The Battle of Guadalcanal was a military campaign carried out by the American fleet and Marines on the island of Guadalcanal and other neighboring islands in the Pacific theater between August 7, 1942 and February 9, 1943. The Battle of Guadalcanal was the first major offensive launched by Allied forces against the Empire of Japan.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, had crippled much of the U.S. battleship fleet and precipitated a formal state of war between the two nations. The first objectives of Japanese leaders were to neutralize the U.S. Navy, seize possessions rich in natural resources, and establish strategic military bases to defend Japan’s empire in the Pacific and Asia. To achieve these goals, Japanese forces captured the Philippines, Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Wake Island, Gilbert Islands, New Britain, and Guam. But two more attempts by the Japanese to keep the strategic initiative and extend their defensive perimeter in the south and central Pacific had been thwarted at the naval battles of Coral Sea and Midway, after which the United States went on the ofensive. Great Britain and Australia joined the United States in the war against Japan. They chose the southern Solomon Islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida as the first target.
The Battle of Guadalcanal began on the early morning of August 7, 1942, with the first American landing on Guadalcanal Island. The amphibious force was the most powerful ever assembled. Three American carriers gave air support; the Saratoga, the Wasp, and the Enterprise. Five cruisers from America and Australia guarded the actual landing craft. The Americans achieved complete tactical surprise. When the Marines landed on ‘Red Beach’, they expected major Japanese defences, but they met no resistance when set foot on the beaches and were able land with their supplies.
As the Americans advanced inland towards where the airfield was being built, the hot and humid jungle climate soon took its toll on soldiers carrying heavy equipment. But the Americans made no contact with the enemy in the first 24 hours. However, the Marines who landed at nearby islands that lay to the north of Guadalcanal, such as Tulagi, Gavutu and Tanambogo, encountered fierce resistance, taking them 24 hours to eliminate the Japanese who had been based at Tulagi. US paratroopers attacked Gavutu and met a similar response from the Japanese and it required fire from nearby naval ships to alleviate the problem.
When the Americans arrived at the airfield on Guadalcanal late on August, there were no Japanese there as they had fled into the jungle. However, on August 8/9 a Japanese cruiser force attacked the Allied naval force at Guadalcanal and forced it to withdraw. Now the Marines on Guadalcanal were on their own. The Marines were in a difficult position. The Japanese Navy controlled the sea around Guadalcanal and frequently fired on the Marines and the Japanese air force bombed the airfield runway. However, the American commander, Vandergrift, did have one good piece of luck; the Japanese had left a number of very useful vehicles with which the Marines repaired the runway. Their work was rewarded on August 20 when 19 Wildcat fighters and 12 Dauntless bombers landed at the airfield.
The Japanese decided to attack the Marines on August 21. It was a simple bayonet attack on the American positions. But many Japanese were killed by carefully placed machine guns. When the Japanese withdrew, Vandergrift ordered one of his reserve battalions to encircle the Japanese. In what became known as the ‘Battle of Tenaru’, the Marines slowly pushed the Japanese back to the sea. They were surrounded on three sides with the sea on the fourth side. It was here that the Americans first found out that the Japanese did not surrender and that they were willing to die for the emperor. Using the planes at Henderson and some tanks that had been landed, the Marines killed many Japanese. Only a handful got away and moved east down the coast to safety at Taivu where the Japanese commander, Ichiki, committed suicide.
Nevertheless another stronger Japanese force would soon be landing on Guadalcanal; the XXXVth Brigade. The Americans had one major advantage over the Japanese – they had to be transported by sea and the ships transporting these men were open to attack from the American planes based at Henderson airfield. To get around this problem, the Japanese moved their men at night via fast-moving destroyers in so-called ‘rat runs’. By doing this the Japanese could all but escape American fire and they succeeded in landing a large quantity of men to the east and west of the American position at Henderson. Vandegrift decided to do what he could to disrupt the Japanese and he sent a party of Marine Raiders to Taivu. They found few personnel there but they did find out that the Japanese had already moved into the jungle and that an attack on the Americans would not be too far into the future.
It took the Marines four long months of vicious fighting in the jungle, with the Marine Raiders playing a key role, until February 9, 1943, to rid the island of Guadalcanal of Japanese. Between September and November 1942 the Japanese had made three attempts to retake Henderson Airfield. Three major land battles, five large naval battles, and continual, almost daily, aerial battles, culminated in the decisive Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in early November 1942, in which the last Japanese attempt to land enough troops to capture Henderson Airfield was defeated.