The Battle of Guadalcanal was a conflict that references the extended campaign of fighting via the land, sea and air between the Japanese and American forces. The campaign took place between August 7, 1942 through February 9, 1943 on and around the island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific theater. This battle is notable for a couple of reasons. The first of which is that it is considered the first major offensive by the Americans against the Japanese. The second major reason this campaign was significant was because of the damage that the Americans inflicted on the Japanese war machine during this time. And the third reason it is important is because in the end, it was a significant victory for the Americans as they pushed to turn the tide in the War of the Pacific in World War II.
The possession of Guadalcanal was a strategic advantage to whomever held it during the war. From this spot in the Pacific the military could control sea lanes of communication which could help to turn the war towards one power or the other. The Japanese landed on Guadalcanal on June 8, 1942 and quickly began to construct an air base. However, two months later on August 7th the Americans embarked on the “Midnight Raid on Guadalcanal” and put an end to the Japanese control of the island. The raiding force was aided by bad weather that prevented the Japanese patrols from spotting them ahead of time. During the initial invasion the American forces split into two groups, one hitting Guadalcanal with the help of warship shelling and the other picking up other islands in the chain. The land invasion consisted of 11,000 Marines hitting the shores with a tenacious attack. After four days of intense fighting from the Japanese the American forces took the airfield from the Japanese. This victory allowed America air superiority in the region. But no sooner had the American forces put down roots at what they now called Henderson Air Base did the Japanese begin dropping bombs on Guadalcanal. Not content to let the strategic position in the Pacific go, they also begin attacking from their position west of the air field from the Matanikau River. Just before the Japanese offensive began, Allied forces had suffered a defeat at the nearby Battle of Salvo, which limited the air cover that caused Rear Admiral Turner to withdraw his his carrier and limit support to the island.
The Japanese counterattack effort was quick to mount, efficient and fierce. The “Tokyo Express”, as it was called, was an efficient supply line that helped the Japanese build up their land based counter-offensive. On September 12, Major General Kawaguchi launched an attack on the Allied position at Lunga Ridge, just south of Henderson field. This served to augment the now almost daily air raids that the Japanese were performing on Allied positions. But the American Marines were dug in and ready to defend, after two vicious nights of fighting the Marines repelled the Japanese forces.
Even though the Allies now controlled Henderson Field at Guadalcanal, they continued to fight over other
islands in the chain as a part of the campaign. On September 18, Admiral Vandegrift received reinforcements and launched a heavy attack upon the island of Matanikau. And even though the Japanese were successful in denying the Allies initial advances, the offensive ultimately resulted in heavy losses for the Japanese. These losses resulted in the Japanese being unable to mount any offensive from the middle of September until the middle of October, including a planned offensive against the Lunga perimeter. Given the overall importance of Henderson Field to both sides, the impact of this attack cannot be overstated.
But even with the successes of the Allies in deterring Japanese attacks, they could not stop them all together at this point in the campaign. The Japanese were able able to mount a convoy and attack the main island and Henderson Field on October 14. The Japanese were led by Admiral Yamamoto put two battleships on the task of shelling Henderson Field and destroying 48 of the 90 aircraft stationed at the air base. The Allies responded quickly, replacing each of the destroyed aircraft and launched a counteroffensive which saw three cargo ships destroyed. Even with these reinforcements, the Japanese continued to land troops and the attack on the island did not let up.
By the end of October the Japanese forces now numbered nearly 20,000 men at this point and redoubled their efforts against Henderson Field. What is now called the Battle of Henderson Field was an intense volley of fighting that saw almost 3,000 Japanese men die, while not even 100 Americans lost their lives. The severe difference in losses is attributed to bad intelligence. It is thought that Lieutenant General Hyakutake had intelligence that told him that the American and Allied troops on Guadalcanal numbered around 10,000. In reality, the Allied troops numbers were nearly 23,000. Even though he had nearly 20,000 men himself, this large discrepancy in numbers can account for the relative slaughter that the Japanese ground troops walked into. This defeat, coupled with Vice Admiral Halsey’s decisive victory at the nearby Battle of Santa Cruz Islands, signaled the last time aircraft carriers would be involved in direct conflict at Guadalcanal and momentum returning to the Allies.
After the string of decisive victories, Admiral Vandegrift pushed forward with a new offensive across the Matanikau River to chase down the Japanese who remained on the island. Hyakutake put the Tokyo Express resupply line into heavy work to build his forces up, and put up a defense against Vandegrift. The Allies pushed the Japanese back for the first two days, but then the Allies encountered Japanese who were fortified near Koli Point. After several days of fighting in early November American Marines took Koli Point from the Japanese. This in conjunction with Lieutenant Colonel Larson’s Raider Battalion’s victory at Aola Bay helped push Hyakutake into a corner. But with his position strengthened by good supplies, Hyakutake repelled several attacks between November 10th and 18th.
The stalemate on land led to changes in tactics and leaders for the Allies. The focus of the battle shifted from the land battle to the water. The Japanese convoy began to move 7,000 troops to the island, and the Allies began to move in a similar manner. Overnight November 12, 1943, American ships encountered the Japanese convoy and attacked. The Japanese fought fiercely inflicting heavy damage on the Americans on the first night. But the Japanese advantage did not last long, as the Americans took control of the hostilities on the second night and sunk seven of Admiral Tanaka’s eleven transports. The remaining four did make landfall on November 15th. Shortly after the troops made landfall, American air raids drove them back quickly. This would be the last major offensive attempt by the Japanese. And even with small victories such as Tassafaronga, the Americans were able to cut off the Japanese supply lines and push the Japanese into a desperate situation that ended with the decision to abandon the island. This decision was received before December 31 by the Japanese leadership, but the troops on the island fought on well into the new year. The Japanese did not leave Guadalcanal until February 7, 1943.
The Battle of Gudalcanal signaled the turning point of the Pacfiic War, and the last time that the Japanese would mount a major offensive against the Americans. The toll the battle took on both sides was significant, but almost crippling for the Japanese. The Allies lost nearly 7,100 men, 615 planes and 29 ships. The Japanese lost 31,000 men with an additional 1,000 captured, over 800 planes and 38 ships. The victory at Guadalcanal gave the Allies the strategic launching point in the Pacific for their future offensives against the Japanese, plus it hurt the Japanese ability to wage war significantly.
Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University and is working towards a Masters Degree in American History at American Public University. He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom. He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.