Reading’s Boys Special Edition #1: Battle of Guadalcanal, Part 1

Introduction

When we had entered the war, we had made a commitment to our allies: Germany first. That had been the plan right along. We were to handle Germany first and fight a defensive battle with the Japanese. Get close enough to them to keep them from pushing forward, but not move forward ourselves. It was for this reason that the American men in the Pacific found themselves awfully undersupplied. All the resources were flowing across the Atlantic: the weapons, the uniforms, the tanks, the planes, the ships, everything. So, if we had wanted to go on the offensive in the Pacific, we would be horribly equipped. That much was absolutely certain.

While we were trying to figure out how we could possibly hold the line in the Pacific, the Japanese were moving from Pacific island to Pacific island-building airbases. With luck, if they could get enough air power in and around the Solomon Islands, they could not only keep American shipping from bringing resources to the troops stationed in and around Australia, but they could even launch attacks on Australia itself.

It was during the summer of 1942 that American reconnaissance and intelligence began to realize what was happening. When the beginnings of an airfield popped up on the island of Guadalcanal, alarm bells started sounding up and down the ranks of the US military in the Pacific. There was no way in hell we could let the Japanese build an airfield on Guadalcanal. The island was merely a three-hour flight away from the Australian mainland, not to mention the impact an airbase there would have on American and allied shipping.

United States military brass began searching their maps for the units stationed closest to Guadalcanal. We needed to act, and act now. The plan to simply hold the line would not work here.

Henry Andrew Brodecki

One young man who would, after the war, become a member of the Reading community, was a part of one of the units closest to Guadalcanal when the call came. Henry enlisted in the Marine Corps on January 9, 1942, and was just like that, the young man from Malden, Massachusetts, was going off to war. Henry would be assigned to Company G of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

When the news came to the Marines of the 1st Division that they would be setting foot on Japanese sand, there was a lot of excitement. Many of these young men had signed up after Pearl Harbor because they wanted to get back at the enemy for what they had done only to discover that it would be quite some time before they would be allowed to fight the Japanese. Now, all of a sudden, they were being told that they were going to be entering combat. This is what they had been hoping for, what they had been waiting for: a chance to strike back. The 1st Marine Regiment was assigned to Combat Group B, which would sail into Guadalcanal aboard the USS Barnett and land on Beach RED on August 7, 1942, at H-Hour plus 50 minutes, passing through the right side of Combat Group A and attacking in the direction south of Lunga Point. 

When we came, we came quietly and in the darkness of night. We had not been detected. During this time, it is possible that Henry wrote what he may have worried was his last letter home. The reality of what these young men were facing began to hit them. This wasn’t practiced anymore. This was the real thing. I’m sure that thought was whispered a thousand times over as the ships passed quietly through the ocean off of Guadalcanal. Everything was quiet for a while, leaving many anxious men alone with nothing but their thoughts to occupy them. Until 6:13 AM, that is, when the big guns of the USS Quincy suddenly and violently opened up. Shortly afterward, the USS Australia did the same. And then another ship, and another ship, and another until the whole sea seemed to shake with the energy and overwhelming power of war. Henry probably stood up from wherever he had been sitting and watched the show of firepower with a mix of awe and terror. After all, it wasn’t like they would be landing with big naval cannons in their arms. All they would have was a rifle and some hand grenades.

Henry would be loaded into his landing craft around 7:00 or 8:00 AM, and his fate was sealed. There was no turning back now. A young man from Malden, a town of no particular note or importance, a young man whose life up until this point had been relatively normal, a young man who would raise a family in our town of Reading, was about to go to war. The gate of the landing craft fell open around 9:00 AM and the Marines of the 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division hit the sand. They met no opposition.

Combat Group B proceeded as had been planned, moving through the ranks of Combat Group A and cutting inland, hoping that they could keep the Japanese soldiers in the area from escaping through the mountains. Still, by the afternoon of August 7, no contact with the enemy had been made. On August 8, Combat Group A proceeded through open land along the shore while Combat Group B struggled through the jungle. After crossing the Lunga River, some of the forward elements of the Marines met their first enemies but the skirmish was small and quickly won by the Marines. While this was taking place, Company B of the 1st Marine Regiment was making their way through the plains east of the airfield that the Americans so badly needed, and by 4:00 PM, had possession of the airdrome after only coming across one enemy patrol. 

Something was brewing out in the ocean now. The Japanese were planning to ambush the US Navy offshore, in the hope that this might cause the Navy to retreat, leaving the Marines marooned on the beach of Guadalcanal. Sure enough, on August 9, early in the morning, any Marine on the beach of Guadalcanal probably felt his jaw hang open and his heart pound in his chest: the Navy was leaving. They could not afford to take the risk of staying any longer, with the Japanese bearing down on them. When the Navy left, they also brought with them hundreds and hundreds of pounds of supplies that the 1st Marine Division had not been able to unload yet. 

As the Navy steamed out of the area, they were intercepted by Japanese ships. We lost many men that day, and we lost many ships that day. But above all else, we lost morale. Those Marines on Guadalcanal could hear the battle from miles away. They knew something was wrong. By some miracle, though, the commander of the Japanese fleet did not have the balls to move and attack the transports that were still in the area. If he had, many historians agree that the 1st Marine Division would have been completely cut off and surrounded. There was one little silver lining to all of this, though: the airfield had been captured and completed by the Americans. 

In the days following the Navy’s hasty departure, the Marines on Guadalcanal began constructing defenses and determining what area would be covered by who. It was decided that Henry’s 1st Marine Regiment would cover the area from the Lunga River to the Tenaru River. On August 12, a Japanese prisoner who was interrogated informed the Marines that many of the Japanese soldiers in the area were wandering about without food and may be willing to surrender. A patrol was sent out to offer the Japanese soldiers in the area a chance to surrender. Three Marines returned. The rest had been killed. No remains were found. That same day, A Company of the 1st Marine Regiment came upon a group of Japanese officers and 30 enlisted men. They were able to take out all of them. On one of the enlisted men’s bodies, papers were found stating that the Japanese would be attacking the 1st Marine’s flank.

All was quiet until August 21 at 3:10 AM, when 200 Japanese troops began attempting to cross the sand bar at the mouth of the Tenaru River to form up for a bayonet assault on the 2nd Battalion 1st Marine Regiment that was holding that sector. Henry Andrew Brodecki was a part of the 2nd Battalion 1st Marine Regiment. 

I can almost picture it in my mind. You should try it too. Laying in a foxhole, trying desperately to get some sleep. Surrounded by darkness. Perhaps there’s a comrade in the foxhole with you on watch. Or are you just sleeping with one eye closed? Suddenly the guy in the next foxhole starts whispering to you. 

“Hey, Henry! Wake up, wake up! They’re coming!” he says.

Your eyes lazily open, process what he has said, and widen. Your knuckles are white but no one else can see them since they are covered in dirt. You look around. Do you dare peek over the foxhole? You decide that yes, you will. You check that your M1 Garand is ready to go and you slowly begin to crawl over to the edge of your foxhole. A guy next to you yells with some authority, “Open fire! Open fire!” 

All around you, the sounds of rifles begin to go off. Two hundred Japanese soldiers are standing before you. But can you fire? Can you do it? A machine gun next to you opens up and begins tearing through Japanese soldiers as though they are tissue paper. 

“G Company, on me! On me! Get over here, we need to push them back,” yells a familiar voice from your left. You move down the shallow trench towards your NCO as he explains the plan.

Henry’s G Company was able to push the Japanese back across the Tenaru River and the 2nd Battalion had held the bank for the rest of the night. Apparently, there had been about 800 Japanese soldiers in the area that night, and 130 of them actually survived. What a relief it must have been for Henry once he realized that he had survived. The Marines on Guadalcanal would not see any major combat until September but the 1st Marine Division was not closely involved. By late September, though, much of the 1st Marine Division’s troops had begun to succumb to various tropical illnesses and ailments. Additional reinforcements could no longer wait. The men on Guadalcanal needed help, and they needed it now.

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