U.S. Marines at Hell’s Point – Battle of the Tenaru River

The Marines improvised whatever defences they could while they awaited the Japanese attack. A single strand of barbed wire, stripped from the nearby plantations, provided a useful early warning, tripping over the first assault.

A later view of the terrain around the Tenaru River.

The Japanese reacted quickly to the U.S. Marines landing on Guadalcanal. Colonel Kiyono Ichiki of the Imperial Japanese Army and 900 of the 28th Infantry Regiment were sent by fast destroyers to counterattack the Marines who had established themselves near the airfield.

Colonel Ichiki led a force of 900 Japanese that made their first attack on U.S ground forces on 21st August.

They landed some twenty miles away and advanced through the thick jungle. Ichiki did not wait for the balance of his forces – a further 1200 men – to join him. A Japanese advance patrol was wiped out out by the Marines on the 18th, who also received warning from one of the Coastwatchers, Jacob Vouza, late on the 20th.

They were dug in and ready and waiting by nightfall of the 20th August. Marine Jim Donoghue was to record the action in his diary:

It all started about 3 a.m. in the morning. However, we were warned about 11 o’clock to “Stand by your guns.” Each man passed on to the other all the way down the line. Was this going to be the real test?

All of a sudden our listening posts reported troops moving toward us… The point was heavily fortified. I don’t mean with big guns, but we had a platoon of machine gunners there and a 37mm gun crew… The Japs still came across and we kept knocking them off. Their machine guns would throw up a barrage for them but their field of fire was limited.

They finally succeeded in getting a machine gun across, which was set up right below. Len Beer threw a hand grenade, which silenced it… The 37 MM gun did plenty of damage with its canister shot. The Japs brought up their field pieces and started laying them into the line and point. Following soon our 105’s silenced them. Japs were using rifle grenades and mortars.

After about two hours, reinforcements came up. They sent two light machine guns, which were mounted between Bottles’ and my position and Beer’s and Dignan’s. Within ten minutes the whole two crews were shot up, this due to the fact that they were not below the deck.

At this point, Sgt. Muth picked up a gun and started running down the line. He would stop, fire a few good bursts and then take off to a new position. J. moved up behind Murray, and I and he had a BAR. He shouted if there was room for him in the foxhole. There wasn’t, so we had to make room. He would be killed if he stayed on the deck.

A machine gun had been mounted in an abandoned alligator and they were throwing plenty of lead our way. J. crept as close as possible and made a dive for our hole. He landed okay and Murray and I continued our fire.

About five minutes later, I said to Bottles, “Why the hell don’t he fire?” Murray said slowly, “He’s dead.” I said, “Are your sure?” And he said, “Here is his blood; feel his pulse.” But we couldn’t determine whether he was alive. We couldn’t move an inch either, for the Japs were really spraying our lines. So I reached over and felt his pulse. His face was sunken and there was no pulse. The blood began to fill the hole, so we fixed a poncho so that the blood would stay on the other side. The next morning I saw that he had been hit in the head and chest.

While our artillery was finding the Japs’ range, they landed three in our lines so close to us that we were covered with dirt. We thought that the next one would land square on top of us…

See much more from the diary of James A. Donahue on Guadalcanal Journal.

The Marines had won a famous victory, proof that the Japanese were far from invincible. Over 700 Japanese lay dead against 37 Marine casualties.

Lt. Colonel Pollock, the Marine Commander summarised the action:

From about 4 AM to daylight, the battle continued more or less as a state of siege, with all weapons firing and no one knowing the exact situation. When daylight came, the gruesome sight on the sandspit became visible. Dead Japs were piled in rows and on top of each other from our gun positions outward. Some were only wounded and continued to fire after playing dead. Others had taken refuge under a two-foot sand embankment and around the trunks of the coconut trees, not fifty yards from our lines. But our mortars finally cleaned them out.

Dead Japanese soldiers, killed assaulting United States Marine positions, lie on the sandbar at the mouth of Alligator Creek, Guadalcanal after the battle on August 21, 1942.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

david fox January 24, 2018 at 9:58 pm

Donald Moss( illustrator for sports illustrated later in life) was there part of the 2nd I think. he did an illustration of this battle. my father was there he was the cook that built the bread oven depicted in the poster http://web.ccsu.edu/vhp/Moss_Donald/Donald_Moss_documents.pdf

Edward Hogue August 22, 2017 at 7:49 am

Great story I realy WWll storys

Bradley Raffield July 2, 2017 at 6:14 am

My Father was at the battle Tenaru. PFC George Raffield he told me he was in a machine gun nest to the right 40 ft. from the machine gun that Al Smitch was in, he receaved the Navy Cross that night. The next morning there were 200 dead Japanse troops in front of his machine gun nest. Half way through the battle he was blinded by a grenade, he pointed his machine gun in the direction that the assitent gunner tapped him on the right or left shoulders. There was a movie made about his story called Pride of the Marines stared John Garfield. After Guadalcanal in 1945 my Father was at Iwo jima although made it through that one to, he was wonded bad enough to be evacuated to Guam the 36th. day of the battle. Was glad to have him around till 2000.

Martin August 23, 2013 at 9:22 am

This battle was dramatised in episode 1 of the 2010 TV series “The Pacific”. Even the visuals strongly resemble the photo.

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