Eight months to the day after the Japanese surprised the Americans at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Marines got to return the favor as the spearhead of the United States’ first offensive foray in the South Pacific. Guadalcanal, as one of the largest islands in the Solomon Island chain, had not originally been chosen for occupation. But when reconnaissance of the area revealed that the Japanese were building an airfield there from which they could threaten U.S.-Australian supply routes, it suddenly became an important target. In addition to Guadalcanal, the small islands of Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo (actually two tiny islands joined by a causeway), all nestled just south of Florida Island, would also be assaulted.
Surprise was achieved due to two factors. First, the landing force made a feint toward Australia before turning towards the Solomons. Second, the weather turned foul and covered the ships in clouds and rain, shielding them from the eyes of Japanese scout planes. So when the USS Quincy fired the first ship-borne shells at Guadalcanal early on the morning of August 7, 1942, the Japanese garrison there was caught completely off guard.
Nearly 11,000 Marines of the 1st Marine Division, led by General Alexander Vandegrift, would put ashore at Lunga Point. Simultaneously, 3 battalions would land on the island of Tulagi, and another battalion would take on the island twins of Gavutu-Tanambogo 4 hours later.
The main Japanese base at Rabaul received word of the invasion very quickly and immediately sent planes to attack the landing force, which succeeded in sinking a transport and damaging a destroyer, but doing little else. Saburo Sakai, a Japanese pilot, was seriously wounded in the attacks, and his death-defying flight home is likely worthy of it’s own place in Today’s History Lesson somewhere down the road.
Tulagi would be secured on the 8th and while the “twins” would fall on August 9th. But Guadalcanal, the island to be bypassed in the original plans would, for the next 7 months, be the focus of an intense struggle for control. The Japanese had been checked in the Coral Sea and turned at Midway. Could the Japanese tide actually now be reversed? The Battle of Guadalcanal would answer that question.
Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle – I’m currently reading Frank’s book…for the second time. As a one-volume account of this critical battle, it’s really hard to beat.