Holding out on Henderson Field, Guadalcanal

Wreckage of a SBD scout-bomber, still burning after it was destroyed by a Japanese air attack on Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, 1942.

On Guadalcanal the U.S. Marines had established themselves at Henderson Field and had successfully beaten off one Japanese attack. Yet they did not yet have the strength to mount their own offensive to beat the Japanese off the island. As they awaited re-inforcements they had to endure daily bombing attacks and periodic bombardments from ships off-shore.

Almost daily, and almost always at the same time – noon, “Tojo Time”- the bombers came. There would be 18 to 24 of them, high in the sun and in their perfect V-of-V’s formation. They would be accompanied by 20 or more Zeroes, cavorting in batches of 3, nearby. Their bombing was accurate, and they would stay in formation and make their bombing run even as they knew the deadly fire from the Grummans would hit any minute.

There was a routine of noises at Tojo Time. First the red and white flag (a captured Japanese rising sun) would go up at the pagoda. That meant scramble. Every airplane that would fly would start up immediately and all would rush for the runway, dodging bomb craters. Often through the swirling dust the ground crews would see a wing drop. That meant another plane had taxied [into] a dud hole or a small crater, indistinct in the tall grass. The first planes to the runway took off first, and two at a time, whether . . . Grummans, dive-bombers or P-400’s.

The formations would join later in the air. The P-400’s and dive-bombers would fly away to work over the Jap territory. The Grummans would climb for altitude, test-firing their guns on the way. The whining of engines at high r.p.m., the chatter of machine guns, and settling dust.

On the ground the men would put in a few more minutes’ work, watching the pagoda all the while. Then the black flag would go up. It was amazing how fast the tired and hungry men could sprint …. In a moment the field would be deserted.

Then the high, sing-song whine of the bombers would intrude as a new sound, separate from the noise of the climbing Grummans. Only a few moments now. The sing-song would grow louder. Then: swish, swish, swish. And the men would pull the chin straps of their helmets tighter and tense their muscles and press harder against the earth in their foxholes. And pray.

Then: WHAM! (the first one hit) WHAM! (closer) WHAM! (walking right up to your foxhole) . . . WHAAA MM! (Oh Christl) WHAM! (Thank God, they missed us!) WHAM! (the bombs were walking away) WHAM! (they still shook the earth, and dirt trickled in). WHAM!

It was over. The men jumped out to see if their buddies in the surrounding fox holes had been hit. The anti-aircraft still made a deafening racket. Grass fires were blazing. There was the pop-pop-pop of exploding ammunition in the burning airplanes on the ground. The reek of cordite. Overhead the Grummans dived with piercing screams. And the Jap bombers left smoke trails as they plummeted into [the] sea.

In a little while the airplanes would return. The ground crews would count them as they landed. The ambulance would stand, engine running, ready for those who crashed, landed dead stick, or hit the bomb craters in the runway. Then the work of patching and repairing the battered fighters would start again.

From the History of the 67th Fighter Squadron, cited by the U.S. Army Center of Military History..

This photograph, taken shortly after the Marines captured the Guadalcanal airfield, shows a Marine ground crew extinguishing a burning airplane. This plance, a Gruman Wildcat, was set on fire by a Japanese attack on the hangar in the background. Marines pulled the plane from the hangar and extinguished the flames. The damage was minimal, and the plane was soon back in the air.

Photographed from a USS Saratoga (CV-3) plane in the latter part of August 1942, after U.S. aircraft had begun to use the airfield. The view looks about northwest, with the Lunga River running across the upper portion of the image. Iron Bottom Sound is just out of view at the top.
Several planes are parked to the left, and numerous bomb and shell craters are visible.

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Tom Dailey July 2, 2014 at 6:49 am

My Uncle… Smatla, Bennie F. Aviation Machinist’s Mate 3rd class (at the time) was one of the first USN types to arrive ON Guadacanal. He was originally assigned to a CUB unit (construction unit battalion), as those were required before any aircraft could be received. Thereafter, he worked on the FM-2 Wildcats, SBD’s, and the first PBY-5 that landed AT Henderson. He spoke of being sniped at, while working on acft, and was one of those “left behind”… eating captured Japanese rations (rice) for over 22 days. (years later, he would NOT allow rice in his house!). I have the diary, taken from a Japanese military engineer from Osaka, and 5 buttons from the Ishi (1st) Imperial Marines Division, plus 2 packets of “Pirate” cigarettes (1 unopened). Also is a letter home, never mailed, but still in it’s pre-franked envelope – I’m currently endeavoring to find if there are any living relatives, to whom I might return these very personal items.

Tom Dailey – former RMC USN

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