The Die is Cast; Vandegrift does the impossible

America and her allies were woefully unprepared to fight the kind of war they found themselves with in the Pacific. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent attacks around the Pacific Rim decimated the plans and the resources of the forces that would become allied in their opposition to Japanese aggression. Traditional forces were not readily available and even the ones that were had not been trained or equipped to fight in the faraway jungles of the islands. These small islands were to become stationary aircraft carriers of a sort and the Japanese saw them as a way to strangle their enemies lines of communication and supplies.


The American’s had a weapon to fight this new threat but even the Generals and Admirals of their own forces were slow to see its real value in the lead up to the war. The United States Marine Corps was viewedas a “naval police force” by many of the leaders in the other services. Despite her rich history of non-traditional warfare dating back to Tripoli, inter-service rivalry and mission infringement kept the Corps at a minimal level for many decades. The Army saw little value in the amphibious war capability and felt that the priority of capturing and creating improvements to existing ports was a better way to deliver large combat forces.

The war that you plan for is seldom the war you actually get to fight.

The enemy are decidedly uncooperative in times of conflict and the war in the Pacific was no exception. Long range bombers were still a distant dream and the state of all allied forces were somewhat in question in June of 1942. As previously mentioned the high command in Washington had barely reached a consensus on a solution.

The Navy thought that MacArthur would unnecessarily expose their carriers to risk, and that Tulagi should be seized first to lessen the danger from the Japanese and establish a base in the Solomons for future operations. They also thought that command should be through Nimitz to his subordinate, Vice Admiral Robert L Ghormley, Commander South Pacific Area and South Pacific Force (COMSOPAC). MacArthur objected as he thought he would be the logical choice since the amphibious objectives were in his area.

The Joint Chiefs decided that Ghormley would command the Tulagi part of the operation after which MacArthur would command the advance to Rabaul. The US Navy and Marine Corps would attack and seize Tulagi, Guadalcanal and the surrounding area while MacArthur made a parallel advance towards New Guinea. The boundary between Southwest Pacific and South Pacific was shifted to reflect the change and King notified Nimitz (and hence Ghormley) to start planning for an operation. Major General Alexander A Vandegrift was notified that his division (1st Marine Division) would spearhead the attack.

No one could have been a better choice for the role than Vandegrift. A southerner by birth, he was raised in the traditions that forged the men of the Confederacy in Virginia.


He tried without success to achieve a position in the US Military Academy and was rejected. Later, he was selected as a Marine Corps Officer. When he had approached his Senator for a confirmation, the Senator said that if he was selected, he would be forever doomed to fight small wars in the southern hemisphere. For much of his career, that ended up being true.


The strength of that experience was that when the nation found itself in need of a jungle warfare fighting force, the Marines brought the needed skills immediately to the battles. Not only that, but the Marine officers between the wars had experimented and innovated new techniques in landing against an entrenched force from the sea. They struggled against an even more entrenched way of thinking put forth by traditionalists that such a campaign would be futile.


The Marine Corps persevered in their struggles

With a force of only about 20,000 they pushed forward with their development of new strategies and when the call came, they were the obvious choice. Unlike the other services, they remained in constant action during the years between the wars. From the banana wars to service in the far east, Marines of every rank were being built and tested for a larger role.

On March 23 1942, Vandegrift received his second star and command of the new First Marine Division. The band of brothers were being assembled in New River, North Carolina. He had already been the assistant commander practicing practice landings on Solomon’s Island in the Chesapeake Bay (prophetically enough). His task was to build a force of fighting men from the old salts around the globe from a force of roughly 11,000 men to over 19,000.

The Old Salts were joined by old Gunnery sergeants and grizzled old hands from China and the fleet

Men who had fought in the battles in France in WW1 were joined by jungle fighters and seasoned troops of every kind. They were joined by the new breed as well… Marines who had answered the call when the US was attacked by a foreign and devious enemy. This blend of men is the one that was called upon to do the impossible: sail halfway around the world to develop a new way to fight an enemy that had already been tested in blood letting battles.

After arriving with his men in Wellington, New Zealand, General Vandergrift and his staff were ordered to meet with Admiral Ghormley and his staff in Auckland. The Admiral handed Vandegrift the Top Secret orders and Vandegrift was shocked with his orders. The Joint Chiefs wanted him to prepare plans and execute an invasion of Tulagi – Guadalcanal by August 1st.

From Operation Watchtower: The Battle for Guadalcanal (August 1942-February 1943)

“For Vandegrift, the news was far from welcome as he had not expected to go into action until sometime early in the new year and his division was spread out between Wellington and the United States, with part of it on garrison duty in Samoa. In just under a month he would have to make operational and logistical plans, unload his ships and reload them for combat, sail to the Fiji Islands to conduct a rehearsal and then sail to the Solomon Islands. Reconfiguring the division’s supplies would have to be done in New Zealand’s Aotoa Quay, a confined area that could only take five ships at a time. To make matters worse, the dock workers went on strike so that the Marines had to do the work themselves and the rains came which were driven by a cold persistent wind. Some food and clothing was lost due to being left unprotected in cardboard boxes that tended to disintegrate in such conditions. Finally it was discovered after the loading was complete that there was not enough room for all the motor transport to go aboard and so about three-quarters of the heavy prime movers were left behind. Vandegrift also had the problem of a serious lack of intelligence about Guadalcanal. The division’s intelligence officer, Lt Col Frank B Goettge set up an extensive interview programme with former residents of the area to glean as much information as possible and a photo reconnaissance mission by Lt Col Merril B Twining and Major William B Kean yielded a large number of useful photographs of the north coast of the island. To protect the flanks of the main assault a number of smaller objectives on Florida Island, Gavutu, Tanambogo and others would be seized just prior to the main landing. “

The only moment of grace for Vandegrift as he tried to pull together his far flung forces in the face of such overwhelming odds was the granting of a delay of one week by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The new invasion date: August 7 1942. But Vandegrift and his staff were not about to let this chance at victory slip away. They put their hearts and souls into planning for the great struggle ahead. The fight to stop the Japanese advancement would begin on the beaches and in the jungles of these “stinking islands”.

The Marines that were to land first carried bolt action weapons that dated back to the first war. They only had supplies sufficient in the field for 60 days instead of the planned 90, a fact that would come back to haunt them in the days to come. They would be tested by the enemy, the weather, the terrain and the very nature of their characters. But the worst news was yet to come. Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher was about to make a challenging situation even more challenging.

Next up: Cancel the Dress Rehearsal

Mister Mac

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