Battle of Guadalcanal

One of the first military campaigns to use air, land, sea, subsurface, and amphibious forces together, this conflict signaled that the tide had indeed turned in World War II’s Pacific theater following the Battle of Midway. U.S. forces, no longer merely responding to Japanese attacks, were now firmly on the offensive.

Summary of Event

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 Pacific resources were scarce. The Guadalcanal and larger Solomon Islands campaigns were fought under these challenging circumstances, and the Allied situation was reversed. Guadalcanal, Battle of (1942-1943)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Pacific theater
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Solomon Islands campaign
[kw]Battle of Guadalcanal (Aug. 7, 1942-Feb. 9, 1943)
[kw]Guadalcanal, Battle of (Aug. 7, 1942-Feb. 9, 1943)
Guadalcanal, Battle of (1942-1943)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Pacific theater
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Solomon Islands campaign
[g]Pacific;Aug. 7, 1942-Feb. 9, 1943: Battle of Guadalcanal[00560]
[g]South Pacific;Aug. 7, 1942-Feb. 9, 1943: Battle of Guadalcanal[00560]
[g]Melanesia;Aug. 7, 1942-Feb. 9, 1943: Battle of Guadalcanal[00560]
[c]World War II;Aug. 7, 1942-Feb. 9, 1943: Battle of Guadalcanal[00560]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 7, 1942-Feb. 9, 1943: Battle of Guadalcanal[00560]
Fletcher, Frank Jack
Ghormley, Robert Lee
Halsey, William F.
Kawaguchi, Kiyotake
King, Ernest
MacArthur, Douglas
[p]MacArthur, Douglas;World War II
Mikawa, Gunichi
Nimitz, Chester W.
Turner, Richmond Kelly
Vandegrift, Alexander Archer

The Battle of Midway Midway, Battle of (1942) 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 four aircraft carriers, 275 planes, and one hundred first-line pilots. Land-based U.S. Army Air Forces 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.

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 in the neighboring Bismarck Archipelago, and the important Allied base of Port Moresby 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 on the initiative of Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered Admiral Chester W. 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; 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.

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 Kelly Turner, slipped along the west coast of Guadalcanal. After a heavy shore bombardment, Major General Alexander Archer 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 numbered 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 Jack 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.

In what became known as the Battle of Savo Island Savo Island, Battle of (1942) , a 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 U.S. Marines who were insufficiently supplied for the task of maintaining their positions on Guadalcanal. However, their enemy had even more serious logistical problems.

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 Tenaru River, Battle of the (1942) , in which one thousand Japanese were virtually wiped out, and the Battle of Bloody Ridge Bloody Ridge, Battle of (1942) 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 Eastern Solomons, Battle of the (1942) and the Battle of Cape Esperance Cape Esperance, Battle of (1942) . 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 non-operational, 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.

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 dead and forty-two hundred wounded. Fourteen thousand Japanese were killed or missing, nine thousand dead from disease, and approximately one thousand captured.


Guadalcanal was one of the first major offensive victories for the Allies in the Pacific theater, after the successful defensive victory of Midway. Later disclosures concerning intelligence, communications, and reconnaissance have shed additional light on the events of the Guadalcanal campaign. 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). Guadalcanal, Battle of (1942-1943)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Pacific theater
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Solomon Islands campaign

Further Reading

  • Frank, Richard B. Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. A scholarly study using sources from all perspectives. Stresses unique, multidimensional aspects—air, land, sea, subsurface, and amphibious—and credits the contribution of the coastwatchers. Argues that Admiral King initiated the campaign and the result was a decisive turning point of the Pacific war.
  • Griffith, Samuel B. The Battle for Guadalcanal. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1963. Emphasizes the operations of the U.S. Marines and neglects other forces. Sees World War II as having two bases—continental and oceanic—and presents Guadalcanal as the decisive battle of the oceanic phase. Preface by Admiral Chester Nimitz.
  • Isely, Jeter Allen, and Philip A. Crowl. The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War: Its Theory and Its Practice in the Pacific. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1951. An ambitious work explaining many of the questions arising from operations in the Solomon Islands. A valuable interpretive account of the war in the Pacific.
  • Koburger, Charles W. Pacific Turning Point: The Solomons Campaign, 1942-1943. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1995. Treats the entire campaign for the Solomon Islands, a joint effort of Nimitz’s Central Pacific command and MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific command.
  • Miller, John. Guadalcanal: The First Offensive. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1949. One of eighty volumes in the highly acclaimed official Army history series. Clear, detailed, and balanced survey of the campaign. Emphasizes U.S. Army operations, but covers activities of other forces.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942-February 1943. Boston: Little, Brown, 1949. The fifth of the fifteen volumes of the official U.S. naval history of World War II by the Pulitzer Prize-winning official historian. Discusses and assesses more than a dozen naval battles and several amphibious landings of the campaign.
  • Rasor, Eugene L. The Solomon Islands Campaign, Guadalcanal to Rabaul: Historiography and Annotated Bibliography. Bibliographies of Battles and Leaders. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. A comprehensive historiographical and bibliographical survey of the literature on the campaign; 544 annotated entries and extensive critical analysis and integration of those sources in the historiographical narrative section.
  • Tregaskis, Richard. Guadalcanal Diary. New York: Random House, 1943. A moment-by-moment narrative of the campaign by an on-the-spot journalist-correspondent. A popular account that was distributed to all troops in the field and much read at home.

World War II: Pacific Theater

Bombing of Pearl Harbor

Battle of the Java Sea

Battle of the Coral Sea

Battle of Midway

Central Pacific Offensive

Battle of the Philippine Sea

Battle for Leyte Gulf

American Flag Is Raised at Iwo Jima