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Forgotten Victory

2:15 PM, Aug 7, 2012 • By STUART KOEHL
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Thereafter, the Japanese systematically tried to build up a superior force on Guadalcanal while attemptng to put Henderson Field out of operation.  But the presence of Navy and Marine Corps aircraft on Guadalcanal (the “Cactus Air Force”) made it impossible for the Japanese Navy to operate near the island by day, and inflicted heavy losses on Japanese aircraft attempting to bomb Henderson Field. Outnumbered and flying inferior aircraft, the Cactus Air Force still controlled the skies over Guadalcanal.  Several Marine aviators became double and triple aces:  John Smith, Marion Carl, Joe Foss, and “Indian Joe Bauer”—all awarded the Medal of Honor.

By night it was a different story:  the Japanese brought in troops on fast destroyer transports—the notorious “Tokyo Express”—while Japanese cruisers and destroyers engaged their U.S. counterparts trying intercept them.  Experts in night tactics, with powerful binoculars that offset the U.S. advantage in radar, and equipped with the extremely powerful “Long Lance” torpedo, Japanese surface forces regularly savaged the U.S. Navy, which gradually learned how to give as good as it got.  So many ships were sunk in the waters between Guadalcanal and Tulagi that the area became known as “Iron Bottom Sound”.

Periodically, major fleet units would intervene in the fighting.  On 24-25 August, Japanese and U.S. carriers clashed for the first time since Midway at the indecisive Battle of the Eastern Solomons.  Though neither side prevailed, the Japanese did manage gradually to increase the number of troops on the island until they could begin a counteroffensive.

Meanwhile, the Marines on the ground defended the perimeter around the airfield and actively skirmished.  Both sides suffered terribly from the heat, malaria and dysentery.  Chronically short of food, the Japanese called Guadalcanal “Starvation Island”.

The Japanese offensive began on 12-13 September, with the “Battle of Edson’s Ridge” (after Marine Corps Raider commander LTC “Red Mike” Edson).  Attacking at night, the Japanese almost broke through to the airfield, but were repelled after desperate hand-to-hand combat.  Another lull ensued, during which both sides brought in more reinforcements.

The climax came in the second half of October.  On the night of 11-12 October, a U.S. cruiser/destroyer force under RADM Norman Scott intercepted and defeated the Tokyo Express—a sign of the Navy’s growing tactical proficiency.  But the next night, two Japanese two battleships pounded the Marine perimeter, an event known simply as “The Bombardment”.  The following morning saw Henderson Field a shambles, but through heroic efforts of Marine and Navy mechanics, enough aircraft were repaired to decimate a Japanese supply convoy on the 14th.

By 23-26 October, the Japanese had landed enough men to resume their offensive in  a series of attacks known as the Battle of Henderson Field.  Badly coordinated, the outgunned Japanese lost at least 3000 men, the Marines less than 100.

Concurrent with the ground offensive, Admiral Yamamoto brought the main Japanese fleet into action once more, to decisively defeat U.S. naval forces off Guadalcanal.  At the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, the Japanese carrier beat their American counterparts, sinking the carrier Hornet and heavily damaging the Enterprise, in return for damage to one heavy and one light carrier.  But Yamamoto lost 99 carrier aircraft, including the last of his veteran pilots.  Santa Cruz was the swan song of the Japanese carrier force.

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