As war raged on in Europe, the United States remained on the sidelines supplying only aid to allied countries. The greatest threat at that time was considered to be Hitler and his German war machine. But on December 7 1941 this idea would drastically change. On this date the island of Pearl Harbor was hit by a surprise attack from Japanese naval and air forces. The Japanese managed to drastically cripple the U. S. Pacific fleet, and had the Pacific carriers been present, the Japanese might have even been able to change the course of the war.
This disaster, which enraged the American public, sparked a Declaration of war towards Japan and the other Axis powers. This intern marked the United States formal entry into World War II. Shortly after this incident, Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief of the U. S. fleet, met with British leaders for the first joint conference, given the code name “Arcadia. ” This conference was to reaffirm America’s stance in fighting the European front first and the Pacific front as merely a defensive position. This defensive position was stated as defending “vital interests”, however it was relatively vague.
Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, was given the order by Admiral King to protect the U. S. -Australian sea-lanes. This was to be accomplished chiefly by securing the line between Hawaii and the Samoa islands with an extension to the Fiji islands. However this task was not considered high priority and simply “needed to be accomplished” at the earliest possible date. At this same time Japan was expanding their Pacific Empire at an alarming rate over a vast area. This caused military leaders to rethink their view on the pacific front.
During the first five months of 1942 all branches of the service argued amongst each other about what was needed to defend the Pacific. Many of the top military leaders saw the European front as a more urgent situation. General Eisenhower’s team saw the Pacific theatre as merely a defensive task. Their opinion was that the Japanese would attack the oil rich Indies and stop at that. Eisenhower was quoted as stating, “We’ve got to go to Europe and fight, We’ve got to quit wasting resources all over the world- and still worse- wasting time.
Soon the Navy sent Marine reinforcements to strengthen Samoa. The Army then sent 1500 troops to Canton Island and 2000 troops to Christmas Island, both part of the Atolls island chain. Admiral King then decided to establish a refueling base at Bora-Bora to support the vast number of troops deployed on various islands. When 17000 men were sent to New Caledonia, the Army began to feel it’s first strains on it’s resources. However, the Navy still demanded more island strong points in the Pacific.
The Army insisted that no more than the minimum number of islands be secured and that none should receive more than the minimum garrison required to defend it. This buildup was partly due to the British prediction that the Japanese would next target the Fiji and New Caledonia islands. Debate slowly started to lean in favor of Admiral King’s campaign to expand efforts in the South Pacific. In late January President Roosevelt sent troops to defend New Zealand and Australia at their request, followed by the carrier battle group centered around the Lexington.
The most serious threat at hand was still the defense of the pacific sea-lanes and on February 15th the Yorktown battle group was sent to the pacific theatre as well. Even though military leaders were still somewhat cautious at this time, the Average American, despite Hitler’s threat, regarded Japan with distrust, Hatred, and fear and would not tolerate a policy of Idleness in the Pacific theatre after Pearl Harbor. The plight of the pacific region was constantly an argument between Army and Navy leaders, intern General MacArthur was given command of the Southwest Pacific area which included mainly Australia and the Phillipines.
Admiral Nimitz was consequentially given command over the remainder of the region stretching back to the east. This boundary was later to be moved one degree West so that Guadalcanal would fall under Nimitz’s control when battle was imminent. On April 1, President Roosevelt received the “Marshall Memorandum”, which was essentially a document, which called for a distinct choice between security in the Pacific and an early offensive in Europe. Marshall believed that prompt American action was essential to prevent defeat in the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom.
Basically Marshall was in favor of fighting the European front, and wanted a commitment by the United States to do the same. At first the British were in favor of King’s campaign in the Pacific but then decided in favor of the Marshall Plan when the Japanese’s intentions of merely raiding and not landing became clear. This basically ended British interests in the Pacific even though the debates raged on. Many opinions changed however on May 3 when the Japanese captured the island of Tulagi, which boarders Guadalcanal just to the north.
Immediately Nimitz proposed a strike to halt the Japanese advance, but MacArthur quickly objected on the grounds that he had no forces available to hold Tulagi. The Japanese advance was brought to a stand still later at the battles of Coral Sea and Midway, thanks to American code breakers. At the battle of Midway specifically the Japanese suffered a large defeat and a large amount of their air power was diminished. At this same point in time, the Australian Navy had been operating its’ Coastwatchers system which was especially helpful during the war.
The Coastwatchers consisted of local natives from the various islands and Australian Navy personnel. Basically these natives reported any Japanese activity to their superiors who then relayed this information by radio back to headquarters. It was essentially a basic form of intelligence. On June 13, Japan decided to establish an airbase on Guadalcanal to strengthen the outer perimeter of their advance. During the same time span the United States also realized the strategic importance of Guadalcanal and was in the planning stages of building an airfield as well.
On June 24, King directed Nimitz to prepare to capture Tulagi and adjacent positions. In the days that soon followed, American intelligence concluded that the Japanese had landed airfield construction troops on Guadalcanal. Lieutenant Colonel Merrill B. Twining and Major William McKean soon reinforced this conclusion when they spotted an airfield under construction on Guadalcanal while flying a reconnaissance mission in their B-17 on the 17th of July. The Navy acted fast and operation “Watchtower” soon came into to being.
The landing force was composed of the 1st Marine Division under the command of Major General Alexander Archer Vandegrift, and their job was the same as it always was, to take control of Guadalcanal and it’s sister island Tulagi. Meanwhile the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal were mostly construction workers and a small force of flying boats off the coast. Unknown to the Japanese, the U. S. convoy had managed to slip right upon the Japanese position shielded by cloud cover.
Around 0600 on the morning of August 7, Japanese construction workers and the other various soldiers awoke to the blasts of naval gunfire from off the coast. Grumman F4F-4 Wildcats from the carrier Wasp followed soon after and quickly destroyed the little air opposition the Japanese had, which left them very vulnerable. After softening the beachhead, the Marines were ready to invade. Men sprawled down cargo nets from troop transports into landing craft and headed for Beach Red, a strip of beach near the Tenaru River designated earlier.
Expecting to hit the beach fighting, the Marines were shocked to find absolutely no opposition and they soon found themselves dulling machetes as they tromped through dense jungle growth. The nearby by island of Tulagi was also part of the invasion and the Marines had perhaps more resistance here than on Guadalcanal. Composed of 1st Raider Battalion and 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, the landing force for Tulagi embarked on a southern strip of beach and worked their way east to the main Japanese position. However these Marines were traveling light, because they weren’t carrying very much food.
Don’t worry about food,” their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Merrit A. Edson, told one company commander. “There’s plenty there. Japs eat, too. All you have to do is get it. ”(Frank pg. 3) The fighting on Tulagi was fierce but did not last long and the Marines had soon secured the island, and recovered plenty of food abandoned by the Japanese. At this same time Admiral Yamamoto was receiving word that his forces on Guadalcanal and Tulagi were being slaughtered and he soon sent nearby air reinforcements from Rabaul and New Guinea.
High level bombers arrived around 1315 but heavy cloud cover prevents them doing even mild damage to American forces. Around 1500 nine Japanese dive-bombers arrived. The dive-bombers manage to damage a destroyer, but in the end only three crews make it back to Rabaul. On Guadalcanal, the 1st Division was dispersed roughly one mile from their starting point when they decided to settle in for the night. The first night ashore was a harrowing experience for the young Marines, as many had not even seen the enemy yet.
Very little sleep was had by that night for fear that the Japanese lay waiting in the jungle. On the morning of August 8, ground crews at Rabaul tended to the small number of operational planes that would be launched in attempt to take out supply ships in order to cut off the Marines. The Japanese torpedo bombers came gliding in just 20 to 40 feet above the water keeping in sink with tactics that were successful earlier in the war, but instead this time they were met with much heavier weapons including 20mm antiaircraft machine guns. Plane after plane burst into flames and flailed into the sea.
One bomber put a torpedo into the bow of the destroyer Jarvis causing severe damage, and one other managed to crash itself into the transport George S. Elliot. This caused a raging fire and the transport was soon scuttled in shallow water. Ashore, Vandegrift defined the line of the Lunga River as the Marine objective for August 8. Colonel Cates redirected one of his battalions towards the new objective, but it still found heavy going in the dense growth. Cates’s two remaining battalions retraced their path back to the shore and marched down the beach to the new line.
The 5th Marines enjoyed much more favorable terrain, consisting of flat coconut plains along the shore, and after scattered resistance, had seized the airfield around 1600. The Marines were amazed to find that almost all of the Japanese supplies lay intact, and only a few bodies were left over from the naval bombardment. To this day it is still a mystery why the Japanese did not establish any form of organized resistance around the airfield. As the Marines settled in for their second night on Guadalcanal, the situation appeared well in hand, at least for the time being.
When Vice Admiral Mikawa learned of Guadalcanal, he immediately pulled together every warship at his disposal and headed south from Rabaul. He arrived off of the southern shore of Savo Island in the small hours of the morning of August 9th. Ahead of him were several groups of allied warships, their crews exhausted from days of continuous combat operations. Due to the three entrances to the soon-to-be-infamous Ironbottom Sound, the allied forces were compelled to divide their strength into three patrolling squadrons: Southern, Northern, and Eastern.
The Allied vessels were unalert, and their commanders were in some cases either asleep or away from the actual scene of action. Beyond the Allied warships lay a transport anchorage off of Lunga Point whose merchant vessels were still packed with equipment intended for the Marines ashore. The stage was set for the most humiliating defeat ever inflicted upon the US Navy. Mikawa’s ships slipped unseen past the destroyer pickets at the mouth of the sound, and soon came upon the Southern group of Allied warships; two heavy cruisers (HMAS Canberra and USS Chicago) and two destroyers.
True to standard Japanese tactics, Mikawa’s force first launched torpedoes and then followed up with devastating salvos of 8- and 6-inch gunfire. Canberra was in a sinking condition almost before she was aware that a battle had been joined. Chicago fared slightly better (she wasn’t sunk), but never properly got into action, and (even worse) never alerted the Northern Force as to the presence of Mikawa’s squadron. Fifteen minutes later, curving northward around Savo Island’s Eastern Shore, the Japanese came upon the Northern Force, still steaming sedately along in a box patrol pattern.
Mikawa’s forces had become divided in the earlier exchange, and by chance enveloped the Allied Northern force from both sides. Taken unaware, and caught in a devastating crossfire, Northern Force’s three heavy cruisers, Vincennes, Quincy, and Astoria, were quickly gunned into sinking hulks. At this point, having slaughtered the allied escorts, the transport anchorage behind him lay open for Mikawa’s taking. But the Japanese admiral’s position was not as favorable as he would have wished. He had no idea that the US carriers (under Admiral Fletcher) covering the invasion had been withdrawn from the general vicinity.
Attacking the transport anchorage would require his slowing, reassembling his scattered squadron, coming about, finding the anchorage, and then attacking it. It was now close to 2:00 AM. An attack on the anchorage, according to Mikawa’s staff officers, would have added nearly two hours to the operation, placing Mikawa’s force in a dangerous position when dawn broke at around 0400. Further, Mikawa had no idea as to what Allied vessels still remained untouched in the sound. Consequently, shortly after 0200, he ordered a general retirement up The Slot.
Ironically, having survived the fray around Savo, Kako fell victim to three torpedoes from the American submarine S-44 as a portion of the Japanese force approached the safety of Kavieng the next day. Thus ending the first installment in a series of grim night battles around Guadalcanal. It was a spectacular tactical victory for the Japanese, but it was also shorn of the strategic advantage it might have achieved. After learning of the Marines taking the airfield, the Japanese high command quickly decides on a new plan of action.
They pick Colonel Ichiki, the man who was originally scheduled to take Midway had a naval engagement there permitted a troop landing, to retake Guadalcanal. On August 12th, the airstrip at Guadalcanal is named Henderson Field in Honor of a fallen hero from the battle of Midway, Major Lofton Henderson. The field is declared ready for service but unfortunately no American aircraft are available for assignment here. Japanese aircraft, however, are making almost daily use of the field as a bombing target. On August the 19th, Japanese destroyers deposit Ichiki and his advance-echelon troops at Guadalcanal at 0100 in the morning.
Landing is made at this early hour to avoid harassment by the fliers of Henderson field. The Japanese are unaware that no American aircraft have yet arrived at the airfield. The colonel and his 900 troops land undetected and begin their march toward the airport without waiting for the additional troops that are following a few days behind. They make it to a tidal lagoon known as Alligator Creek where they encounter the U. S. 1st Marine Division. There, a furious battle ensues and the Japanese are quickly and completely annihilated.
So crushing is their defeat that Colonel Ichiki, and many of his staff committed suicide in order to redeem their honor. This has the unfortunate consequence that his few remaining troops are left without officers to lead them. Eight days after the naming of Henderson field, the escort carrier Long Island launches 19 F4F and 12 SBD aircraft from 190 miles south of Guadalcanal. By late afternoon the marines at Gaudalcanal hear the distant drone of aircraft engines and for the irst time see planes other than Japanese as the Dauntlesses and Wildcats arrive landing in clouds of dust.
Pilots and crews are taken back by the wild joy of the marines who toss their helmets in the air and cheer. Younger Marines shed tears and old timers are not ashamed of their moist eyes. No event in this campaign does as much to boost the morale as this arrival of the first American planes. The Japanese decide to capitalize on their victory at Savo Island by sending down an armada to wipe out the remnants of the U. S. Navy and at the same time reinforce their remaining land troops that are now few in number and of limited effectiveness. But this time, the Japanese are not so lucky at sea.
The U. S. Navy is able to regain some of its prestige by sinking one of their aircraft carriers, a destroyer, and a large troop transport while seriously damaging a cruiser. This victory is accomplished largely by the outstanding performance of U. S. airmen. This is to be known the battle of the Eastern Solomons and credit for the victory goes to Admiral Scott. American losses include damage to the aircraft carrier Enterprise forcing its return to Pearl Harbor for repairs. This victory keeps the Japanese from landing the troops necessary to start a major drive to retake Henderson Field.