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Summary Article: Guadalcanal, Land Battle for (August 1942–February 1943)
from Japan at War: An Encyclopedia

The battle for Guadalcanal was actually a series of naval and land battles fought in and around the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Island archipelago.

In January 1942, Japanese amphibious forces had landed in the Bismarck Archipelago between New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. They quickly wrested Kavieng on New Ireland Island and Rabaul on New Britain from the Australians. The Japanese consolidated their hold and turned Rabaul into their principal southwest Pacific base. By early March, the Japanese had landed at Salamaua and Lae in Papua and on Bougainville. Their advance having gone so well, they decided to expand their defensive ring to the southeast to cut off the supply route from the United States to New Zealand and Australia. On May 3, the Japanese landed on Tulagi and began building a seaplane base there. Between May and July, they expanded their ring farther in the central and lower Solomons. The first Japanese landed on Guadalcanal on June 8. On July 6, their engineers began construction of an airfield near the mouth of the Lunga River.

Bodies of dead Japanese soldiers lie on a beach on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, while U.S. Marines consolidate their position.

(Library of Congress)

The discovery of the Japanese effort on Guadalcanal led to the implementation of Operation Watchtower. Conceived by U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King, it called for securing Tulagi as a base to protect the United States–Australia lifeline and as a starting point for a drive up the Solomons to Rabaul.

The Japanese airfield on Guadalcanal would allow its aircraft to bomb the advanced Allied base at Espiritu Santo. In recognition of that fact, U.S. plans to take the offensive were stepped up, and a task force was hurriedly assembled. From Nouméa, Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley dispatched an amphibious force under Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, lifting Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift's 19,000-man reinforced 1st Marine Division. A three-carrier task force under Vice Admiral Frank J. Fletcher provided air support. This operation involved some 70 ships.

Although hamstrung by a lack of adequate resources because of the sealift required for Operation Torch (the British and American invasion of North Africa), Ghormley pieced together forces from the United States, Australia, and New Zealand for the invasion. Resources were so meager that some of his officers nicknamed the plan Operation Shoestring.

The U.S. Navy's tasks were to sustain forces ashore and provide naval and air protection for the Marines defending the airfield, which was captured shortly after the landing and renamed Henderson Field for a Marine aviator killed in the Battle of Midway. The lack of a harbor compounded supply problems. The Japanese operated aircraft from Rabaul and later from other closer island airfields, but Allied “coast watchers” on islands provided early warning of many Japanese naval movements.

On August 7, 1942, the Marines went ashore at Tulagi, Florida, Tanambogo, Gavutu, and Guadalcanal, surprising the small Japanese garrisons (2,200 on Guadalcanal and 1,500 on Tulagi). On the same day, the Marines seized the harbor at Tulagi, and by the next afternoon they had also secured the airfield under construction on Guadalcanal, along with stocks of Japanese weapons, food, and equipment. Supplies for the Marines were soon coming ashore from transports in the sound between Guadalcanal and Florida Islands, but this activity came under attack by Japanese aircraft based at Rabaul.

The stakes were high for both sides. The fiercest fighting occurred for Henderson Field. Vandegrift recognized its importance and immediately established a perimeter defense around it. Eating captured rations and using Japanese heavy-construction equipment, the U.S. 1st Engineer Battalion completed the airfield on August 17. As early as August 21, the day the Japanese mounted a major attack on the field, the first U.S. aircraft landed there. The Japanese now found it impossible to keep their ships in waters covered by the land-based American aircraft during the day, and they found it difficult to conduct an air campaign over the lower Solomons from as far away as Rabaul.

The surrounding coral reef and lack of a harbor compounded U.S. supply problems, as did Japanese aircraft attacks. The battle on Guadalcanal became a complex campaign of attrition.

On August 8 in the Battle of Savo Island, a Japanese cruiser squadron overwhelmed an Allied force of equal size, sinking one Australian and three U.S. cruisers and damaging several destroyers, while losing none of Japan's own ships. The battle clearly showed the superiority of Japanese night-fighting techniques. The battle was the worst defeat ever suffered by the U.S. Navy, but it was only a tactical success, because the Japanese failed to go after the vulnerable American troop transports off Guadalcanal and Tulagi.

Nonetheless, the Battle of Savo Island and Japanese air attacks led to the withdrawal of supporting naval forces from Guadalcanal, leaving the Marines ashore isolated, bereft of naval support, and short of critical supplies. Long-range aircraft and destroyers did bring in some resources. The Japanese made a critical mistake in not capitalizing on the U.S. vulnerability to commit their main fleet to this area. For the most part, they sent only smaller units in driblets, chiefly in the form of fast destroyers. The so-called Slot was controlled by the United States during the day but the Japanese owned it at night.

Concern over the vulnerability of the U.S. transports led to their early removal on the afternoon of August 9, along with most of the heavy guns, vehicles, construction equipment, and food intended for the Marines ashore. The Japanese sent aircraft from Rabaul, while initially U.S. land-based aircraft flying at long range from the New Hebrides provided air cover for the Marines as fast destroyer transports finally brought in some supplies. American possession of Henderson Field tipped the balance. U.S. air strength there gradually increased to about 100 planes.

At night the so-called Tokyo Express—Japanese destroyers and light cruisers—steamed down the Slot and into the sound to shell Marine positions and to deliver supplies. The latter effort was haphazard and never sufficient; often, drums filled with supplies were pushed off the ships to drift to shore. One of the great what-ifs of the Pacific War was the failure of the Japanese to exploit the temporary departure of the U.S. carrier task force on August 8 by rushing in substantial reinforcements.

Actions ashore were marked by clashes between patrols on both sides. Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki, who had arrived with his battalion on Guadalacanal in early August, planned a large-scale attack that took little account of U.S. Marine dispositions. His unit was effectively wiped out in the August 21, 1942, Battle of the Tenaru River. Ichiki's men refused to surrender, and they and their commander were killed in the fighting. Marine losses were 44 dead and 71 wounded; the Japanese lost at least 777 men.

The next major confrontation at sea off Guadalcanal came on the night of August 24–25 in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. American carrier-based aircraft intercepted and attacked the covering group for a Japanese convoy of destroyers and transports carrying 1,500 troops to Guadalcanal. The Americans sank the Japanese light carrier Ryujo and damaged another ship, but the U.S. fleet carrier Enterprise was located and attacked by Japanese aircraft and badly damaged. The Japanese destroyers and transports delivered the reinforcements and the destroyers and then shelled Henderson Field, although a U.S. Army B-17 sank one of the Japanese ships.

On August 31, the U.S. carrier Saratoga was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and put out of action for three months. That left only the carrier Wasp available for operations in the South Pacific. From September 12 to 14, strong Japanese land forces attempted to seize U.S. Marine positions on Lunga Ridge overlooking Henderson Field from the south. The Japanese left 600 dead; American casualties were 143 dead and wounded. Both sides continued building up their strength ashore as naval and air battles raged over and off Guadalcanal.

On September 15, the Wasp was torpedoed and sunk while it was accompanying transports lifting the 7th Marine Regiment to Guadalcanal from Espiritu Santo. A Japanese torpedo also damaged the battleship North Carolina, which, however, held its place in the formation. The Americans continued to Guadalcanal, delivering the 7th Marine Regiment safely three days later.

Then came the naval Battle of Cape Esperance during the night of October 11–12. The Japanese sent in their supply ships at night. U.S. ships equipped with radar detected a Japanese convoy. In the ensuing fight, the Japanese lost a cruiser and a destroyer, and another cruiser was heavily damaged. The Americans lost only a destroyer and had two cruisers damaged. The first Allied success against the Japanese in a night engagement, the Battle of Cape Esperance provided a great boost to U.S. morale.

From October 23 to 25, the Japanese launched strong land attacks against Henderson Field. Fortunately for the Marine defenders, the attacks were widely dispersed and uncoordinated. In these engagements, the Japanese suffered 2,000 dead, while U.S. casualties were fewer than 300. Immediately after halting this Japanese offensive, Vandegrift began a six-week effort to expand the defensive perimeter to a point beyond which the Japanese could not subject Henderson to artillery fire.

A major naval engagement occurred on October 26–27 in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. Task Force 16, centered on the carrier Enterprise, engaged Japanese forces. Each side conducted carrier strikes against the other. U.S. aircraft inflicted severe damage on the heavy carrier Shokaku, putting the ship out of action for nine months, and damaged the light carrier Zuiho. On the U.S. side, the heavy carrier Hornet was badly damaged and had to be abandoned while under tow; it was soon sunk by Japanese destroyers. Japan had won a major victory over the Americans, but had lost 100 aircraft and experienced pilots, half again as many as the Americans.

During November 12–15, a series of intense sea fights occurred in what became known as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. It took place near the entrance to Ironbottom Sound (so named because it was the resting place of many Allied and Japanese ships) off Savo Island. U.S. ships and aircraft fought to block reinforcement of the island by 13,000 Japanese troops in 11 transports, escorted by destroyers. At the same time, a powerful squadron arrived to shell Henderson Field. In a confused engagement, both sides suffered heavily. The Japanese lost the battleship Hiei and two cruisers sunk; all other Japanese vessels were damaged. The Americans lost two cruisers and four destroyers. A cruiser and a destroyer were close to sinking, and all other ships, save one, were damaged. The Japanese were obliged to retire, and the planned Japanese bombardment of Henderson Field did not occur.

On November 13–14, the Japanese returned, and their heavy cruisers shelled Henderson Field. The Americans, however, sank seven Japanese transports and two cruisers. During the third phase of the engagement on November 14–15, U.S. warships met and defeated yet another Japanese forces near Savo Island. The Americans lost two destroyers, but Japan lost the battleship Kirishima and a destroyer. The net effect of the three-day battle was that Japan landed only some 4,000 troops, whereas the Americans regained control of the waters around the island.

The last major naval battle for Guadalcanal occurred on November 30 at Tassafaronga Point. The Japanese again attempted to land reinforcements on the island and were surprised by a larger U.S. Navy task force. However, the Japanese once more demonstrated their superior night-fighting ability. In the exchange, the Japanese lost a destroyer and the Americans lost a cruiser.

Fighting on land continued. On December 8, the 2nd Marine Division replaced the veteran 1st Marine Division and the 25th Infantry Division. At the beginning of January 1943, there were 58,000 Americans present in the Guadalcanal area, whereas Japanese strength was then less than 20,000.

Meanwhile, on January 10, the U.S. military began an offensive to clear the island of Japanese forces, mixing Army and Marine units as the situation dictated. In a two-week battle, the Americans drove the Japanese from a heavily fortified line west of Henderson Field. At the end of January, the Japanese were forced from Tassafaronga toward Cape Esperance, where a small American force landed to prevent them from escaping by sea. Dogged Japanese perseverance and naval support, however, enabled some defenders to escape. The Japanese invested in the struggle 24,600 men (20,800 troops and 3,800 naval personnel).

Japanese leaders now came to the conclusion that they could no longer absorb such losses in trying to hold on in Guadalcanal. The final battle of the campaign was a skirmish off Rennell's Island on January 30, 1943. In daring night operations during February 1–7, 1943, Japanese destroyers evacuated 10,630 troops (9,800 army and 830 navy).

The United States committed 60,000 men to the fight for the island; of these forces, the Marines lost 1,207 dead and the army 562. U.S. casualties were far greater in the naval contests for Guadalcanal; the U.S. Navy and Marines lost 4,911 men and the Japanese at least 3,200. Counting land, sea, and air casualties, the struggle for Guadalcanal claimed 7,100 U.S. lives.

Ultimately, the Americans won the land struggle for Guadalcanal thanks to superior supply capabilities. The Americans were now well fed and well supplied, but the Japanese were desperate, losing many men to sickness and simple starvation.

The Americans won the naval campaign thanks largely to their superior supply capability and the failure of the Japanese to throw enough resources into the battle. The Tokyo Express down the Slot was haphazard and inadequate. The campaign for Guadalcanal proved to be as much a turning point for the United States as the Battle of Midway. The Japanese advance had been halted, opening the way for the long island-hopping advance toward Japan. In addition to the loss of lives, the Japanese lost 1 light carrier, 2 battleships, 3 heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser, 14 destroyers, and 8 submarines. Particularly serious from the Japanese point of view was the loss of 2,076 aircraft (1,094 to combat) and many trained pilots. U.S. Navy losses included 2 heavy carriers, 6 heavy cruisers (including the Royal Australian Navy Canberra), 2 light cruisers, and 15 destroyers, but new U.S. naval construction more than offset the U.S. losses. The campaign also destroyed the myth of Japanese naval superiority.

U.S. control of the air had rendered the Japanese ships vulnerable to attack. It also allowed Allied forces to determine the timing and location of offensive operations without Japanese foreknowledge. The Japanese advance was halted, and the U.S. could begin the long and bloody return to the Philippine Islands.

See also: Midway, Battle of; World War II, Pacific Theater.

Further Reading
  • Frank, Richard B. Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle. Random House New York, 1990.
  • Hamel, Eric M. Guadalcanal: Decision at Sea: The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, November 13-15, 1942. Crown New York, 1988.
  • Lundstrom, John B. The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign. Naval Institute Press Annapolis MD, 1994.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 5: The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942-February 1943. Little, Brown Boston, 1948.
  • Mueller, Joseph N. Guadalcanal 1942: The Marines Strike Back. Osprey London, 1992.
  • Tregaskis, Richard. Guadalcanal Diary. Random House New York, 1943.
  • William P. McEvoy
    Troy D. Morgan
    Spencer C. Tucker
    Copyright 2013 by Louis G. Perez

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