Amphibious Warfare: Second World War

1942 - U.S. forces land on Guadalcanal

By mid-1942, Japanese forces had driven back U.S. and Allied forces in the western Pacific and eastern Indian Ocean and had set up a defensive perimeter stretching from the Aleutian Islands in the north to New Guinea in the south. Most remaining Allied forces had retreated from the western Pacific, hastily establishing new bases from which to operate in Australia and New Zealand. From there, they focused on protecting the vulnerable sea line of communication that ran through the South Pacific to U.S. forces in Hawaii and the United States.

Although the staff of the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army did not share the same outlook on what Japan's next strategic moves should be, both services agreed on the need to isolate Australia so that it could not serve as a springboard for future allied offensives. To do so, the Japanese looked to establish a network of air bases around the Coral Sea northeast of the Australian landmass. One key element in their plans was the seizure of eastern New Guinea, from which their aircraft could patrol the Coral Sea, bomb northern Australian targets, and help protect the vital Japanese naval and air facilities at Rabaul on the island of New Britain. Another was the establishment of a seaplane base on Tulagi and an airfield on nearby Guadalcanal, two islands in the Solomons chain.

Alarmed by prospect of Japanese forces consolidating their position in the Solomon Islands, the Joint Chiefs of Staff directed U.S. commanders in the Pacific to seize Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and the island of Gavutu-Tanambogo, eject the occupying Japanese forces and gain the use of the airfield to help establish control over the area. The operation, codenamed "Watchtower," would be the first major U.S. amphibious assault of World War II.

Map of Guadalcanal

Map of Guadalcanal.
Adapted from First Offensive: The Marine Campaign for Guadalcanal by Henry I. Shaw, Jr.

Overall responsibility for the operation fell to Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, Commander of South Pacific Forces, who in turn reported to Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who headed the U.S. Pacific Fleet as well as the U.S. Pacific Ocean Areas command. The amphibious task force commander was Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner. Turner's transports carried Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift's 1st Marine Division, reinforced by a regiment from the 2nd Marine Division, which brought the size of the landing force to approximately 19,000 men. Naval support was provided by a three-carrier task force under the command of Admiral Frank. J. Fletcher who, as senior naval commander, had overall responsibility for the operation.

Photo of Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner and Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift

Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner and Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift
confer before the U.S. landing on Guadalcanal.
Naval Historical Center

All of the forces involved in Watchtower assembled in the Fiji islands in July 1942, coming together from Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and even San Diego. After a short and inadequate rehearsal, the expeditionary force sailed for the Solomons.

Due to marginal weather on 7 August, the small Japanese garrisons on Guadalcanal and Tulagi did not detect the warships gathering in the sound between the two islands. After a brief round of shelling, 11,150 Marines landed on Guadalcanal, while another 6,800 stormed ashore on Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo. The 2,200 Japanese troops on Guadalcanal - most belonging to construction units - offered little resistance and melted into the jungle. Japanese naval infantry on Tulagi and Tanambogo put up a spirited but brief fight, and all three islands - including the airfield, now dubbed Henderson Field - were under U.S. control by the end of 8 August.

Photo of 1st Marine Division coming ashore on Guadalcanal, 7 August 1942

The 1st Marine Division comes ashore on Guadalcanal, 7 August 1942.
National Archives

Photo of LVT(1) Amphibian Tractors coming ashore on Guadalcanal

LVT(1) amphibian tractors come ashore on Guadalcanal

Reacting to the U.S. naval presence in the Solomons, the Japanese launched intense air attacks on the task force from bases near Rabaul. Fearing the loss of his carriers - three of the last four fleet carriers remaining in U.S. service - if he remained tethered to the beachhead, Fletcher withdrew them on the night of 8 August, leaving the Marines ashore with no defensive or offensive air support. The following night, Japanese warships sank three U.S. cruisers, one Australian cruiser, as well as one American destroyer in a night surface action off Savo Island near Guadalcanal. With his air support gone, and shorn of a good part of his covering force, Admiral Turner withdrew his transports from the area, taking with them a large part of the Marines' supplies, heavy ordnance, and construction equipment. At this point, the 1st Marine Division was truly isolated, short of many items - including food - needed to defend the island.

Overall, the operational focus of the subsequent Guadalcanal campaign was the control of skies over the Solomon Islands, for the side that had mastery of the air in the area would ultimately control the sea as well. Given its small, invaluable, and potentially vulnerable aircraft carrier force, Henderson Field was critical for the United States. Possession of the airfield allowed U.S. forces to control the air and seas around Guadalcanal - at least during the daytime when its daylight-only combat aircraft were operating. Consequently, the goal of Marine operations ashore was to hold on to the field at all costs. Vandegrift's units established a defensive perimeter in the broken terrain and dense jungle in the area around Henderson, and waited for the inevitable Japanese reaction. At sea, the actions of both the Japanese and Allied navies involved reinforcing their forces ashore and interdicting the enemy's forces so as to achieve or maintain numerical superiority on Guadalcanal.

Photo of Henderson Field, August 1942

Henderson Field as it appeared in August 1942.
National Archives.

U.S. plans began to come together on 15 August, when four fast destroyer-transports delivered aviation gas, ordnance, and aviation technicians to the Marines on Guadacanal. On 20 August, 19 fighters and 12 dive-bombers flew to Henderson Field from deck of the small escort carrier Long Island (CVE 1). Small numbers of Army P-39 and P-40 fighters also were sent to operate from Henderson later in the campaign.

The Japanese began to react to the Marine presence on Guadalcanal as well. A 1,000-man army combat team landed on 18 August, the vanguard of a larger force the Japanese Army was assembling to send to the island. For some reason, this small force flung itself against the Marine perimeter before it was reinforced and was essentially smashed as a cohesive fighting unit.

A week later, the movements of a large convoy carrying additional Japanese reinforcements - covered by a carrier striking force - attracted the U.S. Navy's attention and led to the battle of the Eastern Solomons, in which one Japanese light carrier was sunk and the U.S. carrier Enterprise (CV 6) badly damaged. Even as carrier forces withdrew after the battle, the flow of Japanese troop convoys and the warships protecting them - dubbed the "Tokyo Express" - continued. Marine dive-bombers from Henderson and long-range Army Air Force bombers operating from the New Hebrides Islands southeast of Guadalcanal subsequently found and attacked the convoy, damaging or sinking several ships and forcing the survivors to turn back.

Working at night, however, the Tokyo Express eventually landed 6,000 additional troops on the island by late August. Between 12 and 14 September, this force tried to outflank Marine positions around Henderson Field by attacking from the south at a point that became known to the Marines as "Bloody Ridge." After fierce fighting and heavy casualties on both sides - the Marine Raider and Parachute battalions holding the ridge suffered over 20 percent casualties, while the Japanese probably lost up to half their force - the attack was repulsed.

After this battle, both sides redoubled their efforts to get reinforcements to the island. Admiral Turner's task group pushed through to the island by mid-September and landed the Seventh Marine Regiment and all their equipment, bringing the size of Vangegrift's force to more than 23,000. However, as the U.S. naval forces withdrew, a Japanese submarine torpedoed and sank the carrier Wasp (CV 7), whose aircraft were providing air cover for the convoy. Meanwhile, the Tokyo Express transported almost 20,000 fresh troops to Guadalcanal.

The next month was punctuated by intense nighttime engagements between U.S. and Japanese surface forces and bombardments of Henderson Field. American warships ambushed yet another Japanese convoy on the night of 11 October during the battle of Cape Esperance, heavily damaging two Japanese cruisers, sinking a destroyer, and forcing the Japanese to withdraw without delivering the embarked troops . On 13 October Admiral Turner's transports landed the Army's 164th Infantry Regiment, but on that night the Japanese also landed thousands of additional troops, and their battleships Kongo and Haruna shelled Henderson Field, destroying Marine aircraft and putting the airstrip out of action for a week.

The next major Japanese land assault marked the apex of Japanese efforts to capture Henderson Field. For several days and nights beginning on October 23, the Japanese launched heavy attacks on the perimeter, several of which took advantage of darkness and heavy rain. However, the broken terrain and extremely dense jungle hindered Japanese command and control, and separate attacks on different parts of the perimeter were often uncoordinated. Nevertheless, fighting was fierce, perhaps nowhere more so than on the lightly defended southern perimeter, which was held by a single battalion of the Seventh Marines. Ultimately, the Japanese were stopped and suffered heavy casualties.

With this battle progressing ashore, both the Japanese and American battle fleets cautiously maintained their positions offshore. Both launched air strikes against each other on 26-27 October during the battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. Each fleet suffered heavily, with the United States losing the carrier Hornet (CV 8) and the carrier Enterprise being heavily damaged. For their part, the Japanese lost a light carrier and also had a large-deck carrier suffer heavy damage. Just as importantly, Japan lost more than 100 aircraft and their irreplaceable pilots.

After this action, the cycle of reinforcement, nighttime shore bombardments by the Japanese fleet, and attempts by U.S. surface action groups to interdict incoming Japanese transports continued. The introduction of the 2nd Marine Division allowed General Vandegrift to begin relieving exhausted 1st Marine Division units and expand Henderson's perimeter beyond the range of Japanese artillery. For their part, it was the turn of Japanese troops to be undersupplied - and in some cases half-starved. However, the still-significant enemy force dug in and continued to doggedly resist Marine efforts.

Photo of Japanese Transport beached on Guadalcanal

Japanese transport beached on Guadalcanal.
Naval Historical Center.

At sea, during three consecutive nights of sharp surface engagements between U.S. and Japanese warships during the period of 13-15 November, the U.S. Navy began to successfully contest the Japan's nighttime use of the seas. When Japanese transports continued to press on unsupported during daylight hours, they were hammered by air attacks by Marine and Navy aircraft from Henderson and the repaired carrier Enterprise. In the end, only a fraction of the Japanese troops headed for Guadalcanal made it to the island.

In December 1942, General Vandegrift and his 1st Marine Division were relieved by General Alexander Patch and the Army's Americal Division. With additional reinforcements, Patch eventually formed the XIV Corps, consisting of the 2nd Marine Division, the Americal Division, and the Army's 25th Infantry Division. Numbering almost 58,000 men, this force would go on the offensive in January 1943, pushing the remaining Japanese forces toward the northwest tip of Guadalcanal. Fighting a skillful rearguard action, the latter were finally withdrawn by the Tokyo Express in February 1943.

The six-month campaign had been hard-fought and costly, particularly for the Japanese. All told, their forces lost 24,000 men, with 14,000 killed or missing in action, 9,000 dead from disease, and approximately 1,000 captured. In addition, the Imperial Japanese Navy lost two battleships, one light carrier, three heavy cruisers, eleven destroyers, and six submarines. American forces lost 1,600 men on the ground, two carriers, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and 14 destroyers.

U.S. forces learned many lessons during this campaign. The withdrawal of Turner's transports highlighted the need for effective combat loading of assault equipment, better structuring of the shipping in the assault and follow-on echelons, and the more efficient movement of supplies from ship to shore and from the beach inland. The requirement for better air-ground and general fire support command, control, and communications was also evident.

Critically, Guadalcanal also caused the Navy and Marine Corps to examine command relationships during amphibious operations. After Watchtower, the amphibious task force commander would retain overall command of an operation only during the movement to the objective and during the initial stages of the landing itself. Once the bulk of his forces were ashore, the landing force commander would assume responsibility for subsequent land operations. Moreover, both the naval and ground commanders were to be coequals during the planning for an amphibious assault.

These and other modifications would serve U.S. forces well as the war in the Pacific progressed. However, the somewhat unique circumstances of this campaign also prevented U.S. commanders from gaining important knowledge in areas such as pre-landing fire support and integrated air-ground operations. These lessons would come later.

Sources:

R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History, 2nd revised edition (New York: Harper & Row, 1986).

Allan R. Millett, Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps (New York: The Free Press, 1991).

General Holland M. Smith, USMC (ret.), The Development of Amphibious Tactics in the U.S. Navy (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1992).

Henry I. Shaw, Jr., First Offensive: The Marine Campaign for Guadalcanal (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1992).

Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the Sun (New York: Free Press, 1985).

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