In July 1942, the combatants in the Pacific were in a stalemate. The Japanese advance had been slowed at Midway, but they held a temporary numerical and tactical advantage. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz knew that he could not sustain an advance for at least another year. Likewise, Yamamoto did not want to advance on Australia or Hawaii because he did not have the forward bases denied him in the Coral Sea and Midway operations.
That month the Imperial Japanese Navy began construction on a small airstrip in the former British Solomons, now the Japanese—held Solomons. Guadalcanal was a ninety—mile long island in the South. It was in close proximity to Tulagi, a much smaller island with a seaplane base.
Photographic reconnaissance located the construction, and a decision was made to occupy the base. With the airfield in Japanese hands, this was more of a mission of denial than of long term occupancy. MacArthur’s move up the backbone of New Guinea was thought to be the primary military advantage. He received the lion’s share of equipment, men and materiel.
With only the escort carrier USS Long Island providing air cover, the 1st Marine Division was embarked in Virginia and shipped to Australia, then the division was combat—loaded into a range of transports and landed on Tulagi and Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. It was the largest Marine operation in history up to that time. A Japanese naval fighter flew over the airstrip and reported the landing. By nightfall, 12,000 men were onshore, but much of their equipment was aboard ship. In the early morning, Imperial Japanese Navy Rear Admiral Gunichi Mikawa steamed around the southern shore of Savo Island, to the west of Tulagi. He slipped in and sank four heavy cruisers, the HAMS Canberra, USS Quincy, USS Astoria, and USS Chicago. This, the first battle of Savo Island, led to three months of heavy fighting. Eventually more men would die at sea than on Guadalcanal.
Without either side having a long—term strategy, Guadalcanal became the true test of initiative. Each side lost twenty-three ships in four months. The Japanese could not replace these losses, while the Americans could and did. It was during the Guadalcanal campaign that the outcome of the war was decided.
In a series of battles along the airfield perimeter, first Colonel Kyono Ickichi’s detachment and then the Kawaguchi detachment were destroyed. The Japanese chronically underestimated the number of Allied forces on the island. Yet the Marines never had enough forces to adequately cover the entire perimeter. Army units arrived in October 1942 to reinforce the Marines.
By early September there was a sizable air wing, called the Cactus Air Force. It operated from the airstrip, named for Marine Major Lofton C. Henderson, who was killed during the Battle of Midway. Army and Navy planes joined the Marine fighters. The effect of the airpower on the Japanese was immediate. Efforts to reinforce the defenders of Guadalcanal switched from daylight large transports to night landings by fast destroyer and submarine.
But you cannot supply 20,000 troops for combat missions with destroyers and submarines. By November 1942, both sides were without operational carriers and built combat groups around battleships. Unfortunately for the Japanese, the American battleships were new and theirs were World War I vintage. In a series of night engagements, the Americans sank two battleships and damaged several destroyers.
The Japanese abandoned Guadalcanal in December, and the island was declared secure in February 1943. 1500 Americans and 25,000 Japanese died on the island and many more died at sea. The Solomons campaign would continue to the end of the war, but with Guadalcanal in their possession the Americans had a base to exert control over the entire Solomons.