RAdm Richard Kelly Turner, USN (left) and MGen Alexander A. Vandegrift, USMC (right) review logistics plans for Guadalcanal, July – August 1942. (Photo courtesy Naval Institute Press)
Veterans Day, November 11, 2015
On 7 August 1942, six months to the day after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the first major offensive by the United States was launched against the Japanese in the South Pacific.
The 1st Marine Division under MGen A. A. Vandegrift landed on Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands northeast of Australia. It was the beginning of a two-pronged offensive aimed at dislodging the Japanese from islands that would provide stepping stones to the eventual invasion of Japan.
It was the beginning of the bloody six month battle for Guadalcanal.
The cost and the return in lives and ships lost in the entire Guadalcanal campaign. There it was—2,500 square miles of miasmic plain, thick jungle and savage mountains in American hands, after exactly six months of toil, suffering and terror. What had it cost? What was the return? Where were we going next?
In war’s brutal scale of lives lost against lives risked, the blood-letting from 60,000 Army and Marine Corps troops committed to Guadalcanal, had not been excessive; 1,592 killed in action. Navy losses were certainly in excess of that figure, and several score fliers of all three air forces had given their lives. But the Japanese had lost about two thirds of the 36,000 men who fought on Guadalcanal—14,800 killed or missing, 9,000 dead of disease and 1,000 taken prisoner. Many thousand more soldiers went down in blasted transports or barges, and the number of Japanese sailors lost in the vicious sea battles will never be known, because such matters do not interest the Japanese.
On the material side, the tallies of combat ships lost by each side in the Guadalcanal campaign were surprisingly even.
(Above table compiled by Mr. W. L. Robinson. It does not include transports (AP. AK or APD) of which the Japanese had far the heavier loss, or auxiliaries such as Seminole, or patrol craft.)
Tactically—in the sense of coming to grips with the enemy—Guadalcanal was a profitable lesson book. The recommendations of Guadalcanal commanders became doctrine for Allied fighting men the world over. And it was the veteran from “the ‘Canal” who went back to man the new ship or form the cornerstone for the new regiment. On top level, mark well the names of Halsey, Turner, Vandegrift, Patch, Geiger, Collins, Lee, Kinkaid, Ainsworth, Merrill. They would be heard from again.
Strategically, as seen from Pearl Harbor or Constitution Avenue, Guadalcanal was worth every ship, plane and life that it cost. The enemy was stopped in his many-taloned reach for the antipodes. Task One in the arduous climb to Rabaul was neatly if tardily packaged and filed away.
There were more subtle implications to Guadalcanal. The lordly Samurai, with his nose rubbed in the mud and his sword rusted by the salt of Ironbottom Sound, was forced to revise his theory of invincibility. A month previously Hirohito had issued an imperial rescript stating that in the Solomon Islands “a decisive battle is being fought between Japan and America.” Radio Tokyo gave out that the Imperial forces, “after pinning down the Americans to a corner of the island,” had accomplished their mission and so departed to fight elsewhere. There was a laugh for Americans in that; but Guadalcanal never inspired much laughter.
For us who were there, or whose friends were there, Guadalcanal is not a name but an emotion, recalling desperate fights in the air, furious night naval battles, frantic work at supply or construction, savage fighting in the sodden jungle, nights broken by screaming bombs and deafening explosions of naval shells. Sometimes I dream of a great battle monument on Guadalcanal; a granite monolith on which the names of all who fell and of all ships that rest in Ironbottom Sound may be carved. At other times I feel that the jagged cone of Savo Island, forever brooding over the blood-thickened waters of the Sound, is the best monument to the men and ships who here rolled back the enemy tide.
(Excerpted from THE SOLOMONS CAMPAIGNS, 1942-1943: From Guadalcanal to Bougainville, Pacific War Turning Point by William L. McGee, Chapter 2, “The Landings, 7 – 8 August, 1942”. Excerpt also includes portions of Volumes IV and V of Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II.)