My new WWII novel CRASH DIVE includes an appendix describing the Battle of Guadalcanal, one of the most savage conflicts in history and a turning point in the Pacific War. Here it is:
THE BATTLE OF GUADALCANAL
Today, the word, “Guadalcanal” tends to conjure old movie images of jungle warfare between Marine and Japanese soldiers. The truth is that, due to its strategic importance, the island was not only the site of a bloody four-month ground war but also a virtually continuous air and naval war in which numerous planes and ships participated and were destroyed on both sides.
On December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan launched a devastating air assault against the United States Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Days later, bombers hit the Asiatic Fleet at Cavite Naval Yard in the Philippines.
Japan’s strategic goals were to eliminate the U.S. Navy as a threat, capture resource-rich territory, and create a strong defensive perimeter around its empire. Following the attacks against the U.S. Navy, Japan rapidly captured the Philippines, Hong Kong, French Indochina, Burma, the Dutch East Indies, and various islands under the control of Australia and the U.S.A.
The conquests were followed by offensives aimed at establishing a broad defensive perimeter that would place Japan in a position to threaten Hawaii, the western coast of the United States, and Australia. These thrusts were thwarted at the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, leaving Japan with fewer strategic offensive options.
The Allies now had the initiative and targeted the Solomon Islands, specifically Guadalcanal and surrounding islands. Japanese troops had occupied Tulagi in May 1942 and had built a seaplane base. In July 1942, they began constructing an airbase on Guadalcanal from which bombers could threaten sea lanes between the United States and Australia, isolating Australia. The small island suddenly took on critical strategic importance.
In August 1942, 11,000 soldiers of the 1st Marine Division, commanded by the able Major General Alexander Vandegrift, landed on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Florida, and other islands. On Guadalcanal, resistance was light. Taken by surprise, the garrison melted into the jungle, and the Marines captured the airfield.
The IJN reacted quickly. During the night of August 8, warships surprised an Allied battle group and inflicted heavy losses while only suffering damage to one cruiser. On the way back to Rabaul, the S-44 sank the Japanese heavy cruiser Kako, a major victory for the submarines, which had sunk few ships during the long fighting retreat from the Philippines to bases in Perth and Brisbane.
The Allied task force withdrew. The Marines were now on their own. They dug in around the airfield, suffering from tropical diseases and repeated shellings from Japanese ships. Japanese planes bombed the airfield, but the Marines repaired it, renaming it Henderson Field after Lofton R. Henderson, a Marine pilot who was killed at the Battle of Midway. By August 20, American fighter and bomber planes arrived at the airfield. These and other planes would become involved in almost daily dogfights over Guadalcanal as the Japanese repeatedly bombed it.
Radio Tokyo announced that the “insects” on Guadalcanal would be crushed. A detachment of Japanese troops of the 17th Army had landed on August 18. Nine hundred strong, they marched through nine miles of jungle and, on August 21, attacked the Marine positions around Henderson Field in what became known as the Battle of the Tenaru. The Japanese charged with bayonets but were slaughtered by American machine guns. The Marines then counterattacked and killed most of the survivors.
But more reinforcements were en route. The IJN dispatched two groups of warships. One aimed to eliminate the Allied naval presence in the Eastern Solomons, while the other intended to deliver two thousand troops to Guadalcanal. In the resulting Battle of the Eastern Solomons on August 24-25, both fleets suffered damage, but the IJN caught the worst of it, losing a light aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, the troop convoy suffered major losses during an aerial assault from Henderson Field, which in turn was bombed with much destruction.
The battle changed the strategic balance, and prospects for Allied victory improved. By the end of August, more than 60 planes were stationed at Henderson Field, which waged a daily air war with Japanese planes, a war of attrition that saw Japan take losses it could not readily replace. Allied ships reinforced the Marines on Guadalcanal during daylight hours while the IJN, due to Allied air power, was forced to transport troops and materiel down the Slot (St. George Channel) only at night on fast-moving warships. These runs, known as “rat transportation” among the Japanese, became known to the Allies as the “Tokyo Express.”
Between August 29 and September 4, Japanese ships landed 5,000 troops on the island, which assaulted the reinforced Marine positions in three bodies. The main body, some 3,000 strong, pushed back a force of 800 Marines until it was stopped cold. For the rest of the night, the Marines faced repeated human wave attacks, but they held the line. Suffering 30 percent casualties, the Japanese expeditionary force withdrew in defeat.
Both sides licked their wounds in September, which saw the Allied fleet lose the aircraft carrier Wasp. Meanwhile, the IJN still controlled the seas at night.
By early October, both sides had landed additional reinforcements for the next fight for Henderson Field and control of the island. During an Allied reinforcement operation on October 11, American and Japanese warships engaged in the Battle of Cape Esperance (Savo Island). The IJN lost a cruiser and a destroyer and heavily damaged another destroyer, while the Americans lost a cruiser, and another cruiser and a destroyer were heavily damaged. It was a tactical victory for the Allies, as the IJN was forced to cancel its bombardment of Henderson Field and withdraw.
The IJN tried again two days later, dispatching two battle groups, one consisting of two battleships and supporting warships, and the other consisting of a convoy of troopships. On October 14, the battleships blasted Henderson Field with nearly one thousand 14-inch shells. In a single hour, the Allies lost more than half their aircraft and suffered major damage to the airfield runways and fuel supplies.
Within hours, the Americans repaired one of the runways, which shortly received fresh air units and aviation gasoline. Planes sortied to strafe the troop convoy as it was unloading. Nonetheless, by October 17, the IJN had added 15,000 troops to the 5,000 already deployed. These forces launched a major assault against Marine positions on October 26 but were repulsed with heavy losses—some 3,000—while the Marines suffered few casualties. During this attack, IJN forces engaged Allied forces in the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands, in which the Americans lost a carrier, Hornet, and another, Enterprise, suffered heavy damage. The Japanese withdrew, however, due to damage to their two carriers and heavy aircraft losses. While a tactical victory for Japan, the empire continued to suffer significant losses it could not replace. After this battle, the role of IJN aircraft carriers in the campaign virtually ceased.
In November, the Marines counterattacked Japanese positions on Guadalcanal and inflicted heavy losses, but additional reinforcements stopped their advance. For the next six weeks, the two armies faced each other from their respective lines without major action. More Japanese troops were needed, which were to be delivered by an IJN task force of 11 transports carrying 7,000 troops from the 38th Infantry Division along with a great deal of materiel. Two battleships were also dispatched to bombard Henderson to prevent Allied planes from hitting the transports.
Upon learning of Japanese plans, the Americans dispatched more reinforcements protected by two task forces deployed by the South Pacific Fleet. On November 13, the IJN battle group met the task forces in a close-quarters nighttime battle in which the American forces were nearly destroyed. Having suffered some losses, the Japanese nonetheless withdrew. The next day, another force was deployed, and it succeeded in shelling Henderson Field at 2:00 in the morning. Believing the airfield to be out of action, the troop transports made way for Guadalcanal. Planes launched from Henderson and Enterprise bombed and sank a heavy cruiser and seven of the transports. The remaining four troopships withdrew. At midnight, the IJN tried again and sank three American destroyers but lost a battleship and destroyer. The remaining four troopships began unloading troops and supplies on the island but were strafed and destroyed by planes. Only 2,000 Japanese troops made it ashore, and they lacked supplies and equipment.
Meanwhile, Japanese troops on Guadalcanal had reached a dire supply situation. To deliver food to troops on the island, the IJN made a supply run in which it lost a destroyer but fired torpedoes that sank one American cruiser and damaged three others. The IJN attempted further deliveries, but it wasn’t enough. The Japanese were losing 50 men a day to disease and constant pressure from the Marines and Allied planes. The situation quickly went from dire to crisis.
In December, Emperor Hirohito ordered all Imperial Japanese Army troops to be withdrawn from Guadalcanal. In January and February 1943, the Tokyo Express evacuated 11,000 soldiers. With the battle over, the Allies began developing major bases on Guadalcanal and Tulagi to support new offensives. From then on, the Allies had the initiative, and the Japanese were on defense. Overall, the empire had lost at least 25,000 men during the four-month contest for control of the island, leading Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi, commander of the 35th Infantry Brigade at Guadalcanal, to proclaim, “Guadalcanal is no longer merely a name of an island in Japanese military history. It is the name of the graveyard of the Japanese army.”
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