The Battle of Guadalcanal, also known as the Guadalcanal Campaign and codenamed Operation Watchtower by Allied forces, was a major World War II battle in the Pacific Ocean theater of operations that took place between August 7, 1942 and February 9, 1943 on and around the island of Guadalcanal as part of the Solomon Islands Campaign. This was the first major offensive of the Allied forces against the Japanese Empire.
On August 7, 1942, Allied forces, mostly American, landed on the islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida in the southern Solomon Islands with the objective of preventing the Japanese from using them to threaten logistical and communication routes between the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. The Allies also intended to use Guadalcanal and Tulagi as bases to support a campaign to capture or neutralize the main Japanese base at Rabaul on the island of New Britain. They overwhelmed the outnumbered Japanese defenders, who had occupied the islands since May 1942, and captured Tulagi and Florida as well as an airfield, later called Henderson Airstrip, that was under construction on Guadalcanal. Powerful U.S. naval forces supported the landings.
Surprised by the Allied offensive, the Japanese made several attempts between August and November 1942 to regain the lead. Three major land battles, seven naval battles (five night operations and two carrier battles) and continuous, almost daily air battles culminated in the decisive naval battle of Guadalcanal in early November 1942 in which the last Japanese attempt to bomb the airfield from the sea and land with enough troops to retake it was defeated. In December 1942, they gave up further efforts, then evacuated the rest of their forces on February 7, 1943, in the face of an offensive by the US Army”s XIV Corps, ceding the island to the Allies.
In the Pacific theater, the Guadalcanal campaign was a significant strategic joint force victory over the Japanese. The Japanese had reached the peak of their conquests in the Pacific, and Guadalcanal marked the Allied shift from a series of defensive operations to an offensive strategy in that theater, as well as the beginning of the recapture operations, including the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, and Central Pacific campaigns, that culminated in the final Japanese surrender at the end of World War II.
On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. The attack crippled much of the U.S. battleship fleet and formally precipitated a state of open war between the two nations. The initial goals of the Japanese leadership were to neutralize the U.S. Navy, seize resource-rich possessions and establish strategic military bases to defend Japan”s empire in the Pacific Ocean and Asia. To achieve these goals, Japanese forces occupied the Philippines, Thailand, British Malaya, Singapore, Burma, the Dutch East Indies, Wake Atoll, the Gilbert Islands, New Britain and Guam. The rest of the Allied powers, including the United Kingdom, Australia and the Netherlands, had also been attacked by Japan and joined the United States.
Two Japanese attempts to pursue their strategic initiative and expand their defense perimeter in the South and Central Pacific to threaten Australia and Hawaii, and even the West Coast of the United States, were thwarted in the naval battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. The Coral Sea was a tactical stalemate, but a strategic victory for the Allies that did not become evident until much later. Midway was not only the first major victory against the Japanese, but it also significantly reduced the offensive capability of Japanese naval air forces. It did not, however, reduce the Japanese offensive mindset for several crucial months, during which the Japanese made a series of mistakes by going forward with rash and ill-considered decisions, such as the attempted assault on Port Moresby via the Kokoda Trail. Until then, the Allies had been on the defensive in the Pacific, but these strategic victories gave them the opportunity to regain the initiative against the Japanese enemy.
The Allies chose the Solomon Islands (a protectorate of the United Kingdom), specifically the southern islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Florida as their first objective. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had invaded Tulagi in May 1942 and built a seaplane base nearby. Allied concern was greatly increased when in early July 1942, the IJN began construction of a large airfield at Lunga Point on the nearby island of Guadalcanal. From such a base, Japanese long-range bombers could threaten the sea lines of communication between the west coast of the Americas and the east coast of Australia. By August 1942, the Japanese had approximately 900 Marine infantry on Tulagi Island and the surrounding islands and 2,800 men (including 2,200 Korean forced laborers and administrators, as well as Japanese construction specialists) on Guadalcanal Island. These bases could, in the long term, protect the main Japanese base at Rabaul, threaten supplies and Allied lines of communication, and finally constitute a staging area for a planned offensive against the Fiji Islands, New Caledonia and the Samoan Islands (Operation FS). The Japanese planned to deploy 45 fighters and 60 bombers on Guadalcanal. In the general strategy for 1942, these aircraft could provide air cover for the progression of Japanese naval forces in the South Pacific.
The Allied plan for the invasion of the southern Solomon Islands was conceived by American Admiral Ernest King, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Fleet. He proposed the offensive, on the one hand to prohibit the use of the islands by the Japanese as operational bases to threaten the supply routes between the United States and Australia, and on the other hand to use them as starting points for the reconquest. With the tacit consent of President Franklin Roosevelt, the admiral also advocated the invasion of Guadalcanal. Because the United States supported the British proposal to prioritize the defeat of Germany before Japan, the Pacific theater of operations had to compete with the European theater of operations for manpower and assets at all times. This is why the American General George C. Marshall opposed the campaign proposed by Admiral King and asked who should be in command of the operation. King replied that the Navy and Marines would conduct the operation on their own and instructed Admiral Chester Nimitz to begin preliminary planning. King eventually won the argumentative battle against Marshall and preparations for the invasion continued with the support of the Combined Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS).
The CJCS set as its objective for 1942-43 that the capture of Guadalcanal be implemented in conjunction with an Allied offensive in New Guinea under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, to conquer the Admiralty Islands and the Bismarck Archipelago, including the main island of Rabaul. The directive considered the goal to be the recapture of the Philippines. The Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee created the “South Pacific Theater of Operations,” which was placed under the command of Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley on June 19, 1942, in order to carry out the offensive on the Solomon Islands. Admiral Nimitz, based at Pearl Harbor, was appointed commander-in-chief of the Pacific forces.
In May 1942, in preparation for the Pacific offensive, Major General Alexander Vandegrift of the Marine Corps was ordered to transfer his 1st Marine Division from the United States to New Zealand. Other Allied land, sea and air forces were established or reinforced at bases in Fiji, Samoa, the New Hebrides and New Caledonia. Espiritu Santo, in the New Hebrides, was chosen as the headquarters and main base for the offensive codenamed “Operation Watchtower,” with a start date of 7 August 1942.
At first, the Allied offensive was aimed only at Tulagi and the Santa Cruz Islands, omitting the large island of Guadalcanal. However, after the discovery, during Allied reconnaissance, of the construction of a Japanese airfield on Guadalcanal, its capture was added to the objectives and the operation on Santa Cruz was abandoned. The Japanese, through signals intelligence, were aware of the large-scale movement of Allied forces in the South Pacific area, but concluded that the Allies were reinforcing Australia and possibly Port Moresby, New Guinea.
The invasion force of 75 warships and transports, including ships from the United States and Australia, assembled near Fiji on July 26, 1942, where they participated in a dress rehearsal for a landing before departing for Guadalcanal on July 31. The commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force was U.S. Vice Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, whose flag was on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga. The commander of the amphibious forces responsible for transporting and landing the troops was Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner. Major General Vandegrift commanded the 16,000 infantrymen, mostly U.S. Marines, assigned to the landing.
The troops sent to Guadalcanal were straight out of training. They were equipped with the Springfield M1903 bolt-action rifle and a ten-day supply of ammunition. Because of the need to get them into battle quickly, the operation planners had reduced the initial troop supply allocations from 90 to only 60 combat days. Thus, the men of the 1st Marine Division began to refer to the upcoming battle as Operation Shoestring.
Bad weather allowed the Allied Expeditionary Force to reach the vicinity of Guadalcanal on the night of August 6-7, 1942, without being detected by the Japanese. The First Marine Division landed east of the Tenaru River, taking by surprise the Japanese defenders who had only arrived on the island in early July to set up an airfield on Lunga Point, one of the Marines” first objectives. This operation was later called Midnight Raid on Guadalcanal. The landing forces were divided into two groups, one leading the assault on Guadalcanal and the other on the islands of Tulagi, Florida and the surrounding islands. Allied warships bombed the landing beaches while aircraft from American carriers bombed Japanese positions on the target islands, destroying fifteen Japanese seaplanes at their base near Tulagi. With the Japanese manpower consisting primarily of engineering and support personnel, it was easy to occupy the airfield and base, where the Japanese abandoned a great deal of equipment that came in handy when the Marines later had to complete the airfield without their own engineering equipment, which had not been landed. The airfield – which, after the American conquest, was named Henderson Field in honor of Major Lofton R. Henderson, commander of VMSB-241, the first Marine aviator killed in action during the Battle of Midway – was a focal point of the fighting.
Tulagi and two small islands nearby, Gavutu and Tanambogo, were stormed by 3,000 Marines. The 886 Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) personnel, who manned the naval and seaplane base on the three islands, fiercely resisted the Marines” attacks. The Marines secured all three islands with some difficulty; Tulagi on August 8, Gavutu and Tanambogo on August 9. The Japanese defenders were killed almost to the last man, while their enemies counted 122 killed.
Compared to Tulagi, Gavutu and Tanambogo, the landings on Guadalcanal met with much less resistance. At 9:10 a.m. on August 7, General Vandegrift and his 11,000 Marines landed on Guadalcanal between Koli Point and Lunga Point. Advancing toward Lunga Point, they encountered no resistance except for the difficulty of advancing through the rain forest – and stopped about 900 yards from the Lunga Point airfield. The Japanese naval construction units and combat troops, under the command of Captain Kanae Monzen, panicked by the aerial and naval bombardments, had abandoned the airfield area and fled about 4.5 kilometers west of the Matanikau River and the Point Cruz area, leaving behind food, supplies, intact buildings and vehicles, and thirteen dead.
During the landing operations on August 7 and 8, Japanese naval aircraft based at Rabaul, under the command of Sadayoshi Yamada, attacked the Allied amphibious forces several times, setting fire to the troop carrier USS George F. Elliott (which sank two days later) and heavily damaging the destroyer USS Jarvis. During the two-day attacks, the Japanese lost thirty-six aircraft while the Americans lost nineteen, including fourteen embarked fighters, in combat or in accidents.
As a result of these clashes, Vice Admiral Fletcher, concerned about the losses suffered by his embarked air fleet due to the threat of future Japanese air attacks against his carriers and concerned about the ships” fuel levels, decided to withdraw his carrier battle group from the Solomon Islands area on the evening of 8 August. Because of the loss of air cover, Rear Admiral Turner decided to withdraw his ships from Guadalcanal, even though less than half of the supplies and heavy equipment needed by the landed troops had been unloaded. However, he planned to unload as many supplies as possible on Guadalcanal and Tulagi during the night of 8 August, and then depart his ships early in the morning of 9 August.
Naval battle of Savo Island
This battle was the first naval engagement of the Battle of Guadalcanal. Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa had planned a counterattack and assembled for this purpose the 6th Cruiser Division of Rear Admiral Aritomo Gotō stationed at Kavieng with the assets of the 8th Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy available at Rabaul. On the evening of August 7 five heavy cruisers (Chōkai on which Vice Admiral Mikawa had his mark, Kako, Furutaka, Aoba, Kinugasa), two light cruisers (Tenryu and Yubari), and a destroyer (Yunagi) assembled at Cape St. George under Vice Admiral Mikawa and set out for Guadalcanal. Rounding Bougainville Island from the north, where they were spotted by an American submarine and Australian air reconnaissance, they sailed down “the Slot” on the afternoon of 8 August. Earlier, Vice Admiral Mikawa had sent reconnaissance seaplanes to inform him of the situation on Guadalcanal, which identified two American naval groups near Guadalcanal and Tulagi where he intended to attack the following night. During the night of 8 August-9 August, as U.S. transport ships were unloading troops and equipment, two groups of Allied cruisers and destroyers patrolling either side of Savo Island belonging to the naval cover group (Task Force 62) under the command of Rear Admiral Victor Crutchley were attacked and defeated at night by the naval group of Vice Admiral Mikawa and Rear Admiral Gotō.
During this night naval battle around Savo Island, the Japanese naval group succeeded in sinking, in a few minutes, an Australian heavy cruiser (HMAS Canberra) and three American heavy cruisers (USS Astoria, Vincennes, and Quincy) as well as severely damaging the heavy cruiser USS Chicago and two American destroyers. The Japanese suffered only moderate damage to the forward turrets of the Chokai. Vice Admiral Mikawa, unaware of Vice Admiral Fletcher”s withdrawal of the U.S. carriers, withdrew to Rabaul immediately after the attack without attempting to attack the transports; he was concerned about potential daylight air attacks from the U.S. carriers if he had remained in the area. Deprived of his naval air cover, Rear Admiral “Kelly” Turner decided to withdraw the remainder of his naval forces on the evening of 9 August and, in so doing, abandoned the landed Marines with very little heavy equipment, few supplies and some of the troops still embarked. Vice Admiral Mikawa”s decision not to attack the nearby Allied transport ships, when given the opportunity, proved to be a crucial strategic error for the Japanese.
At first, the work of Vandergrift”s 11,000 Marines on Guadalcanal was difficult. Not only had the entire operation been put together quickly and only the minimum equipment had been taken along, but the situation was complicated by the withdrawal of Admiral Turner, his transports and cargo ships on the morning of 9 August, while half the supplies were still in the holds. After the battle of Savo, the Marines found themselves alone. They limited themselves to securing the immediate perimeter of the Japanese-built airstrip as best they could and to launching a few patrols. Their efforts included forming a loose defensive perimeter around Lunga Point and the airfield, moving landed supplies inside the perimeter, and continuing construction of the airfield. After four days of intense effort, supplies were moved from the landing beaches to dispersed depots within the defensive perimeter. Five days” worth of supplies had been offloaded from the transport ships, which, together with the supplies captured from the Japanese, gave the Marines a total of fourteen days” worth of supplies. In order to conserve supplies, the troops were rationed to two meals a day. Work on the airfield began immediately, using mainly seized Japanese equipment. On 12 August, the airfield was named Henderson Field, after Lofton R. Henderson, a Marine aviator officer killed during the Battle of Midway. By 18 August, 10,819 Marines had actually landed on the island of Guadalcanal. Despite daily bombardments by Japanese ships – which were able to move unopposed near the island – and by bombers from Rabaul, the Marines will have succeeded in making the Henderson airstrip operational.
Shortly after landing, the Allied troops were confronted with a severe strain of dysentery which, by mid-August, affected one in five Marines. Tropical diseases affected fighting forces on both sides throughout the campaign. Although some Korean construction workers surrendered to the Marines, most of the remaining Japanese and Korean personnel congregated just west of the Lunga Point perimeter on the west bank of the Matanikau River and survived primarily on a diet of coconuts. A Japanese naval outpost was also located at Taivu Point, about 35 kilometers (22 miles) east of the Lunga Point perimeter. On August 8, a Japanese destroyer from Rabaul managed to land one hundred and thirteen Marine infantrymen to reinforce the Japanese position at Matanikau.
On the evening of 12 August, a patrol of twenty-five Marines led by Lieutenant Colonel Frank Goettge and consisting primarily of intelligence personnel was landed west of the Lunga Point defensive perimeter between Cruz Point and the Matanikau River on a reconnaissance mission with the secondary objective of making contact with a group of Japanese soldiers that U.S. forces believed might surrender. Shortly after landing, a section of Japanese Marine troops attacked and almost completely wiped out the Marine patrol.
In response, on 19 August, Vandegrift sent three companies of the 5th Marine Regiment to attack the Japanese troops concentrated west of the Matanikau. One company launched its attack across the sandbar at the mouth of the Matinakau River while another crossed the river about 1,000 yards inland. They stormed the Japanese troops entrenched in the village of Matanikau. The third attacked from the sea, further west of the river, with the village of Kokumbuna as its objective. After briefly occupying both villages, the three Marine companies withdrew to the Lunga perimeter with a death toll of sixty-five Japanese and four Marines killed in action. This operation, sometimes referred to as the “First Battle of Matanikau,” was the first of the actions along the Matanikau River during the campaign.
On 20 August, the escort carrier USS Long Island delivered two squadrons of Marine aircraft to Henderson Field: a squadron of nineteen Grumman F4F Wildcats and a squadron of twelve Douglas SBD Dauntless. The Marine fighters went into action the next day against the first of almost daily air raids by Japanese bombers. On August 22, twenty-two US Army P-39 Airacobras and their pilots arrived at Henderson Field. Since the Allied code for the island was Cactus, the nickname (Cactus Air Force-CAF) was soon given to the air forces operating there. By the end of August, the airfield was home to just over sixty aircraft.
In the meantime, however, Fletcher”s Task Force 61 had returned to the Solomons and the Japanese no longer had absolute control of the island”s surroundings. After a first ground attempt east of the Lunga perimeter, the operation led on August 24th and 25th to the battle of the eastern Solomons and the Japanese reinforcements could not be landed as planned.
Battle of Tenaru
In response to the Allied landings on Guadalcanal, the Japanese Imperial Headquarters undertook the planning of a counter-offensive from August 12 called Operation KA (not to be confused with Operation KE or KE-GO organizing the withdrawal of Japanese troops from Guadalcanal from the end of January 1943). To do so, he assigned the 17th Army of the Imperial Japanese Army to the recapture of Guadalcanal. This corps-sized unit, based at Rabaul, was under the command of Lieutenant General Haruyoshi Hyakutake. It was to be further supported and backed by Japanese naval units including the combined fleet under the command of Isoroku Yamamoto, which was headquartered in the Truk Islands.
The 17th Army was then heavily involved in the Japanese New Guinea campaign and had few units available. Of these, the 35th Infantry Brigade under Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi was in Palau, the 4th Infantry Regiment was stationed in the Philippines, and the 28th Infantry Regiment, under Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki, was in transport ships near the islands of Guam. These units immediately began their movement toward Guadalcanal via Truk and Rabaul, but Ichiki”s regiment was the closest and reached the area first.
An initial element of Ichiki”s unit, consisting of 917 soldiers, disembarked from several destroyers at Taivu Point, east of Lunga Point after midnight on the night of 18 August 1942, and then moved by forced march about 15 km toward the Marine defensive perimeter. Underestimating the strength of the Allied forces, Ichiki”s unit conducted a frontal night attack against the Marine position at Aligator Creek (often referred to as Ilu River on Marine maps) through the Tenaru River sandbars east of the Lunga perimeter in the early morning hours of 21 August. Ichiki”s battalion was cut to pieces, especially with the new air support available to the Marines. At dawn, the Marine units launched a counterattack in which the Japanese survivors of the night offensive were almost all killed. Ichiki was among the dead, although it was later claimed that he committed seppuku after realizing the extent of the defeat, rather than die in battle. In total, only 128 of the 917 members of this precursor element of the Ichiki regiment survived this battle. The survivors retreated to Taivu Point, reported their defeat to 17th Army headquarters, and awaited reinforcements and orders from Rabaul Base.
Naval Battle of the Eastern Solomons
As the battle of Tenaru drew to a close, more Japanese reinforcements were already on their way. Three slow transport ships sailed on August 16 from the Truk Islands carrying the remaining 1,400 soldiers of the 28th Ichiki Infantry Regiment plus 500 marine troops of the 5th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force. The transport ships were escorted by 13 warships commanded by Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, who planned to land the troops on Guadalcanal on August 24. To provide air cover for the troop landing and air support for the operation to retake Henderson Field from Allied forces, Yamamoto ordered Chūichi Nagumo to sail with a carrier battle group from the Truk Islands on 21 August and reach the South Solomons. Nagumo”s carrier battle group included three aircraft carriers and 30 other combat ships.
Simultaneously, three American air groups under Fletcher”s command approached Guadalcanal in an attempt to counter the Japanese offensive efforts. On 24 and 25 August, the two naval air forces engaged in the Battle of the Eastern Solomon Islands, which resulted in the retreat of both fleets, each of which had suffered definite damage, including the loss of a light aircraft carrier by the Japanese fleet. Tanaka”s convoy, after suffering heavy damage due to air attacks from Henderson Field, including the sinking of one of the transport ships, was forced to divert to the Shortland Islands in the northern Solomons in order to transfer the surviving troops onto destroyers for a later landing on Guadalcanal.
From then on, the Japanese became more cautious, especially since Henderson”s planes were proving effective. From then on, reinforcements were landed at night: on 29 August, 900 men (those who could not be landed during the battle of the eastern Solomons), a few hundred the next day and 1,200 on 31 August. General Kiyotake Kawaguchi, commander of the 35th Infantry Brigade, landed during this period and directed the operations. Most of these landings took place east of the Marine position, and Japanese forces began a turning movement south from that position.
Air battles over Henderson Field and reinforcement of Lunga defenses
Throughout August 1942, a reduced number of American aircraft and their crews continued to arrive at Guadalcanal. By the end of August, 64 aircraft of various models and units of the Marines and USAAF were stationed at Henderson Field. On September 3, the commander of the 1st Marine Air Brigade, Brig. Gen. Roy S. Geiger, arrived with his staff and assumed command of all air operations at Henderson Field. Air battles between the Allied aircraft at Henderson and the Japanese bombers and fighters of Rabaul”s 11th Naval Air Fleet were almost daily. Between August 26 and September 5, the Americans lost fifteen aircraft and the Japanese about nineteen. More than half of the American crews were rescued while most of the Japanese crews were never recovered. The eight-hour round-trip flight from Rabaul to Guadalcanal, about 1,120 miles (1,802 km) in all, seriously hampered Japanese efforts to secure air superiority over Henderson Field. Indeed, the distance the Japanese had to cover was far greater than that of the Americans, reducing their combat range and increasing crew fatigue prior to combat engagement. Australian coastal observers on the Bougainville Islands and New Georgia were also often able to give advance warning to the Allied forces on Guadalcanal of incoming Japanese air waves, allowing time for American fighters to take off and put themselves in position to attack the Japanese bombers and fighters as they approached.
In doing so, the Japanese air force was slowly losing a war of attrition in the skies over Guadalcanal.
Meanwhile, Vandegrift continued his efforts to strengthen and improve the defenses of the Lunga perimeter. Between August 21 and September 3, he moved three Marine battalions, including the 1st Commando Battalion under the command of Meritt A. Edson (the Edsons Raiders), the 1st Marine Parachute Battalion from Tulagi and Gavutu islands to Guadalcanal. These units added 1,500 men to the initial 11,000 men Vandegrift had available for the defense of Henderson Field. The 1st Parachute Battalion, which had suffered heavy losses during the Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo battle in August, was placed under Edson”s command.
The last battalion moved, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, was transferred by boat west of the Matanikau River near the village of Kokumbuna on 27 August with the mission of attacking the Japanese units in the vicinity, similar to the first action against Matanikau on 19 August. This time, however, the Marines were hampered by difficult terrain, a blazing sun and well-organized Japanese defenses. The next morning, the Marines discovered that the Japanese defenders had fled during the night, so the Marines returned to the Lunga perimeter by boat. Casualties in this action amounted to twenty Japanese and three Marines.
Small Allied naval convoys arrived at Guadalcanal on 23 August, 29 August, 1 September and 8 September to supply the Marines with food, ammunition, aviation fuel and aviation technicians. The 1 September convoy also brought three hundred and ninety-two sappers to maintain and improve Henderson Field airfield.
As daylight operations became very risky and resulted in considerable losses, Japanese naval forces took the habit of intervening at night with fast ships, disembarking their cargoes of men and material at Cape Esperance, north of Guadalcanal. Concealed from the air force by staying along the shoreline under the cover of the jungle, the Japanese ships came to bombard the American forces almost every night as far as Henderson Field, then disappeared. Admiral Ernest King, the new chief of naval operations for the U.S. Navy, laconically recounted, “Our men had finally named the ships involved in this regular attack the Tokyo Express.
On 23 August, Kawaguchi”s 35th Infantry Brigade reached the Truk Islands and was loaded onto slow transport ships for the remainder of the journey to Guadalcanal. The damage inflicted on Tanaka”s convoy during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons caused the Japanese to reconsider their attempts to deliver additional troops to Guadalcanal by slow transport ships. Therefore, the ships carrying Kawaguchi”s men were eventually sent to Rabaul. From there, the Japanese planned to transfer Kawaguchi”s men to Guadalcanal using destroyers from a Japanese naval base in the Shortland Islands. The Japanese destroyers were usually able to sail back and forth along the “Gap” (New Georgia Strait) to Guadalcanal and then return the same night throughout the campaign, thus minimizing their exposure to Allied air attacks. These “runs” became known in history as the “Tokyo Express” for the Allies and the “rat runs” for the Japanese. Moving troops in this manner, however, prevented most of the heavy equipment, supplies, vehicles, ammunition and food from being delivered to Guadalcanal with them. In addition, this activity diverted a number of destroyers otherwise sorely needed by MIJ for commercial naval convoy escort. Only the inability, or lack of will, prevented Allied naval commanders from countering Japanese naval forces at night, thus leaving nighttime control of the seas around the Solomon Islands to the Japanese. However, any Japanese ship remaining within range of Henderson Field”s daylight aircraft, about 200 miles (322 km), was in great danger from air attacks. This tactical situation lasted for several months during the campaign.
Between 29 August and 4 September, various Japanese light cruisers and patrol boats were able to land about 5,000 men at Taivu Point, including most of the 35th Brigade, a large portion of the 4th Aoba Regiment, and the remnants of the Ichiki Regiment. General Kawaguchi, who landed at Taivu Point with the August 31 Tokyo Express tour, was placed in command of all Japanese forces on Guadalcanal. An additional barge convoy brought 1,000 men of Kawaguchi”s brigade, under the command of Colonel Akinosuke Oka, to Kamimbo, west of the Lunga perimeter.
Battle of Edson Ridge
The Battle of Edson Ridge, also known as Bloody Ridge, is named after Colonel Merritt A. Edson, the officer who defended it with his Marines. Edson, the officer who defended it with his Marines. The battle lasted three days during which several Japanese assaults, sometimes supported by air raids from Rabaul, were repelled with heavy losses. The Japanese had between 600 and 850 killed or missing and 505 wounded while the American losses were limited to about 30 killed and 100 wounded.
On September 7, Kawaguchi unveiled his plan of attack designed to rout and destroy the enemy in the vicinity of the airfield on Guadalcanal Island. Kawaguchi”s plan of attack called for his forces, divided into three large units, to approach the Lunga perimeter by land for a surprise night attack. Oka”s forces were to attack the perimeter from the west, while Ichiki”s second echelon, renamed Kuma Battalion, was to attack from the east. The main assault was to be led by Kawaguchi”s 3,000-strong Central Corps in three battalions from the jungle south of the Lunga perimeter. By September 7, the bulk of the troops had already begun their approach march from Taivu toward Lunga Point along the coastal strip. About two hundred and fifty Japanese soldiers remained behind to protect the brigade”s supply base at Taivu.
Meanwhile, native scouts commanded by Martin Clemens, a coastwatch officer in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate Defense Forces and British district officer for Guadalcanal, passed information to the U.S. Marines about Japanese troops in Taivu near the village of Tasimboko. Edson was planning a raid against the Japanese troop concentration at Taivu. On September 8, after being transferred by boat to the vicinity of Taivu, Edson”s men captured the village of Tasimboko as the Japanese defenders retreated into the jungle. At Tasimboko, Edson”s troops discovered Kawaguchi”s main logistical depot, which included large stocks of food, ammunition, medical supplies and powerful shortwave radio transmitters. After destroying everything they could find except for some documents and equipment, which they took with them, the Marines returned to the Lunga perimeter. The piles of supplies and documents they had collected informed the Marines that as many as 3,000 Japanese troops were on the island, apparently planning an offensive.
Edson, along with Colonel Gerald C. Thomas, Vandegrift”s operations officer, correctly believed that the Japanese attack would be made from a 1,000-yard (914 m) long grassy coral ridge that ran north-south, parallel to the Lunga River and located south of Henderson Field. The ridge, known as Lunga Ridge, provided a natural approach route to the airfield. It also dominated the surrounding areas, including the Henderson runway itself. Finally, at that time it was virtually undefended. On 11 September, the 840 men of Edson”s battalion were deployed on and around the ridge.
On the night of 12 September, Kawaguchi”s 1st Battalion attacked the Raiders between the Lunga River and the Lunga Ridge, forcing a company of Marines to withdraw to higher ground before the Japanese offensive was halted at nightfall. The next night, Edson”s Raiders faced the entire 3,000-man Kawaguchi Brigade supported by an assortment of light artillery. The Japanese attack began just after dark with Kawaguchi”s 1st Battalion assaulting Edson”s right flank on the western side of the ridge. After breaking through the Marine defensive lines, the battalion”s assault was finally halted by the second echelon Marine units charged with defending the north side of the ridge.
Two companies of Kawaguchi”s 2nd Battalion assaulted the southern edge of the ridge and drove Edson”s troops back to Hill 123 further north on the central part of the ridge. Throughout the night, the Marines, supported by artillery, defeated wave after wave of Japanese frontal attacks, some of which ended in hand-to-hand combat. The few Japanese units that infiltrated over the ridge to the airfield area were also repulsed, as were attacks by units of the Kuma and Oka battalions on other points of the Lunga perimeter. On September 14, Kawaguchi ordered the withdrawal of the survivors of his wiped-out brigade, who then began a five-day march westward toward the Matanikau Valley to join Oka”s unit. In total, Kawaguchi”s forces suffered 850 killed and the Marines 31 killed and 103 wounded.
On September 15, Lieutenant General Hyakutake Haruyoshi learned of Kawaguchi”s defeat at Rabaul and relayed the news to Imperial Headquarters in Japan. In an emergency meeting, the command staffs of the Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy concluded that “Guadalcanal could become the decisive battle of the war. The consequences of the battle began to have a decisive impact on Japanese operations in other parts of the Pacific. Hyakutake realized that if he sent enough troops and equipment to defeat the Allied forces at Guadalcanal, he could not at the same time effectively support the major offensive that was underway on the Kokoda Trail in New Guinea. Hyakutake, with the consent of headquarters, ordered his troops in New Guinea, who had arrived 30 miles (48.3 km) from their objective at Port Moresby, to retreat until the Guadalcanal affair was resolved. From that point on, Hyakutake prepared to send more troops to Guadalcanal for another attempt to recapture Henderson Field.
Implementation of reinforcements
As the Japanese regrouped west of the Matanikau River, U.S. forces concentrated on consolidating and strengthening their Lunga perimeter defenses. On 14 September, Vandegrift moved another battalion, the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment (3
Between 14 and 27 September, there was a lull in the air war over Guadalcanal, with no Japanese air raids taking place due to bad weather. These few days were used by both sides to reinforce their air units. The Japanese delivered 85 fighters and bombers to their air units at Rabaul, while the Americans sent 23 fighters and attack aircraft to Henderson Field. By September 20, the Japanese had a total of 117 aircraft at Rabaul, while the Allies had 71 aircraft at Guadalcanal. The air war resumed on September 27 with a Japanese air raid that was countered by US Navy and Marine fighters based at Henderson Field.
The Japanese immediately began planning their new attempt to retake Henderson Field. The 3rd Battalion, 4th (Aoba) Infantry Regiment, had landed on 11 September at Kamimbo Bay on the far west side of Guadalcanal, but too late to join Kawaguchi”s attack. By the time preparations were made for the new offensive, this battalion had finally joined Oka”s forces near Matanikau. Several tours of destroyers from the “Tokyo Express” brought food and ammunition on September 14, 20, 21 and 24, as well as 280 men from the 1st Battalion of the Aoba Regiment to Kamimbo. Meanwhile, the Japanese 2nd Infantry Division and 38th Infantry Division were transported from the Dutch East Indies to Rabaul beginning on September 13. The Japanese planned to transfer a total of 17,500 men from these two divisions to Guadalcanal to take part in the next attack on the Lunga Perimeter scheduled for 20 October 1942.
First offensives outside the perimeter: operations along the Matanikau River
Vandegrift and his staff knew that Kawaguchi”s troops had retreated to an area west of the Matanikau and that numerous groups of Japanese stragglers were scattered throughout the area between the Lunga perimeter and the river. With reinforcements arriving on September 18, Vandegrift could finally consider a strategy other than purely defensive. He therefore decided to conduct a new series of small unit operations around the Matanikau Valley. The objective of these operations was to clear the eastern part of the Matanikau of scattered Japanese troops and to keep the main body of Japanese soldiers under pressure, preventing them from consolidating their positions so close to the main Marine defenses at Lunga Point.
The first Marine operation, an attack against Japanese forces west of the Matanikau River, conducted between 23 and 27 September by elements of three Marine battalions, was repulsed by Kawaguchi”s troops under the command of Akinosuke Oka. On 23 September the Marines began a push to establish defensive positions along the Matanikau River, west of the American position. The ground attack was combined with a small amphibious assault on the flank. However, Vandegrift soon realized that the Japanese forces were larger and better set up than he had estimated, thus repelling the American assault. In the course of the action, three companies of Marines were even surrounded by Japanese forces near Point Cruz (western Matanikau). They suffered heavy losses and escaped in extremis with the assistance of the destroyer USS Monssen and a landing craft armed with U. S. Coast Guard personnel. S. Coast Guard personnel.
In a second action between 6 and 9 October, a larger force of Marines successfully crossed the Matanikau River, attacked the newly landed Japanese forces of the 2nd Infantry Division under the command of Generals Masao Maruyama and Yumio Nasu, and inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese 4th Infantry Regiment. Better prepared with better intelligence, this attack, which cost the lives of about 700 Japanese soldiers for 65 American dead and 125 wounded, resulted in an expansion of the American perimeter to the west. This second offensive forced the Japanese to retreat from their positions east of the river and prevented Japanese preparations for the planned major offensive against the American defenses at Lunga.
Between October 9 and 11, the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, stormed two Japanese outposts about 30 miles (48.3 km) east of the Lunga perimeter at Gurabusu and Koilotumaria near Aloa Bay. This attack cost the lives of thirty-five Japanese against seventeen Marines and three U.S. Navy sailors on the American side.
Naval battle of Cape Esperance
Throughout the last week of September and the first week of October, tours of the Tokyo Express carried troops of the Japanese 2nd Infantry Division to Guadalcanal. The Imperial Japanese Navy pledged to support the army”s planned offensive, not only by moving troops and supplies to the island, but also by intensifying air attacks on Henderson Field and sending warships to bomb the airfield.
Meanwhile, Millard F. Harmon, commander of U.S. Army forces in the South Pacific, convinced Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley that the Marine units on Guadalcanal needed immediate reinforcement if the Allies were to defend the island against the next Japanese attack. Thus, on October 8, the 2,837 men of the 164th Infantry Regiment, Americal Division, boarded ships in New Caledonia for the trip to Guadalcanal, where arrival was scheduled for October 13. To protect the 164th IR transport convoy, Ghormley ordered Task Force 64, consisting of four cruisers and five destroyers under Rear Admiral Norman Scott, to escort the troop transports in order to intercept and fight any Japanese ship that approached Guadalcanal or threatened the convoy”s arrival.
The 8th Fleet staff at Mikawa scheduled a large and important Tokyo Express tour for the night of 11 October. Two floatplane transports and six destroyers were scheduled to carry 728 troops as well as artillery and ammunition to Guadalcanal. At the same time, but in a separate operation, three heavy cruisers and two destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Aritomo Gotō were tasked to bombard Henderson Field with special explosive shells in an effort to destroy the Cactus Air Force as well as the airfield infrastructure. Because the American warships at that time were tasked with interdicting all Tokyo Express deliveries to Guadalcanal, the Japanese did not expect any opposition from Allied surface naval forces that night.
Just before midnight, however, Scott”s warships detected Gotō”s forces on their radars near the entrance to the strait between the islands of Savo and Guadalcanal. Scott”s naval group found itself in position to bar the T to Gotō”s unsuspecting formation. Opening fire, the American ships sank a Japanese cruiser and destroyer and caused significant damage to another cruiser. Admiral Gotō was also mortally wounded, and the rest of the Japanese warships had to abandon the bombing mission and retreat. During the firefight, however, an American destroyer was sunk while a cruiser and another destroyer suffered heavy damage. In the process, the Japanese supply convoy successfully completed its mission to land at Guadalcanal and began its return journey undetected by Scott”s force. Later in the morning of October 12, however, four Japanese destroyers from the supply convoy returned to assist in the retreat of Gotō”s damaged ships. Two of these destroyers were sunk later in the day by Cactus Air Force planes that departed from Henderson Field. The U.S. Army convoy reached Guadalcanal as scheduled the next day and successfully delivered its cargo of materials and men.
Maritime bombing of Henderson Field
Despite the American victory at Cape Esperance, the Japanese continued their plans and preparations for the major offensive they had scheduled for later in October. Breaking with their usual practice of using only fast ships to transport men and supplies to the island, the Japanese decided to risk a single but massive departure with slower transport ships but with greater carrying capacity. On October 13, a convoy of six cargo ships accompanied by eight protection destroyers departed the Shortland Islands for Guadalcanal. The convoy carried 4,500 men from the 16th and 230th Infantry Regiments, some Marine troops, two batteries of heavy artillery and a company of battle tanks.
To protect the approaching convoys from Cactus Air Force attacks, Yamamoto sent two battlecruisers from the Truk Islands with the mission of bombing Henderson Field. At 0133 hours on 14 October, the Kongō and Haruna, escorted by a light cruiser and nine destroyers, reached Guadalcanal and opened fire on the airfield from a distance of 17,500 yards (16,002 m). Over the course of an hour and twenty-three minutes, the two battlecruisers fired 973 14-inch (355.6 mm) shells at the Lunga perimeter, most of which landed near and within the 2,400-yard (2,195 m) square of the airfield. Many of these rounds were fragmentation shells, specifically designed to destroy targets on land. The bombardment heavily damaged the two main runways, burned almost all the available aviation fuel, destroyed 48 of the 90 Cactus Air Force aircraft and killed 41 people, including six pilots. The Japanese naval group then immediately returned to Truk.
Despite the extensive damage, Henderson personnel were able to repair and get a runway operational within hours. At the same time, seventeen SBDs and twenty Wildcats from Espiritu Santo were quickly dispatched to Henderson, while U.S. Army and Marine transport planes began norias to bring in fuel from Espiritu Santo. Informed of the approach of a large Japanese reinforcement, the Americans desperately sought a way to hinder this convoy before it reached Guadalcanal. Using fuel siphoned from destroyed aircraft and a stockpile that had been hidden in the nearby jungle, the Cactus Air Force attacked the convoy twice on the 14th, but did no damage.
The Japanese convoy reached Tassafaronga on Guadalcanal at midnight on October 14 and began unloading. Throughout the day on October 15, a continuous stream of Cactus Air Force aircraft bombed and hit the convoy during the unloading maneuvers, successfully destroying three cargo ships. The rest of the convoy left that night, having unloaded all the troops and nearly two-thirds of the supplies and equipment. Several Japanese cruisers also bombed Henderson during the night of 14-15 October, destroying a few more aircraft, but failing to cause any significant damage to the airfield.
Battle for Henderson Field
Between October 1 and 17, the Japanese transferred 15,000 men to Guadalcanal, providing Hyakutake with a total of 20,000 men for his operation to retake Henderson Field from the Americans. Because of the loss of their positions on the eastern bank of the Matanikau River, the Japanese decided that an attack on the American defenses along the coast would be prohibitively expensive and difficult. Therefore, Hyakutake decided that the main axis of his attack would be from south of Henderson Field. His 2nd Division (augmented by troops from the 38th Division) under Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama, 7,000 strong and divided into three infantry regiments of three battalions each, was ordered to cross the jungle on foot and attack the American defenses from the south along the east bank of the Lunga River. The date of the attack was set for October 22, but was later changed to October 23. However, in order to create a diversion and protect the preparation of the main attack from the south, Hyakutake planned to launch an attack from the west of the perimeter along the coastal corridor, under the command of Major General Tadashi Sumiyoshi with five infantry battalions supported by heavy artillery (about 2,900 men). The Japanese estimated the American strength at that time at 10,000 men, when in reality it was already 23,000.
On October 12, a Japanese engineer company began opening a trail, called the “Maruyama Road,” from the Matanikau toward the southern edge of the U.S. perimeter at Lunga Point. The 15-mile (24 km) trail traversed some of the most difficult terrain on Guadalcanal, including several rivers and streams, deep, muddy ravines, steep ridges and dense tropical vegetation. Between October 16 and 18, the 2nd Division began its advance along the Maruyama Road.
On October 23, Maruyama”s forces were still struggling through the jungle to reach the American lines. In the evening, after learning that his forces were now to gain their attack positions, Hyakutake postponed the attack until Wednesday, October 24, at 7:00 p.m. The Americans remained completely unaware of the approach of Maruyama”s forces.
Sumiyoshi was informed by Hyakutake”s staff of the postponement of the offensive to October 24, but was unable to contact his troops to inform them. In the meantime, at dusk on 23 October, two battalions of the 4th Infantry Regiment and the nine tanks of the 1st Independent Tank Company launched their assault from the west on the U.S. Marines” defenses at the mouth of the Matanikau River. Marine artillery and infantry fire successfully repelled the attacks, destroying all the tanks and killing many Japanese soldiers while the Americans suffered only light casualties.
Finally, late in the day on October 24, Maruyama”s forces reached the American perimeter at Lunga. For two consecutive nights, they launched numerous unsuccessful frontal assaults against the positions defended by the men of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel “Chesty” Puller, and the 3rd Battalion, 164th Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hall. The Marine and U.S. Army units equipped with rifles, machine guns, mortars, artillery (including the use of ballistic shells), and 37mm anti-tank guns wreaked havoc on the Japanese ranks. A few small groups of Japanese broke through the American defenses, but they were all driven off and destroyed in the following days. Over 1,500 of Maruyama”s men were killed in the attacks, while the Americans lost 60 men. During those same days, Henderson Field”s aircraft defended the position against Japanese air and naval attacks, destroying 14 aircraft and sinking a light cruiser.
Further Japanese attacks along the Matanikau River on October 26 were also repulsed with heavy Japanese losses. Finally, on October 26 at 8:00 a.m., Hyakutake cancelled all further planned attacks and ordered his forces to retreat. About half of Maruyama”s survivors were ordered to withdraw to the upper Matanikau Valley while the 230th Infantry Regiment under Colonel Toshinari Shōji was sent to Koli Point, east of the Lunga perimeter. The lead elements of the 2nd Division reached the 17th Army headquarters in the Kokumbona area west of the Matanikau River on November 4, 1942. That same day, Shōji”s unit reached its destination and set up camp there. Decimated by battle deaths, casualties, malnutrition, and tropical diseases, the 2nd Division was unable to participate in further offensive actions and was confined to the role of a defensive force along the coast for the rest of the campaign. In total, the Japanese lost between 2,200 and 3,000 men in the fighting, while the Americans lost only about 80.
Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands
While Hyakutake”s troops were attacking the Lunga perimeter, Japanese aircraft carriers, accompanied by other major warships under the overall command of Isoroku Yamamoto, took up positions south of the Solomon Islands. From there, Japanese naval forces hoped to decisively engage and defeat any Allied (primarily American) naval forces, especially the air and sea groups tasked with responding to Hyakutake”s land offensive. Allied naval air forces in the area, now under the command of William Halsey, Jr. also hoped to meet Japanese naval forces in battle. Nimitz had replaced Ghormley with Halsey on October 18 after concluding that Ghormley”s vision had become too pessimistic and short-sighted to effectively command Allied forces in the South Pacific area.
The two enemy naval fleets clashed on the morning of 26 October, in what history will remember as the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. After several aerial clashes, the Allied surface ships were forced to retreat from the battle area with the loss of one aircraft carrier (Hornet) and another (Enterprise) heavily damaged. However, the Japanese naval air forces involved also withdrew due to heavy losses among the aircraft on board and significant damage to two carriers. Although seemingly a Japanese tactical victory in terms of the number of ships sunk and damaged, the Japanese loss of many experienced and irreplaceable aircrews ultimately proved to be a long-term strategic advantage for the Allies, whose air losses in the battle were relatively low. The Japanese carriers were not to play a significant role in the rest of the campaign.
November Ground Operations
To exploit the victory at Henderson Field, Vandegrift sent six Marine battalions, later joined by a US Army battalion, to conduct an offensive west of the Matanikau River. The operation, led by Merritt Edson, was aimed at capturing the position of Kokumbona, headquarters of the 17th Army west of Point Cruz. The defense of Point Cruz was the responsibility of the 4th Japanese Infantry Regiment, commanded by Nomasu Nakaguma. This regiment was seriously undermanned due to heavy losses from combat, tropical diseases and malnutrition.
The U.S. offensive began on November 1, 1942, and after some difficulty, succeeded in destroying the Japanese forces defending the Point Cruz position by November 3, including the second echelon units sent to reinforce Nakaguma”s regiment. However, at the same time, other American forces discovered newly landed Japanese troops in the vicinity of Koli Point east of the Lunga perimeter, with whom they engaged in combat. Faced with the need to counter this new threat, Vandegrift temporarily halted the Matanikau offensive on November 4, just as the Americans were about to break through the Japanese defenses and take Kokumbona. The offensive resulted in 71 American and 450 Japanese casualties.
At Koli Point, at dawn on November 3, five Japanese destroyers had indeed landed 300 men in support of Shōji and his units, which were then on their way to Koli Point following the battle for Henderson Field. Learning of the landing, Vandegrift sent a battalion of Marines under Herman H. Hanneken to intercept the Japanese at Koli. Shortly after landing, the Japanese engaged and drove Hanneken”s battalion back to the Lunga perimeter. In response, Vandegrift ordered Puller”s Marine battalion and two battalions of the 164th Infantry Regiment, accompanied by Hanneken”s battalion, to advance toward Koli Point to attack the Japanese forces there.
As the American troops began their movement, Shōji and his men reached Koli Point. Beginning on November 8, American troops attempted to surround Shōji and his men in Gavaga Creek near Koli Point. Meanwhile, Hyakutake ordered Shōji to abandon the positions at Koli and join the Japanese forces at Kokumbona in the Matanikau area. Exploiting a gap consisting of a swampy stream on the southern front of the American lines, Shōji and 2,000 to 3,000 of his men managed to escape into the jungle to the south between November 9 and 11. On November 12, the Americans stormed the position and killed the last remaining Japanese soldiers in the resistance pocket. The Americans counted the bodies of 450 to 475 dead Japanese in the Koli Point area and took most of the heavy weapons and supplies that Shōji must have left behind. American forces had 40 killed and 120 wounded in the operation.
On November 5, Vandegrift ordered Carlson and his commandos to move on foot from Aola and attack any element of Shōji”s forces that he could catch. With the rest of the companies in his battalion arriving a few days later, Carlson and his men set out on a 29-day patrol from Aola to the Lunga perimeter. Carlson”s commandos were to provide security for 500 Seabees who were working to build an airfield near Koli Point. Halsey, acting on Turner”s recommendation, had in fact approved this construction. The construction was finally abandoned at the end of November because of the unsuitable terrain.
During the patrol, the commandos engaged in several battles with Shōji”s retreating troops, killing almost 500 of them and counting only 16 killed in their ranks. In addition to the casualties suffered during the attacks by Carlson”s commandos, tropical diseases and lack of food caused many more losses to Shōji”s units. By the time they reached the Lunga River in mid-November, about halfway between Koli Point and the Matanikau, only 1,300 men of the main body of troops were still alive. By the time Shōji reached the 17th Army”s positions west of the Matanikau, only 700 to 800 survivors were still with him. Most of the unit”s survivors were later integrated into other Japanese units defending Mount Austen and the upper Matanikau River valley. Finally, also during the same period, the Tokyo Express tours of 5, 7, and 9 November brought in additional troops from the Japanese 38th Infantry Division, including most of the 228th Infantry Regiment. These fresh troops were quickly moved into the Point Cruz and Matanikau areas and successfully helped resist subsequent American attacks on November 10 and 18. The Americans and Japanese thus remained facing each other along a line just west of Point Cruz for the next six weeks.
Battle of Guadalcanal
After the defeat at Henderson Field, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) planned a new operation to retake the airfield in November 1942, but additional reinforcements were needed before it could be launched. The AIJ requested the assistance of Admiral Yamamoto, head of the Combined Fleet, to deliver the necessary reinforcements to the island as well as to provide Imperial Japanese Navy support for the upcoming offensive. Yamamoto provided eleven large transport ships to move the 7,000 men of the 38th Infantry Division, their ammunition, food and heavy equipment from Rabaul to Guadalcanal. It also provided a fleet of warships including two battlecruisers, the Hiei and the Kirishima. Both were equipped with special fragmentation shells, with which they were scheduled to bombard Henderson Field during the night of November 12-13 in order to destroy it and the aircraft stationed there. The aim was to allow the heavy and slow Japanese transport ships to reach Guadalcanal to safely unload the expected reinforcements the following day. The fleet of warships was commanded from the Hiei by Vice Admiral Hiroaki Abe.
In early November, Allied military intelligence obtained information about Japanese preparations for a new offensive. The Americans then took steps to prepare for this new confrontation. On 11 November, under the command of Admiral Turner of Task Force 67, they sent a large convoy of reinforcements and resupplies to Guadalcanal, carrying relief Marines, two infantry battalions of the US Army, ammunition and food. The transport ships were protected by two naval groups, commanded by Rear Admirals Daniel J. Callaghan and Norman Scott, and by aircraft from Henderson Field. The ships were attacked several times on 11 and 12 November by Japanese aircraft coming from Rabaul and passing through Buin Air Force Base on Bougainville, but the majority of the ships were able to proceed with unloading operations without serious damage.
American reconnaissance aircraft spotted the approach of Vice Admiral Abe”s bombing unit and passed the warning to the Allied command. Turner then detached all usable fighting ships, under Callaghan”s command, to protect the landed troops from the Japanese naval attack and the landing of troops. Callaghan”s naval group included two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and eight destroyers. At the same time, he ordered the support ships at Guadalcanal to sail in the early evening of 12 November.
At about 1:30 a.m. on 13 November, Callaghan”s naval force intercepted Abe”s bombardment group between Guadalcanal and Savo Island. In addition to the two battlecruisers, Abe”s naval force included a light cruiser and eleven destroyers. In total darkness, the two naval forces intermingled before opening fire at unusually short ranges. In the ensuing melee, Abe”s warships sank or severely damaged all but one cruiser and one destroyer. In addition, Callaghan and Scott were killed. Two Japanese destroyers were sunk and another, as well as the Hiei, were heavily damaged. Although he had defeated Callaghan”s naval force, Hiroaki Abe ordered his battleships to withdraw without bombing Henderson Field. The Hiei sank later that day following repeated attacks by CAF aircraft and the American carrier Enterprise. Because of Hiroaki Abe”s failure to neutralize Henderson Field, Yamamoto ordered the troop transport convoy, commanded by Raizo Tanaka located near the Shortland Islands, to wait another day before continuing to Guadalcanal. He also ordered Nobutake Kondo to assemble another naval bombardment force using warships from Truk Base and the Abe Naval Group to conduct an attack on Henderson Field on 15 November.
Meanwhile, at about 0200 hours on 14 November, a naval group of cruisers and destroyers under Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa from Rabaul, successfully bombed Henderson Field without any opposition. This caused some damage, but failed to disable the airfield or its aircraft. As Mikawa”s forces withdrew to Rabaul, Tanaka”s transport convoy, confident that the airfield was now destroyed or at least severely damaged, began its descent along the narrow channel leading to Guadalcanal. Throughout the day on 14 November, aircraft from the airfield and the Enterprise attacked Mikawa and Tanaka, sinking one of the heavy cruisers and seven transport ships. The bulk of the troops on the transports were rescued by Tanaka”s destroyer escorts, which returned to the Shortlands. After nightfall, Tanaka and the four remaining transports continued on to Guadalcanal as Kondo”s forces approached Lunga Point to bomb the air strip.
In order to intercept Kondo”s naval group, Halsey, who lacked ships in fighting condition, detached two battleships, the battleships Washington and South Dakota, and four destroyers from the Enterprise carrier battle group. The American force, under the command of Willis A. Lee aboard the Washington, reached the front of the line. Lee aboard the Washington, reached Guadalcanal and Savo Island just before midnight on 14 November, shortly before the arrival of the Kondo bombardment force. This force consisted of the Kirishima and two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and nine destroyers. After the two forces made contact, Kondo”s ships quickly sank three American destroyers and severely damaged the fourth. The Japanese ships then sighted the South Dakota and opened fire on it, successfully damaging it. While Kondo”s ships were concentrating on the latter, the Washington managed to approach the Japanese ships undetected and opened fire on the Kirishima, hitting her several times and causing fatal damage. After unsuccessfully chasing the Washington toward the Russell Islands, Kondo ordered his ships to withdraw without bombing Henderson Field. One of the Japanese destroyers was also sunk during the engagement.
As Kondo”s ships withdrew, the four Japanese transports ran aground near Tassafaronga on Guadalcanal at 0400 and quickly began to unload. At 0555 hours, U.S. artillery and aircraft began to attack the beached transports, destroying all four transports with most of the supplies they contained. Only 2,000 to 3,000 army personnel made it ashore. Having failed to deliver most of the supplies and troops, the Japanese were finally forced to cancel their planned November offensive. In fact, the outcome of this battle was a significant strategic victory for the Allies and marked the beginning of the end of Japanese attempts to retake the airfield.
On November 26, Japanese Lieutenant General Hitoshi Imamura took command of the 8th Area Army at Rabaul. This new command included the 17th Hyakutake Army, and the 18th Japanese Army in New Guinea. One of Imamura”s first priorities upon assuming this command was the continuation of attempts to retake Guadalcanal Airfield. The Allied offensive at Buna, New Guinea, however, changed priorities. Considering the Allied attempts a far greater threat to Rabaul, Imamura postponed further efforts to strengthen Guadalcanal to concentrate on the situation in New Guinea.
Naval battle of Tassafaronga
The Japanese continued to have problems getting sufficient supplies to their troops on Guadalcanal. Attempts to use only submarines in the last two weeks of November failed to address these problems. An attempt to establish bases in the central Solomon Islands to move barge convoys to Guadalcanal also failed because of destructive Allied air attacks. On November 26, the 17th Army notified Imamura that it faced a critical food shortage: some units on the front line were not resupplied for six successive days, and even rations for troops on the rear of the front were reduced to one-third. The critical situation forced the Japanese to revert to using destroyers to deliver needed supplies. Eighth Fleet personnel devised a plan to help reduce the exposure of the destroyers delivering supplies to Guadalcanal. Large barrels of oil and fuel were cleaned and filled with medical supplies and food, with enough air to keep them buoyant, and strung together on ropes. When the destroyers reached Guadalcanal they would make a sharp turn and the barrels would be dropped and a swimmer or boat from shore could then pick up the floating end of the rope and carry it back to the beach, where the soldiers could then haul in these supplies.
The Guadalcanal reinforcement unit of the 8th Fleet (the Tokyo Express), commanded at that time by Raizo Tanaka, was tasked by Mikawa to make the first five runs to Tassafaronga using the barrel method on the night of 30 November. Tanaka”s naval unit was organized around eight destroyers, six of which were assigned to carry 200 to 240 barrels of supplies each. Informed of the Japanese supply attempt by intelligence sources, Halsey ordered Task Force 67, consisting of four cruisers and four destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright, to intercept Tanaka”s naval force and keep it away from Guadalcanal. Two additional destroyers joined Wright”s naval group from Espiritu Santo during the day on November 30,.
At 10:40 p.m. on 30 November, Tanaka”s forces arrived off Guadalcanal and prepared to unload the supply barrels. Meanwhile, Wright”s warships approached through Ironbottom Sound but from the opposite direction. Wright”s group detected Tanaka”s forces on radar and the destroyer commander requested permission to open fire with torpedoes. Wright waited four minutes before giving permission, allowing Tanaka to escape an optimal firing pattern. All American torpedoes missed their targets. At the same time, Wright”s cruisers opened fire, quickly hitting and destroying one of the Japanese escort destroyers. The rest of Tanaka”s ships abandoned the delivery mission, increased speed and fired a total of 44 torpedoes at Wright”s cruisers. The Japanese torpedoes hit and sank the American cruiser Northampton and severely damaged the cruisers Minneapolis, New Orleans, and Pensacola. Tanaka”s remaining destroyers escaped without damage, but failed to deliver supplies to the troops stranded on Guadacanal.
By December 7, 1942, Hyakutake”s troops were losing about 50 men a day to malnutrition, disease, and Allied ground and air attacks. Further attempts by Tanaka”s destroyer group on December 3, 7 and 11 to deliver supplies failed to alleviate the crisis, and one of Tanaka”s destroyers was sunk by a torpedo launched from an American PT boat.
Japanese decision to retreat
On 12 December 1942, the Imperial Navy proposed that Guadalcanal be abandoned. At the same time, several army staff officers at Imperial Headquarters also suggested that further efforts to retake Guadalcanal would be impossible. A delegation led by Imperial Japanese Army Colonel Joichiro Sanada, chief of the operations section of Imperial Headquarters, visited Rabaul on 19 December and consulted with Imamura and his staff. When the delegation returned to Tokyo, Sanada recommended abandoning Guadalcanal. The principal chiefs of Imperial Headquarters approved Sanada”s recommendation on 26 December and ordered their staffs to develop plans for a retreat from Guadalcanal, the establishment of a new line of defense in the central portion of the Solomon Islands, and a shift of priorities and resources to the New Guinea campaign.
On 28 December, General Hajime Sugiyama and Admiral Osami Nagano personally informed Emperor Hirohito of the decision to retreat from Guadalcanal. On December 31, the emperor formally approved the decision. The Japanese secretly began preparations for their evacuation, called Operation Ke, which was to begin in the latter part of January 1943.
Battle of Mount Austen, Galloping Horse and Seahorse
In December, the 1st Marine Division, exhausted by the fighting of the previous months, was withdrawn from the front line to recuperate, and gradually replaced during the following month by the XIV Corps which took over the operations on the island. This corps was composed of the 2nd Marine Division, the 25th Infantry Division and the Americal Division of the US Army. Major General Alexander Patch of the US Army replaced Vandegrift as commander of the Allied forces on Guadalcanal, which by January totaled more than 50,000 men. The infantry regiments of the Americal Division were National Guard units. The 164th was from North Dakota, the 182nd from Massachusetts and the 132nd from Illinois. The 147th was formerly part of the 37th Infantry Division. While at Guadalcanal, the 1st Marine Division suffered 650 dead, 31 missing, 1,278 wounded, and 8,580 who contracted some type of disease, primarily malaria. The 2nd Marine Regiment had arrived at Guadalcanal with most of the 1st Marine Division, but remained behind to join its parent unit, the 2nd Marine Division. The 35th Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, arrived at Guadalcanal on 17 December, the 27th Regiment on 1 January, and the 161st Regiment on 4 January. Headquarters units of the 2nd Marine Division, the 6th Marine Regiment, and various support and heavy weapons units also arrived on January 4 and 6. Major General John Marston, commander of the 2nd Marine Division, remained in New Zealand because he was more senior in rank than Patch. Brigadier General Alphonse De Carre commanded the 2nd Marine Division on Guadalcanal. The total number of Marines on Guadalcanal and Tulagi on 6 January 1943 was 18,383.
On December 18, Allied forces (mostly American) began attacking Japanese positions on Mount Austen. A strong Japanese fortified position, called Gifu, resisted the attacks to the point that the Americans were forced to temporarily stop their offensive on January 4, 1943.
The Allies resumed their offensive on January 10, again attacking the Japanese on Mount Austen and the two nearby ridges known as Seahorse and Galloping Horse. After some difficulty, the Allies took all three of the field movements by January 23. At the same time, the Marines advanced along the northern coast of the island, making significant gains. The Americans lost 250 men in the operation, while the Japanese suffered 3,000 casualties, or about 12 to 1 in favor of the Americans.
Evacuation Ke and Battle of Rennell Island
On January 14, a Tokyo Express raid landed the equivalent of a battalion of soldiers to act as a rear guard for the Ke evacuation operation. A staff officer from Rabaul accompanied the troops to notify Hyakutake of the official decision to abandon the island. At the same time, Japanese ships and aircraft moved into position around the area of Rabaul and Bougainville in order to execute the withdrawal operation. Allied intelligence detected the Japanese movements, but misinterpreted them as another attempt to retake Henderson Field and Guadalcanal.
Patch, wary of what he thought was an imminent Japanese offensive, committed only a relatively small portion of troops to continue the slow offensive against Hyakutake”s forces. On 29 January, Halsey, acting on the same intelligence, sent a resupply convoy protected by a group of cruisers to Guadalcanal. Spotting the naval cruiser group, Japanese torpedo bombers attacked this fleet that same evening and severely damaged the American cruiser Chicago. The next day, more torpedo bombers attacked and sank it. Halsey ordered the remnants of the naval group to return to its base and the rest of his naval forces to take up positions in the Coral Sea south of Guadalcanal, in order to be ready to counter what was perceived as a new Japanese offensive.
Meanwhile, the Japanese 17th Army withdrew to the west coast of Guadalcanal while rearguard units contained the American offensive. During the night of February 1, 20 destroyers of the 8th Mikawa Fleet, under the command of Shintarō Hashimoto managed to successfully extract 4,935 soldiers, mostly from the 38th Division, from the island. The Japanese and Americans each lost a destroyer to air attacks related to this evacuation mission.
On the nights of February 4 and 7, Hashimoto and his destroyers completed the evacuation of most of the remaining Japanese troops. Except for a few air attacks, the Allied forces, still anticipating a major Japanese offensive, made no attempt to interdict Hashimoto”s evacuation convoys. In total, the Japanese successfully evacuated 10,652 men from Guadalcanal. On 9 February, Patch realized that the Japanese had left and declared Guadalcanal safe for Allied forces, thus ending the campaign.
After the departure of the Japanese, Guadalcanal and Tulagi were transformed into major bases to support the progression of the Allied forces in the Solomon Islands chain. In addition to Henderson Field, two fighter strips were built at Lunga Point and a bomber airfield at Koli Point. Large-scale naval port logistics facilities were established at Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Florida. The anchorage around Tulagi became an important forward base for Allied warships and transport ships supporting the Solomon Islands campaign. Several major land units were stationed in large camps and barracks on Guadalcanal before their subsequent deployment to the Solomons.
The Guadalcanal campaign cost the Japanese between 25,000 and 28,580 men, including about 4,300 sailors, according to different sources, although precise figures are difficult to evaluate. Operation Ke allowed the evacuation of an estimated 9,100 to 13,000 men, again according to different sources. American losses are better known and amount to about 1,600 on the ground, including a majority of Marines, and about 5,000 sailors during the naval battles around the island. The belligerents suffered roughly equivalent losses in aircraft and warships, with the Japanese unable to replace their losses, particularly in land-based naval airmen, after those of their carrier comrades at Midway. At the end of the battle, the Americans were left with only one carrier, the Enterprise, and the British provided the aircraft carrier Victorious, which operated with the US Navy but did not take part in any major action. The following months were difficult for the Allies, especially the Americans, until their industrial power reached a level of production that allowed them to pour a profusion of men and equipment into theaters of operation. The Japanese, on the other hand, lacked this equipment. The capture of Guadalcanal by the Allies was the first breach in the perimeter that Japan had established in the first six months of the war, and the proof that the Allies now had the initiative.
After the Battle of Guadalcanal, the Japanese were clearly on the defensive in the Pacific. Their determination to reinforce Guadalcanal had weakened efforts in other theaters, contributing to the success of an Australian and American counteroffensive in New Guinea, which culminated in the capture of the key bases at Buna and Gona in early 1943. The Allies had thus gained a strategic initiative that they would not relinquish thereafter. In June, they launched Operation Cartwheel, which, after modification in August 1943, formalized the strategy of isolating Rabaul and cutting off the sea lines of communication. The subsequent neutralization of Rabaul and the Allied forces concentrated there facilitated the Southwest Pacific campaign under General Douglas MacArthur and the island hopping campaign in the Central Pacific under Admiral Chester Nimitz, both of which successfully advanced toward Japan. The remnants of Japanese defenses in the South Pacific area were subsequently destroyed or bypassed by Allied forces as the war moved toward its conclusion.
The Battle of Guadalcanal was one of the first extended campaigns in the Pacific, paralleling the competing but related Solomon Islands campaign. Both campaigns were battles that severely tested the logistical capabilities of the fighting nations involved. At the beginning of the campaign, the Americans were limited by supply difficulties due to the numerous losses of cruisers and aircraft carriers, which had not yet been compensated for by the important shipbuilding programs. This need prompted the development of an effective airlift capability for the first time. Failing to gain air superiority, Japan had to resort to barges, destroyers and submarines to deliver reinforcements, with very uneven results.
The U.S. Navy suffered such high casualties during the campaign that it refused to officially publish overall casualty figures for several years. However, as the campaign continued and the American public perceived the critical situation at Guadalcanal and the heroism of the American forces, more assets were sent to the area. This was a big problem for Japan, whose military-industrial complex proved unable to keep up with the production intensity of American industry. Thus, the Japanese lost irreplaceable units while American units were quickly replaced and even reinforced.
The Guadalcanal campaign was costly for Japan from a strategic point of view as well as in terms of material and human losses. Approximately 25,000 experienced combatants were killed during the campaign. The drain on resources directly contributed to Japan”s failure to achieve its objective in the New Guinea campaign. The Japanese state also lost control of the southern Solomon Islands and thus the ability to interdict Allied shipping to Australia. The main Japanese base at Rabaul was now directly threatened by Allied air power. More importantly, limited land, air and naval forces were lost forever in the Guadalcanal jungle and surrounding seas. The Japanese were never able to replace the aircraft and ships destroyed and sunk in the campaign as quickly as the Allies, nor the highly experienced veteran crews, especially the naval air crews.
The Allied victory at the Battle of Midway allowed the United States to restore naval parity in the Pacific. However, this fact alone did not change the course of the war. It was only after the Allied victories at Guadalcanal and New Guinea that the Japanese offensive thrust ended and the strategic initiative shifted to the Allies, permanently as it turned out. The Guadalcanal campaign put an end to all Japanese expansion attempts and placed the Allies in a clear position of supremacy. This victory was the first link in a long chain of successes that eventually led to the surrender of Japan and the occupation of the Japanese islands.
The “Europe First” policy adopted by the United States had initially allowed for only defensive actions in the face of Japanese expansion, in order to concentrate resources on defeating Germany. However, Admiral King”s argument for the invasion of Guadalcanal, as well as its successful implementation, convinced Franklin Delano Roosevelt that the Pacific theater could just as easily be approached offensively without questioning the priority given to Europe. By the end of 1942, it was clear that Japan had lost the Guadalcanal campaign. It was a serious blow to Japan”s strategic plans for the defense of its empire and an unexpected victory for the Americans
The psychological victory was probably just as important as the military victory. On equal terms, the Allies had defeated Japan”s best ground, air and naval forces. After Guadalcanal, Allied soldiers viewed the Japanese armies with far less fear and admiration than before. With the arrival of new reinforcements in early 1943, the Allies” chances of victory in the Pacific War increased tenfold.
Beyond Kawaguchi, several Japanese political and military officials, including Naoki Hoshino, Osami Nagano, and Torashirō Kawabe, asserted shortly after the war that Guadalcanal was the turning point in the conflict. “As far as the turning point is concerned, the moment when positive action ceased or even became negative, was, I believe, at Guadalcanal.”
: document used as a source for the writing of this article.