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 air­strip, 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. In a narrow sense, the U.S. Marine Corps came of age as a land fighting force during the diffi­cult days on Gua­dal­canal. In a larger sense, U.S. service members from all branches—Marine Corps, Army, and Navy—had beaten Japan’s best land, air, and naval forces and had halted the Japa­nese advance in the South Paci­fic. Hence­forth, Amer­i­cans in ser­vice uni­forms and those on the home front could view the out­come of the war with new opti­mism. For for­ward-seeing Japa­nese, how­ever, 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.

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: 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 is 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. The storied battle for the island lasted six months, involved nearly one 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 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 dirt-and-gravel air­strip 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 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” 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 night to deli­ver per­son­nel, artil­lery, vehicles, food, and other sup­plies to enemy 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