August, 1942-February, 1943: Battle of Guadalcanal

During the first half of 1942, the Japanese achieved spectacular expansion and the Allies were in desperate straits in all theaters of World War II. The global strategic priority was Germany first, so resources were scarce. The Guadalcanal and larger Solomon Islands campaigns were fought under these challenging circumstances, and the Allied situation was reversed.

During the first half of 1942, the Japanese achieved spectacular expansion and the Allies were in desperate straits in all theaters of World War II. The global strategic priority was Germany first, so resources were scarce. The Guadalcanal and larger Solomon Islands campaigns were fought under these challenging circumstances, and the Allied situation was reversed.

The Battle of Midway set the stage for the Battle of Guadalcanal, one of the most important struggles during the war in the Pacific. The engagement at Midway had taken place in early June, 1942. It was a spectacular air engagement, in which the Japanese lost 4 aircraft carriers, 275 planes, and one hundred first-line pilots. Land-based Army Air Force planes also participated, although they achieved little. This stunning defeat forced Japan onto the defensive and gave the Allied powers a badly needed reprieve. As a result of the Battle of Midway, U.S. planners soon decided to launch a limited offensive in the area of the Pacific Ocean where the Central Pacific and Southwest Pacific commands overlapped.

U.S. Objectives

The logical initial objective was the Solomon Islands. This chain of islands was located within easy bombing range of the great Japanese air base at Rabaul on New Britain Island and the important Allied base of Port Moresby in southern New Guinea. Furthermore, the Japanese had begun construction of a bomber field on Guadalcanal–one of the southernmost islands in the Solomons. Whoever controlled Guadalcanal and finished the airfield would hold an important advantage in the Pacific war.

Acting from the initiative of Admiral Ernest King, chief of naval operations, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered Admiral Chester Nimitz and General Douglas MacArthur, theater commanders, to gather all available forces and equipment for an amphibious operation in the Solomon Islands against the adjoining islands of Guadalcanal and Tulagi. The invasion, planned in conjunction with a renewed attack in New Guinea and an attempt to seize Rabaul, was to begin on August 1, but delays and a lack of supplies dictated that the Solomons operation be postponed until August 7. The Allied forces included U.S. air, marine, army, naval, and submarine units, and various other forces from Australia and New Zealand, native coastwatcher units coordinated by the Royal Australian Navy, and intelligence agencies modeled on British methods. The U.S. forces were largely ignorant of the islands that they were to invade and had little time to work out plans for the landings. The combined force, consisting of eighty-two ships carrying the First Marine Division, elements of the Second Marine Division, and other contingents, met near the Fiji Islands in late July.

Battle of Guadalcanal

The Campaign Begins

Early on August 7, a U.S. carrier task force took position south of Guadalcanal. Under its protection, the first support ships and landing force, commanded by Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, slipped along the west coast of Guadalcanal. After a heavy shore bombardment, Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift’s Marines waded ashore. The landings were practically unopposed on Guadalcanal, although strong resistance was encountered on Tulagi. On August 8, the Marines seized their primary objective, the unfinished airfield soon to be named Henderson Field. Japanese forces on Guadalcanal were fewer than twenty-five hundred, and within a few days there were approximately sixteen thousand Marines on the island. Other factors, however, intervened to prevent a swift Allied victory.

The Japanese were able to respond quickly to the attack by dispatching reinforcements to Guadalcanal and initiating steps designed to gain naval superiority in the area. They were assisted by U.S. timidity regarding the safety of the carrier task force. Vice Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, commander of the invasion, withdrew his carriers on August 8. Thereafter, the beachhead received almost no air protection, and heavy Japanese bombing attacks began. The withdrawal of the carriers emboldened the Japanese to send a strong surface force, in the hope of destroying U.S. warships and transports and thereby isolating the Marines. The Japanese striking force of five heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and a destroyer slipped past Allied patrol vessels and entered Iron Bottom Sound at 1:00 a.m. on August 9. Carefully trained for night action, the Japanese sank four Allied cruisers and won a tremendous victory, although their commander, Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, erred in not attacking the unprotected support ships and the beachhead itself. The defeat caused Rear Admiral Turner to withdraw his amphibious force, leaving behind sixteen thousand Marines who were insufficiently supplied for the task of maintaining their positions on Guadalcanal. However, their enemy had even more serious logistical problems.

War of Attrition

From mid-August, 1942, until early February, 1943, when Allied forces finally cleared the entire island, Japanese and Allied forces were locked in bitter conflict. Both sides made desperate efforts to reinforce their numbers in this struggle of attrition and to deny supplies and reinforcements to the other. After initial success, the Marines encountered stubborn resistance and made little progress for several months. The Japanese launched several offensives, but inaccurate information about the strength of the Allied forces caused them to fail. The most notable engagements were the Battle of the Tenaru River, in which one thousand Japanese were virtually wiped out, and the Battle of Bloody Ridge on September 13 and 14, at which a Japanese force of six thousand troops under Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi was cut to pieces. By the time the Japanese high command realized that large reinforcements were required, Allied naval and air defenses were much improved. After mid-September, the Marine foothold was secure, and reinforcements and supplies were coming in on a continual basis.

Final victory could not be won, however, until one side achieved naval dominance in the area. The struggle between Allied and Japanese naval forces continued through the autumn, with the Imperial Navy controlling the waters around Guadalcanal at night and the Allies–because of Henderson Field’s aircraft, mostly with Marine pilots–commanding the area during the day. A number of important but indecisive carrier and ship-to-ship engagements occurred, such as the Battle of the Eastern Solomons and the Battle of Cape Esperance. The latter was the result of a desperate Japanese effort to reinforce Guadalcanal. Although it was considered an Allied victory, the Japanese moved ahead, bombing Henderson Field and dispatching a battleship force to bombard Allied positions. On October 15, forty-five hundred Japanese soldiers were landed, raising their total on the island to twenty thousand, and the Imperial Army prepared for a victorious offensive.

The Marines suffered from low morale, malaria and other diseases, and exhaustion. With more than half the planes on Henderson Field rendered nonoperational, a defeatist feeling spread throughout the chain of command. On October 16, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey replaced Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley as commander of the Southwest Pacific forces. Halsey was convinced that control of Guadalcanal was essential, and the Joint Chiefs had reached the same conclusion.

Escalation of Fighting

The main Japanese attacks came on October 24 and 25, but these frontal assaults against fortified U.S. positions resulted in costly defeats. In November, both sides attempted to bring in reinforcements. The Allies were successful, but the Japanese, having lost a crucial naval engagement in the middle of the month, were able to land only about four thousand soldiers, who were badly equipped and poorly supplied.

In December, U.S. Army units replaced the exhausted Marines, and these fresh forces soon launched a powerful attack, assisted by air strikes from Henderson Field and from aircraft carriers. The Japanese held on grimly until January 4, 1943, when Tokyo ordered the evacuation of Guadalcanal within thirty days. Operating brilliantly under constant pressure from the Allies, the Imperial Army command evacuated more than eleven thousand troops by destroyers February 9. The bitter six-month struggle for Guadalcanal ended on this note of indecisiveness. Allied casualties were sixteen hundred killed and forty-two hundred wounded. Fourteen thousand Japanese were killed or missing, nine thousand dead from disease, and approximately one thousand captured.

Later disclosures concerning intelligence, communications, and reconnaissance have shed additional light on events. The coastwatchers rightly have received major credit. One reason the Japanese cruisers that annihilated the Allied naval forces at Savo Island were a surprise was a communication breakdown between regional commands. An Australian reconnaissance aircraft sighted and reported the Japanese, but the message was lost between command centers. The Allies benefited frequently from intercepts and analysis of signals intelligence. The Japanese achieved complete surprise when they withdrew more than ten thousand troops at the end. Indeed, the Allies were expecting a Japanese offensive.

Guadalcanal received much interest on the home front, and a new vocabulary arose: Guadalcanal, Henderson Field, the Tokyo Express (Japanese reinforcements), Iron Bottom Sound (a bay north of Guadalcanal, where naval and air forces were destroyed and sunk), the Long Lance torpedo (a superior Japanese weapon), and Starvation Island (the Japanese name for Guadalcanal). The fiftieth anniversary commemorations of events of World War II paid tribute to Guadalcanal through several publications, a reenactment, an entire summer of events involving underwater searches and the discovery of wrecks, and a symposium.