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.
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.
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.