May 1942, untested United States Marines are headed into the Pacific, most of them are kids out of high school with a deeply inculcated sense of pride and patriotism. For the most part they are well trained. These are the pride of America’s youth. The answer to both the dedicated Wehrmacht soldier and the fanatical Japanese soldier. These Marines, many of them are skinny, smokers, just out of high school, are fit with youth. They are enthusiastic, many of them with no idea what they are about to face. They hail from farms and rural counties, others from the heart of our big cities. At training centers, all of them meet each other and get a taste of how alike we Americans all are, and how different.
These young men were about to face our archenemy, the Imperial Japanese soldier. Unlike his American counterpart, he was blooded in battle and motivated by his undying devotion to the Emperor.
Guadalcanal was the first test of our mettle and the fight inside our Allies in the Pacific. From August 7th, 1942 to February 9th, 1943. This island sits southeast of the Solomon Islands and just north of the Australian shore, right at the outer edge of the Imperial Japanese Empire. This was where we were going to start. Guadalcanal was where Americans firing in anger and retribution finally confronted the Japanese.
The supply line to the theater of battle was 6500 miles long. Or three times the distance east to west across the United States. A tenuous route no doubt but protected mostly just by the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. But the Allies had big plans. This attack on the US Pacific fleet was looked at as more than just a brutal opportunistic move by a fascist dictator. It was a cowardly sucker punch. So we were coming to get them. Among the first deployments was the United States First Marine Division, headed to New Zealand. In May they landed in Wellington and disembarked there to continue training.
No one knew where we were headed who didn’t need to know. Secrecy was paramount and well kept. Intelligence also saw Japanese airfields under construction on Guadalcanal in high-resolution films taken by US Naval reconnaissance aircraft. So the original attack site of Santa Cruz was moved to Guadalcanal.
An airfield at Lunga point would give the Japanese bombers a base close enough to attack the western United States and deep into the heart of French Indochina and British protectorates all over the Pacific Rim, not the least of which were the Solomon Islands.
The Japanese had taken Burma, Singapore, Thailand, the Dutch East Indies, Wake Island, New Britain and Guam.
On the 7th of August 1942, the USS Quincy opened fire on Japanese positions on Guadlcanal preparing the ground for an invasion. 11,000 Marines disembarked in the clumsy netting festooned off of the troop ships and then into Higgins Boats tossing in extremely choppy waters. The Marines took the first positions with little bloodshed.
The experience of our first battle with Japan was surreal. It took six months to complete and it was a slugfest. Four surrounding Islands had to be taken as well. Tulagi, Tanambogo, Florida, and Cavutu. Florida Island was taken without a drop of blood. Tulagi however was a different story. This is where Marines discovered that the Japanese not only attacked at night they attacked every night. This is where our boys fought through an entire night of bonsai charges, each one a terrible failure leaving the battlefield strewn with dead. They gave as good as they got, almost. But with thousands of Japanese dead, 29 ships sunk, and 600 + planes shot down put us in the winner’s column.
On Tanambogo the USS Buchanan eliminated most of the Japanese resistance with a well placed artillery bombardment. Subsequent land forces mopped up and eliminated all 750 Japanese troops there. Cavutu was also taken quickly, and the strategic goal on each was reached: the Japanese could not take advantage of these promontories and place artillery on them to interdict our new landing strip: Henderson Field.
Guadalcanal was chosen as a target because of Henderson Field. This would give the Japanese a base from which to launch air campaigns against the western coast of the United States and Australia and New Zealand. This was an interdiction campaign and as bloody as it was, Henderson fell in US hands and stayed there throughout the war. One story demonstrates how important it was for Japan to own this area. When Japanese bombers were taking off from bass around Australia, citizens were watching and calling Allied personnel to warm them of mending incoming flights. It was a brilliant way to keep the Japanese assault off balance.
In the meantime, we were learning that the Japanese soldier was formidable. They fought with fanatical zeal. It was probably a good thing we didn’t know this until we were committed. The attack was a complete surprise to the Japanese. Perhaps that’s why they lost 30,000 people and we lost 7100. We knew one thing for sure, another generation of fighting Marines was on the way.
Sources: wiki, History Channel, US Marine Museum, Library of Congress