The Mission That Saved Guadalcanal
G. H. Spaulding, CAPT, USN (Ret)
"If the world needed an enema, this would be the right place to put in the hose!"
Exactly eight months had passed since the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor catapulted the United States into the quagmire of global war. Yet, in many respects, life on the American home front had seen little change.
Newspapers of the time reflected the normalcy that persisted in the face of family separations, rationing and other wartime disruptions. They dispensed daily doses of sanitized war news, to be sure. But the papers tended to devote far more space to events in their local communities. In Denver, for example, the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post published August 7, 1942, revealed that:
Two boys, ages 15 and 10, were in the custody of the Arapahoe County Sheriff after clubbing Mrs. Ema Wedow, 46, over the head with the handle of a mop wringer during an attempted holdup at her grocery store and gas station;
At the First National Bank building near 17th Street, a distraught Mrs. Nellie Williams, 28, climbed over the railing of the 6th floor fire escape and leapt to her death. A witness said her body struck the fire escape landing one floor below, flipped over twice, fell between some high-tension wires and landed in a puddle of water in an alleyway behind the bank. An unidentified man who happened by just as Williams’ body impacted the ground paused to ensure that water from the murky puddle had not splashed on his white suit, then walked away;
Joseph H. E. Demers, 39, of Manchester, NH, a military policeman stationed at Buckley Field, died after being struck by a westbound tramway trolley coach as he was crossing Colfax Avenue;
Sheer dresses were $1.49 at the Denver Drygoods Company;
Les Brown currently was appearing on stage at Elitch’s Amusement Park;
The morning lineup on KOA radio included the programs "Musical Magazine," "Road to Life" and "Vic and Sade;"
And, Gary Cooper was starring in "The Pride of the Yankees" at Denver’s Orpheum Theater.
At the same time in the distant southwestern Pacific, some 19,000 U.S. Marines were wading ashore at Guadalcanal, Florida, Gavutu, Tanambogo and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, America's first major offensive operation of the war against Japan.
Guadalcanal –- Operation Shoestring
During the first six months of the war in the Pacific, the Navy had blunted Japanese expansion into Australia and New Zealand at the Battle of the Coral Sea and had cut the mighty Japanese carrier navy down to size at Midway. Finally, U.S. forces were taking the first tenuous step in their bloody, island-hopping march toward Tokyo.
The Marines’ primary objective was a rudimentary landing strip constructed by the Japanese on Guadalcanal in the weeks preceding the invasion. Although poorly supplied and undermanned, the Leathernecks captured the airstrip in one day, dubbed it Henderson Field in memory of a Marine Corps pilot killed at Midway, then dug in. For the next four disease-ridden months they defended it against repeated naval, air and land assaults by a determined enemy.
The regional balance of air and naval forces strongly favored the Japanese. As a consequence, tons of supplies including food and other provisions that were to have come ashore did not. Intelligence about the island was lacking. Reinforcements were not immediately available. Hence, the unofficial name "Operation Shoestring."
Living and working conditions on Guadalcanal were miserable as well as dangerous. Mosquitoes, leeches, chiggers and flesh eating ants gnawed at the men in the field, while rats spread typhus. Malaria, dysentery and various other jungle diseases were so rampant that anyone with a temperature of 103 degrees or less was considered fit for duty. In his book Victory at Guadalcanal, Robert E. Lee records one Marine’s cynical observation: "If the world needed an enema, this would be the right place to put in the hose!"
Air support operations began 13 days after the invasion with the arrival of a Marine fighter squadron and a squadron of Navy dive-bombers. They were soon augmented by a detachment of Army Air Force fighter-bombers from New Caledonia. As Cactus was the Allied code name for Guadalcanal, this unconventional collection of planes and fliers came to be known as "The Cactus Air Force."
Among the AAF pilots who joined the Cactus Air Force early on was Captain John A. Thompson, a name often lost among the shadows of aviation legends like Marine Corps pilots John Smith and Marion Carl, the first American triple aces of the war, Joe Foss, the USMC’s all-time second leading ace and Black Sheep leader "Pappy" Boyington.
The struggle for Guadalcanal spawned acts of courage and heroism by members of all of the participating allied military forces. Most of them have been well documented. However, one virtually unheralded mission led by Thompson deserves recognition for its pivotal role in enabling the Marines on the ground to sustain their precarious holding operation.
No match for the Zeros
"The Marines were in combat by the time we got there," recalls Thompson, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who makes his home in Denver. "The Japanese had complete control of the sea and were putting more and more troops on the island. They’d shell us every night and the bombers would come from Rabaul every day. You could set your watch by them."
"On my first flight from Henderson, I forgot about my tail." The memory brings a sheepish grin to Thompson’s face. "Came back with 17 holes in my airplane. One bullet came through the canopy and got me in the shoulder, but didn’t disable me. One must have hit my radiator, because when I pulled back the throttle to land, the engine quit."
"We were flying the Bell P-400 Airacobra, the export model of the P-39 fighter-bomber. We’d offered them to the Australians, who rejected them as unacceptable."
"It was a trusty airplane with good firepower," Thompson continues. "But it had no supercharger and we had no high-pressure oxygen, so we couldn’t get high enough to compete with the Zeros at all. The Marines had the engines to get up there and did a good job. But we were used mostly to attack targets on the ground."
And Guadalcanal was a target-rich environment. "As the Japanese continued to bring in more personnel, we’d bomb their barges and strafe the troops on the beach," says Thompson. "On one occasion, we were low on ammo, so we dropped depth charges on them. Hell of a concussion."
Showdown at Bloody Ridge
A month after losing possession of their airfield to the Marines, the Japanese decided not only to take it back, but to reclaim Guadalcanal itself. They concentrated an assault force of more than 6,000 troops in the jungle south of Henderson Field and in mid-September began their northward thrust. The attack was well coordinated, supported by deadly Japanese naval and air bombardment.
Against this onslaught, 800 Marines, under the command of future Medal of Honor recipient LtCol Merritt A. "Red Mike" Edson, established a line of defense on a grassy ridge 1,700 yards south of Henderson Field. Ultimately, the Japanese would push to within 1,000 yards of the airstrip.
"The Marines had been fighting on the ridge all day and all night," recalls Thompson. "About four in the morning on September 14th, I was called up to our command post, which we called the ‘Pagoda.’ Several Marines from the ridge were there, including one of their company commanders. He was very tired, caked with mud—a bullet hole through his helmet and blood streaming down his face."
"He told me their situation was bad and they desperately needed our help. He grabbed a pencil and a scrap of paper and drew a rough diagram of the ridge showing the positions of both sides. He said the Japanese were expected to make a big push at daybreak."
At that time the Cactus Air Force numbered more than 60 aircraft of various types, although Japanese shelling had damaged or demolished more than half of them. The Airacobra squadron had been reduced from its original complement of fourteen to only five flyable aircraft. Worse, there was fuel enough for only three.
Thompson describes what happened next. "I shoved that map in my pocket, went back to the flight line and picked a couple of other pilots, Lieutenants B.E. Davis and B.W. Brown. We took off at dawn and made a wide circle around the field to stay out of sight."
"We came in low over the trees, pulled up and saw the Marine positions. It was just daylight. In the clearing were hundreds and hundreds of Japanese, ready to charge. I lowered the nose, pressed the trigger and just mowed right through them. The next two pilots did the same thing."
Thompson continues: "The second plane was hit, lost his coolant and had to land. We came around again and the Japanese were in real confusion. On the second pass, I was also hit in the cooler. The third aircraft made one more run. There was so much confusion, the Japanese broke and retreated in panic back into the jungle. That gave the Marines a chance to regroup."
"Later that day," says Thompson, "General Vandegrift (the Marine general in overall command) told me, ‘Captain Thompson, you won’t read about this in the newspapers, but you and your flight of P-400s just saved Guadalcanal.’ From then on that ridge was called Bloody Ridge."
Whether the beleaguered Marines could have found a way to turn back the Japanese at Bloody Ridge without such timely air support may never be known. Evidently their senior commander didn’t think so and certainly the odds were against them. For their part in this decisive battle, Thompson was awarded the Navy Cross and his wingmen, Lieutenants Davis and Brown, received the Silver Star.
The Battle of Bloody Ridge is a story of almost unimaginable valor, perseverance and sacrifice on the part of the Marine defenders of Henderson Field. But the story would be incomplete without a concluding chapter dedicated to the Thompson-led ground support mission. Its contribution is perhaps best defined by the desperate circumstances of the moment and measured by its impact on the tactical and strategic situation. For while Henderson Field would be the target of future Japanese assaults, in the aftermath of Bloody Ridge it remained—and would continue to remain—in American hands.
Five more months of fighting
Sixty-seven days after the Marines stormed the beaches of Guadalcanal, they were reinforced by units of the U.S. Army. Two months later, the Marines, weary from battle and wasted by disease, departed, their capture-and-hold mission accomplished. The formidable task of driving the remaining 13,000 Japanese troops from the island became the responsibility of the Army. Before the job was done, however, fresh Marine elements arrived in such numbers that their presence actually exceeded that of the Army. Guadalcanal was finally declared secure on February 9, 1943.
The six-month battle for control of Guadalcanal would cost 1,592 American lives on the ground with 4,183 wounded. The Japanese would tally 14,800 killed in battle, another 9,000 dead from disease and 1,000 taken prisoner. However, when the results of related—and similarly valiant—air and naval engagements are included, the hundreds of aircraft shot down and dozens of ships sunk by each side during the Solomons Campaign account for substantially greater numbers of casualties.
In the end, Guadalcanal would provide the first toehold for the Allies in their arduous advance to victory in the Pacific. Thanks in no small part to John Thompson’s short but vital mission on that fateful September morning.
Thompson served two tours of duty on Guadalcanal, finally departing the disease-infested island in good health in November 1942. But ironically, while assigned to General Douglas MacArthur’s post-war occupation headquarters in Tokyo, he contracted tuberculosis. He then spent two years confined to a convalescent bed in Fitzsimons Army General Hospital near Denver before being medically retired in 1949 and settling in Colorado.
Guadalcanal then and now
The feature article in Life magazine’s December 7, 1942, edition (marking the one-year anniversary of Pearl Harbor) included months-old photographs of Cactus Air Force pilots relaxing in front of their tents along the jungle perimeter of a rough-hewn Henderson Field. According to the article, the indoctrination briefing the group had received on arrival consisted of the following: "Never go off in the jungles alone. Eat and sleep every chance you get. Duck when you hear a big one coming over." Each man was then issued two blankets, a tent and a mosquito net.
Nine miles west of Henderson lay the village of Kokumbona, site of the Japanese military headquarters on Guadalcanal. Ultimately, U.S. forces would dislodge the Japanese and establish their own headquarters in the same vicinity.
Today Henderson International Airport serves Honiara, a city of 35,000 and the modern-day capital of the Solomon Islands. Evolving from the infrastructure of the former American military headquarters near Kokumbona, Honiara now boasts an assortment of hotels, motels, restaurants, banks, supermarkets—even its own Chinatown—in the Point Cruz port district of Guadalcanal’s north shore.
Some 20,000 tourists, the majority from Australia and New Zealand, visit Guadalcanal annually. They come mostly for the world-class scuba diving in the shallow waters of the archipelago to explore the wrecks of the many ships and aircraft lost there by both sides during the war. Two of the more popular dive sites are the decaying hulk of the Japanese transport Toa Maru and the looted remains of an American B-17 bomber.
What travelers discover in the Solomons, a former British Protectorate which gained independence in 1978, is a nation of islands numbering in the hundreds with a total land area of 28,000 square miles and a population of over 350,000, most of them Melanesian.
Current tourist information about the Solomon Islands can be found on the internet. At least one web site advises visitors to: "Keep yourself sprayed, sleep under a sprayed mosquito net or in a screened room, wear long sleeves and trousers if you go out at dusk (or avoid it) and see your doctor a fortnight beforehand about a course of anti malarial pills. Advisable to boil water before drinking." It cites malaria rates as high as 35 percent.
On Guadalcanal, many things have changed since the war. Some have not. John Thompson remembers them as they were in 1942 when his nearly forgotten mission was helping repulse the Japanese from "Bloody Ridge"—and at least some of the folks back home were watching Gary Cooper at the movies.
Left thumbnail above: Capt John A Thompson in the cockpit of a P-400 Airacobra at Henderson Field Guadalcanal in 1942.
Right thumbnail above: Pilots of the 67th Fighter Squadron in the Cactus Air Force operations shack at Henderson Field in 1942. John Thompson is seated.
John Thompson and the author are members of the Denver chapter of The Order of Daedalians, a national fraternity of active duty and former military pilots. The Order of Daedalians is headquartered at Randolph Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas. Check out their web site at: http://www.daedalians.org. In the thumbnail below, John has just finished sharing his Guadalcanal story with his Daedalian Flight 18 fraternity brothers at one of the group's monthly luncheons in Denver.
This article appeared in the January 2001 issue of the Centennial Aviation and Business Journal and the winter 2000 edition of the Daedalus Flyer magazine.
And now available in Kindle format...