By Steve Llewellyn
On August 7, 1942 at 0910 hrs the ramp of an American Landing Craft Infantry banged down in the surf of 'Beach Red' 6,000 yards east of Lunga Point on an obscure island in the Solomon Islands chain called Guadalcanal.
The men of the 1st Marine Division who ran up the beach that morning had no idea they were beginning a bloody, six-month battle that would be the first United States victory on the ground in the Pacific theatre in the Second World War.
As America's first ground offensive in the Pacific, the invasion of Guadalcanal was a clumsy affair. Alarmed by the discovery that Japan was building an airfield on the island that could cut Australia off from North America, Chief of U.S. Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King ordered the 19,000 men of the 1st Marine Division to be rushed to Guadalcanal from New Zealand. The invasion force was assembled in such haste that the Marines had only enough food for 60 days and enough ammunition for 10 days of heavy fighting.
But despite that everything went well at first. Major-General Alexander Vandegriff's men met little opposition on the beach and seized the critical airfield three miles inland within 36 hours. It would eventually be called Henderson field in honor of Marine pilot Major Lotton Henderson who was killed at the Battle of Midway two months earlier.
But the Marines' good fortune did not last long. On the evening of August 8, Rear-Admiral Frank Fletcher decided to withdraw the three aircraft carriers that were providing air cover for Vandegrift's transports. Later that same night, a Japanese cruiser task force sank one Australian and three American cruisers in the waters near Guadalcanal.
The naval battle would come to be known as the Battle of Salvo Island and it was the first of a series of clashes to decide the control of the sea around Guadalcanal. In the next six months the United States would lose two aircraft carriers, seven cruisers and 14 destroyers while the Japanese lost one aircraft carrier, two battleships, four cruisers and 11 destroyers.
The transports fled the next day taking with them 3,000 Marines who had not had time to disembark and much of the division's ammunition and heavy artillery. Another 6,000 men of the 1st Marine Division were dug in on Tulagi Island 20 miles away.
The 10,000 Marines on Guadalcanal were on their own.
The campaign was a race between the Marines and the U.S. Army and the Japanese Imperial Army to concentrate enough force to defeat each other. The difficulties of gathering those troops were compounded by the alien and hostile environment of the jungle on Guadalcanal.
Back on the island, the Marines ate Japanese rice and used Japanese construction equipment to finish the airfield which would be critical to the ultimate control of the seas around Guadalcanal. But the day before the first 12 Douglas Dauntless dive-bombers and 19 Grumman Wildcat fighters arrived, the Japanese launched their first counter-attack.
On August 20, 1,000 soldiers led by Colonel Kiyono lchiki attacked Marine positions on the left flank at the mouth of the llu River. But the Japanese underestimated the American strength, a mistake they would repeat several times in the campaign. Thinking there were only about 2,000 Marines on the island, lchiki's men attacked in three waves and were mowed down by the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment. More than 800 Japanese were killed and lchiki commited suicide.
The Japanese brought more soldiers to Guadalcanal on destroyers that travelled only at night to avoid the planes on Henderson Field and by September 12 had assembled a force of 3,000 men. Major-General Kawaguchi attacked from the south across a hill that became known as Bloody Ridge because of the intense fighting on the slopes.
Colonel Merritt *Red Mike' Edson's elite Raider battalion and parachute battalion bent under the assault, suffering 40 dead and 103 wounded, but did not break. Kawaguchi was not so fortunate and lost 600 killed and 600 wounded in two nights vicious fighting.
On October 9, the Japanese made a third and final attempt to drive the Marines into the sea when Lieutenant-General Harukichi Hyakutake gathered a new force of 20,000 men plus heavy artillery and planned to strike at the American centre and right simultaneously. but the terrible terrain made exact co-ordination between the two columns impossible and they attacked 24 hours apart.
That might not have been fatal except the Marines had received their own reinforcements in the weeks before the attack. More Marines and the U.S. Army's 164th Regiment brought American strength on Guadalcanal up to 23,000 soldiers. In addition, a second airstrip was built for fighter planes.
Hyakutake attacked and was slaughtered on the American defences.
On December 9, the battle and jungle weary 1st Marine Division was withdrawn and in its place were the Americal Division and the 25th Division, both army formations, and the 2nd Marine Division for a total of 50,000 men under Major-General Alexander Patch.
Hyakutake had less than half that number and a critical shortage of supplies left his men weak and sick.
In January of 1943, Patch fought his way down the length of the island, overrunning Hyakutake's headquarters on the 23rd of that month. The Japanese managed to evacuate 13,000 soldiers by night and the campaign ended on February 8, 1943.
In total, the United States lost 5,600 casualties of which 1,500 were killed while the Japanese lost an estimated 24,000 dead.
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