Hugh Ambrose's The Pacific, is the official companion book to the HBO miniseries. Historian Ambrose deepens the experience of the HBO miniseries - revealing the intertwined odysseys of four U.S. Marines and a U.S. Navy carrier pilot and producing a powerful blend of first-person immediacy and historical perspective.
The 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment woke up to a big breakfast on Oct. 7, 1942. At the battalion kitchen, they received meat and potatoes and fruit, beans, and bread in their mess kits, and cups of hot coffee to wash it down. For hungry men living in the boonies, the meal went beyond being a healthy start to something more like a reassurance. Everybody knew the Imperial Japanese Navy had landed a lot of men and equipment on the other side of the Matanikau River. At the prospect of going over there again, one private wounded himself badly enough to be evacuated.
The new attack included a lot of units, including most of the 7th Regiment. The attackers would not only have air cover, but the big guns of the division's artillery would be on call as well. Topside, Sgt. John Basilone noted, had learned "a costly lesson from our recent failure...." For Basilone and his friends, it boiled down to this: The 1/7 and two other battalions would cross the Matanikau well upstream, then sweep northward and hit the enemy troop concentrations from the flank. Unlike the first patrol, this time John's machine-gun section would accompany a rifle platoon of Charlie Company. While carting the machine guns through the jungle was tough, the earlier patrols had shown that anything could happen. If they engaged a large enemy force, the riflemen would need the support of Basilone's heavy machine guns.
As the 1/7 left the mess, every Marine put some C rations in his pocket. The little gold cans contained meat with hash, meat and beans, or some other dreadful combination. The 3/2 led the way, followed by the 2/7, with the 1/7 in the rear. The 1/7 commander, Colonel Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, liked to have Fidel Hernandez, a big Marine out of Dog Company, be his point man. Chesty called Fidel "Hombre," but John and the others often called him "Chief" because he had some Native American ancestry as well as Spanish. Not far behind Fidel came his platoon leader, his company commander, and the battalion commander himself. Chesty had always been clear about his expectations for his platoon leaders and company commanders: "You lead your men," he insisted, "you do not lag behind." Strung out single file, the three battalions made one long column snaking west from the airfield, then south into the island's interior.
In the mid-afternoon, they came to a stream, one of the tributaries of the Matanikau. A single coconut log crossed it, with a length of communications wire as a handrail. Only a few men could cross it at a time, creating a bottleneck that made the 1/7 vulnerable. Lookouts were posted downstream and upstream and the process got under way. Charlie Company crossed and then began the ascent up the other side of the valley. Climbing the steep ridge was a backbreaker. Men slid, dropped equipment, and cursed eloquently. Those few hundred yards took an hour. Charlie Company set up their bivouac on top of the ridgeline and posted the guard. Well into the evening, the other companies were still gaining the ridge and joining them.
Even before the men had risen in the morning, the first few drops of a downpour made the prospect of another day of slogging through the jungle less appealing. The rain grew into a torrent and forced a delay. On the morning of October 9, the 1/7 crossed the larger fork of the Matanikau. As it continued pushing west, the two battalions ahead of them had begun turning north. The 1/7 continued west before turning north, in order to guard the Marines' left flank.
By the sound of it, the lead battalions had met a large enemy unit. Amid the bombs from U.S. planes and artillery, the sound of return fire could be heard. About a thousand yards from the river, 1st Battalion gained a ridge where they could see the surrounding terrain. Squad leaders like Basilone were called forward and shown the lay of the land. To the north, they could see the 2/7 firing at the enemy to their left. They could see the ocean another 2,000 yards beyond the 2/7. The distances, however, could not be understood in yards. The steep hills and dense jungle imposed limits on every consideration.
Chesty gave Charlie Company a special assignment. He ordered them to flank the enemy position that was exchanging fire with the 2/7. Captain Moore led his men down into a ravine, first west, then hooking around to the north. Upon gaining the high ground, they had a beautiful view. Across a narrow valley, they looked into the enemy positions on the barren ridge opposite them. The enemy's attention was focused on the 2/7.
No one fired before Captain Moore gave the order. The Marines took their positions and set up their weapons. Basilone's machine guns joined in as Charlie Company began raking the enemy troops at close range. With their targets silhouetted against the sky, some Marines thought it was a bit like shooting on a rifle range. Over the barrel of his machine gun, Basilone watched as the enemy "bodies jerked in a crazy dance." The Japanese, of course, wheeled around to face this new threat, but they lacked cover. It also quickly became apparent that the main force of the Imperial Japanese Army was congregated in the depression between the two opposing forces.
Charlie Company's 60mm mortars began dropping rounds down there, while guys on the ridge fired rifle grenades at likely targets. Then the 81mm mortars, back with the rest of the 1/7 a bit south and east of Charlie, joined in. The enemy found themselves trapped in the ravine. They could not charge Charlie Company's ridge. They could not remain in the ravine. They could not survive on their ridge, much less defend themselves. Several times, the enemy tried to set up a machine gun in a large tree on the edge of the ravine. Each time, Charlie Company's machine gunners and mortar-men cut them to pieces.
For two hours, Charlie Company had them dead to rights. The Marines kept most of the enemy soldiers trapped in the lowland. Artillery, fired from within the perimeter, began to explode in the valley. The relentless killing finally caused the enemy to break and run for their lives. Hundreds had died and more had been wounded. The carnage made some of John's section puke. Return fire started to come from the position occupied by the 2/7. A few men went down before it ended suddenly.
Before all resistance had been extinguished and before Charlie Company had made sure every figure lying out there was dead, Captain Moore began ordering them to prepare to
withdraw. That surely struck some of them as odd. They loaded their dead and wounded onto litters. The way led east, skirting the depression in front of them, of course. A few Marines searched the dead-some for intelligence and some for souvenirs-and they found the bodies of large, well-equipped men. This IJA unit obviously had not been on Guadalcanal long. As rear guard for the entire mission, Charlie Company had to watch its back as it marched to the mouth of the river. A few shots rang out, but this harassment tapered off as they got to the beach. The other battalions had crossed. Charlie Company stood watch while the rest of the 1/7 crossed the Matanikau near its mouth.
Trucks began taking the others back to the perimeter along the coast road, so Charlie began to cross. On the other side, the Marines deployed along the bank, ready for anything. The trucks drove slowly, and the wounded went first, among them Steve Helstowski, one of Basilone's gunners and a close friend. Full dark found a dozen men still waiting for their ride, including Captain Moore and Colonel Puller.
At last a truck arrived, and they loaded up. The truck broke down. The group started to hike back in the direction of the airfield. With no moonlight, it became so dark it turned black. Without flashlights, they got lost. They wandered around, in and out of the perimeter and through several company CPs. Everybody knew this was a good way to get shot by one of the many trigger-happy Marines out there. Furious, Puller demanded guides from these other units, but the guides promptly got them turned around again. At last they stumbled into Marines from the 1st Regiment. They knew that those men held the 7th's left flank, so they followed the First's line to the right.
Those taking their shift on guard after midnight watched as the final Charlie men stumbled into their positions. Next they heard the voice of Chesty, who was at his battalion HQ a few
hundred yards away. Though he obviously had a phone in his hands, Chesty yelled, "I and the remnants of my battalion have returned!" Evidently the person on the other end asked for a repeat, so he bellowed the same thing even louder. Around him, the 1/7 shared a chuckle.
In the morning, there was time to piece together the story. Sergeants tallying the men for their muster rolls reported to the battalion HQ that the 1/7 had lost 5 killed and more than 20 wounded on the patrol. Charlie Company and the attached men from Dog Company had carried their dead out, but Chesty had ordered others buried where they fell, on the IJA side of the river. Basilone's friend Steve had been wounded in the leg badly enough to be evacuated.
The emperor's troops had paid dearly. Basilone could tell his friends in Dog Company that they had gotten the Japanese dead to rights and hundreds of them had dropped and then, all of a sudden, orders came and C/1/7 had pulled out. Marines who had been up to battalion would have added the missing piece: Charlie Company's flank had been left wide open when the 2/7 had been ordered to pull out. The move had been ordered by the regimental commander, who had been well to the rear of Chesty's command post. Chesty had yelled over the phone to regimental HQ something about getting off their asses and getting up to the front before issuing orders, but it had been too late to stop the pullout. No wonder Chesty had blown his stack when he finally made it back.
Basilone and the rest of the returnees also got some news from the men who had stayed behind to hold the 1/7's front line: A convoy of IJN ships and transports had been spotted sailing toward the Canal.
Hugh Ambrose is a noted historian and was a consultant on the documentary 'Price For Peace,' for which Steven Spielberg and Stephen Ambrose were the Executive Producers. He was a consultant to his father on his books, and is also serviing as historical consultant on HBO's The Pacific miniseries. Ambrose is also the former vice president of the National WWII Museum and has led battlefield tours through Europe and along the Pacific Rim. He lives in Helena, Montana.
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