The Battle of Guadalcanal

The battle of the Solomon island known as Guadalcanal, which started in August 1942, began the first U.S. offensive of the war in the Pacific. It would prove to be a vicious battle, with heavy losses on both sides.

The invasion, code-named Operation Watchtower, began on August 7 with marines going ashore at Florida and Tulagi Islands, located just north of Guadalcanal, and nearby Tanambogo and Gavuru Islands. Japanese opposition on these secondary islands was much stronger than what the marines landing on Guadalcanal itself faced. It was later learned that the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal had been taken by surprise because poor weather kept their surveillance planes on the ground.

Figure 6-5 U.S. Marine Raiders in front of a Japanese dugout on Cape Totkina on Bougainville, Solomon Islands, which they helped to take in January 1944.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives (80-G-205686)

It would take an entire day for the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal to realize they were being invaded. During that time, more than 11,000 marines stepped ashore, in addition to the 6,800 who landed on the other islands. The Japanese finally reacted with a hasty air attack out of Rabaul, which inflicted little damage on the U.S. forces.

The goal of the Guadalcanal invasion was the nearly finished Japanese airfield there, an important element in Japan's planned invasion of New Guinea. The Japanese, outgunned and outmanned, quickly withdrew from the unfinished airfield as the marines approached, and the area was secured and renamed Henderson Field, in honor of Major Lofton Henderson, a marine pilot killed in the Battle of Midway.

Japan Fights Back

However, the Japanese were not about to give up Guadalcanal without a fight. Using barges and transports from Cape Esperance, they were able to quickly unload a considerable armed force. Japanese military leaders then turned their attention to U.S. naval forces in the area, engaging them in a number of battles that would play an important role in whether the marines would be able to take and control Guadalcanal.

The first Medal of Honor ever awarded to a marine went to Sergeant John Basilone. During the Battle of Guadalcanal, Basilone killed so many Japanese in one firefight that he had to send out fellow marines to clear his field of fire. The recommendation for Basilone's medal said he had contributed “materially to the defeat and virtually the annihilation of a Japanese regiment.”

The Japanese won a decisive naval victory off Savo Island, sinking four Allied cruisers while experiencing minimal damage themselves. The victory allowed Japan to pour reinforcements into Guadalcanal, but Japanese military leaders grossly underestimated the number of marines on the island, and the first small detachment sent to the beach was quickly eliminated. The next wave of Japanese reinforcements was considerably larger, numbering nearly 1,500 men in five protected transports. However, the U.S. naval victory in the battle of the eastern Solomons helped destroy most of the invading force, and those who did make it ashore did so without heavy weapons.

It became increasingly difficult to bring supplies to the entrenched marines, and food, water, and other necessities quickly became scarce. Reinforcements arrived before the situation turned critical. The Japanese also received reinforcements from ships, almost always at night, in a relay that came to be known as the Tokyo Express. However, the added forces were never enough to regain control of the island.

Japan's Final Push Fails

The largest reinforcement effort by the Japanese occurred in mid-November, when an attempt was made to land 10,000 men. However, no matter what the Japanese tried, they couldn't establish a strong foothold on Guadalcanal, and by December a complete evacuation was considered. The order was approved by Emperor Hirohito (since Japanese forces were loath to retreat lest they lose face before their emperor), but the actual evacuation didn't take place until February 1943. So secretive had the Japanese been about the withdrawal that the marines didn't even realize they'd abandoned the island until they found empty boats and abandoned supplies on the beaches of Cape Esperance.

Figure 6-6 U.S. Marines with scouting dogs on the Solomon Islands, circa November 1943.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives (127-GR-84-68407)

The Battle of Guadalcanal was a costly defeat for Japan. More than 25,000 Japanese soldiers lost their lives (nearly 9,000 from starvation and disease) both defending and then trying to wrest the island from the marines. U.S. losses totaled 1,500 dead and 4,800 wounded.

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