On the morning of 26 September, Puller and McDougal's troops reached the Matanikau River and attempted to cross over a bridge previously built by the Japanese that was called the "one-log bridge". Because of resistance by about 100 Japanese defenders around the bridge, the Marines instead proceeded north along the east bank of the Matanikau to the sand spit on the coast at the mouth of the river. Oka's troops repulsed a Marine attempt to cross the Matanikau at the sand spit as well as another attempt to cross the one-log bridge later in the afternoon. In the meantime, Griffith's Raider battalion—along with Merritt A. Edson, commander of the 5th Marine Regiment—joined Puller and McDougal's troops at the mouth of the Matanikau.
Edson brought with him a "hastily devised" plan of attack—primarily written by Lieutenant Colonel Merrill B. Twining, a member of Vandegrift's division staff—that called for Griffith's Raiders—along with Puller's Company C—to cross the one-log bridge and then outflank the Japanese at the river mouth/sand spit from the south. At the same time, McDougal's battalion was to attack across the sand spit. If the attacks were successful, the rest of Puller's battalion would land by boat west of Point Cruz to take the Japanese by surprise from the rear. Aircraft from Henderson Field—as well as Marine 75 mm (2.95 in) and 105 mm (4.1 in) artillery—would provide support for the operation. The Marine offensive would begin the next day, on September 27.
The Marine attack on the morning of 27 September did not make much headway. Griffith's Raiders were unable to advance at the one-log bridge over the Matanikau, suffering several casualties, including the death of Major Kenneth D. Bailey and the wounding of Griffith. A flanking attempt by the Raiders further upstream also failed. The Japanese, who had reinforced their units at the mouth of the Matanikau during the night with additional companies from the 124th Infantry Regiment, repulsed the attacks by McDougal's men.
As a result of "garbled" messages from Griffith because of a Japanese air raid on Henderson Field that disrupted the Marine communication's net, Vandegrift and Edson believed that the Raiders had succeeded in crossing the Matanikau. Therefore, Puller's battalion was ordered to proceed with the planned landing west of Point Cruz. Three companies of Puller's battalion, under Major Otho Rogers, landed from nine landing craft just west of Point Cruz at 13:00. Rogers' Marines pushed inland and occupied a ridge, called Hill 84, about 600 yd (550 m) from the landing area. Oka—recognizing the seriousness of this landing—ordered his forces to close on Rogers' Marines from both the west and east.
Soon after occupying the ridge, Rogers' men came under heavy fire from two directions from Oka's forces. Major Rogers was hit by a mortar shell that blew him in half, killing him instantly. Captain Charles Kelley—commander of one of the companies—took command and deployed the Marines in a perimeter defense around the ridge to fight back.[ The Marines on Hill 84 were without radio communication and thus could not call for help. The Marines improvised by using white undershirts to spell out the word "H-E-L-P" on the ridge. A Cactus Air Force (the name for the Allied aircraft operating out of Henderson Field) SBD Dauntless supporting the operation spotted the undershirt message and relayed the message to Edson by radio.
Edson received a message from the Raider Battalion reporting their failure to cross the Matanikau. Edson, speaking to those around him, stated, "I guess we better call them off. They can't seem to cross the river." Puller angrily replied, "You're not going to throw these men away!" apparently in reference to his men trapped on the west side of the Matanikau, and "stormed" off toward the beach where, with the help of his personal signalman, Puller was able to hail the Navy destroyer USS Monssen that was supporting the operation. Once aboard Monssen, Puller and the destroyer led 10 landing craft towards Point Cruz and established communications with Kelley on the ridge by signal flag.
By this time, Oka's troops had moved into position to completely cut-off the Marines on Hill 84 from the coast. Therefore, Monssen—coordinated by Puller—began to blast a path between the ridge and the beach. After about 30 minutes of firing by the destroyer, the way was clear for the Marines to escape to the beach. Despite taking some casualties from their own artillery fire, most of the Marines made it to the beach near Point Cruz by 16:30. Oka's troops put heavy fire on the Marines at the beach in effort to keep them from successfully evacuating, and the U.S. Coast Guard crews manning the U.S. landing craft responded with their own heavy fire to cover the Marines' withdrawal. Under fire, the Marines boarded the landing craft and successfully returned to the Lunga perimeter, ending the action. U.S. Coast Guard Signalman First Class Douglas Albert Munro—Officer-in-Charge of the group of Higgins boats—was killed while providing covering fire from his landing craft for the Marines as they evacuated the beach and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for the action, to date the only Coast Guardsman to receive the decoration.
The results of the action were gratifying to the Japanese, still recovering from their defeat at Edson's Ridge two weeks prior. Oka's troops counted 32 bodies of U.S. Marines around Hill 84, and they captured 15 rifles and several machine guns that the Marines left behind. Major General Akisaburo Futami—chief of staff for the 17th Army at Rabaul—noted in his diary that this action was "the first good news to come from Guadalcanal."
The action—described as "an embarrassing defeat" for the U.S. Marines—resulted in "finger-pointing" among the Marine commanders as they sought to attribute blame. Puller blamed Griffith and Edson, Griffith blamed Edson, and Twining blamed Puller and Edson. Colonel Gerald Thomas—Vandegrift's operations officer—blamed Twining. The Marines, however, learned from the experience, and the defeat was the only one of that size suffered by U.S. Marine forces during the Guadalcanal campaign.
James D. Hornfischer (2011), Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal. Random House:
FROM EVEN A SHORT DISTANCE OUT TO SEA, THE FIGHTING ASHORE seemed remote, aseptic. As his destroyer, the Monssen, prowled the northern shore of Guadalcanal, Roland Smoot found himself thinking: So this is war. It’s nothing. It was, of course, hardly that. A captain’s thoughts seldom wandered far from the fact that the surface fleet was almost ten months into a war and had yet to win a significant battle.
The carriers and their pilots were proven winners. American submariners were emerging as world-beaters. The surface Navy—the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers of the traditional black-shoe fleet—would have their day. At Guadalcanal as ever, it was the most expendable members of the deep-sea combat fleet, the destroyers, that made first contact with the enemy and carried the fight to him. While Norman Scott was getting his legs under him as commander of Task Force 64, the destroyer Navy was called to turn its guns in support of their ground-pounding brethren ashore.
Destroyer captains were known for their esprit. Off Balikpapan, Borneo, in January 1942, the old four-stack tin cans of the now-disbanded Asiatic Fleet had made the first offensive surface-ship foray of the war. In a quick nighttime raid against Japanese shipping at rest in an anchorage, a quartet of destroyers pressed in, turned out, and left several cargomen ablaze. For the first time, the night had been seized from the victory-sotted empire.
Chester Nimitz was well acquainted with this spirit. In 1907, as an ensign in command of the destroyer Decatur, he ran his ship into a sandbar off Bataan. After turning himself in like the George Washington of legend, he faced a court-martial for incaution and negligence. His defense turned on his observation, calmly articulated during the proceedings, that the commander of a destroyer was supposed to have a devil-may-care attitude and that was precisely what he had given his Navy. In view of his spotless (if thin) record, and the handicap of having outdated charts, he was forgiven the offense and his path to the stars remained open.
It was in this tradition that the Monssen went hunting on the morning of September 27. Smoot’s ship had been shepherd to a large cargo ship, the Alhena, on a run from Nouméa to Guadalcanal. As the Alhena was being unloaded, the Marine command decided to take advantage of having a modern destroyer in the area. A 1,630-tonner of the Benson class, the Monssen was ordered to cruise along the western shoreline and bombard targets of opportunity. She was a veteran of the North Atlantic convoy runs, of Jimmy Doolittle’s Tokyo raid, and of Coral Sea and Midway, but Smoot had never been involved in something like this, where the enemy was standing so near, taunting him with his proximity.
The Japanese garrison had been making good use of the reinforcements the Tokyo Express was bringing them. They no longer underestimated the Marines. As they learned to fight smarter, U.S. patrols into the jungles and hills near Henderson Field found their days becoming increasingly dangerous. When the Marines asked the Monssen for a hand, Captain Smoot gladly answered the call.
The Monssen’s patrol line took her close to the mouth of the Matanikau River, the western boundary of the beachhead, about three miles west of Lunga Point. For several hours, the Monssen’s gunners fired on small Japanese landing craft on the beach, suspicious structures that might shelter the enemy, and anything resembling a fuel or ammo dump.
Then, cruising off Lunga Point, Smoot spied through his binoculars an American tank climbing a hill and a small group of Japanese soldiers emerging from a cave nearby. For a warship on a fire-support mission, the margin of victory in an encounter like that was defined by the flight time of a salvo to the beach. As far as the men in that tank were concerned, the gulf separating them was unbridgeable. The soldiers began running toward the tank. They climbed atop it and doused it with gasoline. Then a torch was produced and that was that. But the exchange was a total loss for the Japanese, too. “My gunnery officer saw those Japs running back,” Smoot said, “and he turned the whole broadside of the ship on that cave and blew it to smithereens.” Everybody burned.
Overhead, a high-flying V of Betty bombers arrived and began a run on the airfield. The Monssen pointed her batteries high and engaged them until several Marine Wildcats arrived. Smoot and his men watched as the last Betty in the formation was assaulted by the fighters, began falling, and exploded. One of its wings struck the water just a hundred feet from the ship. Ashore, the bodies of the Japanese dead could be seen wasting in the sand at the mouth of the Matanikau River. This was not distant. It was personal.
Late in the morning, as sounds of battle echoed through the coconut groves, the Monssen was ordered to escort several landing craft bearing two hundred Marine riflemen who were to be landed behind enemy lines. Four Higgins boats carrying them followed the destroyer to a projection of shore about a mile west of the river. The Monssen shelled the jungle behind the beach as the marines went ashore and vanished into the jungle.
At that point, another wave of Bettys arrived. They were promptly met by the Cactus Air Force’s fliers. “The sky was soon crisscrossed with dozens of white streaks, which seemed to persist for many minutes from high altitude to sea level,” a Monssen sailor, Chester C. Thomason, said. “Perhaps a dozen planes—friend and foe—were seen to plunge into the sea. The Monssen did not attempt to fire, as individual dogfights were too confusing.” Afterward, once the surviving aircraft had dropped their bombs and departed, a group of men, apparently Americans, appeared on an open grassy hillside about half a mile inland. They seemed to be surrounded. Mortar rounds were bursting among them. Evidently the landings that the Monssen had accompanied hadn’t managed to encircle and destroy the Japanese.
It was then that Smoot noticed a lone figure on another hill waving signal flags. His signal read: SEND BOAT ASHORE. The captain was wary of Japanese trickery. The figure was dressed in what he called “army drill,” but from this distance the man could belong to either side. “We didn’t know who it was and I wasn’t going to take any chances.” Smoot asked a signalman if there were a way to verify his identity. The signalman had an idea, and flagged a question to their mysterious correspondent: WHO WON THE WORLD SERIES IN 1941? The answer—YANKEES IN FIVE—decided the issue.
The deck force lowered a whaleboat over the side, and it motored in to the beach. When it returned, it was carrying the commander of the 1st Battalion of the 7th Marines, his aide, and two other marines. Coming aboard, Lieutenant Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, age forty-four, saluted Smoot. “I doggone near lost my life getting down to the beach. I’ve got a whole group of my men up there in the hills. I’ve got to get them out of trouble.”
Puller told a grim story. His marines, landing at Point Cruz and attempting to join up with Colonel Merritt A. Edson’s 1st Raider Battalion, were in the midst of a faltering effort to dislodge Japanese forces from the Matanikau village area. When Puller’s battalion got ambushed and pinned down by the well-entrenched units of General Kawaguchi’s 17th Army, they were effectively cut off. By day’s end, two dozen men would be dead and that same number wounded. They needed evacuation. Puller arranged for a couple dozen Higgins boats to do the job. The Monssen would lend fire support. “They are trapped up there,” he told Smoot. “Let me tell you where to shoot.”
Puller conferred with the destroyer’s gunnery officer, and in short order the ship’s four five-inch guns were trained inland again and set to barking. “We just ploughed it with bullets, straight up and down the middle,” Smoot said. “Then we spread the firepower up two sides.” Several Higgins boats, crewed by volunteers, motored in under fire to evacuate the trapped marines.
Wielding her main battery like a long-armed plow, Smoot’s gunners blew open a path through the jungle. “As the first marines appeared on the beach,” Chet Thomason wrote, “heavy enemy rifle and machine gun fire commenced from both sides. After a few minutes, the landing boats retreated back alongside the Monssen.” Getting the men to the beach was much easier than retrieving them from it. When Puller thought that the boat crews hadn’t committed themselves fully to the evacuation, he was furious. He stepped on Smoot’s toes by yelling at the coxswains, telling them to drive back to the beach and not come back until all the survivors had been retrieved.
“Four marines had managed to scramble into one of the boats earlier,” Thomason said. “They were lying down exhausted in the bottom of the boat. When they realized that the boat was being sent back into the beach, they scrambled up and jumped for the Monssen. Three managed to grab the lifelines and were pulled aboard. The fourth marine missed, and he disappeared beneath the water under the weight of his equipment. Two of the Monssen’s sailors quickly stripped off their clothes and dived into the ocean in an attempt to locate him, but they failed, and he was not seen again.”
A Navy Dauntless pilot who had been strafing Japanese positions, Lieutenant Maxwell Leslie, guided the boats to the landing area. As the Monssen’s brain trust peered out through the clearing smoke through their glasses, the boats closed the beach. The coming of darkness would soon give them cover. With the setting of the sun, bright red slashes of tracer bullets could be seen reaching out from the jungle, splashing all around the departing vessels. One of the coxswains of the landing party, a Coast Guard signalman named Douglas A. Munro, lingered during the evacuation to support his mates with his craft’s light machine gun. A Japanese machine gunner drew a bead on Munro’s boat and opened fire, killing him.
After Puller and the marines rescued from the island were dropped off in a waiting boat at Lunga Point, Smoot took the Monssen away from Guadalcanal. The destroyer joined the Alhena for the nighttime run out to sea, away from the threat of nighttime surface attack. The next day the two ships returned for a final day of unloading, and the Alhena evacuated many of the wounded rescued the previous day. With a lull in the fighting ashore and the skies free of air raids, the day was quiet and the ships retired again late that afternoon for Espiritu Santo.
Their traditional griping could not mask the fact that the marines needed their fleet for much more than just transportation. The Monssen’s display of fighting spirit restored some of their faith. And many had had enough of a taste of life at sea to know they wanted no part of it. After Smoot had given Puller his parting gift the day before—a steak dinner in the wardroom, a hot shower, a seabag full of clean clothes, and a stash of cookies and cigarettes—the infantryman took his leave from the ship. Smoot was glad to be of some help to the Marine Corps. “Everything we could do to help in their rugged life ashore, we did.” Puller thanked him, then said, “God, I wouldn’t have your job for anything in the world.”
At this, Smoot raised an eyebrow. “You mean to tell me you’d go back and go into that messy stuff over there and get yourself filthy and live on c-rations? You’ve come to see the kind of life I lead out here and you prefer yours?”
“I sure do. When you get hit, where are you? When I get hit, I know where I am.”