October 14, 2008

The Battle of Guadalcanal

By Tim Thornton | [email protected] | 381-1669

It was five days after U.S. Marines fighting in World War II landed on Guadalcanal. Early on, the invasion had gone well. The Japanese offered little resistance, and the Marines quickly captured a nearly completed airfield that would become crucial to the Allied war in the Pacific.

Lt. Col. Frank Goettge and 25 men were riding a landing craft across what's now called Iron Bottom Sound to a section of the island still held by the Japanese. A captured Japanese sailor had told Goettge where to find a unit of Japanese soldiers he said were starving and wanted to surrender.

Goettge, the division's chief of intelligence, decided to go find them.

The Marines were heading through the dark toward the village of Kokumbona, about seven miles from the Matanikau River. Goettge's plan was to pass Point Cruz, then go ashore, find the starving soldiers and take them prisoner. Something went wrong. The landing craft ran aground on a sandbar. Its gunning engines pulled the boat loose, but they also alerted anyone on the beach and in the jungles beyond.

The patrol went ashore on the wrong side of Point Cruz. Goettge walked right up to the Japanese trenches and told the soldiers there to stand up. They shot him in the face.

For the rest of the night, the patrol was trapped on the beach, unable to see the entrenched enemy that fired from the thick tropical growth. Three Marines were sent back to their own lines, wading and swimming five miles. Two of them made it, but not in time to bring help to Goettge's men.

By dawn, only four Marines remained alive. Even more exposed in the daylight than they had been in the darkness, they decided to make a run for the tree line. One of them made it. Realizing he wasn't any safer there than he'd been on the beach, he ran back into the water. As he swam away, he saw Japanese soldiers swarm onto the beach, hacking at his comrades' bodies with swords and bayonets.

Their heads were placed on spikes along the river.

One man's torso was tied to a tree.

Six days later, Marines landed again on that beach, attacking and burning the village of Matanikau. They saw at least some of the Goettge patrol half buried in rifle pits near the edge of the jungle. One member of the patrol was found floating in the Matanikau river. Friends recognized him, wrapped him in a tarp and buried him on the river bank.

When the Marines withdrew, they left the Goettge patrol's dead behind. Their bodies have never been recovered. Officially, the men are still missing in action.

-- Tim Thornton

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