The sanguinary battle for Guadalcanal is primarily the story of the hard‑won victory of the foot Marine and soldier against incredible odds. It is no reflection on their achievement to note that the campaign was given considerable assistance by our naval and marine air forces. As in the case of the land forces, the way of the air units was hard. We had our reverses, and we learned costly lessons. Through it all, however, we were testing and hardening the techniques of war in the air. To alter slightly a famous utterance, there were times when too much was required of too few. We found that the refueling of fighting forces during a battle, furnishing and distributing supplies in advanced areas formed major problems of modern warfare. We also found that skilled American fighters in American-made planes could lick considerably more than their own weight, and that they were not discouraged by what appeared to be, and often was, overwhelming opposition. We learned that if need be carrier planes could fight from land, and that navy, marine, and army pilots could weld themselves into a fighting unit against the enemy, and when the job was completed return to their special tasks.
As we have seen, the Japanese, in their first rush of wartime offensive, had swept down the Pacific through the Philippines and the Netherlands East Indies and were literally knocking at the door of Australia. Their continued plans had been seriously checked by the battles of Coral Sea and Midway. If we were to keep the advantage won by these engagements, however, and if we were to prevent the severance of our supply lines, we had to take the offensive at once.
By 25 June 1942, therefore, Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, the commander of the South Pacific force and the South Pacific area, had received orders to attack as soon as practicable. Establishing headquarters in the USS Rigel at Auckland, New Zealand, Vice Admiral Ghormley met with Major General (later General) Alexander A. Vandegrift, USMC, who two weeks previously had arrived in New Zealand. The p155 plan as evolved was to use the 1st Marine Division, reinforced by the 2d Marine, the 1st Raider, and the 3rd Defense battalions in a projected assault on the Tulagi-Guadalcanal area. The landing place was to be Red Beach, on the north shore of Guadalcanal, some 6,000 yards east of the airfield that the Japs were assiduously constructing. D‑Day was tentatively set for 1 August.
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While we were planning our offensive, the enemy was landing a large force of laborers and soldiers on the island soon to be so hotly contested. The laborers were building, not far from 1 Lunga Point, the airfield soon to be known as 2 Henderson Field. Consequently it became more imperative than ever to attack, in order to prevent the enemy from using the new field as a launching point for air blows at our bases in the New Hebrides‑New Caledonia area. The urgency of striking at once while the foe was still weak from the staggering blows inflicted at Coral Sea and Midway overbalanced the exceedingly short hiatus between these battles and the opening of the Solomons campaign.
In addition to the scarcity of time, there was a shortage of civilian manpower for unloading and reloading transports, with the result that Marines, weary from a long voyage in crowded vessels, had to turn stevedores for the time being. The weather, furthermore, was not on our side, for an Antarctic rain blew down continuously, soaking the workers and saturating cardboard containers until they spilled their contents. Despite these obstacles, combat troops were loaded with the barest minimum of personal equipment, and on 22 July the first transport group, carrying the 1st Division, left Wellington with a naval escort bound for Koro Island in the Fijis where rehearsals for the imminent invasion took place from 28 to 31 July 1942.
Meanwhile, our naval air forces were preparing to give assistance. On 22 July, Admiral McCain, Commander, Aircraft, South Pacific area, advised Admiral Ghormley that his planes would begin a search two days before the scheduled attack to forestall enemy counteraction. Aircraft of the southwest Pacific command were also to carry on this preliminary activity.
The task force commanded by Admiral McCain consisted of seven groups, and illustrated the effective blending of the various air forces to complete a specific task. Two groups were USAAF bombardment groups, three were naval aviation units, and the remaining two were marine units. The shore-based planes within Admiral McCain's command aggregated 291 aircraft. Mainly, these conducted patrol sweeps. The Assault Force was under Vice Admiral Fletcher, with the Air Support Force composed of the carriers Saratoga, Enterprise, and Wasp p156 and their screening ships under Rear Admiral Leigh Noyes. The function of this force was to supply air offense and defense for Admiral R. K. Turner's amphibious force. The landing force was under the command of General Vandegrift, and was composed of the 1st Marine Division (less the 5th Battalion, 11th Marines, 1st Tank Battalion less two companies and detachments), 2d Marine (reinforced), the 1st Raider Battalion and the 3rd Defense Battalion. The rehearsal, simulating combat conditions as nearly as possible, was over on 31 July, and that afternoon the fleet left the Fijis for the Solomons. The stage was set, and the characters were ready for the opening act of one of the great dramas in World War II.
On 3 August the fleet passed through the southern New Hebrides and by the fifth reached the 159th meridian and headed north for the Tulagi-Guadalcanal area. Even before the force sighted the islands destined for invasion, Admiral McCain's planes had been executing pre‑invasion missions. By the sixth the weather afforded cover for a stealthy approach to the Solomons. Clouds and a mist that limited even surface visibility made enemy air reconnaissance impracticable. By 1600 on the sixth, the armada disposed itself for approach; the squadron destined for the Tulagi landing followed •six miles astern by the force covering the Guadalcanal landings. By 0300 of D‑Day, which had been changed to 7 August, they were off the northwest tip of Guadalcanal. There they separated, the Tulagi squadron passing to the north of 1 Savo Island, now discernible in the waning moonlight, the Guadalcanal group heading south for the north shore of 2 Guadalcanal. There was no exchange from the enemy, and the completeness of the surprise was confirmed. Meanwhile, the carriers were disposing themselves •seventy-five miles from 3 Tulagi, and before sunrise they launched their first strikes.
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As the Chicago, leading 15 transports deployed in two columns, headed a ghostly procession along the dim shore of Guadalcanal, our carrier‑based bombers appeared and concentrated their attacks on gun batteries, vehicles, and supply dumps, while fighters from the Wasp destroyed 15 patrol planes and 7 seaplane fighters in the water at Tulagi. Nine hundred yards off Red Beach the Marines were awaiting the signal to land. At 0650 came the signal to "land the landing forces," and the amphibious operation was under way.
There is unfortunately no place in this account for the heroic struggle of the land forces on Guadalcanal. The landings were accomplished easily and, as the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division said, "proceeded with the precision of a peacetime drill." There was little p157 opposition at the outset, and the defending forces fled precipitately to the hills. This initial response of the Japanese, regrettably, was not a harbinger of things to come, as the ensuing months were to show. In contrast to Guadalcanal, the landings on Tulagi, and two other spots, Gavutu and Tanambogo, were bitterly contested, and gave carrier aircraft their first opportunity of World War II to demonstrate their effective close support of an amphibious operation.
The first phase of the Guadalcanal campaign might be termed the digging‑in process. During this procedure, the question of air support soon became of vital significance. The sizable air resistance that developed immediately after the initial landings, placed a strain on the resources of the carriers. As a result, the flattops had to retire from their positions south of Guadalcanal because their fuel was running low. In addition, they had lost 21 of their 99 fighters. Enemy air strength, meanwhile, was mounting.
As a consequence of these factors, a conference was held, and it was decided to retire the carriers as soon as possible so that they could be refueled and again be ready for action. With their departure on the ninth and the ensuing, virtually unopposed air raids by the enemy, transports, now dangerously vulnerable to air attack, could unload only a portion of their supplies on the Guadalcanal shores. By sunset of the ninth, the transports were forced to leave.
The next days were difficult ones, but despite obstacles, the Marines went ahead with their digging‑in process. Important from the standpoint of aviation was the work carried on for the completion of an airfield. A strip •2600 feet long and 160 feet wide had been left by the Japanese in their first hasty flight from the area. Handicapped by the lack of power shovels, and working with hand shovels, trucks and dump carts, the Engineering Battalion moved 100,000 cubic feet of fill and within six days had a runway •nearly 4,000 feet in length, despite continuous enemy bombings. These bombings continued, but holes were filled, and on 12 August 1942 the first plane landed on what five days later was christened Henderson Field. This first plane was a PBY‑5A which landed and evacuated two wounded men when only •2800 feet of the runway were operable. On 20 August, marine planes arrived, having been preceded by marine aviators who had helped prepare the field for combat operations. These marine planes were divided into two squadrons, one fighter and the other bomber, equipped with Wildcats and SBD's. The members of these squadrons were to give a brilliant account of themselves before the termination of the Guadalcanal campaign. p158 Due credit should also be given to Army Air Force fighters, who lent distinguished service in P‑400's. The total of this first force was small; 19 Wildcats, 12 SBD‑3's, and 5 P‑400's. Intended for British high altitude use and equipped with oxygen gear, the P‑400 (a stripped-down version of the Airacobra), had to be employed as a low‑altitude fighter since there were no oxygen bottles available on Guadalcanal. Opposed to this small force were the groups of eighteen to twenty-four enemy bombers, escorted by twenty or thirty Zeros, that came down every day from Bougainville or Buka fields. It was the quality of pilots, rather than the quantity of planes that depleted the Japanese air force in the Solomons.
The air squadrons had arrived just in time to be of assistance in the bitter struggle — called the Battle of the Tenaru — that followed. The Japanese had thrown reinforcements into the island that were of a much different caliber from the laborers who had fled to the hills from Red Beach.
With the limited air strength at our disposal, there had to be a division of effort. The army P‑400's did excellent service as interceptors and as ground support, just as in 1944 and 1945 the marine air forces were to assist army ground forces in the Philippines. The Wildcats served as bomber escorts, and the SBD's bombed enemy vessels, though on occasion they supported ground forces.
At noon on the twenty-first, 4 Wildcats of Major John L. Smith's squadron engaged 6 Zeros at •14,000 feet between Lunga Point and Savo Island. In that engagement Major Smith shot down the first Japanese plane to be destroyed in the air by a marine pilot in the Solomons. Before the Guadalcanal campaign was over, Major Smith was to account for 19 enemy planes.
Between 24 August and 27 September, the air force was augmented by 11 SBD's from the Enterprise. Launched on the morning of 24 August, this unit, known as Flight 300, had been sent in search of a Japanese carrier. Failing to make contact, the force landed after dark at Henderson Field, and for more than a month gave valuable service to the American forces on Guadalcanal.
During this period the American carriers had refueled and were ready to enter the picture once again. At the same time the enemy was pulling its sea and air forces together in the area. The result was an engagement p159 known as the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. From 23 to 25 August the enemy had three forces spread out in the Malaita area in an arc •sixty to eighty miles wide. One was composed of the carrier, Ryujo, a heavy cruiser, and three destroyers. The second consisted of two large carriers, believed to be the Shokaku and the Zuikaku, both of which had participated and had been damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea. These carriers were supported by 4 heavy and 6 light cruisers and 8 destroyers. The third force contained 3 heavy cruisers and from 3 to 5 destroyers. In the engagement we inflicted more damage to both enemy ships and planes than we received, but failure of communications prevented our striking the two large carriers, which would have been more strategic objectives and which were closer to us. Despite this fact, the Battle of the Eastern Solomons was extremely important, since it permitted continued consolidation of our positions in the Solomons.
Japanese air raids on our establishments on Guadalcanal, meanwhile, continued with daily precision. Our land-based air forces conducted themselves with great bravery and ability. Instances of teamwork were supplemented by numerous cases of individual heroism, and time and time again the will to survive was illustrated. A case in point was that of Second Lieutenant Richard R. Amerine, USMCR. Forced to bail out of his plane, he landed in the Coral Sea •some four miles from Guadalcanal. Swimming to shore, he stumbled upon a sleeping Japanese officer. Braining the officer with a stone, the Marine Corps lieutenant helped himself to a .44 caliber Smith and Wesson pistol, holster, ammunition belt, and the dead man's shoes. Thus equipped, he started a •thirty‑mile trek through dense, enemy-controlled jungle to his base. After a harrowing experience, which included beating two more Japanese to death with the butt of his pistol, Lieutenant Amerine finally made his way back to safety and the Silver Star medal.
Enemy activity, despite the setback received in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, was greatly accelerated the first two weeks of September. Even the heroic efforts of our greatly outnumbered aviation force could not circumvent the enemy's reinforcement of his ground troops nor prevent his landing supplies in preparation for a major and decisive contest for the possession of Guadalcanal. Our own supply transports, on the other hand, arrived irregularly and hardly ever completed unloading because of air, surface, and submarine attacks. On p160 the afternoon of the thirtieth, for example, in spite of our shooting down eighteen enemy planes in the noon attack, the enemy dropped bombs on the USS Colhoun, a transport, and sank her in less than five minutes, although ninety of her crew were saved.
Our air forces were being slowly augmented by planes from carriers and outlying American bases. As a result air assistance was possible in some of the raids on outlying Jap positions, as at Tasimboko, where a minor defeat was inflicted upon the enemy. By September, we had 74 F4F's, 37 SBD's, 3 P‑400's, and 12 TBF's on Guadalcanal, ready to render aid in the fierce battle of Bloody Ridge that took place on the thirteenth and fourteenth of September.
During this period our growing air force made continuous strikes at enemy shipping and land positions. Even General Geiger slipped away from the watchful eye of his staff, climbed into an SBD and dropped a 1,000‑pound bomb on enemy installations in the Visale area. During this period the ratio of Jap planes shot down was five to one in our favor. During these months, also, the squat little "Duck," or J2F‑5, and the antiquated cruiser biplanes proved more than once their ability as rescue planes, and were used both for food dropping and for the actual rescue of downed airmen. For the last half of the month, the 1st Marine Air Wing not only carried on intensive tactical operations but also operated a transport service. Thirty-eight R4D's were utilized to evacuate the wounded and to deliver equipment and reinforcements to Guadalcanal.
It was also during the period between the arrival of the planes on Guadalcanal and the end of September that Admiral Nimitz awarded three Navy Crosses and eleven Distinguished Flying Crosses to navy, marine, and army pilots for outstanding service in the campaign. Before the campaign was over, there were not only many more of these medals awarded, but eight marine pilots received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
On 15 September, naval aviation suffered an important loss at sea. The carrier Wasp, while covering a movement to land reinforcements and supplies, was struck by three torpedoes from a submarine and was so badly damaged that she had to be sunk.
During October the Japanese made major efforts to break through our defenses by means of land attacks. Heavy reinforcements were made by means of the so‑called "Tokyo Express," a shipping effort that continued despite our attacks on it. By 9 October the enemy had landed ten thousand additional troops. The discovery of the Japanese plans p161 on the body of a dead Jap officer plus the fact that we also received reinforcement in the shape of the 164th Army Infantry Regiment, made possible frustration of their scheme.
One attempt to halt the Tokyo Express, though it did not stop the run, was a successful venture for us. On the night of 11‑12 October, a task force, commanded by Admiral Norman Scott, surprised the Tokyo Express between Cape Esperance, on the northwest coast of Guadalcanal, and Savo Island. In a thirty-minute engagement named for the cape, we sank a heavy cruiser, four destroyers, and a transport, in addition to putting a cruiser out of action and badly damaging a destroyer, all in exchange for the loss of one vessel, the USS Duncan. Intensified air raids had preceded the affair, and our planes performed yeoman work afterwards in directing rescue operations for personnel of the USS Duncan. Later that same day air attack groups encountered another Japanese force and inflicted serious if not fatal damage to two destroyers. It was on the following day that Captain (later Major) Joseph Foss shot down the first of the twenty‑six planes that he was to destroy before the close of the Guadalcanal campaign.
Despite these losses, the enemy continued to pour reinforcements into Guadalcanal. On the fourteenth a heavily escorted convoy of seven transports was seen headed for the island. A lone American bomber managed to sink one of the transports on the fifteenth, but, though additional bombers were sent over from Espiritu Santo, many Japanese troops managed to get ashore.
The enemy continued his activity; shore bombardment and daily air attacks harassed our land forces and depleted our air forces. Nearly three months of sanguinary battle under atrocious conditions were beginning to take their toll on bodies and nerves, yet the determination to hold on was not diminished.
After the middle of October the situation began to change. Some of the old veterans were given relief as new forces came in. Both sides were feverishly preparing for the showdown. For a time it looked as if Japanese endeavors were achieving greater success, and it was during these days that the outcome was most in doubt. Beginning the night of 23 October, the enemy made four successive desperate night attacks in the effort to dislodge our forces from Henderson Field. Heavy rains reduced the ability of the American planes to assist in the defense, as at times the field was a bog from which no planes could take off. On the ground a bitter hand-to‑hand struggle finally repulsed the invaders.
While these desperate struggles were taking place on Guadalcanal, three Japanese task forces were headed for the area. One of these included three carriers — the Shokaku, Zuikaku and Zuiho — and another included the carrier Hayataka. Our own naval forces in the area were extremely weak in comparison. The Enterprise was under repair at Pearl Harbor, the Wasp had been sunk on 15 September, and the Saratoga was out of action as a result of a torpedo hit on 31 August. We had, in the South Pacific, a task force composed of the Hornet, supported by the heavy cruisers Northampton and Pensacola, the antiaircraft light cruisers Juneau and San Diego, and a number of destroyers. The only battleship in the area was the Washington, which had supported an army convoy into Guadalcanal on 13 October. This was not a very imposing opposition to confront the mighty three-pronged fleet the Japanese had concentrated for the attack. Consequently, repairs were hurriedly completed on the Enterprise, and she departed at flank speed for the Solomons with the new battleship South Dakota, to make rendezvous with the Hornet group, and to operate under the command of Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., new Commander, South Pacific. About midnight of 25 October our ships, reinforced by the remaining units of Admiral Scott's task force that had fought the Battle of Cape Esperance two weeks before, rounded Savo Island and retired southward before daylight, observed intermittently by Jap planes. Admiral Kinkaid was in command of the Enterprise and Hornet task forces.
The Battle of Santa Cruz that ensued on the morning of 26 October was of a pattern similar to that of the battles of Coral Sea and Midway in that most of the damage was wrought by carrier-based planes and no surface vessels opposed each other. In the battle we lost the Hornet and suffered damage to the Enterprise, the South Dakota, San Juan and the destroyer Smith. The Porter was so badly damaged by a submarine torpedo that she had to be sunk. We also lost 74 carrier planes, 20 of which were shot down in combat. On the other side of the picture, we inflicted damage on 2 enemy carriers, a battleship, 3 heavy cruisers and a light cruiser or destroyer, but none was sunk. In addition, we destroyed 66 enemy aircraft.
On the basis of these figures, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the battle was more costly to us than to the enemy, because of the reduction in our carrier strength. The only advantage we gained from the engagement was the fact that the plane losses and carrier damage p163 we inflicted gave the enemy a shortage of aircraft resulting in insufficient air coverage for the enemy invasion fleet in the decisive battle that was looming three weeks ahead.
The Battle of Guadalcanal grew out of a desperate attempt on the part of the Japanese to strengthen their forces on the island, and an equally desperate effort on the part of the Allied forces to prevent this reinforcement from taking place. For some time, the Japanese had tried to take in men and supplies by cruisers, destroyers, and landing boats from near‑by islands. They were not making much headway, however, against the combined depredations of our planes from Henderson Field and of our PT boats. Since they could not appreciably improve their situation by these piecemeal means, the Japanese undertook an operation of major proportions. By 12 November, 2 carriers, 4 battleships, 5 heavy cruisers and about 30 destroyers and transports were concentrated at Rabaul, including 4 probable battleships, 6 cruisers and 33 destroyers in the Buin-Faisi-Tonolei anchorages.
We had nothing adequate to ward off the all‑out attack the Japanese were about to launch. The Enterprise was at Noumea but was damaged and not expected to be ready for action before 21 November; the Saratoga was almost ready to rejoin the fleet but was still at Pearl Harbor. Even our considerably augmented land-based aviation was inferior in numbers to the force that the enemy was mustering.
A preliminary phase of the battle was our own attempt to reinforce the island by an extensive supply operation. The work on the Enterprise, meanwhile, was speeded up. When our transports began unloading at Guadalcanal, they were subjected to severe attacks by enemy planes. Marine pilots took to the air, and casualties were fairly heavy on both sides, but the Marines demonstrated great ability in first knocking down the escorting Zeros and then turning their attention to the bombers. On 12 November one of the first suicide attacks of the war was made, as a plane crashed into the San Francisco and then plunged into the sea, taking a toll of thirty lives and causing fire damage.
The Battle of Guadalcanal may be broken conveniently into three phases. The first was a cruiser engagement on the night of 12‑13 November, the second centered about aviation activity on the thirteenth and fourteenth, and the last was a battleship engagement on the nights of p164 14‑15 November, 1942. It is clear that for the most part, the first and last phases lie outside the scope of this account. The cruiser action of 12‑13 November was a short but exceedingly bitter struggle in which we were outmatched in numbers of ships engaged. Virtually the only thing that saved our forces was the fact that the enemy had brought the wrong ammunition with them. The Japanese had come to bombard our shore establishments, not to engage armor-protected vessels. The bulk of their ammunition, therefore, was bombardment ammunition. The San Francisco, for example, took fifteen major caliber hits and still stayed afloat. In the engagement we lost a light antiaircraft cruiser, Atlanta and 4 destroyers, with a number of ships badly damaged, including the cruiser Juneau which was sunk the following day by a Japanese submarine. The Japanese lost 1 light and 1 heavy cruiser and 4 destroyers, with a number damaged.
In addition, in this so‑called cruiser phase, the Japanese had one battleship, the Hiyei. This vessel was badly damaged during the night and was spotted by American planes the following day. Nine torpedo planes and 6 fighters from the Enterprise, on their way to Henderson Field to act as a relief force, joined marine aircraft in attacking the injured battleship. Throughout the day she was hit again and again by planes from Guadalcanal, but at night she was still afloat, despite the fact that she had taken an amazing total of eleven direct hits from torpedoes, four 1000‑pound bombs, and several smaller bombs. The explanation of this invulnerability apparently lies in the fact that the torpedoes were set to explode at a depth of •ten feet. This was considered the proper depth for operations around Guadalcanal, but because the Hiyei was very low in the water, it is believed that several torpedoes exploded against armor instead of against more vulnerable parts of the ship. No ship could stand up indefinitely under such a beating, however, and late that evening some of the crew were observed leaving the vessel, and it was assumed that she was being abandoned. On the following day the Hiyei had disappeared and an oil slick two to three miles off Savo Island was evidence that the first enemy battleship of the war had been sunk.
On the fourteenth a strong force of enemy cruisers and destroyers was sighted. This was the group that, possibly with the help of the Hiyei, had bombarded Henderson Field the night before. Marine and navy fliers attacked this force and succeeded in sinking at least two cruisers. At the same time, search planes had sighted twelve Japanese transports in the "slot" moving north of New Georgia toward Guadalcanal. Other search planes located a strong cruiser and destroyer force in another area. Our p165 work was now clearly cut out; it was up to the air and surface forces to prevent the transports from getting through. All day long on the fourteenth, planes from Henderson and the Enterprise attacked the transports, gradually cutting them down and engaging in running fights with the Japanese air support. Naval and marine fliers were joined at times by two flights of army B‑17's. At the end of the day, 4 enemy transports had been sunk and 4 were aflame and dead in the water, but 4 were still doggedly headed for Guadalcanal.
Meanwhile our surface strength had been considerably increased, especially by the addition of two battleships, the Washington and South Dakota, which by noon of the fourteenth were only •fifty miles from Guadalcanal. The presence of this force made possible the third phase of the battle, the battleship engagement of the night of 14‑15 November. Scouting planes played a part in the early stages, but essentially it was a struggle of surface forces. In the engagement our naval forces sank 5 enemy ships and damaged 6, and lost 3 destroyers. Our victory was due in a considerable degree to superior ship-borne radar.
Four Japanese transports, in the meantime, had reached Guadalcanal and were attempting to unload. As soon as daylight came, our air forces, aided by marine land units and the destroyer Meade, began attacking the enemy. By dusk of the fifteenth the beached ships had been completely destroyed. The all‑out effort of the Japanese had failed. While it was to take three hard months to force the final evacuation of the enemy from the island, Guadalcanal had in reality been won.
The enemy, in the Battle of Guadalcanal, tried neutralization by naval bombardment rather than by carrier-based planes probably because of the enormous losses in carrier planes in the Battle of Santa Cruz. Except for fighter coverage, the Japanese Air Force took no part in the battle. One of the most decisive factors in the Battle of Guadalcanal was the successful use of our carrier groups as temporary land-based groups — the Enterprise flew the planes off and then retired to a safe distance, while the planes operated with devastating effectiveness from Henderson Field. Another important feature of our operations at Guadalcanal was the co‑operation of all our fighting forces, Army, Navy, Marines, Australians, New Zealanders, and even the natives. With the taking of Guadalcanal the Allies were definitely on the road back to victory.
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