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Forgotten Victory

2:15 PM, Aug 7, 2012 • By STUART KOEHL
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After repulsing the Japanese, the Marines began a limited offensive of their own, expanding the perimeter and inflicting further casualties on the Japanese army.  In the meanwhile, the Tokyo Express continued to bring in reinforcements for one final effort to capture the airfield.  On the night of 13 November, the Japanese dispatched a major force of two battleships supported by cruisers and destroyers, to bombard Henderson Field and brush away any U.S. naval forces that might try to interfere with this reinforcement.  To oppose them in the “Naval Battle of Guadalcanal”, the U.S. had a pickup force of cruisers and destroyers under RADM Daniel Callahan. Through a series of errors, the battle degenerated into a close-quarters melee determined by the courage of individual ship captains and their crews.  As the sun came up, Iron Bottom Sound was littered with derelict ships and survivors bobbing in lifejackets.  The U.S. lost two light cruisers and four destroyers sunk, with several others severely damaged.  Callahan was killed on the bridge of his flagship, as was Admiral Scott..  But the Japanese lost battleship Hei and two destroyers—and, most important, seven transport ships.

The following night, Yamamoto sent the battleship Kirishima, four cruisers and nine destroyers to cover another troop convoy.  Admiral Halsey countered by dispatching the new battleships Washington, South Dakota and four destroyers under RADM Willis Lee.  While the Japanese forces quickly eliminated all four destroyers and concentrated their fire on South Dakota, Washington closed undetected and opened fire on Kirishima from point-blank range, wrecking her.  The Japanese turned about, abandoning their mission.

It was the end.  After the failure of yet another supply run on 30 November, the Japanese decided to withdraw from the island.  The Tokyo Express began running in reverse, evacuating troops from Guadalcanal as the Japanese conducted a rear guard operation.  The Americans withdrew the battered, weary, and disease-riddled 1st Marine Division, replacing them with the 2nd Marine Division and two Army divisions.  They gradually pushed the Japanese back from the perimeter, unaware of the ongoing evacuation.  By the time of the last Tokyo Express on 7 February 1943, the Japanese had succeeded in getting 10,652 men off the island.  The Americans did not realize the Japanese were gone for two more days.

Midway is often called the turning point in the Pacific War, but it isn’t so.  Midway ended Japanese superiority in the Pacific, but for the next nine months, the two sides were evenly matched.  At Guadalcanal, the U.S. did not enjoy overwhelming numerical or technical superiority.  It faced an enemy at the peak of his tactical proficiency.  It was a battle decided by sheer courage and grit on the part of the U.S. forces, ending the myth of Japanese superiority.

Guadalcanal was the battle that broke Japan.  The U.S. lost 7100 men killed, the Japanese more than 31,000.  At sea, the U.S. lost 29 ships, the Japanese 38.  In the air, the U.S. lost 615 aircraft, the Japanese between 700-800.  The U.S. could afford the losses, the Japanese could not.

By the end of 1942, U.S. industrial production was just beginning to hit its stride, while Japan’s was beginning to fade.  The U.S. would replace all the ships lost at Guadalcanal within a year; the Japanese never could.  Above all, the Japanese lost their cadre of skilled naval aviators, whose ranks were increasingly replaced by poorly trained novices.  The U.S., on the other hand, rotated its aces home to train new aviators, who would return to combat in new and superior aircraft.  By the end of the Guadalcanal campaign, the U.S. was poised to assume the offensive that would end in Tokyo Bay; the Japanese were an increasingly hollow force reduced to a futile defense.

Stuart Koehl is a research fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Transatlantic Relations and an independent defense analyst who has worked for the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and the aerospace-defense industry.

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