A Defiant Stand During the Battle at Bloody Ridge
by Al Hemingway
Scanning over the maps unfolded before him in the division operations room, Colonel Gerald C. Thomas, 1st Marine Division G-3 officer, turned and muttered: “They’re coming.”
Colonel Merritt A. “Red Mike” Edson, commanding officer of the 1st Marine Raider Battalion, agreed. But from what direction? Pointing to a prominent ridge line on an aerial photograph, “Red Mike” softly whispered: “This looks like a good approach.”
Edson ran his finger along a ridge that was dominated by three hills. Protruding like a large fishhook, the slender hill mass provided the much-needed cover for the Japanese to attack and seize Henderson Field, the airstrip whose construction had been begun by the Japanese and finished by the Marines after they had landed on August 7, 1942. Now, on September 9, a month after the all-important airdrome had been established, the enemy realized its value and was preparing to destroy it and its Marine defenders.
Since seizing a portion of Guadalcanal, the 1st Marine Division had assumed a more defensive posture. Edson, an aggressive leader, was determined to take an offensive one. Called “Red Mike” because of his carrot-colored hair, the Raider commander had demonstrated his leadership abilities in the war-torn jungles of Nicaragua in the 1920s and 1930s. Lieutenant Colonel Samuel B. Griffith, the Raider executive officer and Edson’s second in command, had known Colonel Gerald Thomas since they had served in China together years earlier. He informed his friend that Edson was a brilliant tactician and strategist. Soon, Thomas experienced firsthand what Griffith was referring to. It wasn’t long before the pair were good friends.
Major General Alexander A. “Sunny Jim” Vandegrift, 1st Marine Division commanding general, had a huge area to defend. His Marines were thinly stretched along an 8,000-yard beachfront perimeter. This extended from the Ilu River to an area just west of Kukum. Also, the lines bent 1,500 yards inland on their east and west flanks.
Marines Search for Japanese Troops
The big questions for the Marines were the whereabouts of the Japanese and their next move. On the morning of September 6, Edson, Thomas, and Lt. Col. Merrill Twining, the assistant division G-3, met to discuss the impending operations. The leader of the Raiders strongly suggested that a raid on the eastern part of the island would produce good intelligence on enemy troop movements.
While Griffith’s men were heading back from a raid on Savo Island in the destroyer transports Little and Gregory, Edson was already planning his next move: Cape Esperance. He sent a message to Griffith to have the men remain on board the two ships, but it did not arrive in time. Edson quickly went to the beach area to intercept the Raiders and have them remain on board. However, upon arriving there he discovered one of the companies had already disembarked and the other was preparing to. He decided to postpone the Cape Esperance incursion for 24 hours.
This seemingly unimportant chain of events had significant consequences later that evening. The Japanese destroyers Yudachi, Hatsuyuki, and Murakumo destroyed the two APDs at dusk as they were heading for Lunga Point. Vastly outgunned by the larger enemy ships, over 500 shells were lobbed at the tiny pair of transports. The screws from the enemy vessels killed some of the sailors who had abandoned their burning ships. The Little sustained 22 killed and 44 wounded. The Gregory lost 11 killed and 26 wounded. It was a tragic loss, and would have been even more so if the two Raider companies had been on board the boats. With the sinking of the APD Calhoun by enemy planes on August 30, the Navy’s transport fleet had been cut in half.
Intelligence had also been flowing in from Australian coastwatcher Martin Clemens and his contingent of native scouts. They informed the Marines that there were large numbers of “Japan man” arriving near the village of Tasimboko. Original reports had placed enemy troop strength at 200-300 in the Tasimboko area, east of Henderson Field. Edson jumped at the chance to get the Japanese. The 1st Marine Raider Battalion, with the 1st Marine Parachute Battalion attached to it, would land 3,000 yards east of the village and strike Tasimboko from the rear. Vandegrift, a cautious individual by nature, nonetheless hastily approved the raid.
“A Stroke of Genius on the Part of Nobody Except Our Good Lord.”
As dawn broke on September 8, the APDs McKean and Manley plus two patrol boats, dubbed Yippies, appeared off Taivu Point. As the Leathernecks were getting into their Higgins Boats another incident unfolded that one Marine later said “[was a] stroke of genius on the part of nobody except our good Lord.”
In the distance an American convoy of several cargo ships and five destroyers was heading west toward Lunga Point. The few Japanese defenders witnessing this mistakenly thought a full-scale invasion was about to commence, and they scattered into the jungle.
As a result, the Marines waded ashore without opposition. The beachhead was hastily secured, and the riflemen began their inland trek toward Tasimboko. Advancing cautiously, the Raiders found two unmanned 37mm antitank guns belonging to the Japanese 8th Independent Antitank Company and an array of supplies. Edson realized that the enemy was indeed here—and in larger numbers than they had anticipated. Clemens’ scouting reports proved to be correct. Edson wasted no time in calling in air strikes from the 1st Marine Airwing, dubbed the “Cactus Air Force,” situated at Henderson Field. He informed Vandegrift that he had “landed in the rear echelon of a sizable Jap force.” Ignoring orders from division to withdraw, Edson chose to gamble and push on.
Spraying Howitzer Bullets at the Marines
At 0800, another series of strikes was requested and delivered as the Raiders splashed across the Kemah River. Spotting enemy troops on the other side, the infantrymen fired upon them. As the firefight grew in intensity, the Japanese let loose with a 75mm howitzer. As the Raiders kept up their assault, the Japanese fled, abandoning the fieldpiece to the Marines.
Unable to envelop Tasimboko from the south as he had originally planned due to the depth of the river and swampy ground, the wily Edson modified his scheme. As he ordered his men to move down a “narrow corridor,” Major Lloyd Nickerson’s Company B spotted Japanese moving eastward. Fearing a trap, Edson had Captain John Antonelli lead a patrol from Company A to outflank them.
As they neared Tasimboko, the Raiders unearthed additional medical supplies, foxholes, and slit trenches. Moving on, they also uncovered canned meat, crackers, backpacks, and life preservers. With this revelation, Edson was convinced a large enemy unit was moving in the area. It was, in Edson’s words, one of the more “exciting moments” of the whole Guadalcanal campaign.
Captain John Sweeney’s 1st Platoon of Company B was the vanguard for the assault on the village itself. Suddenly, shells from a 75mm artillery piece detonated in the treetops. The white-hot shrapnel fell upon Captain Rex Crockett’s 2nd Platoon, killing one Marine and severing the arm of another. Moving swiftly, Sweeney’s infantrymen eliminated the enemy operating the gun.
Moving farther, the Marines encountered a machine-gun nest. As Sweeney ridiculed the Japanese by hollering “Baka,” meaning “you fool,” three Raiders outflanked the enemy’s position and quickly silenced it.
With 60mm mortars being the heaviest weapons in their arsenal, the Raiders needed more punch to drive the enemy from their lairs. Edson hurriedly called for additional air support. Soon, Curtiss P-40s, led by Captain Dale Brannon from the U.S. Army Air Corps’ 67th Fighter Squadron, were circling overhead. Just before noon, Company E of the Raiders and the Parachute Battalion, or “Chutes,” arrived to bolster the ranks of the Raiders.
Sky-High Morale After a Successful Raid
Still disregarding orders to reembark, Edson ordered his men to destroy the enemy’s supplies and weapons. Rice, canned goods, and a radio generator were put to the torch. The breeches of the guns were removed and tossed in the water. Captured documents, papers, and notebooks were kept. By late afternoon, the Marines were aboard their vessels, most laden down with cans of food and bottles of sake, and steaming away from Tasimboko. The swirling black smoke from the fires could be seen for miles.
The Tasimboko raid was a great success. The Marines, at the cost of two killed and six wounded, had captured valuable intelligence data. The bodies of 27 dead Japanese were counted. In addition to the seizure of the all-important Japanese documents, the operation helped raise the confidence of the troops. “Our morale was sky high after Tasimboko,” boasted Marine Raider Frank Guidone.
Upon his return to division headquarters, Edson briefed Vandegrift and his staff on what he found. “This is no motley group of Japs,” he remarked. He was convinced that a large enemy force was preparing to strike the Marine lines. After viewing the captured documents, Captain Sherwood “Pappy” Moran, the “one man Japanese language section of the division,” as Griffith referred to him, immediately concurred. Emerging from his squalid, blacked-out intelligence shack, Moran relayed the news to Thomas and Edson. The enemy was massing for an attack.
Edson and Thomas agreed that the ridge the Raider leader had selected was the most likely choice for an assault. “It dominated the field, with which it was connected by a narrow road,” wrote Marine historian Major John L. Zimmerman in his book The Guadalcanal Campaign. “The ground surrounding the ridge was lower, falling away toward the streambed of the Lunga…. In each case the land was covered by unbroken jungle. Deep ravines, heavily and in some cases impenetrably wooded, bordered the hill on all sides. Four short but distinct spurs jutted from it, two on each side, slanting away from the ridgeline … just west of the southern end of the ridge in a heavily overgrown flat, there was a deep impassable lagoon.”
Fatigue Sets in After a Month of Non-Stop Fighting
Hill 123, the largest of the hills on the ridge, was situated in the center. From this vantage point, Henderson Field was in full view. Approximately 600 yards to the south was Hill 80, surrounded on the east, south, and west by a solid wall of jungle. To the north was a smaller knoll, about 60 feet in height. This diminutive hill “commanded the approach” to Henderson Field.
On the morning of September 10, the 840-man combined units of Raiders and “Chutes” snaked their way to the ridge. “Too much bombing and shelling here, too close to the beach,” Edson told his men, smiling. “We’re moving to a quiet spot.”
By mid-afternoon, Edson deployed his forces as they approached the ridge line. The Raiders encamped at the southern hill with their lines reaching toward the Lunga River. The parachutists occupied the left flank. This perimeter was massive, nearly 900 yards in length from the Lunga River to Hill 80.
Edson’s Marines were tired after fighting for over a month on Guadalcanal, and some companies had been reduced to the size of platoons. But the men knew that if they did not successfully repel an enemy attack and the Japanese occupied the airstrip, the battle for Guadalcanal was over. “Everyone in the ranks down to the lowest private now knew that the Japanese were to our front preparing for an attack,” wrote Raider Guidone. “If they broke through … the 1st Marine Division would be scattered throughout the jungle where we would end up fighting as guerrillas and eating coconuts to survive. No way would this division ever surrender!”
Edson, the consummate strategist, had used the difficult terrain to his best advantage. If he had situated his Marines on the ridge alone, his flanks would have been exposed to a Japanese attack. If he had opted to dig in at the front of the ridge, his lines would have been even more untenable. The enemy would have certainly probed until finding the weakest point and easily breached the perimeter.
“Foxholes Were Dug Under the Glare of a Broiling Sun”
Wasting no time, the order was passed to dig in. The all-too-familiar sounds of machetes and entrenching tools permeated the air as the infantrymen readied their positions. “Foxholes were dug under the glare of a broiling sun,” recalled Guidone. “Barbed wire for double apron obstacles was brought in … patrols went deeper into the jungle to the south. One Raider, busy with his entrenching tool, turned to me and yelled: ‘Rest area, my ass!’”
Colonel Thomas ordered the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines to take up positions in reserve between the ridge and the airfield. Forward observers, working with Edson, registered the howitzers of Colonel Pedro A. “Don Pedro” del Valle’s 11th Marines. To the west of the Lunga River, the Marines of the 1st Pioneer and 1st Amphibious Tractor Battalions now established a defensive line. To the east was nothing but a natural barrier—a mile of thick, green jungle.
In the middle of all this, General Vandegrift decided to move his division command post (CP). He too was disgusted with finding shelter from the daily bombing raids on Henderson Field. To him, it was a distraction and a nuisance. Edson tried in vain to discourage him from relocating his CP. Vandegrift still believed the major thrust of any enemy operation would originate from the coast. Sunny Jim “did not acknowledge the scale of the potential threat.” But Edson was about to dash that theory.
As the Raiders and parachutists were digging in, the Japanese were moving in their direction. Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi’s reinforced regiment, designated the Kawaguchi Detachment, was slowly inching its way toward the ridge.
Kawaguchi was a formidable leader and an excellent officer. He had a muscular build, a stern countenance and sported a long, drooping mustache. His detachment centered around the 124th Infantry Regiment. Many of these men had toiled for long hours in Japan’s coal mines and were in excellent physical condition. The regiment had attached machine-gun companies, artillery, transportation, and antitank sections. In all, the detachment totaled nearly 4,000 men.
Raiders Deliver Insult to Japanese Honor
On the morning of September 8, as the Japanese forces were preparing to march on Henderson Field, Kawaguchi heard the distinct rumblings of gunfire emanating from Taivu Point. Learning later it was a raid on Tasimboko, he toyed with the idea of rushing there to “crush the Americans.” As one enemy officer wrote in his diary: “It is maddening to be the recipients of these daring and insulting attacks.”
A few Japanese generals at Rabaul were infuriated that the Marines struck behind their lines and agreed with that officer. They wanted Kawaguchi to “about face” and chase the Americans down. However, Colonel Hiroshi Matsumoto, the 17th Area Army Operations Officer, convinced his superiors to let the detachment continue on its original course. He understood the “prickly character” of Kawaguchi. Once the stubborn general was on one course it was “difficult to redirect him.” The idea was scrubbed, and it was decided to let Kawaguchi move as planned on the airstrip.
Unfortunately, Kawaguchi’s scheme to assault Henderson Field was faulty. First, as a result of the Tasimboko raid, the Marines knew the enemy was coming, even if they did not positively know from which direction the Japanese would strike. Edson was gambling on the ridge line as their best avenue of attack. Second, the U.S. Navy was successful in preempting some of the nightly supply runs by the “Tokyo Express,” as it was called by the troops. Enemy ships were destroyed or had to veer off course to escape the American vessels that were dogging them. In fact, this persistence paid off when one of Kawaguchi’s battalions had to disembark west of the Raider/Parachute perimeter, delaying the attack. Lastly, all the units had to make their way through tough jungle terrain to reach the Marines’ lines. Units attempting to negotiate their way through the dense growth had failed to reach their jump-off points to commence their assault on the 12th as Kawaguchi had planned. Unable to make contact with his lost battalions, the usually composed leader was disgusted. “The Brigade was scattered all over and completely beyond control,” he said later. “In my whole life I have never felt so helpless.” Kawaguchi’s scheme for one massive move on the Marine perimeter was failing miserably. The impending assault would prove to be a “series of confused, random jabs.”
Since Kawaguchi believed his main avenue of approach to be undefended,” wrote Marine historian Lt. Col. Jon Hoffman in his book, Once a Legend, “Red Mike” Edson of the Marine Raiders, “he might be forgiven for such a complex plan. Like Wolfe at Quebec, he no doubt expected to achieve total surprise by attacking where geography seemed to make offensive operations impossible.”
Kawaguchi Executes a Complex and Unlikely Plan
Nonetheless, Kawaguchi set his plan in motion. One group—about 1,500 men—would move against the Marines along the Ilu and hit their lines. The remaining three, totaling approximately 2,500, would move down the ridge itself and punch a hole through the perimeter and swarm over the airfield.
The stage was set. The battle for the ridge was about to commence. This clash between two battle-hardened armies would decide the fate of the Americans on Guadalcanal.
On the morning of September 11, Platoon Sgt. Joe Buntin of Company A was instructed to head a 25-man patrol into the jungle area, which ran parallel to the Lunga River. His orders were to determine the size and location of the Japanese force moving in their direction.
The patrol edged its way through the jungle quietly. Just before noon, the unmistakable sounds of Japanese voices could be heard. As Buntin and his scouts were “sizing up the situation,” the enemy opened fire. A hot firefight ensued with the sounds of bullets hissing through the humid tropical air.
Concussive Explosions Surround the Americans
As the gunfire momentarily subsided, the infantrymen waited and remained alert for the enemy’s next move. Suddenly, the Leathernecks heard the sound of Japanese twin-engine Mitsubishi G4M Betty Bombers. “The enemy formation now appeared to be almost overhead,” recalled Guidone. “That’s when the WHAM! WHAM! of the first bombs could be heard directly ahead of us. The bombs continued exploding as they walked them to our location and past us to our positions on the ridge. One exploded near myself and my BAR man [Browning Automatic Rifleman] Pfc. Sylvester Niedbolski. The concussion picked us both up, slammed us back down, and covered him and I with debris. I looked over at Ski to see if he was all right. He had a rosary in one hand and was well along in his prayers.”
The untimely and frightening air raid did have some positive results for the Americans. A few errant bombs fell on the Japanese, breaking up their next assault. With a lull in the action, the Buntin patrol quickly withdrew.
Arriving back at their lines, the Raider patrol was greeted by a scene of destruction. Tents, lean-tos, and other material were strewn throughout the area. Two were killed and another 10 men were wounded. “There was Sergeant Harold Floeter, sitting against a Banyan tree, with his rifle between his legs. He was dead from the concussion of a bomb,” remembered Guidone. “We had flipped a coin to decide who would go on the patrol. Floeter won and elected to stay behind.”
As darkness descended on September 12, a light mist started to fall. At 10 pm, a Japanese cruiser and three destroyers commenced their bombardment of the ridge. Most of the shells screeched overhead and landed well beyond the Marines’ perimeter. The enemy shelling lasted about 20 minutes. As soon as it ceased, the riflemen could see flares shoot skyward in front of their positions. Everyone readied himself. Edson had predicted correctly and also had “called the turn almost to the hour.”
Taking Delight in Cutting Down Survivors
Major Yukichi Kokusho’s 1st Battalion, 124th Infantry spearheaded the enemy’s initial blow. They struck the Marines’ lines in front of Company C around the lagoon area. They were “jabbering and shouting” in hopes of getting the Raiders to fire upon them so they could discover the location of their automatic weapons. But the Marines had had too much experience against their adversaries by this time and remained silent.
However, the Japanese breached the lines between the two platoons on the left flank. This forced the platoons to withdraw and attempt to link up with Company B on Hill 80. Likewise, the 2nd platoon had a tough time of it. One machine-gun crew fired hundreds of rounds, but the fanatical enemy still managed to overrun their position. Showing no mercy, the enemy “took ghoulish delight in chopping and hacking Raider survivors with bayonets and swords.”
Witnessing groups of enemy soldiers swimming across the Lunga, it became apparent that the Japanese were attempting to envelop Company C’s right flank. Word was quickly passed to have the remainder of the company fall back as well.
Some of the Raiders, however, failed to receive the orders to withdraw. One machine- gun section from Company C and another from Company E allowed the enemy to walk as close as possible to their emplacements before letting loose with bursts of .30-cal. fire. As the Japanese infantrymen were being cut down, Marines tossed all the grenades they had to halt the advance.
“This is the Worst Situation I’ve Been In…”
Night passed painfully slowly for the remainder of the Leathernecks. The screams of several Raiders being tortured incensed those on the perimeter and heightened tension levels. One young rifleman turned to a grizzled veteran of World War I and asked if the fighting in Europe was as bad as this. The old sergeant whispered: “No, this is the worst situation I’ve been in.”
However, despite their early gains, the enemy attack soon fizzled with the approach of daybreak. Even though the Japanese had succeeded in dislodging Charlie Company, the reserve unit of the 5th Marines would have stopped Kokusho’s men from breaking through.
At first light on September 13, P-40s and Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters came swarming down on the Japanese. The strafing from the air and the howitzers of “Don Pedro” del Valle’s 11th Marines, combined with the mortars of the infantry units, made the enemy run for cover. Shrapnel from the American fire damaged Kawaguchi’s shortwave radio. He was now cut off from Rabaul and had no way of communicating his movements to Seventeenth Army Headquarters. Kawaguchi still had his brigade radio and urgently tried to make contact with his scattered battalions and consolidate his forces for a push on Henderson Field.
Meanwhile, Edson was also preparing his next move. The soft-spoken Raider commander wasted no time in organizing a counterattack against the Japanese to regain Company C’s former position. Unfortunately, the attempt to drive out the enemy failed.
That morning Edson called his company commanders to his CP. As they squatted around him, he ate his cold hash out of a can and issued his orders: “They were testing. Just testing. They’ll be back. I want all positions improved, all wire lines paralleled, a hot meal for the men. Today, dig, wire up tight, get some sleep. We’ll all need it.” As he stood he continued: “The Nip will be back. I want to surprise him.”
Just before 1900 hours, Kawaguchi’s hordes jumped off and struck B Company’s lines on the open ground of the ridge. Understrength because of wounded men and illness in their ranks, the weary Marines managed to merge with Company C. But Kawaguchi did not capitalize on the opening he had just made. Now Edson was in a quandary. Should he shift his reserve forces to bolster that portion of the line? Such a move would weaken his perimeter elsewhere.
Fortunately, before “Red Mike” could make his decision, the screaming soldiers of Major Masao Tamura’s 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry rushed the center of his lines. Soon a gap developed. Baker and Charlie Companies of the Parachutists were forced to withdraw. Captain Harry B. Torgerson, their commander, tried to organize them on Hill 123. With this withdrawal, Company B of the Raiders was isolated. Edson was in constant communication with his forward observers and called the artillery in closer to provide a protective umbrella for his beleaguered Marines.
“Japanese who dove into Marine foxholes to escape enveloping death were pitched out bodily,” wrote Brig. Gen. Samuel B. Griffith in his book The Battle for Guadalcanal. “Dozens of dead and dying Marines, some with their arms and hands torn off, some with shattered legs, some with pierced chests, punctured abdomens … were dragged to a primitive dressing station where two Navy doctors … cleaned and dressed wounds.” An incredible nine Navy Crosses were given to eight corpsman and one doctor, Lieutenant Edward P. McLarney, for their outstanding courage under fire while treating wounded Marines.
Suddenly, someone yelled: “Gas attack!” Panic ensued and some Marines began to withdraw. Major Ken Bailey, commanding officer of Company C of the Raiders and a “one man supply section” throughout the battle, intercepted the frightened infantryman. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he ordered the men back. “It’s a trick! There’s no gas!” Realizing he was correct, the riflemen quickly returned to their positions.
Recognizing an Extraordinary Hero of Battle
Bailey’s presence on the battlefield was encouraging. Often called “a Marine’s Marine,” he seemed to be everywhere during the intense combat. For his extraordinary heroism, Bailey would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his exemplary bravery on the ridge. Sadly, about a week later, the intrepid leader would be killed by enemy machine-gun fire on the Matanikau River. He would receive his nation’s highest accolade posthumously.
“Red Mike” Edson was another individual who was seemingly everywhere on the ridge. One former Raider would later comment: “I was more afraid of him than the damn Japs!”
In his book, Bloody Ridge: The Battle That Saved Guadalcanal, historian Michael S. Smith wrote: “Fearlessly standing erect in his command post with two fresh bullet holes in his shirt, Edson coolly and calmly directed the battle…. His presence was needed, because Edson knew how high the stakes were in this deadly game. Behind him, only a mile from where he stood, was Henderson Field. At a desperate point during the night, he was heard rallying, ‘Raiders, parachuters, engineers, artillerymen, I don’t give a damn who you are. You’re all Marines. Come up on this hill and fight!’”
By midnight, Company B had reached the relative safety of the knoll. The Raiders and “Chutes” formed a new defensive line in the shape of a horseshoe. “Don Pedro” del Valle’s 105mm guns kept up their firing, sometimes to within 200 yards of the Marines’ perimeter.
At 2 am, a few red flares were seen hurtling skyward. Another attack was imminent. Suddenly, the bloodcurdling shouts of “Banzai” once again stabbed the night air. As the Japanese hit the left flank, Torgerson’s “ParaMarines” met the onslaught and fought back savagely. “You could shoot two and there would be six more,” remarked one Leatherneck after the battle. Riflemen poured their fire into the assaulting enemy. Some Japanese soldiers were hit a half-dozen times or more before falling. One enemy soldier, disemboweled by a shell, kept crawling forward to continue the attack. Clutching his exposed intestines, he managed to make his way to the Marine perimeter before dying from his wounds.
Meanwhile, a Japanese mortar attack slammed shells into both sides of the ridge, severing the phone lines to the division CP. A forward observer raced back to the 11th Marines FDC (fire direction center) and instructed the artillerymen to “drop it five and walk it back and forth across the ridge.”
Once this was done, the guns of the 5th Battalion, 11th Marines belched round after round. Crisscrossing their shells from left to right and back again in front of the Marine perimeter, the gunners were able to rain a curtain of steel down upon the assaulting enemy soldiers. Kawaguchi’s men were cut to pieces.
“He Left Behind Him a Bloodstained Ridge Littered With Corpses”
With the Japanese driven back, Edson quickly ordered Torgerson’s Baker and Charlie Companies to push forward and link up with Able Company. Forming a skirmish line, the “Chutes” slowly walked forward firing their Reising submachine guns and hurling grenades. Before long, the Leathernecks had rejoined their fellow riflemen and reestablished that section of the line.
By 0400, Edson’s men were nearly spent. He radioed Thomas and requested reinforcements. Soon, elements of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines began to filter into the lines, relieving the weary Raiders and Parachutists. The battle for the ridge was winding down as dawn approached.
Pockets of stiff Japanese resistance still remained, however. Captain Dale Brannon’s U.S. Army Air Corps pilots swung into action. They laced the jungle area around the ridge with .30- and .50-caliber machine-gun fire. The aircraft also unleashed torrents of 20mm cannon rounds, annihilating the retreating enemy troops. Kawaguchi had no choice but to break off the attack and retreat.
“He left behind him a bloodstained ridge littered with corpses,” wrote Samuel Griffith. “In the grotesque attitudes of those who meet sudden and violent death lay the twisted bodies of more than 500 men who had died gloriously for the Emperor. With heads lolling and mouths agape, the inscrutable dead stared with glazed and sightless eyes at the morning sun.”
Edson’s Marines moved off the ridge on September 14 and bivouacked in Kukum for a much-deserved rest. However, the cost of victory was not cheap. The 1st Raider Battalion had lost 135 men. The 1st Parachute Battalion another 128. Of this, 59 Marines were dead or missing in action. Of the 377 ParaMarines who had landed August 7 on Guadalcanal, approximately 86 remained. The Raiders had gone ashore with 750 in their ranks, and they had sustained 234 killed, wounded, or missing. As a result of their tremendous losses, the “Chutes” left Guadalcanal on September 18, but the Raiders remained.
Men Ate Tree Bark and Drank Puddle Water to Survive
Kawaguchi’s retreating soldiers also had an arduous task in front of them—making it through the hellish jungle to the relative safety of Taivu Point. With most of their food gone, the remnants of the brigade had to cross the Lunga River in the thick growth near the sharp slopes of Mount Austen.
Men ate betel nuts, tree bark, and weeds and drank filthy water from stagnant puddles in order to survive. First, the heavier weapons were discarded. Soon after, the lighter weapons, packs, and other gear were also abandoned. Maggots began to fester in their open wounds, and many of the more seriously injured did not survive the grueling march. After nearly a week, the once proud Kawaguchi Detachment, now reduced to a mere tattered and disillusioned ragtag group, finally arrived at the rear area near Point Cruz.
There were numerous heroes in the battle for the ridge. Their deeds can never be underestimated. However, one figure stands out above all—Colonel “Red Mike” Edson. His uncanny ability to deduce where the enemy would stage its massive assault to seize Henderson Field was critical.
“His ‘tactical nose,’ as one fellow officer described it, ensured that the Raiders and parachutists were in that position in the first place,” wrote Marine historian Jon Hoffman. “His interpretation of the evidence and his persistence in convincing Vandegrift were critical too. In planning the defense he used the terrain and his small force in such a way as to minimize the disadvantages of both. Once the fighting began, he responded to each new crisis with sound decisions on the placement of companies and the employment of firepower.”
Lessons Learned; Heroes Recognized
More important, the myth of the Japanese soldier as a “superman” had been shattered. Watching as Kawaguchi’s soldiers slowly marched back after assaulting the ridge, one Japanese officer realized the Imperial Army had encountered a tough and determined foe in the Marines and made a key observation. “The Army had been used to fighting the Chinese,” he said.
Vandegrift was quick to recommend Edson for a richly deserved Medal of Honor. Correspondents soon dubbed the hotly contested ground Bloody Ridge. However, others, realizing Edson’s enormous contributions to the tactical victory over the Japanese, also called it Edson’s Ridge. Either way, to any Marine who participated in and survived that violent and brutal struggle, both names would seem equally appropriate.