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The Pacific

II: The Turning Point

II: The Turning Point

All Japanese naval, military, and economic opinion agreed that Guadalcanal was the turning point in the Pacific war, but the island was held and finally won for the Allies only at great cost, particularly of American naval forces and aircraft. Her navy suffered unmercifully in a series of surface engagements, though never once did the Japanese High Command realise how grievously American strength had been wounded. Although losses on land were less severe, the American Marines who bore the brunt of the early fighting were tested for the first time against a cunning enemy who was as aggressive as the conditions. Handicapped by lack of previous battle experience and by territory which was even more terrifying than his foes, the American soldier gained his bitter experience from hour to hour and day to day. Not a single complete or accurate map existed of Guadalcanal or the other islands, and the outdated hydrographic charts were little page 212 better. Invaluable information was obtained from coastwatchers who, organised by the Australian naval authorities, had secreted themselves and their wireless sets in the jungle when the Japanese arrived. A little more was added by observation from the air, but only by personal observation after landing was any really reliable and accurate detail possible. The invasion force worked from hastily prepared mosaics photographed from the air and assembled with speed.

This is not the place for a detailed account of the land, sea, and air battles which enabled the American command to hold, overwhelm, and finally force the Japanese to give up the struggle for Guadalcanal, and afterwards to continue driving them from island to island until the Solomons were retaken, but these are of such importance to the outcome of the campaign that no account of New Zealand's part in them would be complete without some broad reference to the more crucial engagements. More particularly does this apply to the New Zealand naval and air force units which, because their numbers were more limited than those of the army, operated for the most part as components of larger American formations, whereas army units undertook separate missions, all of which are detailed elsewhere.

On 7 August elements of 1 American Marine Division, under Major-General A. A. Vandegrift, went ashore unopposed on Guadalcanal, but other units under Brigadier-General W. H. Rupertus lost heavily in capturing the islands of Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo, where the Japanese had strongly entrenched themselves to protect the seaplane base they had established in sheltered waters among these islands off the coast of Florida, opposite the northern coast of Guadalcanal. The first echelon of these Marines reached Wellington on 4 June 1942 and the second on 11 July. Working day and night in atrocious weather, ships, not loaded for a combat operation, were reloaded with such haste that the convoy of twelve transports and cargo ships was able to depart on 22 July for Fiji to meet the remainder of the invasion force coming down from Hawaii.1 There, in less tempestuous conditions, an armada of 80 ships held a rehearsal of the landing on the beaches of Koro Island between 28 and 31 July. Nothing went right, but no further practices were possible because of the time limit. Under cover of bomber aircraft from three carriers, Wasp, Saratoga and Enterprise, the American invasion force approached round the north point of the island, taking the Japanese garrison in such surprise that those on Guadalcanal fled to the hills, and 11,000 Marines,

1 A report by Marine Corps units involved stated: ‘Labour for stevedoring more than 36,000 long tons of materials involved was, because of local civilian labour difficulties, entirely composed of Marines, working day and night, three shifts round the clock.’

page 213 with so much equipment that the beaches became congested beyond measure, went ashore the first day.

On Tulagi and the neighbouring small islands, however, resistance was determined and the invaders lost heavily, particularly in the honey-combed hillocks of Gavutu and Tanambogo, which were not subdued for three days. Once established on Guadalcanal, the American forces discovered a useful collection of machinery and equipment on and around the newly constructed airfield opposite Lunga Point, and immediately put it all into operation.1

Because Imperial Japanese Headquarters believed that the result of the battle for the Solomons would decide the fate of the Greater Far East Asia war, orders were issued on 13 August that Guadalcanal must be retaken. Units were haphazardly assembled from the Kwantung Army, the China Expeditionary Force, 38 Division in Sumatra, 2 Division in Java and units from the home front in Japan itself, and thrown into the battle, and the commander of 17 Army, Hyakutake, given the task of driving the American forces from the island. All units of 17 Army already in New Guinea were also withdrawn and despatched to Guadalcanal, and a new command, Eighth Area Army, under Lieutenant-General Imamura, was created with headquarters at Rabaul. This new command incorporated 17 Army and 18 Army, which was commanded by Lieutenant-General Futogo Adachi.

Although ground action on Guadalcanal was fierce and prolonged, the decisive battles were fought between naval units, for the whole of the battle for the Solomons was predominantly naval, with strong support from the air forces. For the first six months after 7 August, these battles were almost continuous on land, sea, and air. Beginning two days after the American landing, a series of violent naval actions was fought at night, usually in rain storms, with star shells and searchlights illuminating scenes made most dramatic and spectacular by burning ships and drifting smoke. Those who witnessed the first of these actions from the high country behind the Guadalcanal beaches speak of them as fantastic theatrical displays on the grandest scale. The first of these sea battles was fought on the night of 8–9 August, on a triangle of water bounded by the north coast of Guadalcanal and the islands of Savo and Florida. Several other naval battles of greater and lesser intensity were fought out in this same region until the battle for Guadalcanal was ended. As soon as the American landing on 7 August was

1 The Americans admitted that the Japanese had done a remarkable piece of work in developing the airfield at Lunga Point. In five weeks they had constructed large, semi-permanent camps, wharves, bridges, machine shops, two large radio stations, ice-making plants, two large permanent electric power plants, and an almost completed aerodrome with hangars, blast pens, and a 3600-foot runway.

page 214 reported, Mikawa, commander of the Eighth Fleet, decided to attack with every ship at his disposal, and the Seventh Cruiser Division and three destroyer divisions were recalled from duty in the Indian Ocean to join and strengthen him. The American naval force protecting the disembarking combat units and their transports was taken by surprise through not being fully prepared, and suffered disastrously. Between the hour of a quarter to two and a quarter past on the morning of 9 August, with smoke and burning ships obscuring visibility made worse by storms of rain, they lost four cruisers—HMAS Canberra, which sank the following day, and the American cruisers Astoria, Vincennes, and Quincy. Another, the Chicago, was so badly damaged as to be useless in action. American ships almost collided during the action and the Chicago's star shells failed to function. Although the Americans lost heavily, they saved their aircraft carriers which were ordered to leave the area. Fortunately an eight-inch shell destroyed the operations room on Mikawa's flagship, the Chokai, which was partly responsible for a rapid withdrawal from the area without fully appreciating the damage which had been done.

Again and again, following their first attempt to land on the night of 23–24 August, the Japanese tried to reinforce and strengthen the garrison in accordance with instructions received from Imperial General Headquarters that all key positions in the Solomons must be recaptured. Men and supplies, under cover of strong naval protection, were despatched in destroyers to Guadalcanal from concentrations in the Shortland Islands and at Rabaul, their departure so timed to stage in daylight down ‘the Slot’, a name given by the Americans to the waters between the islands of Choiseul, Santa Isabel, and the New Georgia Group, disembark under cover of darkness on the Guadalcanal beaches between Point Cruz and Cape Esperance, and retire by daylight. These nightly operations became known as the running of the ‘Tokyo Express’, which the American command was unable to disrupt until Japanese naval strength had been reduced by several battles of great violence. By October 20,000 Japanese had been landed, including 2 Division, a regiment of 38 Division, and strong artillery and engineer units. American strength had been increased to 23,000 but malaria, because of the lack of precautions so successfully instituted later, was already taking toll of the Marines, 1960 of whom were in hospital.

Because American naval strength had been so grievously reduced in the first clash on the night of 8–9 August, Japanese naval vessels approached Guadalcanal during hours of darkness and bombarded Henderson Field and American service installations with impunity, creating great loss. Ships and aircraft were also page 215 required to protect the vital sea lanes between Guadalcanal and the New Hebrides and New Caledonia and, in lesser degree, to New Zealand and Fiji. Actions almost daily whittled down the husbanded strength of the American commands, and by 15 September only one aircraft carrier, the Hornet, remained undamaged in the whole of the South Pacific. The other three had been put out of action in various engagements—the Saratoga, though she was able to reach Tonga after being torpedoed, the Enterprise, which eventually reached Pearl Harbour for repairs, and the Wasp, which had cost 21 million dollars, and was sunk while escorting supply ships to Guadalcanal on 15 September. Earlier in the war she had ferried aircraft reinforcements to Malta. The valuable battleship North Carolina was also out of action.

In the battle of the Eastern Solomons, fought out on 23–24 August to the east of Malaita and Florida between carrier-based aircraft without surface craft firing a shot, the Japanese losses included the carrier Ryujo sunk and another one damaged by Vice-Admiral F. J. Fletcher's force, but the enemy succeeded in landing about 1500 men a few days later on the Guadalcanal beaches. Meanwhile, air and coastwatching intelligence reported a concentration of shipping at Rabaul, evidence that another large-scale landing was imminent. This was planned for the night of 11 October, and from it developed the Battle of Cape Esperance in which American forces under Rear-Admiral Norman Scott defeated a strong enemy force designed to cover a troop landing. Two Japanese destroyers were sunk and the Japanese commander, Rear-Admiral Goto, was killed when his flagship, the Aoba, was damaged. Two more destroyers were sunk the following day while trying to rescue men from the water. A Japanese naval report of this battle recorded that ‘the enemy used radar which enabled them to fire effectively from the first round without the use of searchlights. The future looked bleak for our surface forces, whose forte was night warfare.’

Two nights later, under cover of darkness and rain storms, the Japanese attempted to put Henderson Field out of operation. From close inshore two battleships, the Haruna and the Kongo, poured 918 rounds of armour-piercing and high explosive shells in and around the field while aircraft overhead dropped guiding flares. The following morning, 15 October, only one American bomber and ten fighter aircraft were fit to take the air, and then only after sufficient drums of petrol had been collected from the nearby jungle into which they had been tossed by the bombardment. Only 400 drums could be found. Meanwhile five Japanese transports, protected by eleven warships, could be page 216 seen discharging men and materials at Tassafaronga, ten miles away, and although valiant efforts were made to bomb the ships later in the day, after further supplies of both machines and petrol had been flown in from the New Hebrides, the Japanese succeeded in landing between 3000 and 4000 troops.

This was a critical period for the American command, both on land and sea, for their ground forces were not sufficiently strong to attack on land and naval strength was reduced to one aircraft carrier, one battleship, and a bare complement of destroyers and cruisers. Repairs to the Enterprise were rushed at Pearl Harbour and she was ready for action again by 16 October. Halsey took over command of the South Pacific two days later, at the time when the Japanese were preparing a combined attack on both land and sea. Fortunately this miscarried. The Japanese ground forces attacked along the Matanikau River, where a critical battle raged for some days and culminated in an assault which broke the American line on the night of 23–24 October. It was restored by counter-attack on the 27th and never again broken.

The two opposing fleets joined action on 26 October, 350 miles north-east of Guadalcanal in the Battle of Santa Cruz, in which a Japanese force under Vice-Admiral Nagumo, who had led the attack on Pearl Harbour, met an American task force under Vice-Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, in the carrier Enterprise, who had under command another group commanded by Rear-Admiral G. D. Murray and built round the carrier Hornet. Superior strength lay with the Japanese, whose combined forces included four aircraft carriers, three of which were seriously damaged, four heavy cruisers, four battleships, nine light cruisers and 28 destroyers, operating in three groups, and covering troop and supply transports intended for Guadalcanal.

Although the Japanese did not lose a ship, they withdrew when their carriers were put out of action with the loss of 100 aircraft. The Americans lost their carrier Hornet, sunk after great damage by enemy suicide pilots who crashed their machines into her stack, and the Enterprise was again damaged. During the progress of the battle, which lasted through to 27 October, fourteen enemy submarines patrolled the sea routes between the Santa Cruz, New Hebrides, and the Fiji Groups, hoping to destroy reinforcements of both men and ships.