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Fighting for the Solomon Islands - Guadalcanal, part 1.

Author : 🕔05.05.2009 📕45.926
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Episode 1. Invasion

Although the Arcadia Conference, held shortly after the outbreak of the Pacific War, stated that the primary task for the American armed forces would be to deal with Germany, not all senior American officers were of this opinion. Perhaps the most prominent opponent of a defensive strategy in the Pacific was the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Navy, Admiral E. J. King. King could not speak out against the concept of war adopted at the highest levels; to do so would have made him untenable for President Roosevelt as commander of the Navy. Therefore, he chose a so-called defensive-offensive strategy in the Pacific. Under this theory, it was impossible to give the enemy time to establish a firm foothold in the newly acquired territories in the South Pacific and to build strong naval and air bases there. This would certainly have led to intensified Japanese pressure on New Guinea, Australia, Samoa, New Caledonia, and would have made future operations leading to the expulsion of the enemy from the occupied territories considerably more difficult.

When the Japanese fleet was defeated at Midway (see the article The Battle of Midway by R. Fox), King and with him the Nimitz and MacArthur concluded that the enemy was weakened and it was time to launch an offensive, especially in the South Pacific. The main target was Rabaul. It must be said that the Japanese thought similarly and shifted their attention to the Southwest Pacific areas. So they began to rapidly reinforce Rabaul, their base on the island of New Britain, from which they intended to lead another assault on Port Moresby, an Allied foothold on the southern coast of New Guinea. It followed, therefore, that the Japanese intended to make the Bismarck-Solomon Archipelago line a bulwark against a possible Allied advance and, with it, a staging area for their own offensive actions. One outpost was to be Port Moresby and the other an island in the southern Solomons. After careful reconnaissance, the island of Guadalcanal was chosen for this purpose, where a strong air base was to be built, and the adjacent islet of Tulagi, where it was intended to build a base for seaplanes and an anchorage for warships. Admiral King, who was rumored to be so tough he had to shave with a blowtorch, eventually pushed through with the concept of a South Pacific attack, especially after convincing General Marshall, the Chief of Staff. Eventually it was decided in Washington that the offensive would be launched by seizing the Santa Cruz Islands, lying southeast of the Solomons, and then Tulagi and the adjacent islands in the southern Solomons. The operation, codenamed Watchtower, will be under the strategic command of Admiral Nimitz. To avoid encroaching on the Southwest Area while it was being conducted, under the command of General Mac Arthur, the boundary was shifted one degree of longitude to the west, so that Tulagi Island and adjacent Guadalcanal now belonged to the South Pacific Area of Nimitz's subordinate Vice Admiral Ghormley. It was further stipulated that after the successful completion of Operation Watchtower, especially after obtaining a suitable base at Tulagi, MacArthur would assume strategic command, occupy the northern portion of the Solomon Islands, and at the same time his forces would begin an advance on New Guinea from Port Moresby northward to the ports of Salamaua and Lae. From the newly acquired boarding areas, they will eventually attack Rabaul. A directive issued by the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 2 July 1942 set the date for the start of the operation at 1 August 1942.



Solomon Islands
Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal

The Solomon Islands were discovered by the Spanish officer Don Alvaro Mendana when he sailed from Peru in 1567 in search of the mythical land of Ophir, from which the biblical King Solomon was said to have derived his wealth. The first island of the archipelago he saw was named Santa Isabel. On this island, the expedition lingered somewhat. The sailors built a ship from felled logs, which Pedro de Ortega, one of Mendan's officers, sailed to the next island, which he named, after his hometown in Valencia, Spain, Guadalcanal. Despite not finding any of King Solomon's gold after exploring other islands, Mendana named the islands Solomon's Islands.

The expedition then returned to Peru. For the next two hundred years, the Solomons were completely forgotten. The royal hydrographers even concluded that the islands never existed, and so even erased them from the maps. In 1967, they were rediscovered by the French navigator de Bougainville and the largest island in the north of the archipelago was named after him. The entire Solomon Archipelago consists of two parallel chains of islands and islets from northwest to southeast. Between them is a narrow but deep strait. The Americans called it the Slot. Guadalcanal is about 160 km long and 50 km wide. It is all mountains and steep hillsides, tropical jungle full of mosquitoes and malaria, grass up to two metres high in places, and woodland. The average temperature is 33°C, it rains heavily almost every day, making the mud slick everywhere. Tulagi Island, however, is a much more pleasant place. It has a good harbour and so serves as the commercial and administrative centre of the whole archipelago.

Tulagi and Guadalcanal Islands
Tulagi and Guadalcanal Islands

Japanese occupy the southern Solomons

The Japanese landed in the southern Solomons in May 1942. They placed a garrison of several hundred men on Tulagi, installed a radio station, unloaded supplies, and began building a seaplane base. They also took over Florida Island. They paid little attention to Guadalcanal. After the Battle of the Coral Sea, when the advance on Port Moresby was thwarted, and after the lost Battle of Midway, the Japanese decided to build an air base in the southern Solomons. Guadalcanal was chosen and the Japanese quickly set to work.


On July 4, 1942, an American reconnaissance plane flew over Guadalcanal and took a series of photographs. Their development caused alarm at Nimitz's headquarters in Pearl Harbor. They showed that the Japanese had almost completed the island's airfield. With this discovery, the original objective of the entire Watchtower operation was changed, and it was immediately decided to attack Guadalcanal and Tulagi directly. On July 10, the South Pacific Area Commander, Vice Admiral Ghormley, received an operational order from Nimitz to seize Guadalcanal and Tulagi immediately.


Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner and Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Vandegrift
Contadmiral Richmond Kelly Turner and Marine Major General A.A. Vandegrift


The following forces were committed to this task:

  • Tactical command of the expeditionary force: vice admiral F. J. Fletcher (victory from Midway)
  • supporting Rear Admiral Leigh Noyes with the aircraft carriers Saratoga, Enterprise and, from the Atlantic, the recently added Wasp. Also, the battleship North Carolina, five heavy and one light cruiser, sixteen destroyers, and two tankers.
  • Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner's amphibious force, which consisted of transport and landing craft
  • an escort group of eight cruisers, three of which were Australian, and nine destroyers under British Rear Admiral Victor A. C. Crutchley.
  • South Pacific Air Force under Rear Admiral John S. McCain, which consisted of aircraft from land bases in New Caledonia, Samoa and Fiji.

The actual drop and seizure of the targets was to be carried out by the forces of Marine Maj. Gen. A. A. Vandegrift, subordinate to Rear Admiral Turner. It was the 1st Marine Division, reinforced by the 2nd Marine Regiment, the 1st Strike Battalion, and the 3rd Defense Battalion, for a total of about 19,000 men. Major General Alexander Archer Vandegrift, was undoubtedly one of the most able officers of the U.S. Marine Corps, with which his entire military career was also associated. Within its ranks, he fought in Nicaragua, Mexico, and in Haiti. From 1935 to 1937, he commanded a Marine unit guarding the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and then served as deputy commander of the 1st Marine Division, stationed at New River, North Carolina, with the rank of brigadier general. In April 1942, the South Pacific Amphibious Force was created by order of Admiral King, and Vandegrift's 1st Division was ordered to move to the South Pacific, specifically to Wellington in New Zealand on 14 June. Immediately thereafter, Vandegrift learned from Admiral Ghormley that he had been assigned the task of seizing Tulagi and the Japanese-built airfield on Guadalcanal as part of Operation Watchtower. The start of the operation was set for 1 August 1942, but this left Vandegrift desperately short of time to prepare properly. Ships were constantly arriving in Wellington harbour with ammunition, food, medical supplies, equipment and armaments. Vandegrift was also faced with the problem of finding out accurate information about the islands his troops were to attack, the tide, the coastline, the terrain, and the strength and disposition of the Japanese military garrisons. There were no good maps of the area, and all the information that Vandegrift's staff officers could gather came from former planters, missionaries, merchants, and sailors. Valuable information was also provided by members of the Australian Coastguard Service. This was an intelligence network, made up largely of volunteers, who, on the Solomon and Bismarck Islands , manned powerful radio stations, monitored enemy activity, and made regular reports to headquarters in Sydney, Australia. The commander of the Guadalcanal patrol was Major Martin Clementis. He also sent the first information to Sydney that the Japanese were building an airfield on Guadalcanal and fortifying the coast near Lunga Point. This was, of course, alarming news, because if the Japanese were able to complete the airfield and put fighter aircraft on it, they would control the airspace over a large area of the southern Solomons.

In the first half of July the pace of preparations for the operation increased under the pressure of the inexorably approaching D-Day. Owing to the haste in which everything was proceeding, a number of omissions and mistakes were made, important questions remained unresolved, commanders had only vague ideas of their tasks, precise plans for the interaction of the various operational groups were lacking, there were difficulties in rearguard support, in the supply of food and ammunition, and the system of communications was not sufficiently worked out. Thus, with this list of shortcomings, the Allied forces launched the first offensive operation in the Pacific War and the United States launched the first airborne operation since 1898. It must also be said that the American officers and soldiers were not overconfident and did not believe in the success of the operation, even the most senior commanders such as Admiral Fletcher, Turner and Ghormley. Sailors even called the operation the aptly named Shoestring.

On 22 July 1942, a large group of transport vessels set sail from Wellington harbour with the bulk of the landing force. Other vessels were leaving bases at Sydney and Nouméa in New Caledonia, and for several days vessels sailing from Pearl Harbor and even from Fiji archipelago. Over the next four days, a landing drill was held off the coast of Koro Island. The result was another disappointment. The landing ships landed far from their designated areas, the supporting fire from the ship's guns was inaccurate, and the bombers from the carriers' decks did not distinguish themselves. Serious problems occurred in communications. Admiral Fletcher was the crown jewel. On 26 July, a commanding officers' conference was held on his flagship Saratoga. A very important task, which could have determined the success of the whole operation, was entrusted to a group of three aircraft carriers . These were to provide air cover with their deck planes while the entire division and supporting forces were being landed on the Tulagi and Guadalcanal coasts. Vandegrift anticipated that he would need at least four days to successfully land men, equipment, and supplies, but Admiral Fletcher stated that, in view of the danger posed by enemy submarines, aircraft, and surface forces, he would sail back to base after 24 hours, and he insisted on this position, to the consternation of both Admiral Turner and General Vandegrift. After all this, few still hoped that all would turn out well in the end.

Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner
Contradmiral Richmond Kelly Turner


On July 31, 1942, the invasion fleet weighed anchor and headed for its destination. Sailing in anti-submarine formation under the protection of battleships were 19 large landing craft with 19,000 men on board. Low clouds obscured the sky and frequent rain showers hid the ships from the eyes of enemy reconnaissance aircraft. At three o'clock in the morning of 7 August 1942, the landing craft for Tulagi separated from the main group and proceeded north from Savo Island. Fletcher's carrier convoy, including Enterprise, cruised south of Guadalcanal.

At 0614, the guns of the heavy cruiser Quincy roared, beginning the pre-invasion shelling of the island. A torrent of steel rushed with the roar of a steam locomotive onto the Guadalcanal coast. At 0650 hours, the order was given by the commander, Captain Reifsnider: "Dismount ashore!" The screeching sound of the ship's pulleys announced that the landing craft were being lowered to the surface, into which the marines immediately began to descend. They were silent and nervous in anticipation of things to come. So far not a single shot or cannon boom had been heard from the island. Everyone on the Allied ships was convinced that this was a ruse on the part of the Japanese. For hitherto, after many victories on all the battlefields, the Japanese had been accompanied by a gloriole of invincibility and supreme cunning. Shortly after nine o'clock, the bows of the invasion boats sank into the sand on the beach of Guadalcanal. What no one expected happened. The Japanese were taken completely by surprise by the landing and their defenses were completely paralyzed. Although Allied intelligence officers had estimated the Japanese garrison at 5,000 men, in reality there were only 2,200 on the island, and of these 1,700 soldiers belonged to engineer units. Except for a few isolated shots, the Japanese offered no resistance. In the ensuing confusion, they abandoned their posts, leaving their equipment and supplies behind, and retreated into the jungle. It was not until the evening hours that the Allies managed to land 11,000 men on Guadalcanal, and they did so within a space of six kilometres of Lunga Point. The next day they also took the airfield and the Japanese abandoned camp on its western side. With the well-known Japanese belligerence, the easy success of the landing cannot be explained other than that the total collapse of the enemy defences was caused only by a moment of surprise and disorientation.


Marines moving on Guadalcanal
Marines moving on Guadalcanal


A second part of the landing party, about 6,000 men under the command of Brigadier General Rupertus, who was Vandegrift's second-in-command, approached Tulagi Island, 16 miles to the north, at the same time. The main task of Rupertus's detachment was to destroy the enemy seaplane base, taking Tulagi and the two nearby islets of Gavuto and Tanambogo. Smaller detachments of Marines were to provide flanks by occupying strategic positions on nearby Florida Island. Before the attack began, Fletcher's deck planes attacked the Enterprise and Saratoga seaplane bases. In doing so, they destroyed 19 docked flying boats and two large four-engine seaplanes of the type Kawanishi H8K1, called Emily in Allied code. Immediately thereafter, under supporting fire from the ship's guns, the infantrymen began to disembark. Here too the landing went without major problems, as on Guadalcanal. The enemy quickly abandoned the coastline and retreated inland, taking advantage of the rugged terrain, which provided excellent conditions for concealment.


The capture of the islets of Gavutu and Tanambogo, however, proved much more difficult. Despite the barrage of naval gunfire and aerial bombardment, 1,000 Japanese troops mounted a stout defence using machine guns and small arms, taking advantage of the rugged terrain and network of trenches. General Vandegrift was forced to send reinforcements from Guadalcanal on 8 August, two battalions strong, and it was only with their support that the Japanese defences were broken and both islands captured.

While Guadalcanal was quiet after the landing, on Tulagi the Japanese attempted a total of four deadly counterattacks on the night of August 7-8. Once again, the Japanese proved to be masters of night fighting. Edson's men fought back only with extreme exhaustion, often repelling the enemy onslaught only after fierce man-to-man combat. Morning then brought the gruesome sight of scores of Japanese corpses scattered in close proximity to the American positions. Here, too, the Americans had their first encounter with Japanese snipers, tied up in the tops of coconut palms. However, on August 9, 1942, word arrived at Vandegrift's headquarters that Tulagi, Tanambogo, and Gavuto had been captured.

big E, aircraft carrier Enterprise
Big E, the aircraft carrier Enterprise

Air Strikes

The first Allied offensive action in the Pacific took Japanese staffs by complete surprise. The news of the Allied landings in the South Solomons was received by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, commander of the Japanese 8th Fleet and the Japanese Forward Force in the South Seas, as well as the commander of the Japanese Allied Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, and the Imperial Headquarters in Tokyo. While Tokyo did not attach particular importance to the landing, Yamamoto and Mikawa acted decisively and without delay. On Yamamoto's orders, as early as 9 a.m. on 7 August, Rear Admiral Yamada, commander of the 25th Naval Air Group at Simpson Harbor, New Britain, dispatched a group of 27 twin-engine bombers of the type Micubish G4M1, called Betty in Allied code, accompanied by 18 Micubish A6M (zeke, zero) fighters, with the mission of attacking the landing Americans. The Americans, warned in time by a coastal observer stationed on the southern island of Bougainville and the battleships' radars, easily repelled the raid. The Japanese managed to lightly damage one destroyer and paid for it with the loss of most of the aircraft and their crews. Two hours later, 16 Japanese dive bombers of the Aichi D3A1 type, called Val in Allied code. However, the Americans were again informed in time and properly prepared. The Japanese failed to hit the drop at all and lost nine aircraft. The very next day, the Japanese planes attacked again. Twenty-three torpedo and eight dive bombers, escorted by fighters, took off from the runways for New Britain. This time the Japanese managed to lightly damage the destroyer Jarvis. One of the torpedo bomber pilots attempted a suicide raid on the transport ship George F. Elliot, which unfortunately succeeded. The plane exploded after hitting the deck of the ship, and the leaking burning gasoline caused a massive fire. The crew abandoned ship prematurely in panic, leaving no one to extinguish the fires. By nightfall, the George F. Elliot was burning from stem to stern and Admiral Turner ordered her sunk. But not even four torpedoes fired at close range could send the ship down. The burning wreck stayed afloat, which was a big mistake, because in a few hours it would serve as an excellent landmark for the Japanese cruisers. Although the Japanese tried vehemently to destroy the American expeditionary force from the air, they failed. On the morning of 8 August, after being briefed on the success of the Tulagi-Guadalcanal operation to date, Vice Admiral Ghormley radioed congratulations from his headquarters in Nouméa to all those who had participated in it. Ghormley, who had been a pessimist up to the last moment, certainly had every reason to be delighted: less than forty-eight hours after the landing, the Americans had achieved their objectives, captured Tulagi and the adjacent islands, and gained a large beachhead on Guadalcanal, including an unfinished airfield, ...which the Marines named Henderson's in honor of Major Lofton Henderson, a Marine air force officer who died a hero's death leading one of the raids on Japanese aircraft carriers at the Battle of Midway. While Ghormley congratulated the success, disaster was already brewing at sea, the worst defeat the U.S. Navy had ever suffered.

Wildcat fighter planes at Henderson Airfield, Guadalcanal
Wildcat fighter planes at Henderson Airfield on Guadalcanal

Sources and literature used:
Hart, Basil Liddell, History of the Second World War, Jota Ltd. ISBN: 80-7217-117-9
Keegan, John, The Second World War, Pavel Dobrovský - Beta publishing house Prague-Plzeň 2003
ISBN: 80-7306-063-9
Hubacek, Miloš, Pacific in flames, Mladá fronta, third edition Prague 2003 ISBN: 80-204-0642-5
Hubacek, Miloš, Vítězství v Pacifiku, Panorama Praha 198?


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Author : 🕔05.05.2009 📕45.926