Guadalcanal 2.0

In Return to Paradise James Michener wrote, “In the South Pacific there is an island, dark and brooding.  It is not large as islands go, nor yet so small as to be forgotten when one has seen it.”           

The island was Guadalcanal.           

Nine sweltering degrees above the equator, the 90-mile-long island dominated the Solomons, 600 miles east of New Guinea.  With 7,500-foot mountains among its 2,000 square miles, “the Canal” featured beaches, rivers, and a decent harbor at adjacent Tulagi.

Michener’s brooding isle occupied the strategic focus of the United States and Japan for six sanguinary months in 1942-43.  On July 4, 1942, an American reconnaissance plane noted the Japanese building a bomber-capable airfield on Guadalcanal.  The threat was implicit: with long-range aircraft, Japan could interdict Allied sea lanes to Australia and New Zealand. 

The timing was providential.  In June the U.S. Navy had blunted Japan’s six-month string of victories in the climactic Battle of Midway, affording a chance to shift from the defense. Commanding Japan’s Combined Fleet was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who had led the Pearl Harbor and Midway operations. 

The Joint Chiefs in Washington seized the opportunity and authorized Operation Watchtower, America’s first offensive of the war.  The First Marine Division splashed ashore at Guadalcanal (code name Cactus) and nearby Tulagi on August 7, two months to the day after Midway.

America was blessed with experienced, competent leaders.  Major General Archer Vandegrift commanded the First Division, including subordinates such as Merritt “Red Mike” Edson and Louis “Chesty” Puller.  All had learned the brush fighting trade from the Central American “banana wars.”

The Japanese Army was tough and capable, but China was poor preparation for professionally led Marines.  Time and again Vandegrift’s leathernecks gave better than they got.

Not so at sea.  In the first clash between the U.S. and Imperial navies around the monolithic Savo Island on the night of August 8-9, Tokyo’s practiced torpedo men sank four Allied cruisers without loss.  

From Rabaul, New Britain, the Japanese Navy’s world-class bombers and fighters routinely flew 1,200-mile round trips to Guadalcanal -- an astonishing feat.  The obvious answer was to get U.S. planes on the island, and the first Marine squadrons landed on August 20, “plankowners” in what became the Cactus Air Force.  Marine, Navy, and Army squadrons operated from Henderson Field (named for a Marine hero of Midway) plus two other airstrips in the coming weeks.  Fliers and mechanics said, “Cactus was the only place you could stand up to your knees in mud and get dust in your eyes.”

The late Vice Admiral David Richardson, a Guadalcanal fighter pilot, spoke for many.  “I learned that often how much courage a man has depends on how much food and sleep he’s had in the last 72 hours.”

Thus began a symbiotic relationship among riflemen, airmen, and sailors.  Control of the sea and sky frequently changed hands by day and night, and the Japanese perfected the nocturnal “Tokyo express” delivering troops and supplies by ship, then scurrying back north by day.  The Americans relied on coastwatchers -- mostly courageous Australian planters and administrators -- to radio warnings about Japanese ships and planes.  “Thirty bombers headed yours” became a watchword.

The Americans were strapped for everything; Operation Watchtower became “Operation Shoestring.”  But the defenders held on.  Guadalcanal became a strategic teeter-totter that summer and fall, the balance tipping in either direction.  In Hawaii the Pacific Fleet’s Admiral Chester Nimitz decided to change horses in Pacific midstream, replacing cautious Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley with an Annapolis football teammate, William F. Halsey.  In his splashy memoir “Bull” Halsey exclaimed, “This was the hottest potato they ever handed me.”  But on the eve of the campaign’s second carrier battle, he messaged his command, “Strike, repeat strike.”

The Battle of Santa Cruz on October 27 represented a Japanese tactical victory.  USS Hornet, which had launched the Doolittle Raiders against Japan in April, was lost.  But Yamamoto’s elite naval aviation arm sustained grievous personnel losses -- even more than at Midway.  It was a long-term deficit that could not be regained.

Japanese battleships and cruisers pasted the Americans that month, concentrating on Henderson Field.  At dawn one morning the Cactus Air Force had one dive bomber operational.  But the aviators clung to their battered nest.

On the night of November 12-13, Rear Admirals Norman Scott and Daniel Callaghan led 13 U.S. ships against 14 Japanese plus transports intent on landing troops.  Scott and Callaghan were killed in the 40-minute nocturnal brawl.  Between them, they lost six warships to three Japanese, including the battleship Hiei which succumbed to Navy and Marine aircraft after daylight.             

One of the lesser-known heroes of the campaign was Rear Admiral Willis Lee.  A brilliant analyst, he was a big-ship gunfighter in search of a gunfight, and he found it the night of November 14-15.  Leading the battleships USS Washington and South Dakota, he tackled a superior enemy force and blasted the Japanese Kirishima into sinking rubble.  “SoDak” lost power during the 30-minute slugfest, leaving Washington and her four destroyers to handle things.  Lee lost three “small boys” but prevented the Marines from sustaining another punishing bombardment, and proved his mastery of radar.

At length, the Japanese recognized the inevitable and began a well-conducted evacuation in early February 1943.  Richard B. Frank, the author of the definitive study, concluded that Japan lost 30,000 imperial warriors to all causes on and around “Starvation Island.”  Meanwhile, victory cost more than 7,000 Allied personnel.  Along the way, Guadalcanal produced twenty Medals of Honor -- ten Marine, six Navy, and four Army.

The U.S. and Japan both lost more than 600 aircraft in the campaign.  Twenty-nine American ships were sunk and thirty-one Japanese (plus six submarines) in four surface battles plus two aircraft carrier duels and associated operations.

Admiral Yamamoto did not long survive.  On April 18, 1943 -- the anniversary of the Doolittle Raid -- his plane was downed by Guadalcanal-based P-38 Lightnings.  It was the result of superb intelligence and exquisite timing over a 600-mile dogleg route to avoid detection.

Halsey’s command raised its sights thereafter.  Allied landings on Bougainville in November put more land-based aircraft within range of the Japanese fleet base at Rabaul, New Britain.  Though Allied squadrons began flying from Bougainville before year-end, the aerial siege of Rabaul continued until VJ Day.  Australian troops were heavily committed to ground actions on Bougainville during the last ten months of hostilities.          

Today, though remaining associated with the British Commonwealth, the Solomons are an independent nation of six major islands and hundreds of lesser ones.  The nation eventually achieved independence in the 1970s but fell into decades of instability and violence despite international peacekeeping efforts.  Then in March of this year, the Solomons signed a memorandum with China leading to likely military and naval basing. 

Beijing is spreading a wide trident’s net.  Strategically-located Kiribati, retaining ties to the British Commonwealth, governs 32 atolls in the Gilberts.  In 2019 Kiribatai dropped its Taiwan relationship in favor of Beijing.  Sprawling near the international date line, Kiribatai covers hundreds of nautical miles north and south of the equator, totaling 1.4 million square miles.  Considering that Beijing has built islands in the South China Sea, developing bases throughout the Pacific seems assured. 

China, not America, will determine if the Guadalcanal legacy remains past or represents prologue.

Image: Library of Congress

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