Chapter One: Background
When Adm. Chester W. Nimitz assumed command of the Pacific Fleet on December 31, 1941, a little more than three weeks after the disaster at Pearl Harbor, his orders from his boss, Adm. Ernest J. King, were to cover and hold the Hawaii-Midway line, maintain communications with the West Coast and try to protect the sea lanes to Australia.
There was no talk of any offensive action. That probably wouldn't happen until at least January of 1943, Nimitz was told.
America's first offensive priority would be directed at stopping Germany. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had reached an agreement with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that the defeat of Adolf Hitler's regime was paramount to democracy's survival. Having overrun much of Europe, the Germans seemed poised to overwhelm England and Russia and move into the oil-rich Middle East. America had decided that every ship, every bomb, every ounce of war material and every unit not urgently needed elsewhere would go toward bolstering the Soviet armies and to build up Allied forces in Britain for a possible assault on continental Europe late in 1942. The Pacific would have to wait.
Admiral King, who was possessed with a ruthless determination, had no intention of sitting and watching Japan's aggressions go unchecked in the Pacific. He would not be a party to any "holding action." Just a year short of mandatory retirement in 1942, King had served his country well for forty-one years. He was a legendary figure in the Navy both on and off duty. Intelligent and dedicated, King was a visible and colorful force in the politically charged arena of Washington politics. Asked how he got his appointment as Commander in Chief of the Navy, one of his aides told a reporter: "Well, I guess when the going gets tough, they send for the sons of bitches."
King was a hard-driving taskmaster who once told a subordinate: "You ought to be very suspicious of anyone who won't take a drink or doesn't like women." King, the father of seven, was deficient in neither category.
"He's so tough he shaves with a blowtorch," President Roosevelt said of his Navy chief more than once.
King knew very well he had to keep his fiery temper under control. To object too strongly could cost him his career. So, he gave lip service to the "Europe first" strategy and bit his tongue while working tirelessly behind the scenes, lobbying anyone who would listen for men and equipment to slow down the Japanese expansion.
Token naval forces were sent to such backwater Pacific outposts as Canton Island and Christmas Island south of Hawaii and Samoa, Fiji and New Caledonia to the southwest. This last island, a French possession, was to be the principal advance base in the South Pacific. It had a great harbor near its capital city of Noumea.
The Japanese had established a similar ring of bases during their expansion after the outbreak of war. The most formidable base in the southwestern Pacific was at Rabaul on the island of New Britain. To the north was the bastion of Truk, Japan's equivalent to Pearl Harbor. Both had excellent harbors and adjacent airfields.
The Japanese advances had caused serious alarm in Australia where they were woefully unprepared for war. Four of the country's best divisions were deployed elsewhere, three in the Middle East and one in Malaya, all fighting under British control. Australian Prime Minister John Curtin demanded the return of at least two divisions from the Middle East to defend their homeland.
To insure allied harmony, Roosevelt decided on February 15, 1942 that the United States would assume responsibility for the defense of both Australia and New Zealand, promising to send two Army divisions (41st and 32nd) to the former and another (37th) to the latter. Admiral King also convinced FDR to send the carrier Lexington and its supporting ships to the South Pacific under the command of Rear Adm. Herbert Leary.
Admiral King had a powerful ally in his quest to strike back at the Japanese. The American people were still seething with anger over the unprovoked attack at Pearl Harbor and they wanted revenge. Roosevelt, one of the most astute politicians in American history, knew he had to listen to the people. He loathed the Japanese for their treachery at Pearl Harbor. Nobody wanted payback more than he did.
With Roosevelt's tacit approval, King moved aggressively to set up a line of bases in the South Pacific from which he could initiate future advances through the New Hebrides, Solomons and Bismarck Archipelago. Orders were given to Nimitz to formulate operational plans to assume the offensive against Japan. King made it clear, no matter what the consequences, that he absolutely refused to sit back and do nothing to counter Japanese aggression.
At a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on March 5, one chaired by Roosevelt, King again lobbied hard for offensive action in the Pacific. He reiterated his intentions of holding Hawaii and supporting Australia but he also offered a plan to drive northward from the New Hebrides to take the fight to the Japanese. FDR listened intently. King could tell by the end of the meeting that he had completely won over the commander in chief.
Army Chief of Staff George Marshall and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson continued to argue for a commitment to an early attack in Europe from England but the strength of their convictions began to wane. The fact that King was outnumbered didn't seem to faze him. On the contrary, the challenge seemed to embolden him. He told Marshall and Stimson he refused to remain on the defensive in the Pacific and if necessary he was prepared to use only Navy and Marine Corps forces for the job.
By mid-March, King had proposed that a series of "strong points" be established in the South Pacific, as a prelude to a step-by-step advance up the Solomon Islands. King did not yet realize it but his finger was pointing at Guadalcanal as the first step.
The bad news in the Pacific reached its nadir on April 9 when word of the surrender of Bataan in the Philippines was announced. Some 76,000 Filipinos and Americans were taken prisoner in the largest capitulation of military forces in the nation's history. The news cast a gloom over the entire country.
Nine days later came the first good news from the Pacific when word was flashed that American aircraft had bombed Japan. Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, an Army pilot, led a flight of sixteen B-25s off the deck of the USS Hornet on a daylight bombing raid and then flew off to airfields in China. Thirteen of the planes, each carrying four five-hundred-pound bombs, made runs over Tokyo while the other three, armed with incendiary bombs, flew over Kobe, Nagoya and Osaka.
The raid had Roosevelt's fingerprints all over it. He had been lobbying for some kind of retaliatory action ever since Pearl Harbor.
The raid turned out to be more symbolic than destructive, but the psychological harm to Japan was enormous. It proved to the world that the Japanese homeland was not invulnerable and forced the enemy to divert more of its military resources to the home islands to ensure it wouldn't happen again.
The Doolittle Raid had been a risky venture right from the beginning. It was supposed to be a night raid and all planes were scheduled to land at predetermined airfields deep in China behind Japanese lines. The carrier task force under Adm. Bill Halsey had been spotted some seven hundred miles east of Japan and had been forced to take off early, which put them over their targets about noon. Amazingly, none of the planes were shot down over Japan.
Flying on to China and running low on fuel, the task force ran into a heavy rain squall just as night fell. Eleven of the sixteen crews had to bail out, another four crash-landed, and the remaining crew became disoriented and wound up landing in Russian-held territory near Vladivostok. Two of the crews (a total of eight men) were captured when they were forced to crash-land or bail out over China.
All but nine of the eighty aviators on the raid survived. Four drowned and another was killed in a parachute mishap. Of the eight crewmen captured in China, three were executed by a Japanese firing squad after a sham war-crimes trial and another died in captivity. The executions of the airmen, who were accused of intentionally shooting up a schoolyard, infuriated Americans, who had another rallying cry to go along with "Remember Pearl Harbor" and "Remember Wake Island."
The Japanese, who were unable to determine the size or direction of the attack, were humiliated. Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto was left with the embarrassing chore of explaining what happened to the Emperor and then promising that it would never happen again.
"Even though there wasn't much damage, it's a disgrace that the skies over the imperial capital should have been defiled without a single enemy plane shot down," Yamamoto wrote. "It provides a regrettably graphic illustration of the saying that a bungling attack is better than the most skillful defense."
Roosevelt was delighted with the bombing raid. When asked by the media where the planes had come from, Roosevelt smiled broadly, leaned back in his chair in the oval office and said, "They came from a secret base in Shangri-La," referring to the mythical land in James Hilton's Lost Horizon.
A month later in a White House ceremony, Roosevelt presented the Congressional Medal of Honor to a reluctant Doolittle, who had been promoted two ranks to brigadier general. Doolittle felt he had done nothing more than anyone else in the squadron and thus did not deserve to be singled out for such an individual honor.
Doolittle's raid turned out to be more than just a psychological success. It altered the course of the war in the Pacific and helped hasten Japan's capitulation. Within days, Yamamoto, who had promised his Emperor he would defend the homeland, convinced the military leaders to delay planned thrusts southward to capture Samoa, Fiji and New Caledonia, which would have cut off the shipping lanes between the United States and Australia, and concentrate on a strike eastward against Midway in the central Pacific. The Americans, he told the militarists, must not be allowed to hold any territory from which they could ever again launch more air attacks on the Japanese homeland.
Japan's military leaders, deeply embarrassed by the Doolittle Raid, quickly approved Yamamoto's eastward plan of attack and set the date for the first week in June.
America's resounding triumph at Midway, which included the sinking of four enemy carriers and the loss of hundreds of experienced flyers, would be the beginning of the end for the Japanese military machine.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had escaped to Australia from the Philippines in March, had been named Supreme Commander of allied forces in the Southwest Pacific area, which encompassed Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, the Solomons, the Bismarcks and the Philippines. Admiral Nimitz was commander in chief of everything else in the Pacific that was not under MacArthur's domain.
MacArthur, who was just as outspoken as King, made it known that his first priority was the capture of the huge Japanese air and naval base at Rabaul on New Britain Island and that his ultimate goal was a return to the Philippines. Nimitz did not agree, proposing instead a series of hit-and-run raids against Tulagi and other island bases in the Solomons.
Both camps wrestled with the thorny issue of command throughout the spring of 1942. The imperious MacArthur took umbrage that Nimitz would suggest an action in his sphere of influence. King moved swiftly to defuse this bone of contention, shifting the area boundary one degree to the west, giving Nimitz control over the lower Solomons, which included Tulagi and Guadalcanal.
King overruled Nimitz's choice of Adm. William Pye as his South Pacific commander, choosing the aloof Vice Adm. Robert L. Ghormley, who was then the American naval observer in London. Pye had been interim Pacific Fleet commander after Adm. Husband Kimmel was sacked following the Pearl Harbor disaster and it was his order that recalled the Wake Island relief mission on December 23. King, and other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, couldn't forgive Pye's action to call off the rescue effort, though many historians believe he made the right decision.
Ghormley's primary asset was his diplomatic experience. He was suave, gentle, patient and tactful, qualities he displayed during his two-year appointment to England. He, like everyone else in the Navy Department, was almost completely ignorant of the South Pacific and the intentions of the Japanese in the area. His elevation to a wartime post in the Pacific proved to be a disappointing one.
"I do not have the tools to give you to carry out that task as it should be," King told Ghormley prior to the latter's arrival in Auckland in mid-May. "In time, possibly this fall, we hope to start an offensive from the South Pacific."
Ghormley had been handed the most critical job in the fleet, one that would come to a boil much quicker than anybody could imagine.
Meanwhile, the American Navy had just survived its first big clash with the Japanese in what was to be called the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 7-8. Tactically, the clash was a stand-off but strategically, it was an American victory because it stopped a planned Japanese invasion of Port Moresby. The Americans lost the carrier Lexington in the battle and suffered heavy damage to the Yorktown, which was quickly repaired to fight again four weeks later.
The Japanese lost a light carrier and suffered heavy battle damage to another. More importantly, American pilots shot down nearly half the carrier-based aircraft employed in the battle, taking with them their irreplaceable pilots.
A few weeks later, Nimitz, under constant prodding from King for some offensive action, proposed a quick strike on Tulagi, a small island off the coast of Florida Island and only twenty miles across the sea from Guadalcanal, by the 1st Marine Raider Battalion, which had recently arrived at Samoa. Tulagi, which was considered the best harbor in the Solomon Islands, had good deep-water ports and a seaplane base. The operation was quickly called off, however, because there weren't enough available forces to hold the island once taken. Planning continued for something more substantial but Tulagi was kept on the back burner.
King became energized again after the American victory at Midway in early June. He reasoned that the United States should seize the initiative with an attack in the Solomons by August 1. But the plan became mired in politics. General Marshall wanted General MacArthur to command the proposed offensive but King was adamant that the Navy should control the operation. King wired Nimitz in Hawaii in late June to prepare a battle plan on the assumption that only Navy and Marine units would be available.
MacArthur had no intention of letting the Navy take control. It was left to General Marshall to act as a mediator between the Navy and Army. Marshall offered a three-part operation designed to assuage MacArthur's objection over control. D-day would be August 1.
Task one would be the seizure of Tulagi and the Santa Cruz Islands under Navy control. The latter target was chosen because it had a good airfield site at Ndeni. Task two would be the capture of Lae, Salamaua and the northeast coast of New Guinea and task three would be the attack on Rabaul and adjacent positions in the New Britain-New Ireland area. MacArthur would be in control of the latter two operations.
On June 26, barely twelve days after the arrival of the 5th Marines of the 1st Marine Division in Wellington, New Zealand, Maj. Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift and members of his staff were summoned to a meeting with Admiral Ghormley in Auckland. Vandegrift had no idea what was coming.
"Vandegrift, I have some very disconcerting news," Ghormley announced in a brusque manner immediately after the two had shaken hands.
"I'm sorry to hear that, admiral," Vandergrift answered.
"You will be more sorry when you read this," Ghormley said, handing him a top-secret dispatch from Washington.
"I pulled a chair up to his desk to concentrate on the document. It directed Ghormley to confer with MacArthur concerning an amphibious operation...and we were to land on August 1 -- less than five weeks away.
"I couldn't believe it."
It was an "alert order" for an operation against Tulagi and "adjacent positions" and Ndeni in the nearby Santa Cruz Islands. Vandegrift would have operational control of the 5th Marines, the 1st Marines, which would arrive in New Zealand in two weeks, the 3rd Defense Battalion, currently in Hawaii, the understrength 1st Parachute Battalion and the 1st Raider Battalion, which had been training in Samoa for two months. To replace his 7th Marines, which were also garrisoned at Samoa, Vandegrift would be given one battalion of the 2nd Marines of the 2nd Marine Division, which had just left San Diego. The other two battalions of the 2nd Marines, however, would be under the direct control of the amphibious commander, Rear Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner, who apparently had plans to use them in a separate operation.
Vandegrift was stunned. He was under the impression that his division, much of it still en route to the South Pacific, would not have to go into action until January 1, 1943. He was told that by the Marine Commandant, Maj. Gen. Thomas Holcomb, who passed this information on to him through Admiral King.
After Vandegrift had digested the message, Ghormley asked him for his opinion.
"I knew only that my division was spread over hell's half-acre, one-third in Samoa, one-third in New Zealand and one-third still at sea," Vandegrift would write. "My equipment, much of it new, had to be broken in; my supply had to be sorted and combat-packaged; shortages had to be determined and filled."
After explaining all this to Ghormley, Vandegrift paused to gather his composure and said: "I just don't see how we can land anywhere by August first."
Ghormley nodded in agreement and said: "I don't see how we can land at all, and I am going to take it up with MacArthur. Meanwhile we'll have to go ahead as best we can."
Vandegrift saluted and left the conference to meet with his staff.
"In addition to being totally unrealistic, the plan was 'Blue Water Navy' circa 1907 from start to finish with little or nothing in the way of specific reference to the role of air power," Merrill B. Twining, an assistant operations officer on Vandegrift's staff, later wrote. "Guadalcanal was not even mentioned. There was a reference to adjacent islands, obviously inclusive of the group of minor islets close to Tulagi, such as Gavutu and Tanambogo. It most certainly did not include the major island of Guadalcanal, some twenty miles to the south of Tulagi. Guadalcanal -- ninety miles long and twenty-five miles wide -- possessed the only extensive terrain in the area suitable for developing a major air base -- an unsinkable aircraft carrier. Therefore, it was the strategic jewel in the Solomon Islands necklace. The Japanese, apparently aware of this, were believed to be constructing a fighter strip there."
Assuming that these widely scattered units could be assembled in time, they still would be totally untrained in division-level tactics. Furthermore, most of the troops would have been at sea for several weeks and their physical conditioning would be less than optimum.
The 1st Marine Division was plainly not ready to go into combat especially without its best regiment. The 7th Marines, a force of some 3,200 men, was in Samoa, having been detached from the division since April. The unit had been stocked with the best personnel in the division and rushed to the South Pacific as a reaction force, only to sit around while the rest of the division was heading off to war.
The 5th Marines, which had been picked over to form the 1st Raider Battalion and to fill out the 7th Marines, arrived in Wellington, New Zealand with Vandegrift and his advance party on June 14. The 1st Marines, which had a strong leadership corps but was basically made up of new recruits, were scheduled to arrive in Wellington in early July. Replacing the 7th Marines would be the 2nd Marines of the 2nd Division, which Vandegrift had never seen before. Also under Vandegrift's command were three battalions of the division's artillery unit, the 11th Marines.
The division was far short of being in a satisfactory state of readiness for combat. The vast majority of the ranks were recent enlistees -- Pearl Harbor Avengers. Many were in their teens but they were fit and willing. On the other hand, however, most of the NCOs and officers were crusty veterans, who gave the division its moniker as "The Old Breed."
The old salts and China hands, especially the seasoned gunnery sergeants -- the "schoolmarms of the Marines" -- had the tough job of turning civilians into killers and not much time to do it. What a colorful bunch they were, too.
"There were professional privates who had spent as much time in the brig as in the barracks," wrote historian Robert Leckie. "Gamblers, drinkers and connivers, brawlers in starched, creased khaki and natty 'pisscutter' caps, they fought sailors and soldiers of every nationality in every bar from Brooklyn to Bangkok; blasphemous and profane with a fine fluency that would astound a London cockney, they were nevertheless dedicated soldiers who knew their hard calling in every detail from stripping a machine gun blindfold to tying a tourniquet with their teeth. They were tough and they knew it, and they exulted in that knowledge."
Vandegrift had no choice on when his division would be deployed. Time had run out. He absorbed the bitter news from Ghormley almost without comment, saluted and went about obeying his orders. Vandegrift's operations officer, Lt. Col. Gerald Thomas, asked why the 2nd Marines couldn't replace the 7th Marines at Samoa so that the 1st Division could go into battle with its best regiment. Ghormley had no answer, but said he would ask. Apparently Turner, who continued to act like a ground commander rather than an admiral, had plans to use the 7th in another operation at Ndeni in the Santa Cruz Islands, a plan that was quickly shelved. He would later propose forming his own Raider Battalion and also using the 7th Marines in a bizarre plan to establish scattered enclaves along the northern coast of Guadalcanal. He would be quickly disavowed of this latter plan when it was pointed out to him that there was no point in establishing other perimeters if the first could not be held.
Though secrecy was stressed, news of the impending operation spread quickly. A local newspaper in Wellington printed a story announcing the arrival of "a completely equipped expeditionary force of American Marines" and then conjectured that a force such as this is "not usually sent to bases where action is not expected." One of the headlines read: "Americans to Attack Tulagi."
As far as the Marines could see, the whole world knew where they were going to hit. It wasn't a very reassuring situation.
Overall tactical command of the operation, dubbed "Watch-tower," was given to Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher, who had won a Medal of Honor at Vera Cruz in 1916. He would be promoted to vice admiral on July 15. Fletcher had recently gained a reputation as an overly cautious officer, one who was predisposed to "play it safe." This hesitancy to close with and engage the enemy was undoubtedly caused by his losing the carrier Lexington at Coral Sea and the Yorktown at Midway.
Fletcher had also been in command of a third carrier, the Saratoga, during its failed attempt to rescue the Wake Island garrison back on December 23. Some in the Navy, particularly the aircraft pilots, believed he had failed to try hard enough at Wake, ordering his ships to refuel rather than make a quick run to the island. When ordered to call off that mission he quickly obeyed, reportedly throwing his cap to the deck in disgust.
"Marines blamed him for failing to relieve Wake Island," General Thomas told his biographer, Alan Millett. "Critics then and now thought that he would rather fuel than fight, a reference to his uncanny ability to avoid contact."
Only fifty-seven, Fletcher was clearly showing signs of strain and battle fatigue.
Fletcher would have three carriers at his disposal for "Operation Watchtower" -- Enterprise, Saratoga and Wasp.
The choice of Turner, who was brought in at the eleventh hour, to command the amphibious force was a good one. He was as audacious as Fletcher was cautious. Also fifty-seven, Turner had done much of the planning for "Watchtower." He was highly intelligent, and his wire-rimmed glasses and beetle brows gave him the look of a college professor. A man of "corrosive ambition," he was a tireless worker with little patience for those who couldn't keep up. He was often arrogant and sometimes difficult to get along with, and he had a furious Irish temper and a biting tongue, one that was as caustic as a shaving stick. Turner was known to some as the "Patton of the Navy" or "Terrible Turner." In many respects, he was just like King, a man who commanded little affection but much respect.
Second in command to Turner was Rear Adm. Victor Alexander Charles Crutchley of the Royal Navy. He would have tactical command of the destroyers and cruisers that had the job of protecting Turner's troop transports. Crutchley had not wanted the job believing that it was more appropriate for an American flag officer. Turner rejected any such suggestion.
Crutchley, fifty-one, was a tall man with a bushy red beard and mustache that hid a battle scar he received in World War I where he earned the Victoria Cross in a night action. Australian sailors called him "Old Goat's Whiskers."
Vandegrift, fifty-five, had assumed command of the 1st Marine Division in March. A quiet, unassuming man, he was a protégé of the legendary Gen. Smedley Butler, known as "Old Gimlet Eye" to his contemporaries. Butler was a man who had won two Medals of Honor, the first at Vera Cruz in 1914 and the second in Haiti the following year. Like his mentor, Vandegrift was a superb judge of men. Just under 5-foot-9, Vandegrift had been the quarterback of his high school football team in Charlottesville, Va. He had a sturdy build, a hard jaw and a large dimple in his chin.
His grandfather, Carson Vandegrift, fought as a soldier in the Monticello Guards in the Civil War and was wounded at Antietam and in Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. He was also at Appomattox when General Lee surrendered. A deacon of the local Baptist church, the elder Vandegrift would pray to "the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson." He dominated the family, instilling in his admiring grandson a firm resolve to make the military his career.
Asked to explain later in his career why he admired Jackson so, Vandegrift replied: "Because he could do so much with so little." It was a quality that he would acquire over the next several months.
A perpetual optimist, Vandegrift had been given the nickname of "Sunny Jim" by his mentor, General Butler, for the lighthearted way he obeyed an order. Vandegrift, called "Archer" by his friends, was an extremely courteous man with large blue eyes, rosy cheeks, thinning sandy hair and a long belligerent nose. He was also afflicted with a night blindness that would in his declining years lead to the loss of his eyesight. He spoke in a soft voice with a Virginia drawl and almost always referred to the enemy as Japanese. Rarely did he use the term Japs and he never referred to the enemy as Nips.
"Vandegrift was a classic Virginia gentleman," Twining wrote about his boss. "I have heard him harden his voice but I never heard him raise it -- not even at me."
Vandegrift had little stomach for personal battles, preferring to let his two key staff members, Thomas and Twining, do all the dirty work needed to run a division.
Although Thomas and Twining occasionally disagreed they quickly became allied in the battle for the heart and mind of Vandegrift. They had no challengers in the command post but worried that when Vandegrift was out of their sight he might be influenced by one of his regimental commanders that might get some Marines killed.
By the end of September, Thomas would dominate not only the division staff but the entire division, according to his biographer, Alan Millett. "He did not seek power for its own sake," wrote Millett, "but he rose to this position because he believed the division had come to Guadalcanal to give the United States its first offensive victory over Japan. His sure-handed, clear-headed management of the defense made him second only to General Vandegrift as the architect of victory. To play this role, he not only outthought the Japanese commanders he faced but outmaneuvered some Marines as well, including Vandegrift himself."
Vandegrift would come to rely greatly on his staff, trusting that their judgment would more than offset any doubts he may have had about his own capabilities. He said as much in a letter he mailed to his wife, Mildred, shortly after leaving the country.
"When you remember me in your prayers, as I know you will," he wrote, "ask that I be given the judgment and ability to lead this splendid outfit so that it will accomplish its task with the least possible loss."
Copyright © 2003 by George W. Smith