The Gualalcanal Campaign averted the grave danger for Australia that would have been produced by a major Japanese forward airbase on Guadalcanal. Japanese bombers located on Guadalcanal could have endangered the lines of communication between Australia and the United States by striking at vital staging bases between Hawaii and Australia


Establishment of a major forward airbase on the northern coastal plain of Guadalcanal at Lunga Point was a vital aspect of the Japanese strategic plan to isolate Australia from the United States by a tightening blockade that Japan's military leaders believed would be capable of producing Australia's submission to Japan. After the Japanese naval defeat at Midway forced cancellation of Operation FS on 11 July 1942, Fiji and Samoa were deemed beyond Japan's reach at that time but New Hebrides and New Caledonia remained targets for Japanese attack and occupation. Vital American staging bases between Hawaii and Australia were located on both New Hebrides and New Caledonia, and a Japanese airbase on Guadalcanal would bring those American staging bases within the operational striking range of Japan's Mitsubishi G3M ("Nell") and G4M ("Betty") bombers. See "Aircraft of WW II"


"Holding the Tide"

Artist Richard Taylor portrays US Marine Ace Captain Joe Foss as he leads the F4F Wildcats of VMF-121 back
to Henderson Field after a day of desperate fighting against the Japanese in the skies over Guadalcanal in 1942.

Permission to illustrate the Guadalcanal section of the Pacific War Web-site with this fine painting by internationally recognised artist Richard Taylor was generously given by publishers of fine aviation artwork Aviation Art Hangar. Prints of this painting, and other fine aviation artworks and collectibles, can be viewed online and purchased at the Aviation Art Hangar web-site.

The US Navy acts to block an operational Japanese airbase on Guadalcanal

When 2,500 Japanese troops and construction workers landed at Lunga Point on the northern coast of Guadalcanal on 6 July 1942 to begin construction of a strategically vital airfield (later to be known famously as Henderson Field), Australia coastwatcher Martin Clemens passed on this intelligence by radio from one of his vantage points on the hills overlooking the northern coast. (Clemens, pp. 156-157 ) The US Navy had learned of this alarming development from intelligence intercept the previous day, and Commander in Chief US Navy, Admiral King, had resolved to make the Japanese tenure of the airfield on Guadalcanal a brief one. (Frank at p. 31) Clemens monitored the progress of the Japanese in building the airstrip by infiltrating his loyal native police as labourers for the Japanese. On 5 August, Clemens was alarmed to learn from one of his native scouts that the Japanese airstrip appeared to be ready to land aircraft. He reported this alarming news by radio. (Clemens p. 187)

Preparations for an Allied offensive through the Solomons to recapture Rabaul, code name "Watchtower", had been in progress since 14 June when advance elements of the 1st Marine Division landed in Wellington New Zealand. The initial objective of Watchtower (Task 1) had been recovery of Tulagi which had been captured by the Japanese on 3 May 1942. When Admiral King learned that the Japanese were building an airfield on Guadalcanal that threatened lines of communication with Australia, he added capture of that airfield (operation code name "Cactus") to the Tulagi operation. See Griffith p.26. The D day for Task 1 was fixed for 1 August 1942.

The Japanese were planning to land their first aircraft at Lunga Point on 16 August, (Frank at p. 59) and the planning, preparation, and coordination of this complex operation was necessarily rushed to ensure that the American amphibious force was not exposed to the serious threat from a fully operational Japanese airbase on Guadalcanal. Preliminary planning by the Japanese suggested that Lunga Point would receive its first aircraft on 16 August. (Frank at p. 59) Fragmented command and failure to plan for and provide efficient and coordinated communications would imperil Task 1 from the first day. (Frank at p.57) The commander of the 1st Marine Division, Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, had only a rough map of the northern coast of Guadalcanal to assist him in planning the landing, deployment, and protection of his troops. The second echelon of the 1st Marine Division with its equipment and supplies was scheduled to reach Wellington on 11 July, only three weeks before the planned D day. Commercially-loaded equipment and supplies would have to be combat-loaded on Wellington's barely adequate wharves. (see Griffith p. 27-28) Owing to vile weather and recalcitrant civilian wharf workers, the marines were forced to load their own transports before the 1st Marine Division could sortie from Wellington on 22 July. Acknowledging these difficulties, Admiral King extended D day to 7 August. See Frank pp. 52-53.

Aviation Art Hangar

Many of the fine aviation artworks generously provided for viewing on the Pacific War Web-site by leading artists Stan Stokes, Richard Taylor, Roy Grinnell, David Gray, and many others, can be viewed online and purchased at the Aviation Art Hangar. Searching for paintings of a particular aircraft is made easy with the "Locate by aircraft" menu.

Acrimonious pre-landing conference of senior commanders bodes ill for Guadalcanal and Tulagi landings

Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, Commander in Chief, South Pacific Area, was in overall command of Task 1 which involved an amphibious force of 95 warships and transports (Frank at p. 51) but elected to remain on his flagship in Noumea when the senior commanders held their only pre-landing conference at Fiji (Frank at p. 54). Present at this conference were the Expeditionary Force commander Vice Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, Amphibious Force commander, Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, Air Support Force commander Rear Admiral Leigh Noyes, water-and land-based aircraft commander Rear Admiral McCain, Screening Group commander Rear Admiral Victor A. C. Crutchley, VC, RN and Landing Force commander Major General Vandegrift.

The meeting started badly when Fletcher announced his lack of confidence in the success of the Watchtower (Task 1) operation and became acrimonious when he declared his intention to withdraw his carriers after two days to avoid air counter-attacks and refuel his ships. See Frank at p. 54. Turner protested that he would need five days to land his troops and their supplies and equipment. When Vandegrift added his protest that Fletcher's withdrawal of carrier support after two days would leave the landing force dangerously exposed to Japanese air and naval attack, Fletcher was only prepared to extend carrier covering support to three days. See Frank at p. 54.

American landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi on 7 August 1942

The Japanese were taken by surprise when the American amphibious force arrived off Lunga Point and Tulagi at daybreak on 7 August 1942. Navy guns and aircraft pounded both bases before the US Marines landed. Four rifle battalions (about 3,000 marines) landed at Tulagi and the nearby connected and fortified islands Gavutu/Tanambogo. Vandegrift personally led the landing at Lunga point with 11,300 marines. (Frank at p. 51) The 2,571 Japanese at Lunga Point were garrison and construction troops, and they fled into the jungle when the marines advanced on the airfield leaving behind massive quantities of undamaged equipment and supplies. The 863 Japanese on Tulagi and Gavutu/Tanambogo included elite naval troops of the 3rd Kure SNLF. See Frank pp.72,79. It required very heavy fighting before the marines captured Tulagi and Gavutu/Tanambogo. The only radio message received at Rabaul came from the powerful radio transmitter at Tulagi and the message assessed the American landing force at about 2,000. Being completely out of touch with Guadalcanal, the Japanese on Tulagi were unaware of the American landing at Lunga Point or the size of the American landing force. This failure of intelligence would lead to a seriously flawed response to the Guadalcanal landing by the Japanese Army.

Australian coastwatchers provide vital warnings of Japanese air attacks on the American landings

An amphibious landing on a hostile shore is highly vulnerable to attack by air or sea while the transports are anchored and unloading troops, equipment, and supplies. The Japanese had learned this costly lesson at Lae and Salamaua on 10 March 1942 when their invasion force was caught at anchor by a surprise attack launched from American carriers in the Gulf of Papua. (reference) At Rabaul, the Japanese heard of the American landings by radio at 0652 hrs. Admiral Yamamoto ordered a "decisive counter-attack". (Frank p.64) The commander of the 25th Air Flotilla based at Rabaul, Rear Admiral Sadayoshi Yamada, immediately ordered an air strike on the American landing force. Bombers being prepared for an air raid on Milne Bay were diverted to Tulagi and Guadalcanal and took to the air at 0930. At 1030 the 27 Japanese Mitsubishi G4M bombers (Allied code-name "Betty") and their 18 Zero escorts were sighted by Australian coastwatcher Paul Mason from one of his observation posts on the mountains of Japanese-occupied Bougainville.

Ship-mounted radar might have provided the Americans with 10 to 20 minutes warning of the approaching Japanese strike formation, but that would not have given the anchored transports time to discontinue unloading and disperse. If caught at anchor and unloading, the transports would have been highly vulnerable to air attack. Such short notice would not have given Wildcat fighters on the three American carriers cruising south of Guadalcanal time to reach appropriate interception height. Mason's radio warning from Bougainville was transmitted when the Japanese formation was still 563 km (350 miles) from Guadalcanal. Allowing for the normal 315 km/h (196 mph) cruising speed of the G4M Betty bomber, flight time for the Japanese formation to reach Guadalcanal would be about 1 hour 45 minutes. The radio warning from Mason gave the American transports time to raise anchor and disperse, and time for the American carrier-launched fighters to reach appropriate interception height. Seven Japanese aircraft were shot down. The only damage to the American invasion force was minor damage to the destroyer USS Mugford. Later that same day, Mason gave timely radio warning of an approaching formation of nine Aichi (code-name "Val") dive-bombers. None returned to Rabaul and no ship was damaged.

On the following day, Australian coastwatcher Jack Read on Bougainville reported a formation of 27 torpedo-equipped Betty bombers with 15 Zero escorts heading for Guadalcanal. The timely warning again enable the transports to halt unloading and disperse and the carrier aircraft reached interception heights. One transport and one destroyer were heavily damaged. Most of the low flying torpedo bombers were destroyed by anti-aircraft fire. Only five Japanese bombers returned to Rabaul.

Without these timely radio warnings from the Australian coastwatchers, the success of the American landings could have been seriously jeoparised. Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, replaced Ghormley as Commander in Chief South Pacific Area in October 1942. He acknowledged the critically important role of the coastwatchers in ensuring the success of the American landings when he said: "The coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the South Pacific". Reference Feldt at p. 285.

American defeat in Battle of Savo Island fails to dislodge the Marines

The appearance of Japanese torpedo-equipped bombers on 8 August caused Vice Admiral Fletcher to revise his agreement to provide carrier support to the Amphibious Force until 10 August. Having received no reports by nightfall on 8 August of any Japanese naval force approaching Guadalcanal, Fletcher assumed that the Marines and the Amphibious Force were in no immediate danger. After notifying Admirals Ghormley and Turner of his intention to do so at 1807 hrs, Fletcher withdrew his carriers further south of Guadalcanal thirty minutes later. Unknown to Fletcher a Japanese cruiser squadron was closing on Guadalcanal as his ships withdrew.

At a hastily convened conference with Vandegrift and Crutchley that night, Turner advised that Fletcher's withdrawal of carrier support would force him to withdraw his Amphibious Force from Guadalcanal. Crutchley attended the meeting in his flagship HMAS Australia and unintentionally spared his cruiser involvement in the disastrous Battle of Savo Island.

Commander of the 8th Fleet, Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, responded to the radio distress calls from Tulagi by assembling a cruiser squadron to launch a surprise night attack on the American naval and amphibious forces off Guadalcanal. The Japanese Navy had placed great emphasis on training for night battles using the deadly Type 93 "Long Lance" torpedo as their main weapon. The American carriers would be his primary targets but if they could not be located, he intended to attack the American amphibious force dispersed between Lunga Point and Tulagi. Avoiding detection of the strength of his seven cruiser squadron by Allied reconnaissance aircraft, Mikawa's cruisers were not detected by radar-equipped destroyers as they steered to the south of Savo Island. Mikawa intended to attack the transports and their escort warships off Lunga Point and then swing north around Savo Island to attack the transports and escort warships off Tulagi. Employing well-honed night fighting skills, Mikawa targeted the Allied screening cruisers with searchlights at 0130 hrs on 9 August, and using torpedoes and gunfire, inflicted fatal damage on three American cruisers and the Australian cruiser HMAS Canberra. Content with his extraordinary victory, Mikawa failed to press on and attack the almost defenceless transports which were still loaded with the marines' heavy equipment, weapons and ammunition. Had he attacked the vulnerable transports, the whole American Guadalcanal operation would have been placed in grave jeopardy.

Withdrawal of US Navy support leaves the marines stranded on Guadalcanal and Tulagi without naval support

Having lost most of his Screening Group cruisers, Rear Admiral Turner felt obliged to withdraw his Amphibious Force from Guadalcanal but he continued unloading equipment and supplies until the afternoon of 9 August. The withdrawal of all naval support left the marines stranded on Guadalcanal and Tulagi with limited means to defend themselves against Japanese air and naval attack. They were also left with limited equipment and supplies of rations and ammunition. The Japanese bombed and strafed the marines by day and shelled them from the sea at night. The Japanese hoped to sap the fighting spirit of the marines by depriving them of sleep. Long range B-17 heavy bombers on New Hebrides and New Caledonia could not help the marines. To defend themselves adequately, the marines had to complete the airfield on Lunga Point to take US Marine fighters and bombers. Fortunately, the Japanese had left their construction equipment when they fled. The airfield was completed on 12 August and named Henderson Field after Major Lofton Henderson who lost his life in the Battle of Midway and was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross. On 20 August, Marine Air Group 23, comprising two fighter and two dive-bombers squadrons landed on Henderson Field, and the Cactus Air Force was born. The Cactus Air Force would prove decisive in maintaining the US Marine hold on Henderson Field and Guadalcanal. Throughout the Guadalcanal Campaign, American air power dominated the daylight hours over Guadalcanal and Tulagi; the Japanese Navy dominated the night hours.

Naval warfare off Guadalcanal

The Battle of Savo Island was the first of seven major naval engagements during the Guadalcanal Campaign. In the Pacific War, the aircraft carrier replaced the battleship as the decisive weapon in naval warfare. The Americans initiated Watchtower with four fleet carriers. USS Hornet and USS Wasp were sunk. USS Saratoga was torpedoed and had to be withdrawn to Pearl Harbor for repairs. USS Enterprise (CV-5) received serious damage, including a jammed forward elevator, in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on 26 October 1942, and had to be withdrawn to Noumea for repairs. For the rest of the Guadalcanal Campaign, Enterprise was the only functioning American carrier in the South Pacific, and the only one available to defend Australia had the need arisen. The Japanese entered the Guadalcanal Campaign with four fleet carriers and two light carriers, and lost two battleships and one light carrier. Despite ending the campaign with more functional carriers than the Americans, the Japanese were unable to press home this advantage because they had lost too many aircraft and experienced pilots in the Guadalcanal fighting.

Japanese Army response to the Guadalcanal landings

By 10 August, Imperial General Headquarters was satisfied that a full US Marine division had landed on Guadalcanal and Tulagi, but aerial and naval reconnaissance on 11 and 12 August disclosed only a few small boats between Lunga Point and Tulagi. The Japanese concluded erroneously that withdrawal of warships and transports signified that most of the marines had also been withdrawn after raiding Tulagi and the new airfield on Guadalcanal. There was nothing to suggest to Imperial General Headquarters at this stage that Japan was facing a major counter-offensive on Guadalcanal, and the stranded marines would be the beneficiaries of the initial muted Japanese Army response.

The capture of Port Moresby was still deemed to be Japan's highest priority in the South Pacific, and although the bulk of the Nankai Shitai and the 41st Regiment were still at Rabaul awaiting deployment to Buna, and then from Buna to the Kokoda Track, there was no thought of diverting these veteran combat troops to oust the marines from Guadalcanal. Instead, Lieutenant General Hyakutake's 17th Army was ordered to retake Tulagi and Guadalcanal immediately with detachments that would be supplied to 17th Army for that purpose.

Army General Staff decided that the 2000-man Ichiki Detachment would be sufficient to clear any remaining marines from Guadalcanal and Tulagi. Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki landed on the northern coast of Guadalcanal on 19 August with his First Echelon comprising 900 men. He launched a frontal attack on the marines at Lunga Point and his troops were effectively annihilated at the Ilu River. Colonel Ichiki committed suicide.

Annihilation of Kawaguchi Brigade on Guadalcanal forces downgrading of Port Moresby's high priority

17th Army then committed Major General Kiyoyaki Kawaguchi's 6,200-man 35th Infantry Brigade (also known as "Kawaguchi Force") to expel the marines from Henderson Field. In the Battle of Bloody Ridge, also known as Edson's Ridge, on the night of 13-14th August 1942, Kawaguchi's brigade was routed with very heavy casualties. Communication difficulties in the dense jungle made it difficult for Kawaguchi to coordinate his attack, and one battalion designated to capture the airfield failed to take any part in the action. Many of the survivors died from wounds, starvation, or disease as they battled dense jungle and rugged terrain to reach the Japanese enclave on the north-western corner of the island.

The Kawaguchi Force disaster on Guadalcanal had serious implications for Major General Tomitaro Horii who was fighting his way along the Kokoda Track to Port Moresby. Lieutenant General Hyakutake's 17th Army was conducting major operations simultaneously in Australian Papua and Britain's Guadalcanal but lacked the troops and means to reinforce and sustain the two operations at the same time. With Horii in sight of searchlights probing the night sky over Port Moresby, a bitter decision had to be made. Imperial General Headquarters now realised that the Japanese were facing a major Allied counteroffensive on Guadalcanal, with a strategically vital airfield at stake, and switched priorities from Port Moresby to Guadalcanal. Horii was ordered to withdraw his troops from the Kokoda Track to the fortified beachheads on the northern coast of Papua and await another opportunity to capture Port Moresby after the marines had been expelled from Guadalcanal and Tulagi. See Griffith (Note 1) at p.127 and McCarthy. It would now become a battle of attrition on Guadalcanal, with victory likely to go to the side that could reinforce the fastest. See Frank at p. 246

By mid-October, the Japanese had concentrated some 20,000 troops on Guadalcanal. The next Japanese move against Henderson Field involved Major General Masai Maruyama's 2nd Division. The Japanese plan was for Maruyama's division to cut its way through the jungle to an area south of Henderson Field and attack when Major General Tadashi Sumiyoshi launched a diversionary attack on the marines from the west of the airfield. Again, the Japanese failed to coordinate their attacks. Sumiyoshi attacked first and his troops were routed with heavy casualties by the waiting marines . Maruyama's troops battled dense jungle and heavy rain to reach the marine lines on the night of 23-24 October. After two nights of fierce fighting, the Japanese losses were so heavy that Maruyama abandoned the attack and led the dispirited survivors back to the Japanese enclave.

Guadalcanal proves to be an island "too far" for the Japanese

The Japanese mastery of night warfare enabled them to move reinforcements and supplies the 909 km (565 miles) from Rabaul to Guadalcanal at night by cruisers and destroyers. After delivering troops and cargo, the warships would shell Henderson Field before they departed. A major problem for the Japanese was the limited cargo capacity of warships and it was never possible to supply their troops on Guadalcanal with adequate rations and equipment. Slow moving transports were too vulnerable to attack by Allied aircraft on the long run from Rabaul to Guadalcanal, and by January 1943, the 20,000 Japanese troops on Guadalcanal were close to starvation. Under the cover of the Cactus Air Force and B-17s flying from New Hebrides and New Caledonia, and protected by the US Navy, the Americans could regularly bring in thousands of reinforcements and supplies during daylight hours for the depleted and battle fatigued 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal.

Appreciating that Japan faced inevitable defeat in the southern Solomons, Imperial General Headquarters ordered the evacuation of all Japanese troops on Guadalcanal. By 7 February 1943, the last of some 10,652 starving and disease ridden Japanese survivors had been withdrawn from Guadalcanal by sea.

The Guadalcanal Campaign had ended and with it the threat of a Japanese blockade that had been intended to produce Australia's submission to Japan. The Imperial Japanese Army landed 31,400 men on Guadalcanal, and evacuated 10,652, making the fatality total about 20,800. About 4,800 Imperial Navy personnel also served on Guadalcanal and Tulagi. American ground losses included 1,207 marines and 562 soldiers; making a total of 1,769 out of some 60,000 committed. At sea, 4,911 American sailors and marines were killed. Casualties (both sides): see Frank at p. 614 and Rottman pp. 64-65

RETURN to Guadalcanal Index


NEXT chapter