Contents - Hirohito's War
16 Guadalcanal: Battle of Edson’s (Bloody) Ridge
[August 1942–November 1942]
[Maps: 16.1, 16.2, 16.3]
Air War over Besieged Henderson Field (p 473) Skirmishes and Reconnaissance (p 475) The Battle of Edson’s (Bloody) Ridge (p 476) Interlude: The War of Supply and Logistics (p 481) The Sinking of USS Wasp (p 484) Renewed Bombing of Rabaul (p 486) New Japanese Commanders: Lieutenant-General Hyakutake and Vice-Admiral Kusaka (p 488) Nimitz Replaces Vice-Admiral Ghormley with Vice-Admiral Halsey (p 488)
Air War over Besieged Henderson Field: In the air battles over Henderson Field starting on 20 August, the Japanese had held the upper hand in the early encounters. Armed at first with eighteen Grumman F4F Wildcats and five Bell P-400s (an older export version of the P-39 Airacobra, which was lightly armed with a single Hispano-Suiza 20 mm cannon in the nose and four wing-fitted 0.30 caliber machine guns) Marine Brigadier- General Alexander Vandegrift’s fighters had found themselves hopelessly outmatched. Saburo Sakai and his colleagues’ Zeros had outfought the Wildcat in the early engagements over Henderson Field. The P-400 was even more mismatched. They lacked superchargers and could only fly at between 10,000 to 12,000 feet because there were no high-pressure oxygen tanks available on Guadalcanal; it was a ceiling below that at which Japanese bombers and Zero fighters could operate.
Within six days of their arrival in the Solomons only three out of the original eighteen Wildcats were operational. Airacobras, useless in aerial combat, were converted to ground attack aircraft. Fortunately at the end of the month Rear-Admiral John McCain supplied nineteen more Wildcats and twelve more Douglas Dauntless dive-bombers led by Major Robert Galer. They arrived on 30 August while a dogfight was raging over Henderson Field. Galer’s Wildcats immediately pitched in, while the dive-bombers headed for the airfield. From now on there would be a constant battle to resupply Vandegrift’s ‘Cactus’ Air Force (as it became known after the code word for Guadalcanal) before its stock of planes was diminished by combat loss and accidents—on Henderson Field’s muddy, bomb crater pocked runways, landing and take-off were extremely hazardous.
By early September Vandegrift had eighty-six pilots and sixty-four planes: 3 Army, 10 Navy and 51 Marines. Nevertheless the Japanese were winning the arms race. On the same day that Galer arrived on Guadalcanal, Rabaul received fifty-eight replacement aircraft. Furthermore the short range of his aircraft prevented Vandegrift from interdicting Japanese destroyers that were speeding down the ‘Slot’ each night at dusk and speeding back before dawn. The range handicap of Vandegrift’s aircraft enabled Japanese destroyers to feed fresh troops onto Guadalcanal while giving Henderson Field a pounding for good measure.
On 31 August Rear-Admiral John ‘Slew’ McCain, a naval aviator appointed COMAIRS OPAC (Commander of Air South Pacific), made his first visit to Guadalcanal. Vandegrift opened his only bottle of bourbon in his honor. As they drank, Japanese