Stabilizing the Pacific
Ahead there was only darkness. They moved into position, following the man in front of them, doing as they were told by their officers. Swiftly, like ghosts in the night, they stepped through the soft soil and the decaying leaves. No matter where they went they could feel the sweat cling to their skin and the mosquitoes attacking their limbs and faces. Swift precision and precise commands directed them. They filed into place, checked their weapons, said a prayer for their families and for their Emperor. Ahead lay only darkness but they knew what was out there. They knew the Americans lay in wait. The invaders had come to their world, had attacked their comrades, had driven off their troops, had shown themselves to be as the government had told them-the colonizers from the Western world, which threatened the greatness of the empire blessed by the sun and protected by the divine winds. These Americans they had not seen for the darkness was around them as a great shroud before a great fight but they knew in their hearts that these invaders could not stand up to the fighting men of the Emperor's legions. The Americans were weak, unmotivated, and unskilled. All they had to do was cross the dark area ahead, spring upon the enemy, have faith in their great heaven-ordained cause, and the battle would be over and won. Ahead there was only darkness and as a soft breeze blew silently through the deep forests there was a command, a swift motion, and as they went forward the darkness lifted and a thousand bright fires opened as one.
Over seven hundred men of the Ichiki Detachment-the 28th Infantry-lay dead in front of the lines. The Marines had held and they had done their jobs very well. The Battle of the Tenaru River was over even as the fighting for Guadalcanal continued. The First Marine Division-"the Old Breed," as they were called-had landed on this island in the South Pacific on August 7, 1942, heralding the US's offensive in that theater of the war. Despite achieving complete tactical surprise, the Marine landing was still harassed by Japanese planes, which worried the Navy so much that they left the First Division on Guadalcanal without completing the unloading of equipment and supplies. Stranded on the island without support and deep in Japanese-held territory, the Marines made a good showing, using confiscated enemy provisions and strengthening their position around a captured airfield-later named Henderson Field. Their parameter was attacked repeatedly from August 20 until September 18, when a new regiment of Marines-the 7th-arrived to give the commanding officer, Marine General Alexander Vandegrift a fighting force of almost 20,000 men. As Marines advanced, they fought a number of savage engagements with the enemy as Japanese supply problems began to grow. By the end of 1942, fresh U.S. troops were thrown in and two months later the Japanese were forced to withdraw-their defensive parameter in the South Pacific breached.
Among the several thousand U.S. troops, who had survived the ordeal were three Bowdoin men-Andrew A. Haldane, Everett P. Pope, and Richard C. Hanson, for former two from the Class of 1941 and the latter from the Class of 1942. Hanson found time in November to write back to Dean Paul Nixon, describing the island. "The weather is clear and sunny most of the time," he wrote, "with the temperature well in the hundreds every day. We have a cool sea breeze all the time have which means you don't feel it a great deal." Attempting to capture some aspect of Marine life and life on the frontlines of the war, he further noted, "Leadership and courage outrank any artificial rank. Life is unhampered by monetary, social and sexual jealousies." In closing, Hanson encouraged Nixon to advertise the Marine Corps to other Bowdoin men: "In your next chapel address, if anyone shows up for it, give the Marines a boost and tell them we need some real honest to God men out here. Never a dull moment."
But there was never a dull moment in other branches of the armed forces as well. Following the fall of Guadalcanal, U.S. planners began to eye the Japanese air base at Rabaul on the eastern side of New Britain Island. It was to this end that Pacific commanders sent the First Marine Division against Cape Gloucester on New Britain and the Third Marine Division against the island of Bougainville-a "stepping stone" towards Rabaul, which was just over 200 miles away. On November 1, 1943, Marines stormed the beaches of Bougainville and came under heavy Japanese defensive fire. This engagement at Empress Augusta Bay was defended on the seas by ships under the overall command of Admiral Aaron S. Merrill, which included eight destroyers of Destroyer Squadron 23-known as the "Little Beavers"-commanded by Captain Arleigh Burke. On November 2, 1943, as the Marines on the island pushed to expand their parameter and establish an airfield, Merrill's forces engaged Admiral Sentaro Omori's four cruisers and six destroyers, bent on disrupting the landings.
Burke's destroyers were in the lead during this engagement. One of them was the U.S.S. Spence, which took a hit aft as the fighting climaxed. As seawater poured in, it mixed with engine fuel severely reducing the Spence's fighting ability. Into this crisis jumped Bowdoin graduate Robert Bernard Fox of the Class of 1938. Lieutenant Fox, despite the danger of fuel eruption and enemy fire, rushed in and supervised the damage control operations of the Spence. His actions showed when the Spence's battle capacity was restored.
The ship, despite its wound continued in the engagement, sinking one enemy destroyer and crippling another. Fox later received a Bronze Star Medal for his courage under fire, which resulted in the U.S. victory-the Japanese force having failed to disrupt the Marine landings. When asked about his participation in the affair, Fox did not say much, noting, "Well, it was like this-there was a little hole in the ship and the captain thought it should be fixed so I humored him and fixed it."
U.S. strength in the Pacific continued to rise as 1944 dawned. The big battles of the region, however were yet to come.