Guadalcanal: America Turns the Tide

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Before Guadalcanal the enemy advanced at his pleasure. After Guadalcanal, he retreated at ours.

Admiral William “Bull” Halsey

Seventy years ago Marines of the First Division, The Old Breed, launched the first offensive of America in World War II, by landing on Guadalcanal and seized the Japanese air strip, named Henderson Field by the Marines.  This set off a huge six month campaign, where US forces, often outnumbered on land, sea and in the air, fought and defeated the Imperial Army and Navy.

Once the Marines seized Henderson, the Japanese commenced a cycle of shipping troops by sea to Guadalcanal, called by Marines the Tokyo Express, to take it back.  The Imperial Navy, waged battle after battle with the US Navy to cut the supply line of the Marines. In the skies above Guadalcanal the Japanese sent wave after wave of fighters and bombers to establish air supremacy and to make Henderson unusable through bombing.

The Japanese were unable to establish air supremacy due to the “Cactus Air Force”, Cactus being the Allied code name for Guadalcanal, heavily outnumbered Marine aviators, who, operating under the most primitive conditions imaginable, successfully contested Japanese control of the air, and, eventually, with American carrier based air, established American air supremacy above Guadalcanal.

The US Navy, in seven large battles against its Japanese counterpart, eventually established naval supremacy in the seas around Guadalcanal.  The battles were hammer and tongs affairs, with some of the most desperate naval fighting in the entire War.

The Marines on Guadalcanal learned many useful lessons in fighting and beating the Japanese:

1.  The Japanese were masters of night infiltration.  The best response was for each unit to adopt a 360 degree defense, hold up until morning, and then hunt down the infiltrators during daylight.

2.  Although the Japanese were insanely brave, they often lacked tactical finesse, and too often their officers would throw away their own lives and the lives of their men in futile frontal assaults.

3.  The Japanese often fought on a logistical shoestring, and if they could be held in place by a determined defense, starvation would often whittle them down.

4.  The average Japanese soldier, often drafted from a city, was no more a natural jungle fighter than the average Marine.

5.  Co-ordination between Japanese ground forces and air units was very poor.

6.  The Japanese were very weak in regard to armor.

7.  The Japanese often went in for overly complicated battle plans which fell down due to lack of co-ordination between units.

Guadalcanal was the best type of victory for the Americans, in that it taught them much about their adversary and themselves, and pointed out shortcomings in regard to the way they waged amphibious warfare and a lack of co-ordination between naval, air and ground forces that needed to be corrected for future operations.


Robert Leckie, future journalist and military historian, as well as a devout Catholic, was  a Marine machine gunner on Guadalcanal.  He and his buddies often felt isolated from the rest of the world and frequently thought that they were forgotten by America.  Leckie learned how wrong he was when he and the rest of the 1rst Division were relieved by the Army at the end of 1942:


“We walked in and sat down, just as the last soldier who had been aboard this transport was rising to leave. He looked down at us as we sipped the coffee from thick white mugs. “How was it?” he said, jerking his head shoreward. “Rough.” We answered mechanically. Then Chuckler spoke up, “You mean Guadalcanal?” The soldier seemed surprised. “Of course I do.” Chuckler hastened to explain. “I wasn’t being wise…I meant, had you ever heard of the place before you got here?” His astonishment startled us. An idea was dawning, gladly. “Y’mean…” “Hell, yes! Guadalcanal. The First Marines- Everybody’s heard of it. You guys are famous. You guys are heroes back home…” We did not see him leave, for we had both looked away quickly- each embarrassed by the quick tears. They had not forgotten.”

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