Withdrawal From Matanikau
One of the last games I put on before the move really got underway was another Pacific Front Flames of War game. In searching around for a scenario, I came across some accounts of the actions of the 7th Marines around Matanikau on Guadalcanal. I normally associate failures of overly complicated plans on Guadalcanal with the Japanese Army, but the Marine Corp actions near the end of September around the Matanikau River, 1942 proved the old adage that jungle fought everyone equally.
The Marines plan was to have the Marine Raider battalion cross the Matanikau river inland and outflank the Japanese positions along the coast while the 2nd battalion/5th Marines attacked across the sand spit at the river’s mouth. Once these attacks succeeded, the 1/7th Marines would land by boat behind the Japanese and cut off their retreat up the coastal road. The attacks kicked off on September 27th, but neither the flanking movement or the frontal assault made any headway against the Japanese defenders. However, a garbled communication caused the 1/7th Marines to be landed anyway. With supporting fire from a destroyer, the marines stormed ashore and seized a ridge about 600 yards inland. However, the Japanese were not in retreat and the local commander, Colonel Oka, ordered the Marine position eliminated. Japanese troops infiltrated into the jungle between the landing beach and the ridge and Japanese mortars and artillery began to hit the Marine positions along the ridge. The Marines had landed without radios and had no way to contact the Marine HQ at Henderson Field. To make matters worse, a Japanese air raid forced the destroyer to retreat into deeper water. The men on the ridge spelled out “help” on the ground with their white undershirts and the signal was fortunately seen up by an SBD from Henderson Field, which relayed the message to marine headquarters, where a rescue force was organized. The destroyer returned to the scene and established communications ashore by semaphore flag, allowing a bombardment to open the way for the Marines to fight their way to the shore where they were evacuated by landing craft.
I decided to base our scenario on the Marine evacuation from Hill 84. I was able to find some pretty good sources on the Marine order of battle for the day and was able to represent the whole Marine force present for the battle. The Marines had two understrength companies along with some supporting machine guns and mortars (which had some historical ammunition limitations) and off-table fire support from the destroyer. The Marines start dug in on the hill. The Japanese had a couple of companies supported by engineers, MGs, and some infantry guns as well as off-table mortars and eventually artillery. About half of the Japanese had infiltrated between the Marines and the beach while the rest deployed north and south of the ridge.
Following a preparatory bombardment by the destroyer’s guns, the Marines charged down from the ridge against the pinned Japanese defenders between the ridge and the beach. The Marines were successful in the south, gutting a platoon and opening a corridor to the sea. Leaving a rearguard, the Marines began to withdraw toward the beach. After an initial repulse, the Marines at the north end of the ridge also pushed back the Japanese and widened the corridor.
The Japanese in the south launched a banzai charge into a Marine platoon, hoping that nationalistic fervor would carry them through to the Marines. However, the Japanese moved too close to the Marine weapons platoon, which added their with machine guns and light mortars to the weight of fire from the Marine platoon. The Japanese were mowed down and the platoon shattered. The Japanese to the north of the ridge launched a more careful assault and began to push back the Marine rearguard.
As the Japanese continued to harass the Marines, walking wounded began to accumulate. For this scenario, whenever a Marine team was removed , a die roll was made and there was a possibility that a wounded Marine marker would be generated. These had to also be evacuated to the boats (leaving them behind for the Japanese cost the Marines victory points), but could not fight. The Marine HQ stayed on the hill as long as possible directing fire from the destroyer then scooted into the jungle.
Soon the landing boats began to arrive and to push in to the shore. The Japanese moved their infantry guns to the shoreline and began shelling the landing boats and were in turn subjected to ineffective shelling by the destroyer. The Marine withdrawal was going well until I decided to chase away the remnants of a Japanese platoon (along with the infantry guns) with one of my remaining Marine units. The Marines roared into the assault…and whiffed completely. The resulting Japanese counterattack destroyed several teams and generated more Marine casualties. Suddenly the entire north flank was suddenly open and the remnant platoons of Japanese poured in and started to capture Marine wounded teams.
To compound the Marine woes, the infantry guns pushed up the beach and began to bring the landing craft under direct fire, destroying several. Japanese reinforcements, including engineers and an AT unit carrying 20mm anti-tank rifles was pushing up from the south. At this point we called the games as a resounding Japanese victory. Casualties had been about equal, but the Marines were likely to lose another boat or two to the infantry guns and AT rifles, possibly while loaded with Marines. Worse, the Japanese had taken a large number of marine wounded as prisoners, sure to be a morale killer back at the Henderson perimeter.
My mistake in the north was in getting greedy and trying to do too much with an already thinned out force. I didn’t have overwhelming force to destroy the small Japanese platoon when I attacked and compounded my error by including the gun platoon in my assault. The following dice disaster gutted my force and exposed large numbers of wounded to the Japanese with no friendlies left to cover their withdrawal. Still a fun tense game fought at 6″ range in the jungle.