On August 7, 1942, Marine Cpl. Dorris Wayne Hamilton, 19, a 6-foot lad from Quail, Texas, and his outfit, HDQ. Co. 2nd Battalion, 2nd Regiment, 1st Marine Division (reinforced) were been told their mission: Land on Tulagi, one of the many small islands composing the Solomon chain, and clear it of Japanese resistance. Other units would land simultaneously on Gavutu, Florida, and Tanambogo. The larger force under Maj. Gen. Alexander A. Vandergriff, Commander of the 1st Marine Division, would land on Guadalcanal. God favors the bold and strong of heart, Vandergriff was fond of saying. The overall objective was to seize the airfield being built there by Japanese.
Hamilton, loaded with full combat pack and ammo, swung his well oiled .02 Springfield rifle over his shoulder and scrambled down the cargo net on the side of U.S.S. President Hayes and into a Higgins landing boat. From a distance, the green-canopied looked like paradise, but, beneath swaying coconut trees and thick foliage were mosquitoes, malaria, leeches, fungi, jungle rot and well-trained Japanese soldiers. The Japanese 8th Fleet was bearing down on the unsuspecting Marines.
Hamilton's outfit rushed ashore on Tulagi and fanned out. "We found very little resistance", he says. "The Japanese were masters at digging holes. They had cut a trench through a hilly range and dug back into the hills. The biggest problems was getting them out." This was accomplished with TNT - gasoline explosives. By nightfall on August 8, Tulagi was in Marine hands.
"The bodies began to smell and we piled them in the trenches they had dug and burned them," Hamilton says. "We didn't have the equipment to bury them and didn't know if they were diseased."
The Japanese 8th Fleet struck the unsuspecting Americans, still unloading supplies on Guadalcanal beach, in what was to become one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the U.S. Navy. "I could see the flashes of the big guns," Hamilton recalls. "They lit up the whole skyline."
Hamilton and Marines located on Tulagi, Gavutu, Florida and Tanambogo were ferried over to Guadalcanal where the forces were consolidated. The Navy, having lost four cruisers and 1,023 men in the dark, shark-infested waters withdrew an abandoning 16,000 Marines to fend for themselves. They had 37 days of food supplies and four days of ammo.
The Marines, temporarily isolated on the 90-by-30 mile jungle island, encircled the air strip they named Henderson Field and dug in. They meant to hold.
Hamilton spent many miserable nights sleeping on ground soaked almost daily by rain. "The Navy departed with our bedding, sea bags, mosquito netting and food items," he says. "We didn't get restocked for several weeks." Mosquitoes feasted on the wretched leathernecks, infecting them with malaria. "There wasn't enough quinine to treat everyone," he says recalling those desperate days.
Japanese snipers hid in the bushy tops of coconut trees and picked off unsuspecting Marines below. "They wore tennis shoes that separated the large toe from the other so they could climb the trees," Hamilton says. "They were master snipers and could hide among the foliage and trees." American officers removed all insignia of rank. Snipers thought that if the officers were killed, their unit couldn't function. Otherwise, there was little humor, mostly misery. Clothing and boots would rot within a week.
The Japanese landed reinforcements on the far side of Guadalcanal and tried repeatedly to retake Henderson Field. Their naval guns shelled the Americans at will and "Washing Machine Charlie" bombed and strafed daily. Hamilton's outfit was dug in on the east bank of the murky Matanikau River which sliced the island just west of Henderson Field. Their job was to keep the Japanese from crossing.
On the eastern side of the defense perimeter, 900 Japanese soldiers charged across the scum - green Ilu River on August 20 with bayonets fixed. The entrenched Marines burned out machine gun barrels before the savagery ended. It's said that crocodiles fed on the 800 Japanese bodies that lay piled up on the sand bar. Marine losses were 34 dead and 75 wounded.
On September 12, the Japanese launched another major attack against Henderson Field, this time through the jungles from the south. Holding the grassy ridges south of the air field was Lt. Col. Merritt Edson's First Raider Battalion. The Japanese made repeated assaults to dislodge the Marines but were repulsed at the loss of 6,000. Marine losses were 31 killed, 103 wounded. Henderson Field was saved and the "Battle of Bloody Ridge" became one of the most famous of the war.
Hamilton sat in his squalid foxhole on the Matanikau River peering into the darkness and listening to the chirping of jungle night creatures. When the chorusing stopped, it meant the Japanese were coming. The river was no more than 30 feet wide and when the Japanese charged, it would be across the shallow, murky water. Sometimes the Japanese tried to sneak up on the Marines at night.
In spite of the hardships of Guadalcanal, moral was high. The Japanese were good fighters, but not invincible. Except for sniping, they did everything en mass. Separate them from the group they weren't very effective.
Meanwhile, in his foxhole, Hamilton sensed movement in front of him. The night creatures grew silent. He heard the clank of a tank and fingered the trigger of his .02 Springfield and said a silent prayer. The Japanese were coming. Suddenly, a flare illuminated the night. A hoard of Japanese soldiers following a two-man tank charged across the river. The Marines opened up with machine guns, BAR's (Browning Automatic Rifle) and rifle fire, but the Japanese kept coming. "We had to fall back to a secondary defense line, where we dug in beside other Marines waiting there." Hamilton says. "Then we disposed of the Japanese," he says, not caring to add details.
Hamilton became ill with Malaria. "I had fever, chills and ached and jerked all over," he says. "It was impossible to get warm." Too sick to fight, he was evacuated to Silverstream Hospital, New Zealand and after a two-month confinement, sailed for home on Bloomfontaine a Dutch ship, its hold filled with New Zealand wool.
Guadalcanal was secured by the Americans on February 9, 1943. It was a brutal campaign and the Marines longest battle of the war. Japanese losses were 23,000 dead. Approximately 1,600 Americans had been killed and 4,709 wounded. It's said when the Marines loaded ship to leave Guadalcanal, many were unable to climb the nets and had to be carried aboard. They were ill with dysentery, fever, fungus infections and virtually all were sick with malaria.
Radio Tokyo referred to the First Marine Division as the "Guadalcanal Butchers."