On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, forcing the U.S. to enter World War II.
From that date until Oct. 13, 1942, Japan had the U.S. Army on its heels, because the Army was fighting a defensive war. It was on that later date that the 164th Infantry Regiment landed on Guadalcanal to take the fight to the Japanese. The 164th was a unit of soldiers from the North Dakota National Guard, under the command of Lt. Col. Robert Hall.
As a civilian, Hall had been a Stutsman County farmer and Jamestown post office clerk, but on the battlefield this commander had the unity and respect of the men in his regiment. Eddie Burns, one of the soldiers of the 164th, wrote that Hall was loved by all of his soldiers and that they "would have followed him to hell and back." Largely because of Hall’s leadership, the men in his regiment were able to defeat the enemy, despite the fact that they were vastly outnumbered.
For his action and leadership at Guadalcanal, Hall received praise from the top commanders of both the U.S. Army and Navy, Gen. George Marshall and Adm. Chester Nimitz. Hall also received something rarely given to an Army soldier: the Navy Cross, the highest award in the U.S. Navy.
Robert Kerr Hall was born Nov. 21, 1895, in Fargo, to William and Alice (Chisholm) Hall. Robert grew up near Jamestown where his father was a Stutsman County farmer. After graduating from high school in Jamestown, Robert remained on the farm assisting his father, and on Oct. 1, 1915, he enlisted as a private with Company H in the 1st Infantry of the North Dakota National Guard.
On June 19, 1916, he was called into federal service and sent to Texas to help provide border security. At that time, Pancho Villa, a Mexican bandit, had been leading a band of outlaws on raids across the U.S. border, and the North Dakota National Guard was sent to Mercedes, Texas, to protect lives and property against attacks by Villa's gang. "While they never saw Villa, or his outlaws, they did have an opportunity to practice and sharpen their soldering skills, something that would serve them well with the outbreak of World War I."
When it became apparent that the U.S. would enter the war, Hall and the other North Dakota guardsmen were called home and discharged on Feb. 14, 1917, only to be recalled back to active duty on March 26 and reassigned to the 1st Infantry. Nine days later, the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany, and a full mobilization of the National Guard was ordered.
At first, recruitment was slow, but it picked up during the summer months, and on Aug. 15, Hall was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to the 301st Infantry. He was sent to Camp Greene in Charlotte, N.C., in September for further processing and additional training. Hall was shipped overseas to France and served at Camp Pontanezen, in the city of Brest, until May 14, 1919, when he returned to the U.S.
He was discharged at Camp Dix, N.J., on Oct. 27 and went to Stutsman County to help his father on the farm. Hall soon found employment at the Jamestown post office, which gave him time off to attend the weekly National Guard drills and the annual summer encampments.
On Oct. 21, 1921, the 1st Infantry was reorganized and designated as the 164th Infantry. On June 10, 1929, Hall was promoted to first lieutenant, and he was promoted to captain on Dec. 28, 1934. "As a captain in the part-time National Guard, Hall was known for his serious attitude towards training, and his experience in World War I impressed the men, as did his serious demeanor and taciturn nature." The soldiers of the 164th nicknamed Hall "The Hawk" because of "his demeanor and appearance. He was tall and straight, with high cheekbones and a hawkish nose."
On Feb. 10, 1941, Hall was promoted to major and given command of the 164th Infantry which was mobilized for a year of training at Camp Claiborne, in central Louisiana, to focus on basic training and artillery practice. Before the completion of the training at Claiborne, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The next day, the 164th, composed of 1,700 soldiers from North Dakota, was ordered to the West Coast to make preparations for what actions they would be taking in the war against Japan.
The decision was made to send the regiment to Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, where the Marines under the command of Lt. Col. Chestly Puller were desperately trying to defend the valuable airstrip known as Henderson Field. The 164th arrived at Guadalcanal on Oct. 13, and Hall and Puller discussed their strategy. Since the members of the 164th were unfamiliar with the terrain and other factors on the island, it was decided that the new and veteran forces be intermingled where they could work together.
Because of the pouring rain, the ground was mud and movement became very difficult. Foxholes were dug and machine gun emplacements were strategically located. The positions of the North Dakota soldiers and U.S. marines were continuously shelled by Japanese gunboats offshore, but 11 days after the 164th soldiers came ashore, the Japanese launched a massive attack. Wave after wave of soldiers rushed the American perimeter, and each time they were repulsed.
This continued for two days, but largely because of the placement and effectiveness of the soldiers, Henderson Field remained under American control. When the fighting eased up on the morning of the 26th, "It was clear the enemy had suffered a disastrous defeat. In front of the 164th Infantry were 1,700 dead Japanese. The North Dakota unit, meanwhile, suffered only 26 killed and 52 wounded."
The next objective was to clear the island of all Japanese soldiers, but this was not an easy task as pockets of Japanese soldiers continued fighting. In late November, the Japanese made one last all-out effort to try and defeat the Americans. Nov. 20-27 is known as "the bloodiest week of the entire war for the 164th. More than 100 men were killed and some 200 wounded." Hall was wounded on the last day of battle and received medical care at a hospital in Fiji before returning to action to help drive the final Japanese forces off of Guadalcanal.
For his action, bravery and leadership, Hall was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. He returned stateside to help train American soldiers how to fight and survive in the jungle. At the conclusion of World War II, Hall moved to Costa Mesa, 35 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
With the passage of time, most Americans got caught up in other things and the significance of the American victory at Guadalcanal faded in memory. When Hall died on Jan. 1, 1962, at Camp Pendleton, very little mention was made about his contribution in changing the course of the war in the Pacific.
Then, 57 years after the battle, and 37 years after Hall's death, an article appeared in the May 1999 issue of the 164th Infantry News. The title of the article was "The Trail of the Hawk," written by Eddie Burns. Burns, from Fargo, served in the 164th at Guadalcanal along with two of his brothers.
Burns began the article with, "This is his story! One which had to be told. It is as I saw it through my own eyes, unvarnished and true. It is the incredible saga of the imperturbable late, great Lt. Colonel Robert Kerr, the only Army officer or Army enlisted man on Guadalcanal to be awarded The Navy Cross for Extraordinary Heroism and Leadership while leading the third battalion into the hellhole which came to be known to the Japanese as The Island of Green Death."
Three years later, on Oct. 10, 2002, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., introduced into the Congressional Record the heroic efforts and achievements of Hall and the 164th Infantry Regiment on Guadalcanal. Hall may be gone, but he is no longer forgotten.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.