And when he gets to heaven,
To Saint Peter he will tell:
“Another Marine reporting, sir.
I’ve served my time in hell”.
—PFC James A. Donohue, USMC, 1st Marine Division
Between election year politics and Olympics frenzy, we are likely to miss anniversary of an important anniversary: seventy years ago, on August 7, 1942, United States Marines landed on an obscure South Pacific island called Guadalcanal.
When news of this invasion was announced, Americans were both thrilled and puzzled: Thrilled because this was the first offensive against Japan since Pearl Harbor, and puzzled, because no one had ever heard of the place.
Part of the Solomon Islands chain northeast of Australia, covered with tropical forests, malarial swamps, and razor grass, Guadalcanal straddled the supply line between the United States and Australia. Japan began building an airfield on the island in order to cut off Australia from military aid. The U.S. tracked the progress of the Japanese project by reading Japanese naval codes, and by reports from a system of Australian “coastwatchers”—peacetime magistrates and plantation operators—who stayed behind on occupied Japanese islands to report on Japanese activities via radio. These heroic—and, outside of Australia, largely forgotten—men would play a critical role in the upcoming battle.
As the airfield neared completion, the U.S. chiefs of staff authorized a preemptive offensive to capture the airfield, using it as a springboard against other Japanese bases in the Solomon Islands. But, the Pacific being a strategic backwater, there were shortages of everything—ships, planes, ammunition, and troops. There was also very little time to plan and organize the offensive, designated Operation Watchtower. To the Marines who fought there, it was more appropriately called, “Operation Shoestring.”
On the morning of August 7, some 75 U.S. and Australian warships dropped anchor off Guadalcanal (codenamed “Cactus”). Cruisers and aircraft from the U.S. carriers Enterprise and Saratoga, bombarded Japanese positions on Guadalcanal and neighboring Tulagi and Florida islands. While some 3000 Marines made short work of the Japanese garrisons on Tulagi and Florida,, 11,000 Marines of the First Marine Division came at Lunga Point on Guadalcanal without opposition. Advancing on the airfield, they found it hastily abandoned. Renamed Henderson Field, after MAJ Lofton Henderson, USMC, killed at Midway, it was rapidly completed by U.S. naval construction troops; the first U.S. aircraft landed just ten days later. This was the auspicious beginning to what became a grinding battle of attrition that was to continue for the next five months.
The Japanese were not slow to react to the American invasion. The day after the landings, they assembled a force of cruisers and destroyers that surprised the U.S.-Australian force protecting the transports unloading supplies for the Marines. The ensuing Battle of Savo Island was a crushing defeat for the U.S. Navy: four heavy cruisers sunk, one heavy cruiser and two destroyers damaged; the Japanese escaped with only minor damage. As a result of this engagement, U.S. naval commander ADM. Richmond Kelly Turner, withdrew all the transports, leaving the Marines with just five days of supplies. For the next two weeks, the Marines literally did survive on a shoestring, limited to just two meals per day, and carefully conserving fuel and ammunition.
From that point on, the battle became a race between the U.S. and Japanese to push reinforcements onto the island. On paper, the Japanese had a great advantage in air, naval and ground forces, but they were hindered by logistics (fuel shortages prevented them from bringing all their naval forces to bear at once), distance (the nearest Japanese airfields were several hundred miles away), and divided command (the Japanese army was loathe to divert troops from its operations in New Guinea to oppose the landings on Guadalcanal). The Japanese also suffered from complacency, the dreaded “Victory Disease” that caused them to look down on the Americans as unworthy opponents. Determined to push the Americans back into the sea, and seriously underestimating the number of Marines on the island, the Japanese landed about 1000 elite troops of the 28th infantry regiment east of the Marine perimeter. Not waiting for reinforcements, and without conducting any reconnaissance, it attacked immediately and was annihilated at the Tenaru River on 21 August.