Guadalcanal Campaign
American forces defeat Japan on the Island of Guadalcanal
7 August 1942 - 9 February 1943
author Paul Boșcu, January 2019
After the Japanese defeat at Midway US forces took the initiative on the battlefield of the Pacific War and landed on the island of Guadalcanal, a strategic location were the Japanese had built an important airfield. The fighting was brutal both inland and at sea, around the island, but in the end the Americans managed to inflict a decisive defeat on the Japanese forces defending the island. Victory at Guadalcanal enabled the Allies to gain the strategic initiative needed to mount other offensive operations against Japan.

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The Guadalcanal Campaign, codenamed Operation Watchtower, was a battle on the Pacific Front of World War Two between the United States and the Japanese Empire. During the battle the American Marines, having learned that the Japanese were attempting to build an airfield in the area that would give them a strategic advantage, landed on Guadalcanal and its surrounding islands. After the Americans captured Henderson Field on the islands in August 1942, the Japanese made several attempts to recapture it over the following months. By December 1942 the Japanese abandoned their efforts to retake the airfield, and evacuated the island by February 1943.

The Japanese defeat at Midway made possible the landings of US forces on the island of Guadalcanal in the southern Solomon Islands in August 1942. This was the first offensive land operation undertaken by the Americans since Pearl Harbor nine months previously.

Instead of attacking simultaneously, which was difficult due to their lack of reinforcements, the Japanese sent in assaults on Henderson Field piecemeal. The Marines managed, through desperate fighting, to ward these off and occasionally to counterattack over the course of the next six months, in a series of operations which often took place at night. These operations were nicknamed the ‘Tokyo Express’ by the Marines who found themselves on the painful receiving end.

Like New Guinea, the Solomons represented the other end of the discomfort spectrum: volcanic mountains wreathed with tropical rainforests; septic, tepid rivers whose steep, muddy banks made them nature’s moats; rainy coastal jungles with hot, rotting vegetation, home to hostile insects and voracious microbes that feasted on Europeans and Asians alike. The Melanesians in the southern Solomons tended to support the Allies, while those in the northern Solomons did not, but fear and a desire to survive neutralized the behavior of all but a dedicated pro-British few.

The contest for Guadalcanal took on a deadly rhythm that did not change until November 1942, an unbroken cycle of air-sea-land actions that finally brought American victory. This was ‘make see’ war, full of fatal learning. The existence of Henderson Field started the ever-widening vortex of operational requirements. As long as American aircraft could use the field and another constructed nearby, they could attack Japanese reinforcements and protect their own convoys, but only in daylight operations. The Japanese brought ground troops south at night by fast transports and barges to encircle the airfield.

Although malaria in the fetid conditions badly affected the American forces, the Japanese were hit by malaria and severe hunger too. Once the US Navy forced the IJN to withdraw, the Japanese were reduced to releasing drums of supplies from passing destroyers, hoping they would float ashore and be retrieved.

The Japanese kept matching American ground reinforcements until November; they also landed long-range artillery that menaced the air field until the Americans drove them westward with their own heavy artillery and a ground offensive. In the last two months of the campaign, the opposing ground forces attacked the Japanese field force and finally persuaded its commander, Lieutenant General Hyakutake Haruyoshi, to rescue the survivors.

In the Solomons, Japanese soldiers who had occupied Tulagi island moved on to neighboring Guadalcanal, where they began to construct an airfield. If they were allowed to complete and exploit this, their planes could dominate the region. This would have had the effect of interdicting air traffic between the United States and Australia.

Once the major outlines of battle were drawn, the Japanese could do one of three things. They could write off Guadalcanal and concentrate their forces elsewhere. A second possibility open to them was to allocate massive reinforcements, providing sufficient superiority to crush the American forces in the Solomons. The third possible course of action—and the one adopted—was to keep putting more and more resources in, never enough to overwhelm the enemy, culminating only in a salvage operation. This course of action lost Japan the strategic initiative for the second half of 1942.

The setbacks at the Coral Sea and Midway only accelerated plans to assume a strategic defense along the frontier of the 1942 conquests. Japanese intelligence estimated that the Allies would not undertake offensive operations until 1943, a date determined by the arrival of new carriers and battleships for the US Pacific Fleet. On the Asian mainland, the Soviets would remain neutral as they struggled with the Wehrmacht, and the British-Indian army and the Chinese, with their large but poorly trained and badly equipped armies and inadequate air support, could not mount a serious challenge.

The Japanese did indeed have designs on Australia since it provided the Allies with a base from which to attack the Netherlands East Indies and Malaya, essential components of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.

The Germans and Japanese were in any case finding it difficult to cooperate; the troubles of the Western Allies with the Russians and with each other were harmony itself compared with the frictions between the Germans and the Japanese. The Japanese did not want any German economic or other presence in their newly won empire, and they resisted all efforts, whether by private firms or by government agencies, to restore or expand German activities and interests of any kind in Southeast Asia. Political cooperation also proved extraordinarily difficult.

Frictions, suspicions and anxieties resulted; and even Hitler's ruling that there was to be no German interference in the economic affairs of Southeast Asia never completely calmed the troubled waters. Not unrelated to the friction over possible German economic interests in South and Southeast Asia were the difficulties in the direct economic relations between the Tripartite Pact partners.

The Germans were at war with the Soviet Union and preparing a major new summer offensive which they believed would succeed in fatally weakening Soviet power. Hitler suggested to Tokyo late in June 1942 that now was the time for Japan to attack the Soviet Union and meet the Germans in Central Asia. The Japanese, on the other hand, hoping to recover from the setbacks at Coral Sea and Midway, looked to a renewed offensive against the United States and did not feel they could take on any additional enemies.

The main German interest in Japan's conduct of the war in 1942 was not the fleeting suggestion in the summer that she attack Russia but the pressure all year for a major offensive into the Indian Ocean. Here was the opportunity to cut off the supply route to Russia across Iran and to the whole British North African theater. Hardly a single meeting between German and Japanese representatives in Berlin or Tokyo took place in 1942 without this topic on the agenda. By the time the Japanese decided to evacuate Guadalcanal, the tide had turned in both North Africa and the southern section of the Eastern Front. Japan’s loss of opportunity in the Indian Ocean, caused by the Solomons campaign, could not be reversed.

An abrupt American decision was made to pre-empt the Japanese, by landing 1st Marine Division. Such a stroke fulfilled the US Navy’s driving desire, promoted by Admiral Ernest King in Washington, to engage the enemy wherever opportunity allowed. The Marines were staging through Wellington, New Zealand, en route to an undecided objective. They found themselves ordered to restow their ships for an immediate assault landing; when the local dock labor force refused to work in prevailing heavy rain, the Marines did the job themselves. Then, in the first days of August 1942, they sailed for Guadalcanal.

The navy, and especially Admirals Ernest King and Chester Nimitz, was not about to let an army commander, least of all General MacArthur, control the deployment and employment of its main fleet in an area that was so obviously an oceanic one as the Central Pacific. On the other hand, there was no way that as assertive a general as MacArthur was going to serve under any admiral. Only divided theaters with cooperation enjoined upon them would do. The double command system would work with the Joint Chiefs of Staff from Washington coordinating the two prongs of the defense and later offense.

The minimal American Pacific counterattack that seemed feasible after Midway was itself hastened forward by the receipt of news in Washington that the Japanese were beginning to construct a major air base in the northern portion of the large island of Guadalcanal. As the advances of the Allies and of the Japanese had interacted on New Guinea, so now the Solomons operation was rushed forward, lest the Japanese entrench themselves there and not only threaten any US action in the islands but also open the way for further Japanese advances to cut the route to Australia.

By putting up with lots of belly-aching and posturing from MacArthur and occasional complaints from Nimitz, the American command got the best out of both, while the Japanese were never able to concentrate their resources on coping with one, as they were time and again caught between the two. The first instance of this was to be the fighting in the Solomons.

Although the available resources in trained men, shipping, and air power were really not adequate, it seemed wiser to President Roosevelt and Admiral King to move quickly before the Japanese on Guadalcanal could become so strong that even a larger force would be likely to fail. The ensuing battle showed how closely the scales were balanced.

The Americans were committed to building up forces in England and at home for an assault on Germany. The Europe First strategy meant that there was little option for the United States but to send a steady trickle of reinforcements to the South Pacific in the hope that these could avert disaster, make up for losses, and begin to push the Japanese back. It is critical to note that, for the Americans, the October crisis and the November victory on and near Guadalcanal coincided with the final preparations for an early landing and fighting in Northwest Africa.

18,700 men of the Marine Corps under Major-General Alexander A. Vandegrift made an amphibious landing on Guadalcanal and also the nearby islands of Tulagi and Gavuth. Taken by surprise, the Japanese garrison of Guadalcanal fled into the thick jungle of the island, while 1,500 of them put up stiff resistance on Tulagi, but were almost all killed. Having taken the runway, which they named Henderson Field, the Marines threw up a defensive perimeter of 2 by 4 miles, and dug in.

The Americans landed first on the outlying islands, then on Guadalcanal proper, in the face of slight opposition following a heavy naval bombardment. ‘In the dirty dawn … there were only a few fires flickering, like the city dumps, to light our path to history,’ wrote Marine Robert Leckie. On the beach, men vastly relieved to find themselves alive split coconuts and gorged on the milk, heedless of implausible warnings that the Japanese might have poisoned them. Then they began to march inland, soon parched and sweating prodigiously.

The Japanese, following another huge intelligence failure, had not anticipated the Americans’ arrival. In what would prove a critical action of the Pacific war, the landing force quickly seized the airstrip, and named it Henderson Field. Some men liberated caches of enemy supplies, including sake which allowed them to become gloriously drunk during the nights that followed. Thus ended the last easy part; what followed became one of the most desperate campaigns of the Far Eastern war, characterized by small but bloody battles ashore, and repeated clashes of warships at sea.

The United States Navy made a serious error in not immediately completing construction of the airfield, named in honor of Major Lofton R. Henderson who had lost his life at Midway. Henderson Field became a critical base for the Americans — as it was expected to be for the Japanese — and became the focus of marine corps aviation and of Japanese recapture attempts for months.

The Henderson Field bridgehead was subjected to day and night bombardment from Japanese naval vessels as well as aerial bombing from Rabaul. The Cactus Air Force of nineteen fighters and twelve torpedo-bombers did what they could, but until they were reinforced they could not protect the airfield adequately. The Cactus Air Force refers to the Allied planes assigned to protect the island in the early stages of the campaign. The term Cactus derives from the code name that the Allies assigned to Guadalcanal Island.

As the Marines were still bringing equipment ashore, disaster overcame their naval escort when a Japanese force from Rabaul made a night attack, in what became known as the battle of Savo Island. Armed with new liquid-oxygen-propelled Long Lance torpedoes, the Japanese slipped past Captain Howard D. Bode’s patrol south of the island and attacked the cruisers under the command of the Australian Rear-Admiral Victor Crutchley, who was himself ashore on Guadalcanal. Crutchley’s stricken flotilla was forced to leave the environs of Guadalcanal. This meant that the Japanese based at Rabaul had an opportunity to reinforce the island and attempt to fling the Americans off it.

At the time the Japanese slipped past him, Bode was asleep in his bunk in the USS Chicago. A guilt-stricken Bode later shot himself, proving that the Japanese had not entirely monopolized the honourable tradition of harakiri. During the battle, four cruisers – the American Vincennes, Astoria and Quincy and the Australian Canberra – were sunk, as they and the Chicago were lit up by flares dropped by Japanese planes.

The destroyer Paterson found itself in a perfect firing position, but amid the deafening concussion of its guns, the ship’s torpedo officer failed to hear his captain’s order to trigger the tubes. Two Japanese torpedoes hit Chicago. Only one of these exploded, in the bow, but it crippled the ship’s fire-control system. Astoria fired thirteen salvoes without effect because she too failed to see Mikawa’s ships, and her gunnery radar was defective. The cruiser was wrecked by Japanese gunfire, and abandoned next day with heavy loss of life.

Allied naval forces suffered a surprise which revealed both command incompetence and a fatal paucity of night-fighting skills. Japanese Vice-Admiral Gunichi Mikawa led a heavy cruiser squadron into an attack on the offshore anchorage, which was protected by one Australian and four American heavy cruisers, together with five destroyers. The enemy ships had been spotted the previous afternoon by an Australian pilot, but the sighting report was not picked up at Fall River on New Guinea because the radio station was shut down during an air raid. Even when the pilot landed, there was a delay of several hours before word was passed to the warships at sea.

Vincennes was likewise devastated, and already on fire when her own armament began to shoot. Her commanding officer, Captain Frederick Riefkohl, had no notion the enemy was attacking, and supposed himself a victim of friendly fire. As Mikawa’s huge searchlights illuminated the American cruiser, Riefkohl broadcast angrily over his voice radio, demanding that they should be switched off. Thereafter, he concentrated on trying to save his ship. Only belatedly did the American captain acknowledge that the Japanese were responsible, and order destroyers to attack them – without success.

The Americans were deployed off Savo island in anticipation of a Japanese strike, but in the darkness Mikawa’s cruiser column steamed undetected through the western destroyer radar picket line. Within three minutes of the Americans belatedly spotting Chokai, the leading Japanese ship, at 01.43 the Australian cruiser Canberra was struck by at least 24 shells. Every man in the boiler rooms was killed and all power lost; Canberra was unable to fire a shot during the subsequent hours before being abandoned.

Quincy fired starshells which proved ineffective because they burst above low cloud, while a Japanese seaplane dropped illuminant flares beyond the American squadron, silhouetting its ships for Mikawa’s gunnery directors. The hapless Quincy’s captain was killed a few moments after ordering an attempt to beach the ship, which sank with the loss of 370 officers and men.

At 02.16, the Japanese ceased fire, having achieved a crushing victory inside half an hour. There was a heated debate on the bridge of the flagship about whether to press on and attack the now defenceless American transports beyond, off Guadalcanal. Mikawa decided that it was too late to regroup his squadron, make such an assault, then withdraw before daylight out of range of American carrier aircraft, which he wrongly supposed were at hand. Amid a sky dancing with lightning in a tropical rainstorm, the Japanese turned for home.

The critical reality, which soon dawned on the Japanese, was that yet again one of their admirals had allowed caution to deprive him of a chance to convert success into a decisive strategic achievement. Mikawa had decided that it was too late to attack the American transports on the beach. The lost Allied cruisers could be replaced; the landing force was able to hold on at Henderson Field because its supporting amphibious shipping remained unscathed, and soon returned to Lunga Bay. Savo would be redeemed.

In the Guadalcanal anchorage, Admiral Turner continued offloading supplies for the Marines until noon on 9th August, when to the deep dismay of the men ashore he removed his transports until more air cover became available. Reviewing the disaster off Savo, he wrote: ‘The navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances … The net result of all of this was a fatal lethargy of mind … We were not mentally ready for hard battle. I believe that this psychological factor as a cause of our defeat was even more important than the element of surprise.’ The US Navy learned its lessons: never again in the war did it suffer such a severe humiliation.

One of Admiral Mikawa’s staff officers recalled the missed opportunities: ‘With the benefit of hindsight I can see two grievous mistakes of the Japanese navy at the time of the Guadalcanal campaign: the attempt to conduct major operations simultaneously at Milne Bay [New Guinea] and in the Solomons, and the premature retirement from the Battle of Savo Island. I played a significant part in each of these errors. Both were a product of undue reliance on the unfounded assurances of our army and of a general contempt for the capabilities of the enemy. Thus lay open the road to Tokyo.’

Throughout the campaign on Guadalcanal, an equally relentless and bloody struggle was conducted at sea. The Savo battle was only the first of a series of dramatic naval encounters, almost all precipitated by Japanese attempts to reinforce and supply their troops ashore, and to impede the matching American build-up. Destroyers of the ‘Tokyo Express’ sought to run men and stores by night through ‘the Slot’, the narrow approach to Guadalcanal. Australian coastwatchers manning radios in jungle hideouts on Japanese-held islands played a critical role in alerting the air force to enemy shipping movements.

In the battle for air superiority, the Americans ultimately emerged victorious, in part because the Marines kept the field safe from ground attack. Nevertheless, the Marines could not stop the air or naval bombardments. The Marines also could not stop the ‘Tokyo Express’ of warships and transports from delivering men and supplies. That mission depended on the airmen and sailors. The Japanese bombed the Lunga Point perimeter as often and as furiously as they could, usually coordinating air attacks with other operations, but never quite closely enough.

The coastwatchers of Operation Ferdinand — a network of observers and support parties organized by the Allied Intelligence Bureau and manned by British and Australian islanders — often observed and reported Japanese air raiders from start to finish. The timing of these air attacks became predictable, driven by time-space factors. The Marines even ate by the Japanese air attack clock; their two-meals-a-day regime was driven more by the threat of lunchtime bombings than a shortage of rations.

Living and flying in primitive conditions, marine and naval aviators met the Japanese attacks with determination and growing skill. They focused on the bombers and accepted the danger of the escorting Zeros. The Americans, however, like their RAF counterparts in the Battle of Britain, knew they could fight longer than their foes, and if they could avoid death in the cockpit, an aggressive air-sea rescue service would pull them from the water. A wounded Japanese pilot, such as ace Sakai Saburo of the Sea Eagles, had to survive a six-hour return trip to the north.

Using the weaving tactics of four-aircraft sections, US pilots found they could fight the Zeros on equal terms, provided they did not engage the Zeros in aerobatics. Marine aces began to multiply at Henderson Field, making John Smith, Marion Carl, and Joe Foss household names in the United States.

Able to shuttle squadrons in and out of Guadalcanal from safe bases to the south, Rear Admiral John S. McCain and his successors as Solomons Senior Air Commander not only protected Guadalcanal but stationed ground-attack aircraft and scout-bombers there to attack Japanese infantry and transports, if located during the daylight hours.

Lieutenant-General Haruyoshi Hyakutake landed from Rabaul with 50,000 men of the Seventeenth Army to attack on the ground. Rear-Admiral Raizo Tanaka also began a series of landings of men and supplies along the Slot, a channel of islands between Rabaul and Guadalcanal. In the battle of Tenaru River, Colonel Kiyono Ichiki’s attack of 917 men ended with the loss of almost every man in the unit. Ichiki himself burnt the regimental standard and committed harakiri.

As a green Japanese flare burst overhead, Robert Leckie described the scene: ‘Here was cacophony; here was dissonance; here was wildness … booming, sounding, shrieking, wailing, hissing, crashing, shaking, gibbering noise. Here was hell … The plop of the outgoing mortar with the crunch of its fall, the clatter of the machine guns and the lighter, faster rasp of the Browning automatic rifles, the hammering of fifty-caliber machine-guns, the crash of 75-millimetre anti-tank guns firing point-blank canister at the enemy – each of these conveys a definite message to the understanding ear.’ After hours of this, dawn revealed heaped enemy bodies and a few survivors in flight.

‘Morale was very bad,’ said Marine Lt. Paul Moore, who won a Navy Cross. ‘But there was something about Marines – once we were ordered to attack we decided we damn well were going to do it.’ Swimming the Matanikau river with his platoon, the young officer glanced up and saw mortar bombs and grenades arching through the air above him, ‘as if it were raining, with bullets striking all around us’. Moore, a few months out of Yale, was shot as he threw a grenade to knock out a Japanese machine gun. The bullet hit him in the chest: ‘The air was going in and out of a hole in my lungs. I thought I was dead, going to die right then. I wasn’t breathing through my mouth, but through this hole. I felt like a balloon going in and out, going pshhhh. I was thinking to myself: now I’m going to die. And first of all it’s rather absurd for me, considering where I came from, my early expectations of a comfortable life and all the rest, for me to be dying on a jungle island in combat as a Marine. That’s not me … Shortly, a wonderful corpsman crawled up and gave me a shot of morphine, and then a couple of other people got a stretcher and started evacuating me.’

Meanwhile, at sea, attrition was awesome: the Battle of the East Solomons cost the Japanese a carrier and heavy aircraft losses in exchange for damage to the Enterprise; a week later, the carrier Saratoga suffered such severe torpedo damage that it was obliged to quit the theater for an American dockyard.

Even in daylight actions the US Navy paid a high price to remain on the ocean. Covering reinforcing operations, the carriers Enterprise and Saratoga suffered serious damage. Japanese reinforcements got through to the island, even though one light carrier was sunk and a heavy cruiser was damaged. Japanese aircraft losses, however, outnumbered American losses three to one.

During the hard-fought battle of Bloody Ridge, a mile to the southwest of the airfield, the Japanese got to within 1,000 yards of the runway. Yelling ‘Banzai!’ (One thousand years!) and ‘Marine, you die!’, 2,000 Japanese rushed out of the jungle and overwhelmed the right flank of Lieutenant-Colonel Merritt A. ‘Red Mike’ Edson’s Provisional Force. Three Japanese even got inside General Vandergrift’s bunker, where they were killed by his clerks. Edson won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his courageous defense of the American perimeter.

The Marines soon learned that ground defense was only part of the equation of victory; they had no illusions about Japanese fighting ability since their comrades on Tulagi and Gavutu had had a stiff fight in taking those small islands. The key issue became air-sea control, without which the landing force could not sustain a ground defense of Henderson Field. Land-based air would have to provide continuous air cover for ships bringing in reinforcements and supplies.

The Americans inflicted heavy losses on the enemy navy off Cape Esperance, but a few days later Japanese submarines sank the carrier Wasp and damaged the new battleship North Carolina. Only two carriers and one battleship remained as the core of the operating forces in the South Pacific.

The Pacific War remained essentially a maritime struggle, and the Solomons campaign represented the third confrontation of two great navies. Admiral Gunichi Mikawa was an aggressive, talented commander, and he believed that his surface forces could carry the burden that the carrier forces could no longer bear, provided the land-based Sea Eagles won air superiority. Behind Mikawa stood the great Isoroku Yamamoto himself, working from the Combined Fleet’s advanced base at Truk.

The Japanese were slow to grasp the importance of the American commitment to Guadalcanal. They drip-fed a trickle of reinforcements to the island, which were thrown into repeated frontal attacks, each one insufficiently powerful to overwhelm the precarious Marine perimeter. The Americans holding Henderson Field and the surrounding tropical rainforests found themselves locked in an epic ordeal. Visibility amidst an almost impenetrable tangle of vines and ferns, giant hardwoods and creepers, was seldom more than a few yards. Even when gunfire was temporarily stilled, leeches, wasps, giant ants and malarial mosquitoes inflicted their own miseries.

The intense humidity made fungal and skin infections endemic. Marines encountering the jungle for the first time were alarmed by its constant noises, especially those of the night. ‘Whether these were birds squawking … or some strange reptiles or frogs, I don’t know,’ said one man, ‘but we were terrified by any noise because we’d been told that the Japanese signaled each other in the jungle by imitating bird calls.’

Experience of Japanese barbarism bred matching American savagery. Marine Ore Marion described a scene after a bitter night action: ‘At daybreak a couple of our kids, bearded, dirty, skinny from hunger, slightly wounded by bayonets, clothes worn and torn, whack off three Jap heads and jam them on poles facing the “Jap side” of the river.’ The regimental commander remonstrated fiercely that this was the conduct of animals. ‘A dirty, stinking young kid says, “That’s right Colonel, we are animals. We live like animals, we eat and are treated like animals, what the [...] do you expect?”’

Amid incessant rainstorms, the Marines bivouacked in mud - which became a curse of the campaign - and endured short rations and dysentery. Nervous men not infrequently shot each other. There was a steady stream of shell-shocked evacuees. A platoon commander who lost four men to hysteria, 15 percent of his strength, reckoned this was typical.

Fighting evolved into a bizarre and terrible routine: ‘Everything was so organized, and handled with such matter-of-fact dispatch,’ observed Corporal James Jones, one of the army men who eventually landed on Guadalcanal to reinforce the Marines. ‘Like a business. Like a regular business. And yet at the bottom of it was blood: blood, mutilation and death … The beach was literally alive with men, all moving somewhere, and seeming to undulate with a life of its own under their mass as beaches sometimes appear to do when invaded by armies of fiddler crabs. Lines, strings and streams of men crossed and recrossed it with hot-footed and apparently unregulated alacrity. They were in all stages of dress and undress … They wore all sorts of fantastic headgear, issue, civilian, and homemade, so that one might see a man working in the water totally naked with nothing adorning his person except his identity tags.’

Although the Marines were finally reinforced by air on 20 August, Hyakutake received reinforcements via the Tokyo Express throughout September and October, and his assaults were flung back with 2,000 killed against 300 American killed and wounded. After that, Vandergrift felt he could expand the perimeter, and go on the offensive.

The Japanese were belatedly growing to understand the importance of the battle as a test of wills: ‘We must be aware,’ wrote an officer at Imperial General Headquarters, ‘of the possibility that the struggle for Guadalcanal … may develop into the decisive struggle between America and Japan.’

To the defenders it sometimes seemed that they were a forgotten little army. ‘It was so lonely,’ wrote Robert Leckie. ‘… In an almost mawkish sense, we had gotten hold of the notion that we were orphans. No one cared, we thought. All of America’s millions doing the same things each day: going to movies, getting married, attending college commencements, sales meetings, café fires, newspaper drives against vivisection, political oratory, Broadway hits and Broadway flops, horrible revelations in high places and murders in tenements making tabloid headlines, vandalism in cemeteries and celebrities getting religion; all of the same, all, all, all, the changeless, daily America – all of this was going on without a single thought for us.’

Repeated Japanese headlong assaults failed against a stubborn defense: they were unable to wrest control of Henderson Field from the Americans, who had superior artillery and air support. This was small consolation to the defenders, however, when the Japanese navy intervened. Seldom in the course of the war did Allied troops have to endure naval bombardments of the kind the Royal Navy and US Navy routinely administered to the Axis, but the Americans on Guadalcanal suffered severely from the guns of Japanese warships. Hour after hour during four nights in October, enemy heavy ships delivered a devastating bombardment.

‘[It] was the most tremendous thing I’ve been through in all my life,’ said a Marine afterwards. ‘There was one big bunker near our galley … a shell dropped right in the middle of it and practically everybody in the hole was killed. We tried to dig the men out but we saw it wasn’t any use.’ A correspondent wrote: ‘It is almost beyond belief that we are still here, still alive, still waiting and still ready.’ Many aircraft on Henderson Field were wrecked; the strip was rendered unserviceable for a week.

The Japanese followed the naval engagement at Cape Esperance by sending battleships to bombard Henderson Field, destroying almost 50 aircraft, and continued these nighttime attacks for three more days. More Japanese reinforcements reached the island.

Vice-Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey, who assumed command of regional naval operations, found himself committed to some of the heaviest fleet actions of the war. At Santa Cruz the Japanese lost over a hundred aircraft and the Americans seventy-four, more than the rival forces on any day of the Battle of Britain. Destruction of the carrier Hornet left the Americans for some weeks solely dependent on the damaged Enterprise for naval air operations.

Pilots often took off from heaving flight decks knowing that perhaps a hundred miles away, their enemy counterparts were doing the same. Thus, they were never assured that when they returned from a mission they would find a flight deck intact to land on. Only the Americans’ possession of Henderson Field enabled them to deploy sufficient airpower to compensate for their depleted carrier force. The men who fought at sea and in the air off Guadalcanal in the latter months of 1942 experienced a sustained intensity of naval surface warfare unmatched at any other period of the struggle.

In the battle of Santa Cruz, American aircraft damaged two Japanese carriers and a cruiser and shot down 100 aircraft or caught them on the carrier decks. American losses were almost catastrophic: the carrier Hornet sank and the Enterprise, a battleship, a cruiser, and a destroyer were heavily damaged. Seventy-four naval aircraft completed the casualty list.

Vice-Admiral Hiroaki Abe, leading a squadron dominated by two battleships to bombard the Americans on Guadalcanal, met an American cruiser force. Though he inflicted heavy damage, sinking six ships for the loss of three, with familiar caution he chose to retreat, only to lose one of his battleships to American aircraft next morning. Two days later, Marine pilots of the Cactus Air Force caught a Japanese troop convoy en route to Guadalcanal and almost annihilated it, sinking seven transports and a cruiser, and damaging three more cruisers. Only remnants of the Japanese landing force stumbled ashore at dawn, shorn of their heavy equipment, from the last four beached transports of the annihilated convoy.

The American pilots saw sailors leap in scores and hundreds from sinking vessels. Some were saved, many were not: when the cruiser Juneau blew up, Mr and Mrs Thomas Sullivan of Waterloo, Iowa, lost five sons.

As Admiral Richmond Turner shepherded another convoy of reinforcements toward Guadalcanal, Halsey sent three task forces to engage the Japanese. The Japanese destroyed Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan’s cruiser-destroyer force, sinking six ships and damaging all but one of the rest. Even though Callaghan and Rear Admiral Norman Scott died on their bridges, this was no Savo Island. The Americans left one Japanese battleship and two destroyers damaged enough to be easy targets in daylight for American aircraft.

Admiral Kinkaid’s Enterprise carrier air group could not work from its own deck, but it could and did reinforce the Marines at Henderson Field, and these forces pummeled the Japanese transports. They could not stop Japanese warships, which shelled Guadalcanal with impunity, but the Japanese still lost seven transports.

During the last night of the battle there was a dramatic clash between American and Japanese capital ships in which Admiral ‘Ching’ Lee’s Washington landed nine salvoes on the battleship Kirishima, which foundered soon after, an acceptable exchange for damage to the US Navy’s battleship South Dakota.

Off Tassafaronga Point, in a night-time battle, five American cruisers attacking eight Japanese destroyers on a supply run suffered one cruiser sunk and three more damaged by torpedoes. The Japanese lost only a single destroyer. These were epic encounters, reflecting both sides’ massive commitment of surface forces – and losses: in the course of the Solomons campaign, around fifty major Japanese and US warships were sunk.

The men who fought became grimly familiar with long, tense waits, often in darkness, while sweat-soaked radar operators peered into their screens for a first glimpse of the enemy. Thereafter, many sailors learned the terror of finding their ships suddenly caught in the dazzling glare of enemy searchlights, presaging a storm of shell. They witnessed the chaos of repeated encounters in which ships exchanged gunfire and torpedoes at close range, causing ordered decks, turrets, superstructures, and machinery spaces to be transformed within seconds into flaming tangles of twisted steel.

The Americans prevailed. After the battles of November, despite his squadrons’ successes, Admiral Yamamoto concluded that Japan’s Combined Fleet could no longer endure such attrition. He informed the Imperial Army that his ships must withdraw support from the land force on Guadalcanal. It was a critical victory for the US Navy, and was hailed back home as a personal triumph for Admiral Halsey. The achievement of the American shore contingent was to hold out and defend its perimeter through months of desperate assaults.

In the latter months of 1942, American aircrew noted a rapid decline in the skill and resolve of enemy pilots. A Japanese staff officer asserted bleakly that the battle for Guadalcanal had been ‘the fork in the road which leads to victory’. Like Yamamoto, he knew that his nation was thereafter marching with ever-quickening step towards defeat.

The repeated land assaults, sometimes combined with naval bombardments, had not crushed the American landing force; the Japanese navy was increasingly dubious about the steady losses in ships; the losses of naval and army airplanes were becoming more difficult to replace.

A year and a day after Pearl Harbor, Vandergrift, ‘the Hero of Guadalcanal’, and his Marines were finally relieved by Major-General Alexander M. Patch’s US Army regulars, who forced the Japanese, in a ‘desperate and well-conducted rearguard action’, back to Cape Esperance in the east of the island, from where 13,000 of them were miraculously evacuated by night by Tanaka’s Transport Group. They were the lucky ones; Japanese soldiers left in the interior of Guadalcanal looted native villages to survive, and so ‘the islanders exacted terrible revenge, and Japanese heads decorated the native long-houses for years afterwards.’

Every element of the American forces shared undoubted glory. The Cactus Air Force, infantry manning the perimeter, warship crews afloat, all displayed a resolve which the Japanese had not believed the Americans possessed. The US Navy’s heavy losses were soon replaced, while those of the Japanese were not. For the rest of the war, the performance of Admiral Yamamoto’s squadrons progressively deteriorated, while the US Pacific Fleet grew in proficiency as well as might.

The Japanese high command decided to begin an evacuation of what was left of their army on the island and, fooling the Americans into thinking that a new reinforcement offensive was about to be launched, succeeded in evacuating over 10,000 men, out of the more than 40,000 who had fought on Guadalcanal.

Guadalcanal set the pattern for the Pacific campaign, a three-year contest for a succession of harbors and airfields, refuges for ships and platforms for planes amid an otherwise featureless watery vastness. The Japanese were never able to reverse their early mistakes, rooted in an underestimate of American strength and will. With more resources pouring into the South Pacific theater in early 1943, the Allies’ prospects of victory soared. Guadalcanal was to be the first of several stations on a via dolorosa whose names – such as Kwajalein, Tarawa, Saipan, Guam, Luzon, Iwo Jima and Okinawa – are written in blood into American history.

What was also impossible to replace was the psychological advantage the Japanese had lost. On a level sea where they did not yet command overwhelming advantages in numbers, skill, and technology, Americans from all services had demonstrated they could defeat the best of the Japanese armed forces. Veterans of the Solomons campaign did not lose their respect for the tenacity and skill of the Japanese, but they no longer regarded them with fear and awe, which had been their state of mind in early 1942.

Each island action was tiny in scale by the standards of the European theater: at the peak of the Guadalcanal battle, no more than 65,000 Americans and Japanese were engaged with each other ashore, while 40,000 more men served on warships and transports at sea. But the intensity of the struggle, and the conditions in which the combatants were obliged to subsist - in swamps, rain, and heat, with disease, insects, crocodiles, snakes and short rations, caused the Pacific battlefield experience to become one of the worst of the war.

It was a reflection of the fantastic Japanese capacity for self-delusion that, after their first stunning wave of conquests, their army commanders proposed establishing small garrisons to hold their island bases, while redeploying most troops to China – which they regarded as their nation’s main theater of war. Short of trained manpower, they had scraped the barrel for forces to conduct the South-East Asia and Pacific island offensives. Thereafter, Japan’s generals were obliged to find soldiers from a shrinking pool, then dispatch them into battle with barely three months’ training.

Japanese strategy had been rooted in a conviction that the United States would treat for peace after a brisk battlefield drubbing. When this hope was disappointed, the army spent the rest of the war struggling to defend Nippon’s overblown empire with inadequate means and inferior technology. The important reality of the Pacific war was that the Americans and Australians eventually prevailed on every island they assaulted. Only in Burma and China did the Japanese army maintain dominance until the last phase of the war.

The myth of the invincibility of the Japanese army was shattered on this island, just sixty miles by thirty, where the US Marine Corps first staked a claim to be considered the outstanding American ground force of the war. The Japanese, by contrast, laid bare their limitations, especially a shortage of competent commanders.

Even during Japan’s victory season, while Tomoyuki Yamashita conducted operations in Malaya with verve and skill, the campaigns in Burma and the Philippines suggested that his peers lacked initiative. When defending a position, their ethic of absolute conformity to orders had its uses; but in attack, commanders often acted unimaginatively. Man for man, the Japanese soldier was more aggressive and conditioned to hardship than his Allied counterpart. Collectively, however, the Japanese army had nothing like the combat power of the Wehrmacht, the Red Army – or the US Marine Corps.

The fighting itself would be remembered by the survivors as one long nightmare; it took a full year's rehabilitation before the 1st Marine Division could again be committed to battle. On the broader canvas of war, there were wider implications. The Americans learned here as in Papua that the Japanese were hard fighters but not invincible. When the odds were reasonable and the leadership competent, the Allies could hold and defeat the Japanese. But obviously only at great cost. It would be a very long and a very tough fight.

The first rung of the ‘Solomons ladder’ had been successfully trodden, and the Americans would now move north. Most importantly, though, just as Midway had proved that the Imperial Japanese Navy was far from invincible, Guadalcanal showed the same for the Imperial Japanese Army.

The Japanese had seen that their basic strategy of defending the perimeter of their newly won empire was evidently not working the way they had planned. The assumption had been that the Americans would be unwilling to pay the price in blood and treasure to retake islands of which they had never heard, to be returned to allies for whose colonial empires they had only disdain. Here was proof that they would; and, in the face of this, the leaders in Tokyo displayed a bankruptcy of strategic thinking.