The Battle of Guadalcanal was one of the most important battles of World War II. The assault on the Japanese-occupied island of Guadalcanal by the Allied navies and 16,000 United States troops on 7 August 1942, was the first offensive by US land forces in the Pacific Campaign. Additional amphibious attacks simultaneously assaulted the islands of Florida, Tulagi, Gavutu and Tanambogo.
Guadalcanal is situated in the middle of the long Solomon Islands chain, north-east of Australia. The location of the Solomons made them a key to Japanese plans for cutting off shipping between the US and Australia. Japan held a major base on the northern end of the chain, at Rabaul, but the Solomons are so long that aircraft from Rabaul could not patrol the entirety of the island chain.
The Imperial Japanese Navy intended to turn the Solomons into a major strategic base, and in 1942 started a program of occupying islands all along the chain and building airbases for land-based patrol bombers. Guadalcanal was to be the major base in the middle of the chain, just within ferry range of Rabaul. If this had succeeded, Allied shipping would have been forced to take long detours to the south.
The Allies, aware of the Japanese plans, decided that Guadalcanal would serve just as well as a base for operations against Rabaul and the US, Australian and New Zealand navies formed an invasion fleet.
On August 7, 1942, the 1st Marine Division performed an amphibious landing east of the Tenaru River. Initially, only unarmed Japanese construction and support personnel occupied Guadalcanal itself, allowing the Americans to come ashore almost unhindered. A nearby muddy airstrip was captured and renamed to Henderson Field.
In response to the invasion, Japanese reinforcements were dispatched to the island from Rabaul to destroy the Americans (Operation Ka-Go). The Japanese build-up would be under the command of the Japanese 17th Army, led by Lieutenant-General Hyakutake Haruyoshi.
Operations on Guadalcanal, August-November 1943
The first significant battle occurred at the Tenaru River on August 20th when a battalion-sized force of Japanese named the Ichiki Detachment attacked the Marines across the river sand bars. The attackers were killed almost to the last man. The destruction was so stunning that the Japanese commander, Kiyonao Ichiki, committed seppuku shortly afterwards.
At this time the first American aircraft began operating from Henderson Field, dubbed "an unsinkable aircraft carrier". As "Cactus" was the Allied code-name for the island, they quickly became known as the "Cactus Air Force". The aviators provided air cover for the island and played a significant role in actions against the Japanese Navy. Much of the land combat to follow hinged on control of this strategic airfield.
The following month, 6,000 Japanese troops mounted a night assault from the south with the goal of taking back the airfield. The "Battle of Edson's Ridge" began on September 11th and continued until the 14th before the attack was finally beaten back by the Marines.
On September 23rd the Marines began a drive to establish defensive positions along the Mantanikau River. A land attack was combined with a small amphibious landing on the flank, but the operation was repulsed by the Japanese.
A lull in the fighting occurred as the Japanese prepared for a new attack. The Japanese navy shelled the airfield on October 13th and 14th in an attempt to suppress the aircraft operating from the base. The airfield suffered heavy damage, but was returned to service. Finally on October 23, with the addition of more troops, the Japanese made another attempt to capture Henderson Field from the south of the salient. The newly arrived US 164th Army Infantry Regiment and 1st battalion 7th Marines defended this position, and after a determined battle the attack was finally repulsed after committing the U.S. reserves.
In November the Japanese sent reinforcements in the form of the 38th Infantry Division. In the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, however, the transports carrying this reinforcement were badly damaged and the division was reduced to the strength of a regiment. Through November offensive actions were continued by the American forces in an attempt to push the perimeter out beyond artillery range of the airfield. The Mantanikau River area was finally cleared after overcoming strong Japanese resistance.
By December the weary 1st Marine Division was withdrawn for recuperation, and over the course of the next month the U.S. XIV Corps took over operations on the island. This Corps consisted of the 2nd Marine Division, the 25th Infantry Division, and the Americal Division.
Japanese strength on the island was on the wane due to attrition and shortages of supplies brought on by the build-up of Allied ships and aircraft. The U.S. XIV Corps began offensive operations on January 10th, 1943, and by February 8th they had forced the remaining Japanese to be evacuated from Cape Esperance. American authorities declared Guadalcanal secure on 9 February, 1943, after more than six months of combat.
The near parity of the forces involved, both on land and at sea meant that combat was especially intense and characterized by extreme desperation. Disease also played a significant role in the ground campaign, as both the Japanese and American forces were weakened by malaria in the insect-infested jungles. Both sides had difficulty maintaining their supplies to the island, and in some cases Japanese army units suffered from starvation.
See also Operation Ke, and Operation Shoestring.
These convoys and the land battle on Guadalcanal became magnets for naval activity on both sides. This resulted in seven naval battles:
Due to the significant number of vessels sunk in the approaches to Guadalcanal island, the stretch of water between Guadalcanal and Florida Island to the north became known as Ironbottom Sound. These naval battles did not produce a victor, but the Japanese were unable to replace their losses.
Aftermath & historical significance
Although the Battle of Midway is widely considered to be the turning point in the Pacific theater, it was really only a naval defeat. Allied land forces defeated Japanese marines at the Battle of Milne Bay, rather than the Imperial Japanese Army. When US soldiers finally captured Guadalcanal, it was the first step in a long string of invasions that would eventually lead to the Japanese islands and victory. The capture of the island was the first breach of the perimeter that Japan had established during the first six months of the Pacific War. Because of this, Guadalcanal is considered the turning point for the Imperial Japanese Army.
- Guadalcanal Order of Battle
- Flying Leathernecks (movie)
- The Thin Red Line (novel and movie)
- Guadalcanal Diary (memoir) by Richard Tregaskis, ISBN: 0-679-64023-1