Tulagi Part II

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ADVANCE ALONG TULAGI was executed during the morning of 7 August by Col Edson’s 1st Raider Battalion.

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FINAL ASSAULTS ON TULAGI were delivered by elements of 1st Raider Battalion and 2d Battalion, 5th Marines.

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The islands of Tulagi, Tanambogo, and Gavutu are located in the southern Solomons. Control of these small islands was deemed critical to the success of U. S. landings on Guadalcanal and subsequent ability to resupply the Marines ashore.

The 1st Raider Battalion performed well during its baptism of fire on Tulagi. Both officers and enlisted men exhibited daring, bravery, and individual initiative. Major Kenneth D. Baily demonstrated the type of leadership commonly found in the unit. When an enemy machine gun held up his company, he personally circled around the offending weapon, well placed in a coconut log bunker, crawled on top, and shoved a hand grenade into the firing aperture. He was wounded in the thigh.

Colonel Edson established his reputation for courage by spending most of his time on the front lines, where he contemptuously exposed himself to the enemy’s heaviest fire. More importantly, he aggressively employed his command in battle, taking the fight to his adversary and steadfastly defending his positions when attacked.

While the fighting raged on Tulagi, the 1st Parachute Battalion, under Major Robert H. Williams, was tasked with capturing Gavutu and Tanambogo. The attack was to commence four hours after the landing at Tulagi. Insufficient numbers of landing craft to conduct both the Tulagi and Gavutu oeprations dictated that the landings could not occur simultaneously. As a result, the defenders of Gavutu and Tanambogo were prepared for their enemy’s assault.

Each of those islets was dominated by a single elevation, Hill 148 on Gavutu and Hill 121 on Tanambogo. The islands were surrounded by coral reefs that allowed an approach only from the east. The terrain channeled any attacker into a narrow funnel dominated by high ground on two sides.

Defending Gavutu were about 240 men, mostly laborers from the 14th Construction Unit, buttressed by a 50-man platoon of the 3rd Kure SNLF. On Tanambogo were the 303 crew and maintenance personnel of the Yokohama Flying Boat Air Group under Captain Miyazaki. Only the SNLF members were equipped and trained to fight as ground troops. However, the constricted terrain and well-placed defensive positions greatly aided the other defenders, allowing them to give a good account of themselves. The Japanese on both islands were entrenched in bunkers and caves, and each spit of land was within mutual machine-gun fire support of the other.

As the parachutists approached Gavutu Harbor at noon, the island was rocked by a five-minute naval bombardment carried out by the light antiaircraft cruiser USS San Juan and the destroyers Monssen and Buchanan, followed by a 10-minute air assault by dive bombers from the aircraft carrier Wasp. The efforts did little damage to the Japanese defenses except for eliminating an 75mm gun on Hill 148. The seaplane landing ramp on Gavutu was damaged to such an extent that the Marines could not disembark on it. The Marines were forced to land on a more exposed part of the dock.

After getting ashore, the attackers of the first wave, Company A, pushed 75 yards inland but were met by withering fire from the Japanese on Hills 148 and 121. The second and third waves, made up of Companies B and C, landed on the dock and immediately came under Japanese rifle and machine-gun fire, so heavy that in a few minutes 10 percent of both units were cut down, including the battalion commander.

By 2 PM, elements of Companies A and B had taken Hill 148 after extensive use of grenades and improvised explosive charges, as well as close-quarter fighting to clear the many fortified positions on the heights. Unfortunately, this hard-fought Marine triumph was marred by the arrival of American Douglas SDB Dauntless dive bombers responding to an earlier call for air support. The Marines had no sooner taken control of Hill 148 than the planes attacked the summit, killing several Marines and wounding others. This tragic accident would not be the only such friendly fire incident during the struggle for Gavutu and Tanambogo. When night fell on the 7th, Gavutu was still not secured and Tanambogo had yet to be taken. The acting battalion commander, Major Charles A. Miller, who had replaced the injured Major Williams, requested reinforcements.

General Rupertus responded to Miller’s appeal by sending Captain Crane’s Company B, 2nd Marines, then on Florida Island, to subdue Tanambogo. After landing under heavy fire and suffering severe losses, Crane evacuated his wounded on boats and had them sail back to Gavutu while he and a dozen men sprinted along the causeway back to Gavutu. The Japanese lost only 10 men in the aborted assault on Tanambogo that day.

Throughout the night, the Japanese staged persistent attacks against the Marines on Gavutu under the cover of heavy rain and thunderstorms. Hoping to get his attack on Gavutu moving, General Vandegrift ordered his last reserves, Lieutenant R. G. Hunt’s 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, to land there. Hunt’s men assisted the paratroopers in exterminating the last Japanese defenders on Gavutu, enduring machine-gun fire from the Japanese on Tanambogo. During these mopping-up operations, a second American naval air attack killed four Marines and injured eight.

With Gavutu pacified by noon, Hunt ordered an attack on Tanambogo at 3:30 PM after a 30- minute naval bombardment by San Juan and Buchanan, the latter firing at close range. At 4:15 PM, Company I, in conjunction with two M5 Stuart Light tanks under Lieutenant R. J. Sweeny (who was killed in action later that day), reached the island by water. One tank assailed Hill 121 from the south, while the other did the same from the east. Both metal monsters were closely supported by Marines. However, one of the tanks moved too rapidly ahead of its accompanying infantry. As the tank approached its target, Captain Miyazaki and other Japanese officers swarmed over the vehicle, setting it ablaze with gasoline-soaked rags, killing three of its crewmen and savagely beating a fourth. An immediate hail of American small-arms fire soon killed the captain and 41 of his comrades, who fell around the burnedout American tank.

Meanwhile, the second armored fighting vehicle was able to knock out enough enemy bunkers using its 37mm main gun to allow a platoon from Company K of Hunt’s battalion to charge across the causeway onto Tanambogo at 4:40 PM. This provided the needed muscle to finally break the Japanese hold on the islet. Although the island was declared secure by 9 PM on August 8, isolated night attacks by the Japanese continued. It was not until the next day, after savage fighting with bayonet, rifle butt, and hand grenades, that the remaining defenders on Tanambogo were completely eliminated.

Of the 1,300 men committed, 70 Marines were killed and 87 wounded during the fight for Gavutu and Tanambogo. The Japanese lost 516 killed and 20 prisoners, 15 of whom were Korean laborers who had fought alongside their Japanese masters.

American deaths sustained in the capture of Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo totaled 122, while 863 Japanese perished in the three engagements. The 1st Marine Division’s after action report noted: “The combat assumed the nature of a storming operation from the outset, a soldier’s battle, unremitting, and relentless, to be decided only by the extermination of one or the other of the adversaries engaged. Soldierly behavior was manifest wherever the enemy was encountered.”

Shortly after Tulagi was taken by the Marines, Gavutu anchorage began serving as a giant naval base and refueling station. Purvis Bay assumed a significant role as a center for light naval forces operating in the middle and upper Solomons. Tulagi’s harbor also functioned as a temporary repair center for vessels damaged in the many naval battles that occurred in the Guadalcanal vicinity between August and December 1942. Later in the campaign for Guadalcanal, Tulagi became a U. S. PT Boat base.

After Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo were firmly in American hands, the majority of the Marines who wrested these islands away from the Japanese were transferred to Guadalcanal to help defend Henderson Field, the key to the victory in the Solomons, from repeated attempts by the Japanese Army to recapture it.