THE SECOND MARINE DIVISION IN WORLD WAR II

"The Silent Second"

 

PART II. FIRST TO FIGHT

American forces launched the first major ground offensive of World War II at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands on 7 August 1942. Under the command of MajGen Alexander A. Vandegrift, the First Marine Division spearheaded the operation intended to deny the Japanese use of the air strip on the target island, to secure a fleet anchorage, and to prevent the enemy from cutting off the sea lanes to Australia and New Zealand.

Coming as it did so early in World War II, the campaign for Guadalcanal, found America's forces in the South Pacific at the end of an extensive and tenuous supply chain. Also, the wartime expansion found the Marine Corps still in a building process with units spread across the world. Since the First Marine Division lacked all of its infantry regiments, one of which was performing defense duties in Western Samoa, the 2nd Marine Regiment was attached to the division for this operation.

Under the command of Col John M. Arthur, the 2nd Marines sailed from San Diego in late June 1942 aboard the transports USS President Hayes (AP-39), USS President Jackson (AP-37) and USS President Adams (AP-38), known in the Marine Corps as "the unholy three". The regiment was formed into a landing team with the following Second Marine Division units attached:

3rd Battalion, Tenth Marines
Company C, 2nd Tank Battalion
Company A, Second Engineer Battalion
Company D, 2nd Medical Battalion
Company A, 2nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion
Platoon, 2nd Special Weapons Battalion
1st Platoon, Service and Supply Company, 2nd Service Battalion
1st Band Section, Division Headquarters Company

Photographed from another ship in August 1942, the USS President Adams carries troop of the Second Marine Division tin the South Pacific. In the background is the cruiser USS Quincy, lost during the Battle of Savo Island. US Navy


After a sea voyage of more than 6,000 miles, the convoy carrying the 2nd Marines and its attachments joined up with the main body of the First Marine Division on 26 July 1942 in the Fiji Islands. On 31 July the convoy sailed combat-loaded for its destination in the Solomon Islands — Guadalcanal and the nearby islands of Florida, Gavutu and Tanambogo. For the 20,000 Marines of the assault force and their brethren in the Navy, Army and Army Air Forces, World War II was about to begin in earnest.

Map of Guadalcanal, and the Florida Islands, which lay across Sealark Channel. To view a larger image, click on the map or HERE. US Marine Corps

The Solomon Islands are the largest island group in the South Pacific, stretching over 900 miles from southeast to northwest. Guadalcanal is the southwestern-most island in lies about 3,500 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor. Presenting a picture-postcard view of the "typical" Pacific paradise, reality on the 'canal, as it came to be known, presented a completely different view of life in the South Pacific.

Code-named OPERATION WATCHTOWER, the assault and capture of Guadalcanal and neighboring islands took place on 7 August 1942. The bulk of the First Marine Division landed across the beaches near Lunga Point on the 'canal's northern coast. As part of the Northern Group, commanded by BrigGen William Rupertus, the Second Marine Regiment was assigned to secure defenses on Tulagi, Gavutu nd Tanambogo islands. The bulk of the Second Marine Division elements were initially assigned as reserve elements for the assault operations. But that changed very quickly when the tactical situation dictated the commitment of these troops.

Under the command of Capt Edgar Crane, Company B, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, made the first landing of the campaign, and thus of World War War II. The 252-Marine reinforced rifle company landed unopposed at 0740 on D-Day near Haleta on Florida Island in support of the 1st Raider Battalion landing on Tulagi's western shore. The rest of 1st Battalion followed ashore a short time later. Baker Company completed its mission the same afternoon and was urgently called to reembark and assist the 1st Parachute Battalion with the capture of Gavutu and Tanambogo. They had expected to confront a Japanese force in squad-size, but instead were met by hundreds of enemy soldiers.

The Paramarines had been fighting hard all day against a numerically superior enemy defense. Landing on Tanambogo after nightfall under supporting fires from a US Navy destroyer, the Marines of Baker Company were met by a wall of Japanese defensive fires. Conditions were chaotic as automatic weapons raked across the Marines trying to disembark. Casualties were heavy, not only in the Marine landing force, but also among the crews of the Navy landing boats.Capt Crane and the rest of Baker's leadership stepped in to restore order and get their men organized. As stated in Crane's Navy Cross citation for the action:

"Although menaced by the withering blasts of hostile weapons, he brought two of six boats in to attempt a landing but was forced by extremely heavy machine-gun fire to remain in the water for four hours before he was able to get ashore, completely unarmed. With the small number of men still under his command, Captain Crane obtained arms from friendly troops and continued action against the enemy."

The twin islands of Gavutu and Tanambogo, showing graphics of the combat operations on 7-8 August 1942. Gavutu was about 500 yards wide and Tanambogo was 250 wide. They were joined together by a 300 yard long causeway. The highest elevation on either island was 175 feet. US Marine Corps


Among Baker Company's ranks were numerous Marines who acted gallantly. Among them was 2ndLt John J. Smith, 2nd Platoon Leader, whose Navy Cross citation noted his gallant conduct:

"Although menaced by the withering blasts of hostile weapons, he attempted a landing but was forced by extremely heavy machine-gun fire to remain in the water for four hours before he was able to get ashore. With the small number of men still with him, Second Lieutenant Smith immediately obtained arms from friendly troops and, although suffering a painful wound, participated in a vigorous action which forced the enemy to retire."

Evacuating their wounded in landing boats, the Marines of Baker Company fought for five hours under a veritable hail of fire before they pulled out. At 2200, 1stLt Crane led remnants of his company across the narrow causeway linking Tanambogo with neighboring Gavutu Island. They arrived at the command post of the 1st Parachute Battalion at around midnight, exhausted and bloodied, but unbowed. Edgar Crane and John J. Smith had the distinction of being the first members of the Second Marine Division to receive the Navy Cross in World War II.

Gavutu as it appeared from the high ground on Tanambogo. US Marine Corps


The next day, an all-out effort was made to secure the Gavutu, Tanambogo and Tulagi. On the last-named island, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, and 1st Raider Battalion under the legendary Col Merritt "Red Mike" Edson, were engaged in a hot fight against a well dug-in Japanese defense. 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 2nd Marines were sent there to assist with mop-up. 3rd Battalion went to Gavutu, along with a tank section of 3rd Platoon, Company C, 2nd Tank Battalion, under Lt E. J. Sweeney.

Marine tankers on Guadalcanal pose with their Stuart light tank in October 1942. They both carry Thompson submachine guns. US Marine Corps


With the destroyer USS Buchanan firing in support, the 3rd Battalion Marines, commanded by LtCol Robert Hunt, hit the beach late in the morning on Gavutu and the tanks landed shortly thereafter. After securing the island, the assault force prepared to take the neighboring island of Tanambogo. Naval gunfire preparatory fires began at 1600 and the Item Company, 3/2, landed twenty minutes later preceded by Lt Sweeney's light tank section. Sweeney's wingman tank was commanded by Sgt Leon C. Richardt. What happened next was described in Follow Me, The Story of the Second Marine Division in World War II:

"As Sweeney, the tank commander, drove his two eggshell monsters inland, screaming Japs ran at the tanks with pipes and crowbars to jam the treads. Sweeney's guns were all going, and so were the guns of his companion tank, but there was a painful lack of room to maneuver. Rising from the turret to reconnoiter, Sweeney took a bullet through the head. The tank stalled and the crewmen fought their way out of it against Japs who were swinging knives and even a pitchfork. Meanwhile, the other tank had stuck between two coconut palms. Its trapped crew was confronted by an equally horrifying attack, with gruesome trimmings. The Japs fired the tank with gasoline and set upon the desperate Marines with knives and bayonets. Two Marines died and two others survived severe burns and multiple knife wounds. But the next day the bodies of forty-two Japs were counted within the sweep of the burned tank's guns."

Embarked in a Landing Craft, Personnel (Large), Marines head for the beach on D-Day in the Solomons — 7 August 1942. Unlike its cousin, the Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel, the LCP(L) did not have a ramp, which required Marines to jump over the sides to disembark from the craft. Still image from USMC combat camera film


At the same time as Item Company came ashore, a platoon of King Company, 3/2, fixed bayonets for an assault across the causeway to Tanambogo. Led by Lt J. J. Donahue, these Marines charged across the open in the first recorded bayonet assault of the war. They were met by a hail of enemy fire from the target island, causing numerous casualties, but the Marines did not stop or waiver. From Follow Me, The Story of the Second Marine Division in World War II:

"As the first few Marines reached the Tanambogo end of the causeway, the Japs rose from their holes to meet them. For a moment the Marines were engaged with bayonets, and the battle was hand to hand, man against man and steel against steel." After a furious firefight, 3/2 carried the day on Tanambogo and dug-in for a restless night. On 9 August, they completed the dirty job of mopping up the shattered remnants of the Japanese garrison on Tanambogo. On this day, pack howitzers of Battery I, 3rd Battalion, 10th Marines, fired their regiment's first supporting rounds of the war.

Among the many courageous Marines who fought in this action was GySgt Orle S. Bergner, a native of Wisconsin. Bergner's fellow Marines nicknamed him "the one-man stick of dynamite" for his fearlessness in blasting Japanese positions with hand grenades. Braving enemy fire in his heroic assault, Bergner was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but later received a well-deserved Silver Star. This gallant Marine survived combat service in World War II. Commissioned as an officer, he went to war again, this time in Korea. Serving with Company B, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 2ndLt Orle S. Bergner was killed in action on 23 October 1951.

Meanwhile, over on Tulagi Edson's Raiders and 2/5 were faced with a deeply entrenched enemy garrison that refused to surrender. On their first night ashore, the Marines had dug-in and endured four separate Japanese attacks. On 8 August, the Second Regiment Marines hit the beach in support. Cave by cave, the Marines took each by frontal assault. Lacking flamethrowers and demolition teams that would prove so effective in later campaigns, the Marines had to use the tools available to them. Using satchel charges and hand grenades, infantrymen and engineers braved enemy fire again and again. By nightfall, Tulagi was in American hands.

In this still image from the Twentieth Century Fox film Guadalcanal Diary, Marines in an LCP(L) make the run-in to the beachhead. This picture is evocative of the atmosphere on Guadalcanal. Twentieth Century Fox


Although troops of the Second Marine Division were heavily engaged on D-Day, many of the division's Marines remained embarked on their transports awaiting orders. Chief among them was regimental commander Col John Arthur and the headquarters element of the Second Marine Regiment. A small detachment of the division's Marines landed on the Guadalcanal beachhead with the support echelons of the First Marine Division to unload supplies, but they were the only Second Division Marines to set boondockers in the Lunga perimeter that day, or for many to follow.

The night of 8-9 August 1942, a hard rain fell in the Solomons, soaking Marines to the bone. And another enemy made its presence felt after dark — the dreaded Anopheles mosquito. Millions of these insects swarmed across the islands, spreading malaria that would soon leave a trail of fever-wracked bodies throughout the ranks. But something more insistent happened that night that was witnessed by Marines across the islands. Around 0130 on 9 August, a multitude of bright flashes were seen out at sea. Marines stood in their foxholes, shivering as they wondered what was happening on the water. Soon scuttlebutt took over and all sorts of rumors flew like wildfire.

Author T. Grady Gallant, who served on Guadalcanal as a Marine in the First Marine Division, witnessed the night battle and later described it in his book On Valor's Side:

"Several hours before dawn...I heard what sounded like distant thunder. With great effort, I got up and fought my eyes open. I looked toward the ocean. We were back from the beach about a hundred yards and only a few inches above sea level. The rumbling continued, deep kettledrum-like sounds and flashes of light...The flashes were close-in, near Savo Island. Flashes like summer lightning were coming from many points. The sound rolled in seconds later. It was a strange sensation to watch in the darkness, wet and cold, and see all those bursts of light, sometimes from one source, sometimes from several places at once, all scattered toward the horizon...It was clear to us from the flashes, the ships were in rapid motion."

Many of the Marines on the beaches assumed that the US Navy had won a great victory against the Japanese fleet. The reality was more terrible than any any of the Marines could imagine. In what would come to be known as the Battle of Savo Island, the US Navy suffered one of the worst defeats in its storied history. In a fleet action that raged for less than an hour, many American lives were lost and the damage to the US naval force was catastrophic. The cruisers USS Astoria, USS Vincennes, USS Quincy, and HMAS Canberra were all sunk, and the cruiser USS Chicago was heavily damaged.



PART III. STARVATION ISLAND

SECOND MARINE DIVISION INDEX

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