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Guadalcanal Part 3


For the past two days, we’ve talked about the South Pacific battle of Guadalcanal. The 164th Infantry (North Dakota National Guard) was sent there in October 1942 to reinforce the Marines during America’s first offensive action against the enemy in WWII. When the 164th arrived on October 13th, the Marines were holding a critical airstrip called Henderson Field.

The Japanese were just beginning a major three-pronged assault to capture the land strip. The campaign was delayed several times, because 7,000 Japanese troops had to slash through mountainous jungle with all their equipment and supplies on their backs. The western prong was under the command of Gen, Sumiyoshi, who was ill with malaria. He attacked with tanks and artillery on October 24th, a day ahead of schedule. This blunder was actually to Japan’s advantage, since it appeared that the bulk of the Japanese force was in front of the Americans.

The next day, everything changed. Historian Glenn Smith writes, “The night of 25 October 1942 will live forever in the memories of those who fought in the biggest battle waged on Guadalcanal. The Japanese came from both west and south in numbers hitherto unequaled. As (General Sumiyoshi’s) units renewed their assault, Maruyama’s men struck with fierce determination to drive the Americans back to the sea. The battle raged incessantly as Japanese pressure from the south mounted.”

The 164th 3rd Battalion was General Vandergrift’s only reserve unit that night. “The Marines facing the Maruyama troops needed help and needed (it now),” Smith writes. “Shortly before midnight, the 3rd Battalion received word to advance to the southern front. A heavy tropical rain made movement difficult. Because the black night cut visibility to a few feet, the men followed the Marine escorts to the line by holding the pack of the man in front. When the men got to the perimeter, they took their places in the line piecemeal wherever the Marines needed added firepower – almost everywhere in their sector,” Smith writes. “In spite of the downpour, slippery mud, and narrow, winding trails, they carried out the reinforcing movement with dispatch.”

Smith continues, “The Japanese pressed their attack until dawn. While the eerie light of flairs revealed that a major battle was taking place, the men of the 164th poured relentless fire into the continuous waves of oncoming Japanese soldiers. Machine gunners fed ammunition belts into their lethal weapons for so long that some of the guns simply gave out, and riflemen fired hundreds of eight-round clips into the charging hordes...The antitank company shot canisters, tearing gaping holes in the oncoming Japanese and ripping apart the foliage from which the Japanese rushed. Used in this manner,” Smith writes, “the antitank guns became huge shotguns, and most North Dakotans knew how shotguns worked. Signaling the end of the night attack, the dawn also revealed fields of fire literally covered by dead Japanese.”

Marines commonly looked down on Army troops, calling them “doggies” and “boy scouts.” At Guadalcanal, that view changed. Although this was their first campaign, the North Dakota regiment showed remarkable survival instincts.

During the battle, Corporal William Clark, of Grand Forks, and two others, crawled out from the line to snag two abandoned machine guns that lay within a few yards of the Japanese. Inching their way, Clark’s companions were killed under heavy fire, but he didn’t give up until he recovered both guns. He took parts from each to make one serviceable machine gun and was instrumental in holding back a large enemy thrust. Clark later received the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary gallantry in action. Tune in tomorrow for the conclusion.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm