The Battle of the Teneru

 

After the Marines had, however tenuously, established themselves on Guadalcanal, the Japanese Imperial forces made taking back the island top priority. By this time, August 1942, the Japanese ruled a large area of Southeast Asia and the Pacific including the Philippine Islands, French Indochina, Thailand, Burma, Formosa, Sumatra, Indonesia, Bali, Malaysia, Borneo, parts of New Guinea, and of course, the Solomon Islands. The Japanese reign of terror had moved southward, covering almost four thousand miles of territory in the Pacific. They had never been defeated. The next stop would have been New Guinea and then Australia. Guadalcanal was an afterthought until the Americans decided to land there and engage the Japanese. The ultimate Japanese objective was to remove what was left of the Australian presence in nearby New Guinea, which could later be used as a base from which to attack the mainland of Australia, but the Solomons had to be secured first.

Colonel Kiyono Ichiki of the Imperial Japanese Army, 28th Infantry Regiment, stationed at Guam, commanded the closest Japanese unit to Guadalcanal. There had been an air of invincibility regarding Ichiki’s regiment. They were Japan’s most elite fighting unit. These soldiers had been pictured on Life and Look magazine for all Americans to see. They were tough, professional, battle-hardened in China, and regarded as super-human, spiritual warriors, operating with a power greater even than any man-made weapons. They followed the way of the warrior, the Japanese code of Bushido. Our Marines were young, most under the age of twenty. They had not been tested in combat, and yet were left on Guadalcanal without any further support and only about two weeks worth of rations. Of course, the first thing you do is cut down to one meal a day, and then magically you have four weeks worth of rations instead of two weeks worth, but the ammunition was another story. It’s hard to cut a bullet in half.

Ichiki’s reputation had been forged in Manchuria in 1939 and the fear and terror unleashed on the Chinese would now be directed straight at Bob’s battalion, now dug in on the western side of the Teneru River. Ichiki had very strong opinions about the campaign for Guadalcanal. He believed there were approximately 2,000 Marines on Guadalcanal when there were actually around 15,000. Ichiki also espoused the well worn propaganda among the Japanese that "Americans are soft — Americans will not fight — Americans believe that nights are for dancing." Apparently, his spiritual power was matched only by his arrogance though this arrogance didn’t come cheaply for the Japanese soldier. What we would consider basic training took on a whole new meaning in Japan. Recruits were brutalized and humiliated at every turn:

The Japanese soldier was a true reflection of the authoritarian and compulsive society from which it [sic] sprang. Military life was a harsh existence where discipline was brutally enforced and human suffering callously ignored. . . . Recruits . . . were frequently beaten into insensibility. Their superiors struck them with the open hand or clenched fist, kicked them with their nailed boots, or beat them mercilessly with rifles, swords, or bayonet sheaths. (1)

Suicide was not uncommon for these recruits during the initial phases of their training. This brutal indoctrination had predictable effects on the temperament of the Japanese soldier: "He endured punishment stoically, but administered it with an emotional often sadistic unreasonableness and inconsistency" as the 78,000 American and Filipino prisoners at Bataan had found out during the spring of 1942 on the infamous Bataan death march. (2) The Japanese forces on Guadalcanal faced an equally severe ultimatum as belatedly reported in a New York Times dispatch dated January 13, 1943. The dispatch stated that Japanese soldiers "carried documents threatening them with death if they failed to wrest the strategic island from the United States . . . .If this mission is not accomplished, the Japanese soldiers will not return to Japan alive." (3)

From Guam, Ichikis men moved in to the Carolines, and on August 16, they boarded ships for Guadalcanal. Ichiki took 900 of his soldiers with him on six fast destroyers, while the balance of his 2,100 men would follow. Ichiki was so confident he’d wipe out the Marines on Guadalcanal that he neglected even to wait for the remaining 1200 or so troops that were following in slower moving transport ships. The 900 who had sped to Guadalcanal on fast moving battleships landed on August 18 at Taivu Point, about 20 miles east of the Tenaru river — meanwhile Bob Worthington and the rest of the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Marines were dug in to the west of the Tenaru River. The only objectives for the Marines in those early days were to finish construction of Henderson Field, get the rest of the supplies off the beach, and dig in to await the Japanese advances. What had begun as an offensive operation with the Marines landing on the islands would now turn into a defensive operation as they had to endure the attacks on their positions from literally thousands and thousands of well supplied and usually well rested Japanese troops for months to come.

***

Early on the morning of August 19, Marine Captain Charles Brush was leading a patrol and ran into some of Ichiki’s men who were laying communications wire — 33 Japanese and 3 Marines died, and the rest of the Marines knew what was coming. Later on the evening of the 20th Bob’s platoon heard noises and realized there were Japanese patrols all over the area. The rivers in this part of the island were more like creeks or bogs, the waters rising and falling with the tides. The Tenaru River fanned out into a huge sandspit as it flowed into the ocean and that sandspit would become the stage for the battle in the next few days.

Bob had dug a foxhole in the sand, working all day in the heat and humidity, using coconut logs and sandbags to complete his bunker. The Marines were on the western side of the sandspit while the Japanese forces massed to the east of the river. In between was a huge sand bar as the river stretched out to the ocean. There were coconut groves on each side of the sandspit. As night fell on the 20th of August, everything got quiet. One favorable sign for the Marines had occurred earlier in the day when a few Marine pilots landed at Henderson Field, providing a small glimmer of hope that the men on the island hadn░t been totally forgotten by the rest of the world.

That night, the commanding officers got news of a Solomon Island native who was badly wounded and had word of the Japanese on the other side of the river. That indigenous man was Sergeant Major Jacob Vouza — he had been scouting around and was captured by the Japanese and tortured, but managed to escape and make his way back toward the Marine lines. Vouza estimated there were perhaps 500 Japanese on the other side of the river preparing an attack. Now it was just a matter of minutes.

Shortly after one in the morning of the 21st, a green flare rose up in the sky from the Japanese side of the sandspit. What had previously been total darkness was now illuminated with a strange green and yellow light that moved back and forth, burning lines into the night sky. Bob and the rest of the Marines couldnt believe their eyes — hundreds of Ichiki’s men were advancing with bayonets, running toward them on the sandspit. At this point Ichiki’s men were still about two hundred meters from the Marine lines. The Banzai charge then began — Ichikis men were trained in a form of close fighting known as the spiritual power school in which bamboo spear tactics were stressed. They were referred to as a "shock regiment," designed to scare off their opponents without even firing a shot. They let out ominous screams as they charged. The first group of about 200 chargers ran headlong into a strand of barbed wire the Marines had strung. Dark wire is very hard to see at night. The Marines had salvaged the barbed wire from the remains of plantation fences on the island — tin cans filled with rocks were attached to the fence to make the maximum amount of noise should anyone run up against it. Nothing was ever wasted by those Marines. The barbed wire alarm slowed Ichiki’s men long enough for some of them to be hit by small arms fire. Soon after, however, the Japanese used their Bangalore Torpedoes, which were like huge pipe bombs that could be pushed under the sand and barriers, to blast through the barbed wire.

Not more than a few minutes had passed when some of Ichiki’s men landed in Marine foxholes, Bob’s included. Intense hand to hand combat continued. The lines were confused for more than an hour as both sides fought on. There were at least four waves of Japanese — and they kept coming throughout the night, stepping over the mounds of dead bodies trampled and bloody in the sand. Lt. Colonel Pollock, Marine Commander, wrote of that night:

From about 4 AM to daylight, the battle continued more or less as a state of siege, with all weapons firing and no one knowing the exact situation. When daylight came, the gruesome sight on the sandspit became visible. Dead Japs were piled in rows and on top of each other from our gun positions outward. Some were only wounded and continued to fire after playing dead. Others had taken refuge under a two-foot sand embankment and around the trunks of the coconut trees, not fifty yards from our lines. But our mortars finally cleaned them out. (4)

***

It was rumored later that next day that Ichiki burned his colors and shot himself through the head, leaving behind his diary in which he had prematurely written: "17 Aug. The landing. 20 Aug. The march by night and the battle. 21 Aug. Enjoyment of the fruits of victory." (5) In these elite Japanese regiments battles were thought of more in the way Americans think of bachelor parties: afterwards they expected booze and women — often bringing captured local women along with them as prostitutes. However, Ichiki never made it to that party, and efforts to reconstruct his death remain sketchy. Admiral Tanaka, who was a close friend of Ichikis, said that after Ichikis men were killed at the Tenaru "the Colonel rushed back to Taivu [where the Japanese had originally landed] with his color bearer. There he reverently tore the 28 Regiments colors to shreds, poured oil on the scraps, set flame to them and committed hara-kiri." (6) Yet Admiral Tanaka was not on Guadalcanal. Perhaps this is what was believed to be honorable procedure. None of the survivors of the battle saw Colonel Ichiki kill himself. He carried a small Browning automatic pistol about the size of his hand for just such an occasion, but how he died remains a mystery to this day. It is quite clear that the idea of surrender was highly discouraged in Japanese military training; death was far preferable to being captured. The troops were told that by surrendering they would be disgracing not only themselves but their families as well. They were told "always save the last round for yourself." (7)

There are only estimates regarding casualties, but the Japanese lost around 700 men and the Marines lost 34 killed and 75 wounded. General Hyakutake wired Tokyo — "The attack of the Ichiki detachment was not entirely successful." (8) For the Marines, they had proven themselves in the first major battle on Guadalcanal:

General Vandergrift issued a commendation on the spot, pointing out that the 1st Marines and attached units "defended their positions with such zeal and determination that the enemy was unable to effect a penetration . . ." and, by their counterattacks, " . . .achieved a victory fully commensurate with the military traditions of our Corps." (9)

Bob remembered the aftermath in slightly less lofty phrases. The next morning, the bodies were stretched all over the place. They had a rule, the Japanese, which was worse than what we had, to fight to the death. If they would see they were losing, theyd hold a hand grenade up to their head and blow their head off or hold it on their stomach. We saw all these bodies, all over the goddamn place. We went and got tractors and we rode over the bodies first before wed mess with them because they’d do that — theyd lie on their goddamn stomach and they’d have a hand grenade or something.

The battle for the Teneru River was just the first in a long series of major battles. Just about every month there’d be a huge battle or series of engagements and almost every day and night firefights and seemingly endless patrols, with each side wandering through the jungle looking for the other. The area surrounding the airstrip came to be known as Bloody Knoll or Bloody Ridge. Most of the action of the entire campaign was centered around those little hills and surrounding jungle.

Knowing they had to protect Henderson Field with a small number of men, the Marines could only watch and listen daily as thousands of Japanese troops were being unloaded in plain sight only a few miles away. At this point, the Marines had almost no air support except for a few pilots still on the island. They couldnt do much but wait and watch as the Japanese moved in for the kill. The Marine lines were always spread pretty thin around the airstrip. General Vandegrift constantly sought reinforcements, but he was told in no uncertain terms by the naval brass that the Marines were on their own, and if things got too bad he was even authorized to surrender.

 

(1) Stanley L. Falk, Bataan: The March of Death, 227.
(2) Falk, 230.
(3) New York Times, 6.
(4) McMillan, 63.
(5) McMillan, 64.
(6) McMillan, 64.
(7) Falk, 231.
(8) McMillan, 64.
(9) McMillan, 64.

   
 

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