Steel on Target: Armor in the Pacific War

by Michael L. Kelley

When U.S. Marine Corps 2LT E.J. Sweeney landed part of his 3rd Tank Platoon on Tanambogo Island in the opening stages of the Guadalcanal campaign, he probably had no idea he was making Marine Corps history. His small element of two M3A1 light tanks was the first U.S. armored force to assault Japanese territory during Operation Watchtower, the Allied offensive in the Solomon Islands.

Map: Guadalcanal.

On the evening of Aug. 8, 1942, Sweeney was ordered to support Company I, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines (I/3/2), for an amphibious landing to reinforce 1st Parachute Battalion. The 1st Parachute Battalion was engaged in deadly combat with more than 500 Japanese troops of the Yokohama Air Group, 3rd Kure Special Naval Landing Force and 14th Construction Unit on Gavutu and Tanambogo islands.

Map: Tanambogo and Gavutu islands.

The Japanese had established a seaplane and naval base on the islands and had constructed a complex of fortified caves and machinegun bunkers, which they had zeroed in on the beachhead. Just before landing on the island, the U.S.S. San Juan and U.S.S. Buchanan hit the Japanese with a naval bombardment, setting many of the small structures on fire and knocking down hundreds of coconut trees. When Item Company and Sweeney’s tanks made their amphibious assault on the beachhead, they came under heavy enemy fire from caves and machinegun pillboxes on Hill 121. Squads of infantrymen advanced behind the two tanks as they rumbled forward toward the enemy. Smoke and haze drifted across the beachhead, the result of naval gunfire. Fallen coconut trees and destroyed buildings littered the landscape as the two tanks advanced. Both Sweeney, in Tank 11, and SGT Leon Richardt, in Tank 14, had surged ahead of their supporting infantry squads and were without any covering fire.

Photo: An M3A1 light tank gains the beachhead at Guadalcanal.

Sweeney had difficulty seeing where he was going, as the small vision slots inside the tank limited his sight. Due to a lack of communication between the infantry and the tanks, Sweeney and Richardt were unaware of the loss of their infantry support. As they plunged toward the enemy with all guns blazing, the lieutenant opened his commander’s hatch and stuck his head out for a better look around to get his bearings. A Japanese sniper shot him in the head and he fell back into the tank, gravely wounded. His driver then stopped the tank and placed it in reverse, backing it up all the way to the beachhead to get a corpsman for his wounded commander. Unfortunately, Sweeney had died of his wound.

Meanwhile, Richardt had also stopped his tank and tried to back up, but his tank became hung up when he drove over a large tree stump and got stuck. Suddenly a swarm of Japanese jumped out of their foxholes and bunkers and charged the crippled tank. They threw gasoline on it and set it on fire. Richardt opened his commander’s hatch and began firing his .45-caliber sub-machinegun at the enemy around his tank. The Marine infantry also poured rifle and machinegun fire at the attacking Japanese, killing 42. One Japanese soldier managed to throw a hand grenade into the open hatch and it exploded, igniting the high-octane aviation fuel and ammunition inside the tank. The explosion killed Richardt and his gunner. The other two men managed to escape from the burning tank but were set upon by the Japanese and severely beaten and stabbed. The two badly burned survivors played dead and, during the night, crawled back to the beachhead, where they were evacuated for medical care.

The next day – after airstrikes from dive bombers off the carrier U.S.S. Wasp and more naval gunfire support – infantry of 1st Parachute Battalion and 3/2 Marines stormed the enemy defenses with handheld explosives and hand grenades. The U.S. troops blew up caves and machinegun bunkers one by one in close, bloody, hand-to-hand fighting until they had killed most of the stubborn Japanese troops. More than 500 Japanese lay dead when the operation was finished, with a loss of 122 Americans, both Marines and sailors. The tankers of 3rd Platoon, Company C, 2nd Tank Battalion, and the infantrymen of 3/2 Marines learned a hard lesson on armored/infantry warfare. Their ferocious enemy had no fear of tanks or American infantry, and the lack of coordination between the tanks and infantry resulted in unfortunate consequences. This was not their fault. Before the war began, the Marine Corps had failed to conduct a joint training program between the armored forces and the infantry. These Marines had to learn the tactics by on-the-job training.

Photo: U.S. Army infantrymen support a U.S. Marine Corps M3 Stuart in the Central Solomon Islands.

Guadalcanal main landings

As the infantry were assaulting the smaller islands of Gavutu, Tanambogo and Florida, the main landings on the large island of Guadalcanal began with very little enemy resistance. Most of the 2,800 Japanese forces on the big island were construction personnel and Korean laborers who were building an airfield at Lunga Point. After the naval bombardment preceding the landings, the Japanese fled into the jungle, leaving behind their equipment and tons of supplies, especially food stocks.

Under humid tropical conditions, the Americans went to work unloading their transport ships of military cargo, shuttling loads between the ships and the shore by amphibious landing craft. The infantry battalions took up positions in a large perimeter around Lunga Point, securing the airfield, which the Marines named Henderson Airfield after one of their pilots killed in the naval battle at Midway.

MG Alexander Vandegrift, 1st Marine Division commander, ordered all his armored forces to deploy in reserve positions to defend the 20-mile perimeter and repulse any attack on Henderson Airfield. The 1st Tank Battalion, consisting of companies A and B, equipped with obsolete M2A4 and M3 light tanks, took up their defense positions around the new base.

In the early morning hours of Aug. 9, a large Japanese naval task force sailed to Guadalcanal and attacked the Allied fleet near Savo Island and, in the darkness, sunk five ships and threatened to destroy Operation Watchtower. Eventually the U.S. Navy prevailed and brought in more warships and reinforcements to defend Guadalcanal.

Map: Americans beat back COL Kiyonao Ichiki’s attack at Alligator Creek, 1942, in the first big battle involving 1st Tank Battalion.

The first big battle involving 1st Tank Battalion occurred Aug. 21 when an 800-man Japanese force led by COL Kiyonao Ichiki of 28th Regiment landed on the coast 40 miles from Henderson Airfield and marched all night to reach the Marines’ eastern perimeter. The Japanese and Americans clashed at a place called Alligator Creek, not far from the Tenaru and Ilu rivers, where 2/1 Marines and 1st Special Weapons Battalion had set up their defense positions. The creek was a stagnant, crocodile-infested stream about 30 yards wide. A large sandbar formed at the mouth of the stream where it met the ocean. It was a natural crossing point to the Marine perimeter.

Vandegrift placed his 1/1 Marines in reserve to back up the 2/1. Division artillery was registered in a coconut grove, which was on the opposite side of the stream from the Marines. A platoon of light tanks from Company B was placed in reserve, ready to deploy forward.

At 3:10 a.m., 200 Japanese charged out of the pre-dawn darkness, screaming at the Marines as they charged over the sandbar, led by Ichiki waving his samurai sword. The Japanese ran into the barbed wire set up by the Marines and became entangled. The Marines opened fire with .30-caliber machineguns, 81mm mortars, 03 rifles and 37mm guns, which fired deadly canister rounds similar to large shotgun buckshot shells. They cut down the Japanese like a carnival duck shoot. A few of the enemy managed to get through the wire and penetrate the perimeter, resulting in deadly hand-to-hand combat with bayonets. Across the stream, the Japanese began to fire their Type 97 81mm mortars and Nambu light and heavy machineguns from the coconut grove, their fire sweeping over the Marine perimeter, killing some Marines and knocking out a few machinegun and 37mm gun positions. The firefight lasted the rest of the night as artillery of 3/11 Regiment bombarded the enemy. At dawn, the sandbar was littered with the bodies of dead Japanese.

A few hours later, 1/1 Regiment was sent forward to outflank Ichiki’s rear. Four tanks (M2A4 and M3) from Company B were deployed to support 1/1. One tank quickly became bogged down in the swamp-like streambed. The Japanese took it under fire. Another tank became stuck in a ditch. SGT John Scarborough of 1st Tank Battalion recalled the scene: “A tank slipped over in an irrigation ditch and could not get out. SGT Mallory had his tank pull up there. He jumped out, grabbed his cable, hooked it onto the other tank and pulled the thing right out. He was awarded the Navy Cross for that action.”

The Ichiki regiment stubbornly defended the coconut grove as 1/1 Marines and the tanks attacked their rear. The tanks were not able to negotiate the muddy stream and had to be withdrawn. Four more tanks, led by LT Leo Case, charged across the sandbar, rolling over dead Japanese and barbed wire, and drove on toward the coconut grove without any infantry support.

War correspondent Richard Tregaskis recorded the scene in his book, Guadalcanal Diary: “A rumbling of powerful motors came from behind us. We turned to find a group of four tanks moving down the trail through the coconut palms heading for the river and the spit of sand across its mouth. We watched these awful machines as they plunged across the spit and into the edge of the grove. It was fascinating to see them bustling among the trees, pivoting, turning, spitting sheets of yellow flame.” They knocked over palm trees and flushed out the Japanese, raking the fleeing figures with their .30-caliber machineguns.

Photo: M2A4 and M3A1 light tanks like these prompted war correspondent Richard Tregaskis to comment that “[i]t was fascinating to see [the tanks] bustling among the trees, pivoting, turning, spitting sheets of yellow flame.”

Case’s tanks rolled forward, firing their machineguns and 37mm main guns, loaded with canister shot, killing large groups of Japanese infantry. It was just like an Old West cavalry charge. They pursued the retreating enemy as they fell back into the grove for shelter from the deadly Marine tank fire. The tanks pushed deeper into the grove, running over some of the Japanese machinegun and mortar positions.

The Japanese disabled one of Case’s tanks, and the other tanks in the platoon came to their rescue. Each tank drove up alongside the damaged tank and took one crewman out of the tank. They did this until all four crewmen were rescued.

On the back side of the grove, 1/1 Regiment began to roll up the rear flank, pushing the enemy forward into the path of the tanks. Ichiki and his men were trapped. As they tried to make a run for the ocean to swim away, the Marine infantry cut them down.

The Marine commander on the scene, COL Clifton Cates, ordered Case to withdraw from the coconut grove. Over the radio came the reply, “Leave us alone, we’re too busy killing Japs!” When the tanks finally pulled out of the grove, the Marines of 1/1 swept forward to mop up the last of the enemy. Some of the Japanese played dead, and when a Marine walked by them, they jumped up and tried to stab the Marine in the back. After that, the Marines shot each Japanese soldier they came across to make sure they were dead. Ichiki burned his regimental flag and committed suicide. About 800 Japanese lay dead on the sandbar and in the coconut grove. Case was awarded a Navy Cross for this outstanding Marine victory, which marked a high point for 1st Tank Battalion on Guadalcanal.

Japanese counter-attack

In mid-September, the Japanese army sent reinforcements to Guadalcanal with a plan to attack the Marine perimeter with more than 5,000 troops to recapture the airfield. The battle plan called for a three-pronged attack, with Oka Force (124th Regiment) attacking the southwestern end of the perimeter. Kuma Force (Ichiki’s 28th Regiment) would attack the eastern perimeter, and 35th Brigade (MG Kiyotaki Kawaguchi) would attack from the south, toward a high ridgeline just south of the airfield, later known as Edson’s Ridge or Bloody Ridge. The ridge battle occurred in an area near the Lunga River. The ridge area had many gullies and was blocked on one end by a swamp. Defending this position on three hills was 1st Parachute Battalion and 1st Raider Battalion, commanded by LT Merritt Edson. The 2/5 Marines were placed in reserve, and a battery of 105mm cannon from 11th Marines was brought up for artillery support. The ridge area was too steep and muddy for armor operations, so the tanks of 2nd Platoon, Company B, 1st tank Battalion, with one tank from Headquarters Platoon, were deployed to support 3/1 Marines on the eastern perimeter near the Ilu River.

The Japanese mounted their assault Sept. 12-14 on the Marine perimeter with their three-pronged tactics. These were massive and strong attacks supported by their light artillery and mortars. The 1st Tank Battalion got into this action when the Japanese launched their attacks on the eastern perimeter against 3/1 Marines. Kuma Force, which was the rest of Ichiki’s old 28th Regiment, crossed the Ilu River and hit the Marines around 10:15 a.m., ambushing a forward listening post and killing all Marines there. After 11 a.m., the battle was on, with the Japanese penetrating the wire and using bayonets to attack the Marines.

Just before dawn, the Japanese withdrew across the river, leaving behind 27 of their troops dead on the perimeter. They did not want to be caught in the daylight and killed by American aircraft and artillery from Henderson Airfield.

The commander of 3/1 Marines deployed Company B tanks the morning of Sept. 14 in pursuit of the Japanese. He did not, however, provide any infantry support to protect the tanks. The tanks advanced toward the enemy through tall kunai grass, firing their machineguns and 37mm guns. They managed to destroy some of the Japanese machinegun positions, but in turn were hit by enemy 37mm anti-tank fire, knocking out three tanks. Scarborough recounted the action: “[It] was bad. The lieutenant was hit in the chest by an armor-piercing shot that pierced the one-inch armor and killed him.”

One of the tanks spotted a Japanese soldier in the kunai grass who was shouting at the tank crew, and the driver drove toward him until the tank ran over the unseen riverbank and fell into the river 20 feet below. The tank landed upside down, and the crew did not make it out. Another tank was disabled. Only two tanks made it back to the infantry. One lost a track about 50 yards from safety and the crew abandoned it.

Most of the tanks destroyed on Guadalcanal were abandoned because the Marines did not have any tank-recovery vehicles to bring them back to base. Some of their hulks still lay in the jungles around Lunga Point. During this action along the Ilu River, Japanese infantry attacked the disabled tanks after their 37mm anti-tank guns shot them up. The enemy set upon the injured and burned crewmen. “Several tanks were disabled,” Scarborough recalled. “We had a captain there, Francis Cooper, B Company commander. He got a tank and ran out there and rescued as many men as he could. Some of them were bayoneted by the Japs. He did a really heroic thing in getting all the men out that he could.”

One eyewitness account by Fred Balester, a member of a Marine reconnaissance platoon who arrived an hour after the battle, describes the scene as he remembers it. “By the time we arrived, it was too late. Fortunately for us, the Japs had already left, and all we found was a pile of Japanese 37mm shell casings neatly piled, four shot-up tanks and one survivor. In looking over the scene, we had to admire the courage and skill of what must have been a very small Jap unit. They had provoked an attack by a much larger force and with one anti-tank gun, wiped out four tanks and got away scot-free. Three of our tanks had been drilled nearly through the turret before they got close to the gun. One tank had made it to the river, but was upside down in the water, so we could not see how it had been hit. One man was left in shock. He said he was the only survivor. He had somehow managed to get out of the burning tank.”

Photo: Marine Corps tankers on guard with their M2A4 tank on Guadalcanal

Once again, the deployment of armor without the protective firepower of infantry proved to be a disaster. Infantry battalion commanders lacked the knowledge and experience of tactical operations using tanks. After the Guadalcanal campaign, the Marine Corps studied lessons-learned from field commanders and realized the need for armor/infantry coordination. Once adopted, the armor/infantry team became highly effective during the Pacific War.

Last Japanese efforts

The Marines received reinforcements in September when 3/2 Marines were sent to the Lunga Point perimeter, along with 3rd Provisional Marine Brigade, 7th Marine Regiment, 1/11th Marines and 71 combat aircraft to Henderson Airfield. The Marines intercepted elements of the Japanese 4th Infantry Regiment landing along the coast Oct. 6 and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy, slowing down their plans for a new offensive. This did not stop the Japanese, however. Over a period of weeks, the Japanese navy infiltrated thousands of fresh troops to Guadalcanal under cover of darkness from their main bases in the Pacific. Americans nicknamed this naval operation “Tokyo Express.”

Photo: Marines and U.S. Army infantry fighting on Guadalcanal received M2A4 and M3 light tanks to help hold against Japanese offensives there.

By mid-October, GEN Harukichi Hyakutake’s 17th Army, located at Kukumbona in the jungle west of the Point Lunga perimeter, formulated a battle plan for annihilating the Marine base. They would launch a two-pronged attack, one on the western perimeter across the Matanikau River, and another from the south, through the jungle, against Henderson Airfield. After hacking their way through trackless jungle, carrying heavy weapons, ammunition and supplies, 2nd Sendia Division arrived outside the Lunga southern perimeter.

Due to poor communication, the first attack was launched prematurely. The Imperial Japanese Army’s 4th Infantry Regiment, supported by nine of 1st Independent Tank Company’s 12 tanks, attacked across the Matanikau River on the evening of Oct. 23, striking 3/1 and 3/7 Marines on the perimeter. (1st Independent was equipped with 10 Type 97 Chi-Ha tanks with 57mm guns and two Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks with 37mm guns.) One Marine later said, “We got the shock of our lives because no one had any idea the Japs had tanks.” The Marines defending the perimeter, along with artillery support, 75mm cannons mounted on M-3 halftracks, 37mm anti-tank guns and various machinegun and rifle squads, repulsed the Japanese surprise attack. All nine tanks were destroyed, along with hundreds of Japanese infantry.

The next day, the main attack from the jungle was launched by elements of 2nd Sendia Division in the vanguard. They struck the defenses of the Lunga Perimeter with about 7,000 troops in suicide frontal attacks against the weary Marine defenders. On the line were 1/7 and 2/7 Marines, reinforced by the newly arrived U.S. Army’s 3rd Battalion, 164th Infantry Regiment. After three nights of jungle battles and battered by massive marine artillery barrages, Hyakutake ordered a retreat of what was left of his forces, now decimated by wounds, tropical disease, malnutrition and exhaustion. The attack on the perimeter had cost the general the lives of more than 3,000 of his men. The Japanese staggered through the jungle, half-dead, trying to reach the safety of their rear base in the Matanikau Valley, west of the Lunga Perimeter.

American forces went into the Matanikau Valley in November to hunt down the retreating enemy, but the Japanese had an interlocked network of strong defenses throughout the area and, although weakened by combat losses and diseases, were still a potent and deadly force. They managed to keep the Americans out of the valley.

For the next six weeks, a stalemate caused a lull in the fighting, and the Japanese used the time to construct a series of fortifications up in the mountains and hills in the western Matanikau Valley. The most formidable fortification was located atop Mount Austen, a 1,500-foot high mountain known as the Gifu. The Japanese had named the complex after the Gifu Prefecture area on Honshu, Japan, where many of the soldiers came from. The Americans called two nearby hills “Sea Horse” and “Galloping Horse.”

Marine and Army patrols into this area met stiff resistance by Japanese defenders. The area was an unlikely place for tank warfare with steep ridges, deep gullies, small rivers and streams, and slippery mud from the weekly rainstorms that saturated the jungle. It was the last place anyone expected to see a tank in action, but that is exactly where the light tanks of 1st Tank Battalion ended up.

By December 1942, 1st Marine Division was worn out by four months of jungle warfare and sick with malaria and malnutrition. Vandegrift was ordered to redeploy his Marines from Guadalcanal to Australia for some well-deserved rest and recuperation. New American forces arrived to take over the battle. The 2nd Marine Division, the U.S. Army’s Americal Division and 25th Infantry Division were organized as XIV Corps under the command of GEN Alexander Patch.

Patch saw the Matanikau Valley complex as a threat to the Lunga Perimeter’s security. He began a series of assaults into the valley, first deploying the Americal Division to attack the Japanese in the rugged jungle mountains. This effort soon evolved into a “meat grinder” operation with high casualty rates and little progress, very similar to World War I trench warfare. Medical evacuation out of the jungle over muddy trails and down into the valley to waiting ambulance jeeps and trucks was a slow process, resulting in many wounded dying from loss of blood, shock and infection. The Japanese had dug well-camouflaged log bunkers into the mountains and hills, with more than 40 machinegun pillboxes set up with interlocking fires covering all avenues of approach to the complex. Trenches and foxholes were filled with riflemen, and snipers were sitting in treetops.

One favorite Japanese tactic was to let a patrol go by their camouflaged position and then open fire, shooting the Americans in the back. Artillery and air strikes could not destroy all Japanese positions. They had to be taken out by close-in fighting with hand grenades and small-arms fire. Unfortunately, the Americans did not have any flamethrowers or special weapons to destroy the bunkers. They were not able to bring up their heavy weapons, such as the 81mm mortar, due to the difficult steep and muddy terrain.

After a month of deadly combat, the Americal Division was replaced by 25th Infantry Division to continue the assault. Advancing under heavy machinegun and mortar fire, 25th Division eventually secured Sea Horse and Galloping Horse, repulsing multiple Japanese suicide banzai attacks during the night. The Japanese were hardened jungle fighters who fought like ferocious animals.

For the final assault on the Gifu, 25th Division’s 35th Infantry Regiment requested four Marine light tanks to support them. Soldiers of 25th Division’s reconnaissance platoon requisitioned four of the former Marine light tanks Jan. 22 from the Lunga Perimeter and drove them into the Matanikau Valley and up the steep, muddy supply trails that had been hacked out of the jungle. After five months of combat use, the old tanks were worn out, and three broke down on the way up the mountainside. But one tank managed to climb the mountain and, with the infantry’s support, it attacked the Japanese machinegun bunker complex, firing its 37mm gun into the bunkers with high-explosive rounds, blasting the Japanese defenders at point-blank range. First, it took out the bunkers on the right side of the mountain, then it turned left and destroyed the remaining bunkers. American infantrymen advanced into the center of the complex, mopping up and killing the enemy still on the mountain. That night, the surviving Japanese mounted a final suicide banzai charge at the Americans and were cut down by machinegun and rifle fire.

In general, the Japanese did not surrender. They fought to the death. Eighty-five Japanese were killed in the suicide attack, including 21 officers.

This battle completed the major combat on Guadalcanal. The 25th had lost about 250 men killed in action. The Japanese had lost an estimated 3,000 troops. By mid-January 1943, the Japanese high command decided to abandon Guadalcanal and shift their operations to a new defensive position in the northern Solomon Islands and New Guinea. The Americans and their allies – on land, on the sea and in the air – had turned the tide of Japanese Pacific expansion. From this point on, the Japanese would be on the defensive as the Allies advanced across the Pacific toward Japan. A small group of obsolete tanks manned by very brave and determined Marines and soldiers had played a key role in defeating Imperial Japan’s forces. From lessons-learned, armor and infantry would fight as a team to defeat the enemy across the vast Pacific, all the way to Japan’s doorstep on Okinawa.

Note: Of 375 M2A4 light tanks built by American Car and Foundry Company and Baldwin Locomotive Works from March 1941 until April 1942, only 41 saw combat in the Guadalcanal campaign.

See Also: Tank challenges, capabilities


Retired MSG Michael Kelley served seven years in the Army and 15 years in the Army’s Reserve Troop Program. He also served 20 years with the Department of Defense and retired from the Defense Logistics Agency (Raytheon Missile Division) as a production/manufacturing specialist. During his military career, he served as battalion maintenance noncommissioned officer, senior logistics NCO, senior Soviet aircraft analyst, motor sergeant, aircraft maintenance crew chief and aircraft maintenance crewman (OH-13, UH-1D and CH-21 helicopters) with units such as the U.S. Army Reserve’s 3rd Battalion, 18th Infantry Brigade; 167th Support Group; 364th Military Intelligence Battalion; 513th Maintenance Battalion; the active Army’s 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry, 2nd Armored Division; 502nd Aviation Battalion, 2nd Armored Division; 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry (Reconnaissance), 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), deployed to South Vietnam; and 3rd Transportation Company. His military education includes the Army Aviation School’s aircraft maintenance courses for the OH-13, OH-23 and CH-21 helicopters and the track and wheeled vehicle portion of the Junior Armor Officer Maintenance Course. He holds a bachelor’s of arts degree from Boston State College.


Bergerud, Eric M., Touched with Fire: the Land War in the South Pacific, New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

Gilbert, Oscar E., Marine Tank Battles in the Pacific War, Conshohocken, PA: De Capo Press/Combined Publishing, 2001.

Hunnicutt, R.P., Stuart: a History of the American Light Tank Vol. 1, Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1992.

Tregaskis, Richard, Guadalcanal Diary, New York: Random House Modern Library, 2000.

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