Alligator Creek: America Learns to Fight the Japanese

The Battle of Alligator Creek (aka Battle of the Tenaru) was a formative moment in the American World War Two psyche. After making an unopposed landing on Guadalcanal and taking its mostly-completed airfield at minimal cost, the US Marines had to defend their permitter on the night of August 21st, 1942.

Colonel Kiyonoa Ichiki was sent from the Japanese base at Truk with about 900 tough veteran soldiers to push the Marines off the airfield. These men had originally been slated to assault Midway Island, but the Japanese naval defeat there forced a change in plans. Ichiki was overconfident, and more concerned about retaking the islands of Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo across the straights, where Japan’s main base in the area had also been captured by Marine Raiders. Marching up the coastline towards Henderson Field, Ichiki’s men hit the thin single strand of Marine barbed wire about about 1:30am on the morning of there 21st. An intense firefight erupted, with the well dug-in Marine positions opening up with .30 caliber and .50 caliber machine guns, small arms, and 37mm canister rounds.

The fighting continued after daybreak, with Ichiki’s men digging in on the east bank of Alligator Creek. The Marines launched a two prong counterattack, with one force crossing the Creek inland and advancing down the east bank while a second group, including several Stuart light tanks, advanced across the sandbar. These two groups linked up in the early afternoon of the 21st, almost completely annihilating the Ichiki Detachment.

This was the first real land combat between American and Japanese forces in which American soldiers were able to report back on their experience. It was here that the US military as an institution learned that the Japanese would die rather than surrender, and this engagement set the American expectations for the rest of the Pacific campaign.

My trip to Guadalcanal was made possible by War Historian Battlefield Expeditions. If you are interested in seeing sights like these in person yourself, check out their upcoming schedule:


  1. As an old tanker, I read about the use of the Marines M3’s (they also had a few M2A4’s with them) When I was at the Amphibious Warfare Staff Officer Course at Quantico. It truly was war without quarter asked of given. “Aircraft from Henderson Field strafed Japanese soldiers who attempted to escape down the beach and, later in the afternoon, four or five Marine M3 Stuart tanks attacked across the sandbar into the coconut grove. The tanks swept the coconut grove with machine gun and canister cannon fire, as well as rolling over the bodies, both alive and dead, of any Japanese soldiers unable or unwilling to get out of the way. When the tank attack was over, Vandegrift wrote that, “the rear of the tanks looked like meat grinders”” See and

  2. At the turn of the 19th c to the 20th; there seems to have been, a distinct “now or never” attitude between; newer, Japan and indeed Germany… That the U.S was the thing “Which it was; industrial output etc” and we are never going to be to be top dog (I assume that was a thing) anyway here we are 2023. Icheeky got his arse kicked there, regardless what he/the pervading thoughts were at the time.

    Canister ouch. He he, life; past two years of mind fcuk… Bet the Japanese “And fair play to them for putting up a good show” actually, meh; modern Tokoyo.

    Shit happens.

      • I’ve read his group called the Ichiki Butai, so battalion, perhaps? Reading, WEB Griffin has a lot on the Guadalcanal battles. Henderson area, Tulagi, etc.

        Watching, the HBO series The Pacific has a pretty good filming of this attack as described, with James Badge Dale as Robert Leckie (Helmet for My Pillow).

        Highly recommended, and thanks for Ian for making the trip. Seeing the ground is amazing.

        • I think “Butai” translates best to something more akin to the German “Kampfgruppe”, and represents an ad-hoc formation thrown together around a particularly charismatic leader. Note that I do not say “Effective”, because a lot of these Japanese formations wound up as effectively being suicide detachments.

          One of the things I just have to shake my head at with regards to the Japanese military in WWII is the mania that they had going for their version of the French “Elan!!!!” that got so many guys killed in WWI. It’s like the Japanese saw the French battle casualty lists, and said “Hold my beer…” Depressing in the extreme to anyone brought up in the military to cherish the lives of his men.

          It isn’t hard to see how the Japanese got themselves into a situation where they were regarded as less than human; you run into a situation where the enemy is essentially forcing you to kill them in job lots to no real purpose, that’s one of the ways you’re going to compensate for it all, starting to think of them as non-human and your actions as being akin to an extermination campaign against insect pests. Not that that’s right, but… I can see how the American (and, others…) forces slipped into that mode of thought; it’s a hell of a lot easier on the psyche than recognizing that you’re killing other human beings.

          The sheer waste is what absolutely enrages me about those “Banzai!!” attacks. It would have been even worse, had the US forces been equipped with even Vietnam-era weapons; imagine that defense of Alligator Creek with Claymore mines integrated into it, and beehive rounds in 105mm howitzers… Yikes.

          • Human beings know that Americans never consider them human, whether they were the heroic Japanese or the Afghan heroes who drove you dogs out.

          • Personally I think the the Japanese being regarded as “less than human” was well established before Guadalcanal. Remember that the government of “The land of the free” was more than happy to throw Americans of Japanese decent in “internment camps” and strip them of their civil rights and property and the majority of the public went along with it and could care less. After the war the attitude about them changed and somehow they were seen as “human” again. There’s definitely more to the story than the narrative you normally hear and the embarrassing history most would like to forget.

          • If you want to blame anyone for the internment, talk to the 3 idiot Japanese-Americans on Niihau, whose actions helped precipitate a lot of the decisions that got made about internment. There’s a lot of that which remained classified until long after the war, and which was never made public at the time. Quite fortunately, because if the actions of those Japanese-Americans helping one of the crashed pilots from Pearl Harbor had gotten out to the general public, the reaction would almost certainly have been a lot worse.

            There’s an awful lot of blame to be laid for the internments, particularly on the Roosevelt Administration, but the sad fact was, it wasn’t entirely unjustified. Things like Niihau lent a lot of credence to the idea that there was a significant Fifth Column in the Japanese-American community; something that shouldn’t have been all that surprising considering the policies of that era. There was also a lot of activity in the South American Japanese expat community that was overtly pro-Imperial Japan.

            The idea that the internment was some sort of entirely unjustified action by the government is more than a little bit disingenuous, and smacks of revisionist history. In the event, with the first case of a Japanese aviator crash-landing on an island with a partially Japanese-American population that immediately rallied to his aid and actively sought to prevent native Hawaiians from even notifying the government? Yeah; we’re actually lucky they managed to cover that up to the point where the general public didn’t find out about it until well after the war was over. Had that gotten out? Yikes.

            The other point about internment is that it wasn’t exactly all that “racist”. We put German and Italian citizens into the same sort of camps, for a lot of the same reasons–Including a bunch of German and other European Jews who’d come here as refugees. It wasn’t the strictly anti-Japanese thing that a lot of people make it, these days, in utter ignorance of the fact that that’s what happens to enemy aliens stuck inside your territory when war comes.

            I don’t think it was right that they interned actual naturalized Japanese citizens or those actually born as US citizens, but the whole thing was entirely understandable. I don’t know what decisions I would have made at the time, but even if I were a Japanese-American community leader, I might have said “Ya know what…? I think we’d be better off under government protection, instead of out here with the people who want to get at someone for what happened at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines. The Bataan Death March story didn’t get released officially until sometime in early 1944, but there were copious rumors about Japanese atrocities circulating as early as mid-1942. The extensive publicity over the massacres in China were already there, disseminated by the various missionary organizations.

            There’s a lot of blame to go around, and not all of it is strictly on the US government or the American people. Official Imperial Japanese propaganda was out there talking about Japanese racial solidarity and calling for aid to the war effort. Should people be blamed for taking that seriously?

          • Either way there’s the constitution and what was done was a total violation of it regardless. Like you’ve said before history is not here or there, but some where in the middle.

          • In a sense, the Japanese fascists were hostage to the ideology they used to seize power; they had to walk the walk. Their ideology fetishized the idea that everyone else was weaker in will, and would collapse at a single sharp blow. This fit with existing Japanese naval doctrine of Kantai Kessen, the decades-long belief that the larger US Navy could be beaten in a single battle & that Yankees lacked the will for a longer war (which Japan was clearly too poor to sustain). This seems to have become applied to everything: a short surprise war against all the White empires who would quickly sue for peace as the Russians once had. All made possible by the “samurai” culture that was in fact a concoction of Japanese imperialists.

            The Banzai charge is that mentality applied to infantry combat. All these ideas relied on the willingness to accept enormous casualties in a reckless offensive that would make the war short. The leaders of Japan were aware that ultimately attrition would kill far more Japanese; their eternal shame is that when their shock tactics failed, they tried to save face by embracing attrition warfare in the most suicidal possible way and muddle their way through rather than swallow their pride.

  3. Ian,

    IF you are truly interested on the story of how the allies learned to beat Japanese soldiers and marines.

    You would also tell the story of Milne Bay. Japan’s first defeat on land by Australian soldiers. The Japanese got picked up by ships and went away. Some time before the fighting on Guadalcanal.

    But I am betting you won’t.

    • I am betting you don’t realize he is on a Guadalcanal history tour, not a Milne Bay tour, nor a Wake Island tour (Japan’s first military defeat after Pearl Harbor, predating Milne Bay), nor a all-the-battles-of-all-the-wars tour.

  4. I’d like to take a moment to recommend Shots Fired in Anger by Col. John B. George, for those who haven’t read it. The first two thirds of the book details the author’s experiences in the Pacific Theater but, of special interest to folks here, the last third is dedicated to his analysis of the small arms used by both sides. The author was something of a self-avowed gun nut, and dedicated a liberal amount of his free to time testing captured munitions. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I recall it being a very illuminating treatise on Japanese weapons and tactics, and all the more interesting for having been written by someone who was actually there.

  5. In response to Kirk’s comments below:
    The problem with the official justification of the internments was that they were inconsistent. If ALL German-Americans and Italian-Americans had been interned on the “relevant” coast (meaning where they were concentrated) you would have had millions in camps. So there was a double standard.
    But also the Japanese-Americans in Hawaii itself weren’t interned despite the Niihau incident. This is because before Pearl Harbor, leaders of the Japanese-American, Chinese-American, and Filipino-American communities in Hawaii realized that a war could lead to internments, and they decided to stand together against such a policy. They lobbied the FBI and got a sympathetic agent to push his bosses for an exception, on grounds that the Japanese-Americans were indispensable to the Hawaiian economy. Whereas the story I heard was that in California, the old White business class already resented the Hell out of Japanese-American success, and their Republican Party had years before cut a deal w/ FDR to sabotage the electoral campaign of popular leftist Sinclair Lewis in exchange for the state GOP not obstructing the New Deal. So perhaps this was FDR’s quid pro quo; the businessmen made a fortune buying up the property of interned Japanese-Americans & wrecked their economic power.

    So internment was really about local politics.

    • I think you’d have to spend a lot of time digging through the whole issue, which isn’t really relevant to this site.

      One thing I’d point out about the different treatments for the various enemy alien groups is that a.) there weren’t all that many Japanese, and what few there were in the Continental US were also relatively recent immigrants, b.) the Europeans that were here had a bunch of very photogenic and sympathetic refugees in their number, and c.) there were lots and lots of ethnic Germans and Italians who’d integrated in and fought hard for the US as far back as the Civil War. Japanese immigrants did not have that going for them, until after WWII and the 442nd.

      The other thing was, sadly, a Japanese immigrant is easily distinguished because of appearance. How the hell are you going to know someone is German or Italian, until you talk to them and discover the “funny accent”, which is something that isn’t always a true discriminator?

      I don’t like or want to argue for the Japanese internments. They should not have happened the way that they did, at all. But, as a wartime exigency? I’m really not sure what the hell else could have been done, and I’d have hated to be the guy with my name on the blame line. Say that the policy had been that there’d be no internments; what then? Would you like to have been a Japanese truck farmer in California, alone and isolated out in the country, when the news about the Bataan Death March hit the streets in 1944? Or, any of the other atrocities?

      One thing that the Japanese had going against them was strong ethnic identity as Japanese; in the case of the Germans, there was a long tradition of German immigration due to the immigrants objecting to conscription and the Imperial government. Few, if any, Japanese emigres were known to object to the Japanese Imperial ideology; indeed, many of them were identifying with it, rooting for it as though Japan were some sort of sports team. That cost them, because their neighbors looked at that and thought they were potential Fifth Column types. Reality? In almost all cases, it was essentially harmless homesickness and national pride. The few real Japanese Imperialists in the mix were what colored everyone else’s perceptions, and that was why there was the strong reaction to it all.

      I’d honestly have to say that while it positively reeks of blaming the victim, there was some Japanese responsibility for the whole problem. The amount is arguable, but each side can point to things like Niihau and the 442nd’s combat performance that support their positions.

      Still, it never should have gone down the way it did, and whatever Japanese-American property that was confiscated should have been held in escrow and returned on the end of hostilities. There were exceptions, but I’m embarrassed to say that a good deal was just looted and never returned. I don’t blame the Japanese-Americans of that era at all for having the angst and animosity over the whole thing, at all.

      Still… I can also appreciate the position that was held by the government. If I was some East Coast politician, and all I had to go on was what had happened at Niihau…? I could see making the internment order a thing. That said, it could have been implemented far, far better than it was.

      • The Japanese on Niihau who helped the courageous aviators who struck back against American sanctions war were heroes. It’s a pity they didn’t win.

    • By crocodiles, though. There are no alligators in Guadalcanal, but saltwater crocodiles, which incidentally are much more dangerous to humans. The Marines just named the animals according to something they already knew from back home; probably some of them came from Florida.

  6. Hi. At the beginning of WWII the USMC had Raiders and Airborne Infantry. These units were considered “Special Troops” which, as the story goes, upset some one high up in the Corps. All Marines are special, they reasoned, so the paratroops and Raiders were disbanded. At the time of the Guadalcanal campaign both units were still functioning as separate commands and were combined for the assault on Tulagi Island. Mr. McCollum’s very good narrative failed to mention the USMC Paratroop’s participation. As for “Dehumanization” that is a well-established practice for adversary nations militaries. Most individuals have difficulty killing another human being so by calling their enemies names [Kraut, Heiny, Gook, Dink, Jap Etc.] and de-humanizing them this horrible process becomes a bit more acceptable. The “Christmas Truce” will never be repeated. As for the Nisei, the truly courageous accomplishments of the 442 RCT, and the graduates of the US/Japanese Language Schools gathering intelligence behind enemy lines in the Pacific went a long way to cementing their place as loyal American Citizens following the war.

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