Desperate Measures

In an era where the United States can send troops and inflict mayhem halfway around the world with, it seems, little visible effort, it’s hard for modern American to realize what a major undertaking simply getting troops across the atlantic, much less halfway around the world, was.

Not just getting them there, mind you, but keeping them supplied with food, ammunition, fuel and everything else a military needed to fight in the field.

And then there was the whole fighting thing.

It was seventy years ago yesterday that the 164th Infantry Regiment landed on Guadalcanal.

“Who?  What?  Where?”

Listen up.

———-

For all the shock and awe that Pearl Harbor was, World War 2 itself didn’t catch America flat-footed.  Much of the nation’s leadership had seen war as more or less inevitable for the better part of a decade.  FDR had started a national buildup to war in the mid-thirties, modernizing and adding to the US Navy starting in about 1934.

And he’d started calling up the National Guard not long after Hitler’s ransacking of Europe.

And so the 164th Infantry Regiment – comprising most of the North Dakota Army National Guard – had been called into federal service 20 months earlier, in February of 1941.

Troops of the 164th Infantry, drilling at Camp Claiborne five months before Pearl Harbor.

By Pearl Harbor, they had been training for ten months, and were among the most combat ready units in the US Army, and were thus selected to make the long trip across the Pacific Ocean with two other National Guard regiments – the 182nd Infantry from the Massachusetts National Guard, and the 132nd Infantry from Illinois – to the island of New Caledonia.  There, the three units were organized into a division, the “Americal Division”, short from “American Caledonian” (later officially called the 23rd Infantry Division) in May of 1942.

 

Over the first six months of the war, Allied planners juggled two disparate goals; find some way to start taking offensive action against the Japanese, and defend Australia.

Achieving the first goal, naturally, was the subject of a massive strategic wrangle; the Army, led in the Pacific by General MacArthur, favored an “island-hopping” campaign through the southwest Pacific up through the Philippines; the Navy (along with the Marines) favored a direct assault through the Central Pacific.  The battle between the two strategies would be the major strategic decision of the war in the Pacific…

…and was rendered moot by the news that the Japanese were building an airstrip on a dismal, malarial island in the Solomon Islands chain, Guadalcanal.  In combination with other airfields in the Solomons, this could support further advances on bases like Fiji, New Caledonia and New Guinea; if each of those fell, the supply lines from the US to Australia would be cut off, rendering Oz useless as a base.  With Darwin already under air attack, the threat to Australia was dire.

Henderson Field. Today, it’s Honiara International Airport, serving the Solomon Islands.

And so the first step in MacArthur’s island-hopping campaign went ahead. On August 7, the First Marine Division – the first division-sized unit in the Pacific ready for combat – landed on Guadalcanal and seize the Lunga Point landing strip from the Japanese engineers who had just completed the field the night before; the Japanese engineers had gotten an extra ration of sake rice wine for getting the job done early.  The Marines quickly took the airfield, renamed it Henderson Field (after a Marine squadron commander killed at Midway Island in June), and landed Marine fighters and dive bombers, who promptly went into action.

Over the next two months , the battle seesawed back and forth; the Marines decimated the first round of Japanese defenders and counterattackers; the Japanese ran reinforcements to the island and, after dealing the US Navy a bloody defeat at the naval Battle of Savo Island in mid-August, bombarded the airfield with several of their cruisers and battleships.  Mired in the malarial, swampy muck, the Marines held their perimeter.

The 164th Infantry, under Colonel Robert Hall, was dispatched from New Caledonia to reinforce the Marines against the fresh Japanese troops.  Seventy years ago today, they landed; two of the regiment’s three battalions took positions on the east side of the perimeter, allowing the Marines to consolidate against the expected attack from the west.  The third battalion, the 3rd/164th, was held in reserve.

Ten days later, on the night of October 24th, the Japanese would launch what would end up being the most serious ground attack on Henderson, attacking the Marines along the Matanikau river, the western anchor of the beachhead.  Their scouts had uncovered a gap in the Marine lines inadvertently left when one of the Marine battalions changed its orientation to the south.  The Japanese, heavily outnumbering the Marines, launched an attack into the gap against one 700 man Marine battalion, the 1st Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment.  While the attack was badly coordinated, it still drove a wedge into the Marine lines.  The Marines called for reinforcements; the 3rd of the 164th moved into the line as the Japanese attacks peaked.

The 164th had some disadvantages; they were new to combat – indeed, they were the first US Army unit to take offensive action in World War 2; except for the Army garrison in the Philippines, they were the first Army unit to fight at all.  And they were being fed into the line piecemeal, in platoon and company-sized groups (40 to 160 men), to react to various crises on the Marine front as the situation developed.

They had a few advantages, too.  They were the first American unit to carry the M1 “Garand” rifle in action.  The rifle – the first semi-automatic rifle issued in large numbers to combat troops – would go on to be called “the greatest implement of war ever invented” by General Patton later in the war.  Patton was being a little hyperbolic, but the M1 gave each North Dakotan roughly double the firepower of the Marine fighting along side him, who was still carrying the World War 1 vintage M1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle, to say nothing of the Japanese infantry with their bolt-action Arisaka rifles (cousins of the Springfield via their mutual design parent, the German G98 Mauser, but firing a much weaker round of ammunition).   And in the desperate, confused action in the dark and in the jungle, when the Japanese closed to ranges too close for the Marines’ artillery to be used, the extra firepower was vital.  And they were from North Dakota, where even today the average eight year old can hit a running squirrel in the head with a .22 in the dark at 75 yards.  [1]

The M1 Garand. The standard American infantry rifle for the rest of the war, it served through Korea, and with some troops in Vietnam, Latin America and reserve units in the the South Korean military until the 1980s.

The North Dakotans held up, meeting and beating the Japanese in the brutal night jungle fighting, and went on to carry the attack to the Japanese, helping drive them from the island (or, as it’s known in the annals of the First Marine Division, The Island).

Troops of the 164th on Guadalcanal.

And the regiment of 2,200 North Dakota tractor drivers and mechanics and teachers and railroad workers and high school kids earned a rare honor.  While the Marines, then as now, have made it a matter of their own esprit de corps to look down on the Army (they usually referred to soldiers as “Doggies”.  But the Marines’ commander, General Vandegrift, paid the 164th a very rare honor after the Battle of the Matanikau:

But that was all a week and a half in the future.  Seventy years ago today, the 164th were just the first US Army unit to take offensive action when they stepped ashore on a malarial cesspool that none of them could have found on a map six months earlier.

164th Infantry troops on Guadalcanal

And when I was a kid growing up in Jamestown thirty-odd years later, most of my classmates couldn’t find it, either.  The town’s National Guard unit at the time, H Company (which had been a part of 2nd Battalion of the 164th) had been an Guadalcanal.  Many of the names on the Roll of Honor above the junior high entrance, listing Jamestown High School graduates who’d died in the wars up to that time, had served in the 164th – and the ones that came back, and were in not a few cases still serving as senior NCOs in the town’s National Guard unit at the time, like most World War 2 veterans, were still years away from talking about their war.

I used to dream of being able to write their story – doing a Steven Ambrose-style reconstruction of the war that that regiment of depression-era kids from the middle of nowhere fought, in a place that could not possibly have been less like North Dakota.  Other priorities intervened, of course; the guys who were in their late sixties when I hatched the idea of doing the history of the 164th are in their eighties and nineties now, the ones that are still with us at all.

Chalk it up among my life’s great regrets.

[1] I made that part up.  Allow a guy a little homer hyperbole, will ya?

4 thoughts on “Desperate Measures

  1. If I had to choose a semi-auto rifle to depend on, of all the Army’s weapons I’d still choose the M1. It didn’t take much tweaking to make it exceptionally accurate and the reliability is first rate. Yeah, it’s a heavy SOB and it’ll kick like a mule after 50 rounds or so of dirty ammo, but I still love it. The M14 isn’t bad and I like the magazine design better, but it’s just different enough to not feel as good as the M1 to me.

  2. (1) Ground squirrel. What Minnesotans would call a gopher. Real squirrels live in trees which, as everyone knows, don’t grow in North Dakota.

    The amount of planning and organization needed to fight any prior war in history is unimaginable to a people who expect the President to e-mail instructions to a computer operator sitting in Nevada, telling him to fly a drone from a base in Kuwait to drop a bomb on certain coordinates in Somalia and thereby end the problem. It’s exponentially worse than The Oregon Trail and I doubt many of today’s kids could beat that simple challenge.

  3. Having only shot the M1 at targets and not carrying it in combat (in the Air Force, we had M16s and a deadly .38 revolver as our standard side arm – UGH!), I also admire the M1. I also like the M14 and BAR for raw firepower. I think that the weight difference between the M1 and M14 is minimal.

    My dad, a farm kid from southwestern MN, also loved the M1 and when he was teaching my brothers and I to shoot, we were awed by how accurate he was with one. Of course, we also were awed by his accuracy with any weapon that he shot.

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