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  • James Houser

August 21, 1942 - The Battle of Guadalcanal

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

August 21, 1942. Along the banks of the Tenaru River in one of the most remote places on planet Earth, United States Marines and a Japanese attack force clash in a bloody encounter. So begins the grueling, complex and era-ending six-month campaign that will turn the tide of the Pacific War, stop the Japanese advance once and for all, and initiate the long American drive across the Pacific. Welcome to Guadalcanal.

The Battle of Guadalcanal was a truly enormous, complex campaign that lasted from August 1942 to February 1943. Besides the ground campaign on the island itself, which pitted American Marines and U.S. Army troops against the Japanese, the struggle for Guadalcanal was at the epicenter of one of the longest and most intense naval campaigns in world history. No fewer than eight major naval battles were fought in the Pacific around Guadalcanal as the United States and Japanese navies tried to gain air and sea supremacy for their embattled ground forces. Guadalcanal was also a protracted air campaign, with the various aircraft carriers only occasionally taking part in a long, desperate struggle by the Americans to build up their air strength on the island itself. No Facebook post I’m capable of putting out in a day could sum up the vast number of operations that made up, as a whole, the Battle of Guadalcanal. So I won’t try.

Guadalcanal was, by my reckoning, the most important battle of the Pacific War – yes, even more important than Midway. It was the first major American strategic offensive of World War II, the first time we were throwing punches instead of trying to block them. Even if no one intended it to be such a huge and lengthy campaign, the fact that the United States went over to the attack when we were still fairly weak in the Pacific Theater fundamentally changed the course of the war.

The defeat at Midway in June 1942 had crippled the Japanese fleet, essentially lopping off its main striking arm with the loss of four aircraft carriers in an afternoon. With its ability to undertake offensive action basically dismembered, the Japanese high command decided to shift over to the defensive. This has been regarded by some historians as a mistake, since Japan’s only real hope of winning the war was to strike while the Allies were still weak. The Japanese ended up never launching another strategic offensive in the Pacific again - they didn’t get the chance.

For six glorious, victorious months from December 1941 to June 1942, the Japanese had dominated the Pacific, overrunning everything between India and Hawaii and wrecking anything in their path. For those six months, it had been the Allies responding to the Japanese. From this point on, the Japanese would respond to Allied attacks, and American pressure would slowly bleed Japan to death across the Pacific.

The Allies, for their part, had agreed very early in the war that Germany posed the major threat and would be the primary target of the war effort. The “Germany First” policy was especially favored by the British and the Soviets, who had very good reasons for seeing the Nazis as their major problem. The U.S. Navy, though, resisted this policy, and believed that the Allies should go on the attack against Japan. This belief led to the Navy’s Pacific commander, Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, looking for a place to launch a test attack against the Japanese – attack somewhere, anywhere, just to get the ball rolling and keep the pressure on after Midway. After some argument, Nimitz and his staff – along with Chief of Naval Operations Ernest J. King back in Washington – selected the island of Guadalcanal at the tip of the Solomon Islands chain in the Pacific.

They didn’t select Guadalcanal just because, of course. The Japanese had seized Guadalcanal and its neighboring island, Tulagi, in May and had begun building an airfield on Guadalcanal in July. This alarmed the United States, since Japanese air attacks from Guadalcanal could cut the U.S.-Australia supply line that the Pacific War depended on. The Solomon Islands were like a dagger pointed at this supply chain, so the Americans decided to seize Guadalcanal and take the airfield for themselves. It would be an easy operation. One week, two weeks tops. The Allies even had the perfect tool in the chest for it: the 1st Marine Division.

General Alexander Vandegrift’s 1st Marine Division had only recently arrived in the Pacific Theater, trickling in to New Zealand in driblets from June 1942. The Marines had just recently come together into a division-size unit, and were almost all untried volunteers. Most of them wouldn’t even arrive in the Pacific until days before the Guadalcanal operation began. The Marines had little time to train and were badly underequipped – most of their gear was World War I vintage, and much of it worn out. Vandegrift had told the Navy that his division would be ready to fight a major battle by January 1943. Instead, it was being committed months ahead of time.

The Guadalcanal adventure was such a last-minute, opportunistic operation that nothing was really ready for it. The United States was launching its first major offensive of the Pacific War with almost no planning, with a half-trained unit, and at one of its weakest points of the conflict – and at a time when the lion’s share of resources were being committed to the war in Europe. The Solomons were at the farthest end of the American supply chain, in an area that was virtually unmapped and unknown to Westerners. What American schoolkid could point out the Solomon Islands on a map?

The force assembled to seize Guadalcanal steamed off from the New Hebrides on July 31. The force for “Operation Watchtower” included 75 warships and transports, commanded by Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher – one of the victors of Midway. 16,000 Marines of the 1st Division rode in the transports. Due to the short preparation time and the lack of resources, only 60 days of supplies were carried instead of the 90 recommended, and each Marine had only 10 days supply of ammunition. The Marines began referring to the battle even before it began as “Operation Shoestring.”

The Americans advanced under cover of a storm to appear off the coast of Guadalcanal at first light, August 7, much to the dismay and surprise of the small Japanese forces on Tulagi and the much bigger Guadalcanal island. Soon the Marines were storming ashore, one group assaulting the airfield on Guadalcanal itself and the others overrunning Tulagi. The Tulagi force of 3,000 Marines were fiercely resisted by the small Japanese garrison of around 800; for the coast of 122 Marines, the garrison was killed to a man. In contrast, the landings on Guadalcanal went smoothly, with 11,000 Marines and Vandegrift himself coming ashore unopposed and driving the small Japanese construction units into the hills. By August 8, the unfinished Japanese airfield on Guadalcanal was secure, and renamed “Henderson Field” after a Marine pilot killed at Midway.

The Japanese were not idle. As American transports came ashore to unload the Marines’ cargo, Admiral Gunichi Mikawa at Rabaul – a major air and naval base 1000 km to the northwest, at the other tip of the Solomons – had a response. Japanese aircraft began to attack the naval forces, causing Fletcher to become concerned for his ships, especially the precious aircraft carriers. On August 8, he withdrew the carriers and heavy ships, leaving a small screening force of cruisers and destroyers to cover the transports while they continued to unload. Fletcher believed the operation was over and air cover was no longer necessary. This proved to be a near-fatal error.

One major advantage the Japanese Navy had over the United States for most of World War II was its ability to conduct night attacks. The cruiser screening force off Guadalcanal got a very troubling wakeup call to this fact on the night of August 8-9, 1942. Seven Japanese cruisers sailed down the Solomons chain, undetected by the absent aircraft carriers, and caught the Americans napping. In the Battle of Savo Island, the Japanese sank four Allied cruisers while suffering only light damage in return. This action has been called the worst defeat ever suffered by the United States Navy. The only reason it wasn’t worse was because Mikawa, unaware that the American carriers had withdrawn, left before daylight exposed his ships to air attack, leaving the American ground forces and transports untouched.

Still, the Japanese attack nearly cost the United States the Guadalcanal Campaign. The mangled American covering force and transports had to withdraw before the transports had unloaded all of the supplies, leaving the 1st Marine Division stranded on Guadalcanal, hundreds of miles away from any help, with only half the supplies they had brought – that after they had come without enough supplies to begin with! 48 hours after arriving on Guadalcanal, the Marines were stranded, far from home, and vulnerable to attack from air and sea. Soon enough, they knew, Japanese soldiers would arrive – and then the heat would be on.

The first week was devoted to preparation. The Marines had adequate ammunition but seriously low food supplies, so Vandegrift put his Marines on two meals a day to ration their food stocks. The Marines busily set to work completing the unfinished airfield – a tall order considering that the transports had run off with their earthmoving equipment. Luckily, the Marines had captured a single Japanese bulldozer, and were able to finish the airfield on August 18. By August 20, an aircraft carrier was able to dart in and deliver a squadron of F4F Wildcat fighters and another of SBD Dauntless dive-bombers. The Marines finally had air cover, even if it was a tiny umbrella against the major Japanese attacks that were already homing in.

The Marines’ most dangerous days were those first few weeks on Guadalcanal throughout August 1942. Due to the lack of food and water purifying tablets, the Marines began to suffer from severe dysentery. The tropical environment of Guadalcanal was nearly unlivable, and men discovered wonderful new bugs, wildlife, diseases, and unpleasant experiences. They suffered from daily air raids by the Japanese from Rabaul – raids that would continue for months. At night the Japanese Navy would sail down to bombard the airfield and the Marine positions; every day, the Marines had to repair damage to the airfield under this constant pummeling. The airfield was literally their lifeline, and no effort could be spared to keep it running. This would be reality for the 1st Marine Division for months; a few rations could be flown in by daily transport planes, if they didn’t get shot up by the Japanese Zeros. The Marines were under siege by both the Japanese and the environment.

The Japanese were not content to harass the Marines: they wanted them gone, and gone quickly. The Japanese Army only had a few units available, since it was currently locked in combat with the Australians in New Guinea. It dispatched an advance element of 900 soldiers commanded by Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki to try and force the Marines off Guadalcanal. This was not nearly enough, of course, since the Japanese had badly underestimated the actual size of the American force on Guadalcanal. Surely the Americans would not have dropped a whole division on the island and left it there to rot? Of course, the American high command was desperately trying to scrounge up supplies and support for the Marines. What was supposed to be a quick, easy operation had somehow turned into a whole division isolated in the middle of nowhere.

Ichiki’s detachment was dropped off by Japanese destroyers on the night of August 19. This route from Rabaul to Guadalcanal would eventually bring almost 60,000 Japanese troops to Guadalcanal, landing them by night to avoid American air attack, and would come to be known by the Americans at the “Tokyo Express.” Ichiki led his 900 Japanese around the American perimeter, trying to find a suitable attack position. His intelligence picture was that a raiding party of Americans was cowering in a thin line around the airfield, and could be easily dealt with. He positioned his troops near the Tenaru River on the eastern side of the Marine positions, and prepared for an attack. Unbeknownst to Ichiki, a coastwatcher named Jacob Vouza had reported his arrival to the Marines, and they were waiting for him. The coastwatchers were Solomons natives in British service, and Vouza would be knighted for his heroism.

No sooner had Vouza given the warning in the early hours of August 21 than the first Japanese, marching in formation, ran into a single strand of barbed wire placed across a sand bar along “Alligator Creek.” The sandy beaches on this part of the perimeter helped slow their movement, and Ichiki – who expected a much smaller American force than the 1st Marine Division – had not anticipated defensive positions so far east.

The ensuing battle of August 21 would be known as the Battle of the Tenaru. It would be a savage little fight as the Japanese launched human wave attacks in an attempt to crush the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines. Unable to dislodge the Marines, who unleashed a hail of machine gun fire and canister shells from their 37mm guns, Ichiki tried to flank to either side only to be met with the same withering firepower. The side that tried to flank to the north waded through the surf of the Pacific Ocean in an attempt to overlap the Marines but was chopped to pieces. The last anyone saw of Colonel Ichiki, he was running towards the sandbar with his katana unsheathed.

The fight continued throughout the night. The Marines and Japanese both displayed stunning bravery. One critical machine gun position had three gunners killed by the Japanese, with the last – Private Albert Schmid – maintaining his position even after being blinded by a grenade. He would receive the Navy Cross.

By the morning of August 22, the Marines still held, and conducted a final attack to destroy Ichiki’s force. Supported by a handful of M3 Stuart light tanks, artillery, and the newly arrived planes, the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines outflanked and destroyed the remnants of the Ichiki detachment. Of the original 900 Japanese, soon 800 were dead or dying on the sandbar or in the jungle. Only 34 Marines had been killed and 75 wounded.

The Battle of the Tenaru was only the beginning of the long, hard fight for Guadalcanal. Two weeks in, the Marines had beaten back the first Japanese stab at wiping them out. Only six months to go. There would be major fleet actions in the future, with so many ships destroyed that the waters around Guadalcanal would be called “Ironbottom Sound.” There would be daily air attacks and nightly naval attacks. More and more Japanese troops would arrive, and the Marines would have much closer calls than the relatively easy victory at the Tenaru. But isolated, depleted, and famished as they were, the 1st Marine Division was here to stay against everything the Battle of Guadalcanal was about to throw at them.

We will return to Guadalcanal.

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