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Royal New Zealand Air Force


THE battle for Guadalcanal was essentially a battle for the airfield. As long as the Americans could hold the field—they captured it at the beginning of August 1942—they were assured of a base which, when developed, would give them adequate air support. If they lost it their nearest land base was in the New Hebrides, and if the enemy succeeded in recapturing it and putting it into operation he would not only have control of the sea but overwhelming superiority in the air. By 18 August the Americans had extended the almost completed strip1 to over 1250 yards, and on the 20th one squadron of dive-bombers and one of fighters, of United States Marine Air Group 23, flew in to begin operations the next day.

For a fortnight after the original landing on 7 August the Marines had little opposition on land; but the disastrous naval action off Savo Island on the night of 9 August, in which a Japanese force sank four American and Australian cruisers, had given the enemy full, if temporary, control of the sea. His naval units were able to bombard the Marines' positions ashore at will and almost with impunity. He was also able to reinforce and supply his own troops while cutting off all seaborne supplies to the Americans. There were three American carriers in the South Pacific which could have supported the Marines with aircraft, but they were being held in reserve well to the south, out of range of search planes, until the enemy should make a major attempt to retake Guadalcanal.2

On 17 August reports of a large concentration of Japanese shipping at Rabaul indicated that a major attempt was imminent, and an American force, concentrated round two carriers and commanded by Rear Admiral Fletcher, USN, moved northwards to intercept it. On the 21st Fletcher was joined by Rear Admiral Crutchley, VC, RN, with two Australian cruisers and three American destroyers. Japanese forces were sighted two days later by a

1 Named Henderson Field by General Vandegrift on 18 August after Major Lofton R. Henderson, a Marine Corps pilot who was killed while leading a dive-bombing attack at the Battle of Midway.

page 143 patrol plane, 250 miles north of Guadalcanal and steaming southwards. They consisted of two groups, one comprising four transports with escorting destroyers and the other five carriers, eight battleships, six cruisers and twenty-one destroyers. The following day aircraft from the American carriers, supported by eight dive-bombers from the newly completed airfield at Guadalcanal and eight long-range bombers from Santo, attacked the Japanese forces in the battle of the eastern Solomons. The battle cost the Japanese a hundred aircraft, a carrier, a destroyer and a transport sunk, and other ships damaged. The enemy retired northwards without having landed any troops on Guadalcanal.

The battle of the eastern Solomons was followed by a period of minor reinforcement on both sides. American control of the air, which was assured as long as aircraft could operate from Henderson Field, restricted the Japanese to running in troops and supplies by destroyers at night, while the Japanese superiority in surface vessels hampered the flow of American reinforcements and supplies.

On 18 September the Americans were reinforced by the 7th Marine Regiment which had been brought up from Samoa. The convoy carrying it arrived in the early morning, and the complete unit with all its weapons, most of its mechanical transport and forty days' rations, as well as 150,000 gallons of much-needed petrol and oil, was disembarked during the day and the ships retired at 8.30 in the evening. The safe arrival of this convoy was one of the major factors in saving Guadalcanal for the Allies. The Marines who had been on the island since the beginning of the campaign were worn out with constant fighting against an enemy who was being steadily reinforced. Supplies of food and ammunition were running low. The men had been living on captured Japanese rations and using Japanese petrol in their transport vehicles.

By the end of September the position, although still critical, had improved. The addition to the fighting force had relieved the strain a little and, moreover, some 1100 construction personnel had been brought in in small parties as opportunity offered. These men, the 6th Construction Battalion, took over maintenance work which formerly had necessarily been done by combat troops, and in addition began other work which it had not been possible to do before. They drained the airfield, which had previously become waterlogged after every rain, built roads and bridges, and made additional strips beside the main airfield.

The next Japanese attempt to land large reinforcements on the island occurred on the night of 11–12 October. Their escorting naval force of cruisers and destroyers was defeated by a task force under Rear Admiral Scott, USN, in the battle of Cape Esperance, page 144 but their transports succeeded in landing several thousand troops. Two days later, on 13 October, the Americans also landed reinforcements, the 164th Infantry Regiment of the Americal Division.1

Very heavy land fighting took place on 23–25 October when the Japanese, using all the forces at their command, attempted to overwhelm the American positions. At the same time they assembled a large fleet to the north which was to drive south and eliminate the American naval forces in the area. The land attack failed to capture the airfield, and on 26 October the naval force was met by an American task force near the Santa Cruz Islands. Shipping losses in the engagement were fairly equal, and the Japanese lost an estimated 123 aircraft against the Americans' 74. But the issue had already been decided by the failure of the land forces to capture Henderson Field, and the Japanese fleet, denuded of aircraft, retired northwards.

The last major attempt by the Japanese to land reinforcements with naval support was made in the second week of November. In a series of engagements known as the Battle of Guadalcanal, lasting from the 12th to the 15th, American naval and air units sank two battleships, a cruiser, three destroyers, six transports and cargo ships, and damaged nine other vessels, of which four were subsequently beached, for the loss of three light cruisers and seven destroyers, with seven other ships damaged. This battle ranks as the third great turning point in the Pacific war. The Japanese had been halted in the South-West Pacific in the battle of the Coral Sea and in the Central Pacific in the battle of Midway Island, and the battle of Guadalcanal stopped their advance in the South Pacific. It put an end finally to their attempts to bring in convoys of transports protected by strong naval escorts. Henceforth the only reinforcements which reached the island were the relatively small numbers which could be carried in destroyers running down from the northern Solomons, discharging their cargoes under the cover of night, and retiring again before daylight.2

From now on the Japanese gave up hope of recapturing Guadalcanal, and subsequent operations were aimed at delaying the advance of the American forces as long as possible, while a system of defence in depth was built up in the northern and central Solomons. In attempting to occupy Guadalcanal their ground and naval forces had outstripped their air cover, for their nearest air base was at Rabaul, 675 miles away. Their carrier losses in the battles of the Coral Sea in May and Midway Island in June had accentuated their weakness in the air, and the Americans' success in developing

1 So named because it completed its training in New Caledonia.

2 These destroyer convoys were known by the Allied troops as the ‘Tokyo Express’.

page 145 Henderson Field had made their position untenable. In an endeavour to retrieve the situation they began to build airfields at Kahili in southern Bougainville, at Vila on Kolombangara, and at Munda on New Georgia.

An attempt to reinforce their troops on Guadalcanal by a force of eight destroyers was defeated by an American cruiser force on the night of 30 November–1 December in the battle of Tassafaronga, off Lunga Point. Four of the American ships were severely damaged by torpedoes and one of them subsequently sank; but one of the Japanese destroyers was sunk and two damaged, and the attempt at reinforcement failed. This battle was the last occasion in the campaign on which large American naval forces were engaged with enemy vessels.

During December the Marines were relieved by United States Army troops and preparations were begun for a land offensive to destroy the enemy on the island. The preliminary moves began on 26 December and the final drive on 10 January 1943.

After a comparatively inactive period in December 1942, Japanese naval and air activity increased in January 1943 to a level approaching that of November. The presence of large enemy naval and air forces in the northern Solomons and at Rabaul indicated that the Japanese Command had the means to launch another counter-attack. American reinforcements were steadily moved into Guadalcanal, and six major naval task forces were concentrated to the south in anticipation of an attack. Considerable advances were made by American troops on land and during the month enemy resistance weakened. The Americans pushed out from their perimeter round Lunga towards Cape Esperance, where the main Japanese concentrations were located.

Towards the end of the month enemy air and shipping activity in the Solomons increased and for the first time since early in November enemy air forces raided Guadalcanal in daylight, indicating that their strength in the Solomons had been reinforced. It was not clear to Allied intelligence whether the Japanese were expanding their defence system to the north of Guadalcanal or whether they were preparing for an offensive.

During the first week of February the situation on Guadalcanal was as tense as it had been during the critical weeks of the previous November. In expectation of an enemy offensive about 12 February, COMSOPAC declared a state of emergency on the 1st. All American task force commanders were warned and all air force units alerted, as were the forces of the South-West Pacific Command which were responsible for operations in the New Guinea and Bismarck areas. The American drive along the north-west coast of Guadalcanal towards Cape Esperance was halted and units were page 146 redeployed to meet possible invasion. During the week three large groups of Japanese destroyers successfully made the run from Buin, the enemy's main supply base in the northern Solomons, to Guadalcanal and back; and enemy troops were reported to have landed on the Russell Islands, 50 miles north of Guadalcanal.

According to American intelligence the Japanese had 175 aircraft available in the Solomons, including 65 fighters, and strong reserves at Rabaul. Their air bases in the Solomons comprised a major airfield at Kahili, a fighter strip at Ballale, a large strip at Munda, a strip under construction at Vila, and seaplane bases at Faisi and at Rekata Bay. In anticipation of violent air action Allied air units were reinforced to a strength of over 230 fighters, bombers, dive-bombers, torpedo-bombers and float-planes. The original airstrip at Henderson Field had been augmented by a second bomber strip at Koli Point, which was almost completed, and two fighter strips, while a seaplane base was in operation at Tulagi.

On 9 February the American Command discovered that the Japanese activity of the previous weeks had been not a prelude to an offensive but a cover for the evacuation of their troops on Guadalcanal. Allied intelligence estimates of the numbers of men who had been landed by the Tokyo Express were completely at fault since the destroyers, instead of bringing in personnel, had been carrying them out. Except for stragglers and a rearguard, all the Japanese on the island had been evacuated by 8 February. The operation must be counted one of the most successful bluffs of the war, for by making the Allies take up defensive positions and halt their offensive operations the Japanese were enabled to complete their evacuation with little interference from the American land forces.