Battle of the Teneru
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.
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 Ichikis
regiment. They were Japans 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. Its hard
to cut a bullet in half.
reputation had been forged in Manchuria in 1939 and the fear and
terror unleashed on the Chinese would now be directed straight
at Bobs 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
didnt 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:
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.
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)
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
hed 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
on the morning of August 19, Marine Captain Charles Brush was
leading a patrol and ran into some of Ichikis 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 Bobs 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.
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.
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.
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 Ichikis men were advancing
with bayonets, running toward them on the sandspit. At this point
Ichikis 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 Ichikis 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.
more than a few minutes had passed when some of Ichikis
men landed in Marine foxholes, Bobs 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
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)
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)
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:
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 theyd
do that theyd lie on their goddamn
stomach and theyd have a hand grenade or something.
battle for the Teneru River was just the first in a long series
of major battles. Just about every month thered 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.
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
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.