A Turning Point in the Solomons

This August marks the 70th anniversary of the assault on Guadalcanal.
The big news of the week, 70 years ago, reminds us of how grim the future looked back in 1942. In those days, America was still staggering from the attack at Pearl Harbor. Our Navy had rallied and scored some victories in the Pacific, but we had not yet engaged the enemy on land—and the Japanese looked unstoppable.

But in early August, the U.S. began its offensive in the Solomon Islands, northeast of Australia. On the morning of August 7, 1942, the U.S. Marines made their first amphibious landing in 44 years at Guadalcanal.

The Japanese had landed on the island in June and started building an airfield.

Map of Guadalcanal
Before the Japanese were finally forced to evacuate the island in early 1943, a total of 48 warships had been sunk. Ashore the Japanese lost 24,000 men; the U.S., 1,752.

When completed, it would enable their bombers to push the U.S. and Australia out of the Solomons and even strike the Australian mainland.

Samuel Eliot Morison was the official naval historian at the time, and had already begun writing the complete naval history of World War II. By the time he finished his 15-volume account, he had studied every naval engagement of the war. This is what he said about Guadalcanal in an article written on July 28, 1962, in the Post:

“You may search the seven seas in vain for an ocean graveyard with the wrecks of so many ships and the bones of so many sailors as that body of water between Guadalcanal, Savo and Florida islands which our bluejackets called Ironbottom Sound.

“There is something sinister and depressing about that Sound. [The marines] who rounded Cape Esperance in the darkness before dawn on 7 August remembered, ‘it gave you the creeps.’ Even the land smell failed to cheer sailors who had been long at sea; Guadalcanal gave out a rank, heavy stench of mud, slime, and jungle. And the serrated cone of Savo Island looked as sinister as the crest of a giant dinosaur emerging from the ocean depths.”

Marine Landing Craft
Marine LTVs approached neighboring island Tulagi.

The U.S. forces were understandably intimidated.  “The Japanese army in Malaya, the Philippines, and Java had acquired a reputation of invincibility, especially in jungle fighting, and its losses so far were minute. Their navy, despite its defeat at Midway, still had plenty of ships and planes to throw into the Solomons.” Fortunately, the Marine landing at Guadalcanal and neighboring Tulagi went well. By 4:00 PM, they had seized the unfinished airfield.

“Things looked very bright for the Expeditionary Force. Then, shortly after midnight, [began] the worst defeat in a fair fight ever inflicted on the United States Navy.” A Japanese task force of seven cruisers and one destroyer descended upon the Expeditionary Force, shot up the landing craft, and left the Marines without their naval supply line. Proceeding on to Savo island, they attacked first the Australian, then the American ships. Miscommunication, bad luck, poor judgment, and the element of surprise combined to give the Japanese a sizeable victory.

Air Attack
Japanese bombers attacked the American squadron off Guadalcanal.

“It was not a decisive battle and not an unprofitable defeat,” wrote Morison, “although the cost was heavy—four heavy cruisers and one destroyer a total loss; 1270 officers and men killed and 709 wounded. … The Navy held an investigation, which found the blame so evenly distributed that nobody was punished.  And it is well that Admiral Turner, primarily to blame, was not put ‘on the beach,’ because he became the leading practitioner of amphibious warfare in the Pacific. Many lessons were learned from this disastrous battle.”

As so often before, America’s entry into the war was marked by costly mistakes. Not being a warrior nation, we start each conflict with a civilian attitude and a reliance on what worked in the last war, and we are handed defeats. Fortunately, the American military always learns from these mistakes.

Smoke rose from a burning American ship in Savo Bay.

Over the next three months, American forces were able to hold their own in a costly standoff. “From sunup to sundown the Americans ruled the waves, big ships discharged cargoes, small ones plied between Lunga Point and Tulagi, as safely as in New York Harbor. But as the pall of night fell over the sound the Japanese took over. Allied ships cleared out like frightened children running past a graveyard, and small craft sought shelter. The ‘Tokyo Express’ of troop-carrying destroyers dashed in to discharge soldiers and supplies … and big ships tossed shells in the Marines’ direction. But the Rising Sun flag never stayed to greet its namesake; by dawn the Japanese were well away and the Stars and Stripes reappeared. Such was the pattern. … Any attempt to reshape it meant a bloody battle.”

At night, the Marines threw back repeated suicide attacks by the Japanese garrison. In the morning, Army engineers began to repair the bombing damage to Henderson airfield so vital supplies could be flown in.

Marines operated a howitzer near Mount Austen on Guadalcanal, sketched by Sgt. Howard Brodie.
In November, the Japanese military switched the focus of its attacks from the Navy to the Marines they were protecting. It sent a task force into Ironbottom Sound to wipe out American troops with shells from his destroyers. It would then re-invade the island with soldiers from its own transport ships. It didn’t anticipate a naval battle since it assumed the Americans would have left the waters at sunset. However, on this night, the Navy had remained. What followed, in Morison’s opinion, was “the most desperate sea fight since days of sail.

“Ship losses were fairly balanced; two American light cruisers and four destroyers against two Japanese destroyers and a battleship. … But the enemy bombardment mission was completely frustrated.”

Grumman at Henderson Field
The Grumman F4 at Henderson Field.
The following day, both sides renewed the fight. The Japanese sank USS Juneau, and “almost 700 men, including the five famous brothers Sullivan, went down with her.” But American planes from Henderson field destroyed most of the approaching Japanese transports. The Marines made certain that the few Japanese invaders that made it to shore never left the beach. And the Navy sent in battleships to clear Japanese ships from the Sound. After three days of nearly continuous fighting by air, land, and sea, the Japanese offensive stalled. Smaller battles followed, but by February 9, 1943, the Japanese evacuated their remaining soldiers from the island.

America didn’t know it was a turning point in the war. Military planners worried that every island battle across the Pacific would be just as long and bloody. But in 1962, Morison could point to Guadalcanal as “a definite shift of America from defensive to offensive, and of Japan in the opposite direction. Fortune now, for the first time, smiled on the Allies everywhere: not only here but in North Africa, at Stalingrad, and in Papua.”

Marines at Rest
Marines at rest in a Guadalcanal field, November 1942.

Credit for victory in the Solomons should be given to over 80,000 Allied soldiers who fought there, and especially the 10,000 who died. But just as valuable as their fierce devotion and sacrifice was America’s readiness to learn from mistakes, to bring in better commanders, and to continue fighting when the grim price seemed too high. It was this spirit that prompted Winston Churchill to say, in 1942, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”