campaigns of Guadalcanal are some of the most historically interesting events of World War II
. The combination of air, land, and sea battles as well as the equality of the fighting forces made the battles of this island
as well as elsewhere in the Solomon Islands
some of the toughest fighting in the war.
The narrow strait between Guadalcanal and Savo Island was called "Iron Bottom Sound," a name befitting the area due to the carpetting of fallen ships from the campaigns that now litter the oceanbed. The name stands as a testament to the events that took place there and of the time that has passed since.
The War in the Pacific Moves South
On 7 December 1941, the Japanese turned the focus of the war which had been centrally located on the Asian mainland to the east and south, moving further into the Pacific by launching offensives in Pearl Harbor, The Philippines, Wake, Guam, Hong Kong and the Malay Peninsula. This sudden move left Allied forces extremely unprepared for any sort of war in the Pacific. This led to a questioning of the "German first" attitude that leaders had maintained previously, but they agreed that they should stay on that course while at the same time stopping the movement of the Japanese while maintaining ties with Australia and New Zealand. Those two countries would prove vital in the effort in the Pacific. For the next several months, Allied forces worked on strengthening defenses and then reinforcing drives from Australia north across New Guinea. To help this effort, Americans launched another attack from a different direction to form pincers in the Southwest Pacific. By doing this, American forces were driven into the Solomon Islands and Army troops onto the island Guadalcanal.
The Battles at Guadalcanal began in August of 1942 and would continue through early 1943. They were actually a collection of smaller battles which occured on land and sea that were centered around the island of Guadalcanal. The fighting in the Solomon Islands in general lasted until the end of 1943. When the offensive of Guadalcanal began, it was the first land assault by the Allies against an Axis power and would remain so until the major invasion of North Africa in November of 1942.
The first effort, the Battle of Savo Island, was a disaster, and threw the future of the campaign into doubt. However, it was fueled in large part due to the focus of the American media on the actions of the Japanese; Germany was less of a concern compared to Japan at this stage in the war. This was perhaps due to the months of fighting in the Philippines and in Guam where American forces were continually defeated and captured. So, the campaign of Guadalcanal continued on.
The events of these battles were chronicled in Guadalcanal Diary by combat reporter Richard Tregaskis, which was a huge sensation due to the media attention on the subject. As evidence of this, a movie version was out within a year. A perhaps better known media modelling of this event can be seen in James Jones' The Thin Red Line, which was made into a movie in 1964, and again by Terrence Malick in 1998.
Many people think that most of the fighting at Guadalcanal was on land. However, it was actually the naval campaigns that gave support to the land invasions and the outcome of the land battles depended heavily on the fighting at sea. In order to give some context to the events of Guadalcanal, I offer the following chronology of its major movements and battles.
The Major Events at Guadalcanal 7 August 1942 9 February 1943
7 August 1942 Americans land on Guadalcanal. 10,000 American troops, 2,200 Japanese troops.
9 August 1942 Battle of Savo Island
21 August 1942 Battle of the Tenaru River
22 August 1942 Japanese reinforcements arrive at Buna. Total number: 11,430 under General Horii.
24 August 1942 Battle of the Eastern Solomons
12 September 1942 Battle of Bloody Ridge 11,000 American troops, 6,000 Japanese troops.
11 October 1942 Battle of Cape Esperanee
24 October 1942 Battle for Henderson Field
26 October 1942 Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands
13 - 14 November 1942 Naval Battle of Guadalcanal 29,000 American troops, 30,000 Japanese troops.
19 November 1942 Allied attack on Buna begins.
1 December 1942 Battle of Tassafaronga
9 December 1942 Gona falls to Australians.
17 December 1942 Guadalcanal ground offensive begins.
2 January 1943 Buna falls to Allies.
29 January 1943 Battle of Rennell Island
1 February 1943 First Japanese evacuation of Guadalcanal.
4 February 1943 Second Japanese evacuation of Guadalcanal.
8 - 9 February 1943 Final Japanese evacuation of Guadalcanal. American East/West pincers meet at the Tenamba River. End of Guadalcanal Campaign.
The harsh jungles of Guadalcanal forced troops to fight in a dense, close environment. It was a difficult adjustment to make, but one that would prove useful in subsequent campaigns; the rest of the Pacific had the same sorts of conditions. Many difficulties were faced by the Allied troops. Enemy positions usually weren't visible until troops were within 20 meters of them, and the Japanese troops were well adept at using available resources to built strong, invisible fortifications. Dealing with these obstacles was difficult, as it normally took a huge amount of effort to break through these fortifications.
In the early weeks of the campaigns at Guadalcanal, support was limited as air squadrons were somewhat disorganized from fighting enemy aircraft. However, after overcoming early problems, support was usually readily available in the forms of naval, air, and field-artillery. The terrain of the island made artillery fire very difficult. In order to destroy bunkers, direct hits were required; even air strikes' accuracy was low in terms of percentage. Ravines and massive hillsides in the jungles severely affected fire support. Better angles of fire were achieved by propping antitank weapons and pack howitzers against the slopes.
Though they would be used in the campaigns in Europe and elsewhere, tank warfare was not central to the fighting on Guadalcanal. Sometimes tanks were brought in, but they weren't used for major assaults. The terrain also wasn't conducive to the maneuvering of armored columns, as there were few level battlefields on the land. It was the bulldozer that proved the most useful; it was of tremendous assistance to engineers in airfield and road construction.
Once Henderson Field was taken on 24 October 1942, the supply of materials was less of a problem as it had been initially. Delivery of supplies was still hard as troops began to move inland, as moving the materials over the land was very labor intensive and quite a complex operation in itself. Native labor, unfortunately, was used for this type of work, along with the American workers.
The most important factor inhibiting the effectiveness of the campaigns was malaria. Other forms of disease were prevalent, but malaria was devestating to the troops there. For every one man who died in combat, five died from malaria. Tropical diseases plagued efforts on all sides for the majority of the campaign.
Since the early stages of the campaign were divided with little interservice cooperation, the Allied forces learned that better coordination would be needed in future campaigns. In the end, however, the unifying presence of the Navy as both the supplier and supporter of Army efforts were able to secure Allied victory on the ground. However, the battles at Guadalcanal showed the Allied troops what they were against; the Japanese were experts at fighting in the dense jungle conditions and also maintained well fortified positions in many areas. It was the techniques learned in the battles at Guadalcanal that would shape later efforts in the Pacific on the behalf of the imperial Japanese forces as well as Allied troops.