William H. Bartsch. Victory Fever on Guadalcanal: Japan's First Land Defeat of World War II. Williams-Ford Texas A&M University Military History Series. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2014. 360 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62349-184-0.
Reviewed by Harold Winton (School of Advanced Air and Space Studies)
Published on H-War (March, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
In 1935, while a student at the Command and General Staff School, Captain Bonner Fellers penned a prescient study titled “The Psychology of the Japanese Soldier.” According to Fellers, in any future battle the Japanese warrior would be ferocious in the offensive, a skilled bayonet fighter imbued with the samurai spirit, determined to accomplish his objectives at all costs, and supremely confident of victory. But the very élan that gave Japanese soldiers such conviction also produced noteworthy vulnerabilities. They were indifferent to the effects of modern weapons, particularly tanks and airplanes. And while their commitment to victory and fulfilling the will of their superiors were beyond question, they would frequently demonstrate inflexibility in pursuit of their objectives. This combination of strengths and weaknesses led to several implications for Americans who might someday be called upon to fight them. A position lightly held with foot soldiers armed with numerous automatic weapons and backed up by ample artillery would, Fellers felt, halt any Japanese attack. Offensive operations should, wherever possible, be conducted by tanks and airplanes. In short, in the face of a fanatical enemy, Fellers proposed fighting human flesh and bayonets with the machinery of modern war.
William H. Bartsch’s detailed reconstruction of the disastrous assault by the Imperial Japanese Army’s Ichiki Detachment against the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, on the night of August 20-21, 1942, which constituted the first major engagement of the Guadalcanal campaign, vividly validates virtually all of Fellers’s prognostications. The incorrectly named battle along the “Tenaru River,” later discovered to have been Alligator Creek, demonstrated the ferocity of the Japanese soldier, his stern devotion to death before dishonor, the emphasis of the moral over the material, and the tactical inflexibility of many of his officers. It also demonstrated the gallantry of the US Marines defending the recently captured and named Henderson Field; their proficient use of light, medium, and heavy weapons, despite their truncated training and hasty commitment to combat; and the tactical soundness of their noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and officers.
The Japanese defeat and the marine victory were unambiguous. Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki arrived on Guadalcanal on August 19 with 918 men, comprising the lead echelon of the highly regarded 28th Regiment. After the attack the remnant was about 130, many of whom were wounded. The marines captured fewer than 20, meaning roughly 770 of Ichiki’s men died in the assault and the minor skirmish that preceded it. Marine casualties totaled 33 killed in action and 65 wounded, 4 of whom died within several days of the battle. But most important, the marines held their ground. As Richard Frank notes in his perceptive foreword, “the Battle of the Tenaru, August 20-21 1942, stakes a strong claim for being the smallest American battle of World War II with the greatest effects” (p. xi). The Guadalcanal campaign did not reach its final denouement until February 1943 when Alexander Patch’s XIV Corps, consisting of one marine and two army divisions, drove the last Japanese forces from the island. And there were many anxious moments in between as Alexander Vandegrift’s 1st Marine Division held onto the island by its fingernails until being replaced by the 2nd Marine Division in December 1942. But the successful repulse of the initial Japanese assault gave him and his leathernecks an acute awareness of the ferocity and tenacity with which the Japanese would fight, keen insights into how to defeat them, and a grim determination of their own to prevail.
Bartsch’s treatment of this iconic battle has much to commend it. It is scrupulously and diligently researched on both the American and Japanese sides. Regarding the former, the author located many marines who fought in the battle and descendants of those no longer living. The resulting interviews and unearthed diaries give the book an immediacy of combat reminiscent of John Keegan’s treatment of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme in The Face of Battle (1976). The translation of Susumu Sugawara’s Ichiki Shitai zenmetsu (Annihilation of the Ichiki Detachment) (first privately publishedin 1969) adds materially to the evidence for the Japanese perspective, but Bartsch also located a number of other Japanese sources. This research allowed him to alternate the narration between the two sides, before, during, and after the battle. One could have hoped for slightly more integration of tactical analysis into the battle narrative, rather than finding it all placed at the end of the book, as well as for more legible maps. But these are minor reservations. Victory Fever on Guadalcanal is a detailed, compellingly told account of a pivotal battle during World War II in the Pacific—it is a worthy contribution to the literature of that war.
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Harold Winton. Review of Bartsch, William H., Victory Fever on Guadalcanal: Japan's First Land Defeat of World War II.
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