The Do-or-Die Men: The 1st Marine Raider Battalion at Guadalcanal

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9780743470056: The Do-or-Die Men: The 1st Marine Raider Battalion at Guadalcanal

The gripping true account of the 1st Marine Raider Battalion -- from its formation and training to its heroic baptism under fire in the battles of Tulagi and Guadalcanal. No campaign in World War II was undertaken with as many shortcomings as Operation Watchtower -- the invasion of Guadalcanal in the summer of 1942. Rushed into action with little training, virtually no enemy intelligence, and using equipment left over from World War I, the gutsy-but-green men of the 1st Marine Division and its attached units were thrown headlong into what would become one of the bloodiest battles of the war. During almost four trying months of constant shelling, bombing, and ground attacks, the 1st Marine Division defied all the odds and somehow managed to beat the hardened Japanese troops at their own game. No campaign in World War II was conducted with as much ferocity. No campaign saw such sustained violence on land, at sea, and in the air. And no other campaign hung in the balance for so long -- to finally be won by the unrelenting courage of a group of American heroes who never gave up the fight.

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About the Author:

George W. Smith is a former sports writer for The Hartford Courant, having retired in 1995. He was also an Army officer whose final assignment was as an information adviser to the 1st ARVN Division at Hue, Vietnam, in 1968. He has written two other books: The Siege at Hue and Carlson's Raid, which was a selection of The Military History Book-of-the-Month Club. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

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-p...

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