*** World War II -- island territories Guadacanal

World War II Pacific Island Territories: Fighting on Guadalcanal (August-December 1942)

Figure 1.--U.S. Marines here man a 75 MM gun emplacement on Guadacanal (October 24, 1942). The Japanese Army reacted slowly to the Marine invasion. But finally began landing substantial ground forces. Rather than preparing an attack in force, Japanese infantry commanders anxious for victory used human wave Banzai attacks to assault machine gun impacements and dug in Marines supported by artilery. The result was the Japanese disipated their forces recklessly while the Marine bridgehead was still vulnerable. In contrast, the limited ability of the Japabnese yo land heavy equioment and especially artillery shells proved to be a serious weakness.

"The Marines turned the tide of war and stopped their enemy. The Japanese will advance no further. .... To these men go the honors accorded the Greeks at Thermopylae, the Colonials at Valley Forge, the British at Waterloo, and now the Americans at Guadalcanal." -- NBC "Victory at Sea"

It was in the southern most island in the Solomons chain that the Japanese would be stopped. American Marines conducted the first Allied offensive in the Pacific on Guadalcanal. Unlinke other Pacific Island campsigns, Guadacanal was not a campaign in which the Americans struck with overwealming force a small island garrison without naval and air support. The Japanese Army landed sunstantial forces on Guadacanal. And the Japanese Imperial Fleet for an extended period made it difficult to supply the Marines. In addidtion, aircraft from Rabaul pounded the Marines. The conflict was set up when Allied coast watchers reported the Japanese were building an air strip on Guadacanal. After losing four carriers at Midway, the Japanese decided to build island air strips to expand air cover. From that base, the Japanese could threaten the sea lanes to Australia. The United States to defend communication and supply lines to the South Pacific decided it was important to prevent the Japanese from completing an air base on Guadalcanal. A great deal was at stake. The Allies were building up forces in Australia and clininging on to Port Moresby along the southern coast of New Guinea. The forces in Australia were to be used to take New Guinea and destroy the Japanese base at Rabaul. Fortunately for the Allies, the Japanese construction crews were much slower than the Americans. A marine invasion force was rapidly assembled. It was a risky operation from the onset. Although dealt a serious blow at Midway, the Imperial Navy still dominatd the Pacific and outnumbered the American Pacfic fleet in virtually every class of warship--including carriers. American Marines landed on Guadacanal before the air strip was completed (August 1942). Guadacanal at the time was a virtually unknown island in the Solomons. The Marines did not know what to expect. They found Guadacanal and nearby Tulagi nearly undefended. Japanese planners had not prepared for such an early offensive. The Japanese had concluded that an American offensive was several months away, probably in mid-1943. The Japanese were completely surprised. While the Navy responded quickly, the Army did not. The Japanese Army was still focused on New Guinea. They were not at first aware of the dimensions and capabilities of the American force. The U.S. Navy got the Marines ashore, but Japanese air strikes and fleet movement prevented them from landing much of their supplies. The Japnese in their early victories suceeded even with limited logistical capabilities in part because they seized supplies from the Allies (Malaya, Sinapore, Burma, and the Philippines). The Marines reversed this tactic on Guadalcanal. The Japanese food stocks hkp feed them. and Japanese construction eqipment helped complete the air strip at Lunga Point. They chrustrened it Henderson Field. The resulting Cactus Air Force proved critical in the fight for the island. The Japanese ultimately did respond in force. The Japanese force on Guadalcanal was small, but infantry forces were rushed south from Rabaul. As a result, a fierce fight for the island ensued as the Japanese attempted to break into the Marine perimter. 【McEnery】 The infantry tactics used by Japanese commanders anxious for victory included suisidal mass wave attacks against machine gun impacements and artillery. The result was that the Japanese disipated their strength until the U.S. perimters was too well established to penetrate.

Japanese Invasion: Seizure of the Solomons

The Japanese after seizing the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) proceeded to move south down the Solomon chain (mid-1942). The Japanese seized the Solomons with virtually no opposition (January-May 1942). Rabaul in the north was turned into a major base--the most powerful in the South Pacific. It was a marvelous natural anchorage abnd he Japanese surrounded it with airfields. It was to be the primary naval and air base to be used to support the conquest of New Guinea and ultimately Australia. The last rung down the Solomon chain was Guadacanal.

Japanese Southern Air Base

The Japanese after Midway had to reassess their stategy. The loss of four carriers meant that they were no longer the overwealingly dominant naval force. They knew that American forces were flowing into Australia by sea. They decided to build an air strip on a southern island in the Solomons--Guadacanal. Interestingly the Japanese never deployed their powerful submarine fleet to interdict the American convoys in a meaningful way. They were much mnore focused on naval warships. Allied inteligence soon detected the construction of an airbase on Guadalcanal. This was a step of considerable importance because an airbase on Guadacanal would assist the Japanese in cutting off American troops and supplies from reaching Australia. This could no longer be easily done with carriers because of the Midway losses. Guadacanal could, however, serve as an unsinkable carrier. The Japanese were having trouble supplying thge islands they had already taken, but were still focused on seizing more islands. They had not changed their objectives, only their strategy for achieving those objectives. Unlike the Americans, Japanese construction methods were slow. And the Japanese did not believe that the Americans were yet capable of an offensive stroke and did not expect an American offensive until mid-1942. They were partially correct--the Marines were not. The Imperial Navy had not, however, fully informed the Army about the Midway disaster.

First American Offensive

It was in the southern most island in the Solomons chain that American Marines conducted the first Allied offensive in the Pacific. It was only possible because of the naval victory at Midway. And interestingly, this was the first militarily conceived offensive. Torch which followed Guadalcanal (November 1942) was ordered by Churchill and Roosevelt against Gen. Marshall's advise. Guadalcanal was the brainchild of U.S. Navy commandder Ernest J. King who was determined to keep the pressure on the Japanese after the Midway victory (June 1942). King was also determined to defend Australia, seeing it as the most importyant American asset in the Pacific after the Hawaiian Islands. Both Ge. Marshal and Gen. MacArthur opoosed the idea. He got approval from Gen. Marshal only by offering to conduct the operation solely with naval assetts. As a resilt, the invading force would be the First Narine Division. It was not only the first marine division, it was the only operational marine division at the time. In fact it was the only full division strength that ever existed Marine unit thar had ever existed. (There was a Marine division in World War I, but it was a composit unit including Army troops. Guadalcanal wsas King's brainchild from start to finish. 【Jacobs】 Unlinke other Pacific Island campaigns, Guadalcanal was not a campaign in which the Americans struck with overwealming force a small island garrison without naval and air support. The Japanese Army mnagedd to land substantial forces on Guadacanal, at times having a larger force on the islsnd than the Americns. And the Japanese Imperial Fleet for an extended period not only made it difficult to supply the Marines, but sank large numbers of Navy ships. Many more sailors than Marines would be killed in the Guadalcanal slug fest. In addidtion, aircraft from Rabaul pounded the Marines.

Japanese Air Strip

The conflict was set up when Allied reconisance aircradt and coast watchers reported the Japanese were building an air strip on Guadacanal. After losing four carriers at Midway, the Japanese decided to build island air strips to expand air cover. From that base, the Japanese could threaten the sea lanes to Australia even without the lost carriers. And at this stage of the War, before new advanced American aircraft had reached the theater and fleet, Japanese aircraft was still a formidable threat. An an air base on Guadalcanal as the Japanese would find ewpresented an unsinkable carrier. The Japanese were, however, not in a hurry believing that the Americans were in no position to launch an offensive. Nor did they have construction units of the same caliber as the U.S. Navy Seabees. As a result, the Americans had time to strike, but only if they committed untrained men and before needed fleet units ariived from the States to ensure naval supremecy in the area.


The United States to defend communication and supply lines to the South Pacific decided it was important to prevent the Japanese from completing an air base on Guadalcanal. A great deal was at stake. The Allies were building up forces in Australia and clininging on to Port Moresby along the southern coast of New Guinea. The forces in Australia were to be used to take New Guinea and destroy the Japanese base at Rabaul. Fortunately for the Allies, the Japanese construction crews were much slower than the Americans. A marine invasion force was rapidly assembled based on the 1st Marine Division which had just begun to train in New Zealand. It was a risky operation from the onset. Although dealt a serious blow at Midway, the Imperial Navy still dominatd the Pacific and outnumbered the American Pacfic fleet in virtually every class of warship--including carriers. Japanese aircraft still held an edge, especially the Mitsubishi A6< Zero. And the Japanese had trained, seasoned troops to commit to the Solomons.


The slow speed of Japanese construction on Guadalcanal gave the Americans time to prepare their first major offensive action of the Pacific War. Allied resources were limited. The Japanese knew that and thus did not expect such a stroke. The Japannese did not believe that America would be prepared for offensive action until mid-1943. In fact they were correct. The Marines were not ready. The American action would be an offensive on a shoe string. The Americans decided to commit the still only partially trained 1st Marine Division.

First Marine Division

The 1st Marine Division was activated aboard the USS Texas (February 1, 1941). It was the first full Msarine divisiuon in history. The Division relocated to Quantico, Virginia and Paris Island, South Carolina (May 1941). After Pearl Harbor, the division began deploying to Samoa and Wellington, New Zealand (April 1942). The division's units were thus scattered all over the Pacific. The Divion had only limited training. The plan was to train all the new recruits in theater. The Marines on New Zealand had just begun their training when when orders came to prepare for the Guadalcanal invasion. The First Division had old school marines serving as NCOs, but with many untrained raw recruitsg. The First Marine Division had just reached New Zealand in great secrecy. General Alexander Vandegrift was to have time to train them there, not go into immediate action. He and his men expected tgo train in New Zealand for several months before going into combat. They got 2 weeks of training. Elements of the 1st Division were still enroute. The Wellington Dock Strike complicated their embarcation. Essentially untrained Americans wre goung to be thrown into battle against the seasoned veterans of Japan. A critucal factor in the battle would be the Division's higly competent commanders--beginning with Brigadir General Alexander Vandergrift. The Japanese commanders in contrast would throw their men against the Marine in Bazai charges against machine guns and artillery. None more relecklessly than or Col. Kiyonao Ichiki at Aligator Creek (The Tebnaru), the first important engagement on Gudalcanal. This tactic worked in China. Against the 1st Marine Divion it would prove to be a different matter. .

Wellingtion Dock Strike (July 1942)

One of the most disgraceful chapters in New Zealand history was the Wellington Dock Strike (1942). The just arriving First Marine Division was given the assignment of taking Guadacanal in the Solomons from the Japanese. It would be the first American offensive of World War II and the first American amphibious landing of the Pacific War. The airfield the Japanese were building on Guadacanal was part of a larger Japanese effort to cut the sea lanes between America and Australia and New Zealand. The losses at Midway had impaired that undertaking, but the Japanese had no abandomed it. The 1st Division's men and equipment was scattered all over the Pacific. Much of the Division and support units were either in New Zealandc or in the way to New Zealand. Loading the Division's equipment for the assault force was tremendously complicated by the Wellington dock workers strike. The workers had gone on strike before the orders came in, but they refused to return to work to assist the American Marines who were preparing to fight for New Zealand. The Marines had to do all the loading themselves, including the vital reconfiguration from administrative to combat assault. What resulted was 11 days of dockside mayhem (July 1942). Combat loading was critical because even after Miday, the Japanese still held naval superority in the Paciffic and it was vital that the most critical equipment be landed as quickly as possible. The Marines cursed the dock workers. Rain destoyed cardboard packging. One naval officer recalls walking through 100 yards of sodden corn flakes. Food abd amunition supplies were reduced. 【McEnery】

Task force (July 22)

The 89 ships carrying the 1st Division finally departed Wellington (July 22). General Vandergrift described landing exercizes on Koro Island as a 'disaster' (July 28-30). Air cover was provided by Admiral Fletcher's carriers.

Marine Landings (August 7-8, 1942)

The Marines reached Guadalcanal undetected by the Japanese. The Japanese thinking that there was no danger of offensive American operations had not rushed completion of the air strip. Guadacanal at the time was a virtually unknown island in the Solomons. The Marines did not know what to expect. The Marines landed (August 7). Thankfully, the Japanese did not believe the American forces were yet capable of an offensive action and the landings wee unexposed. The 11,000 Marines found Guadacanal and nearby Tulagi nearly undefended. There were as a result no Japanese combat units on the island. The Marines had thought there was a large Japanese force on the island. The Marines landed on Guadacanal unopposed. Conscript Korean workers fled into the jungle. The mayhem at Wellington, however, impaired what the Marines were able to load and what they were able to unload on the beaches before Japanese naval and air forces began to target the Marine bridgehead. The Marines also landed and took Tulagi, a small island off Guadalcanal. Here they were oposed by a small force of Japanese marines. The Marines quickly seized the unfinished Japanese airfield (August 8). Posswession of the field would prove decisive, but that was far from clear over the next 4 months. The Marines rushed the air strip to completion with captured Japanese equipment. They named it Henderson Field after Maj. Lofton Henderson, a pilot killed at Midway. The American invasion surprised the Japanese. But air attacks from Rabaul drove off the supply ships leaving the Marines without much of their supplies and equipment.

Small Islands

There were several small islands north of Guadalcanal in what became known as the Slot. They included Savo Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo. The Japanese had constructed a naval and seaplane base on Tulagi. It was attacked by American carrier aircraft during the Coral Sea Battle (May 1942). U.S. Marines landed on Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tamanbogo along with the main landings on Guadalcanal (August 8). Unlike Guadalcanal, the Japanese fiercely resisted the Marine landings even though they were outnumbered and outgunned. The Japanese made their main effort on Tulagi at night--a series of frontal charges. Despite being more experienced soldiers, Japanese tactics were vurtuallu suisidal. A major figure here was Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. Edson commanding the 1st Raider Battalion. Edson would play a key role in the fighting on Guadalcanal, again repunlosh Japanese frontal charges. Almost the entire Japanese garrison fought to the death. These islands would prove important in the Guadalcanal campaign. They were more secure than the Marine beachead on Guadalcanal as the Japanese resistane was wiped out and the Japanese efforts focused on retaking Guadlcanal. The Allies moved rapidly to turn the Tulagi anchorage, a fine natural harbor beter than anyrging on Guadalcanal, into a naval base and refueling station. During the Guadalcanal and subsequent Solomon cammpaign, Tulagi became an important Allied naval operations. Once Henderson Field on Guadalcanal became operational, Japanese naval operations were restricted during the day. As a result during the campign, Japanese naval operations--the Tokyo Express, were primaroly nighttime operations. Allied ships in the Guadalcanal area operating during the day, coommonly attempted to depart before nightfall. Those unable to do so sought refuge in Tulagi harbor. Also Allied ships damaged in the naval battles in the Slot, also sought refuge in the Tulagi anchorage for emergency repirs. The U.S. Navy also set up a P.T. boat base at Tulagi. The loss of crusiers and other fleet units in the Slot, especially as part of the Battle fr Savo Island men that the P.T. boats became n important part of mericn naval operations. They played an impotant part in the efforts to interdict the Japanese Tokyo Express efforts to land troops on Gudl Canal and supply them. The U.S. Navy also established their own seaplane base on Florida Island. Most of the Marines on Tulagi were redeployed on Guadalcnal where the Japanese made their main effort.

Withdrawl of Naval Support (August 8-9)

Guadacanal is unique in World war II. It is the only ampgibious operation in which the U.S. Navy abanonded the landing force. The Royal Navy in Europe slogged it out with the Germans in Norway, Dunkirk, and Crete and took losses, in their case to evacuate ground forces. At Dunkirk essentially the British Army was at stake and whole course of the War. At Crete Admiral Cunningham after being relieved by General Wavell of orders to contune withdrawing grond forces he famously replied that "the Navy has never failed the Army in such a situation and was not going to do so now." He informed Wavell that he was was going in again that night with everytrgibng he had that would float and was going to bring out troops. 【Lewin, p. 143.】 The Navy would never again abandon an American bridgehead. At Leyte a small group of destroyers and esort carriers fought off a powerful Japanese force pf cruisers and battleships led by the battleship Yamato. At Guadacanal it was a very different story. Admiral Fletcher was to provide air cover for 48 hours, but withdrew after only 36 hours (August 8). Admiral Turner withdrew the supply ships and their escorts. General Vandegrift and the 1st Marine Division was left on the beach withg out air cover, naval support, and only a small part of their equipment and supplies. And the Japanese lost no time in responding with air strikes, naval gunfire, and army landings. Fletcher certainly should have been concerned about his carriers. But Midway had chasnged the strategic balance. Before Midway the Pacific Fleet could not afford to slug it out with the Japanese and lose ships. The Japanese dominance was overwealming. Midway changed this. The relative strength of naval forces in the Pacific was not only more ballanced, but new ships were beginning to reach the fleet from U.S. shipyards. It was now the Japanese who could not afford to slug it out. And the stakes were high. Critical was the air field the Marines were rushing to completion with captured Japanese equipment--Henderson Field. This was essentually like adding an unsinkable carrier to the fleet. The Navy's timidity stemmed from the top--Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, Commander South Pacific. Nimitz soon realised what was needed. He reluctantly replaced Ghormley with Admiral Willian 'Bull' Halsey. That was the end of the Navy's timidity. He oversaw a series of naval actions with still inferior forces that would force the Imperial Navy from the South Pacific. It was one of the few instances during World War II that an inferior Allied force defeated a superior Japsnese or German force. The Imperial fleet would not reappear in force until the battle for the Marianas (July 1944).

Japanese Reponse

The Japanese were stunned by the Guadacanal invasion. Japanese planners had not prepared for such an early offensive. The Japanese had concluded that an American offensive was several months away, probably in mid-1943. The Japanese were completely surprised and initially assumed that the Marine force was small, probably a small raiding force like ones that had hit other Japanese-occupied Pacific Islands like Maken. They did not believe that the Americans had the strength to hold the island. And the Japanese did not believe the U.S. Pacific Fleet had the capability of supporting the Marines. Incredibly, the Imperial Navy had not informed the Army of dimensions of the Midway defeat. Thus the Army thus did not appreciate the shift in the balance of naval forces. The Army at the time was also focused on its offensive New Guinea and at first saw Guadacanal as an unwanted sideshow. Yamamoto and the Navy failed to understand the importance of Guadalcanal and then made the serious tactical error of feeding the Imperial Navy units into battle piecemeal. The Battle of Midway had dramatically affected Yamamoto. The bold commander who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor and Midway, suddently became tenative. 【Thomas, p. 85.】 There would be no single decisive battle in the South Pacific. The Imperial Navy would have had a chance to win a major fleet action in 1942, but they would delay such a battle until 1944 when the balance of power had decisively shifted to the Americans. (That battle of course was Leyte Gulf--the greatesr naval battle of all time.) Rather Yamamoto would feed elements of the Imperial Navy into battles piecemeal. The Japanese did not have a substantial garison on Guadalcanal and the Marines had destroyed the force on Tulagi. While the Navy responded telatively quickly, the Army did not react quickly in force. The Japanese Army was still focused on New Guinea. They were not at first aware of the dimensions and capabilities of the American force. The Japanese landed some ground forces and attacked the Marines who had dug in to defend the airfield The Japanese eventually landed substantial forces on Guadalcanal, but they were committed piece-meal. The terraine also made it difficult for the Japanese to move artillery and other heavy guns forward. Most importantly, the Japanese were unable to adequately supply the forces landed. Eventually The Japanese got a substantial force to Guadalcabnl, but they were junable to supply them. The Marines had major supply problems. The Japanese began starving. In other campaigns, the Japanese gave little attention to logistics. The Japanese campaigns in Malaya, Singapore, and Burma suceeded because they managed to over run British positiins abd seize thrir supplies. In Guadakcanal they failed to do this and began to staeve in the jungle. The Cactus Air Force on Guadacanal and Allied naval opposition, often in the face of superior Japanese naval forces, managed to interdict the Japanese supply lines. As a result the Marines were terribly mauled and ran short of everything, but they hung on and unlike the Japanese did not starve.

Turning Point

World War II historians generally depict the carrier battle at Midway (June 1942) as the tuning point of the Pacific War. It surely was the most important naval battle of the War. It did not, howver, destroy Japanese naval power. What occurred at Midway was that Japanese naval dominance was ended. Now there were two relatively equal naval powers that would have to slug it out. Actully that Japanese still had uperior naval fotces, but not overwealmingly so. In additiion to a still powerful surface fleet, the Japanese also had an edge in air forces, excellent planes and ell-trained aviators. It would be in the Solomons that the United States Navy would have to take on the Imperial Fleet with what it had until a massive shipbuilding effort stateside could supply a vast new fleet and new aircraft to support it. The Japanese would, however, fail to capitalize on their advantages. It would also be the last time in the War that the once formidable Imperial Navy seriously challenged the American Pacific Fleet. While few but serious students of the Pacifc War came name the individual engagenents, it was in the Sollomons that the Imperial Fleet was forced to admit that it was in a war that it could not win. The Japanese Navy performed well in the Solomons, in sharp contrast to the Imperial Army, but it became to the Admiralsin Tokyo that their Navy could not sustain the level of attrition inflicted by the American Pacific Fleet. What they did not fully understand was the growing power of the U.S. Navy. One historian writes, " ... the problm for historians of the Pacific War is to explain how the Imperial Navy, so powerful in its day, could have achievd so little in exchnge for its utter destruction. One element that sustains my proposition that the Solomons marked the turning point is that during the campaign the Japanese remained capable of giving as good as they got. Deterioration was just setting in. In the Solomons the Imperial Navy (IJN) inflicted eleven major warship (cruiser and above) losses. (Savo Island was a big part of the losses.) The IJN also endured the sinking of nine of its own big ships. But from the end of this campaign until their surrender the Japanese managed to sink just two major enmy warships while losing dozens of their own." 【Prados】 Radar, advanced American aircraft, and the many new Essex-class carriers is a major part of the reason.

Savo Island (August 9)

The Japanese initially did not fully understand the size of the American offensive on Guadacanal. The Imoerial Army was at the time focused on New Guinea ans assumed that the action was a small force raid, nit a sustained invasion by a full dibision. Even so, they responded immediately with air strikes. Two surface task forrces were dispatched. A Japanese cruiser force moved down the Slot and destroyed the Allied naval force covering the landings in a savage night action--the battle of Savo Island. A substantiak carrier force had been assigbed to cover the landings: USS Vincennes, USS Chicago, Canberra, Astoria, and USS Quincey. The Japanese sent a force of seven cruisers and one destroyer under the command of Admiral Mikawa from their base ar Rabal. The task force cleared the New Georgia Sounded and headed for "The Slot". The route traveled was the slot-like channel formed by the parallel configuration of the different Solomon Islands. The Japanese were highly skilled in night fighting and the Allies still had only limited radar and were not utilizing what they had to best affect. The Japanese encountered the Allied cruiser force covering the landings (August 9). Eight Japanese ships managed to sink three U.S. heavy cruisers, an Australian cruiser, and one U.S. destroyer. This all occured in one disastrous hour. It was one of the wore defeat imposed on the Allies in ship-to-ship engagements and perhaps the most grevious defeat suffered by the U,.S. Navy in its history. This was no surprose air attack as at Pear Harbor, but a naval action at sea. In addition, another U.S. cruiser and two destroyers were damaged (August 8-9). A total of 1,077 sailors were killed and 709 wounded. What remnained of the Allied naval force limped out to sea leaving the Marines exposed. Even so, Admiral Mikawa did not press on to Guadcanal. Given the ferocity of the Japanese Army, Admiral Mikawa's decesion is difficult to nunderstand. It reminds one of Admiral Kurita at Leyte. At these two critical points powerful Japanese squadron\ns turned away at a critical moment. Admiral Mikawa withdrew back up the Slot. They were apparently concerned about an American carrier strike when dawn broke. This would be one of several instances in te Solomon Campaign when the Japanee would not press on an attack which given their warrior tradition is not clearly understood. The Allied landing force was forced to withdraw without unloading all of the Marines' suppliess. This left the Japanese with air and naval supperority over the Marines that had landed. This seriously impaired the Navy's ability to supply the Marines on Guadacanal. It turmed the Battle of Guadacanal into a struggle of who could supply their men on the Island. And here the key proved to be Henderson Field. The Battle of Savo Island shocked the U.S. Navy. Even at this stage of the War, many in the Navy did not understand how good the Japanese were or the quality of their training and equipment. The devestating Japanese victory forced the Americans to reassess their assumptions. Pearl Harbor could be dismissed as a sneak attack, but not Savo Island.

Japanese Air and Naval Attacks

The U.S. Navy got the Marines ashore, but Japanese air strikes and fleet movement prevented them from landing much of their supplies, although the Marines through much of the campaign were even more poorly supplied, in large measure because of the Cactus Air Force. This would be the last campaign in which the Japanese still had well-trained pilots. This great advantage in 1942 would be whittled down in the Solomons Campaign, especially during the fight for Guadalcanal. The Japanese also still possessed better aircraft than the American, especially the A6M Zero. A major problem. however, was that Guadalcanal was at the outer edge of Japanese aviation operating from Rabaul. The Japanese aircraft could reach Guadalcanal but required a long flight. This meant only one attack a day was possible for the pilots. The pilots of the Cactus Air Force could mount several attacks daily. One under-reported development was the importance of the Marine landings at Tulagi and the destruction of the Japanese seaplane base there. The importance of the seaplanes is poorly understood. These were reconnaissance aircraft. The loss of this base severely reduced the Japanese reconnaissance capability in the seas around Guadalcanal. 【Telenko】 This would be the area of several major naval battles. The Japanese at the time still had a naval superiority. The Savo Island disaster was, for example, the worst defeat in U.S. naval history. The U.S. Navy still came off poorly in surface engagements. Better situational awareness in these battles from effective reconnaissance could have made a huge difference in the outcomes. The Japanese Navy was able to bombard Henderson Field, but only at night which impaired the effectiveness. The Marines often referred to Washing Machine Charley keeping them up at night. Actually, the noise was not designed to irritate the Marines, it was a misguided attempt related to efforts designed to incapacitate the American early-warning systems. 【Telenko】

Henderson Field and the Cactus Air Force

The Cactus Air Force and Henderson Field played a major role in protecting the Marines from Japanese air strikes and naval bombardment. The Navy was generally reluctant to deploy its few remaining carriers. Within days of seizing Guadalcanal, the Marines even after losing their construction equipment, completed the airfield. The Cactus Air Force was soon in operation. (Cactus was the American code designation for Guadalcanal.) The resulting Cactus Air Force proved critical in the fight for the island. The Japanese ultimately did respond in force. Obsolete American fighters managed to fight off fought off Japanese Zeros and other planes. This was a battle-wining achievement because the Zero was a much more effective fighter than the Navy Wildcat or even more the Army P-40. Effective air combat tactics and the fact the Zeros flying from Rabaul could only spend a few minutes over Guadalcanal made it impossible for the Japanese to achieve air superiority. Radar was also important. Existing accounts of the air battles around Guadalcanal often focus on the aircraft. This is important, but rarely mentioned in these accounts is radar. Much more attention is given to the Coast Watchers. As in the Battle of Britain, early warning was critical. For the Wildcats to be effective against the more nimble Zeros, early warning was indispensable so that they could gain altitude. The Marines had basically the same radar that was installed at Pearl Harbor. But the small radar team was headed by the unsung hero of Guadalcanal--Master Technical Sargent Dermott H. MacDonnell. 【Telenko】 The radar only had a limited range, but just enough to give the Wildcat pilots the needed time. But this was only because that because MacDonnell was able to tease the type and number of aircraft out of the oscilloscope images. The Cactus Air Force also helped shape the nature of the Solomons' naval battles. Henderson Field despite the out-molded fighter aircraft gave the Americans command of the waters in the southern Solomons during the day. At night the Japanese with their night capability controlled the sea. American bombers launched strikes on Japanese bases in the northern Solomons.

The Slot

"The Slot" is a navegable channel formed by the parallel configuration of the Solomons Archipelago into two parallel rows of islands. The Japanese from Rabaul regularly came down the Slot daily to bomb and shell the Marines. Their main target was the airstrip which the Marines rushed into operation. They also laubched fighter and bomber attacks on the Marines, concentrating on Henderson Field. The marines became accustomed to nightly raids by Washing Machine Charlie. The Japanese also sent transports down the Slot to reinforce and supply their men on Gudacanal. Mastering the Slot was the key to victory on Guadacanal. And for several months there was a standoff. Marine aviators from Henderson Field could control the Slot during the day. Japan's more powerful naval force, skilled in night fighting, dominated the Slot during the night. This meant that the Marines could interdict, but not stop Japanese efforts to land troops on the island. It also meantvthat the Japanese had a limited ability to reinforce the island and even more importantly to adequately supplyh the troops landed. In particular it was virtually impossible to land heavy weapons like artillery. The resuilting naval battles were an attempt by the Japanese to use their naval superority to reverse the stand off on the island. The weaker American naval force did what it could to protect the Marines.

Jungle Warfare

The Marines were unable to land all of their supplies before Japanese naval action vorced the supply ships to leave. They managed to hold out in part by using Japanese supplies. The Japanese force on Guadalcanal was small, but infantry forces were rushed south from Rabaul. This was the first real test of Japanese and American soldiers. The Japanese had been taught that the Americans were soft. This is not what they found on Guadacanal. As a result, a fierce fight for the island ensued as the Japanese attempted to break into the Marine perimter. 【McEnery】 The bravery and endurance of the Marines on Guadacanal is legendary. The same was true of the Japanese. The Marines were astonished by the suicidal Japanese tactics. The Japanese managed to land forces on the Island that could have defeated the Marines. In fact, the Japanese committed more troops to Guadalcanal than the Americans, but they were committd peacemeal nd suffered apauling losses. Poor tactics, especially the willingness to squandor men in suisidal Banzai tactics, and the inability to supply their troops were the primary factor in the Japanese defeat. The infantry tactics used by Japanese commanders anxious for victory included suisidal mass wave attacks against machine gun impacements and artillery. The result was that the Japanese disipated their strength until the U.S. perimters was too well established to penetrate. The key to Henderson Field was a 2,000 meter long ridge rising from the jungle camopy. It came to be known as Edson's or Bloody Ridge because the First Marine Raider Divisioin commanded by Lt. Col. Merrit A. Edson. Behind the ridge was Henderson Field. Some of the most desperate fighting on Guadalcanal took place on and around Edson's Ridge. If Henderson Field fell, the 12,500 Marines in the island would have been captured or killed.

Col. Kiyonao Ikki (August 18-21)

The key battle was fought by Col. Kiyonao Ichiki at the Tenaru River which the Marines called Aligator Creek. Col. Ikki was the battle hardended commander who was to have lead the land invasion at Midway. He was no doubt frustrated by the cancelation of the landing and determined to engage the Marines this time. He and his men landed (August 18). At this stage of the War, the Japanee had not yet encountered an Allied force that had stood against them. Ikki was contemtuous of the Marines and chose to attack before recoitering the area or any planning and before he had assembled his full force. Japanese intelligence had badly understimated the size of the Marine force. Ikki wrecklessly pressed ahead with light wapons. His battle tactics were a frontal attack across the Tenaru River where the Ameeicas were dug in with machine guns. Ikki was killed or commirred suiside and his force annialated. There would be many additiional actions, but after the Tenaru the Americans increasingly consolidated their bridgehead and hardened their defenses.


The Marines during the course of the campaign were helped by friendly Melanisian natives which the Japanese had quickly alienated when they arrived. Continuing Japanese pressure began to ground down the Marines. Military commanders report that troops lose their effectiveness if kept in combat beyond a relatively short period, The Marine 1dt Division s on Guadanal were essentiaslly in combat for 6 months without rotation. It was an incredible feat of arms. No other American military unit in the War faced such an extended period of combat with such limited logistical support. Both sides struggled to build up their forces and supplies.

Eastern Sollomons (August 24, 1942)

The Japanese had superior naval forces in the South Pacific, especially after the Battle of Savo Island. The one area in which they were relatively evenly matches, thanks to Midway, was in naval aviation. The Navy deployed Enterprise, Wasp, and Saratoga to support the Marines on Guadacanal. The Imperial Navy assembled a massive task force including the heavy carriers Suikaku and Soikaku, and the light carrier Ryugo. The two heavy carriers were after Midway all that was left of powerful six heavy carriers and their magnicently btrained flight crews with which the Japanese had launchedv the War. The Japanese task force was ordered to deliver reinforceents and supplies to retake Guadacanal. The Americans after extended patrols and no sign of the Japanese had released Wasp for needed refuleing. The U.S. And Japanese carriers fought the Battle of the Eastern Solomons (August 24). The battle brgan when PBY patrol craft spotted Ryugo and an escort cruiser, but not the heavy carriers 100 miles to the north. (9:45 AM). It was just what the Japanese had hoped. In carrier battles, the side to strike first had a chance to win the battle. An American strike on Ryugo, a carrier of lesser importance, would expose the American carriers to attack. Enterprise struck at Ryugo (12:39 pm). the attack force left it a flameing hulk. The ship and 70mplaes including many air crews were lost. About 100 miles behind, Soikaku and Zuikaku launched a strike on the Americn carriers. For some reason the American radar did not pick up the incoming strike. American radar had a range of about 75-85 miles, but still not fully reliable. The attavking force found Enterprise which not identify them until the Japanese were nearly over them. Fleet air cover downed 29 Japanese raiders and anti-aircraft fire from Enteprise, the USS North Carolina, and other escots downed another 15 Japanese planes. Battleships like North Carolina. had been seen as the backbone of the fleet. Now it was a floting gun platform used primarily to protect carriers. The first squadron of Val dive bombers reached Enterprise and scored at hit near the fantail (4:44 pm). A second squadron scored another hit near the first. These hits put Enterprise's stering out of action and the carrier began to list. A third and final hit pentrated the deck forward of the No. 2 elevator. The Japanese at the start of the War had better prepared carrier crews, better pilots, and more effective aircraft. The one area the Americans has a destinct advatage was damage control crews. These crews braving rageing fires managed to save Enterprise just as they saved Yorktown in the Coral Sea. Japanese carruiers hit like Enterprise did not survive. A second Japanese strike late in the afternoon failed to find the American carriers, in part because Enterprise's steering had been put out of action and thus its course had changed. Enterprise limped off to Noumea and then to Pearl for repairs. There were 77 dead sailors. The Japanese suffered heavier losses including many air crews. While the Japanese may have prevailed because of the damage to Enterprise, again they did not press on the attack. The American action not only turned them back, but inflicted substantial losses on the air compliment. The discouraged the Japanese from fully commiting their naval forces for the effort to retake Guadalcanal. This was a terrible mistake because it was the last campaign in which the Imperial Navy would operate with superior forces. The strategic balance would be fundamentally altered when new ships began reaching the Pacific fleet in large numbers during 1943.

Kawaguchi Brigade (September 12-14)

The next major battle was fought at Edson's Ridge also known as Bloddy Ridge in which the Marines again narrowly turned back ampther Japanese Banzai attack (September 12). It was the second of three major Japanese ground offensives launched against the Marine beachead and Henderson Field. Japanese Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi commanded the 35th Infantry Brigade reinforced with the 124th Infantry Regiment. It was organizationall part of the IJA 18th Division. Kawaguchi and his Brigade had cobsiderable prestige. They were battlehrdened with fighting on on Borneo and Philippines. The Marines were defending the Lunga perimeter that guarded the all important Henderson Field. The Cactus Air Force flying from Henderson Field meant that the Japanese Navy could not shell the island during the day. They did shell the Marines at might, but without any ability to target. Kawaguchi assured his superiors that he would retake the island. Japanese intelligence still underestimating the strength of American forces, aboy 12,000 mem. Kawaguchi had only 6,000 soldiers. Although he had time to plan a professiinal assault, insread he chose several nighttime frontal assaults on the prepared Americam defenses. The main Japanese assault occurred around Lunga Ridge south of Henderson Field, manned by troops from several U.S. Marine units, primarily troops from the 1st Raider and 1st Parachute Battalions under U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. Edson. Here the decisive battle for the island over 2 nights (September 1942). One Marine recounts, "The machine chattered again and we were once more forced to hug the ground. However, I noticed that every time the Jap gunner had to reload one of his 30-round banana clips, which attached to the top of the Type 99 Nambu, his right arm was visible. Taking aim, I waited for himto empty his magazine and relaod. He did. Up went the handwith a fresh clop, giving me a clear shot. I squeezed the tiggerand emptied the madazine. My rounds explpded into the logs and earth all around the Jap position, and the Jap yelped as his hand above the wrist seemed to vanish., and he dropped from sigt. Hunt leaped up, stiletto drawn, and charged intoi the gun position." 【Groft and Alexander】 Although the Marine defenses were almost overrun, Kawaguchi's frontalmattacks werecut to pieces by machine gun and artillery fire. Because of the gight Edson's unit put up, it became known as Edson's Ridge. Not only did Kawaguchi not take Hendersin Field, but his brigade was decimated.

Harukichi Command (October 23-26)

After the disaster at Edson's Ridgd, the Marines who then took the initiative in a series of engaments along the Matanikau River (September-October). The climatic battle was fought south of Henderson Field. Lt. Gen Harukichi Hyakutakat decided because of the Marine actions around the mouth of the Matanikau River to strike with his reinforcements south of Henderson Field. This was the decisive action of the campaign and was to be coordinated with the air strikes rfrom Rabaul and a major naval action--what has become known as the naval battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. The Japanese forces because of communications problems instead of launching a fullscale attack, launched a series of uncoordinated attacks (October 23-26). They suffered heavy losses while the well-entrenched Marines experienced only light losses. This was thge end of the Japanese threat to the Marine beachhead and Henderson Field, although they did not yet give up. They had, however, begun to revise their opinion about the U.S. Marines.

Naval Battles (August-December 1942)

Despite the American victory at Midway, the Japanese still had superior carrier and naval forces. Without the four fleet carriers lost at Midway, the Japanese was no longer overwealming supperior, but it still possessed the more powerful naval force. The Japanese did not at first appreciate the importance of the American action on Guadacanal. What the American and Australian Navy primarily faced in the narrow waters of the Slot were the Japanese destoyers and cruisers. Only gradually were more powerful fleet elements drawn into the fight. Once Admiral Yamamoto comprehended the importance of the struggle and committed the Imperal Fleet in force. While the Japanese possessed the most powerful naval force, to the equation has to be added Henderson Field which proved to be essentially an unsinkable carrier. While the Marines fought it out on Guadcanal, the still outclassed U.S. Navy fought a series of desperate battles to keep the supply lines open to the hard-pressed Marines. No matter how hard the Marines fought, they would be lost unless the Navy kept the supplies open. Unlike the subsequent naval battles in the Pacific, this swas bit the Big Blue Fleet with Essex-Class carriers, advanced aircraft and a host of new ships. This was largely the Navy which had survived Pearl Harbor. Naval forced commsned by Bull Halsey fought it out with superior Japsnese forces. They suffered substanyial losses, but so did the Japanese. These were the most desperate battles of the Pacific War. And the Navy managed to keep the supply lines open to the Marines. Finally the Japanese decidd they could not continue to suffer the level of losses they experienced. The Americans could not only replace theiur losses, but expand the fleet. The Japsnese coulkd not even replace thor losses. As aesult the Imperial Fleet not only wiyhdrew from the South Pacific, but began to withdraw from the Central Pacific, believing that a well entrenched garrison could hold off ampphibious assaults. The Imperial Navy meanwhile refrouped in Singapore and the Home Islands and bgan prepsring for a final decidive fleet action.

Last Efforts (November-December)

The Americans and Japanese reinforced their forces on Guadalcanal. Col Shōji Sendai assumed an imprtant role in the fighting. A major difference in the fighting was that the Americans were able to properly supply their men. A a result, the Marines with Army units emerged from the beachead area and began to take the gight to yhe Japanese. In a series of actions the Japanese suffered serious losses. And had to fall back. The Japanese Navy gained important victories in the Slot, but they were unable to turn these victories into sucessfuly deliving supplies to their forces on Guadalcanal. By the end of the month, the Japanese were losing some 50 men a day, mostly due to hunger and disease. 【Frank, p. 527.】 The Japanese began to consider the unthinable--withdrawl. It would be their firsrt land defeat. The IJN command propsed withdrawl (December 12). And the Army did not object. The decision was finally taken (December 26). By this time the surviving Japanese on the island, hard pressed by the Marine and Army units, were starving.


Frank, Richard. Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle (New York: Random House, 1990). I

Groft, Marlin 'Whitey' and Larry Alexander. Bloody Ridge and Beyond: A World War II Marine's Memoir of Edson's Raiders in the Pacific (2014), 368p.

Jacobs, Rick, "World War II Battle of Guadacanal," Talk at the vWorld War II Museum (New Orleans: August 16, 1917). The talk is available ob C-Span 3 American History TV.

McEnery, Jim with Bill Sloan. Hell in the Pacific: A Marine Rifleman's Journey from Gudalcanal to Peleliu (2012), 320p.

Telenko, Trent. "The horseshoe nail of victory of the Guadalcanal air campaign," WW2TV (Nov 24, 2021).


Navigate the CIH World War II Section:
[Return to Main World War II Guadalcanal page]
[Return to Main World War II Solomons campaign]
[Return to Main World War II island territory page ]
[Return to Main World War II country page ]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[POWs] [Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology] [Totalitarian powers]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]
[Return to CIH Home page]

Created: 3:26 AM 8/9/2010
Last updated: 7:08 PM 5/24/2023