The History Herald

Guadalcanal

The Tide Turns

Japanese fortunes turned sour in mid-1942. Their uninterrupted string of victories ended with history's first great carrier battles. In May 1942 the Battle of the Coral Sea halted a new Japanese offensive in the south Pacific. A month later the Japanese suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Midway in the central Pacific. Now American and Australian forces were able to begin two small counteroffensives -- one in the Solomons and the other on New Guinea's Papua peninsula. The first featured the Marine Corps and the Army; the second, the Army and the Australian Allies.

Guada What?

Of all the places where GIs fought in the Second World War, Guadalcanal and the Papuan peninsula may have been the worst. Though separated by 800 miles of ocean, the two were similarly unhealthful in terrain and climate. The weather on both is perpetually hot and wet; rainfall may exceed 200 inches a year, and during the rainy season deluges, sometimes 8 to 10 inches of rain, occur daily. Temperatures in December reach the high eighties, and humidity seldom falls below 80 percent. Terrain and vegetation are equally foreboding -- dark, humid, jungle-covered mountains inland, and evil-smelling swamps along the coasts. Insects abound. The soldiers and marines were never dry; most fought battles while wracked by chills and fever. For every two soldiers lost in battle, five were lost to disease -- especially malaria, dengue, dysentery, or scrub typhus, a dangerous illness carried by jungle mites. Almost all suffered "jungle rot," ulcers caused by skin disease.

Guadalcanal lay at the southeast end of the Solomons, an island chain 600 miles long. Navy carriers and other warships supported the landings, but they could not provide clear air or naval superiority. The marines landed on 7 August 1942, without opposition, and quickly overran an important airfield. That was the last easy action on Guadalcanal. The carriers sailed away almost as soon as the marines went ashore. Then Japanese warships surprised the supporting U.S. naval vessels at the Battle of Savo Island and quickly sank four heavy cruisers and one destroyer. Ashore, the Japanese Army fought furiously to regain the airfield. Through months of fighting the marines barely held on; some American admirals even thought that the beachhead would be lost. But gradually land-based aircraft were ferried in to provide air cover, and the Navy was able to return. As the Japanese continued to pour men into the fight, Guadalcanal became a battle of attrition.

The Attack

American resources were indeed slim. When MacArthur arrived in Australia in March 1942, he found, to his dismay, that he had little to command. Australian militia and a few thousand U.S. airmen and service troops were his only resources. The Australian 7th Division soon returned from North Africa, where it had been fighting the Germans, and two U.S. National Guard divisions, the 32nd and the 41st, arrived in April and May. MacArthur had enough planes for two bomber squadrons and six fighter squadrons. With only these forces, he set out to take Papua, while Admiral Nimitz, with forces almost equally slim, attacked Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.


The Japanese also faced serious problems. Their commanders had to choose between strengthening Guadalcanal or Buna. Choosing Guadalcanal, they withdrew some support from the Buna garrison. Growing American air power made it impossible for the Japanese Navy to resupply their forces ashore, and their troops began to run short of food and ammunition. By December they were on the edge of starvation. Here the battle of attrition lasted longer, and not until January 1943 was the last Japanese resistance eliminated.

Buna was costlier in casualties than Guadalcanal, and in some respects it was an even nastier campaign. The terrain was rougher; men who crossed the Owen Stanley called that march their toughest experience of the war. The Americans lacked almost everything necessary for success -- weapons, proper clothing, insect repellents, and adequate food. "No more Bunas," MacArthur pledged. For the rest of the war his policy was to bypass Japanese strong-points. When the battles for Guadalcanal and Buna began, the Americans had insufficient strength to win. American strength increased as the battle went on. Over the next three years it would grow to overwhelming proportions.

WW2: This is Guadalcanal (1944)
© Ms. Stockman's Social Studies. 2013