There were pivotal battles in several places this week. On the 23rd, just as the British attacked at El Alamein, the Germans launched another ‘final assault’ at Stalingrad. On the other side of the world at Guadalcanal the Japanese were determined to evict the the US Marines from their positions around Henderson Field.
After yet another tropical downpour Sergeant John Basilone was sitting in the mud of the defensive perimeter. He was given a whispered warning over the radio that a Japanese assault force had been spotted approaching his position. His fifteen man squad found themselves at the brunt of an attack by around three thousand Japanese infantry. They were trying to overcome the U.S. Marines position by sheer weight of numbers. They almost succeeded.
John Basilone was to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions that night:
For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action against enemy Japanese forces, above and beyond the call of duty, while serving with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division in the Lunga Area, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, on 24 and 25 October 1942.
While the enemy was hammering at the Marines’ defensive positions, Sgt. Basilone, in charge of 2 sections of heavy machine guns, fought valiantly to check the savage and determined assault. In a fierce frontal attack with the Japanese blasting his guns with grenades and mortar fire, one of Sgt. Basilone’s sections, with its gun crews, was put out of action, leaving only 2 men able to carry on.
Moving an extra gun into position, he placed it in action, then, under continual fire, repaired another and personally manned it, gallantly holding his line until replacements arrived.
A little later, with ammunition critically low and the supply lines cut off, Sgt. Basilone, at great risk of his life and in the face of continued enemy attack, battled his way through hostile lines with urgently needed shells for his gunners, thereby contributing in large measure to the virtual annihilation of a Japanese regiment. His great personal valor and courageous initiative were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
John Basilone was to become a feted American hero when he returned to the USA for a publicity tour to promote war bonds. It was not a role he welcomed and he returned to the Marines to take part in the invasion of Iwo Jima in 1945. He was killed in the early hours of that action. Uniquely he was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism at Iwo Jima in addition to the Medal of Honor won at Guadalcanal.
The battles on and around Guadalcanal continued. The Marines had fought several intense engagements to defend their base at Henderson Field since the battle at [permalink id=22272 text=”Hell’s Point”] and the [permalink id=22691 text=”air battles”] over the island were equally furious. Both the Japanese and the Americans were intent on landing more troops on the island and the two Naval forces ‘stumbled’ into each other on the night of the 11th/12th.
Shortly before midnight on 11 October, a U.S force of four cruisers and five destroyers—under the command of Rear Admiral Norman Scott intercepted the Japanese force as it approached Savo Island near Guadalcanal. Taking the Japanese by surprise, Scott’s warships sank one cruisers, one destroyer, heavily damaged another cruiser, and mortally wounded the Japanese commander, Aritomo Gotō. It was a tactical victory to the USN but the Japanese still managed to land their reinforcements.
The USN did not come away completely unscathed. Being on the winning side might be of little consequence to some men, as this account by a sailor from USS Duncan makes clear:
The plunge overboard drove me into dark, warm waters. I fought to hold on to my senses. If I passed out, I would just keep sinking. I was 18, and I had shrapnel in both legs and my skull. I struggled to the surface and saw my destroyer, the USS Duncan, burning and adrift, struck 56 times by Japanese shells during the Battle of Cape Esperance near Guadalcanal.
It was Oct. 12, 1942. I saw a wooden spar and grabbed it. To my surprise, a Japanese sailor was hanging on to the other end. I reached for my knife as we eyed each other. We remained frozen with indecision for a long moment. I eased off my end of the spar. He eased off his end. We swam away as fast as we could in opposite directions. Both of us had had all of the fight we wanted.
As luck would have it, I splashed into someone else floating face up. It was [my shipmate] Stanley Dubiel, raving, out of his mind with pain. His legs were badly burned; I had thrown him overboard before I jumped into the ocean.
Looking back over my shoulder as I swam, I saw the Duncan chasing me. The ship was like a giant flamethrower. Still steaming wildly in a tight circle, blazing like a Viking’s funeral pyre, she bore straight down on me, growing larger as she approached, spewing fire and smoke from every opening. The ship rushed by so near I thought I could reach out and grab her.
I held on to Dubiel and his life jacket with a drowning man’s grip as the wake caught us and drove us tumbling underwater. When we surfaced, after what seemed like hours, the world had grown quiet and warm and peaceful. I thought I must have died. Then I spotted the Duncan, flaming away across the sea in the distance. I must have passed out for a minute.
We had gone into the drink about midnight. Now it was daylight. I had been swimming for hours, towing Dubiel. “Keep going” played itself over and over in my brain.
Somehow I became aware that Dubiel and I were no longer alone. I saw fins cutting the surface like blades of knives. The sharks closed in. One of the fish, larger and bolder than the others, darted in for a bite. My foot was bleeding. The shark’s fin disappeared beneath the surface. I spun in the water, my eyes searching frantically. I screamed, Dubiel screamed. His body exploded out of the water. He twisted violently, then he was gone, wrenched from my grip.
I swam like a madman. I figured by all rights I should have been dead. I heard Dubiel’s screams for years afterward.
From the perspective of those on Guadalcanal it was difficult to understand who was prevailing. Robert Mahood was one of the Marines on the beach:
I can say I have never witnessed a more awesome sight. We could see salvos of hot shells in threes moving across the night sky in big arcs to hit or miss unseen targets. The battle seemed to last for hours, and all of us beach defense guys sat on the front edge of the gun emplacements and watched the spectacle.
There were from two to six vessels burning at different times all through the night. We sent out rescue craft the next morning to pick up survivors. Many of both sides were found, but few japanese were brought in. Some of the Naval personnel had gaping shrapnel wounds, severed limbs, or they were burned, with oil covering their bodies.
They were all in various stages of shock. I counted over fifty American bodies lying on the beach in neat rows. These were the guys who had been recovered by our rescue teams and were either dead when found or died on the way to the beach.
We could see two or three ships out there that morning, still burning or lying dead in the water. One of these was one of our six-turret cruisers.
The Battle of Midway had yet to be fully played out. The toll on the pilots and airmen of the bombers and torpedo planes had been heavy, only a minority would live to see the victory they had won.
The Japanese cruiser Mikuma had been attacked the previous day, during that fearless assault Captain Richard E. Fleming had won the Medal of Honor :
Captain Richard E. Fleming, Medal of Honor recipient
For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty as Flight Officer, Marine Scout-Bombing Squadron TWO FORTY-ONE during action against enemy Japanese forces in the Battle of Midway on June 4 and 5, 1942.
When his squadron Commander was shot down during the initial attack upon an enemy aircraft carrier, Captain Fleming led the remainder of the division with such fearless determination that he dived his own plane to the perilously low altitude of four hundred feet before releasing his bomb. Although his craft was riddled by 179 hits in the blistering hail of fire that burst upon him from Japanese fighter guns and antiaircraft batteries, he pulled out with only two minor wounds inflicted upon himself.
On the night of June 4, when the Squadron Commander lost his way and became separated from the others, Captain Fleming brought his own plane in for a safe landing at its base despite hazardous weather conditions and total darkness.
The following day, after less than four hours’ sleep, he led the second division of his squadron in a coordinated glide-bombing and dive-bombing assault upon a Japanese battleship. Undeterred by a fateful approach glide, during which his ship was struck and set afire, he grimly pressed home his attack to an altitude of five hundred feet, released his bomb to score a near-miss on the stern of his target, then crashed to the sea in flames.
His dauntless perseverance and unyielding devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
The USS Yorktown had been abandoned on the 4th June. When it became apparent that she was not going to sink she was re-boarded and attempts made to bring her under control. The destroyer the USS Hammann came alongside to assist in these operations. It was at this point, with the carrier lying dead in the water that Japanese submarine I-168 struck. One torpedo was to hit the Hammann causing catastrophic damage that quickly sunk her. Two others passed under the Hamman and proved to be the fatal blow for the Yorktown.
Willibald C. Bianchi, an officer in the Philippine Scouts received the Medal of Honor for actions in Bataan, Philippines on 3rd February 1942. His citation reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy on 3 February 1942, near Bagac, Province of Bataan, Philippine Islands. When the rifle platoon of another company was ordered to wipe out 2 strong enemy machinegun nests, 1st Lt. Bianchi voluntarily and of his own initiative, advanced with the platoon leading part of the men.
When wounded early in the action by 2 bullets through the left hand, he did not stop for first aid but discarded his rifle and began firing a pistol. He located a machinegun nest and personally silenced it with grenades.
When wounded the second time by 2 machinegun bullets through the chest muscles, 1st Lt. Bianchi climbed to the top of an American tank, manned its antiaircraft machinegun, and fired into strongly held enemy position until knocked completely off the tank by a third severe wound.
The defenders of Bataan were constantly falling back, under pressure from the ever probing Japanese forces. Sidney Stewart, also fighting on Bataan provides a vivid account of the state of mind this induced:
We could hear the shelling up on the hillside and the crashing and whining as the shells went through the air. But at least we were having a break. There was only an occasional zinging of snipers’ bullets whizzing and biting at the leaves of the trees.
Suddenly a shell shattered alarmingly close over our heads. We ducked down into the trench again and then stood up when no more came. Just a momentary fright. I couldn’t help comparing that fright to the greater, overall fear.
Fright is a thing of the moment, attacking as a cornered animal does, on a second’s notice. But fear is an ulcerous growth, pulsating and alive, attached to you like a jungle leech. No fire under the exploding heavens can burn it free. Sometimes it is not so bad, but then again it grips you and binds you as though it will not allow you the smallest movement. Again, at other times, through absolute pweariness, you feel you can be free from it. But no, you can only hope to control it.
It is always there. It lives with you, whispering sounds easily heard above the crashing world around you, and you are two people, yourself, and the fear that lives within you. When a man is blown to pieces beside you, it hammers in your brain and makes you smell the warm, sickening blood, a smell which even the acrid powder smoke cannot drive away.
Oh dear God, give us rest. Not rest from weariness, for gladly we would never close our eyes if only that gnawing fear would die.
12th January 1942: First Medal of Honor won by a soldier in World War II
While British forces were falling back on Malaya, United States troops found themselves in similarly desperate straits in the Philippines. Here too there was a defence campaign with a strategy that appeared to be hopelessly inadequate to meet the Japanese onslaught. Here too there were outstanding examples of individual courage by men determined to confront the enemy whatever the cost.
The Unites States Medal of Honor is not precisely equivalent to the British Victoria Cross. It is the country’s highest military decoration and it is awarded for “conspicuous gallantry”. Yet it awarded to a broader group of individuals than the Victoria Cross. For example General MacArthur was awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in the defence of the Philippines, an award he accepted because “this award was intended not so much for me personally as it is a recognition of the indomitable courage of the gallant army which it was my honor to command”. The British would never have contemplated awarding a Victoria Cross to General Percival who was in an equivalent position in charge of the defence of Malaya and Singapore.
Yet other instances of exceptional gallantry by those who have been awarded [or ‘won’ – see comments below] the Medal of Honor are without doubt equivalent to the acts of courage that would merit a Victoria Cross. On the 12th January 1942 Alexander R. Nininger Jr. a Second Lieutenant of the Philippine Scouts won the first Medal of Honor won by a soldier in World War II. Fifteen such medals had been awarded to Naval personnel for actions at Pearl Harbour.
The actions of 23 year old ‘Sandy Nininger’ are described in his Citation:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy near Abucay, Bataan, Philippine Islands, on 12 January 1942. This officer, though assigned to another company not then engaged in combat, voluntarily attached himself to Company K, same regiment, while that unit was being attacked by enemy force superior in firepower.
Enemy snipers in trees and foxholes had stopped a counterattack to regain part of position. In hand-to-hand fighting which followed, 2d Lt. Nininger repeatedly forced his way to and into the hostile position. Though exposed to heavy enemy fire, he continued to attack with rifle and hand grenades and succeeded in destroying several enemy groups in foxholes and enemy snipers.
Although wounded 3 times, he continued his attacks until he was killed after pushing alone far within the enemy position. When his body was found after recapture of the position, 1 enemy officer and 2 enemy soldiers lay dead around him.
Nininger remains honoured and remembered in the United States to this day, not just for these actions but as an exceptional individual.