Edson's Ridge (1-1 p13-17)
The next day Red Mike discussed the situation with division planners.
Intelligence officers translating the captured documents confirmed that
3,000 Japanese were cutting their way through the jungle southwest of
Tasimboko. Edson was convinced that they planned to attack the currently
unguarded southern portion of the perimeter. From an aerial photograph
he picked out a grass-covered ridge that pointed like a knife at
the airfield. His hunch was based on his own experience in jungle fighting
and with the Japanese. He knew they liked to attack at night, and that
was also the only time they could get fire support from the sea. And a
night attack in the jungle only had a chance if it moved along a well-defined
avenue of approach. The ridge was the obvious choice. Thomas agreed. Vandegrift
did not, but they con vinced the general to let the raiders and parachutists
shift their bivouac to the ridge in order to get out of the pattern of
bombs falling around the airfield.
The men moved to the new location on 10 September. Contrary to their
hopes, it was not a rest zone. Japanese planes bombed the ridge on the
1lth and 12th. Native scouts brought reports of the approaching enemy
column, and raider patrols soon made contact with the advance elements
of the force. The Marines worked to improve their position under severe
handicaps. There was very little barbed wire and no sandbags or engineering
tools. Troops on the ridge itself could not dig far before striking coral;
those on either flank were hampered by thick jungle that would conceal
the movement of the enemy. Casualties had thinned ranks, while illness
and a lack of good food had sapped the strength of those still on the
Edson and Thomas did the best they could with the resources available.
Red Mike used the spine of the ridge as the dividing point between his
two rump battalions. One company of parachutists held the left of his
line, with the rest of their comrades echeloned to the rear to protect
that flank. Two companies of raiders occupied the right, with that flank
anchored on the Lunga River. A lagoon separated the two raider units.
Edson attached the machine guns to the forward companies and kept the
remaining raiders in reserve. (Cornpany D was no larger than a platoon
now, since Red Mike had used much of its manpower to fill holes in the other
three rifle companies.) He set up his forward command post on Hill 120,
just a few hundred yards be hind the front lines.
Thomas placed the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, in reserve between the
ridge and the airfield. Artillery forward observers joined Edson and registered
the howitzers. The Marines were as ready as they could be, but the selection
of the ridge as the heart of the defense was a gamble. To the west
of the Lunga there were only a few strongpoints occupied by the men from
the pioneer and amphibious tractor battalions. To the east of Red Mike's
line there was nothing but a mile of empty jungle.
Kawaguchi was having his own problems. In addition to the setback at
Tasimboko, his troops were having a tough time cutting their way through
the heavy jungle and toiling over the many ridges in their path. Some
of his difficulties were self inflicted. His decision to attack from the
south had required him to leave his artillery and most of his supplies
behind, since they could not be hauled over the rough jungle trail. Thus
he would go into battle with little fire support and poor logistics. He
then detailed one of his four battalions to make a diversionary attack
along the Tenaru. This left him with just 2,500 men for the main assault.
Finally, he had underestimated thetime needed to reach his objective.
On the evening of 12 September, as the appointed hour for the attack
approached, Kawaguchi realized that only one battalion had reached its
assigned jumpoff point, and no units had been able to reconnoiter the
area of the ridge. He wanted to delay the attack, but communications failed
and he could not pass the order. Behind schedule and without guides, the
battalions hastily blundered forward, only to break up into small groups
as the men fought their way through the tangled growth in total darkness.
At 2200 a Japanese plane dropped a series of green flares over the Marine
perimeter. Then a cruiser and three destroyers opened up on the ridge.
For the next 20 minutes they poured shells in that direction, though most
rounds sailed over the high ground to land in the jungle beyond, some
to explode among the Japanese infantry.
When the bombardment ceased, Kawaguchi's units launched their own flares
and the first piecemeal attacks began. The initial assault concentrated
in the low ground around the lagoon. This may have been an attempt to
find the American flank, or the result of lack of familiarity with the
terrain. In any case, the thick jungle offset the Marine advantage in
firepower, and the Japanese found plenty of room to infiltrate between
platoon strongpoints. They soon isolated the three platoons of Company
C, each of which subsequently made its way to the rear. The Marines on
the ridge remained comparatively untouched. As daylight approached the
Japanese broke off the action, but retained possession of Company C's
former positions. Kawaguchi's officers began the slow process of regrouping
their units, now scattered over the jungle and totally disoriented.
In the morning Edson ordered a counterattack by his reserve companies.
They made little headway against the more-numerous Japanese, and Red Mike
recalled them. Since he could not restore an unbroken front, he decided
to withdraw the entire line to the reserve position. This had the added
benefit of forcing the enemy to cross more open ground on the ridge before
reaching Marine fighting holes. In the late afternoon the B Companies
of both raiders and parachutists pulled back and anchored themselves on
the ridge midway between Hills 80 and 120. Thomas provided an engineer
company, which Edson inserted on the right of the ridge. Company A of
the raiders covered the remaining distance between the engineers and the
Lunga. The other two parachute companies withdrew slightly and bulked
up the shoulder of the left flank. The remains of Companies C and D assumed
a new reserve position on the west slope of the ridge, just behind Hill
120. Red Mike's command post stayed in its previous location.
The Japanese made good use of the daylight hours and prepared for a
fresh effort. This time Kawaguchi would not make the mistake of getting
bogged down in the jungle; he would follow the tactics Edson had originally
expected and concentrate his attack on the open ground of the ridge. The
new assault kicked off just after darkness fell. The initial blow struck
Company B's right flank near the lagoon. A mad rush of screaming soldiers
drove the right half of the raider company out of position and those men
fell back to link up with Company C on the ridge. Inexplicably, Kawaguchi
did not exploit the gap he had created. Possibly the maneuver had been
a diversion to draw Marine reserves off the ridge and out of the way of
the main effort.
Edson had to decide quickly whether to plug the hole with his dwindling
reserve or risk having the center of his line encircled by the next assault.
The enemy soon provided the answer. By 2100 Japanese soldiers were massing
around the southern nose of the ridge, making their presence known with
the usual barrage of noisy chants. They presumably were going to launch
a frontal assault on the center of the Marine line. Red Mike ordered Company
C of the raiders and Company A of the parachutists to form a reserve line
around the front and sides of Hill 120. Japanese mortar and machine-gun
fire swept the ridge; the Marines responded with artillery fire on suspected
The assault waves finally surged forward at 2200. The attack, on a front
all across the ridge, immediately unhinged the Marine center. As Japanese
swarmed toward the left flank of his Company B, Captain Harry L. Torgerson,
the parachute battalion executive officer, ordered it to withdraw. The
parachutists in Company C soon followed suit. Torgerson gathered these
two units in the rear of Company As position on Hill 120, where' he attempted
to reorganize them. The remaining Company B raiders were now isolated
in the center. The situation looked desperate.
At this point, the Japanese seemed to take a breather. Heavy fire raked
the ridge, but the enemy made no fresh assaults. Edson arranged for more
artillery support, and got his own force to provide covering fire for
the withdrawal of the exposed raiders of Company B. For a time it looked
like the series of rearward movements would degenerate into a rout. As
a few men around Hill 120 began to filter to the rear, Red Mike took immediate
steps to avert disaster. From his CP, now just a dozen yards behind the
front, he made it known that this was to be the final stand. The word
went round: "Nobody moves, just die in your holes" Major Bailey ranged
up and down the line raising his voice above the din and breathing fresh
nerve into those on the verge of giving up. The commander of the Parachute
Battalion broke down; Edson relieved him on the spot and placed Torgerson
The new position was not very strong, just a small horseshoe bent around
the hill, with men from several units intermingled on the bare slopes.
Red Mike directed the artillery to maintain a continuous barrage close
along his front. When the Japanese renewed their attack, each fresh wave
of Imperial soldiers boiled out of the jungle into a torrent of steel
and lead. In addition to the firepower of artillery and automatic weapons,
men on the lines tossed grenade after grenade at whatever shapes or sounds
they could discern. Supplies of ammunition dwindled rapidly, and division
headquarters pushed forward cases of belted machine gun ammunition and
One of the Japanese assaults, probably avoiding the concentrated fire
sweeping the crest, pushed along the jungle edge at the bottom of the
slope and threatened to envelop the left flank. Edson ordered Torgerson
to launch a counterattack with his two reorganized parachute companies.
These Marines advanced, checked the enemy progress, and extended the line
to prevent any recurrence. Red Mike later cited this effort as "a decisive
factor in our ultimate victory."
At 0400 Edson asked Thomas to commit the reserve battalion to bolster
his depleted line. A company at a time, the men of the 2d Battalion, 5th
Marines, filed along the top of the ridge and into place beside those
who had survived the long night. By that point the Japanese were largely
spent. Kawaguchi sent in two more attacks, but they were hit by artillery
fire as the troops assembled and never presented much of a threat. A small
band actually made it past the ridge and reached the vicinity of the airfield;
the Marines providing security there dealt with them.
The onset of daylight brought an end to any organized effort, though
remnants of Japanese assault units were scattered through the fringing
jungle to the flanks and rear of the Marine position. Squads began the
long process of rooting out these snipers. Edson also ordered up an air
attack to strike the enemy units clinging to the southern end of the ridge.
A flight of P-400s answered the call and strafed the exposed enemy groups.
Kawaguchi admitted failure that afternoon and ordered his tattered brigade
The raiders and parachutists had already turned over the ridge to other
Marines that morning. The 1st Raiders had lost 135 men, the 1st Parachute
Battalion another 128. Of those, 59 men were dead or missing-in-action.
Seven hundred Japanese bodies littered the battlefield, and few of Kawaguchi's
500 wounded would survive the terrible trek back to the coast.
The battle was much more than a tremendous tactical victory for the
Marines. Edson and his men had turned back one of the most serious threats
the Japanese were to mount against Henderson Field. If the raiders and
parachutists had failed, the landing strip would have fallen into enemy
hands, and the lack of air cover probably would have led to the defeat
of the lst Marine Division and the loss of Guadalcanal. Such a reversal
would have had a grave impact on the course of the war and the future
of the Corps.
Vandegrift wasted no time in recommending Edson and Bailey
for Medals of Honor. Red Mike's citation
noted his "marked degree of cool leadership and personal courage" At the
height of the battle, with friendly artillery shells landing just 75 yards
to the front, and enemy bullets and mortars sweeping the knoll, Edson
had never taken cover. Standing in the shallow hole that passed for a
CP, he had calmly issued orders and served as an inspiration to allwho
saw him. War correspondents visiting the scene the day after the battle
dubbed it "Edson's Ridge."
Ridge Photos - Thanks to Peter Flahavin