NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
19 Jul 2002
Split Track recording
Show: Richard Frank Interview - Guadalcanal
Log of DAT #:1
Engineer: Bill McQuay
Date: July 19, 2002
RF = Richard B. Frank
NC = Neal Conan
The marines come ashore on the morning of the 7th. Describe two nights later - there's the battle of Savo Island. If you could describe for us the situation: how the allied forces arrayed themselves and why they were so apt to be caught napping at the battle of Savo island.
Because landing operations were going forth, off Guadalcanal and off Tulagi. The transport forces were split, and so the warships that guarded the transports were also split up in groups¿ there also was a tremendous breakdown on what would have been seen on paper a tremendous reconnaissance effort that should have detected the Japanese coming down, that completely failed. And the net result of all of this is the Japanese achieve total surprise, that surprise was the basis of their victory.
Admiral Mikawa comes down the slot, what does he see as he approaches Savo island?
As Makawa closed in on Savo Island his lookout spotted an American destroyer, which is actually a radar picket. ¿ the radar and the lookouts failed to pick up the Japanese and they slipped right around them, and into the area between Guadalcanal and Tulagi.
he had two forces, two separated forces.. how long did he.. he swept in around one side of savo island, tell us what happened over the next twenty minutes.
Well the Japanese approached in a very simple line ahead column formation, because they too were unfamiliar with operating with each other. They proceeded to knock out the southern group of cruisers, who were defending the Guadalcanal transports. The Japanese then split and enveloped a northern group of cruisers which were defending the Tulagi transports, and in the course of this they sunk 4 of the 5 cruisers that were present.
how much of a shock, a surprise was this to the u.s. naval forces?
Savo island was a stunning in fact more stunning than pearl harbor. The war had already been in progress for months. Everyone knew the war was on, and the surprise and the heavy losses that were sustained there were probably the most stunning surprise the us navy and as great a shock as they sustained throughout the entire war.
Two admirals were in charge after this debacle. On the scene is adm. Turner, in charge of amphibious Operation, a little bit further away, Fletcher, who is in charge of the naval task force and covering the aircraft carriers. First to make a decision¿is frank Jack Fletcher.
Well admiral Fletcher's conduct has been the subject of tremendous controversy. Fletcher had deemed it his most important task to preserve his carriers to what he thought to be a counterattack from Japanese, and he believed that part of that job was to protect the carriers from land based aircraft. As a result of that he decided to withdraw the carriers after the second day was maneuvering to carry that out as the Japanese came down the slot and staged the battle of Savo island.
So he was going to be pulling out anyway?
Right, that was the ¿ this is the.. let's see if I can get this down. The entire Guadalcanal operation was put together with tremendous speed. In retrospect there was a lot of details that could have been better worked out. But he deemed it essential, and he decided that it would be a decision to preserve the carries for a greater sea battle that would then take place around Guadalcanal.
The effect of this was that adm turner, who was in charge of the transports who were unloading at guadalcanal, he didn't have too much choice
Well, turner in fact had been overoptimistic during the planning phase and during the first day as to how rapidly he would be able to clear the transports and get them out, and in fact if you look carefully back to the message log, he failed to adequately advise Fletcher that the was having trouble in getting his transports cleared.. Fletcher's plan was to withdraw was premised upon the promises turner had made about pulling out the bulk of the transports at the end of the first or second day.
Turner without air cover stays for a little while to unload as much as he can but by that evening, he has to pull out. Describe the effect on the marines who are left on shore.
well all the marines knew about what happened, was that they saw a lot of gun flashes during the night, and they could hear gunfire. They did not know exactly what happened until late in the afternoon on August 9th, the transport forces withdrew from the area, therefore giving the marines a sense of abandonment, a sense of abandonment without any good reason.
they are still behind enemy lines. They think they're on an island that has significant number of Japanese forces there as well and they feel completely abandoned by the united states navy.
Essentially, I think all the marines who were present on Guadalcanal that day, from Gen. Vandergrift, the commander, all the way down, were full of the sense of victory that they had achieved in the landing, and conseq. They were left with the stunned sense of abandonment and they didn't full comprehend the reasons were for that pull-out by the navy.
But it didn't reduce their sense of frustration or anger.
no, They were tremendously frustrated and on top of that, what immediately happened due to the withdrawal of carriers, the Japanese established, in effect, local air superiority which enormously increased the sense that the marines were left to dangle in an area which two days before had been Japanese territory.
And local air superiority meant that the marines on the beach were subjected to repeated air attacks.
not only were.. they subject to air attacks, but there's a tremendous psychological effect of airpower as we discovered then and the Japanese discovered later, when the daylight skies are full of enemy planes and every movement you make you feel like you're either under observation or you're potentially under attack, ¿ your morality is under attack.
Martin Clemens was one of the famous coast watchers who stayed behind, the district officer for Guadalcanal island. Can you encapsulate the importance of first of all his story is astonishing, the expedition he undertook to continue operations after the Japanese landing, is if you read his account it's heroic.
Without the slightest shadow of a doubt, as far as sheer physical courage and enterprise, he displayed remarkable personal courage in taking it upon himself to stay behind though his superior threw in the towel and withdrawn himself form the area.. and he organized this network that proved absolutely invaluable to the marines to the campaign of Guadalcanal.
he organized these native scouts. Describe some of their operations, but it was beyond that he was almost on Vandergrift's intelligence staff.
he was on Vandergrift's intelligence staff. What Clemens did, He mobilized the navy's police force. That police force also networked with the various village elders that provided a tremendous intelligence force. The Japanese couldn't do anything without the natives knowing what was going on and relaying that back to the intelligence network, Martin Clemens, and back to the marines.
Why is it do you think having studied this, why is it that after the Japanese arrived, certainly not all of the islanders stayed steadfast and loyal, but certainly Clemens' forces, the police forces, had this tremendous loyalty as well as many of the headmen of the villages.
there are two components I think to the loyalty that the local inhabitants showed to Clemens. One was the treatment they received from Clemens and his colonial administration had been fair and just, secondly the japs on Guadalcanal, as they had done elsewhere in Asia, rather rapidly established their sense of racial superiority over everyone, and the natives picked this up very quickly and resented it and that of course reinforced their loyalty to Clemens and his network
What was the value of¿ so we're after the battle of the tenaru. What was the sign. Of the battle for the tenaru?
The tenaru, although on by world war ii standards, a tiny scale, encapsulated the ideology of the pacific war. The japs believed they were a unique and elite warrior caste destined to win even though they were outnumbered because their spirit and their morale was better than anything that could be mustered by the what they perceived as the soft and selfish Americans. At the tenaru, The Japanese tactics reflected this. They didn't care where the strongest point of the Americans were. They would say, brush through with one stroke of the armored sleeve and penetrate any position the Americans had in the airfield in the campaign.
on the other side, what was the effect of the battle of the tenaru on the marine corps?
The marines of course have never suffered from a sense of inferiority to anyone. But beyond that, they were the surrogates to entire American generation, what we now call the greatest generation - they went first and they were tested first and they prevailed first and that was the largest sense the most important single contribution that Guadalcanal made to wwii, in the sphere of moral, the triumph of the sons of democracy against in this case, he totalitarians.
so we're now talking a couple of weeks later, the aircraft have landed. What is the tactical, day/night situation, once the marine fliers start operation out of Henderson field, how can you describe the situation, who had control?
guad had a rather extraordinary sit, involving a mutual siege, in which sea control changed every 12 hours. by day the us by the ability for fliers out of henderson. Field made it possible for American supplies to be brought in, but by night the japs rules, and they controlled the waters around Guadalcanal, and they used that period to bring in their troops and supplies.
At each edge of that transfer, there was a always a constant friction, as the Americans tried to punish the Japanese forces running away and they would try to capture the Americans as they tried to leave.
Most of the campaign revolved around an attempt by one or the other to break that cycle, the japs either trying to interfere with American operations somewhere between dawn and dusk, and the Americans trying to disrupt the Japanese circle from dusk till dawn.
In the course of this long 6 months conflict, you describe it very well at a couple of different points in terms of the number of significant encounters on land, in the sea and in the air.
Guadalcanal is unique in world war two for sustained air, sea, and land combat for a protracted period on both sides close to parity. There's nothing else like it in world war 2. There were 7 major naval battles, daily exchanges in the air. There were about 20 actions.. cut and thrust in the air during this three phased campaign.
Q. all about he airfield?
The possession of Henderson field was absolutely essential for the ability of the United States to maintain it's position on Guadalcanal. Were it not for the fliers station there, being able to protect the supplies being brought in to the marines, without a doubt the American position would have collapsed as it came very close to doing in September and November of 1942.
(setting up re-speaking)
Q. set us up before the battle of bloody ridge
the japs would mount 3 major ground attacks against Henderson field. Of these, the best conceived, was the on in September by major general Kawaguchi, he astutely figured out that the correct path to try and seize Henderson field was to loop south and through the jungle and attempt to make what he assumed would be a surprise attack on an undefended area around the airfield perimeter, and he was one ace away from succeeding.
Q. Gen Vandergrift still made a tactical error in his dispositions, the vital area by the airfield was occupied by only a subterfuge
Well, Vandergrift's basic problem of course was that he had not nearly enough men to secure the area around the battledored. He was in a chess match with Japanese to guess what their next move would be. He was barely convinced by a couple of his staff officers that the likely area that the japs would take to approach the airfield in September was a ridge, what we now know as bloody ridge, just south of Henderson Field, and they redeployed and placed marine infantry units on this axis just before the japs approached.
Q. Kawaguchi, unc.
The one problem that everyone encountered on guad, when you attempted to conduct extensive maneuvers through the jungle, the units typically become disorganized and disoriented, that happened on kawaguchi. The attack misfired and became misdirected. It served to give a notice to marine command as to where the greatest threat was posed.
Q. next night
Kawaguchi, was approaching the ridge with about 5200 men. The marines were able to muster less than 1000 to defend the area along the ridge and the jungle approaches. Kawaguchi had at least in theory an order of 5 to 1, as it turned out, however, typically with these jungle actions, at least one of the jap battalion which was over 600 men essentially missed the battle
Q marine held high ground. Coral ridge. Rocky ground.
The marines had determined that the easiest access of movement for the Japanese was along the ridge because it was grass covered though very deep. Surrounding in all sides was jungle, deep jungles. You have to see them to appreciate just how incredibly steep these really are. They were just this side of cliff like structure in many places, to try to climb them you would have to go on hands and knees. The marines installed their main positions along the crest of the ridge, and in fact they moved their lines to keep the Japanese off balance as far as their positions.
Q. col. Edson is standing at his command post,
when it came down to the final extremity on the second night, with the japs having beaten the marines back down the ridge, edson had a command post that was in places no more than 10 yards from the firing line. He was the heart and soul of the defense that night, rallying, directing, calling in fire support, allowed the marines to defend the ridge. It's on of those instances where you can truly say one individual made a difference in how things came out, and that's what merited Edson that night on the ridge.
Basically the Japanese even with the reduced forces, that Kawaguchi threw at them ultimately came within a hairs breath of breaking through - in fact the one Japanese battalion did make through. Had the Japanese had that extra battalion which they had meandering around in the jungle nearby, they undoubtedly would have broken though the marine lines. Because the headquarters of the 1st marine division were right behind where those lines where, they would have paralyzed the brain of the American defenses, it is difficult to believe woe could have been able to hold on if they had they succeeded that night.
Q. Vandergrift - after that night,
as well he should have! When you were talk¿. Gen Vandergrift who was blessed with extra character and poise nonetheless that night had a battle ranging in front of his command post. There's a tremendous account by trugaskus that he's up there in the command post of the first marine division, you can hear the artillery officers calling the fire, the small arms fire, rattling the round very short distance of the command post, so there's no wonder that if the enemy is surging up at your doorstep you're going to have major doubts about where the situation is going.
Q. coast watchers, detect jap air attacks
When the camp started, the jap airfield were separated from guad for about 560 miles, the extreme limit of the range of jap plane, as a result they had to follow a fairly predictable path. Most coast watchers could radio warnings of jap air raids. Their warnings gave them just about a five to ten minute margin which permitted them to scramble and get up to altitude in time enough to make the interception. In terms of air tactics, this is basically a razor thin margin that the American fliers faced against every raid, and sometimes it didn't work out, without the coast watcher without a doubt they couldn't have had a defense on guad.
Q. jap too little too late
the japs were full of what they later called victory disease, they had had a phenomenal amount of success since dec 1941, and it was easy for them to convince themselves that every small ratchet up of effort was likely to produce victory, it was easy to convince themselves that a small increment of land, sea forces would enable them to prevail. Luckily they just fell short of these efforts to achieve victor.
the problem for the japs was that they were restricted to resupply on destroyers. They could easily haul in troops and they could not haul in supplies, and so they kept dumping mouths on Guadalcanal, and not food, it is no wonder why the Japanese came to call it starvation island. And that was in fact the fate of soldiers on Guadalcanal - you died of starvation or died of a disease related to starvation.
One way you can look at the guad canal.. the marines continued to eat, not well, and not much, and the Japanese didn't at all. As a result of that probably 75 or 85 % of jap casualties was literally starvation.
One ay to look at how the guad campaign came out, it essentially boiled down to the marines continually managing to eat, not well, and not in great quantities, but he Japanese didn't eat at all. Most of the Japanese casualties on Guadalcanal were the consequence of starvation, about 70-85% of all casualties literally starved to death.
Q. marines are eventually relieved,¿ army comes in. battle to take mt. Austin. Rationale?
Mt Austin was what soldiers called dominating terrain, that overlooked Henderson field. It seemed a matter of elementary military strategy that you have to take the high ground from the enemy especially when it overlooks over your principal airbase.
The Japanese .. There was a certain irony on mt. Austin, you'd assume right from the start that the japs had established observation posts, where in fact, they had not. Ultimately they did, and they stationed some troops up there to defend their high ground and defend their observation posts.
Q. dominating high ground, not that far away from hen field.. why not artiL?
There was a¿ well one of the classic example of during the guad campaign is that it was very easy .. during the guad campaign two jap staff officers moved up to mt. Austin, scouted around, and decided that the jungle would be easy. Well the Americans found out that the jungle was extraordinarily difficult for even individuals to move artillery all the way up to high ground.
the Guad jungle which was not only thick but also cross cut with streams and ravines, was simply impervious to artillery or machines many distance from the plain.
the Japanese made the most extensive effort to do that, they disassembled, those piees ended up being abandoned along the various trials snaking in to the interior.
Q. what was the importance of the attack on the Gifu?
With the benefit of deep hindsight, it might have been possible for the Americans to cut off and leave the Japanese on the Gifu to starve to death, at the time it seemed essential that they physically defeat them or remove the Japanese fro that location
Q. by jan/feb, the japs eventually decide to .. after spending all of this effort and casualties. .why pull out?
In December 1942, the japs finally faced up to the total cost of trying to continue the campaign, they calculated the entire national war effort would have to be mortgaged to continue. Rational calculation had intruded upon a sort of fantasy that they could prevail under any circumstance anywhere, no matter what.
Q. what was the effect ¿ as they look back, how do they view?
One Japanese major naval officer, mentioned after World War II, there were only two that the professionals talked about, one was Midway, and one was Guadalcanal, and they deemed it as being the turning point of the war.