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Guadalcanal
Written By: Scott Collins
*Click images below to view larger versions.
Guadalcanal
Guadalcanal landings at Lunga, Aug. 7, 1942.
Guadalcanal
American Memorial on Guadalcanal.
Guadalcanal
Harvard-educated Japanese Naval Cmdr. Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto.
Guadalcanal
Lt. Gen. Harukichi Hyakutake in front of Japanese HQ., Rabaul.
Guadalcanal
Lt. Col. Merritt Edson
    The Battle of Guadalcanal cannot be simply referred to as a battle. It was not over in a day, or even a few days. The Guadalcanal Campaign lasted more than six months - August 7, 1942 to February 9, 1943. It was not just a contest between soldiers. Guadalcanal involved seven naval actions, almost constant air battles and numerous ground battles. Guadalcanal is also not a small tropical island, it is 90 miles long and almost 30 wide.
    The Japanese had constructed an airfield on Guadalcanal, which later became known as Henderson Field. The intent of the Japanese was to use Guadalcanal as a forward base to threaten Australia, New Guinea and to harass the shipping lanes from the U.S. West Coast.
    The initial landings were on Guadalcanal, Florida and Tulagi Islands, in what was known as the Solomon’s Chain. While amphibious landings became a staple of the Pacific War, Guadalcanal would be the first seaborne invasion by the U.S. Marine Corps, since the Spanish-American War. No one had any first hand experience. Due to a total intelligence failure on the part of the Japanese and bad weather during the week prior, the American landings were a complete surprise to the Japanese.
    While stiff resistance was encountered on Tulagi and Florida Islands, the landings on Guadalcanal were essentially unopposed. Marines captured the airfield on August 8, 1942 after the Japanese unit, a construction battalion, fled. But during the landings, Japanese aircraft flying out of Rabaul, attacked the American fleet, sinking or damaging several ships and shooting down several carrier aircraft. Admiral Frank Fletcher, concerned over further air attacks and his fuel situation, withdrew the fleet. Unfortunately he took with him the transport and supply ships which had the food, fuel, equipment and ammunition the Marines needed. At one point the Marines were down to five days worth of food and were relying on captured Japanese supplies.
    On the night of August 9th, while the fleet was getting ready to leave, screening elements were surprised and attacked by a Japanese cruiser force commanded by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa. Mikawa’s ships sank one Australian and three American cruisers. Not realizing that Fletcher was in the process of withdrawing his carriers, Admiral Mikawa withdrew to Rabaul missing the opportunity to destroy the Allied transports and supply ships. This became known as the Battle of Savo Island.
    On Guadalcanal, the Marines were busy. They established a perimeter around Lunga Point and, using captured Japanese construction equipment, got Henderson Field operational. On August 20, two squadrons of Marine aircraft were delivered. These planes became known as the "Cactus Air Force".
    Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake was given the task of retaking Guadalcanal. On August 19th he landed with 917 troops and marched toward the Marine perimeter. Underestimating American strength, Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki ordered a frontal attack on Marine positions on the Tenaru River. He suffered terrible casualties and the Marines counter-attacked causing many more Japanese deaths. Col. Ichiki committed suicide when he realized the magnitude of his defeat. His battalion suffered 90 percent casualties.
    The Japanese continued to reinforce their troops on Guadalcanal. On August 24, approximately 2000 Japanese troops were sent by troopship towards Guadalcanal. To protect the troop transports, Japanese Naval Commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto sent Admiral Chuichi Nagumo with three carriers and thirty other ships. Admiral Fletcher, to counter this, responded with three carrier task forces. On August 24 and 25, the two carrier forces fought the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, which resulted in both fleets retreating from the area after taking some damage, with the Japanese losing one light aircraft carrier.
    During the remainder of the fall, air battles continued over Guadalcanal on an almost daily basis. The Japanese were at a disadvantage in that their war planes had to fly from Rabaul, approximately 600 miles away. Coast Watchers on islands along the Japanese flight path gave the Allies advance warning of impending Japanese air attacks. In addition downed American pilots were often recovered while Japanese pilots were killed or captured.
    After attempting to reinforce Guadalcanal by slow troop transports which were vulnerable to air attack from Henderson Field, the Japanese began putting troops ashore using destroyers. Japanese destroyers were fast enough to make the round trip in one night. This became known as "The Tokyo Express." In a one week period, in late August, the Japanese landed 5000 troops, but due to the limited space on a destroyer, food, fuel, ammunition, artillery and heavy equipment were in very short supply.
    On September 12, the Japanese decided to attack the Marines in force and drive them from Henderson Field. Three thousand Japanese troops attacked 850 Marine Raiders under the command of Lt. Col. Merritt Edson on what became known as "Bloody Ridge". During a night of intense fighting, including several frontal assaults and hand to hand combat, the Japanese withdrew. Japanese losses were approximately 850 men, almost a third of their force and the Marines lost 104.
    After the “Battle of Bloody Ridge” there was a lull as both sides reinforced their ground and air units. The carrier USS Wasp was sunk by a Japanese submarine while escorting a supply convoy to Guadalcanal.
    During the first week of October the Japanese continued their reinforcement of Guadalcanal and developed a plan for naval units to shell Henderson Field. Three heavy cruisers and two destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Aritomo Got were to bombard Henderson Field with special explosive shells with the object of destroying the aircraft and the airfield's facilities.
    Allied Naval units, detecting Admiral Got’s ships, were able to "Cross their T," and sank a cruiser and destroyer, heavily damaged another cruiser and mortally wounded Admiral Got. While destroyers of the "Tokyo Express" were able to land more Japanese troops during the battle, this method was proving insufficient for their needs.
    On October 13, 1942, a large convoy carrying 4500 troops, heavy artillery and tanks left Truk for Guadalcanal. Admiral Yamamoto decided that if cruisers were not up to the task he would send something bigger. On October 14th at 1:30 in the morning, the battleships Kongo and Haruna, escorted by one light cruiser and nine destroyers, reached Guadalcanal and opened fire on Henderson Field from a distance of almost 10 miles. Over the next one hour and 23 minutes, the two battleships fired 973 14-inch shells into the Lunga perimeter, most of them falling in and around Henderson Field. The Japanese were able to land their troops and most of their heavy equipment.
    The Japanese had by mid October delivered 15,000 troops to Guadalcanal. This gave them a total of 20,000 with which to mount their planned attack on Henderson Field. On October 23, the Japanese began their attacks with troops, artillery and tanks. After three days of hard fighting the Japanese Commander, Lt. Gen. Harukichi Hyakutake, ordered a withdrawal. Japanese casualties were almost three thousand killed while the Americans lost only 80.
    After the Battle of Henderson Field, the Americans went on the offensive. Six Marine battalions and one Army battalion attacked Japanese positions. For the next six weeks American and Japanese units hacked at each other almost continuously. Both sides suffered from tropical diseases and an especially virulent form of dysentery. The Japanese also suffered from a lack of food supplies. While the "Tokyo Express" would continue to land troops, it was woefully deficient in landing sufficient supplies to maintain them.
    In mid November, Admiral Yamamoto decided on another offensive to retake Guadalcanal and destroy Henderson Field. Yamamoto provided 11 large transport ships to carry the remaining 7,000 troops from the 38th Infantry Division, their ammunition, food, and heavy equipment from Rabaul to Guadalcanal. He also provided a warship support force that included two battleships.
    The Japanese forces were intercepted by U.S. Navy units, but in the ensuing naval battle the American fleet was almost totally destroyed. Despite this victory, the Japanese Admiral withdrew his ships without bombarding Henderson Field. When the transports tried to land they were attacked by aircraft from Henderson Field and U.S. Army troops which had recently reached Guadalcanal. Less than half of the Japanese troops and supplies were able to accomplish landings on Guadalcanal. Four transport ships were destroyed. Because of these losses the planned November offensive to re-take the Island was cancelled.
    As a personal aside, my father was one of the Army troops who landed on Guadalcanal in November of 1942.
    The Japanese continued to try and re-supply their troops in November but Allied ships and aircraft took an increasing toll on the "Tokyo Express." By early December 1942, General Hyakutake was losing approximately 50 men a day from malnutrition, disease and Allied ground and air attacks. It was time to go.
    On December 12, 1942 the Japanese Imperial Navy proposed that Guadalcanal be abandoned. This was debated between the staff officers of the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army and on December 26, 1942 the Emperor was informed. The Emperor approved the abandonment on December 31, 1942, and plans began for the evacuation of all remaining Japanese troops.
    During January and February, 1943, the Japanese successfully evacuated 10,652 men from Guadalcanal. On February 9, 1943 the American Commander, General Alexander Patch, realized that the Japanese were gone and declared Guadalcanal secure for Allied forces, ending the campaign.
    The campaign can best be summed up by a quote from Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi, Commander, 35th Infantry Brigade at Guadalcanal: "Guadalcanal is no longer merely a name of an island in Japanese military history. It is the name of the graveyard of the Japanese Army."

NEXT WEEK: ALAM EL-HAIFA

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