Guadalcanal, Battle of

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Guadalcanal, Battle of (1942–43).The Guadalcanal campaign, unexcelled for sustained violence on land, sea, and in the air in World War II, lasted for six months: August 1942 to February 1943. The struggle arose because Adm. Ernest J. King countered a planned Japanese thrust down through the South Pacific to isolate Australia by initiating an offensive following the U.S. naval victory at the Battle of Midway. King targeted Guadalcanal, a jungle‐entangled island ninety miles long and twenty‐five miles wide in the Solomon Islands in the southern Pacific. Radio intelligence showed the Japanese planned to prepare an airfield there to intercept U.S. convoys to Australia. The landing by the 1st Marine Division achieved tactical and strategic surprise and seized the nearly completed airfield. Immediately thereafter, in the first of a series of dramatic reversals, a Japanese task force defeated Allied warships off Savo Island and forced the withdrawal of the transports. The Marines were left isolated.

The airfield, renamed Henderson Field and located in the northwest corner of Guadalcanal, proved a key to the campaign. From its runway, a conglomerate of Marine, navy, and army squadrons defended the local air space, eventually permitting resupply and reinforcement. Air attacks denied the Japanese daylight access to the island, and compelled them to resort to night runs by destroyers—dubbed the “Tokyo Express”—to reinforce and maintain their forces. Over the next three months, the Japanese sought to recapture Henderson Field with successive counterattacks. Each time, they were repulsed. Four U.S. divisions, two Marine and two army, successfully defeated the Japanese in bloody fighting.

The ultimate decision in the campaign came at sea. The Americans won a carrier clash at Eastern Solomons in August, and a night encounter in October at Cape Esperance. When the South Pacific theater commander, Vice Adm. Robert L. Ghormley, faltered, Pacific naval commander Adm. Chester Nimitz replaced him with the dynamic Vice Adm. William F. Halsey. But “Bull” Halsey's positive impact on morale was initially balanced by a defeat in carrier battle at Santa Cruz. In a wild series of air and sea battles between 12 and 15 November, Halsey threw in everything he had. American arms prevailed—barely—at a fearful cost.

The Japanese would win another night sea action at Tassafaronga, but they decided to evacuate their surviving troops. This they did successfully in the last week of the campaign in the face of local Allied air and sea superiority, and under pressure of an American ground offensive. The campaign cost the Japanese over 680 aircraft and 24 warships; American losses were 615 planes and 25 ships. The United States lost an estimated 5,000 sailors and about 2,500 soldiers, Marines, and airmen killed in action; the Japanese lost about 30,000 men.

The lasting importance of the U.S. victory at Guadalcanal rested in its vindication of American will and morale; in the severe attrition it inflicted on the Japanese, especially on experienced pilots; and in the American destruction of the myth of Japanese invincibility.
[See also Marine Corps, U.S.: 1914–1945; World War II, U.S. Naval Operations in: The Pacific.]


Richard B. Frank , Guadalcanal, 1990.
John B. Lundstrom , The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign, 1994.

Richard B. Frank

Guadalcanal Campaign

views updated Jun 08 2018


GUADALCANAL CAMPAIGN. To check the Japanese advance and open the way for a strategic offensive against Rabaul, the Allies planned to seize bases in the southern Solomon Islands. On 7 August 1942 Maj. Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift's First Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal and nearby Tulagi, scattering small Japanese forces on both islands. The Japanese reaction was swift. First, Japanese aircraft struck at the beachhead. Then, in a surprise night attack against Allied naval forces early on 9 August (the Battle of Savo Island), seven Japanese cruisers and a destroyer sank three American cruisers, an Australian cruiser, and an American destroyer. Rear Adm. Richmond K. Turner and Adm. Frank J. Fletcher were forced to withdraw ships from the area, leaving the marines alone to defend the Guadalcanal airfield. Undaunted by the loss of the aircraft carrier Ryuto at the battle of the Eastern Solomons (August 23–25), the Japanese landed thousands of troops on the island in nightly destroyer runs ("Tokyo Express"). In mid-September, the Japanese, now about a division strong, attacked the marine positions (the Battle of Bloody Ridge), only to be repulsed with heavy losses.

For the next month, heavy air and sea battles took place in the Guadalcanal area. While further Japanese reinforcement efforts were frustrated in a series of naval actions, the marines were soon replaced by more than fifty thousand army troops under Maj. Gen. Alexander Patch. The Japanese, short on supplies and weakened by disease, fell back before heavy American attacks. In early February 1943, the thirteen thousand Japanese survivors were evacuated in night operations, leaving Guadalcanal in American hands.


Frank, Richard B. Guadalcanal. New York: Random House, 1990.

Griffith, Samuel B., II. The Battle for Guadalcanal. New York: Lippincott, 1963.

Hammel, Eric M. Guadalcanal, Decision at Sea: The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, November 13–15, 1942. New York: Crown, 1988.

Stanley L.Falk/a. r.

See alsoAircraft Carriers and Naval Aircraft ; Bismarck Sea, Battle of ; Bougainville ; Marine Corps, United States ; Rabaul Campaign ; World War II ; World War II, Navy in .

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Battle of Guadalcanal

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