In February 1943, Japanese troops finally withdrew from Guadalcanal, part of an island group commanding the approaches to northern Australia. The evacuation marked the end of a relentless six-month contest for control of this remote, jungle-clad territory. It was the end point for an extraordinary series of conquests over the previous 15 months, in which Japanese forces had occupied vast tracts of South Asia.
Japan’s empire stretched from eastern China down to Papua New Guinea, with the colonial possessions of Britain, France, the Netherlands and the USA falling in a series of rapid moves. Since its first expansionist surge in 1931, imperial Japan had acquired more than 30 million square miles of land. This remarkable run of success would come to an end after the Battle of Guadalcanal.
During the desperate struggle over the island, US forces not only had to contend with one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. They also had to overcome ingrained divisions between their army, navy, and air force, while tackling formidable logistical challenges. They faced a determined and battle-hardened adversary who had the upper hand for much of the conflict. Why did this island become the focus of such intense combat, and how are we to explain the outcome?
A forbidding prospect
Some 90 miles long and 25 miles wide, Guadalcanal is the largest island in the Solomons group. With a mountainous interior, and covered in dense rainforest, it presented a forbidding prospect for the troops who landed there. Knowledge of the terrain was scanty. US planners depended on unreliable maps that were a poor guide to the challenges that a landing force might encounter. These were supplemented by radio messages relayed by isolated intelligence operatives known as ‘coast watchers’, who concealed themselves in island hideouts at great personal risk. Nor was there time to carry out proper training in amphibious operations, an area in which US Marines lacked experience.
The Japanese invaders had arrived in the Solomons in May 1942. The decision to expand this far south was the outcome of an intense debate between the army and navy, whose inability to work together harmoniously was a key weakness of Tokyo’s war planning. Army leaders feared over-extension and argued for a policy of consolidation. But they were overruled by the navy chiefs, fortified by a series of almost cost-free victories prior to the Battle of Midway in June.
The decision to focus American efforts on Guadalcanal was driven by Admiral Ernest King, commander in chief of the US Fleet and one of the most aggressive Allied leaders. King was determined to wrest control of the island from the Japanese, insisting on the operation in the face of initial obstruction from the army leadership.
King saw the campaign as a way of seizing the initiative in the Pacific theatre, at a time when the navy was competing for resources destined for the European war. More urgently, the Japanese were constructing an airfield on Guadalcanal’s northern coast, which would enable them to threaten Allied communications to Australia. They had also established a seaplane base on the neighbouring island of Tulagi.
Before the operation could begin, a dispute over the command of US forces had to be resolved. The Solomons lay on the boundary between the areas controlled by Pacific Ocean Area overlord Admiral Chester Nimitz and the equally assertive figure of General Douglas MacArthur. The turf war between army and navy was settled with the creation of a new South Pacific command under Vice-Admiral Robert Ghormley.
Operation Watchtower, as it was codenamed, began on 7 August 1942 with a deceptively easy landing by US forces on Guadalcanal. The Japanese occupiers were taken by surprise by a hail of shells fired by accompanying cruisers and destroyers, which in the words of historian Ronald Spector, ‘came roaring down on them like freight trains’. The Americans met minimal resistance as they seized the airstrip on Guadalcanal – now renamed Henderson Field in memory of an aviator killed two months earlier at the Battle of Midway. From here, the ‘Cactus Air Force’ – named after the American code name for Guadalcanal – would play a critical role, supporting US carrier planes in keeping the Japanese at bay. Holding this strategically important site, however, was to prove extremely daunting.
The Marines encountered more resistance on the neighbouring smaller islands, where Japanese defenders were more securely entrenched in caves and dugouts. On Tanambogo, air strikes made no impres- sion, and a heavy naval bombardment was required before the Americans could gain control. Waves of counterattacks meant that it took 24 hours for them to establish a foothold on the island of Tulagi.
US forces faced more difficulties following the premature withdrawal of the three aircraft carriers, Enterprise, Saratoga and Wasp, whose presence had covered the initial landings. Their commander, Vice-Admiral Frank J Fletcher, was anxious about his ships’ vulnerability to aerial and submarine attack in the narrow approaches to the island, known as ‘the Slot’. Unwilling to spend more than three days in the area, he left the landed men to fend for themselves.
Historians have intensively debated Fletcher’s action. Some have argued that he based his decision on incomplete evidence and as a result exaggerated the threat to the carriers. Others have suggested that he was right to protect naval assets that would soon be needed to fight off the Japanese fleet. What is not in doubt is that his departure left the ground forces on the island isolated and critically short of supplies.
Groups of fast Japanese warships, dubbed the ‘Tokyo Express’ by the Americans, began to deliver reinforcements and supplies under cover of darkness. By October 1942, 20,000 Japanese troops and their equipment had arrived. Radio Tokyo confidently announced that the vulnerable Marines on Guadalcanal were like ‘summer insects which have dropped into the fire by themselves’.
The US Navy generally had the upper hand in daylight, but their opponents were more effective in night-fighting. Although less advanced in radar-development, the Japanese used a range of optical aids, star shells, and searchlights to enhance their night vision. They also possessed the effective ship-launched Type 93 ‘Long Lance’ torpedo. Between August and November, the two sides fought a total of six major sea battles off Guadalcanal. US losses were severe, including two of the five carriers it lost in the entire war, and 12 of the 69 destroyers sunk in all theatres.
In the Battle of Savo Island on 9 August, the Japanese fleet took American ships by surprise, sinking four cruisers and causing the loss of more than a thousand lives. It is regarded as the worst single defeat in the history of the US Navy. A hit on the chart room of their flagship Chokai, however, prevented the Japanese from gaining a more comprehensive victory. They retreated up the Slot before US carrier planes could catch them.
A desperate struggle
Savo Island left Henderson Field defended by Marines who lacked vital equipment and provisions. Hunger, tropical disease, mosquitos, and crocodiles were among the hazards they faced. Heavy rain frequently flooded the foxholes in which the men took refuge, with scorching daytime temperatures adding to the misery. They also found themselves on the receiving end of merciless bombardment, as Japanese ships sailed within range of the airfield and left before the US Navy could respond. On the night of 13/14 October, for example, in the space of 90 minutes, they fired a thousand 14-inch naval shells, destroying half the US aircraft on the airfield and wrecking critical maintenance and fuel-storage facilities.
The land battle continued with relentless intensity. Japanese troops fought with determination against a numerically superior enemy – in total, up to 60,000 US personnel and an estimated 43,000 Japanese were deployed to the island. The latter opted for costly frontal assaults, which came up against merciless US firepower. A classic example was the Battle of Edson’s Ridge – soon to be known as Bloody Ridge – in mid-September 1942. Japanese soldiers hurled themselves against marines defending Henderson Field, to be met with automatic weapon and mortar fire at close quarters. Less than half of them survived the withering barrage, whereas just one-fifth of the US forces taking part became casualties.
Captain William McKennon recalled the Japanese chanting, ‘US Marines be dead tomorrow’ like ‘a mad religious rite’ as they charged: ‘when one wave was mowed down… another followed it into death.’ A crucial weakness was the lack of heavy guns and ammunition, for which there was insufficient room on the Japanese troop transports. Food shortages were a debilitating problem. Japanese troops ate jungle moss and nuts, and even resorted to throwing grenades into a river to bring up fish. One officer lamented after Edson’s Ridge that ‘if we had had two more rice cakes, we could have occupied the airfield.’
There were also higher-level problems. In his diary, army chief of staff Major-General Akisaburo Futami criticised the Japanese navy for not pressing home its advantage after Savo Island by sinking US transport convoy ships: ‘What a shame! They set out to pick oranges but came back with only the peels!’ The entry underlines the ongoing division between Japan’s army and navy, which showed no sign of abating.
Nonetheless, it took some time before American fortunes began to improve. On 24 August, the USS Saratoga sank the Japanese carrier Ryujo, but was soon afterwards damaged by a torpedo and sent to Pearl Harbor for extended repair. On 15 September, another US carrier, Wasp, was lost to Japanese submarine action.
Tipping the scales
A month later, losing patience with the burnt-out Ghormley, Nimitz transferred the South Pacific command to the much more dynamic figure of Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey. He was a larger-than-life character: exuberant, unselfconscious, and consumed with loathing for the enemy. He was impatient with interservice rivalry, too, declaring that no one should think in terms of distinctions between the Army, Navy and Marines: ‘every man will understand it, if I have to take off his uniform and issue coveralls with “South Pacific Fighting Force” printed on the seat of his pants.’
The US fleet continued for a time to take severe losses. In the Battle of Santa Cruz, on 26 October, the carrier Hornet was sunk by a coordinated dive-bomber and torpedo-plane attack. In a foretaste of later kamikaze tactics, two damaged Japanese aircraft deliberately crashed on to the stricken ship. The blazing hulk was finished off after taking several devastating hits. The Enterprise, the last US carrier remaining in the area, was also damaged. However, these successes came at a high price. Two Japanese carriers, the Zuiho and the Shokaku, were hit, taking them out of action for several months, and air-crew losses were heavy.
In the two naval battles of Guadalcanal, fought between 13 and 15 November, once again the Americans took a heavy beating as they confronted another Japanese attempt to land reinforcements on the island. This was the last major sea battle of the campaign, and one of the costliest of the whole war in terms of lives lost. The Americans lost two cruisers and seven destroyers, and two rear-admirals were killed. The Japanese battleships Hiei and Kirishima, together with a heavy cruiser and three destroyers, were sunk.
‘Bull’ Halsey refused to abandon Henderson Field. Crucially, the 11 Japanese transports heading for Guadalcanal were all sunk or disabled, making it impossible to land reinforcements in significant numbers, and lifting the immediate threat to the island. Resupply efforts now depended on warships and submarines making the passage down the Slot, but the quantities that they could deliver would never be enough. The decisive nature of the engagement was recognised on the American side. The action earned Halsey the accolade of a front-page tribute by Time magazine, headed ‘Hit Hard, Hit Fast, Hit Often’.
The balance of logistics
The Japanese gave a good account of themselves in the sea battles that punctuated the Guadalcanal campaign. But their cumulative losses of ships, aircraft, and crews were proportionately much more serious than those suffered by the Americans. Japan’s weaker industrial base severely limited their capacity to replace what they had lost.
No less critical to eventual US success was their greater capacity to overcome problems of logistics. Supply ships were highly vulnerable to aerial attack. Unloading their consignments, in the limited port facilities available on the island, was time-consuming and fraught with danger. By October, however, the Americans were beginning to win the battle of supply. Japan’s high command desperately threw more resources at the task of recovering Guadalcanal, but faced the problem of moving troops more than 3,000 miles across hostile seas from garrisons in Hong Kong and Java.
Guadalcanal also saw the beginning of a steady depletion of Japanese naval air power. The generation of highly trained naval airmen who had spearheaded the Japanese advance from Pearl Harbor to Midway was being gradually reduced in number. Combat losses were manageable for much of the campaign – a total of 901 downed aircraft between August 1942 and January 1943 represented just 10% of the country’s aircraft production for the year. In the same period, however, the Japanese lost a further 680 planes in non-combat operations.
To supplement the carrier strikes, A6M Zero fighters were being flown some 650 miles from the main Japanese base at Rabaul on New Britain, an island east of New Guinea. Plane for plane, the Zero was more than a match for its main opponent, the Grumman F4F Wildcat. It was superior in speed and rate of climb, and was much more manoeuvrable. But the length of the journey meant that exhausted pilots frequently ditched in the ocean, where the chances of rescue were nil. Even if they made it, with the aid of additional fuel tanks, they could not stay in the skies over Guadalcanal long before they had to return.
Meanwhile, US ‘Seabee’ maintenance crews at Henderson Field performed miracles, filling bomb craters on the runway, laboriously refuelling aircraft by hand-pump and improvising repairs with salvaged spare parts. Pilots took off in appalling conditions as heavy rain turned the airstrip into a sea of mud. This was a campaign in which the bulldozer, used for uprooting trees and brush and creating makeshift roadways, was a crucial weapon of war.
Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey Jr (1882-1959)
A firm believer in the aircraft carrier as the primary naval weapon of attack, Admiral William Halsey Jr was in command of a task force headed by the USS Enterprise at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was sidelined during the Battle of Midway while he received treatment for a stress-related skin condition. After recovering, he was appointed commander of South Pacific naval forces in October 1942. Halsey played a critical role in the eventual victory at Guadalcanal. In October 1944, he commanded the US Third Fleet in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval encounter of World War II. Fittingly, the Japanese surrender was signed aboard his flagship, the USS Missouri, in September 1945. Halsey’s nickname, ‘Bull’, reflected his bluff manner and uncompromisingly aggressive spirit.
The Japanese high command effectively acknowledged that Guadalcanal was a lost cause by the end of 1942. By now troops knew it as ‘Starvation Island’. In late December, Tokyo received a despairing message from the island, seeking permission to break out and ‘die an honourable death rather than die of hunger in our own dugouts’. On New Year’s Eve, Emperor Hirohito reluctantly gave permission to evacuate the survivors. The operation was completed early in February 1943. The withdrawal was a belated recognition of reality. Back in September, Major-General Futami had acknowledged that ‘we should not fight in a remote island without enough support, such as at least two divisions, five artillery battalions, enough ammunition and air support.’
It had been a remarkable six months of war in three dimensions, with air, land and sea forces all engaged. Guadalcanal was a brutal slogging match, marked by extraordinary suffering and horror. After seeing wounded Japanese soldiers blow themselves up with grenades when American personnel approached, US troops ran over survivors with tanks. The Marines’ commander, General Alexander Vandegrift, remarked that ‘the rear of the tanks looked like meat grinders.’ The war at sea was no less savage. Captured US airmen were routinely executed, and there were cases of surviving Japanese crew members being machine-gunned after ditching in the sea.
Guadalcanal has a strong claim to be the turning point in the Pacific theatre. General Kiyotake Kawaguchi, who commanded troops on the island until October 1942, later described it as ‘no longer merely a name of an island in Japanese military history’ but ‘the name of the graveyard of the Japanese Army’.
The defeat marked the end point of imperial Japan’s forward march. From now on, its forces would be on the defensive. For the Americans, Guadalcanal was a springboard that they could use in their effort to push the Japanese out of the South Pacific. They would apply its hard-learned lessons as they embarked on their island-hopping progress towards the enemy homeland. The outcome of the campaign pointed in the direction that events were now heading – towards a war of attrition in which ultimately there could be only one winner.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Yasuharu Sato in translating quotations from Japanese sources.
Francis Pike, Hirohito’s War: the Pacific War 1941-1945 (Bloomsbury, 2015).
Ian W Toll, The Conquering Tide: war in the Pacific Islands 1942-1944 (W W Norton, 2015).
- US forces occupy islands of Guadalcanal and Tulagi
- US defeat in naval Battle of Savo Island
- Japanese defeat in Battle of the Eastern Solomons
- Japanese suffer heavy losses in Battle of Edson’s Ridge
- Japanese defeat in Battle of Cape Esperance
- Further Japanese land offensive fails
- Battle of Santa Cruz – loss of US carrier Hornet
- Naval Battle of Guadalcanal
- Japanese decide to evacuate Guadalcanal
- Japanese withdrawal complete