Paying tribute to the vanishing heroes of Guadalcanal

Seventy-eight years ago this month (in November 1942), the United States was embroiled in a major battle of World War 2, a battle that lasted for months and easily could have gone either way at many times.  Had we lost, many thousands of Americans would have been subjected to yet another "death march," as had already happened at Bataan.  The effect on American morale would have been devastating.  

This complex battle, fought on land, at sea, and in the air, began with a blunder by the Americans, a poorly considered attack without proper preparation, from which good fortune extracted us.  On day one of the battle, an American amphibious force landed unopposed (fortunately) on the South Pacific Island of Guadalcanal.  On that day, neither the Americans nor the Japanese predicted that a six-month bloodbath was beginning.  Before it was over, thousands of Americans were killed in battle, and even more than that were felled by disease.  On the Japanese side, starvation was perhaps the greatest killer of their 24,000 dead.  

In one naval battle alone, two American admirals were killed.  Also dead were the five Sullivan Brothers, sailors of the USS Juneau.  The Allies and Japanese each lost 24 warships, sunk in the waters off Guadalcanal, a testament to the ferocity of those encounters.  Of the thousands of sailors who died, many who survived the sinking of their ships died in the water while waiting days for rescue; many were killed by sharks.  Every explosion from received gunfire, on most ships, meant immediate death to sailors, and for others, it meant instantaneous amputations, horrific burns, and disfiguring scars.  

Heroism abounded.  Awards were given.  On the other hand, failures were met with dishonoring punishments, some of which were unjust.  American and Japanese admirals alike were reprimanded, and two allied commanders (one American, one Australian) committed suicide as a reaction to blame placed upon them.  

In addition to those confirmed dead, there were poignant stories connected to those missing in action and never found, for example from sunken ships.  Relatives of such men spent, in some cases, the remainder of their lives seeking information about the circumstances, hoping against hope that they would be found.  Even after the war was over, families inquired as to prisoner-of-war lists in desperation, in case their loved one had been captured instead of killed.  

Complicating matters on Guadalcanal was the war in faraway Europe, where the demand for much needed supplies caused shortages in the Pacific.  American industry had not yet expanded to meet those demands.  For the Japanese, war materiel existed in abundance, but getting it to the soldiers in the field eventually became impossible.  Thousands starved, and some Japanese were killed by natives while foraging for food in the jungle.  Fortunately for us, the natives were on our side.  

Unsung heroes included the coast watchers, brave Australians manning observation posts throughout the archipelago, without whose timely reports Americans would have been subjected to deadly surprise attacks.  So effective were the coast watchers that the Japanese offered hefty rewards to anyone who could help capture or kill them.  

Radar was still in its primitive state at the time — so primitive that Japanese night-vision binoculars often outperformed American radar.  Moreover, the older U.S. Navy officers neither understood nor trusted the new technology, and they often did not make the most effective use of it.  The results were in many cases fatal.  

Bureaucracy and tradition could also be enemies of battle effectiveness.  An inexperienced American naval officer was placed in command over an experienced one, simply because of a few day's seniority in rank.  This punctilio is blamed, at least in part, for the deaths of both men.  

The heroism of the men who fought this battle is evident not only in their fierce loyalty and commitment under fire, but also in the endurance of constant tropical heat, sweat, vermin, inadequate food, and many other travails that people today, living in air-conditioned comfort, can scarcely begin to understand.  Hardly a day went by without the death of a friend or comrade.  Officers who wrote letters of condolence to widows and bereaved parents became the subject of a letter to their own loved ones, sometimes the next day.  

Millions of people died in World War 2.  Most of their stories will never be told.  We should — indeed, we are obliged to — pay tribute, however inadequately, to the brave warriors who preserved our freedom during times when all may have seemed lost.  May the day never come when we, too, are called upon to make similar sacrifices.  But if it does, may we be found up to the task.  

Image: USMC Archives via Flickr, CC BY 2.0 (cropped).

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