Sorry this is a little bit out of order, as I promised SJS to have this to him three weeks ago. (Who knew a novel flu virus would make people busy in the public health biz?) Anyway, many superb posts have been published here regarding the desperate and deadly struggle for the waters and airspace around Guadalcanal and the Eastern Solomons. What I offer you below is a summation of the land campaign for the island of Guadalcanal. The summation highlights the details of a long fight against nature, hunger, and the enemy, and was replete with bravery and suffering on both sides that one can hardly imagine in the first decade of the 21st Century. I have included only the most important of details. There have been numerous volumes regarding the ground fight, and this needn’t be another, as I was hoping instead to provide some context and contrast to the other posts summarizing the titanic struggles which happened all around.
For nearly seven months, the fight for the island of Guadalcanal captivated an America hungry for good news in the Pacific War. Immediately following Pearl Harbor, Wake Island’s defenders had displayed inspirational heroism, but were overwhelmed by the Japanese two days before Christmas, 1941. Guam had fallen in days. The playing out of the tragic disaster in the Philippines ended in the surrender of 12,000 US Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in May, 1942. The lone bright spot in the Pacific Theater in the first months, the Doolittle Raid on Japan in April of 1942, was entirely symbolic. After the grim series of defeats in both theaters of war, Winston Churchill had questioned whether the “sons of democracy” were strong enough to stand up to the totalitarian war machines with which they were locked in a struggle for survival.
US prisoners on Bataan Death March B-25 take-off from USS Hornet CV 8
Guadalcanal became, in the words of Samuel Elliot Morrison, “not a name but an emotion” because of the desperate situation faced by the US Marines and Soldiers in their struggle against both the Japanese and the savage and unforgiving jungle, and the epic struggles for the surrounding sea and air. Searing heat, diseases (malaria, Dengue), shortages of food, ammunition, and critical supplies, torrential rains, mud, insects, and deadly animals of all kinds made the Guadalcanal landscape a miserable and deadly place.
Soldiers tend to wounded (left) Marine litter bearers evacuate comrade (right)
However, the fight on land for Guadalcanal played out far differently from the costly, grimly contested series of struggles in the waters of the Eastern Solomons. When the Marines and Soldiers clashed with the Japanese in the struggle for control of the island, the results were almost always decidedly one-sided.
Following the initial landings on Tulagi, Florida, and Guadalcanal on 7 August, 1942 (https://blog.usni.org/?p=3938), Marine General A. A. Vandegrift deployed his First Marine Division in a thinly-held perimeter around the vital Henderson Field. Though the island was nearly devoid of Japanese defenders, it was quickly reinforced with elements of the Japanese 17th Army in the form of a brigade of 1,100 men under Colonel Kiyono Ichiki, whose forces had originally been designated for the assault on Midway two months earlier.
Hampered by the dense jungle, poor coordination, and a contemptuous disregard for the considerable firepower of the American Marines, the Ichiki Brigade clashed with Clifton Cates’ First Marines on the night of 21 August. The Marines had been alerted by a Japanese patrol (which was wiped out in a short fight with a patrol of A Co 1st Marines) and by Jacob Vouza’s legendary escape from Japanese capture and subsequent torture. The Marines had prepared positions along the mouth of the Tenaru River. In an intense firefight lasting into the morning of 22 August, the First Marines, supported by 37mm guns, five M3 Stuart light tanks, and the howitzers of 3rd Bn 11th Marines, all but wiped out Ichiki’s attacking force. Japanese casualties numbered nearly 900 dead, while the Marines suffered 34 killed and about 80 wounded.
Japanese dead at the Tenaru sandbar
However, Japanese reinforcements continued to pour onto the island, with the 5th Special Naval Landing Force and the remainder of Ichiki’s brigade arriving from Truk in the third week of August. Here, though, the unraveling of Japanese plans began. The transports of the famed “Tokyo Express” were delivering soldiers in significant numbers, but were unable to keep up with the logistical requirements of the growing force. Though equipped (and highly skilled) with mortars, the Japanese on the island were desperately short of artillery, possessing a few light field guns and little ammunition for them. Food and medical supplies were almost immediately in short supply, and Guadalcanal was beginning to earn its nickname among the empire’s soldiers as “Starvation Island”.
At the end of August, and in the first week of September, considerable reinforcements were landed (with significant loss to air strikes from Wasp) by the Japanese Navy on the Eastern side of Guadalcanal. These reinforcements brought the strength of the Japanese on the island to approximately 3,000, mostly deployed east and south of the Marine perimeter. In the west, along the Matanikau River, the scene of the ill-fated Goettge Patrol in early August, there was some skirmishing in late-August and again in September against smaller Japanese forces. But it was the south and east of the Marines’ perimeter that concerned General Vandegrift and his commanders, as patrols and observation increasingly revealed Japanese preparations for an attack toward Henderson Field.
The Prize: Henderson Field “Tokyo Express” delivers reinforcements
Beginning on 9 September, the Marine Raider Battalion (Col M. A. Edson) and Parachute Battalion (Maj C. Miller) occupied positions on a key grass-covered ridge that ran roughly north-south, just east of the Lunga River and due south of Henderson Field. A raid on Tasimboko two days earlier and reports of native scouts pointed to a Japanese buildup of considerable strength south of the ridge and to the east of the Marine perimeter, and patrols on 12 September confirmed an attack was imminent. Japanese air raids targeting the ridge during the afternoon of the 12th further alerted the Raiders as to the Japanese objective.
After dark on 12 September, the Japanese 35th Infantry Brigade commanded by MajGen Kiyotake Kawaguchi, and reinforced by elements of the 124th Regiment, crashed into Marine lines between the ridge positions and the Lunga River. The struggle for what became known as Edson’s Ridge was the turning point of the fight for the island of Guadalcanal. Hold the ridge, and the Marines hold Henderson, and the island. Lose the ridge, and WATCHTOWER likely becomes an evacuation. The savage, back-and-forth fight for the ridge lasted nearly three days, with the last skirmishes occurring east of the main action on the morning of 15 September. The Japanese attacks, however grimly determined, were once again poorly coordinated and executed by exhausted and starving troops following a nightmare approach march through nearly impassable jungle. Despite some anxious hours, the Marine lines held. Marine automatic weapons, mortars, and particularly the howitzers of the 11th Marines took a catastrophic toll on the attackers. The ridge, the perimeter, and Henderson Field were saved. The best chance for the Japanese ground forces to break the Marines’ hold on Guadalcanal had dissolved in the jungles and trails approaching Edson’s Ridge.
Edson’s Ridge: The last line 11th Marines 155mm howitzers
The fight for Edson’s Ridge resulted in the near-destruction of the Kawaguchi Brigade. Japanese sources estimated 1,500 dead in the fight for the ridge. For the survivors of the Brigade, the ordeal was hardly over. They faced a terrible march back to Japanese lines, with little food or water, and it was an ordeal very few would survive. The Marines suffered 40 killed or missing, and more than one hundred wounded in the struggle to hold he ridge.
Marine machine gun position on Edson’s Ridge
The Raiders’ Commanding Officer, Colonel Merritt A. Edson, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his stand on the ridge that carries his name. The CO of Charlie Company, Raiders, Major Kenneth Bailey, also was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in the combat. Major Bailey would not live to see his Medal. He was killed some days later in the fight on the Matanikau.
Major Ken Bailey, USMC (left) and Col Merritt A. Edson (right)
There would be much more ground combat for the Marines and their Army reinforcements before the end of the Guadalcanal Campaign. Days later, on the western side of the Marines’ perimeter, an attack to clear positions along the Matanikau stumbled through difficult terrain and was nearly defeated before withdrawing under pressure from enemy units in the area. (It would not be until 9 October that positions west of the river could be permanently established and the airfield protected.) Throughout October, 1942, The Japanese would make several more attempts to penetrate the Marine perimeter, and at times caused serious concern. But each attack was defeated and heavy losses inflicted by the Marines and Soldiers defending. By this point, though the 1st Marine Division had been reinforced with the Army’s 164th Infantry and their own 7th Marines, malaria and exhaustion had begun to erode the effectiveness of the men ashore. Yet, in comparison to the conditions faced by their enemies, the Americans wanted not for food, ammunition, nor medical supplies.
Malaria cases in Guadalcanal field hospital, October, 1942
The Japanese were starving. The number of men fit for combat plummeted. Medical supplies were exhausted. Ammunition for the heavy howitzers finally dragged ashore and into the jungle was scarce. Though the Imperial Japanese Navy would have some notable successes in bringing supplies and some heavy artillery to the island, the situation for the Japanese soldiers was grim and worsening. Starvation and disease were killing dozens, and then hundreds of men a week. Many of those alive were too weak to fight. Despite the threats from Japanese surface forces, which regularly bombarded the airfield and Marine and Army positions, and the surge of Japanese activity in the air, the tide on the ground had swung permanently toward the Americans.
Emaciated Japanese prisoners captured late in the campaign
The turning point had been Edson’s Ridge. Following that fight, the American forces gained measurably in strength, while that of the Japanese declined precipitously. The increasing imbalance between the combatant forces was beyond the capability of the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army to rectify. The Japanese Army had been wary of the emphasis placed on Guadalcanal by their Navy counterparts, and was rightly skeptical of the IJN’s ability to keep a substantial combat force supplied and sustained when control of the air and sea in the area of operations was so stiffly contested.
Japanese transports of the Tokyo Express burning (left) and sunk (right)
As 1943 began the Japanese Army pushed for, and received, permission to withdraw from Guadalcanal. Beginning in late-January, 1943, preparations were begun for pulling the surviving Japanese troops off the island. By 9 February, the mission was completed, and but for a handful of stragglers, Japanese resistance ceased on Guadalcanal.
In the end, the Japanese Army suffered dreadful casualties among the forces committed to Guadalcanal, but those forces were a minor figure in the total strength of the Japanese Army. The Imperial Japanese Navy, conversely, was bled white in the monumental struggle for Guadalcanal and the Eastern Solomons. Ironically, it was the reluctance of Japanese Naval commanders to risk forces sufficient to decisively engage the US surface and air forces in the Solomons which caused the piecemeal attrition of the IJN that permanently shifted the sea power balance in the Pacific.
IJN battleship Haruna (left) and cruiser Aoba (right) on the bottom, 1945
For the Americans, Guadalcanal was a watershed, as much then as now. The Japanese myth of invincibility was broken. The enemy proved to be extremely tough, skilled, deadly opponents. But the US Marines, and the Soldiers who fought beside them, proved equal, man for man, with their foes. Their firepower, tactics, battlefield leadership, logistics, all had proven superior to the Japanese in a square fight. Their commanders, on land and sea, and their pilots in the air, had bested the Japanese. With America’s military might growing almost daily, Japan would be forever on the defensive. Japan would extract a bitter price from the United States, but could not prevent the inexorable smashing of her island fortresses that would bring that same US Navy into Tokyo Bay.
US Fleet Carriers at Ulithi (left) TF58 in Tokyo Bay (right)