GUADALCANAL 1995 - 1996

                                   Peter Flahavin

On the 1995 / 96 trips I did not keep day to day notes , so the following is a brief description of the main sites we visited .

They have a very interesting collection of gear here -aircraft relics, artillery, rifles, helmets , grenades , field equipment , plus one of the original American tractors from the airfield . In 1996 that they had taken the machine guns out of the collection and secured them . It seemed that any weapon not nailed down was liable to be stolen by the Bouganvillians for their struggle with the Papua New Guinea Govt , and some of the guns were in very good condition . The Bren Gun carrier on display is pretty sick -  it looks like it was lying on its right side and the armour had rotted . This could be one of 13 landed in October 1942 or maybe brought in later by New Zealand troops .

They also have  a Dauntless dive bomber, a P400 ground attack fighter, three Japanese 37mm AT guns, a Japanese 75mm field gun and an American copy of the French WW1 75mm gun . A storm in 1998 brought down a tree branch that knocked the left wing off one Dauntless , exposed the wing fuel tank and knocked the P400 from its stand . The Dauntless belonged to Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 132 . On December 1st 1942 Captain William S. Spang crashed it into trees attempting a night landing . Captain Spang was killed , but his gunner survived . The engine lies nearby .

As you drive back into Honiara from Henderson you pass the Honiara Golf Course , which used to be the site of Fighter Strip Number 2 . It was from here that the P38 Lightning fighters that shot down Admiral Yamamoto in April 1943 took off from .

The palm trees that used to be behind the beach are now gone and replaced by the Honiara Brewery . The Solomons Museum director recalled that he used to play here when he was a kid and in those days you could still see the remains of the airstrip  now the golf course fairway . Aircraft were still landing there in 1963 . In 1995 they were regrading the road between Matanikau and Kukum and constantly finding bits of bone .

Fred Kona, who pulled items large and small out of the jungle, started this display in the early 1970's . Once again any good machine guns are stashed away , as the Bouganvillians stole all the ones they did have out . Fred Kona is dead now and his widow and brother run the place .  When Mr. Kona started to assemble these items 20 - 30 years ago the local villagers thought he was crazy and used to destroy pieces of his "junk" .

Sadly over 50 years more exposure in the open air has taken its toll on some items and aircraft markings are barely readable . The Gruman F4F4 Wildcat recovered in 1973 is still there  . They have had at least three offers from American enthusiasts to buy it , but have said no. The 20mm and 7.7mm holes from the attacking Zero fighter are  plainly visible .

The Japanese artillery pieces on display here comprise three 150mm guns , one 105mm gun , two 37mm anti-tank guns , two 70mm Battalion guns , a 75mm anti-aircraft gun and two 75mm guns on fixed mountings . At least one of the heavy artillery pieces here was used to shell Henderson Field . The 2 fixed mounting 75mm guns are probably salvaged from the beached Japanese transport ships .

The 150mm guns came from the Cape Esperance area , where they overlooked the channel to Savo Island . Other items include a Dauntless dive-bomber , P38 fighter (crashed near Lunga Point in 1943), Corsair with one machine gun still in the wing (with a faint "16" on the fuselage) , Japanese Betty bomber wing and nose , Val dive bomber tail ,  a Japanese Medium tank turret and assorted mess tins , helmets , water bottles etc .

Tambea is about 10 minutes up the road from Vilu , on the shores of Kamimbo Bay , the Japanese evacuation point in 1943 . . The Zero remains are well and truly stripped and lying by the roadside . The plane was found intact in the bay in the 1970's but an ownership dispute led to its demise . Across the road facing the beach is the Tambea Beach Resort .

Near their pool they have a few items - a Japanese war memorial to the 2nd Sendai Division and stuck in the ground nearby some propellers and tail fin pieces of either the same Zero or a Val dive bomber . Next to that is the remains of a Japanese 70mm gun , slowly rotting away , that they dragged out of the water in front of the resort some years ago .

This ship was one of 3 sunk by US aircraft on October 15th 1942 and cut up by scrap dealers in the 1960's -  the cut up plates of this ship remain piled high on the beach and lying along the waters edge . A dive-bomber hit ammunition in the rear hold and it sunk rapidly by the stern . 2 other transports lie nearby in 200 feet of water .

Beached and destroyed on November 15th 1942 , there is little visible above the waterline now after scrap merchants and storms have done their job (an earthquake in 1977 collapsed the entire bridge area). I have read the hold is full of British beer bottles and boxes of .303 ammunition captured in Singapore . This ship is a favourite with divers because of the easy accessibility from Honiara .

We found these about 100 yards from the beach . After 50 plus years in the open the armour is rusted wafer thin now on most and they are a sorry sight . They must use an old photo for the tourist brochures . They must have looked great 30 - 40 years ago ! Some are not too bad while others have large trees growing around and through them - I counted at least 30 . 200 yards West down the beach is the mouth of Gavaga creek . In early November 1942 combined 7th Marines  and 164th US Army Regiment forces encircled and killed 450 Japanese troops in a pocket on the East bank of the creek . There is a white US memorial pillar at the beach , but the plaque is missing .

The runway was lengthened towards the Ilu River end in 1978 , so some of the original field area that bordered on the Lunga River is  now overgrown  . There are some overgrown roads and buildings along the road to the Edsons Ridge battlefield . We found a US 90mm AA gun shell case in 1996 .
Of course every house or hut in the vicinity had fencing made out of matting from the airfield . Overlooking the bridge across the Lunga river is a field gun described to us as American , but upon examination was in fact a Japanese 75mm gun . I am told that this gun was once mounted on the bow of the Japanese transport "Kyusyu Maru" , beached West of Honiara .The hill houses a 1943 bunker complex with at least 3 concrete entrances .

Inside the terminal building various American memorial plaques adorn the walls . In front of the terminal are other plaques to the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions , Marine Raiders , the Coastwatchers and Solomon Islanders . Facing the road is a  good condition Japanese type 95 75mm AA gun - in fact the best we saw out of four such guns . This one at the airfield was originally sited in the palm grove across the road .

There are two more 75mm AA guns in the sand at Red Beach   which are totally rusted , the barrel of one missing .  We were told these guns were three of a four gun battery defending the field that was captured by the Marines . People remember seeing a fourth gun but nobody seems to know what has become of it today .

The main road in front of the terminal was once the taxiway  and the wartime control tower still stands as a good reference point . This is not the "original"  wooden 1942 tower , but one built later in the war .At the foot of the tower is a concrete air raid shelter (excavated in 1992) and a monument to the battle of Edson's Ridge . The view from the control tower is very good and you can certainly get oriented looking towards Bloody Ridge , Fighter strip # 1 , Pagoda Hill and the aircraft dispersal areas . The old Jap hangars south of the field are long gone , but the concrete foundation stones remain .

Across the road from the tower are the "Pagoda Hill"  and plane revetment areas , how heavily overgrown with trees , bushes , and tall grass . Concrete foundation slabs of long gone huts can be seen . The "Pagoda" flight operations hut was bulldozed in November 1942 , but  the Communications centre tunnels and rooms dug into the hills are still intact and dry , although with entrances overgrown and now populated by bats .

Most of the wartime palms have been cut down , which was a bit of a shame for comparison photos . On the west bank there is a lot of undergrowth and tall grass , and to the left of the trail to the beach relics in the former living area were visible (water tank etc) . That whole area would be very interesting to hack into .

In 1995 they were selling wartime dated Coca-Cola bottles at the Airport shop and said , pointing across the road to that area "there are thousands of them in the bushes..!" . They do not sell them at the Airport now , but there are still plenty for sale at the Honiara Market .

To the right of the trail on the west bank , just along the river line , is a large area where they seem to have buried all the aircraft bits and pieces . There were metal remains everywhere - mountings for radial engines , pieces of wing , aircraft parts , pieces of wing , propellers , rusted lids of  37mm ammo cans etc .In 1995 we found some US pilot armour from the back of the cockpit and gave it  to the museum . Very sweaty and full of mosquitos here. Unfortunately all this stuff is buried where the August 1942 positions would have been .

There is an American memorial pillar near the beach , but the plaque had been ripped off  . I  am told this marks the MG position where Marine Al Schmidt won the Navy Cross ? On the east bank (Japanese side) there is a Japanese memorial to the soldiers of the Ichiki Force . In 1996 we found a single US barbed wire stake lying on the beach , totally encrusted .  When we tried to chip the coral off the stake it broke in half - totally rusted through and carbonised . But still stuck to the side of it was a partially burnt 37mm shell propellant charge from a (slightly damp?) 37mm round fired by a Marine AT gun or Stuart light tank so long ago  a frozen moment  - my first and favourite Guadalcanal souvenir !

In March 1996 a friend visited the site briefly and found a few Japanese bottles in the bushes on the east bank and a single .303 round on the west bank . This round was made at the Maribyrnong Ordnance Factory here in Melbourne - actually just across the river from where I live. I wonder how it got there to the Ilu River ? I have read that the Americans found numerous captured Allied rifles being used by the Japanese on Guadalcanal and supplies of Jap loaded .303 ammunition - maybe this round was from Australian stocks captured in Malaya ? Perhaps it was from the rifle of a native scout  who knows ?. 

When I first went here in 1995 I only had a basic idea of the battle, but I have read a lot more since then . A lot of the surrounding jungle has been cut back since 1975 and some huts have gone up there since 1992 . In 1995-96 we walked the ground and found cartridge cases, belt clips, a single .45 calibre bullet, a US 2 cent piece  and a Japanese helmet with a bullet hole near  Marine Para positions on the left flank of the ridge . We were offered a US Army dogtag marked to "Edwin W. Geiger" . ( In 1999 I received a letter from Florida letting me know he was still alive and that  he remembered losing his dogtag  - 2nd Lt, 247th Field Artillery Battalion , Americal Div.).

The forward slope is still covered in barbed wire and stakes , so you had to watch your step . The kids had empty cartridge cases, cutlery , mess tins, US 37mm cases and canister round anti-personnel steel balls . The villagers said after periodic burning off items come to light . One guy showed us the remains of a Springfield rifle barrel bent like a bow by the force of an explosion . On this first ridge is a Japanese memorial dedicated to peace and the soldiers of both nations who fought here .

In 1995 a 40 minute walk into the jungle south of the ridge brought us to the tail section of a shot down Betty bomber . As we walked back to the foot of the ridge there was the tail fin with paint and markings intact lying against a tree - red primer paint with two horizontal white stripes and the number "1350" (shot down 16/3/43)...obviously carried out  and on its way to being stolen by parties unknown . We alerted the museum and they were back there 2 hours later - but too late  .

It had been filched in the meantime by "two white men in truck.", which really did not impress them , especially after I had shown them the video footage I took of it shortly before . They said that is a problem - aircraft parts etc being stolen and shipped out  of the country to overseas collectors .

In 1996 a friend asked to be taken to the Betty tail section we had told him about, but when they got to the site the whole tail was now gone , so somebody has been busy - he was not impressed after the long walk ! It would have taken some effort to get it all out of there . Interestingly he showed me a photo he had taken in the nearby bushes where a chunk of cut up metal with a white "3" was lying... a bit of the tail we saw or another part of the plane.?

He found a few other smaller aircraft bits in grass near the ridge and some well marked parts of US mortar ammunition containers . In 1996 the tall grass that was in front of the final Marine positions in 1995 had been burnt off, so we were able to have a look there . The trench indentations were visible and the barbed wire stakes and wire still there too - one near full roll was lying where it had been dumped partially strung - almost a frozen moment in time .

We walked down the slope and about 15 feet in front of the position there was the remains of a jerrican and nearby a yellow painted US pineapple grenade lying half buried in the dirt - very nice but live . I had read that the infantry disliked the bright yellow paint on the early issue grenades, but I was glad it made this one more visible !

A villager then walked over with a mint (live) Japanese grenade that he had found only the day before in his garden in the side of the hill , about 10 feet from the crest . From this point it is only a 15 minute walk to the airfield - they sure got close . The Japanese soldier who threw it must have been excited ,as he had not activated it - it probably cost him his life to get it up there too .

Both these were handed in for disposal . (Whenever we walked a battle site and were offered any relics we made sure to warn the locals of the dangers of unexploded ordnance - the Solomons bomb disposal squad periodically collect ordnance and blow it at Lunga Point) . On this final defensive knoll there is an American memorial near  the site of Col. Edson's command post .

This is an interesting area . The "Grassy Knoll" position on the top of Mt. Austen was used by Japanese artillery observers to direct their 150mm artillery fire onto Henderson Field and the view across the whole Marine perimeter is very good. Nearby there were overgrown slit trenches . We then drove down Wright Road to a village now on part of the Gifu battlefield - when they cleared the ground years ago to build it they found a lot of items, as the fighting here went on here for 2 months .

When we went there in 1995 the first things we noticed as the taxi pulled up was a large segment of Betty bomber wing, still with the red primer paint and most of the "meatball" .There were also engine controls and a Zero drop tank leaning against a tree, (from the Lunga Point area they said) . Not wanting to see these items go the way of the Betty tail fin at Bloody Ridge the museum let it be known they would not be pleased if the aircraft remains went "missing" . They were still there in 1996 , although deteriorating and losing paint out in the open  - really a shame .

From here a short walk took us to the Japanese memorial on top of Hill 27 -  nearby was a pile of shrapnel and more Garand rifle clips  . The locals said the Japanese recovered lots of bones in 1984 at the foot of the hill , in the area of the Japanese counter-attacks . The Japanese still periodically search for remains and cremate any bones found at the memorial in a bowl  - in 1996 we found a half burnt Japanese leather helmet  liner in the bowl .

In 1996 the locals had found  helmets , mess tins , water bottles - even the wheels from the Japanese 70mm gun captured by the Americans on the hill . During the American surprise attack  the Japanese crew had been caught resting under trees 30 yards from the gun and been cut down as they ran to man it - one wheel has a bullet hole through it . The Americans then used the gun against the Japanese until the ammunition supply ran out .

The gun had been taken apart and buried in foxholes - 50 years in the ground but 90% paint and wood still remained on the wheels . They  found the barrel in late 1995 and the wheels only a few days before we arrived , so the rest must still be buried up there somewhere . We walked down the rear slope of the hill and saw the foxhole they had found the gun wheels in . Nearby in the grass were a Japanese 70mm ammo can , shell case , a wheel hub and the traverse lock for the gun . Later we found another ammo tin that had been thrown down the hillside .

Strewn amongst nearby foxholes was a litter of ration tins , batteries and grenade handles . As we walked back past the memorial and down the hill  we passed a foxhole containing American steel helmet fittings and discarded BAR magazines . ( In 1998 another search of the hillside turned up cartridges , ration tins , grenade tin and 60mm mortar tin lids , grenade segments , grenade handles , a 75mm ammo tin lid , US Carlisle bandage tins and various ammo clips ) .

We walked down into the Gifu ravines and up to near Hill 31,where we were shown  the site of the mass grave of the last 85 Japanese defenders killed during the final breakout attempt (their bones were also recovered in 1984) . There were foxholes nearby and shattered  pieces of helmets and shot up water bottles in the grass . Further into some of the steeper ravines there were items scattered about . villagers  found a Japanese skeleton near a cave entrance with a single US .45 calibre case outside - I guess he refused to surrender . We found and were shown helmets, gasmask respirators , mess tins with US canister ammo shot holes through them , ammo clips, shovels etc, some of which we got for the museum .

One US water bottle I found here was marked "M. ROMERO" with a serial number . I wrote to the US Army Records Dept . Most of his file was lost and all they could tell me was that he enlisted in October 1941 and was discharged in September 1943 , so he survived Guadalcanal at least .

In 1995 we were told that the Japanese tanks knocked out here in October 1942 were still sunk in the sandbar and visible at low tide, so down we went to the beach to have a look . 1942 photos show at least 5 disabled tanks on the sandbar , but most of these were later blown up . Some other Jap tanks captured west of the river were recovered for evaluation . I am told that only 1 tank hull remains in the water . Coastwatcher Martin Clemens has told me that he inspected these tanks on the sandbar and found a bottle of alcohol in every turret !

The sandbar area is now covered by lots of huts of refugees from Bougainville . Suffice it to say that yes , we saw a tank turret sticking out of the water but there was no way we were going to wade out to it ,as sanitation left a lot to be desired in the area . (It took us two hours to scrub the soil and shit ,and I do mean shit , off our shoes and they smelt for weeks) .  In 1996  we were not about to go walking along that shore again , so took the comparison photo from the edge of the Honiara Hospital car park - this was the closest shot possible . One guy was looking at us rather suspiciously and asked what we were doing , but when we showed him the 1942 photos he became quite interested and lightened up .

As we returned to the car our taxi driver was cracking up laughing and when we asked him why he said "..because the area in the water around the tank is the women's toilet - he thought you were trying to take photos of them  sorry , I should have told you..!" . Neither of us were eager to contemplate salvaging a Japanese "toilet" for posterity at that moment .! At the Vilu museum they have a Japanese medium tank turret that they said came from one of the tanks here - it had taken a hit on the gun that had blown the barrel off .

On Skyline Ridge overlooking the Matanikau River a large US memorial was dedicated in 1992 giving details of the entire campaign . It is very impressive and the view across  the coast and Ironbottom Sound excellent .

Lela beach is a few miles west of Honiara . We went there to view the remains of an American floating crane on the shore and two Japanese 75mm field guns on the beach . One of the villagers said they found them in a scrap dump and set them up there .

It looked like both have had charges put down the barrels to wreck them . Across the road behind the village there is a Japanese memorial and behind that the remains of a Japanese tracked gun tractor that towed one of the 150mm guns used to shell  Henderson Field . I an told a lot of other relics used to be here 25 years ago .

One of the Japanese gunners had returned in 1995 and showed the villagers where the tractor had been buried during the retreat . The particular gun that he served on and that this tractor towed is now on display in Honiara in a park next to the National Museum .

Apart from the 150mm gun near the museum  there was another one down the road a bit at  the Guadalcanal Tennis Club . This gun was originally situated West of Honiara in a palm grove near the wreck of Transport "Kyusyu Maru" .  The beach behind the club was where 3 companies of 1st Battalion / 7th Marines landed on 27 September 1942 and later had to be evacuated from under heavy Japanese fire from Point Cruz .

The very best Japanese artillery piece we saw on the island was a very nice 95% complete 37mm AT gun (recovered from the Mount Austen battle area) . This was outside the Solomon Islands Tourist office next to the Kitano Mendana Hotel (this has since been moved across the road to the National Museum grounds).

On the West bank of the Poha there is a pig farm down the road as you turn off to the left after crossing the bridge. Their security officer took us through high grass to near the river where six more Japanese gun tractors were lying (together with swarms of mosquitos) . They must have been abandoned here for lack of fuel . It looked like they had been disabled by the Japanese with grenades etc .

The taxi driver we had in 1996 said that when he first came to live in Honiara in 1968 you could still find helmets, complete rifles etc in the bushes on the edges of town . As Honiara has grown new roads and housing construction have destroyed many battle area positions and relics . Everyone knows where stuff is of course, but not so much why it is there, and is very interested when you tell then what happened near their hut etc and are always ready to help you find relics . I think some of them got a good laugh out of humouring the crazy , sweaty white men looking for rusty metal , but they were all very friendly .

We brought our own reference material - the Tourist Bureau only had two very small scale coastal maps printed for the 1992 fifty year anniversary and that is about it . I gave them a pile of reference material , which they were very pleased to get . I took along a lot of 1942/43 comparison  photos etc and gave most of them away to interested Islanders , kids on Bloody Ridge and a teacher who teaches the kids WW2 history .

In 1996 I was talking to a staff member at the waterside Kitano Mendana Hotel  near Point Cruz . As we watched a dozen laughing young Japanese having a drink near the sea I remarked that I wondered if any of them realised that their countrymen had been bayonet charged by the 5th Marines on the beach behind them - probably none . He said " that it why some old Japanese go down to the beach sometimes and look like they are praying..". They said at Gifu that some older Japanese still cry on the spot , but younger ones almost never come there - they have probably never heard of it . The feel of the history that was made on Guadalcanal is still very strong .

Copyright 2004. Peter Flahavin