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World: Patch of Destiny

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A quiet, middle-aged man sat down to write his wife a letter. He began: “Have been so busy last few days, no time to write. . . .”

Most military men are given to understatement, but not many have written as modestly as this. The author of the terse sentence was Major General Alexander Archer Vandegrift, Commander of the Marines in the Solomons, and he certainly had been busy. At 55, he had been climbing up & down cargo nets like a 25-year-old. He had lowered his high rank into damp foxholes. He had eaten captured Jap rice for want of anything better. Like his men, he had slapped anopheles mosquitoes, swum naked in the Lunga River.

He had, moreover, led the U.S. Marines in the toughest job they ever did.

Archer Vandegrift was still busy this week, and the eyes of much of the world focused on his business. To most outsiders, his Solomon Islands battle has grown from an interesting little adventure in offense into a clash which may vitally affect the whole war. For the Japanese are now committed to trying to retake what he took from them. The U.S. is equally committed to holding on, and eventually taking more.

The Battle Begins. The clash of intent led this week to battle. The Japanese began a coordinated land, sea and air attack.

First they felt out the U.S. defenses to the west of the beachhead, in a series of light attacks. The Marines held. Then the Japs struck hard on that quarter, with artillery and tanks for the first time. The Marines held. Next the Japs swept down from the hills to the south of the camp. The Marines held.

Then hell fell on the beachhead. In mid-morning a fence of enemy cruisers and destroyers shelled it from the north. Douglas dive-bombers went up and damaged a heavy cruiser. Then 16 enemy dive-bombers, which must have been carrier-based, attacked Henderson Field. Five were shot down. Nine more Jap divers swooped in. This time they did damage.

U.S. flyers—Marines and Naval aviators from Guadalcanal and Army heavy bombers from Espiritu Santo—struck at the enemy. They damaged one heavy and one light cruiser. Next day the carrier task forces met. A U.S. carrier was severely damaged, a destroyer sunk. U.S. flyers damaged two Japanese carriers.

Thus began the real battle of the Solomons, a battle of violent determination on the part of both adversaries, one which might swing the entire war in the Pacific.

The Urgency. How could it be so important to battle for a three-by-eight-mile patch of meadow, jungle and coconut grove in an economically worthless island just across the way from nowhere?

In the first place, the Marines’ beachhead on Guadalcanal is important by the mere fact of its having been the first offensive U.S. battlefield against the Japs. It has become the vortex of a naval whirlpool which may easily engulf either adversary. But beyond that it is a geographic key. If the U.S. loses Guadalcanal, the Japanese can press on with relative ease, take the whole chain of islands down through the New Hebrides to New Caledonia (see map), and then have only the narrow moat of the Coral Sea between them and Australia. But if the U.S. holds Guadalcanal, and can force its way up the chain as far as Rabaul, then the Allies will have a series of bases from which to build a major offensive against the Japs.

To the U.S., therefore, Archer Vande-grift’s tiny patch of warfare is destiny. It can mean the difference between vigorous offense and weary defense in the Pacific, perhaps between beating the Japs in two years and in ten.

The Differences. Guadalcanal may be lost, but its loss will not be like that of Bataan. There are more continental U.S. troops—including recently arrived Army forces—on Guadalcanal than there ever were on Bataan. The Japs apparently do not yet have three-to-one superiority classically thought necessary for certain success. On Guadalcanal, U.S. forces have had absolute air superiority—maintained though it has been under primitive, improvised conditions. Most important of all, Guadalcanal is not an encircled bastion “there is a solid, though terribly long, supply line between it and its U.S. arsenal.

On Land: Killing or Being Killed. Land fighting on Guadalcanal is unlike any other fighting in this war. The terrain around the flat beachhead is unique. It consists of high, steep ridges covered with chest-high grass, alternating with valleys choked with jungle. The Japanese cling, animallike, to the jungle. The Marines prefer the ridges, from which their weapons, particularly artillery, can dominate the valleys. But they go down into the tangle to hunt out their prey.

The Japanese depend much on stealth, craft, deception. Sometimes they attack in mass, screaming. At other times they infiltrate singly, silent as little panthers. Snipers, who hide as well as they did in the Philippines, wear pole-climbers’ jacks. The Japs advance with a white flag then toss grenades. Some wear machine guns strapped to their backs and crouch down while comrades fire the weapons. They often use English. They catch names and will shout: “Mr. Manning, withdraw!” A Marine far out in front and reporting by “walkie-talkie” wireless was asked how things stood. The Japs were horning in, for the answer came in precise, clipped English: “My position is excellent, thank you.”

The Marines, on the whole, use more straightforward, slam-bang methods. Much has been made of the fact that they take very few prisoners. That is not due to innate brutality; it is simply a matter of killing or being killed.

Up to this week the Marines had killed five times as many men as they had lost. This they had done in three battles and many minor patrols. The first took place to the east of the beach head when a whole battalion of Japs tried to force the Tenaru River across a narrow spit (TIME, Sept. 28). Machine guns and tanks caught them, and 670 bodies were found in the jungle and on the sand. Later 120 more bodies washed in from the sea. The second battle came in mid-September, when the Japs tried to force Lunga Ridge to the South, nearly succeeded in taking the airfield, but were finally stopped. Nearly 500 were killed. The third battle, in which the Marines took the initiative for the first time, was last fortnight: they caught the Japs, as they prepared to attack the beach head from the Matanikau River to the west, and forced them back ten miles. In the process 200 were killed. In the Air: Shoestring Magnificence.

On Guadalcanal U.S. air power has been a shoestring magnificence. U.S. planes operate from a runway built by the Japs. The planes are maintained by mechanics who work blacked out under ponchos with flashlights. The pilots go out on two or three missions a day. They sleep out a chunk of each night in foxholes. They never complain. And they always win. So far U.S. pilots have shot down more than 400 Jap planes. In August 1940, when the Battle of Britain was at its height, the R.A.F. shot down 1,091 German planes—but they were meeting hundreds of planes a day. Proportionately, the Solomons’ record has probably been more spectacularly one-sided.

Marine pilots fly Navy planes: the chunky, tough, not-too-fast SBD for dive-bombing and scouting missions; the plucky little Grumman F4F for fighting (a winner every time if it can get enough initial altitude); the versatile, though somewhat delicate, TBF for torpedo missions and glide-bombing. Supporting the Marine squadrons have been Naval squadrons and Army pilots.

Their opposition, so far, has not been Japan’s best. Some spot observers believe that the Japs lost so many first line pilots and planes—at Midway and in the inconclusive naval clash in which the Ryuzyo was possibly sunk late in August (see below)—that they have had to send green flyers against Guadalcanal. Planes shot down there have carried 1942 manufacturers’ stamps. Zeros encountered there are of an inferior design.

U.S. air power has been growing in the area. Heavy bombers have begun to operate from New Caledonia and the New Hebrides, as well as from General MacArthur’s sphere in Australia and New Guinea, across the incredibly inefficient and arbitrary line dividing Army-Navy command in the area (see map). The Army has recently delighted the Navy by taking to low-level attacks. High-level “precision” bombing has not been too precise in the Pacific. Last week heavy bombers went into Rabaul at mast level, and sank or damaged ten ships.

Up to this week the airmen on Henderson Field had the upper hand. But Henderson Field—and the Army’s distant bases—made up only a part of the Jap v. U.S. air ratio. The Japs might bring up their superior carrier strength, and this they apparently did this week.

At Sea: Logistics. The Pacific war is one of logistics, and so Archer Vande-grift’s most constant worry has been about supply. At no time has he had quite enough of anything.

Not only in the realm of supply, but in its counterpart—interdicting the enemy’s lines—the U.S. Navy has not given Archer Vandegrift the support he needs. The Japanese have landed troops on Guadalcanal almost at will; they have shelled the U.S. positions from the sea.

General Vandegrift would probably be the first to understand the Navy’s deficiencies in the Solomons campaign. The Navy’s local high command entered the struggle with a Midway picture in mind: it expected the Japanese to be drawn into a carrier task-force battle. Instead, the Japanese, who had learned a bitter lesson at Midway, started tactics of infiltration by sea. Only once, on Aug. 24-25, the Japanese seemed to have fallen into the trap. U.S. forces located a Japanese task force, possibly sank the small carrier Ryuzyo, hit several cruisers and a battleship, possibly hit another carrier, but not without losses.

The Japanese intensified their naval guerrilla tactics, both on the surface and with submarines, and for a month the U.S. Navy did not recognize or counter them. It held carrier forces in readiness for further battles, cruising up & down in narrow waters infested with enemy submarines. Losses were inevitable, and no damage was inflicted on the enemy by naval task forces.

The Japs, meanwhile, were whittling down U.S. strength. In the first days of the campaign they surprised and sank the U.S. cruisers Vincennes, Astoria and Quincy and the Australian cruiser Canberra (TIME, Oct. 26) in a night assault which will take many months of explaining. The Japs also jumped up and destroyed at least three of the little converted destroyers which were doing valiant service as Marine transports.

When they thought they had worn down U.S. strength sufficiently by these sea-guerrilla tactics, the Japs came, in their own good time, in full force.

Knuckle-Swinger Up. Last week the Navy fixed responsibility. Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley was relieved of his command of the entire operation. In his place, as Commander of the South Pacific, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. went to work. Admiral Halsey, who looks saltier than sodium chloride, is known throughout the Navy as a tough, aggressive, restless man. He led the brilliant attack on the Marshall Islands in January, commanded other hit-&-run raids.

But even a knuckle-swinger like Admiral Halsey was helpless to sustain General Vandegrift unless the strategy-makers far behind the lines had received their Pacific estimates and allocated more materials. One air group, which would be just a drop in the barrel in Europe, could have helped win many more skirmishes on Guadalcanal by affording much-needed relief for tired men and worn planes.

Assistant on His Own. Archer Vandegrift does not fit the picture of a rip-roaring Marine officer. Most of his 33 years of service were spent as a quiet, efficient, unspectacular assistant to other men, an unegoistic alter ego.

His first and longest-standing boss was fiery, bombastic Smedley D. Butler, famed soldier-orator of the last generation (TIME, June 20, 1927). Vandegrift served with Old Gimlet Eye at Leon and Coyotepe Hill in Nicaragua; landed with him at Veracruz; fought with him in Haiti; helped pacify the Chinese Nationalists in Shanghai and Tientsin, in the late ’20s. Through these years he was the apple of Old Gimlet Eye’s eye, and earned himself the nickname of Sunny Jim.

Most of his other big jobs were as a helping hand. In 1937 he became first secretary, then assistant, to the Major General Commandant of the Marine Corps, Thomas Holcomb. Last spring his friend, Major General Philip H. Torrey, asked for him as assistant division commander of the First Marine Division, then in training at New River, N.C.

At last General Vandegrift fell heir to command of the Division. Very soon he set out, completely on his own, to lead the most important adventure in Marine Corps history, an attack which even Old Gimlet Eye would have worried about.

But in the Solomons this quiet, even-tempered other-man’s man has proved to be thoroughly self-sufficient. Never unduly excited, always cheerful, he has instilled confidence and loyalty in his men, both high in the staff and low in the ranks. He himself has been sustained by a splendid physique, a totem-pole patience, and a love of home surpassing most men’s. He writes faithfully to his brown-eyed, sweetly determined wife, Mildred, who, during the depression, was not above going to work for Sears, Roebuck. He talks proudly of his only son, Archer Jr., now a Major of Marines stationed at Quantico. And he remembers, in the damp heat of Guadalcanal, how he used to mow the lawn back in Washington’s Foxhall Village, and how he used to sit by the fire in the evenings settling the world with his friend, Commentator Fulton Lewis Jr.

One evening back there General Vandegrift remarked that Stonewall Jackson was his favorite general. When Fulton Lewis asked him why, he said: “He could do so much with so little.” With so very little to back him up in the Solomons, General Vandegrift was called upon to carry a terrific load, and to do much that might turn the balance of Pacific warfare. If he succeeded, it was because of a quality which he suggested in a message to his own men:

The fight was carried to the enemy at all times and in all places, and he was driven from every place he held by the resolute attack of men who were not afraid to die. God favors the bold and strong of heart.

Destiny. The issue, in the Solomons, has grown far bigger than a beachhead. The issue, symbolically if not actually, is the Pacific. And in the Pacific Japan’s naval power is superior to that of the U.S. Now that Japan has chosen to try another Midway, with a nearly overwhelming force, the U.S. might not again have the luck which gave it victory at Midway.

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