Pacific Odyssey: Guadalcanal and Bloody Ridge, Solomon Islands

This article is Part XI of a series that describes a journey from the Philippines to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. For Part I, please click here.


Bloody Ridge, on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, looking south toward the Lunga River. In the desperate fighting for the ridges in September, 1942, the Japanese failed to break through Marine lines and recapture Henderson Field, which is just to the north. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

To see the rest of the Guadalcanal battle sites, I hired a car and driver, much as I had in summer 1989. I knew the places that I wanted to see, and I had a number of maps from books about the battle, so I didn’t need a guide so much as someone with a car. Unfortunately, urban blight has washed over much of the Guadalcanal battlefields, almost as if they were an encounter at sea.

Near my guest house I found a young driver named Selwyn, who came from the nearby island of Malaita in the Solomons. During the ethnic violence in the islands in the 1990s, native Solomon Islanders had fought with immigrants from Malaita, who first came to Guadalcanal to help the Americans and to find jobs. To some Solomon Islanders, they are an unwanted minority, although the violence from the 1990s has receded, or so Selwyn told me.

Driving on Guadalcanal is a tortuous affair, as there are dozens of potholes on most streets—except for a few in Honiara, the capital—and it means you don’t drive along the roads, you undulate, especially on battlefield trails. In addition, the day was hot and humid, making for a dusty and exhausting excursion.

We started at Bloody Ridge, a Little Round Top south of the airport that held the American line, in desperate fighting, on the night of September 12-13. I was there in 1989, and it remains the best battle site on Guadalcanal, as the ridge line has survived urbanization. Down the hill closer to Kukum Road, there are all sorts of Chinese-built mini-markets, malls, and warehouses, which give Honiara its aura of a Rio suburb. 

When I came here last time, there were very few, if any, markers for the battle, which matched the Tenaru in its intensity. Now more have been erected, and there’s one atop the Ridge, which is a series of scalloped hills that stand between the jungle and the airfield.

For some reason the Japanese decided to storm these hills straight on—it was their infantry style until later in the war—and some 3,000 Japanese soldiers died under the foxhole ramparts of what is also called Edson’s Ridge, after the Marine commander here, Colonel Merritt “Red Mike” Edson.

During the night fighting (fought by hand when ammunition ran low) my father’s C Company was in the front lines to the left of Bloody Ridge and on standby to rush toward it, had there been a breakthrough. My father would say: “I am glad they didn’t need us for that one.” He described the intended fighting that lasted through the night.

After the battle, the surviving Japanese forces melted away into the jungle, to die of malaria or starvation. 

I read later that the land around Bloody Ridge has been set aside as a national park, as well it should be, as it is the only ground of the Marine perimeter that has yet to come under development. 

Bloody Ridge reminded me of Civil War battle sites, Gettysburg in particular, where ridge lines such as this one dominated the fighting on Abraham Lincoln’s hallowed ground. There they had such names as “High Water Mark,” “The Wheatfield,” and “The Peach Orchard.” Both sets of ridges are testaments to American fortitude.

I appreciated the view that Bloody Ridge offers of what Marines would call “the upper Lunga,” the river that empties into the sea at Lunga Point. My father used to lead patrols south along the river (into the jungle), and he recalled that they were long, terrifying experiences, as they would be in “Indian country” most of the time.  

Now the upper Lunga might well be a river in an impressionist painting, as it wends its way through villages and hills leading to dense jungle. The southern side of Guadalcanal is a wall of inaccessible mountains.

One thing my father never mentioned was meeting up with local villagers on their patrols or in the fighting. I suspect the native populationin 1942 was fairly small. Now Guadalcanal is a booming Pacific island, albeit a part of the Greater Chinese Co-Prosperity Sphere of cheaply constructed malls and motorbikes spewing fumes.

* * *

From Bloody Ridge, Selwyn and I drove along a grass road to the location of the First Marine Division headquarters. I had always thought that it was closer to the beach, and perhaps it was after the initial landing. But later the command moved its headquarters inland, to this location south of Henderson Field. The headquarters is now just the knob of a hill, but a slab of a concrete patio marks its contours.

The clearing interested me as this was where my friend Herbert “Chris” Merillat was posted. Chris wrote several of the best of books about the battle on Guadalcanal, the first one, published in 1943, called The Island. In 1982 he wrote Guadalcanal Remembered, which is based on the notes that he took on the island when he was there as a Marine correspondent.

When I first wrote about Guadalcanal for the American Scholar magazine in 1990, Chris sent me a letter, said he lived in Washington, D.C., and encouraged me to visit, which I did many times in the years that followed.

When Chris and I got together we would talk not just about Guadalcanal but about whatever subjects came to mind, including his family origins in Schaffhausen, Switzerland—even though he had grown up in Illinois and gone to college in Arizona.

He was older than many junior officers on Guadalcanal, as before enlisting in the Marines he had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, with, among others, Byron White, later a Supreme Court justice. And after the war, Chris lived and worked around the world, often writing about international law, and for a time he was a correspondent at Time magazine.

He had not known my father personally when they were on Guadalcanal, but later, when I introduced them, they became close friends, having both endured the worst four months of the fighting on the island (The campaign ended for the First Division in December, 1942.)

At the end of his life, my father said, more than once: “I hope that at my funeral someone reads aloud the poem that Chris Merillat wrote for my 75th birthday.” In part it reads:

Hail Nikolai, of many a first—
The First Battalion, First Marines,
The first Americans to worst
The Japanese. In denim greens
They met assaults by Ichiki
That night on Alligator Creek. He
(Nick, that is) led Company C
To trap the foe against the sea,
And wipe them out amid the palms—
A savage storm in tropic calms.

Whenever they got together, they talked about this or that senior officer on Guadalcanal or in the Marines, and would swap anecdotes and asides about their competences or incompetences.

Chris credited the brilliance of the land campaign on Guadalcanal to Colonel John Selden (“he did most of the work…he knew what was going on”) more than he credited the Marine commander, Archer Vandegrift, who normally gets the praise for the land campaign.

Neither my father nor Chris thought much of Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, under whom my father served at Peleliu. Chris had only known him in passing on Guadalcanal, but they both thought he had been promoted beyond his level of competence. (Often one of them would say to the other: “Can you imagine Chesty as a general?”)

My father told Chris that it was Lt. Col. Julian N. Frisbeewho made him a company commander when he was still a second lieutenant, aged 22, and Chris nodded and said: “Now he was one tough guy.”

Both Chris and my father shared junior officers’ skepticism about senior officers and generals. And it was Chris who said, memorably, to my father: “Think of all the Marine officers who had hoped that they could end their careers as majors. Suddenly the war came, and they were two-star generals, and many didn’t have a clue.”

Chris lived alone in a town house in Georgetown, which he had bought in the 1950s. The house was crammed with books and, I noted in particular, a rare Japanese map seized on Guadalcanal.

Sometimes on my trips to Washington I would arrive with some of my small children in tow, and they delighted in running up and down the steep staircases, or going with Chris to the Lincoln Memorial or the Air and Space Museum.

As he got older, I always tried to take him on an excursion, and once we drove out to the battlefield at Bull Run. Other times we simply had lunch or dinner in Georgetown, and he would fill me on local political gossip. Over the course of our friendship, which lasted twenty years, we exchanged dozens of letters.

In 2010, after he had not written to me for a while, I feared the worst, although I had not seen his obituary in the newspaper. The next time I was in Washington, finding his house empty, I knocked on the doors of his neighbors, and one told me that he had died, suddenly, a few months before, at age 94.

The neighbor did not know where he was buried, but I tracked him down to Arlington National Cemetery, where on another visit to Washington, I stood in front of his plaque in a columbarium and said my goodbye. 

* * *

From the Marine headquarters in the hills above the airport, Selwyn made a roundabout drive to a “military museum.” It’s a word to be feared in the Solomons, as it means a place where someone has collected wrecked planes and rusty machine guns, displayed them in a yard, and is now charging admission. And one thing Selwyn and I learned in our touring is that villagers love to station themselves near some of the monuments and shake down visitors for an “admission fee.”

To pay it is to give in to highway brigandry; not to pay it makes you look like a colonial high pockets, flogging the natives with your walking stick. For example, leaving Bloody Ridge, a young woman stopped our car and demanded money. I paid, but it was wrong.

One the myths about Guadalcanal is that the first “foxhole” was dug here, on instructions from an officer named Fox. I suppose it is a credible war story, but I passed on paying the admission fee to a small village that has the hole on their list of accounts receivable.

Instead Selwyn and I continued in the direction of Mount Austen, which is in the hills west and south of the airfield. (It wasn’t part of my father’swar;later, he liked to say that, to most Marines, Mount Olympus was closer than Mount Austen.) After the First Marines left the island in December, 1942, Mount Austen is where the army surrounded the last of the Japanese, and now the surrounding hills afford a spectacular view of Ironbottom Sound, where the US Navy suffered the worst loses in its history.  

Selwyn stopped first at a Japanese war memorial, where I had to pay $8 to enter what my friend Murray Sayle would have reminded me is a “peace park.” There I read some doggerel haiku about the losses suffered in the divine winds around the Solomons. But the local attendant collecting the money and opening the gate was kindly, and he said sadly: “You are the only visitor today.” I did like the view, especially of mountainous Savo Island. From the beach, I had thought it was an atoll, but from this vantage I could see it was a more substantial island.

* * *

Looking out at Ironbottom Sound reminded me of the best book that I had read about the naval engagements around Guadalcanal: Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Struggle for Guadalcanal: August 1942 – February 1943.

It is Volume V in his monumental History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II. I found the book to be a page-turner when I read it in 2003. Until then, while I had an idea about the naval campaigns around Guadalcanal, I did not know the details or the scope of the fighting, which ranged over the seas from the Slot to Ironbottom Sound, and out into the Coral Sea.

Later, when Selwyn and I drove to the nearby American Memorial, I read the figures of the naval loses around Guadalcanal, which I first encountered in Morison, and which are staggering. 

From August 7, 1942 until February 9, 1943, when the Japanese completed their withdrawal from Guadalcanal, the navy lost two aircraft carriers (Wasp and Hornet), five heavy cruisers (Astoria, Chicago, Northampton, Quincy, and Vincennes), two light cruisers (Atlanta and Juneau), fourteen destroyers (Barton, Benham, Blue, Cushing, De Haven, Duncan, Jarvis, Laffey, Meredith, Monssen, O’Brien, Porter, Preston, and Walke), six motor torpedo boats (PT-37, PT-43, PT-44, PT-111, PT-112, and PT-123), and four transports (Colhoun, George F. Elliott, Gregory, and Little). More than 5,000 American sailors were killed.

The naval battles had such names as the battle of Savo Island, the battle of Cape Esperance, the battle of the Eastern Solomons, the battle of Tassafaronga, and the naval battle of Guadalcanal, but all were fought over the same stretch of water (that of Ironbottom Sound, so appropriately named) and to guarantee that supplies could keep flowing to the ground forces on Guadalcanal.

At its most basic, the battle for Guadalcanal, both land and sea, was fought for control of the runway at Henderson Field and the skies over the Solomons.

Both sides realized what was at stake. Morison quotes a Japanese general as saying: “This is the decisive battle between Japan and the United States, a battle in which the rise or fall of the Japanese Empire will be decided. If we do not succeed in the occupation of these islands [the Solomons], no one should expect to return to Japan alive.”

In turn, Morison writes: “No man who fought in those bloody waters can forget the apprehension, the exultation and the terror that he experienced, the hideous forms of death that he witnessed, or the self-sacrificing heroism that gave him a new respect for his fellow seaman. ‘Savo,’ ‘Guadalcanal,’ and ‘Tassafaronga’ and the rest are no mere battle names to the survivors; they are flaming banners of deathless deeds by ships and men whose bones forever rest in Ironbottom Sound.” 

The Guadalcanal American Memorialhad not been built when I came to the Solomons in 1989. It was dedicated in 1992. On my first visit I had despaired that such a major battle as Guadalcanal had so few American monuments, so I was glad now to find this one. It might well have been inspired by this paragraph in Morison’s account of the naval battle:

For those of who were there, or whose friends were there, Guadalcanal is not a name but an emotion, recalling desperate fights in the air, furious night battles, frantic work at supply or construction, savage fighting in the sodden jungle, nights broken by screaming bombs and deafening explosions of naval shells. Sometimes I dream of a great battle monument on Guadalcanal; a granite monolith on which the name of all who fell and of all the ships that rest in Ironbottom Sound may be carved. At other times I feel that the jagged cone of Savo Island, forever brooding over the blood-thickened waters of the Sound, is the best monument to the men and ships who here pushed back the enemy tide.

With the new memorial, Morison’s dream is realized, which is fitting, given all he did to record the history of the U.S. navy in World War II.

* * * 

I took pictures of inscriptions carved into the marble, describing various phases of the battle, both land and sea. For example, about the landing, the memorial records:

Late that evening [D+2] the division [the First] was informed that the navy carrier force was withdrawing and all transports would leave the next day. As less than one-half of the supplies had been unloaded, the Marines faced serious shortages, particularly in ammunition, medical supplies and food. In addition, nearly 2,000 men, mostly from the 2nd Marines, were still on board the departing transports. Until additional troops and supplies were landed, the advance could not be continued and a regular defensive perimeter could not be established. The defense of Henderson Field and the landing beach was limited to a few strong points, and reliance upon aggressive combat patrolling.

As my father wrote about those early days: “… there were gaps of hundreds of yards between the fortified positions of our units. In fact, the perimeter was never in any sense completed in the early months on the island. There was no one on the upper Ilu, on our right flank, or inland beyond that. The only thing that enabled us to survive the battles to come was the incredible luck that inspired the Japanese always to attack at those points where we were dug in instead of the vast empty spaces where we were not.”

At the Memorial there is a stone dedicated to the fighting at Bloody Ridge (“…the enemy attacked it twelves times during the night, forcing the battalion to withdraw to the highest part of the ridge…”) and another about the October shelling of Henderson Field, which all Marines, including my father, remember as a moment of sheer terror. It reads: 

Shortly after midnight on 14 October, Henderson Field was subjected to its most severe naval gunfire bombardment by two Japanese battleships, a cruiser and destroyers. All operations on the principal runway ceased, permitting the enemy to land reinforcements with comparative ease…. On 23 October strong Japanese infantry forces, supported by tanks and artillery, attacked across the Matanikau and were repulsed by the 1st and 7th Maine Regiments. On 24 and 25 October the enemy launched two powerful night attacks against the perimeter from the south. The first attack against Henderson Field was stopped by the 7th Marines and 164th Infantry Regiment after desperate fighting. The other attack, north of Mount Austin, after brief success, was also repulsed. 

My father’s account of that night has a more personal immediacy. He wrote:

On the night of October 13 orders came from regimental headquarters that C Company was to be pulled out of the line and placed in division reserve, bivouacked in the coconut grove midway between the beach and the airstrip. [Note: I am sure it were close to where my guest house was located and where I walked on my first afternoon.] No explanation, of course, accompanied the orders. The company was reluctant, as infantrymen inevitably are, to leave a well-entrenched position and to camp, uncertain of purpose, in open terrain, after nightfall. The men grumbled as they dug their new foxholes and word circulated of a possible Japanese naval attack that night. Because we had been living almost entirely on rumors since our landing, I discounted this latest warning as cut from similar cloth.

The evening passed in near-total silence. I sat by a shallow drainage ditch and stared across the stretch of water called the Slot, in whose depths now lay the wrecks of so many warships that it had garnered a second name: Iron Bottom Bay. All at once the murmuring night exploded into ghastly daylight as the fourteen- and sixteen-inch guns of Japanese battleships opened up less than a thousand yards offshore. The concussion knocked me halfway over as I dived headlong for the puny cover of the ditch, where I lay shaking among fallen palm fronds. Salvo followed salvo as the enemy sought to end our poker game with a final deathblow to Henderson Field. Overhead the enormous shells roared like subway cars amid a screeching that sounded like a thousand bolts of cloth being torn at once. The earth heaved as short rounds landed near or among us. The ominous chant of “Corpsman! Corpsman!” sounded faintly through the hellish din.

Time ceased to have meaning; the shelling would go on forever.

Down the hill from the Guadalcanal American Memorial, Selwyn and I drove around the valley of the Matanikau River. Now it’s a neighborhood outside Honiara, with houses on stilts and dogs poking through garbage.

During the land battles of Guadalcanal the Matanikau was the scene of desperate fighting, such that, even many years later, when my father remembered it, he would almost physically shudder. He would describe it as Daniel Boone spoke of Kentucky, as “a dark and bloody ground.” What made the fighting there so intense were the steep slopes of the valley, which obscured the enemy as if they were cave dwellers, which in some cases they were.

It was along the Matanikau that the reporter and novelist John Hersey set his excellent Into the Valley: A Skirmish of the Marines, a book my father much admired for its accurate portrayal of the fighting in those hills.

Hersey is most famous for his New Yorker article describing the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, but he was also a correspondent on Guadalcanal, and he wrote this fictional account about a patrol in the Mantanikau valley that goes wrong.

The Marines on this patrol break and run, much as happens in Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage. They might not have run with the same abandon, but they were headed in the same direction.  

Fate was kinder to C Company than it was to Hersey’s marines in the valley, but it was still a struggle. My father wrote:

Around the third week of November we were reunited with the 1st Battalion and took up positions along the Matanikau River. The 7th Regiment and the Army units had pushed the enemy westward, and our mission was to hold what had been won. It was just as well; by then our battalion was in no shape to launch any large-scale frontal attack. It would have been barely able to resist such an assault from the Japanese. None came. We did repel probes that occasionally threw in mortar fire before testing the barbed wire. We continued to patrol, with the same old apprehension gripping our guts. Hacking our way through the jungle, we tended to think of the enemy as wily Orientals at home in this nightmarish terrain. We forgot that they were young men from crowded cities like Tokyo and farmland like Kyushu, just as we were city boys from Boston or country lads from Georgia. Wherever they came from, they fought with unflinching tenacity. None ever surrendered; those few we took prisoner were too weak either to resist or to commit hara-kiri.

The determination in his text echoes the sentiments of Stephen Crane, who wrote: “He saw that to be firm soldiers they must go forward.”

* * *

Selwyn and I had been driving and touring for about four hours, with nothing to keep us going but some bottles of water that I picked up from roadside vendors. I had thought of ending the drive at the Matanikau (which flows through Honiara) but then Selwyn said he was game for a drive to the American monuments around the village of Gifu, which had cost U.S. army regiments so many casualties in the later stages of the fighting.

I appreciated Selwyn’s perseverance and said that I would pay for the extra time in the car. It was not an easy ascent, as we rolled along on unpaved mountain trails that wound through the hills near the village of Bamana. During the fighting American troops extrapolated the word “Gifu” to mean: “Go fuck yourself.”

Finally we came to the crossroads, near Gifu, known as the “last marker,” indicating where the active fighting ended on Guadalcanal in February, 1943. Just off the main road there’s a sign, a star on a plaque, and some words about the battle’s end. 

As we were stopped at the small crossroads, trying to figure out which way to go, several villagers approached the car in a slightly threatening manner. The boss of thisposse—a large black man with scars on his face and what looked like old bullet wounds on his arms—said that, yes, we could drive ahead to the Mount Austen memorial, but first we had to come inside their building, register, and pay an “admission fee” of $35. It was highway robbery, and I did not at all like the two men on either side of our car.

The confrontation was made worse by the fact that Selwyn was from Malaita, and these men were native Solomon Islanders. Selwyn’s skin was lighter and more reddish in tone, and they were a dark African black.

I could tell immediately, without anyone saying anything, that these men had sized each other up as potential enemies, and I felt badly for having put Selwyn in an uncomfortable situation. During our drive, he had said occasionally: “During the troubles my people could not come up here.”

What made the scene uglier was that all of the road blockers—from lifetimes of chewing betel nut—had mouths of decayed teeth that were blood red, giving them a Deliverance sort of look.

After a brief stare-down with the men leaning against our car, I said to Selwyn: “I don’t need to see Mount Austen. I have been there. Let’s turn around and get out of here.” He explained (in a local dialect) to the islanders that we would not be going ahead to Mount Austen, and not coming inside to “register” or to pay the “admission fee.” And while explaining all that, he slipped the car in reverse and began backing up to turn it around.

In a few minutes, we were twisting and turning around the potholes on the road descending toward Honiara. Heading down the hill, I wondered why some American official in the Solomon Islands had not intervened with the local government to assure access to an important war memorial. But they were not the only petty tyrants in my experience eager to hijack American history.

No wonder the first GIs in these hills embroidered the meaning of the word “Gifu.”

* * *

Selwyn dropped me at the old Mendana Hotel, where I had stayed in 1989. Now it has been refurnished and its full name is the Solomon Kitano Mendana Hotel, which, I assume, has Japanese owners.

I bought internet access from the gift shop and ate a late lunch on the terrace, overlooking a small harbor of yachts at anchor. They were the first boats that I had seen since Rabaul, and I remembered Gavin (from the “Chemistry”) saying that he tried to avoid mooring in Honiara. 

I also remembered reading Jack London’s The Cruise of the Snark, the author’s account of sailing from San Francisco to Sydney on a 42-foot sailboat, during which he stops in the Solomons.

Of the islands he later said: “If I were a king, the worst punishment I could inflict on my enemies would be to banish them to the Solomons. On second thought, king or no king, I don’t think I’d have the heart to do it.”

But the Mendana Hotel was an oasis from the heat and humidity, not to mention the highway robbers, and I was happy to linger over a cup of Western coffee.

At the front desk, as I was leaving, I asked directions to a local clinic or doctor who could treat my (still) infected leg. The clerk on duty directed me to a clinic in a nearby shopping center, although when I got there I discovered it was little more than a pharmacy. Still, I appreciated seeing shelves of medicines, and the druggist on duty was just what I needed. He looked at my leg, whistled to himself, and said that such infections were common in these Pacific islands.

In his book, Jack London writes at length about “Solomon sores”, which afflicted everyone on his boat. And John Hersey, in summarizing the campaign on Guadalcanal, writes: 

Exhausted, given no hope of relief, losing close friends, familiar with the stench of enemy dead, the Marines had held on through weeks of torment such as few soldiers in all history have suffered. On top of everything else, they began coming down with jungle diseases: dysentery, malaria, dengue, a king of typhus called tsutsugamushi disease, “foot rot,” and the horrible “crud” of fungus.

I felt lucky only to have one of Jack London’s Solomon sores.

The kind Honiara pharmacist, who said he had just recovered from a similar infection, gave me a fistful of antibiotics and told me to take four tablets every four hours for the next seven days.

I paid $6 for the cure and then wandered down to the Honiara waterfront to check on the ferry schedules to distant islands. I felt upbeat to have antibiotics in hand, and in the mid-afternoon, despite the sun high in the sky, I could feel a breeze coming off the water. But no one along the busy commercial wharf knew much about ferry schedules to Gizo, off which John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 was sunk.

Finally I asked a man leaving the offices of a shipping company if he knew anything about the Gizo ferry. Yes, he said he did, but told me that the ferry’s offices were on the other side of the wharf. And when it became clear that I didn’t know where to go, he offered me a ride in his car and dropped me at the ticket office.

In the short ride across town, I told him about my travels in PNG and the Solomons, in the footsteps of my father’s war, and in turn he said that he was active in a local historical society that was trying to preserve some of the battle sites. 

We exchanged cards, and I said that I hoped to see him again on another trip. He shook his head in sadness when I told him about the shakedowns on Mount Austen. He said, “It’s shouldn’t be like that, especially as you came from so far away.”

The next day he was flying to the Ballalae, in the Shortland Islands (where Yamamoto had been headed), to participate in the dedication of a battlefield where New Zealanders had fought, in the battle for the North Solomons. He waved goodbye by pointing me toward the offices of the ferry, where inside the clerk explained the boat left every Sunday.

* * *

With medicine and the ferry schedule in my pocket, I headed toward the mouth of the Matanikau River, where a patrol led by a Marine intelligence officer, Colonel Frank Goettge, was massacred on August 12, 1942, just after the Marines made their landing.

The reason for the patrol, and the reason it included a senior Marine officer, was that Marine headquarters had a report that a group of Japanese wanted to surrender to the Americans.

Goettge took a boatload of men to the mouth of the Matanikau (then outside the Marine lines), where they hoped they would find the Japanese who wanted to turn themselves in. This was a week before the fighting on the banks of the Ilu (the so-called Tenaru), when dead men were throwing hand grenades at the Marines, and innocence still had a place in the ranks.

Now there is a Chinese restaurant, part of a hotel complex, where the Goettge patrol landed and was ambushed. Then it was a wild stretch of beach and jungle. My friend Chris Merillat knew Colonel Goettge. They served together in the division headquarters, where Chris was a correspondent and the division historian and Goettge was in charge of intelligence. 

In Guadalcanal Remembered, he writes: “A big man, he looked like the football lineman he had been at Ohio State University, but had a gentler manner than his craggy appearance would have led you to expect. Like many senior officers, he had short-cropped, iron grey hair and prominent dark eyebrows.”  

In his account of the patrol, in which all but several men were killed, Chris is scathing, chalking up the disaster to inexperience. He writes:

The Goettge patrol was an unmitigated disaster, costing the division’s intelligence section, and that of a regiment, some of their best men, to no purpose. Senior Marine officers have never liked to talk about it. General Vandegrift later said he had doubts about the venture, but reluctantly gave the intelligence officers their heads. Perhaps a stronger chief of staff would have forbidden it. For a small party, mostly untrained in patrolling skills, to land by night at the very spot where the small enemy garrison was assumed be concentrated, with an ill-defined mission, was professionally embarrassing, quite apart from the unnecessary human costs.

* * *

As I was poking around the busy waterfront—a jumble of buildings and kids swimming after school near a bridge—I thought about the impact that the Goettge patrol had on the war going forward.

As with the battle of the Tenaru, the legacy of the patrol far outweighed the significance of the action, even if it did cost more than twenty lives. Three survivors swam back to the Marine lines, as the bodies of the Marines on the patrol were brutally hacked into pieces (one witness said: “I could see their swords glinting in the sun…”), even after they were dead.

No one really knows the true story. In one account I read, there were Japanese prepared to surrender but the Marines stumbled upon another group of soldiers who were not in the mood to throw down their samurai swords. At that level history is hard to write

Nevertheless, Marines on Guadalcanal interpreted the massacre of the patrol (sent out to receive wounded and sick men who wanted to surrender) as proof of Japanese treachery. Never again would the Japanese be taken at their word, even if they had their hands in the air. One marine said later, as is quoted in Eric M. Bergerud’s Touched With Fire:

The kid I knew was killed along with almost all of them. A Jap prisoner had told Goettge that the other Japs were ill and wanted to come in. And our people walked right into the big old trap. That settled it: we couldn’t trust any Japanese. They were treacherous. They were a cruel race. Bataan and Nanking and all of the other things they did showed it. I believed that at the time anyway. There are a lot of things I admire about them, but some of the old feelings remain.

Bergerud concludes: “The land war in the South Pacific was less than a week old, and the Japanese had developed a reputation among the men fighting them for treachery and cruelty.”

It recalled the early days of World War I, when the British and French believed that invading German soldiers were raping Belgian nuns. As Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1915: “However the world pretends to divide itself, there are only two divisions in the world today – human beings and Germans.”

As I stood on the banks of the Matanikau, it was easy to draw a line between this remote Pacific river and the atomic fires that later engulfed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Next in the series: Last days on Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands. To read other parts in this series, please click here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.