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H-010-1: "Operation Shoestring" 

H-Gram 010, Attachment 1
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
September 2017 

For those who participated in Operation Watchtower, the Allied landing and occupation of Guadalcanal, the hastily planned and executed operation was more commonly known as “Operation Shoestring.”  Resource and supply shortfalls characterized much of the operation.

When the U.S. Navy transports and supply ships left the immediate vicinity of Guadalcanal on 9 August  1942 for safer waters farther south (see H-Gram 009), the Marines ashore on the island were left with about four days’ worth of supplies. This is somewhat deceiving since the last hours of ferrying supplies ashore were marked by considerable haste and chaos. With Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher’s decision to move his three carriers farther away from Guadalcanal, which deprived the U.S. invasion force of close air cover, and with Rear Admiral Kelly Turner’s heaviest escorts sunk by the Japanese off Savo Island, the transport and supply ships unloaded as much as they could as fast as they could, but many supplies and much equipment was still aboard the ships when they departed. Because the concept of “combat loading” was still in a learning phase, much of what did get ashore was a hodgepodge, strewn up and down the landing beach because the ability to offload from boats exceeded the capacity to get the supplies off the beach. As a result, Turner left behind a number of landing craft and their Navy and Coast Guard coxswains and crews (who volunteered) to assist with moving and consolidating supplies.  One of the Navy coxswains was Samuel B. Roberts (see H-010-4).

Fortunately for the Marines, there was minimal Japanese opposition in the first weeks on the island. Most of the Japanese on the island had been construction troops who were in the process of clearing land for use as an airfield, and who had fled into the jungle, where without supplies of their own they quickly became mostly combat-ineffective (but still executed some deadly ambushes). The uncompleted Japanese airfield was the reason the Americans landed on Guadalcanal in the first place, and Marines immediately took over the task of finishing the airfield. The Marines named the airstrip Henderson Field, after Major Lofton Henderson, who had been commander of the Marine bombing squadron based on Midway Island, and who had been shot down and killed while trying to attack the Japanese carrier force in the first hours of the Battle of Midway on 4 June 1942. Using brute muscle power and some captured Japanese equipment (much of their own construction equipment hadn’t made it ashore yet), the Marines made rapid progress. On 12 August, the first landing was made on Henderson Field by a U.S. Navy PBY Catalina flying boat.

Just as the Marines' supply situation became critical, the four fast transports of Transport Division 12 arrived on 15 August, under orders from Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley, the Commander of the South Pacific Area, to make all efforts to keep the Marines supplied. The fast transports (converted World War I destroyers) Colhoun (APD-2), Gregory (APD-3), Little (APD-4), and McKean (APD-5), under the command of Commander Hugh W. Hadley, USN, mostly delivered supplies and gear intended to make Henderson Field operational. The Marines had the benefit of captured Japanese rations, so food was not a critical issue at that point (the four APDs returned on 20 August with rations for the Marines). Another U.S. ship attempting to supply the Marines, the overloaded converted China riverboat Lakotai, capsized and sank all by herself before reaching Guadalcanal.

Japanese reinforcement efforts began on 16 August, as Japanese destroyers began landing troops and supplies on Guadalcanal at night. This would set the pattern for the first months of the battle. Japanese destroyers (and their own versions of destroyer-transports) would arrive at night to offload troops and supplies, generally unmolested by the U.S., with the intent to be far enough back up the Solomon Island chain by daylight to avoid being attacked by U.S. carrier- or Henderson Field–based aircraft. During daylight hours, Japanese land-based bombers, escorted by Zero fighters, would fly from airfields in the northern Solomons to try to strike U.S. carriers, bomb the Marines on Guadalcanal, or sink any U.S. ships attempting to resupply the Marines ashore. By the end of August, the pattern was essentially that the Japanese owned the night at sea. Control of the sky during the day was hotly contested with heavy losses in aircraft on both sides, but any Japanese ships caught in daylight were vulnerable to U.S. attack.

On 20 August, the USS Long Island (CVE-1), a merchant ship converted to an “escort carrier” (the first of about 100 to be built during the war), flew off 19 Wildcat fighters and 12 SBD Dauntless dive bombers of Marine squadrons VMF-233 and VMSB-232, which landed at Henderson Field and became the first of what became known as the “Cactus Air Force” (“Cactus” was the Allied code name for Guadalcanal).  On 22 August, 14 U.S. Army Air Force P-400 fighters were brought in.  (The P-400 was the export version of the P-39 originally intended for Russia—no match for Japanese fighters and unable to reach the altitude that Japanese land-based bombers normally operated, the P-400s did prove useful in a close-support ground-attack role). Combat and operational losses were heavy. By the end of August, only five of the Wildcats and four P-400s were still flyable. However, the number of aircraft based at Henderson gradually increased and included U.S. Navy aircraft from carriers that were sunk or damaged, and was a constantly changing mix of mostly Marine, Navy and some Army Air Force fighter, dive bomber, and a few torpedo bomber aircraft (remnants of Torpedo 8 flown off the USS Saratoga [CV-3] after she was damaged by a torpedo on 31 August, for example). Air battles between Japanese fighters (protecting Japanese bombers) and U.S. fighters (attempting to reach the Japanese bombers) were an almost daily occurrence in the skies over Guadalcanal, interrupted only by weather and the extreme range that Japanese aircraft had to fly to reach the island. The Japanese would also frequently send a float plane or a bomber to harass the Marines at night; although annoying, these night flights were rarely effective.

By 20 August, Japanese destroyers had put ashore about 900 men of Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki’s regiment, which was originally intended to be the Japanese landing force on Midway Island. Ichiki rashly decided not to wait for the remaining two thirds of his regiment to be delivered to the island, and launched a frontal attack on the Marines on the night of 21 August. The first banzai charge, which had worked so well against poorly trained Chinese troops, was cut to ribbons by the well-dug-in and disciplined Marines in what would be known as the Battle of the Tenaru River. The total rout and slaughter of Japanese troops continued into the next day as Marine light tanks wiped out the last remaining pocket of Japanese troops trapped in a coconut grove. Ichiki committed suicide. Some Japanese feigned death or surrender, only to kill Marines with hidden grenades. Following this battle, taking prisoners by either side became a very rare event. About 40 Marines died in the battle, compared to over 600 Japanese.

On 21 August, the supply ships Fomalhaut (AK-22) and Alhena (AKA-9) arrived with additional supplies for the Marines, escorted by the destroyers Blue (DD-387), Henley (DD-391), and Helm (DD-388), which remained overnight. At about 0300 on 22 August, the radar-equipped Blue was hit in the stern by a torpedo from an undetected and unseen Japanese destroyer, the Kawakaze (which was operating alone,) killing nine of Blue’s crew. This was the second time that Japanese eyeballs had proved superior to Blue’s radar (the Japanese cruiser force had slipped past Blue’s radar picket patrol to attack and sink the Allied cruisers at the Battle of Savo Island). The damage was severe enough that Blue had to be scuttled on 23 June as it became apparent that a major Japanese force was on the way to Guadalcanal (see H-010-2: The Battle of the Eastern Solomons).

On 28 August, a Japanese resupply convoy was caught in daylight by Marine aircraft from Henderson Field, and the Japanese destroyer Asagiri was sunk. The Japanese became much more careful about exposing themselves in daylight. Nevertheless, additional Japanese troops began to get ashore on Guadalcanal, under the command of Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi. The Japanese were still grossly overconfident of their ability to defeat the Marines on the island, but unlike Ichiki, Kawaguchi had better sense to build up his forces until he was ready to mount a much larger attack on the Marines in mid-September in what would become known as the Battle of Bloody Ridge (or Edson’s Ridge). However, as the Japanese built up their forces, so too did the Marines, as the Navy fast transports continued to deliver supplies.

On 30 August, the fast transport Colhoun (Lieutenant Commander Madden commanding) paid the price as she and Little were covering off-loading from the transport Kopara (AK-62/AG-50) under a mostly cloudy sky. However, a flight of 18 Japanese twin-engine bombers arrived overhead while Marine fighters were on the ground refueling following an earlier air attack. The bombers spotted the Colhoun through a lucky break in the clouds and from high above Colhoun’s four 20 mm anti-aircraft guns’ range, unleashed an astonishingly accurate barrage of bombs. Although trying to get up speed, Colhoun suffered two direct hits, and then a string of five near misses along the length of the hull, causing major structural damage, before two more direct hits. Colhoun sank in under two minutes with the loss of over 50 of her crew.  (This may be the most accurate bombing of a ship by high-altitude horizontal bombing during the war).

From the period 30 August to 5 September, the Little (Lieutenant Commander Gus Brynolf Lofberg, Jr., commanding, and TRANSDIV 12 commander, Commander Hugh W. Hadley, embarked) and the Gregory (LCDR Harry F. Bauer commanding) remained in the Guadalcanal area, transporting supplies from ships off-loading in Tulagi Harbor across the sound to the beach at Guadalcanal (which had no harbor).  On 4 September, Little and Gregory embarked the Marine 1st Raider Battalion from Tulagi, transported them to Savo Island in response to reports that Japanese had landed on the island (the Japanese apparently had just left), and then disembarked the Raiders on Guadalcanal, by which time night had fallen. Due to an overcast, it was a very dark night, and with no navigation aids to show the way through poorly charted waters to Tulagi, Hadley opted to spend the night off Lunga Point, Guadalcanal. What Hadley did not know was that a Japanese “Tokyo Express” run arrived off Guadalcanal that same night, consisting of the light cruiser Sendai and 11 destroyers. (At the time, the almost nightly Japanese supply and reinforcement runs were known to those on Guadalcanal as the “Cactus Express.” “Tokyo Express” was a later invention by the press.)

Six of the Japanese destroyers offloaded about 1,000 Japanese troops on Guadalcanal to the west of Little and Gregory, adding to Major General Kawaguchi’s build-up. Three Japanese destroyers, Yudachi, Hatsuyaki, and Murakumo, passed just north of Little and Gregory to the east.  Neither the U.S. nor the Japanese sighted each other on the dark night. At 0100 on 5 September, the three Japanese destroyers opened fire on Marine positions ashore on Guadalcanal. At first, the crews of Little and Gregory thought the fire came from a Japanese submarine (it was also routine on many nights for a Japanese submarine to surface and lob a few rounds at the Marines). Both ships went to general quarters and prepared to attack the “submarine.” However, when radar on Little indicated four separate contacts (although there were only three), Hadley was faced with a decision. He could remain in place and hope the Japanese would not detect him when they returned to the west to exit the area. He could attempt to flee to the west and hope the Japanese would not detect and run him down (Hadley didn’t know it, but this course would have taken him toward an even larger Japanese force), or he could hope that with the Japanese focused on shelling the shore, he might have the advantage of surprise and could launch a desperation attack.

As the Little and Gregory turned to attack, a U.S. Navy PBY Catalina flying boat searching for the “submarine,” and not knowing the U.S. ships were there, dropped a string a flares directly ahead of the U.S. ships. With their cover blown and all hope of surprise lost, nevertheless the two hopelessly out-gunned APDs charged the startled Japanese destroyers. The three Japanese destroyers, modern ships with advanced fire control, exceptional night-fighting capability, and a total of 17 5-inch guns, quickly shifted their fire from the beach to the onrushing U.S. ships. The battle was short and ugly. Initial Japanese salvos still had anti-personnel rounds loaded, which caused no real structural damage, but decimated American gunners in the exposed topside gun mounts. However, soon the two APDs were riddled by shellfire, as the Japanese fired over 500 rounds in a matter of 15 minutes. Hadley and Lofberg were both killed on the bridge of Little by the avalanche of shellfire. The severely wounded CO of Gregory (Bauer) survived the sinking of his ship, but while in the water directed two Sailors who were assisting him to go to the aid of another wounded Sailor, and was never seen again. The Japanese destroyers steamed right between the two burning and sinking ships, right through survivors, still pouring fire into the ships and men in the water. Almost 90 Sailors from the Little and Gregory were lost that night or subsequently died of wounds. (The figure of 22 killed on Little and 11 on Gregory in Rear Admiral Turner’s original report, subsequently reflected in Morison’s account, was incorrect.  Even Richard Frank’s excellent book on Guadalcanal gets the casualties correct in the appendix of losses, but incorrect in the account of the battle. Most works don’t even mention it.)

For their heroism against overwhelming odds, Hadley, Lofberg, and Bauer were awarded posthumous Silver Stars. The Sumner-class destroyers USS Hugh W. Hadley (DD-774), USS Lofberg (DD-759), and the Robert H. Smith–class destroyer-minelayer USS Harry F. Bauer (DD-738/DM-26) were named in honor of the heroes of this “miscellaneous battle.” (Of note, the model of the destroyer in the U.S. Naval Academy Superintendent’s Quarters—Buchanan House—is the USS Lofberg.)

Published: Tue Feb 27 10:19:00 EST 2018