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Guadalcanal— Turning Point in the Pacific :1942

Mark Caruthers holds a Bachelor's degree in Geography and History from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).

The Turning Point

The Battle for Guadalcanal began August 7, 1942, when U.S. Marines landed unopposed on the beach and began to attack inland toward an airfield the Japanese were attempting to build on the island. It would take the American forces six months to defeat the Japanese Imperial Army, in what was to turn into a classic battle of attrition.

Guadalcanal is part of the Solomon Islands which lie near the north-eastern approaches to Australia. The island was named by Spanish explorers for a village in Andalusia, was in British hands with the rest of the Southeastern Solomon Islands when the Japanese seized northern Guadalcanal, in May 1942.

At Lunga Point on Guadalcanal's north end, two Imperial Navy construction battalions immediately began building an airstrip. By the end of June 1942, there were an estimated 3,000 Japanese soldiers on the island of Guadalcanal.

Australian coast watchers reported that the Japanese were building an airfield on the island. It was true that an airfield on the island would pose a major threat to future Allied shipping lanes. From that field, land-based Japanese warplanes would be able to intercept the air and sea routes linking the United States and Australia.

In a hurried assault that opened the Allies Pacific campaign, 18,000 men of the 1st Marine division landed on Guadalcanal and its neighboring islands. Early on in the battle, the Japanese offered little resistance. Japanese presence on the island consisted mostly of conscripted Korean laborers.

Until Japanese counterattacks by air and sea on the 8th and 9th of August 1942 defeated the task force supporting the invasion before it completely emptied its transports. The Allied task force was forced to pull out from the seas surrounding the island leaving the Marines on Guadalcanal on their own.

The stranded Marines quickly completed the airstrip on the island naming it after Major Lofton Henderson, after the first Marine pilot to die at Midway. On August 20,1942, Marine Wildcats and Dauntless bombers landed forming a nucleus of a flying circus that would be christened the "Cactus Air Force" after the island's code name.

Though it is a very isolated, humid, jungle covered, tropical island, its position made it strategically important to both sides in the Pacific War. If the Allies controlled the island, they would be better able to protect Australia from a Japanese invasion.

Also, they could protect the Allied build-up in Australia which would act as a springboard for a major assault on the Pacific fortress of Japan.

If the Japanese captured the island, they could cut off the sea route between Australia and America.

So, the stage was set for an epic battle that would determine the outcome of the war in the Pacific during the Second World War. On August 7, 1942, the American forces began their attack on Guadalcanal, up to that point it was America's most powerful amphibious force ever assembled.

Three American carriers gave air support (the "Saratoga" the "Wasp" and the "Enterprise) guarded by the battleship USS North Carolina. Eight cruisers from America and Australia guarded the actual landing craft as they approached the beaches of Guadalcanal.

The American forces achieved complete tactical surprise. The hot, humid jungle climate quickly took its toll on the Marines carrying heavy equipment. The humid Pacific climate also caused problems with the radio communication between the front-line troops and the support troops.

For the first 24 hours the Marines on Guadalcanal didn't receive any contact from the Japanese forces on the island. On the 8th of August 1942, the Marines captured that airfield on the island without a fight as the Japanese fled into the jungle avoiding a fight.

All that would change around 1am on the 9th of August, when a large Japanese naval force made contact with the Allied naval force in the waters off Guadalcanal.

Battle for Savo Island

Dauntless dive bomber from the Aircraft Carrier Enterprise

Dauntless dive bomber from the Aircraft Carrier Enterprise

Allied warships sinking off the beaches of Guadalcanal

Allied warships sinking off the beaches of Guadalcanal

The Battle for Savo Island August 8-9, 1942

The Slot was the path the Japanese navy used to attack forces around Guadalcanal. The Japanese navy attacked at night to prevent Allied warplanes from attacking their ships, by using searchlights they quickly located Allied warships.

The Japanese navy proved to be experts at attacking Allied warships around Guadalcanal, sending many of their battle cruisers to the bottom of the sea, where they still lie seventy years later.

As a result of the American amphibious landings on Guadalcanal the Japanese Imperial Navy sent a task force to the island, under the command of Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, to disrupt the landings by attacking the Allied naval task force surrounding the island.

Mikawa's naval force consisting of seven cruisers, and one destroyer, sailed from the Japanese bases in New Britain and New Ireland down New Georgia sound (also known as "the slot") arriving off Guadalcanal a few minutes before midnight on August 8, 1942.

Mikawa's warships sailed right into the middle of the Allied naval force unseen which consisted of eight cruisers and fifteen destroyers under the command of British Rear Admiral Victor Crutchley.

The weather was Mikawa's ally on this dark, moonless, overcast night as rainsqualls passed through the seas around Savo Island. This was not the first time in the Solomons that the Imperial Navy had detected their opponents by visual means before radar discovered their presence.

The primitive radars in use on Allied warships suffered drastic reduction of already limited detection ranges because of echoes from landmasses, a phenomenon not very well understood by Allied naval commanders.

By contrast, the Japanese sought and achieved maximum performance from lookouts equipped with oversized binoculars and searchlights to detect Allied warships. The flagship of the Australian Navy, the Canberra would become Makawa's first victim sustaining twenty-four hits from five of Mikawa's warships.

Soon after the Canberra would find the bottom of the ocean off Guadalcanal sunk by Allied warships too severely damaged to be saved. The Allied naval presence off Guadalcanal would be soundly defeated by Mikawa's warships.

Three Allied heavy cruisers were sent to the bottom of the ocean off Savo Island in the early morning hours of the 9th of August 1942, along with 1,077 Allied sailors.

The first battle of Savo Island would become the worst naval defeat in American history. The Japanese naval attack prompted the remaining Allied warships and the amphibious force to withdraw from Guadalcanal.

By relinquishing control of the ocean around Guadalcanal to the Japanese Imperial Navy the marines on the island were left in a precarious situation.

Many of the Allied transport ships loaded with supplies never had a chance to off-load their cargo, leaving the Marines on Guadalcanal low on food and ammunition as Japanese forces on the island attacked their beachhead.

Mikawa's decision to withdraw his forces before destroying the Allied invasion transports would later contribute to the Japanese military's inability to recapture Guadalcanal.

It would allow the Marines time to entrench and reinforce themselves in sufficient strength to hold Henderson Field giving the Allies the command of the air in later battles.

The Bloody Land Battle

After the Battle of Savo Island the Allied naval forces around Guadalcanal were forced to retreat from the island, leaving the marines on the island to carry on without their support. The marines were in a difficult position, the Japanese Navy controlled the sea around Guadalcanal and frequently fired on the Marines entrenched around the airfield.

The Japanese Air Force bombed the runway during the day, and the Japanese Imperial Navy shelled it at night. However, the marine's engineers were able to repair Henderson Field, and on August 20,1942, 19 Wildcat fighters and 12 Dauntless bombers landed at the airfield.

On the 18th of August, the Japanese would again use the cover of darkness to land a special naval landing force, led by Colonel Ichiki, who was assigned the task of dealing with the marines on Guadalcanal.

Ichiki's force one-thousand-man force attacked on the 21st of August, in what was known as the "Battle of Tenaru." The marines were able to soundly defeat Ichiki's troops, only a handful of Japanese would escape death, Colonel Ichiki would commit ritual suicide after the battle.

It was during this battle the Marines on Guadalcanal realized that the Japanese would not surrender and would fight to the last man. Despite the Marines victory over Ichiki's troops the Japanese began to land another stronger force on Guadalcanal.

The Japanese moved their men at night via fast-moving destroyers, by doing this they would escape attacks from American aircraft, enabling them to land large quantities of men and equipment to the east and west of the American positions at Henderson Field.

The attack on Henderson Field began on September 12, 1942, Japanese bombers attacked American positions during the day, and at night Japanese destroyers and cruisers shelled the same positions. The Japanese infantry attacked positions south of Henderson Field twice, and on one occasion they got within 1000 meters of the airfield.

But the Japanese were forced to retreat back into the jungle losing over 1,200 men out of their 2,000-man force. The Americans also had taken heavy casualties, with 446 killed out of a force of just over 1000 men.

In October 1942, Tokyo ordered a new unit to Guadalcanal, the XXXIII Brigade, veterans of the capture of Hong Kong. In all 20,000 Japanese troops were moved to the island.

The American command would swell to over 23,000 men, though one-third of these men were not fit for combat due to dysentery and exposure. On the 23rd and 24th of October 1942, a force of over 5,000 Japanese soldiers attacked American positions on the island but were forced to withdraw with over 50% casualties.

Japanese attacks failed because American gun positions were expertly sited, and the rough terrain forced the Japanese to leave mortars and artillery behind. During the battle Japanese troops were too fatigued to effectively fight, the rough terrain also did a great deal to hinder their communications.

The Japanese leadership refused to admit defeat and ordered yet more men to Guadalcanal. In November 1942, planes from Henderson Field attacked a convoy of ships bringing Japanese reinforcements to Guadalcanal.

Of the eleven transport ships, six were sunk, one was severely damaged and four had to be beached. Only 2,000 Japanese would reach Guadalcanal, most without equipment since it had been lost at sea.

In December 1942, the Emperor of Japan ordered the withdrawal from Guadalcanal. This withdrawal took place from January thru February 1942, over 11,000 Japanese soldiers were taken off the island in the so-called "Tokyo Night Express."

By the end of the battle on the 9th of February 1943, the Japanese Army had lost two-thirds of the 31,400 troops committed to the island, by comparison the American forces lost less than 2,000 soldiers of about 60,000 deployed.

Even today some seventy-three years after the Battle of Guadalcanal the island still bears witness to the epic struggle that took place those days back in the Second World War.