Throughout the first half of 1942, Japanese forces had captured islands, established bases, and cut off most of the supply lines to U.S. allies Australia and New Zealand. Guadalcanal, its airfield, and several nearby smaller islands nearby were key pieces in the Japanese effort to project their power across the South Pacific. U.S. Admiral Earnest King came up with a plan to not just halt the advance but to seize the initiative from Imperial forces in the pacific. That plan was called Operation Watchtower.
Eight months to the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 11,000 United States Marines supported by the Navy struck the first offensive blow against the Imperial Japanese. Approaching in bad weather, the initial landings of the Battle of Guadalcanal went nearly unopposed. Moving on from the beach, Marines found themselves swallowed by the “green hell” of the inland jungle. Their early goal of capturing the airfield was accomplished with light casualties. The six-week planned duration for the operation was seeming overly pessimistic.
However, on the seas and in the air, a fierce battle was raging. Dozens of aircraft were lost on both sides as naval forces hunted each other in the tropical waters. Concerned over fuel levels and equipment losses, it was decided that the American aircraft carriers be pulled back. Without air cover, the invasion’s support ships were soon savaged by Imperial naval forces based out of Rabaul. U.S. naval forces were forced to abandon the island to seek the protection of the carrier group. With only 14-days of supplies and almost no heavy equipment, the Marines on Guadalcanal were on their own.
Dysentery, malaria, and the tropical heat would savage the allies as much as Japanese forces would. Approximately one-in-five soldiers was struck down by one ailment or another. Despite this, work continued on the airfield. By August 20th, the first Marine aircraft arrived to support their brothers on the ground. Perimeters expanded and patrols sought out and skirmished with scattered Japanese resistance. It was thought that Imperial forces might soon be willing to surrender in the face of the successful invasion. Ground commanders didn’t know that Guadalcanal’s defenders would soon be receiving ground, sea, and air reinforcements.
The struggle for Guadalcanal would stretch on for six moths. During the campaign, approximately 31,000 Japanese and 7,100 Allied troops would lose their lives. With the final victory, Japanese forces had been halted at the furthest point of their advance. For the remainder of the war, Japanese forces would steadily be driven back and back.
For a great period movie about the battle, check out Guadalcanal Diary starring Preston Foster, Lloyd Nolan, William Bendix, Richard Conte, and Anthony Quinn.