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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.’
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.
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.