Tales From The Trenches
Guadalcanal: WWII’s Fierce Tipping Point
The tiny Pacific island saw some of WWII’s bloodiest fighting as Japanese and Allied forces contended for dominance. But the allies learned from their mistakes, and Japan did not.
As early as March 1942, three months before the U.S. Navy inflicted a devastating defeat on a Japanese carrier force at the Battle of Midway, and when American prospects in the Pacific still looked darker than a starless night, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King laid out the future trajectory of the Pacific War with extraordinary prescience.
The “concept of operations,” wrote King, “is not only to protect the line of communications with Australia,” then under dire threat by Japanese army and navy forces deployed just to its east. The Allies must establish a series of “strongpoints from which a step-by-step, general advance can be made” through the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, the Philippines, the Marianas, and on to Japan itself. “It is expected that such an… advance will draw Japanese forces to oppose it, thus relieving pressure in other parts of the Pacific.”
When King wrote those words, neither the Japanese high command nor the leading strategists of the U.S. Army believed an American offensive in the Pacific before the summer of 1943 was anything more than a pipe dream. The United States had just suffered a series of humiliating defeats at Pearl Harbor, Wake, and Bataan; its forces in the Pacific were weak and in disarray; and President Franklin Roosevelt had agreed to pursue a “Germany first” grand strategy with the British.
Immediately after the U.S. victory at Midway, King argued that the loss of four Japanese carriers in that titanic clash had done more than blunt Japan’s drive on Hawaii in the Central Pacific. It had created an irresistible opportunity for the Navy and Marines to launch the first offensive of the war, though King readily admitted neither service was fully ready for such a complex operation. Nonetheless, he said, the Japanese had reached what Clausewitz called “the culminating point” of their astonishing advance, and were thus vulnerable to a potentially damaging riposte. It was imperative to act. And fast. The other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with FDR, were deeply skeptical, but after a while, King, a driven officer and brilliant strategist, brought them around.
The target of the first American ground offensive of World War II was an island 90 miles long by 25 miles wide, covered in steamy jungle and 7,000-foot mountain peaks in the Solomon Islands. There 2,000 Japanese construction troops were building an airfield for the express purpose of choking off the lines of communication between the west coast of America and Australia, and then landing forces on Australian shores. It was called Guadalcanal.
For an amphibious campaign with a severely truncated planning and training phase, Operation Watchtower got off to a promising start. The invasion fleet arrived off the northern coast of the island early on August 7. Bad weather had grounded Japanese reconnaissance planes as the armada approached the island. Since the Marines lacked a fleet of seaworthy amphibious landing craft for their trucks and heavy weapons, cloudy weather may well have spelled the difference between victory and defeat at the very outset of the operation.
The 1st Marine Division under the cool and steely Major General Alexander Vandegrift made an unopposed landing five miles from the airfield, thrashed their way to the objective, and seized it against desultory opposition. Then came trouble on a major scale. A skittish Admiral Frank Fletcher announced that recent plane losses, and the plethora of Japanese torpedo planes in the vicinity, dictated the immediate withdrawal of his two carriers from the area of operations. Bereft of air cover, the commander of the invasion force, Adm. Richmond K. Turner, had no choice but to withdraw his transports as well, though they were only half unloaded. Most of the Marines’ construction equipment and artillery were still on the ships, along with all their land mines and barbed wire.
Before Turner had begun to withdraw his ships, at 0130 on August 9, a Japanese naval task force stealthily made its way into the waters just north of Guadalcanal, and ambushed the Australian-American armada of cruisers and destroyers screening the transports. In less than an hour, four Allied cruisers were sunk or sinking, and more than a thousand sailors had died. It was the worst defeat in the history of the U.S. Navy.
The Marines, no strangers to tough spots, found themselves in a very precarious position. Could they hold on against the inevitable Japanese Imperial Army counterattack while the division’s engineers completed the construction of an airfield with captured enemy equipment? Only with air cover from newly christened Henderson field—named after a Marine dive-bomber flier killed at Midway—could U.S. convoys with supplies and reinforcements reach the island, and stave off their demise.
The Marines found themselves in one of the world’s most remote and inhospitable places: Guadalcanal’s nearly impenetrable rain forests were studded with mangrove swamps and ten-foot high, razor sharp, kunai grass. Leeches, malarial mosquitoes, giant ants, and wasps were everywhere. There was only enough ammunition for four days of combat. “We had no idea what was going to happen,” recalled one Marine officer. “We were all wondering where our planes were. The Navy had left, their carriers had left. We didn’t have a thing there.”
So began the six-month campaign for Guadalcanal. “For most of its course,” writes historian Richard B. Frank, “the campaign teetered in precarious balance, with first one side and then the other gaining the advantage.” Living in the most primitive conditions, the Marines doggedly held on to Henderson Field, fending off a series of sustained counterattacks, while enduring almost constant naval and air bombardments, hunger, and an epidemic of malaria and fungal skin infections amid the relentless rains and mud.
Meanwhile, the opposing navies would fight five major surface actions and two furious carrier duels for control of the sea and air around the island. So long as the Marines were able to keep their fighters flying from Henderson—no easy trick given the almost daily diet of naval bombardment and air raids—they could keep open the lifeline of ship-borne supplies and reinforcements, and control the seas around the island—at least during the day.
For their part, the Japanese mounted an increasingly aggressive effort to counter and then exceed the American buildup via the “Tokyo Express”: a regular flow of convoys of destroyers and troop transports that made their way to the west coast of the island under the cover of darkness.
Between August 20 and late October the Japanese Imperial Army launched three major counterattacks on the precarious Marine perimeter at Henderson. Grossly underestimating the strength of the Marines—there were about 12,000—the initial assault by the elite Ichiki battalion on August 20 was carried out with reckless abandon. It failed badly. A Marine battalion was able to envelop the attackers from behind, killing more than 850 of its 900 men by the morning of August 21.
Throughout late August and early September, Marine patrols clashed frequently with Japanese infantry, detecting unmistakable signs of increasing enemy strength each day. On the night of September 12, a 6,000-man brigade under General Kiyotake Kawaguchi attempted to storm a low, grassy ridge that dominated the southern approaches to Henderson Field. Over two days and nights, the Japanese pressed their attack from several directions. As the battle reached its climax on the night of September 13, 800 Marine Raiders and Paratroopers—the Corps’ special forces—were forced to withdraw to the very north end of the ridge. But they repulsed a dozen full-blown Japanese assaults, and American artillery ultimately forced the Japanese off the ridge entirely.
At “Bloody Ridge,” the Japanese soldiers displayed the marked indifference to suffering and death that would soon become their trademark. Marine Captain William J. McKiernan recalled that “the Japanese attack was almost constant, like a rain that subsides for a moment and then pours harder… When one wave was mowed down—and I mean mowed down—another followed it into death.” Lt. Col. Mike Edson’s unflappable leadership on the Ridge during those two desperate days earned him the Medal of Honor, and Bloody Ridge became known forever after as “Edson’s Ridge.”
As dysentery, malaria, and exhaustion sapped the strength of the 1st Marine Division’s infantry, the Japanese navy continued to inflict heavy losses on American warships, sinking the carrier Wasp. But a convoy of transports carrying the fresh 7th Marine Regiment managed to pass through the gauntlet, landing unscathed on the island on September 14, just as the second Japanese offensive was sputtering out. Without the 7th Marines, Henderson Field would certainly have fallen, for over the next several weeks, the Tokyo Express managed to ferry in a reinforced division of fresh Japanese troops under General Harukichi Hyakutake. Meanwhile, Henderson Field was so badly damaged by enemy bombardment that it had to shut down temporarily.
Again, the momentum in the battle seemed to have shifted to the Japanese. Whether the Marines could hold up against the next assault was very much an open question in the minds of the American high command. “The situation in not hopeless,” said Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of all forces in the Pacific, “but it is certainly critical.”
The full force of an entire crack Japanese division—about 23,000 men—was thrown against the Marine perimeter from the south and west on the night of October 23. In the jumbled terrain and heavy rains, the Japanese attacks lacked coordination, and faltered badly, thanks in no small measure to pinpoint accurate Marine artillery fire just to the front of the American lines.
The main attack came from the south at midnight, as five or more battalions slammed into a line manned by a single, overstretched Marine battalion—the 1st of the 7th Marines under the legendary Lt. Col. Chesty Puller. Puller’s perimeter bent back and almost gave way—a few positions were overrun, and the fighting was intense and hand-to-hand for several hours. Thanks to timely reinforcements by a seasoned battalion of the 164th Regiment of the North Dakota National Guard, the Japanese were thrown back.
The next night, the Japanese attacked with two full regiments, but were again repulsed after heavy fighting. More than 3,500 Japanese were killed before the attack was finally called off.
As its cost in ships and troops climbed week by week, the Japanese Imperial General Staff only slowly came to see that Guadalcanal was developing into a decisive campaign that might well shift the momentum of the entire conflict to the Allies’ side. By the time the truth had finally dawned in early November, the IGS felt compelled to mount yet another effort to wrest the island back from the Americans. A massive naval armada of 28 warships and 11 transports attempted to bring yet another reinforced infantry division to Guadalcanal’s shores, and Henderson Field was brought under a sustained, thunderous bombardment.
Yet by this point in the campaign, the Japanese had suffered so many losses of experienced carrier pilots and crews that the armada sailed into harms way’s without any carrier cover whatsoever. In the naval battle of Guadalcanal that followed, Admiral Bull Halsey, an inveterate risk-taker, gambled big time: He threw virtually every ship under his command against the Japanese fleet, including the only operational American carrier in the Pacific.
During a three-day melee between August 12 and 15, Halsey lost seven destroyers and two light cruisers, but his air and naval forces sunk two Japanese battleships. And crucially for the American ground forces defending Guadalcanal, seven troop transports also went to the bottom. Shortly thereafter, American fliers decimated the enemy infantry units that managed to make it to the beach aboard the remaining transports. The fourth major assault on Henderson had to be scrapped.
By December 1, the Americans had 35,000 men on the island and about 200 planes stationed at an expanded Henderson Field. And they had finally secured full control of the seas around the island. The weary 1st Marine Division was relieved by U.S. Army troops. By mid-month, elements of several U.S. Army divisions were sweeping the depleted Japanese forces on the island off the high ground near the airfield, pushing them deep into the jungles and swamps.
On December 31, the Imperial General Staff decided to evacuate all forces from the island. By early February, the only Japanese on Guadalcanal were POWS or corpses.
The Battle of Guadalcanal was a long, costly campaign for both adversaries. About 7,500 Americans perished, along with 30,000 Japanese. Losses in ships and planes were almost equal: the Americans lost 25 ships and 615 planes, the Japanese 24 ships and 680 aircraft. But unlike the Americans, the Japanese lacked an efficient training system to replace their carrier pilots and crews, and as a result, in the remaining carrier battles of the war, the Japanese navy took a terrible pasting.
Guadalcanal put to rest two widely held myths: that the Japanese soldier was invincible, and that the people of the United States, in and out of uniform, were simply too soft to fight a protracted war against the Empire of Japan. In the wake of the victory, American morale all around the world soared. The campaign produced the first cluster of World War II heroes, including Halsey, Medal of Honor recipients Mike Edson and Sgt. “Manila John” Basilone, and air ace Joe Foss, among others—men whose stories inspired ordinary Americans to take heart … and to buy war bonds.
Meanwhile, the U.S. armed services labored mightily to incorporate all that they had learned about amphibious and jungle warfare on Guadalcanal into planning and training for future operations. Many mistakes had been made, and they had learned a great deal. As it happened, Guadalcanal proved to be the first in long, unbroken string of victorious amphibious campaigns that would take U.S. forces across both the southwest and central Pacific all the way to Iwo Jima and Okinawa, on the doorstep of the home islands of Japan, and to victory.
Great success in the early phase of a military campaign often breeds complacency and overconfidence in fashioning responses to an adversary’s initiatives. Such was the case at Guadalcanal. Had the Japanese attempted to land an entire division to challenge the Marines’ possession of Henderson Field in August, they might well have overwhelmed the garrison, or forced its withdrawal. That would have dealt a terrific blow to American morale, and opened the door to a Japanese landing on Australia. So it was that Japan’s astonishing early success in the war contributed directly to its misfortunes as the Allies began to take the initiative.