Guadalcanal, Southern Solomon Islands August 7, 1942

On this date in 1942 some 11,000 Marines of the 1st Marine Divi­sion assaulted the north­central beaches of Guadal­canal, the largest of the nearly 1,000 trop­i­cal islands in the Solo­mon Islands chain (see map below). Guadal­canal’s 2,000 Japa­nese defenders were caught by com­plete sur­prise. The amphib­ious Marine assault, supported by strong air and naval support, kicked off the first major land offen­sive by Allied forces against Impe­rial Japan since that country’s sneak attack on U.S. and British mili­tary and terri­torial inter­ests on Decem­ber 7 and 8, 1941, which trig­gered World War II in the Pacific. The Guadal­canal landings were the opening phase of Oper­a­tion Watch­tower and were intended to deny the Japa­nese use of south Solo­mon Islands from which the enemy could inter­dict supply and com­mu­ni­ca­tion routes between the U.S. and its Pacific allies Aus­tra­lia and New Zea­land, as well as be a U.S. spring­board to seize other Pacific islands to the north, even­tually reaching the Japanese Home Islands themselves.

On August 9 the Japanese airstrip on Gaudal­canal, Lunga Field, fell to U.S. Marines, who renamed the mostly finished air­strip Hen­der­son Field. That same day Japa­nese cruisers and destroyers deliv­ered a gut punch to their Amer­i­can and Aus­tra­lian naval counter­parts, sinking three of their cruis­ers and crippling a fourth while suf­fering neg­li­gible losses in a half-hour night­time duel off Savo Island (see map again). As for Hen­der­son Field, it quickly became the center of gra­vity in the 6‑month Battle of Gaudal­canal. The tena­cious Rear Adm. Tanaka Raizō, arguably the most gifted destroyer cap­tain in the Pacific War, employed a squa­dron of Japa­nese sur­face ships and subs—the so-called “Toyko Express”—to ferry tens of thous­ands of enemy troops and tons of vital sup­plies to Guadal­canal over the following months.

Between mid-August 1942 and late-January 1943, U.S. and Japa­nese com­bat­ants engaged in three major land battles, several large naval battles (the major­ity of which were night­time actions), and almost daily aerial battles. The first major land battle occurred on Septem­ber 13–14, 1942. U.S. Marine Corps Col. Merritt Edson led 800 Marines of the 1st Raider Bat­tal­ion and a hand­ful of Marine para­troopers in one of the most intense defenses of Hen­der­son Field after they were attacked by a Japa­nese force more than three times their size. The Battle of Edson’s Ridge (Lunga Ridge) helped cement the repu­ta­tion of the Raiders in Marine lore and earned Edson the Medal of Honor, the country’s foremost military decoration.

In early November 1942 the Japanese attempted once again to retake Guadal­canal’s air­field and expel the inter­lopers. Learning of the Japa­nese rein­force­ment effort, U.S. air­craft and war­ships moved to pre­vent 7,000 enemy troops and their equip­ment from reaching the island and their war­ships from getting close enough to bom­bard Hen­der­son Field. The Naval Battle of Guadal­canal (Novem­ber 12–15, 1942) turned back Japan’s last major attempt to dis­lodge Allied forces from Guadal­canal and Tulagi and adja­cent islands, the latter former Japa­nese naval and sea­plane bases off Ngella Sule (Florida). Though several thou­sand infan­try­men reached the island and the air­strip was shelled, the 4‑day clash was a stra­te­gic vic­tory for the U.S. and its allies and deci­sive in shifting the Guadalcanal campaign in their favor.

In December 1942 the enemy on Guadalcanal had become a spent force, and Impe­rial General Head­quarters in Tokyo aban­doned efforts to reclaim the con­tested island for Emperor Hiro­hito. The last naval engage­ment, the Battle of Rennell Island (Janu­ary 29–30, 1943), turned into a Japa­nese vic­tory in that a U.S. task force was com­pelled to retreat from the South Solo­mon area. In the absence of a U.S. Navy presence, the Japa­nese suc­cess­fully evac­u­ated 10,652 troops from Guadal­canal. By Febru­ary 8, 1943, almost exactly 6 months after the ini­tial U.S. landings on Guadal­canal and neighboring islands, the Southern Solomons were at last firmly in Allied hands.

Some of the most vicious fighting anywhere in World War II was waged in the Pacific Theater. Drawing hea­vily on first­hand accounts, John Costello gives voice to the Marines, soldiers, sailors, and air­men who parti­ci­pated in this grue­some period of mili­tary history in The Pacific War, 1941–1945. Costello’s pano­ramic and detailed account of the fighting in South­east Asia, the East Indies, New Guinea, the Philip­pines, and the Pacific vividly brought home to me that the physi­cal and emo­tional costs of defeating the Japa­nese were as high, and pro­bably higher, as those incur­red in defeating Nazism in Europe.—Norm Haskett

Guadalcanal: Allied Turning Point in the Pacific War

Map, Guadalcanal Island

Above: Routes of Allied amphibious forces for landings on Guadal­canal and Tulagi, August 7, 1942. Tulagi and environs were home to Japa­nese naval and sea­plane bases, Guadal­canal to a landing strip large enough to accom­mo­date 100 Japa­nese fighter and bomber air­craft. Guadalcanal Island is the largest island within the Solo­mon Islands chain. The double, parallel islands chain stretches over 600 miles (966 km) north­west to south­east and is roughly 500 miles (805 km) east of the large island of Papua New Gui­nea and 1,100 miles (1,770 km) north­east of the Aus­tra­lian land­mass. At 90 miles (145 km) long on a north­west-south­east axis and an average of 25 miles (40 km) wide, Guadal­canal is a for­bidding ter­rain of moun­tains and dor­mant vol­canoes up to 7,600 ft (488 m) high, steep ravines and deep streams, man­grove swamps, and a gener­ally even coast­line with no natural har­bors. Nasty critters, including croco­diles, popu­late the island. The three-dimen­sional Guadal­canal cam­paign (land-sea-air) stretched both adver­saries to the breaking point. The storied battle for the island lasted 6 months, involved nearly 1 mil­lion men, and stopped Japa­nese expansion in the Southwest and Central Pacific.

Marines on Lunga Point, Guadalcanal Campaign, August 7, 1942Japanese dirt-and-gravel airstrip under construction at Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, July 1942

Left: Escorted by a task force that included three car­riers, 11,000 men from the 1st Marine Divi­sion, under the com­mand of Maj. Gen. Alex­ander Vande­grift, stormed ashore on Gua­dal­canal’s north­ern beaches on August 7, 1942, exactly 8 months from the date Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was bombed. On Octo­ber 13 the first Army unit, the 164th Infan­try from the Ameri­cal Divi­sion, 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 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 (future home of Hender­son Field), Gua­dal­canal, July 1942, under con­struc­tion since July 6 by a mixed labor force of Japa­nese and con­scripted Koreans. The Marines’ landing at Lunga Point was to cap­ture the dirt-and-gravel air­strip before it could become opera­tional. After cap­turing it, Amer­i­can forces went on to com­plete it, turning it over to the so-called “Cactus Air Force,” a mot­ley col­lec­tion of Marine, U.S. Army Air Forces, and U.S. Navy avi­a­tors. Hen­der­son Field, named for a Marine pilot who perished while leading a bombing run at 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 to Guadalcanal, 1942Men from 2nd Marine Division, pursuing retreating Japanese, stop for a rest, Guadalcanal Campaign, November 1942

Left: Japanese reinforcements load onto a destroyer for the “ant run,” as Japa­nese sol­diers called the naval dash down the “Slot” (New Georgia Sound) to Gua­dal­canal in 1942. The “Tokyo Express” was the name given by Allied forces to fast Japa­nese ships (mainly destroyers but also sub­marines) that used the cover of dark­ness to deli­ver per­son­nel, artil­lery, ammu­ni­tion, food, and other sup­plies and equip­ment to enemy forces oper­a­ting in and around New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Right: Fresh troops from the 2nd Marine Raider Division during a halt on Guadal­canal, Novem­ber 1942. Allied ground strength, pri­marily Amer­i­can, came to 60,000 (roughly one-third Marines, little less than two-thirds Army troops, and hun­dreds of Sea­bees) vs. 36,200 for the Japa­nese army and navy. During the 6‑month cam­paign, the Japa­nese suffered 31,000 dead and 1,000 cap­tured out of 36,200 ground com­bat­ants. U.S. tallied 7,100 dead, seve­ral thou­sand deaths attri­buted to mala­ria and other tro­pi­cal dis­eases. Japa­nese records list an un­known num­ber of Amer­i­cans cap­tured, fates mostly un­known. Australian deaths were 85. Solo­mon Islander deaths are un­known. U.S. wounded amounted to more than 7,789. The U.S. Navy lost 29 ships, including 2 fleet car­riers (Wasp and Hornet), 6 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, and 17 destroyers. Lost also were 615 aircraft. Japa­nese ships lost were 38; air­craft losses were 683.

HBO Presentation: Inside the Battle of Guadalcanal