Lessons from Guadalcanal: “The Goettge Patrol”

There have been many books written through the ages about fighting a war.

From the lessons of Sun Tzu to the lengthy books on modern war campaigns, we have learned better ways to achieve our goals if we are wise enough to learn from other’s mistakes. One of the ones from Guadalcanal was the disastrous patrol led by Lt. Colonel Goettge on the night of August 12, 1942.

Information about the strength and location of the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal was sketchy and difficult to ascertain. This resulted in the need for probes into the enemies defenses days after the landing on August 7. The Marines were already facing the realities of the campaign as they watched the supporting Naval fleet sail away a few days before. Their already limited rations were even more challenged by the difficulty experienced from a hasty unloading plan. Not knowing the exact strength of the enemy nor his positions led the Marines to a place where they had challenges placing their defenses in the right place.

There were several planned reconnaissance patrols set up prior to the 12th of August but fate and very bad fortune intervened in the form of a captured Japanese warrant officer. This man had been interrogated extensively and was convincing in his stories about potential Japanese soldiers and civilians who were willing to become prisoners in exchange for their lives. 

Lieutenant Colonel Goettge, Division Intelligence Officer, was already committed to accompany a patrol toward Tetere, when he was advised of the tentative plans of the Matanikau operation. He immediately assumed personal charge of the project. His knowledge of the potential surrender of many Japanese led him to believe that this was the right course for him to take.


Goettge was in charge of the intelligence section and he seized on the opportunity to illuminate the weaknesses of his enemy. Unfortunately, he also changed the original plan which was to land in sufficient enough force to probe the perimeter and offer resistance to any counter attacks. His change in plans also delayed the launch of the patrol until well into the evening on the 12th which caused the men to be landed at a position (by accident) that had already been determined to be too dangerous for a small force to advance towards.


The delays, the unfortunate landing, the lack of understanding about the true nature of the Japanese bushido all contributed to the inevitable outcome. All but three of the men sent to find the strength and position of the enemy were slaughtered. Patrols sent out in the next week found no traces of the scouts from the night of the 12th. Most of the intelligence personnel under Goettge were lost in the effort.


The lessons learned were painful but were key to the long term fighting that would emerge in the Pacific.


1. Know the terrain and the conditions before landing. The sacrifices made by too many men should have been better coordinated in the identification of key obstacles.

2. Know your own strengths and weaknesses. Bring enough strength to every fight to counter the ferocity of your enemy. There are no second chances.

3. Know your enemy. I am not sure if Lt. Colonel Goettge ever read Sun Tzu. But I am quite sure that Sun Tzu would have probably warned him:  "know your enemy" before going into battle. For if "you know your enemy and know yourself," he wrote, "you need not fear the result of a hundred battles." But, Sun Tzu warned, "If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat."


The bodies of most of the patrol were never found.

The lessons were never forgotten.


Mister Mac

3 thoughts on “Lessons from Guadalcanal: “The Goettge Patrol”

  1. I remember reading something some years ago about the Goettge patrol, but can’t remember if it was an article or from a book. Either way, thanks for this. Just goes to show how military intelligence is truly an oxymoron! What a costly mistake.

    1. Truly a shame, the author is correct. My geat uncles body has never been located. I stay in contact with a few relatives of those also lost and got to know the last survivior before he died. The Col. was in WAY over his head. He got himself and 21 others killed.

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