Guadalcanal: The Goettge Patrol
The 1st Marine Division
At the start of WWII, most of America’s military forces were relatively unfamiliar (one might say ignorant) of the Japanese language and military culture, and badly underestimated Japanese military potential. The United States had relatively little in terms of solid military intelligence concerning Japanese leadership, training and tactics when World War II started.
From the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 through August 1942, the military forces of the United States were on a primarily defensive posture in the southwest Pacific. Tactical and logistical priority was given to the war in Europe.
In the Pacific, the Doolittle Raid of 18 April 1942 was a carrier-borne attack on Tokyo by B25 pilots of the 17th Bomber Group, led by Lt. Col. James Doolittle from the flight deck of the carrier, USS Hornet. The mission did not cause significant damage, but dispelled the belief that the Japanese homeland was inviolate and it demonstrated that Japan was vulnerable to attack. Though the raid caused no damage to military targets, the accomplishment provided a needed boost to American morale, shook the faith of the Japanese people in their military leaders (who had assured them no enemy would successfully attack the homeland) and, from a tactical perspective, caused the Japanese to withdraw its carrier force from the Indian Ocean to better protect the homeland.
The invasion of Guadalcanal in the southern Solomon Islands on 7 August 1942, code-named Operation Watchtower, was a necessity because the Japanese were constructing an airstrip on Guadalcanal, threatening shipping and operating within reach of Port Moresby and the Australian east coast. Guadalcanal is approximately 90 miles in length, and oriented on a primarily east-west orientation. Up to this point, the Japanese offensive in the Southwest Pacific was unsuccessfully opposed by the Allies. The defenses of Australia were weakened by a shortage of military manpower because most of the Australian and New Zealand troops were committed to other theaters of warfare.
Elements of the 1st Marine Division (infantry and artillery regiments and supporting battalions) existed since 1911, but were organized into a division (i.e., three infantry regiments with artillery, armor, combat engineers, headquarters and specialized supporting elements, between 15,000 to 20,000 personnel ) in early February 1941. The Division, as a whole - at the time, about 16,000 personnel - was committed to the invasion of Guadalcanal as its baptism of fire, and it was comprised primarily of recently trained Marines, typically equipped with the accurate Springfield 1903 rifle, chambered for the .30-’06 cartridge and the assortment of infantry small arms that were prevalent in the Corps' Table of Equipment at the time.
Later, on 13 October 1942, the U.S. Army’s 164th Division arrived, equipped with the new semiautomatic M1 Garand rifles, which were a significant improvement. Loaded with an 8-shot clip, the Garand also fired the .30-'06 cartridge but was capable of a much heavier volume of fire than the bolt action Springfield 1903 and 1903A3 riles, which had 5-shot magazines and were slower to cycle.
Guadalcanal marked a turning point from a defensive to an offensive posture by Allied forces, perceived up to this point as weak, unmotivated and inferior by Japanese military commanders, who instilled in their troops that victory over these soft Allied troops was a certainty. Initially surprised by the invading Allies, the Japanese were pushed back from the airfield leaving equipment and supplies behind. That was fortuitous, because the advancing Marines were undersupplied and had to rely on captured Japanese provisions.
The vessels on which the Marines' supplies were stored were directed to leave the area when Japanese aircraft and naval vessels threatened. The Marines ashore felt they'd been abandoned and regarded as "expendable" when their supplies sailed away, but they found Japanese supplies of maggot-infested rice and oats. Under the worst circumstances, Marines (as a culture) typically make a great effort to adapt, improvise and overcome.
The almost-completed airfield was taken and a perimeter established by the Marines. The captured airfield was renamed Henderson Field, in honor of Maj. Lofton Henderson, a pilot who was the first Marine aviator to be killed in the Battle of Midway. Today, it's known as the Honiara International Airport. The Japanese made several attempts to retake the field between August and November 1942. Unable to retake it, they tried shelling it to deny its use to the Allies.
The Japanese had not battled U.S. Marines before, but assumed they would provide no challenge to the forces of Japan. In the clash of arms that followed, both sides were able to take better measure of each other. The Allies had surprisingly little information on the Japanese forces they opposed, so the effort to gather intelligence was critical.
Col. Frank Bryan Goettge was a Marine veteran with service since the First World War. Born on December 30, 1895, in Canton, Ohio, he attended the University of Ohio and played freshman football for one year prior to enlisting in the Marine Corps in 1917. 1
In 1918, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and served with the 5th Marine Regiment against the Germans at St. Mihiel in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He later served in occupation duty at Segendorf, Germany, where he was a fullback with the Second Division, American Expeditionary Forces. At Quantico, where he enrolled in the Company Officers Course, he won greater acclaim as a football player and dominated the field as a fullback.
From 1921 to 1924, Goettge helped carry the All Marines team to 40 victories and two ties. Sports writer Walter Camp said of him, “Today, for today at least, I saw my greatest all-time football player; for today at least greater that Jim Thorpe on a good day. The big fellow’s name is Frank Goettge.” 2
After WWI, his assignments sent him to Haiti, Hawaii, and Peking. He was the commanding officer of the Marines aboard the battleship, USS Pennsylvania, and commanding officer of the Marine Detachment at Annapolis, Maryland. Prior to the invasion, in June 1941, Lt. Col. Frank B. Goettge was assigned to the 1st Marine Division as its intelligence officer, and he was promoted to colonel as he assumed those responsibilities. 3
The Marines conducted an unopposed landing on Guadalcanal at Lunga Point on August 7, 1942. The weather was poor and, as the first offensive action against the Japanese, the landing initially took the Japanese defenders by surprise. The advancing Marines overran a Japanese tent camp and several prisoners were taken.
Hungry for intelligence, the Marines’ best method of gathering information was to send out patrols. Within several days, the Marines had rounded up a number of Japanese Navy personnel, Korean conscripts and local laborers who had been assigned to build the airfield. Among the prisoners was a Japanese warrant officer, Tsuneto Sakado, who was initially uncooperative during questioning; however, the Japanese did not have a Code of Conduct for prisoners, assuming that anyone taken prisoner would commit suicide, so the warrant officer had no guidelines for interrogation.
The Marine translator who questioned him, Marine Lt. Merle Ralph Cory, spoke fluent Japanese but initially received little cooperation from Sakado, so he provided some medicinal brandy for the Japanese warrant officer and the prisoner became more relaxed and compliant. The warrant officer told Lt. Cory that a number of Japanese conscript laborers and engineering personnel west of the Matanikau River were hungry, sick, demoralized and willing to surrender, and another prisoner corroborated that statement. 4
Col. Goettge considered these reports in light of the fact that many Japanese prisoners were surprisingly forthcoming in questioning. They were not instructed on a Code of Conduct if captured because it was assumed they would not be taken alive or would commit suicide, so they discussed details and issues that would not ordinarily be provided by prisoners today.
Based primarily on these prisoners’ information, Goettge promptly organized a 25-man patrol with a plan to land west of the Matanikau River, follow the estuary upstream, bivouac for the night and proceed east to the Lunga perimeter in the effort to make contact with the Japanese who were willing to surrender. 5
As the patrol was assembled, Col. Goettge and Capt. Ringer of Brookline, MA, were warned by Col. W.J. Whaling, executive officer of the 5th Marine Regiment, that the Japanese were aggressively defending the area between Point Cruz and the mouth of the Matanikau River, so Col. Whaling suggested a landing west of Point Cruz. 6
Despite the warning, the Goettge patrol boarded a tank lighter, a vessel larger than a Higgins boat designed to transport tracked vehicles, heavy equipment, troops to shore. Col. Goettge was accompanied by Lt. Cory (translator), Lt. Cmdr. Malcolm Pratt (regimental surgeon), Capt. Ringer, First Sergeant Custer, and twenty Marines. They also brought the Japanese prisoner, Tsunteto Sakado. Custer tied a rope around Sakado's neck and led him aboard the tank lighter like an animal on a leash. 7
The patrol shoved off at 1800 (6PM) and proceeded west; however, a flare was sighted to the east and Goettge interpreted it as a signal to return, so the lighter returned to Kukum. They left again at 2100 hrs (9PM) and headed west of the Matanikau River. Before reaching shore, the tank lighter ran aground. The coxswain reversed power and tried repeatedly and successfully to back away, but powering the engines made a very audible noise.
As it developed, the patrol’s landing was made on the very beach that Goettge was warned against, and it is believed that operating in darkness and unable to discern landmarks, the tank lighter motored past (west) of the mouth of the Matanikau River. As the tank lighter approached the beach, the Japanese prisoner protested, "Iie, iie! (No, No!), but his protests were disregarded or misunderstood. 8
The vessel made it to the beach and the Marines disembarked with their prisoner, but the Japanese infantry had heard the noises made by the tank lighter and organized on a coral plateau about 200 yards inland to deal with the Marines.
Col. Goettge ordered his Marines to establish a defensive perimeter, then took Capt. Ringer and First Sergeant Custer with him to scout the jungle and find a bivouac. Soon after Col. Goettge and his men moved forward from their position on the beach, the Japanese opened fire with rifles and machine guns, and Col. Goettge was killed by a bullet to the head, the first to fall. Capt. Ringer and First Sgt. Custer made it back to the Marines’ defensive perimeter. As the firefight began, Caltrider was convinced they'd been led into a trap and, without hesitation, he turned and shot Sakado in the head, then tried to return fire on the Japanese troops and create a defensible position. 9
Sgt. Few and two Marines returned to the jungle, located Col. Goettge’s body and confirmed he was dead, then they returned to the Marine position on the beach. As they withdrew from Goettge’s body, they were confronted by Japanese soldiers. In the darkness, thinking they may have been Marines, Sgt. Few barked, “What’s the password?” In response, he was bayoneted in the arm and leg. In the struggle that ensued, Few was able to wrest the weapon away from his assailant and bayoneted him. Before reaching the Marine perimeter at the beach, Few killed another Japanese soldier with Arndt’s .45 pistol. His own Reising gun, a .45 submachine gun, malfunctioned due to sand in the breach. There are weapons you swear by, but the Reising was one frequently sworn at because it had a reputation as an unreliable weapon. Though it functioned fairly well under ideal conditions, it didn’t perform well in combat.
The Marines on the beach were met with intense fire and Lt. Cory was seriously wounded with a bullet to the abdomen. About 30 minutes into the firefight, Sgt. Charles C. “Monk” Arndt was directed to swim back to Marine lines to keep them advised and ask for support. That was a four-mile swim, but Arndt was a fine swimmer. 10
He was admittedly hampered as he swam by his boondockers (field shoes) because the shoelaces were knotted and he was unable to remove them. As he swam east, he stayed close to shore, and he was able to step on the coral reef, but slipped frequently and was cut by jagged edges of the sharp coral. Mindful that the water was shark-infested, he was concerned that the bloody cuts would attract sharks, but wanted desperately to get back as soon as possible.
Near the mouth of the Matanikau River, Arndt was fired upon by a Japanese soldier. Arndt returned fire with his .45 pistol, and believed he hit the soldier because the enemy’s fire abruptly ceased. Arndt found a damaged canoe and, using a board, paddled two miles to American lines. An exhausted Arndt made it back and was challenged for the password, “Lillian”. Passwords often relied on words with “L” in them because the Marines didn’t think the Japanese could pronounce words like “Bilious, Hallelujah, and Polyglot”. Arndt was wrapped in a blanket and he reported the patrol’s situation to headquarters.
Meanwhile, the Marine patrol’s position was vulnerable. Though crouched behind the roots of some mangrove trees, they lacked adequate cover, and for the next nine hours, the Japanese flanking fire picked off the Marines one by one, and they launched flares to illuminate the Marine position to better direct fire. With each flare, fire against the Marines intensified. First Sgt. Custer was critically wounded. As he was being treated by Dr. Pratt, the doctor was hit. Soon after that first wound, Dr. Pratt was fatally wounded by a bulletin the lower back.
Within the defensive perimeter, Cpl. Herbert E. Benson, "a tall blond kid with a flair for drawing and telling jokes", died as the night wore on and the firing continued. Pfc. Daniel L. Gauntt of Philadelphia PA survived the initial bursts of fire but was kiiled as the fighting continued. Cpl. Jack F. Lyons of Cleveland, OH, specialized in mapping and photography, and died in the exchange of fire. Pvt. Jack B. Kelly enlisted in the Corps on January 30, 1942, and died in the early morning hours of August 13th.
The youngest of the patrol was Pvt. Robert W. Lovelace, 17, an intelligence specialist who enlisted from Berea, Kentucky. Cpl. Stephen Serdula of Corning, NY, was a scout/observer who conducted himself well but died in that action. Sgt. Robert J. Stanfill enlisted in July, 1938, and was airborne qualified as a Paramarine at Lakehurst, NJ, in late 1940. He transferred from the Paramarines to the intelligence section of 5th Marines. None of their remains were ever recovered.
Cpl. Joseph Kashuba had some scouting experience but was chosen for the patrol to make maps of the area for Division intelligence. He also died on the beach that night. Cpl. Aaron L. Gelzer, 23, was a clerk in a grocery store before he enlisted on August 16, 1940. He qualified as a specialist with the Browning Automatic Rifle. Cpl. Henry L. Kowal of Mt. Vernon, NY, also of the intelligence section, accompanied the patrol and was killed that night. Cpl. Robert R. Lyons, 18, worked in the regimental chaplain's office prior to his transfer to the 5th Marine Regiment's intelligence section.
Sgt. David A. Stauffer, 20, was a member of the Intelligence Section. While desperately seeking cover from Japanese machinegun fire, Sgt. Stauffer and Sgt. Arndt were crawling to what looked like a better position, but Sgt. Stauffer was hit and died. Cpl. Theodore E. Raht, 22, enlisted in the Corps in January, 1941, and served in the intelligence section, thus, he was also included in the patrol that night.
Pfc. Blaine G. Walter, 25, of Millersburg, PA, was also assigned to the Intelligence Section, was selected for the patrol and died in the intense exchange of fire. His remains were never recovered, but his personal effects (consisting of a wallet, fountain pen, flashlight, and 2 pairs of socks) were found later. Pfc. John L. Delano, a talented water-color artist from Brookline, MA, one of the best draftsmen in the Division whose skills as a mapmaker were valued, accompanied the patrol to map this previously unexplored area. Pfc. Delano fell to enemy fire and his body was mutilated, but his remains were also not recovered.
As more Marines fell to Japanese fire, Capt. Ringer called for Cpl. William Bainbridge to go back along the beach for help. Bainbridge immediately set off at a run but never made it to friendly lines. The Japanese positions were difficult to pinpoint for return fire. Capt. Ringer ordered another Marine, Cpl. Joseph Spaulding, to make an attempt to swim back, considering the possibility that Sgt. Arndt might not have made it. Spaulding drew fire from the Japanese in his dash into the water, but he shed his dungarees and boondockers and swam underwater as much as possible, changing direction as he did so, as he progressively distanced himself from Japanese fire.
By dawn of August 13th, only four members of the patrol were still alive. Capt. Ringer thought they’d have a better chance in the jungle and decided they’d make a run for it, so Capt. Ringer, Sgt. Few and Sgt. Caltrider moved up about 15 yards and motioned to a corporal behind them. As the corporal moved up, he was cut down by enemy fire. Moments later, Capt. Ringer and Sgt Caltrider fell to machine gun fire.
Only Platoon Sgt. Frank Few managed to make it to the trees, but he reconsidered and decided he’d have a better chance in the water. Hiding among some coconut trees, he witnessed a Japanese soldier standing and firing a rifle into the bodies of the fallen Marines. He drew his pistol, aimed, fired and killed that Japanese soldier, then made a run for the sea and looked back. Japanese troops swarmed the beach, and Lt. Cory (translator) was bayoneted by a Japanese soldier. Other Japanese troops were mutilating the bodies of the dead and wounded Marines with swords and bayonets. 11
The Japanese moved a machine gun to the edge of the beach, closer to the water, and opened fire at Sgt. Few, but the bullets hit to his right and left as they tried to bracket the swimming Marine. Few was wearing a pair of white silk undershorts he’d “liberated” from a Japanese storage shed soon after landing, but they seemed a silvery, fluorescent white as he swam away. Few regretted those skivvies, convinced those shorts provided a better target for the machine gunners. Once beyond that hazard, he was concerned that the sharks would be attracted to those white shorts. Platoon Sgt. Few was the last to escape and survive the Goettge patrol.
The three Marines who were sent for help completed their swim. Sgt. Arndt arrived at Marine lines at 0530, Cpl. Spaulding at 0725, and Sgt. Few at 0800. 12
As he emerged from the water at the Marine perimeter, Few was challenged for the password, but the exhausted Marine couldn’t readily respond and was nearly shot by a sentry.
The reports of the three Marines left little hope for rescue of the patrol, but a relief element was sent immediately from A Company, 5th Marines to where it was believed the Goettge patrol had come ashore. They encountered light resistance and were reinforced by Company L. Working their way inland, they were held back by difficult terrain and made it to the site on August 14th, but found no trace of the patrol. 13
On August 19th, a patrol from "I" Company, 5th Marines, found Cpl. Bainbridge's bullet-ridden remains near Kokumbona. He was buried where he was found. Subsequent to August 21, 1942, a patrol led by Lt. W. Sivertsen found a dispatch or medical case belonging to Lt. Cmdr. Pratt and a torn piece of clothing marked with Goettge’s name, but no identifiable remains were found. 14
Ore J. Marion of "L" Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (L/3/5) was involved in the fighting along the Matanikau just a month after the patrol. Monk Arndt was also at the scene, and he pointed to shallow graves and said, "See that arm sticking up, and the riding boot? That's the colonel." The bodies were badly decomposed and unidentifiable by individual features, but Arndt had known Goettge well. 15
Ernest Snowden, also of L/3/5, commented that they had found remains of the Goettge Patrol, but they were dismembered bodies, arms and legs sticking out of the sand, adding, "We didn't bother them, but they were there." 16
Thurman Miller of K/3/5 contributed, "We were crossing the Matanikau River and came across bodies and mutilated body parts. I saw a head roll down to the water and a little wave pushed it up again. This kept repeating. There was also a leg from the knee down with a legging and brand new boondocker boots. A First Sergeant's shirt with the torso still inside. No head or arms. I asked the Lieutenant why we didn't bury the body parts, and he said not to touch them." 17
Officially, the incident was not reported due, in part, to strict censorship during the war and also to spare the relatives. The U.S. Marine Corps reported that no bodies had been recovered, and the men who discovered and witnessed the mutilated bodies were ordered not to speak of it, but word travels quickly. As a result, the Marines were hardened in their combat with the Japanese and fighting increased in bitterness and accelerated violence. 18
In the clarity of after-action reports, Col. Goettge’s decision to land at that location on the beach, one which he had been warned against, contributed to his death and the loss of 22 Marines on his patrol. His decision to take only 25 Marines into a situation like this, against overwhelming enemy forces on terrain unfavorable to the patrol, has been second-guessed and criticized. I think that is easy in hindsight. His judgment is further questioned in choosing primarily Intelligence personnel instead of infantrymen and heavily armed Marines. In delaying final departure until 2100 hrs, he had to operate in the darkness of night on a poorly mapped shoreline, thus complicating the effort to recognize land features that would have permitted the patrol to come ashore at the planned location, instead of overshooting the objective to the east. One might ask why the Japanese prisoner's protests were ignored (despite the interpreter's presence) as they approached the beach. Col. Goettge had prepared for the situation he expected; he was not prepared for the unexpected, and that appears to have been a tragically myopic mistake.
The consequences of error are tragic, but it was Col. Goettge’s hope to minimize losses on both sides by providing some of the Japanese with an opportunity to surrender and to gather useful information. Beyond that, he hoped to move promptly to exploit the valuable intelligence that the enemy troops could provide, thus minimizing Marine casualties in the days ahead, bringing the battle on Guadalcanal to a quicker conclusion.
Col. Goettge was reportedly a very competent, experienced officer who apparently made a mistake in night navigation and/or judgment. Warfare is often unforgiving or error. I respect his intention and deeply regret the loss of good Marines, but I will offer no criticism of the colonel.
In a division-sized engagement against a tenacious enemy, the loss of 22 Marine lives would seem a small but tragic piece of a much larger and more chaotic mosaic. The battles of the southwest Pacific in World War II…indeed, the history of the Marine Corps…is written in the blood of good Marines and corpsmen, and underscored by the blood of their enemies. Yet, every loss is tragic to their families, friends, and to brother and sister Marines. We celebrate victories with the sobering realization that there is a price for each of them, and we learn from mistakes so that fewer losses will be suffered in the future. Tactics change to continually adapt to new weapons and resources.
Guadalcanal was the 1st Marine Division’s first trial by fire as a division. The lessons were costly but they were not lost, and the tradition has been upheld in every conflict since 1942. The Marines of 1st MarDiv, the Blue Diamond, continue to live up to their motto, “No better friend, no worse enemy”.
1 Frank Goettge - military.wikia,.com
2 Quantico Sentry Online, Marine sword linked to football legend, http://www.quanticosentryonline.com/news/article_eecc9051-c44d-533b-a8fb-4dec7a8a6489.html
4 Leatherneck: Star-crossed Translator, story by Dick Camp
6 Letter, Colonel William J. Whaling to Commandant Marine Corps, 26 January 1949. The matter of warning given to Goettge prior to his departure was confirmed by Lieutenant Colonel Lyman D. Spurlock in an interview held 27 January 1949.
7 Missing Marines, Denzil Ray Caltrider, posted July 30, 2012
10 The Sun Stood Still, Chapter 15, by Don Richter
11 Leatherneck: Star-crossed Translator, story by Dick Camp
12 USMC Monograph, The Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 60
13 The Sun Stood Still, Chapter 15, by Don Richter
14 Letter, Silvertsen to Commandant Marine Corps dated 17 February 1949
15 Missing Marines, Colonel Frank Bryan Goettge, Account of Ore J. Marion, posted July 1, 2012
16 Missing Marines, Colonel Frank Bryan Goettge, Account of Ernest Snowden, posted July 1, 2012
17 Missing Marines, Colonel Frank Bryan Goettge, Account of Thurman Miller, posted July 1, 2012
18 Pacific Wrecks website: http://www.pacificwrecks.com/history/goettge/goettge.html