A Brief History
On August 7, 1942, U.S. Marines landed on an island few Americans had ever heard of, Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. After months of being on the defensive, defensive victories at Coral Sea and Midway combined with the rapid buildup of troops and industrial production gave the U.S. its first opportunity to start taking instead of losing ground in the Pacific theater of World War II.
Although obscure in the minds of Americans, Guadalcanal is not an insignificant island. Sprawling over 2000 square miles and with mountains soaring over 8,000 feet, it is the world’s 110th largest island, about the size of Bali and larger than Trinidad. Maximum length and width of the island is about 100 miles long by 30 miles wide, a pretty sizable piece of real estate. Over 100,000 people live there today.
In an effort to isolate Australia, the Japanese had started construction of an airfield on Guadalcanal, one that was to threaten U.S. ships for hundreds of miles around. With only about several hundred troops and around 2,000 construction workers on the island (most of whom were Korean slaves), they did not realize U.S. landings were about to take place.
U.S. forces arrived unseen due to the dark and bad weather and invaded 3 smaller islands as well as Guadalcanal. The Japanese on the smaller islands resisted so fiercely almost every one of them was killed, while on Guadalcanal the Marines had an easier time, quickly taking the main objective, the airfield (later named Henderson Field in honor of a downed comrade).
The Japanese quickly recovered from the surprise and retaliated, fiercely attacking the Marines left to fend for themselves. The 11,000 starving Marines held off the Japanese, and a long campaign lasting 6 months and 2 days developed, during which time 60,000 U.S. Marines and Army troops battled over 36,000 Japanese ground troops. Over 7,000 U.S. troops and over 31,000 Japanese died, giving the island the name “The Island of Death.” Only around 1,000 Japanese were captured.
The long campaign was costly in equipment as well, with the U.S. losing 29 ships and 615 planes and the Japanese losing 38 ships and somewhere between 680 and 900 planes. The sea, air, and land battles became epic events in the history of the U.S. military, with many tales of heroics (John Basilone, Chesty Puller), victories and disasters. The Japanese never recovered the initiative and spent the rest of the war trying to defend what they had previously taken. All future Japanese attacks were in support of the defense of their empire and no longer to seize more territory.
Guadalcanal is no longer an unknown island to Americans, and the operation has been portrayed in major motion pictures such as Pride of the Marines (1945), Guadalcanal Diary (1943), and The Thin Red Line (2 films, 1964 and 1998).
Television shows (such as Baa Baa Black Sheep and The Pacific) and numerous books have also paid tribute to the battle for this jungle island. The U.S. Navy has had 2 ships named the USS Guadalcanal, one being the CVE-60 (escort carrier, 1943-1946) and another the LPH-7 (helicopter assault ship, 1963-1994, which the author has served on). Semper fi.
Question for students (and subscribers): Did any of your relatives fight on Guadalcanal? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Franklin, Carl and David Nutter, dir. The Pacific. HBO Studios, 2010. Blu-ray.
Malick, Terrence, dir. The Thin Red Line. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. Blu-ray.
The featured image in this article, a map by TastyCakes of the route of Allied landing forces to Tulagi and Guadalcanal islands, August 7, 1942, has been released into the public domain worldwide by the copyright holder of this work.