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1st Battle of Matanikau

(1-1 p17-18)

The depleted parachutists (55 percent casualties in the campaign) left Guadalcanal on 17 September on board the convoy that brought in the 7th Marines. The Ist Raiders (33 percent casualties) remained, and received precious little rest. just six days after the battle, Vandegrift ordered them to make a reconnaissance south of Edson’s Ridge and destroy any Japanese stragglers. The raiders passed through their old position, now strongly defended by the 7th Marines, and followed the track of their beaten foe, a trail marked by abandoned weapons and bodies. Edson made liberal use of artillery and his crew-served weapons against the slightest sign of resistance. At a cost of three wounded, the raiders captured a single dismantled howitzer and killed 19 enemy soldiers. The greatest point of danger in the operation turned out to be the return trip. As the battalion neared friendly lines, the jittery new arrivals of the 7th Marines opened fire on the raiders. Luckily no one was hit.

First Matanikau

That same day Vandegrift shipped out several excess colonels and reorganized the senior ranks of the division. Edson took command of the 5th Marines and Griffith succeeded him as head of the 1st Raiders. Red Mikes departure did not take the raider battalion out of the spotlight. Lieutenant Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller’s 1st Battalion 7th Marines, departed the perimeter on 23 September with the mission of clearing enemy units from the vicinity of the
Matanikau River. Once that was accomplished, division wanted to place the raiders in a patrol base near Kokumbona to prevent the enemy’s return. That would keep Japanese artillery out of rangeof the airfield.

On the 24th Puller’s men surprised a Japanese unit and routed it, but lost seven killed and 25 wounded in the process. Division sent out the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, as a relief force, since Puller had to use most of his battalion to get the casualties safely back into the perimeter. Puller then continued on with his one remaining rifle company and the 2nd Battalion. The combined force reached the Matanikau on 26 September, proceeded down the east bank, then tried to cross the sandbar at the river’s mouth. A Japanese
company blocked the way and drove the Marines back with heavy fire. Meanwhile another enemy company moved into defensive positions on the eastern end of the single-log bridge that served as the only crossing upstream. The Marines remained ignorant of that move. That afternoon Vandegrift ordered Edson to take charge of the operation, and sent the raiders along to assist him.

Puller and Edson jointly devised a new plan that evening. In the morning the raiders would move upriver, cross at the bridge, and then come back downriver on the far bank to take the Japanese at the river mouth in the flank. To ensure that the enemy force did not retreat out of the trap, the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, would pressure them with its own attack across the sandbar. Finally, the bulk of the lst Battalion, 7th Marines, then in the perimeter after the casualty evacuation, would make an amphibious landing beyond Point Cruz to slam shut any possible escape route. The ambitious plan received divisions blessing.

After a night of heavy rain, the 2nd Battalion launched its assault at the river mouth, but made no progress against continuing strong opposition. The raiders, reinforced by Puller’s lone company, advanced upriver, but soon found themselves wedged into a narrow shelf between the water and a steep ridge. The Japanese had placed a tight stopper in this bottle with infantry supported by machine guns and mortars. Bailey responded in his typical fashion and tried to lead the assault-he soon fell mortally wounded. Griffith ordered Company C up the ridge in an effort to out-flank the enemy. The Japanese had this approach covered too. When the battalion commander appeared on the ridgeline to observe the action firsthand, a sniper put a bullet in his shoulder. With no outside fire support, the raiders could make no headway against the dug-in Japanese.

Poor communications made things worse. Edson misinterpreted a message from the raiders and thought they were across the river. He launched the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, in yet another assault, this time with help from additional mortars and 37mm antitank guns, but it met the same fate as all previous attempts. Upon landing in the enemy’s rear, the lst Battalion, 7th Marines, was surrounded by a large-force enemy bivouaced in the vicinity.
The unit had brought no radios ashore and consequently could not immediately inform division of its plight. Eventually the Marines used air panels to signal supporting aircraft. When that word reached Puller, he wanted the 2nd Battalion to renew the assault to take pressure off his men, but Edson refused to incur further casualties in a hopeless frontal attack.

Puller eventually extricated his beleaguered force with naval gunfire and messages passed by semaphore flags. Red Mike then ordered the raiders to pull back to the river mouth to join 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, after which both units withdrew to the division perimeter. The units engaged had lost 67 dead and 125 wounded in the course of the operation. This aborted action along the Matanikau was the only defeat the Marines suffered during the Guadalcanal campaign.

Raider casualties during the all-day action had been comparatively light-two killed and 11 wounded -but that total included both senior officers in the battalion. Command now devolved upon Captain Ira J. “Jake” Irwin. The battalion was worn down by two months of steady fighting, and by the ravages of the tropics. Large numbers of men were ill with malaria and other diseases. The battalion had seen more action than any other on the island, and rumors persisted that they would soon ship out like the parachutists.

One raider later recalled that “a more sickly, bedraggled, miserable bunch of Marines would have been hard to find.”