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The Battle for Guadalcanal
Siege Marked First American Offensive of World War II

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Aug. 7, 2002 -- Sixty years ago today, thousands of U.S. Marines splashed ashore on a remote island in the southwest Pacific, called Guadalcanal. The first American offensive of World War II, their mission was to seize an airfield. What followed was six months of desperate struggle against not only the Japanese military, but heat, jungle, rain, disease and hunger.

In a two-part series for NPR/National Geographic Radio Expeditions, Neal Conan visits some of the famous battle sites and talks with veterans about the crucial struggle.

The Coastwatchers

The Japanese began scouting for an airfield location in the southern Solomon Islands early in 1942. From there, air attacks could disrupt supply and communication lines between Australia and its Allies, the United States and Britain. The best spot was a smooth plain on the northern coast of Guadalcanal.

Guadalcanal Losses


Japan: 2 battleships, 1 light cruiser, 3 heavy cruisers, 1 light carrier, 11 destroyers, 6 submarines

U.S.: 2 heavy carriers, 6 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 15 destroyers

Total Ground Forces on Guadalcanal:

Japanese Imperial Army: 31,400 troops

U.S. Army, Marine: 60,000 troops

Total Ground Force Troop Losses:

Japanese Imperial Army: 20,800

U.S. Army, Marine: 1,769

Source: "Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle," by Richard Frank.

But when the Japanese arrived on the obscure island to build the airfield, the Allied forces knew of their plans.

Prior to the war, a few hundred Europeans lived among the Solomon Islanders. The Europeans were mostly planters, shopkeepers and colonial officials. After Pearl Harbor, most of the Europeans fled -- except for the Coastwatchers, a small group of men organized by the Australian Naval Reserve. Martin Clemens, a Scot, was one of them. As the district officer on Guadalcanal, he served as administrator, judge and police chief.

And when the Japanese arrived, he served as a critical part of an intelligence network, reporting by radio details of their actions and plans from a hideout in the hills. Clemens and his team of native scouts survived hunger and malaria as they avoided Japanese patrols and gave the crucial advantage of surprise to the Allied forces.

As World War II commander Admiral William "Bull" Halsey put it, "Guadalcanal saved the Pacific, and the Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal."

The Battle

Before the Japanese were able to finish the airfield, the United States invaded. On Aug. 7, 1942, U.S. Marines landed, and with surprise on their side, quickly seized the field, later named Henderson Field. The Marines completed construction and put the field into operation. But the Japanese soon struck back, and six months of brutal land, air and sea battles followed as the two sides struggled for control of the island.

Military historian Richard Frank, author of the book Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle, describes Guadalcanal as a mutual siege, where control of the waters around the island changed every 12 hours. By day, U.S. ships took advantage of the air cover from Henderson Field to land supplies. But by night, Japanese navy destroyers raced in to land troops and what supplies they could.

In the end, says Frank, it came down to food. The Marines may not have eaten well or often, but they ate. The Japanese did not.

The Japanese destroyers didn't have enough time to drop off both troops and supplies under cover of darkness. The troops could rush off the destroyers, but supplies took time to unload. "They kept dumping mouths on Guadacanal and not food," says Frank. "It's no wonder why the Japanese came to call it Starvation Island."

By January, the Japanese command decided it chances for re-capturing Guadalcanal were slim, and could no longer justify its losses. An evacuation began, the battle ended -- and the tide changed in the Pacific war.

Prior to Guadalcanal, the Japanese initiated every move in the Pacific theater. After it, the United States and its allies decided where and when to fight.

Other Resources

More on the Battle of Guadalcanal at the U.S. Naval Historical Center.

NBC's Home of the Brave World War II Web site.

The Pacific Wreck Database offers information about the history, veterans and wreckage of the Pacific war.

A journal of the Guadalcanal battle by Sgt. James A. Donahue, United States Marine Corps. First Marine Division.

World War II documents, provided by the Avalon Project at Yale University.

More about the Guadalcanal naval battles.

Historian John Innes' Web site.

World War II U.S. Veterans Web site.

Martin Clemens Capt. Martin Clemens and members of his scout team, circa 1942. See an enlargement.
Photo: National Archives

Martin Clemens and Neal Conana in Australia Martin Clemens, left, and Neal Conan, right, at Clemens' home in Australia.
Photo: Anne Clemens

map of the South Pacific Control of the Solomon Islands meant control of shipping lanes to Australia. Zoom in on the region.
Graphic: Katherine Parker, NPR Online

Japanese supply ship Kinugawa Maru The Japanese supply ship Kinugawa Maru, beached and sunk on the Guadalcanal shore. See an enlargement.
Photo: National Archives


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