The Battle of Guadalcanal

If there is one word that defines the six-month-long battle for Guadalcanal, it is misery. The battle for Guadalcanal lasted from August 7th, 1942 until December 22nd 1942. Four months and two weeks. The Battle for Guadalcanal began without sufficient depth of support  because of Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway. As a result of the losses at Pearl Harbor, the US Navy Pacific fleet was considerably under strength. However, at the Battle of Midway, Japan lost four aircraft carriers, a cruiser, and 292 aircraft. Half their aircraft carriers gone in one battle. So it was time to get serious about closing in on Japan.

But the supply lines between America and Australia were in danger too, so there were two fronts to fight on. As always, one front gets short rations. That was Guadalcanal.

The 1st Marine Division was new to the Pacific, new to war, and had never made an amphibious landing in the brand-new Higgins Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel or LCVP.*** In fact, the US Navy hadn’t made any amphibious landings since 1898. And none of these Marines were veterans. They had training only. (10:14; elements of narration by Tom Hanks, who was the executive producer of “The Pacific: Inside the Battle”, from which this video is taken.

(***The Higgins boat design was excellent, and it changed the way the US Navy established beachheads. It made landings possible along greater stretches of coastline than ever before. See why here.  Higgins Industries was the first employer in New Orleans to be racially integrated, also employing women, senior citizens, and the handicapped, all at the same rate according to the job. “They responded by shattering production records, turning out more than 20,000 boats by the end of the war.”)

The Marines were surprised to find that there were only about 200 Japanese combat troops on Guadalcanal. The rest were construction workers, who took one look at the Marines and fled. However, Gaudalcanal was only 550 miles from Rabaul, which was a large Japanese garrison, and they immediately began to send troops to Guadalcanal. And battleships.

After landing the Marines on Guadalcanal, Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, Guadalcanal task force commander, withdrew his aircraft carriers, fearing what did happen: an immediate Japanese counter-attack which sunk the four remaining US heavy cruisers. This meant that there would be no air support for transport or supply ships for the Marines. Most of what the Marines ate then had to come from captured Japanese supplies – rice and dried fish. Multiple naval battles littered “the Slot” along the Solomon Islands with so many sunk vessels that it was called “Iron Bottom Sound”.

This heart-warming story emerged from those naval battles: “Lifebelt from home“.

Two very unpleasant attributes of the average Japanese soldier emerged at Guadalcanal which made war against them very grim: they wouldn’t quit, and they sometimes pretended to surrender to get close enough to try to kill one more American warrior. This explains why many GIs preferred not to take Japanese prisoners.

“By October, malaria began to claim as many casualties as Japanese artillery, bombs, and naval gunfire.”

Death could wear many faces on Guadalcanal. A man could be weakened by tropical disease and malnutrition just as easily as being killed by enemy fire ... daily rations of the maggot- and worm-infested rice … two-tablespoon meal day after day … It was not uncommon for men on Guadalcanal to lose as much as 40 pounds due to malnutrition and tropical diseases.

Although the first naval battle of Guadalcanal was a disaster for the US Navy, the second time around was the end of Japanese hopes of retaking Guadalcanal. On November 14th, 1942, at 11:17 pm, the US battleships Washington and South Dakota, with four destroyer escorts, opened fire on a Japanese force consisting of the battleship Kirishima, four cruisers and nine destroyers. The battle lasted until 12:40 am November 15th. It ended with both sides suffering major damage, but the Japanese battleship was sunk by the USS Washington. This was the last significant attempt either to bomb the vital Henderson Airfield on Guadalcanal or to retake the island.

A Marine Corps legend was born on Guadalcanal, and the Corps tells the incredible story so well that I don’t want to spoil it by re-telling it in my words. Go here
 to see what it took to create that legend.

The Marine in this video, Dr. Sid Phillips, was attending medical school at the University of Alabama about the same time my father was getting his Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering there. I wonder if he and my Dad had any of the “general” classes together. I wonder if he was in the crowd when my parents took me to a post-game celebration when the Crimson Tide rolled effortlessly (how else?) over another team …

After the war, the Marine in the 3:38 video at this link lived and died in Boxford, Massachusetts, the same small town I lived in when I was in Massachusetts.

On December 9th of 1942, the 1st Marine Division began to be replaced by the 164th Infantry of the Americal Division. It took two more months to officially secure Guadalcanal. Differing sources list differing casualty figures, but roughly speaking, they all tell the same story. History dot com says that the US Army and Marines together had less than 2,000 soldiers out of 60,000 total deployed, and Japanese losses were two-thirds of the 31,400 troops engaged in the battle.

At Guadalcanal, the 1st Marine Division proved itself in combat, under pretty grim circumstances. The American military saw it proven that even a fanatical enemy such as the Japanese could be defeated. And it became plain that the beginning of the end for Japan was at hand.

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