that had first landed there).

The Japanese Navy was taking a bit of an “interservice” gamble with the decision.  It was the Japanese Army who had committed, to this point, upwards of 30,000 troops to the endeavor in the Solomon Islands, with assurances from the Imperial Japanese Navy that those men would be resupplied.  And it was the IJN that had failed in its obligations.  For them to now come and push policy onto the Army…well…that didn’t bode well for future combined operations.

The Army, surprisingly enough, was amenable to a withdrawal…relieved, actually.  They discussed the matter on Christmas Day of 1942, talking of an immediate withdrawal rather than a phased operation, and a refocus on New Guinea and a new, stronger defensive line.  The Navy leadership heard, and also accepted, the plan on December 26, 1942.

Operation Ke, the Japanese withdrawal from Guadalcanal, was born.

For the Japanese soldier trained (“brainwashed” is very nearly appropriate here) in the code of bushido, the “way of the Samurai”, and “suicide before surrender”, Operation KE would be a paradigm shift in their thinking.  And from their perspective, it was fortunate that this decision would be rarely repeated in the Pacific War.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle

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For the Imperial Japanese Navy, the Battle of Santa Cruz was one of those battles that was looked back on with downcast eyes, heavy sighs, and lots of phrases that began with “If only we…” and “It almost…” and “We just about…”.  Fought to the northest of the Santa Cruz Islands (several hundred miles east of the Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal), it was a one-day encounter (with postscripts on the preceding and subsequent days) in which they spanked their U.S. Navy counterparts in all areas except one…the one that mattered most.

For the U.S. Navy, that same battle, fought mostly on October 26, 1942, was probably one of those battles that was looked back on with pretty much one single thought…“We dodged a bullet.”  And indeed they had.

To the west on Guadalcanal, the Japanese 17th Army was just finishing up being pounded to a bloody pulp in its attempt to retake Henderson Field.  But reports sent back to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto were far more positive than reality made them, leading the Navy to believe that Henderson had actually been captured.  So the fleet was sent south to assist the Army in mopping up.  Of course, when aircraft from Henderson harassed the Japanese fleet (actually sinking a cruiser), it didn’t take long for Yamamoto to become suspicious of the reports.

On the U.S. Navy side, Admiral William Halsey (known simply as “Bull”) had just replaced Ghormley as commander and, as usual, Halsey was ready to fight right away.  But his force of 2 carriers, 1 battleship (the South Dakota), and a handful of cruisers and destroyers left him at a tremendous disadvantage when compared with Admiral Kondo’s array of 4 carriers, 4 battleships, and many cruisers and destroyers.  The carriers were the biggest problem as they carried 200 aircraft.

And as I mentioned, the battle on the 26th went almost completely Japan’s way.  The carrier USS Hornet was plastered (and eventually scuttled the next day by Japan).  And the USS Enterprise (shown above) was heavily damaged and forced to retreat.  The Japanese suffered heavy damage to the carriers Zuiho and Shokaku and the cruiser Chikuma.

At this point, Admiral Kondo and the Japanese were presented a golden opportunity.  The U.S. Navy was down to one (one!) carrier in the entire South Pacific…the damaged Enterprise.  Here was the chance to continue south with the force’s 2 remaining carriers and wreak havoc on the U.S. Navy.  And that’s precisely what Kondo intended to do…

…until the carrier planes began not returning.  The one area where Japan could not afford heavy losses was the one in which they were hit the hardest.  Half their carrier aircraft were lost in this one-day action, and there simply weren’t enough to mount any kind of solid attack.  The U.S. Navy had actually lost a higher percentage of their planes, but only 26 aircrews.  With both carriers out of action, they had no ability to do anything but retreat.  The Japanese Navy had been presented with a decisive victory on a silver platter, and couldn’t take it.  But it gets worse…

The Battle of Santa Cruz cost the Japanese nearly 150 aircrews, including nearly every squadron or flight leader that took to the air.  More than half of the Japanese pilots that had flown over Pearl Harbor were now dead, and Japan had no way to quickly replace them.  By the time they were replaced (months later), American naval assets were being produced in numbers that simply overwhelmed the Japanese.

In a couple of weeks, the naval engagement off Guadalcanal would wrest from the Japanese any solid hope of hanging on to the Solomon Islands.  The Battle of Santa Cruz and its losses in aircraft cost the Japanese the best shot at that “decisive all-in battle” they so desperately wanted with the U.S. Navy.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal: The Carrier Battles – If you can find a copy, get it.

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When the 1st Marine Division saw their “R and R” destination in the distance, they saw an island paradise.  And that was just fine with them.  After the tough fighting on New Britain, they needed rest, they needed to recover, and they needed to refill their ranks with new recruits.  And there on the horizon, Pavavu promised all of that.

Where is Pavavu?  We’ve spent a lot of time discussing the pivotal battles fought on and around Guadalcanal (the largest of the Solomon Islands), so you probably have a good idea of its general location.  Just an hour’s boat ride west of Guadalcanal lies the Russell Islands, sort of a subset of the Solomons.  The largest of the Russell Islands is Pavavu.

Anyway, when the weary Marines arrived on shore in May of 1944, those promises were shattered by reality.  Pavavu was a massive coconut grove…a massive, untended coconut grove.  Coconuts weren’t harvested here, they simply fell to the ground and rotted.  They were everywhere, and in places they were 2 or 3 feet deep.  Imagine if you can, the pleasant aroma of an entire island covered with smell of rotting coconut milk.  It’s what greeted the arriving Marines.

They spent weeks dumping loads of rotten coconuts into the swamps.  And the land crabs!!  Apparently they had a thing for rotten coconuts, because they were everywhere.  The Marines tried killing them, but they stunk worse than the coconuts, if that was possible.  They tried burning the bodies, but the stench was intolerable.  And there were huge rats.

There were no vegetables, no fruits, and no fresh meat on Pavavu.  So everything had to be shipped in…usually in powdered form…and bug-infested.  The “island paradise” was a nightmare that drove numerous Marines crazy.  And while they made their situation livable, it was still a tough existance.  Suicide rates were unusually high among the men.

July and August were spent training, and it was with some sense of relief that on September 4, 1944, they left Pavavu behind.  But they didn’t know that their destination, a little place called Peleliu, would make Pavuvu seem like the paradise it wasn’t.

Recommended Reading:  With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

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Word drifted back to Colonel Kiyano Ichiki of the encounter some of his men had with Colonel Brush’s patrol.  If you recall, Brush’s patrol and a small group of the Ichiki Butai had engaged in a firefight near Alligator Creek.  Nearly all the Japanese soldiers had been killed.

Ichiki’s response was probably expected, given the condition of the War in the Pacific to this point.  It had been completely dominated by the Japanese.  Yes, the Coral Sea and Midway had been modest setbacks, but that was the Imperial Navy.  Ichiki Butai was the pride of the Army and the Army was undefeated.  As far as Ichiki was concerned, it would remain that way.

So the Japanese commander gathered all his men and, at noon on the 20th, set out east in search of the U.S. Marines.  Keep in mind that the entire Ichiki Butai (a 2,000-man regiment) had not yet arrived on Guadalcanal. Only 900 or so had actually come ashore, with the remainder awaiting transport to the island.  But Ichiki’s confidence (or maybe arrogance) meant the entire group wasn’t needed.

After the 19th’s skirmish, Lt. Col. Edwin Pollock and his 2d Battalion, 1st Marines took up residence on the west side of Alligator Creek the next day.  They began setting up some defenses, running some barbed wire, and creating some machine-gun pits.  As night fell, they quieted down to sleep…and watch.

Ichiki Butai, their surety going before them, came traipsing down the beach, almost in plain sight.  Their quiet talking and general noise was amplified by the water to their right.  The Marines had a pretty good warning that trouble was in the area and they drew first blood just after midnight on August 21, 1942.

And for the next 17 hours, the mis-named Battle of the Tenaru River (the Tenaru was actually about a mile east of the battle site) raged.  The Ichiki Butai slammed against the Marine defenses, which held firm.  The Marines also were aided by 4 tanks that came down from the northwest along the beach and poured fire into the enemy.  At 4:30 in the afternoon, Col. Ichiki knew the battle was lost, burned the regimental colors (a somewhat strange act since half the regiment still existed) and committed suicide.

It was a relatively small engagement and, like the Battle of Bunker Hill, was incorrectly named based on where it was actually fought.  But, like Bunker Hill, the perceived invincibility of the enemy had been shattered.  The Japanese Army in general, and its elite Ichiki Butai in particular, considered themselves “unsinkable”.  The U.S. Marines, who lost 40 men and 70 wounded, now understood differently as they walked among the bodies of the nearly 800 dead that lay on the shore.  The Japanese that survived knew it as well.

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The patrol led by Lt. Col. Frank Goettge, tragically lost on August 13th, was just one of several that routinely went out in those early days on Guadalcanal.  And while Goettge’s patrol ran into trouble (that quickly became disaster), others had very little contact with their Japanese enemies.

At the same time the last of Goettge’s surviving men was escaping the death trap on the Matanikau River, Lt. Joseph Jachym’s platoon was having its first encounter…with a Catholic priest.  The priest had heard rumors of Japanese forces farther east along the coast, not far from Alligator Creek.  Rather than risk a major encounter with a small force, Jachym returned to base to prepare a larger force.

On August 19, 1942, Jachym set out at 7:00am.  His 60-man patrol was overseen by Captain Charles Brush, who wanted to tag along.  Along the way, they got to watch some action out to sea as a U.S. B-17 planted a string of bombs on the fantail of the Japanese destroyer Hagikaze.  But bigger action was coming.

Brush said it was time for lunch, and Jachym convinced the Captain to move a little farther to where his troops had found oranges on a previous patrol.  On the way they ran into a 40-man Japanese patrol, part of the Ichiki Butai.

Ichiki Butai was a regiment trained and commanded by Col. Kiyano Ichiki (shown above).  One of Japan’s elite fighting units, Ichiki Butai was the infantry on the ships headed toward Midway, and would have been the first men on the ground had that occupation actually occurred in June.

Brush’s patrol and this small group of Ichiki Butai, led by Col. Shibuya, ran into each other almost before they realized what was happening, though the U.S. Marines had the slight advantage of knowing that the enemy might be around.

In less than 30 minutes, Brush’s men had killed all but 5 of the enemy, while losing three Marines killed and three more wounded…a much better outcome that Goettge’s men had experienced the week before.

But as the Marines looked through the bodies, there were too many maps, and binoculars, and swords…too many officers.  It spoke of a larger, more powerful force in the vicinity, probably more than his current force was equipped to handle.  They returned to base and, with the help of intelligence reports, discovered their enemy was, indeed, Ichiki Butai.

A bigger battle was looming

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal: Starvation Island

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On August 17, 1942, the Battle of Guadalcanal was 10 days old.  The first serious Marine patrol sent out had come to a very bad end, and the first major engagement on this largest of the Solomon Islands was just a couple days away.

But already, the U.S. Navy was looking for ways to distract the Japanese from Guadalcanal.  So they turned to the Gilbert Islands.  Located more than 1,000 miles northwest of the Solomons, the Gilberts were a series of small atolls that, at the time, were well inside the Japanese defense lines, and therefore lightly garrisoned.  The Navy figured some kind of action would divert Japanese attention and, more importantly, Japanese supplies and reinforcements from Guadalcanal.

So Companies A and B the U.S. Marine Raiders boarded a pair of submarines (the USS Nautilus and USS Argonaut) and made for Makin Island.  Arriving on the August 16th, they scouted the island from the safety of the sub periscope, and then headed ashore at 5:30am the next day.

Opposing them was a very small force of Japanese soldiers (100 or so).  Early in the encounter, the Japanese launched a Banzai charge (one of the first of its kind in the Pacific War) with almost the entire garrison, which was pretty quickly neutralized.  With little worry except from a few Japanese aircraft, they set about destroying the island’s defenses.

There was little difficulty until they tried to leave that evening.  Heavy tides made departure difficult, and then the engines on the extraction boats refused to work.  The boats capsized against the breakers, spilling men and equipment into the water.  Some of the Marines were able to reach the waiting subs, but a good number, including the leader of the operations, Lt. Col. Evans Carlson, had to remain ashore until the next day, when they were able to extract.  It wasn’t until much later that it was discovered that, in the confusion, 9 Marines had been left behind.

The raid, accomplished at the cost of 20 killed and another 16 wounded, did serve its purpose…to a point.  The Japanese did reinforce the Gilberts, which did prevent some reinforcement of the Solomons.  But it also meant that a year later, when the Marines hit the beaches at both Tarawa (also in the Gilberts) and Makin, their job was hideously difficult.

And those 9 Marines left behind?  The much larger garrison that moved in captured them and, eventually, they were executed.  Those that were killed in the raid could not be removed, and would not be returned home and buried until August 17…of 2001.

Recommended Reading:  Coral Sea, Midway, and Submarine Operations: May 1942 – August 1942

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Yesterday’s battle (Prohkorovka) was a tongue-twister, so let’s do it again!

Kolombangara is not the biggest island you’ve never heard of, and it’s certainly not the easiest to pronounce.  But it’s one of the roundest.  So round, in fact, that I used some of my old geometry equations to roughly compute the area.  About 9.3 miles in diameter, divide that by 2, square the result, and multiply by pi…70 square miles, give or take.

Isn’t math fun?  I didn’t think so, so let’s – but math is extremely important, and a worthy course of study!! – move on to history.  Kolombangara is located in the Solomon Islands, down near New Guinea.  On a map, it’s right about here.  If you zoom out a bit from that link, and move about 200 miles to the southeast, you’ll discover the island of Guadalcanal, which with regular readers will be very familiar.

But after that storied 6-month battle, there was the almost unknown Battle of Kolombangara.

Despite losing Guadalcanal in February of 1943, the Japanese military still controlled much of the Solomon Islands, including New Georgia (Kolombangara’s southern neighbor).  It was decided that the Kolombangara’s garrison be reinforced, so a handful of destroyers were packed with 1,200 soldiers and down The Slot they came, 1 light cruiser and a quintet of destroyers.  But more than that, two groups of U.S. Marines had just landed on New Georgia, and this small battle group was also tasked with putting some steel and fire into their existence.

U.S. naval intelligence got wind of the move and sent Rear Admiral Walden Ainsworth on an intercept course with 3 light cruisers and 10 destroyers.  And at 1:00am on July 13, 1943, contact was made and the Japanese cruiser Jinstu turned on her searchlights and began firing.  But the U.S. Navy had superior fire control radar and spotter planes that were most effective, and their return fire plastered Admiral Shinju Izaki’s flagship, sending it to the ocean floor with the Admiral and nearly all hands.

The Japanese turned around, and Ainsworth, smelling more blood, gave chase.  But the pursuer was soon to feel the “sting in the tail” when spreads of those deadly Long Lance Torpedoes we’ve spoken about came scything through the formation.

Leander, a New Zealand cruiser, was hit before Jintsu went down.  The other pair of cruisers, the USS Honolulu and USS St. Louis, were next to feel the bite of the Long Lance, though both stayed afloat.  The same could not be said for the destroyer USS Gwin, which took a torpedo amidships and ended up being scuttled later in the day.

So who wins this battle?  Well, the Japanese Navy was able to land its troops on Kolombangara, while losing just a light cruiser.  The U.S. protected the Marines on New Guinea, but lost a destroyer and had 3 additional ships put out of action.  The Japanese saw it as a victory.  Humorously, the great historian Samuel Eliot Morison penned, “A string of such victories added up to defeat.

Recommended Reading: Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier

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In January of 1942, when southeast Asia and the Pacific were collapsing under the weight of one Japanese victory after another, looking ahead to January of 1943 and any glimmer of hope probably required, in the minds of the military, a telescope.  Names like Pearl Harbor, the Prince of Wales, Wake Island, and Guam may have been mentioned with hushed voices, but still fell like hammer-blows on the anvil, painful and scarring.  And places like Malaysia, Singapore, Bataan, and Corregidor would soon be added to that list.  Trying to find any ray of victory required a long look into the future.  Even names like the Coral Sea and Midway only served as reminders of the distance left to travel.  Guadalcanal still seemed on the far horizon.

In August of 1942, the focus narrowed on Guadalcanal and, over the next six months, another look at January 1943 was taken.  Only this time, the instrument of choice was the microscope, and the focus of the U.S. (and much of the world) zeroed in on the island, one of the Solomons, where the momentum of the Pacific War would largely be determined.  Under that microscope’s glare, more localized names like Edson’s Ridge, Lt. Col. Goettge, Henderson Field, the USS Juneau, Iron Bottom Sound, and Tassafaronga Pt. came into sharp relief.  And there the focus remained for six long months of intense combat…on land, on (and under) the sea, and in the air.

But now it was February 9, 1943.  And looking at January 1943 could only be done with the aid of a rearview mirror.  The Germans had been shut down at Stalingrad.  Slow, though very painful, progress was being made in North Africa.  Orde Wingate was prepping his Chindit forces for battle in Burma.  And the Allies were beginning the initial planning for an attack into southern Europe.

And Guadalcanal?  Well, February 9th’s rearview mirror showed final victory.  The Japanese military, unable to continue supplying its exhausted and dying troops, made a most unusual decision (for the Japanese military anyway) to evacuate.  That decision, made in December, was put into action in January as Operation Ke.  On February 1st, the first of more than 10,000 Japanese troops departed and, by the 8th, all were gone.  U.S. forces, still expecting an offensive, arrived at the northwest tip of Guadalcanal to find nothing but bodies among the flotsam and jetsam of war.

General Alexander Patch announced, on February 9, 1943, that Guadalcanal was in U.S. hands.  But the cost was high.  More than 7,000 U.S. fighting men went to Guadalcanal…and didn’t return.  The same could be said of more than 30,000 Japanese soldiers.  But victory had been achieved, and the pain of 1942 and the search for that ray of hope was now over, even though the rearview mirror would have to again be shelved for the telescope, which would be trained on the next objective.

Covering the Battle of Guadalcanal has been so rewarding and educational for me…I hope you can say that as well.  We’ll visit the island again, but we’re not likely to cover it with the same focus we’ve had over the last six months.  Rather than a “Recommended Reading“, I’m going to take an abnormal turn and link back to all the pieces covering Guadalcanal.  I know it smacks of pretentious self-promotion, but it’s really a look through the rearview mirror.

I haven’t said this nearly enough, but thank you for reading and for all your feedback.

Jul 6 (1942) – Two Enemies, One Island – Guadalcanal
Aug 7 (1942) – At Dawn They Slept
Aug 7 (1942) – Saburo Sakai Flights for his Life
Aug 9 (1942) – Japanese Rout Opponents at Savo Island
Aug 13 (1942) – Welcome to the Jungle
Aug 19 (1942) – Lunch and a Battle for Brush’s Men
Aug 21 (1942) – Ichiki Butai Bitten Hard at Alligator Creek
Oct 12 (1942) – “Treat a Stranger as a Thief”
Oct 15 (1942) – High Gas Prices Cost USS Meredith Dearly
Oct 20 (1942) – Bull Halsey Steps in, Prepares for Battle
Oct 26 (1942) – Japan Wins Big and Loses Bigger at Santa Cruz
Nov 13 (1942) – “A Barroom Brawl With the Lights Out”
Nov 15 (1942) – The Momentum Shifts at Guadalcanal
Nov 30 (1942) – The Long (Lance) Arm of the Law
Dec 9 (1942) – Marines, We are Leaving!
Dec 24 (1942) – Twas the Night Before Christmas
Dec 26 (1942) – Operation Ke: Japanese “Soldier-ectomy”
Jan 14 (1943) – “He Who Fights and Runs Away…”
Jan 23 (1943) – Guadalcanal Victory in Sight
Jan 30 (1943) – USS Chicago Sunk by Bombs and Bumbling

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I’ve really enjoyed writing about the Battle of Guadalcanal.  As the first real offensive action of the Pacific War (and of the war in general) for American forces, I think it’s pretty significant.  Since our first discussions of the Solomon Islands campaign back in August, we’ve looked at a number of events, small and large, that helped shape not only the outcome of the conflict, but the Marines (and eventually the Army soldiers) that fought there.

But by mid-January of 1943, the outcome was no longer in doubt.  In fact, as we saw just a few days ago, the Japanese had already begun laying the groundwork to extract their soldiers.  But there was still fighting going on.  Back in December, U.S. Army soldiers had discovered the Gifu, the last major stronghold on Guadalcanal.  In close proximity was the Sea-Horse and the Galloping Horse, two smaller strongholds named for the shapes of the hill structures around them.  And over the next month, much of the struggle would be focused here.

The Galloping Horse was the first to fall, on January 13th.  The Sea-Horse, in between the Gifu and the Galloping Horse, was taken on January 15th, with the few survivors from each of these redoubts heading west and north toward friendly forces.

Though the Gifu was manned by only 500 or so Japanese soldiers, they were extremely well-entrenched in a network of several dozen pillboxes that were heavily camoflauged.  And cracking the Gifu turned out to be an exercise in patience.

It wasn’t until artillery pieces were brought in, along with a light tank that was able to traverse the supply trail on the 22nd, that things could really get moving.  With the artillery firing at point-blank range, progress became measurable.  And then the tank rolled through, blasting away at the pillboxes and blowing them to pieces.

In the very early morning hours of January 23, 1943, the remaining 100 Japanese soldiers in the Gifu attacked in a massed suicide charge, and were wiped out.  As the sun rose over the hills of Guadalcanal, the Gifu was in American hands.

The fall of the Gifu, for all intents and purposes, ended organized fighting on Guadalcanal.  The remaining Japanese troops were either preparing for evacuation, or retreating toward the evac areas.  There would still be some fighting by naval forces around the island (which we may cover at some point), but the first major American victory in World War II was on Guadalcanal’s horizon.

Recommended Reading: Starvation Island – I read this in college, and just found a hardback edition in excellent condition for $8…$8!!!

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The fight for the island of Guadalcanal had entered its sixth month, but the situation was vastly different than it had been when the 1st Marine Division walked ashore in August of 1942.  Back then, the Marines were the newcomers, with a mission to dislodge a well-equipped, confident Japanese foe.

But as 1943 began, the U.S. Army and Marines 2nd Division now controlled the  majority of Guadalcanal.  In fact, the last major Japanese stronghold near Mount Austen, called the Gifu, was now being reduced.  There was no doubt about the winner now, it was just a matter of how long and how tenaciously the remaining Japanese would hold out.

Japan’s military establishment knew it, and had been debating it back in mid-December.  They had been given details of the starving soldiers, the struggle to keep them supplied, the burgeoning U.S. power in the Solomon Islands, along with the certainty that Guadalcanal could no longer be held.

Out of the discussions came Operation Ke, a rather unusual plan (for the Japanese anyway) to, as quietly as possible, evacuate the remaining soldiers from the island without alerting the Americans.  To that end, a battalion of Japanese soldiers landed on Guadalcanal’s northwest corner on January 14, 1943.  Their arrival, primarily to act as an evacuation rearguard, signalled the start of Operation Ke.

At the same time, ships and aircraft moved into the area to assist with the evacuation.  These movements actually served to confuse General Alexander Patch into thinking another offensive was in the works.  So Patch acted more conservatively with his troops which, in addition to fighting at the Gifu, were converging on the Japanese from both sides of the island.

I mention Operation Ke’s commencement because, throughout the Pacific War, a “retreat” by the Japanese military was almost unheard of.  Usually it was a fight to the death.

Recommended Reading:  Guadalcanal

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…and on Guadalcanal
Japanese were still shooting
At us and our pals

The Gifu we’d found
Last stronghold of size
All hidden in foliage
Causing greatest surprise

Fifteen times three
Those pillboxes numbered
And in there no soldier
On Christmas Eve slumbered

And that’s about the gist of it.  By mid-December, the fight for control of Guadalcanal had turned decidedly in favor of the U.S.  As I’ve mentioned before, hunger was our biggest ally.  The Japanese Navy, continuously harrassed by the Cactus Air Force and unable to squelch it, had little success in getting supplies to the beleaguered, and now starving, troops.  The Japanese soldier was reduced to eating grass, leaves, bugs, and even dirt to survive.

But those still healthy could put up a fight, as our little rhyme suggests.  On December 24, 1942, the American 132nd Infantry – the 1st Marine Division had been replaced earlier in the month by the 2nd Marine Division and two Army divisions – discovered the Gifu, a well-hidden network of pillboxes just to the west of Mount Austen.  Defended by more than 500 Japanese, it was the largest remaining enemy stronghold on Guadalcanal.

And so, on this Christmas Eve, the island fight would continue.  And as we’ll see in the future, the Gifu would be one tough nut to crack.

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By the end of November, the Battle of Guadalcanal was beginning to turn in favor of the U.S. Marines fighting there.  While they were matched by their Japanese counterparts in terms of tenacity and fighting spirit, the Japanese soldier was now being plagued by a bigger problem…hunger.  Due to constant harrassment from both the U.S. air squadrons stationed on Guadalcanal and the U.S. Navy, the Japanese were having a very difficult time getting supplies to their troops.  This led to malnutrition, weakness, sickness, and the inability to fight.

But still the Japanese leadership persisted in trying to feed and re-arm its soldiers.  The evening of November 30, 1942 saw just such an attempt.  Using 8 destroyers (they were fast and agile, making them less of a target), Admiral Raizo Tanaka loaded up with supplies and headed south.  But the U.S. Navy got wind of the convoy and set off to intercept.  And this time, the U.S. Navy got to be the “Goliath“, as its 4 heavy cruisers, a light cruiser, and some destroyers presented Admiral Tanaka with a huge gap in firepower.

The two forces engaged off Tassafaronga Point during November 30th’s final hour and, as we have seen before, “Goliath” got whipped by “David”.  One heavy cruiser, the USS Northampton (shown above), was sunk, and 3 other cruisers were heavily damaged.  The Japanese lost a single destroyer.

So what caused such a mismatch on paper to go so wrong for the U.S. Navy?  There are a couple reasons.  First, a moonless night meant ships were harder to see.  Second, the Japanese were very close to Guadalcanal, making it even harder to pick out the ships in the dark, either visually or on their primitive radars.  But the biggest reason comprises just four-words…the Long Lance Torpedo.

The Type 93 torpedo was, quite simply, the best torpedo used in World War II.  Compared to its U.S. equivalent (the Mark XV), the Type 93 had nearly 3 times the range (hence the name “Long Lance“), was significantly faster, and packed a 25% larger warhead.  Furthermore, the U.S. torpedoes had a maddening failure rate (they exploded early, they failed to explode on contact, or tracked erratically), a “feature” not seen in the Long Lance.  This torpedo packed a devastating punch and all Japanese destroyers and cruisers carried them.

At first contact with the Americans, Tanaka’s destroyers launched a massive spread of Long Lances with terrific effect…for them.  The U.S. Navy, again bloodied and battered, was forced to leave the scene.  But their intervention had succeeded, at high cost, in preventing Tanaka from landing supplies on Guadalcanal.  The Battle of Tassafaronga Point may have been a battle lost for the Americans, but it was another small step towards winning the war for Guadalcanal.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal: Decision at Sea

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The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, which we first discussed the other day, ended in the early morning hours of November 15, 1942.  This battle was a slugfest, fought at super-close ranges (sometimes measured in feet), and really only concluded because each side pretty much ran out of ships with which to fight.  Since this is a “part 2” type of story, let’s digress a bit to where we left off.

The U.S. Navy, after the action on the 13th, retreated a bit to catch its breath.  This allowed the large transport force (sent to reinforce the island) to continue south towards it destination.  It also permitted the Japanese Navy to move in that night and shoot up Henderson Field, but their half-hour barrage did little damage.

Fast forward to the evening of the 14th.  The Japanese transport force was approaching the north end of the island, so the Japanese again moved in to shell the airfield.  The U.S Navy was waiting and the fight was on again.  The “cobbled-together” force consisted of a pair of battleships (the South Dakota and Washington) and 4 destroyers, none of which had ever fought together (the destroyers were chosen because they had the least damage and the most fuel).  It was a risky move, but Admiral William Halsey believed that a certain amount of daring was required.

This engagement was one of only two “battleship-versus-battleship” encounters in the entire Pacific War (the other we’ve already mentioned) and it was, again, at very close range.  The South Dakota took quite a beating as she became a target for nearly every enemy ship, but the Washington (shown above) came to her rescue.  In one of the most remarkable displays of gunnery skill ever, she pounded the Japanese battleship Kirishima to a bloody pulp, leaving her a wreck and spinning in circles with a jammed rudder.

When Admiral Nobutake Konda finally pulled his remaining ships out of action early on the 15th (thereby ending the 3-day Battle), the sea floor around Guadalcanal had gained a much higher iron content.  The U.S. Navy actually lost more ships, with a pair of cruisers and seven destroyers lost.  The Japanese tally showed only 6 ships lost, but losing the Hiei and Kirishima (both battleships) was particularly painful.

But victories aren’t measured in total counts.  The failure to again attack Henderson Field meant that, when the transports began landing 3 hours later, the Cactus Air Force was waiting.  With a little help from the Navy, the air warriors put paid to much of the landing force.  Only about half of the 7,000 Japanese soldiers were able to land, and nearly all the supplies were destroyed.  In fact, other than a few supplies and a handful of reinforcements, the Japanese would not be able to again mount any signifcant resupply of Guadalcanal, though they would certainly try (we’ll look at another attempt in a couple weeks).

Though fighting would continue for another two and a half months, the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was the beginning of the end of the Japanese presence on Guadalcanal.  The momentum of World War II, at least in the Pacific Theater, had switched.

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After more than 3 months, I’ve nearly finished my second reading of Richard Frank’s outstanding work Guadalcanal.  In fact, if all goes well, I should have it done tonight.  I’m still partial to Eric Hammel’s trilogy on the island (and sea) encounter, but for a one-volume account, Frank’s work is hard to beat.  So let’s head there again for a few minutes.

The fight for Guadalcanal, begun in August, was really the fight for control of Henderson Field.  Since then, the Japanese, who lost that control on the day of the American landings, had been trying, without success, to retake the airstrip.  In early November, the Japanese decided on a bold reinforcement of the island, sending 7,000 troops and equipment in an all-out effort to dislodge their enemy.  But in order to safely land the troops, U.S. airpower at Henderson needed to be neutralized.  So a large chunk of the Japanese Navy headed down to shell the field.  But the U.S. got wind of the warships…action was about to ensue.

The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was really a couple of major engagements (the first occuring in the early morning hours of November 13, 1942), and both sides had very heavy losses.  We’ll look at a bit of today’s action, particularly as it pertains to the USS Juneau.  But first, an overview…

This battle was particularly violent because the ships fought as such close ranges.  A surviving officer later compared it to “a barroom brawl after the lights had been shot out“…and that was accurate.  Fought in the narrow Iron Bottom Sound (between Guadalcanal and Savo Island), there wasn’t much room for a bevy of ships to maneuver.  Furthermore, an almost moonless night made picking out ship silouhettes pretty tough.  So distances were pretty small when the guns started blazing.  How close?  Well, the destroyer USS Laffey (with her 5″ main guns) passed within 20 feet of the battleship Hiei (featuring 14″ main guns)…so close that Hiei could do nothing while the Laffey put a major hurt on her superstructure (Hiei would later be sunk).  Once Laffey had opened the range, Hiei’s main guns sang and Laffey was hit (and sunk by a torpedo shortly after).

We’ll tally the total score after the shooting is done, but on to the Juneau.

The USS Juneau (shown above) was hit by a Long-Lance torpedo (which we’ll discuss in more depth in a couple weeks) early on and received heavy damage.  Retiring from the action, she was able to clear the scene on one engine.  Late morning found her heading toward Espiritu Santo (and island just northeast of Australia) for repairs when disaster struck.  A sub-fired torpedo opened Juneau with a Hood-like explosion that split the ship in two and sank it…in 20 seconds.  The damaged cruisers, fearing more attacks and knowing no sailors could have survived, fled the scene.

But there were survivors…more than 100, including two of the five Sullivan brothers (the other three died in the explosion).  And like the USS Meredith before and the USS Indianapolis after, oversight, miscommunication, and negligence would force sailors to be left alone to fight the elements for eight days.  When help finally arrived, only 10 men were left…and no Sullivans were to be found.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal

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