U.S. flag goes up on Guadalcanal after the initial landings, either 7 or 8 August 1942. Officer standing second from right in this photo appears to be the 1st Marine Division commander, Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, USMC.
The Allies were in a poor position to counterattack in the Pacific in 1942, but moved daringly and effectively to stop the Japanese momentum. At the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway, American carriers ended Japanese naval supremacy and eased the threat of invasion of Australia and New Zealand. An Australian drive in Papua New Guinea was reinforced to keep the Japanese from moving across the spine of the island to reach the south shore.
Those defensive moves set the stage for the first Allied offensive in the Pacific. To the west, the Japanese were opposed in New Guinea and to the east a separate attack from a different direction was planned to form a Southwest Pacific pincers. For the eastern attack, planners chose Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, a long chain of islands east of New Guinea. Guadalcanal was chosen since it was near the southeast end of the Solomons, nearest to Australia, and the Japanese were known to be building an airfield there.
The Invasion of Guadalcanal
And when he gets to heaven,
To Saint Peter he will tell:
One more soldier reporting, sir--
I've served my time in hell.
-Marine Grave inscription on Guadalcanal, 1942
Guadalcanal is ninety miles long, averaging twenty-five miles wide, with forbidding terrain of mountains and dormant volcanoes up to eight thousand feet high, steep ravines, deep streams, and a hot, humid climate. It has no natural harbors and the south shores are protected by miles of coral reefs. The only suitable invasion beaches are on the north central coast.
Marine patrol resting in the field on Guadalcanal, 1942.
During the campaign on Guadalcanal, there were land, sea and air battles for months, with the forces closely balanced so that the outcome was never preordained. Although it started relatively quietly with a surprise landing, for those who fought there, it was a continuing hell.
On the morning of 7 August 1942, an Allied invasion fleet of 48 combat ships, including the US aircraft carriers Wasp, Saratoga and Enterprise, the new battleship North Carolina, Australian Navy cruisers, and New Zealand Navy ships arrived in the strait between Guadalcanal and neighboring islands, soon to become known as "Iron Bottom Sound". The 19,000 strong U.S. 1st Marine Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, followed heavy naval preparatory fires and landed at Red Beach, a stretch of grey sand near the Tenaru River, with little opposition. The next day the Marines occupied the airstrip, renaming it Henderson Field. Other nearby islands were simultaneously occupied (Florida, Tulagi, Gavutu and Tanambogo). The Japanese on Tulagi resisted the landing there but were overcome by the end of 8 August.
The 7 August landing on Tulagi by two battalions of U.S. Marines, including the 1st Raider Bn., was one hour earlier than the larger 1st Marine Division's assault on nearby Guadalcanal. This made the the Tulagi landing the first on enemy held soil in World War II.
As supplies and additional troops were being unloaded following the landings, a series of Japanese air and naval attacks out of Rabaul forced the ships to get underway to evade. The catastrophic outcome of the Battle of Savo Island (9 August), with severe losses of American and Australian ships, and the withdrawal of Vice Admiral Fletcher's carriers, forced the big transports and cargo ships to leave on 9 August, with invasion supplies still on board. Supply shortages plagued the invasion for months.
Japanese Reinforce Guadalcanal
Responding to the invasion, the Japanese sent their 17th Army from Rabaul to reinforce Guadalcanal, commanded by Lt. General Hyakutake Haruyoshi, landing when they could evade patrols. The reinforcements sent to Guadalcanal were only lightly armed, on foot, and not sufficient to dislodge the U.S. landings, although they fought aggressively and caused many American casualties. One of the first engagements came at 0300 on 21 August when a force of about 1,000 Japanese attacked the Marines at the Tenaru River (Hellís Point) in a furious Banzai charge. The Marines held the line and killed most of the Japanese (about 800). Their commander killed himself in shame.
On 24-31 August a series of sea engagements sank a Japanese carrier and repelled the naval threat to the Guadalcanal landing, forcing the Japanese to rely on nighttime delivery of supplies and troops (the "Tokyo Express").
The Japanese landed another 6,000 troops including a force of 3,000 men who marched from the south to mount an attack on the Marines at Henderson Field, resulting in the Battle of Edson's Ridge (aka Bloody Ridge). Colonel Merritt "Red Mike" Edson's Marine Raiders were dug in and able to fend off a strong probe on September 12 and an intense series of night attacks on 13/14 September that left thousands of Japanese dead with no territory gained, ending the most serious threat to Henderson Field.
On 18 September, the 7th Marines landed 4,200 reinforcements. On 13 October the 164th Infantry (Americal Division) earned eternal honor as the first U.S. Army unit landing on Guadalcanal, in fact the first Army unit to conduct an offensive operation against the enemy in any theatre during World War II. The 164th and following Army regiments came armed with the then-new M-1 Garand rifle, a significant improvement over the Marine's bolt-action M-1903 Springfields.
The Army reinforcements expanded the east end of the American perimeter with their 6,600-yard sector. During this period, the Japanese were landing about 1,000 reinforcements each night until they had a full division on Guadalcanal with much needed heavy equipment. A naval shelling in the Henderson Field vicinity on 15 October from Japanese battleships, accompanied by artillery fire and bombing, was one of the worst bombardments endured by Americans in World War II. On 23-25 October, the Japanese counterattacked at the Matanikau River with nighttime Banzai charges, backed by armor, artillery, air, and naval support, against both the Army and Marine positions. The American lines held, killing about 1,300 Japanese.
Expanding the Guadalcanal Beachhead
The second phase of operations on Guadalcanal pushed out the Marine perimeter far enough so that Japanese artillery could not reach Henderson Field, with the objective of overrunning the Japanese 17th Army headquarters at Kokumbona, nine miles west of the airfield. On the morning of 1 November, following naval, air, and field artillery fire, Marine units began the attack both east and west, joined by Army units on 4 November. In a major victory during 9-12 November near Koli Point, 1,500 freshly landed Japanese reinforcements were trapped against the sea and killed or driven into the bush.
On 4 November, Lt. Col. Evans F. Carlson and two companies of 2d Rangers were put ashore at Aola Bay on the northeast coast of Guadalcanal to build another airfield. When it became clear no airfield was possible there, they were reassigned to harass the Japanese from the rear, remaining in the field on short rations until 4 December. The "Long Patrol" of the 2d Raiders was extremely successful; they killed 488 enemy soldiers at a cost of 16 dead and 18 wounded. although 225 others had to be evacuated due to illness.
The "Tokyo Express" was making almost nightly delivery of supplies by destroyers to the island. On the night of 12-13 November 1942, American and Japanese naval forces fought a classic naval battle, the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. It was a tactical defeat for the Americans with two American rear admirals killed by attacks on their ships. The next day, 14 November, the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal pitted aircraft from the carrier Enterprise and Henderson Field against a large enemy force trying to run "The Slot", the body of water running down the Solomons chain between Guadalcanal and New Georgia. The Japanese lost numerous ships, including ten troop transports. Only 4,000 soldiers, of 10,000, reached land, with much of their equipment lost. It was the last Japanese attempt at a large-unit reinforcement.
The attack toward Kokumbona resumed on 18 November with Marine and Army units. After advancing only one mile against strong opposition, the attack stalled on the 25th and was called off. On the night of 30 November, another Japanese supply convoy was intercepted in the Battle of Tassafaronga Point in which more U.S. Navy ships were lost than Japanese, but which marked the end of Japanese attempts to fully support Guadalcanal. Thereafer, the poorly supplied Japanese troops were pushed into ever smaller territory by U.S. land offensives.
On the Move to Kokumbona
In December, the battle-hardened but disease-wracked 1st Marine Division was withdrawn, leaving the Americal commander, Maj. Gen. Alexander M. Patch in command of all American units on the island, reorganized as XIV Corps. Patch planned to take Mount Austen to secure both Henderson Field and his left flank for the next push toward Kokumbona. Starting on 17 December, American units engaged the Japanese in a series of small but tough battles against the Gifu position and other strong points, securing Mount Austin on 2 January 1943. On 10 January they moved west across the Matanikau River against a hill called Galloping Horse, a major Japanese strong point. It took courage and determination to overcome the enemy, the terrain and water shortages, but by the afternoon of 13 January Galloping Horse was secure.
After taking Galloping Horse, Sea Horse, the Gifu position and other strong points, by 18 January U.S. forces had pushed two miles west of the Matanikau River and over four miles inland, killing 1,900 Japanese while losing fewer than 200 killed and 400 wounded. Enemy survivors not yet immobilized by malaria or starvation were reeling back toward their last stronghold on Guadalcanal, 17th Army headquarters at Kokumbona.
Patch sent a small blocking force to cut off a possible enemy withdrawal over a 20-mile-long native trail to the Beaufort Bay area. To complete the destruction of Japanese forces on Guadalcanal, Patch planned a follow-up offensive after a reorganization and reorientation of forces to compensate for combat losses and the ravages of tropical diseases.
After a heavy artillery and naval gunfire bombardment, XIV Corps moved out toward Kokumbona at 0630 on 22 January. During the initial drive, Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins noticed the Japanese offered much less opposition than expected and rushed a regiment forward, by nightfall gaining over three miles and occupying the high ground overlooking Kokumbona. Other units along the coast pushed toward Kokumbona, trapping enemy units in a pocket, eliminating resistance and entering the town by midafternoon on the 23rd. They found the Japanese had departed abandoning 17th Army documents and equipment.
The campaign became a race between Japanese survivors trying to reach Cape Esperance, eighteen miles west of Kokumbona, and XIV Corps attempting to trap and annihilate them. On 9 February, the blocking force advancing from the southwest and the main force from Kokumbona met on Cape Esperance but found only a few Japanese stragglers. Abandoned enemy equipment and landing craft on the beach revealed that the Japanese had evacuated most of those who had reached Cape Esperance, about 13,000 troops in all.
Aftermath of Guadalcanal
"Before Guadalcanal the enemy advanced at his pleasure -- after Guadalcanal he retreated at ours." Admiral "Bull" Halsey
The total cost of the Guadalcanal campaign to the American ground combat forces was 1,598 officers and men killed, with 4,709 wounded. Of these 1,152 Marines were lost and 2,799 wounded. Marine aviation casualties were 147 killed and 127 wounded. The Japanese in their turn lost close to 25,000 men on Guadalcanal, about half of whom were killed in action and the rest lost to illness, wounds, and starvation.
At sea, each side lost about the same number of fighting ships. The Japanese losses of 2 battleships, 3 carriers, 12 cruisers, and 25 destroyers could not be replaced by new construction while the Allied losses were more than replaced. In the air, at least 600 Japanese planes were shot down with the death of 2,300 experienced pilots and aircrew men. The lost fewer than 300 planes.
Even though the main body of their troops had been evacuated from Guadalcanal, the Japanese continued to attack Allied ships and positions from the huge Japanese bases in southern Bougainville and from Rabaul on New Britain. These attacks were not seriously diminished until the operations in the Northern Solomons, starting with the invasion of New Georgia in June 1943 and continuing into 1944 on Bougainville.
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