HISTORIC U.S. PACIFIC VICTORY

Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands · February 9, 1943

On this date in 1943 Guadalcanal, the largest of the nearly one thou­sand islands in the Solo­mon Islands chain, was declared secure. U.S. Marines had landed on the pre­viously obscure is­land begin­ning on August 7, 1942, in the first major offen­sive by Allied forces against Japan. Opera­tion Watch­tower, as the air-sea-land cam­paign was code­named, was in­tended to deny the Japa­nese use of Guadal­canal Island from which they could inter­dict supply and com­mu­ni­ca­tion routes between the U.S., Austra­lia, and New Zea­land, as well as be a U.S. spring­board to seize other islands to the north.

The Marines swiftly over­came the small Japa­nese garri­son. But the Japa­nese high com­mand placed the ut­most prio­rity on retaking this south­western Paci­fic is­land of tropi­cal rainforest and jungle and to finishing the building of their air­field, which the Amer­i­cans later renamed Hender­son Field (east of Honi­ara on the map below). In late August 1942 the Japa­nese began pouring in rein­force­ments from their main Paci­fic base at near­by Rabaul on the island of New Britain (part of Papua New Gui­nea), supported by air­craft and naval guns. Three major land battles, seven large naval battles, and the al­most daily aerial battles were capped by the deci­sive Naval Battle of Gua­dal­canal (Novem­ber 12–15, 1942), in which the last Japa­nese attempt to bom­bard Hender­son Field from the sea and put enough troops ashore to retake it was defeated.

The Japa­nese faced mounting losses—roughly 30,000 ex­pe­ri­enced Japa­nese troops were killed during the ground cam­paign—as well as supply diffi­cul­ties that were brought pain­fully home when the “Cac­tus Air Force,” the en­semble of Allied air power assigned to the is­land of Gua­dal­canal, sank seven of eleven Japa­nese trans­ports at the end of Novem­ber. Despite it all the Japa­nese managed to suc­cess­fully eva­cu­ate their starving and dis­ease-ridden garri­son to neigh­boring Bougainville Island between February 1 and 7, 1943.

The Gua­dal­canal Cam­paign had im­por­tant im­pli­ca­tions for the com­bat­ants. For the Allies, they had beaten Japan’s best land, air, and naval forces and had halted the Japa­nese advance in the South Paci­fic; from now on they could view the out­come of the war with new op­ti­mism. For for­ward-seeing Japa­nese, Gua­dal­canal would emerge as the turning point in the Pacific con­flict, the first in a long string of dis­asters that would inex­o­rably lead to the surrender and occupation of their nation.





Guadalcanal: Scene of Bitter Fighting Between U.S. and Japanese Forces in the Southwestern Pacific, August 1942 to February 1943

Map, Guadalcanal Island

Above: Guadalcanal Island and its location within the Solo­mon Is­lands. The Solo­mons are roughly 500 miles east of Papua New Gui­nea and 1,100 miles north­east of Aus­tra­lia. Ninety miles long on a north­west-south­east axis and an average of 25 miles wide, Guadal­canal provide a for­bidding ter­rain of moun­tains and dor­mant vol­canoes up to 7,600 feet high, steep ravines and deep streams, man­grove swamps, and a generally even coast­line with no natural har­bors. Nasty critters, including crocodiles, populated the island. The three-dimen­sional Guadal­canal Cam­paign (land-sea-air) stretched both adver­saries to the breaking point. It lasted six months, involved nearly one million men, and stopped Japanese expansion in the Pacific.

Marines on Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, August 7, 1942 Japanese airfield at Lunga Point under construction, July 1942

Left: Eleven-thousand men from the 1st Marine Division, under the com­mand of Maj. Gen. Alex­ander Vander­grift, stormed ashore on Gua­dal­canal’s beaches on August 7, 1942, exactly eight months from the date Pearl Harbor was bombed. On Octo­ber 13 the first Army unit, the 164th Infan­try, came ashore to rein­force the Marines. (Up till then, U.S. Army troops were chiefly fun­neled to Europe.) The Allies over­whelmed the out­numbered Japa­nese defenders, who had occu­pied the islands since mid-1942, and cap­tured near­by Tulagi and Florida islands (identi­fied as Nggela Sule and Nggela Pile on the map), as well as the un­finished air­field at Lunga Point. Powerful U.S. and Aus­tra­lian warships and transports supported the landings.

Right: Aerial view of Lunga Field (Henderson Field), Gua­dal­canal, July 1942, under con­struc­tion by a mixed labor force of Japa­nese and Koreans. The Marines’ landing at Lunga Point was to cap­ture the air­field before it could become opera­tional. (The base was large enough to accom­mo­date over 100 air­craft.) After cap­turing it, Amer­i­can forces went on to com­plete it. Hen­der­son Field, named for the first Marine pilot killed during the Battle of Midway (June 4–7, 1942), was aban­doned after the war, but it reopened in 1969 as a modern­ized civilian airport capable of accommodating large jets.

Japanese board Tokyo Express Men from 2nd Marine Division, pursuing retreating Japanese, stop for a rest, November 1942

Left: Japanese reinforcements load onto a destroyer for a dash down the “Slot” to Gua­dal­canal in 1942, the so-called “Tokyo Express,” the name given by Allied forces to fast Japa­nese naval ships (mainly de­stroyers but also sub­marines) that used the cover of night to deli­ver per­son­nel, artil­lery, vehicles, food, and other supplies to Japa­nese forces operating in and around New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Right: Fresh troops from the 2nd Marine Division during a halt on Guadal­canal, Novem­ber 1942. Allied ground strength, pri­marily Amer­i­can, came to 60,000 vs. 36,200 for the Japa­nese. During the six-month cam­paign, the Japa­nese suffered 31,000 dead and 1,000 captured out of 36,200 com­batants. U.S. dead numbered 7,100.

HBO Presentation: Inside the Battle of Guadalcanal