By Hon. William Newton Jackson III
(Nov. 11, 2022) During four months in 1942, the United States and Japan waged a series of fierce naval battles to control Guadalcanal, one of a chain of islands in the South Pacific, originally known as “King Solomon’s Isles” when discovered in the late 16th Century by a Spanish expedition in search of gold.
Guadalcanal was named for one sailor’s village in Spain.
The Solomon Islands are located just south of the equator and form a 600-mile chain in two columns running in a northwesterly-southeasterly direction.
In between is a deep-water channel known as the “Slot.” Most of the islands are mountainous with dense tropical rain forests below. The weather is constantly hot and steamy. Guadalcanal, one of the larger islands, is 90 miles long and 25 miles wide.
Ignored for centuries by the maritime powers of the world — it was not even on most nautical charts — the Solomons gained critical strategic importance for the U.S. in the early years of World War Two.
The eminent naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison likened Guadalcanal to Gettysburg in the Civil War, calling both a “meeting engagement.” Neither Lee nor Meade had the slightest interest in controlling the small Pennsylvania town in July 1863. It was only by chance that their armies met there.
In 1942, neither the U.S. nor Japan had any interest in Guadalcanal per se. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, setting out from Australia, wanted to recapture the Philippines.
Moving up the Solomon Islands “ladder” was the only way to accomplish that goal.
The Japanese were firmly entrenched at Rabaul (present-day Papua New Guinea) and by necessity had to move down that same ladder to block the U.S. effort and at the same time gain a foothold in the Antipodes (Australia and New Zealand).
In 1942, a small contingent of Japanese were already on Guadalcanal in the process of building an airstrip.
On Aug. 7 and 8, the U.S. landed some 11,000 Marines on the island, the first amphibious operation undertaken by the U.S. since the Spanish-American War of 1898.
They were met with little resistance. They seized the airstrip and promptly renamed it “Henderson Field” in honor of Lofton Henderson, a Marine aviator who was killed in the epic Battle of Midway two months earlier.
Despite their initial success, the Marines (and the Seabees who were later brought in to complete construction of the airfield) faced constant diurnal aerial attacks and nocturnal naval bombardments.
Getting a good night’s sleep was difficult. Heavy equipment, ammunition, and food were in short supply.
They met fierce counterattacks by Japanese soldiers still on the island and, even worse, from the additional Japanese troops which were landed during the night by ships collectively known as the “Tokyo Express.”
Three fierce land battles of note were Bloody Ridge (Sept. 12-14), Matanikau River (Sept. 23-Oct. 9), and Henderson Field (Oct. 19-26).
A tenet of mid-Twentieth Century warfare was that no ground force (in this case the Marines) could long hold a remote island against an enemy (the Japanese navy) who commanded the surrounding seas.
Therefore, beginning in August and continuing through November, the American and Japanese navies engaged in various battles, including the Battle of Savo Island (Aug. 9), the Battle of the Eastern Solomons (Aug. 24), the Battle of Cape Esperance (Oct. 11 and 12), the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands (Oct. 26 and 27), the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal (Nov. 12-15), and finally the Battle of Tassafaronga (Nov. 30).
So many ships were sunk that the waters surrounding Savo Island, at the northwestern tip of Guadalcanal, became known as “Ironbottom Sound.”
The Battle of Savo Island was a defeat for the U.S., but not a decisive victory for the Japanese. Eastern Solomons was essentially a carrier engagement with no decisive outcome for either side.
Cape Esperance was a U.S. victory, but not a decisive one. Santa Cruz was a Japanese tactical victory, but one producing no strategic advantage.
In all four battles, many lives were lost and ships sunk, most notably the U.S. aircraft carrier Hornet in Santa Cruz.
According to Morison, the Japanese generally outperformed the Americans in night actions, torpedo tactics, and long-range searches, but not so much in war-plan execution.
The major engagement was the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Like the other battles, it was the scene of extraordinary individual bravery and daring marred by tactical errors on the part of both navies.
The historian Morison wrote that, “Japanese and American ships mingled like minnows in a bucket.”
The chaotic night action of Friday the 13th resulted in the loss of eight American ships and hundreds of sailors, including two rear admirals, Daniel J. Callaghan aboard the heavy cruiser San Francisco and Norman Scott aboard the heavy cruiser Atlanta, which itself was sunk.
Battleships South Dakota and Washington dominated the night battle of Nov. 14-15, sealing a strategic victory for the U.S.
The Battle of Tassafaronga, which occurred on the last day of the month, was a tactical defeat for the U. S Navy, but it did not affect the outcome of the Guadalcanal campaign.
With simultaneous Allied victories in North Africa and Stalingrad, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain proclaimed “the end of the beginning” in World War Two.
On Aug. 11, during the darkest days of the campaign, a photograph — some might call it “iconic”—was taken of the Marine officers on Guadalcanal.
Third row, far right is 33-year-old Forest C. Thompson, who was awarded a Bronze Star for valor and who later became administrator of Peninsula General Hospital in Salisbury during the 1960s.
In popular culture, Robert Russell Bennett and Richard Rodgers produced the stirring musical score entitled “Guadalcanal March” which became part of the “Victory at Sea” series televised in the 1950s.
Next week: The “Desert Fox” Retreats