Posts Tagged ‘Guadalcanal’

It’s been a really long time since we visited the Second World War battleground of Guadalcanal.  Of course, it’s been a while since we discussed any topic at all on these pages.  But I’m around this evening, so we should look at something.  As you probably well know, Guadalcanal (the largest of the Solomon Islands) was the site of a pivotal six-month battle during 1942.

The First Marine Division had come ashore on the 7th of September – exactly nine months after Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, achieving a measure of surprise of their own – and, with a bit of help from the Navy, had taken command of the situation.  But the cost had been high.  The cemetery on Guadalcanal held the bodies of 650 Marines.  Nearly 1,300 had been wounded, and more than 8,500 had suffered through crippling tropical disease, namely malaria.  They, along with their leader General Alexander Vandegrift, were ready for a rest.

And on December 9, 1942, that rest began.  Transports unloaded the last of the Army’s American Division, and General Vandegrift turned over command to Army General Alexander Patch.  The ceremony had little fanfare.  Richard Frank writes that the departing General read “a concise letter that paid generous tribute to the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who had worked, fought, and died side by side with his marines.

For another two months, Americans would still fight and die on Guadalcanal.  But for the First Marine Division, the end of this battle was drawing to an end.

Recommended Reading:  Guadalcanal

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For the Japanese military, 1942 was a study in contrasts.  The first half of the year was filled with heady exhilaration, as victory after victory was achieved with stunning speed.  One by one, each objective was marked off the list.  It started at Pearl Harbor and was quickly followed by the Philippines, Burma, Singapore, and Malaysia.  All over the central and south Pacific, Japanese forces pushed their American, British, and Australian counterparts back.  As May rolled around, Australia looked ripe for the picking.

It was then that things begin to change.  The Americans fought the Japanese to a draw in the waters of the Coral Sea.  A month later, Admiral Spruance’s forces shocked a vastly superior Japanese force at Midway, taking down four Japanese carriers and halting Japan’s advance in the central Pacific.

Of course, a defeat at Midway didn’t cause the Japanese Navy to simply roll over or run away.  In fact, the Japanese, despite their losses, were still in a much better position than the Americans, who still could only boast a single aircraft carrier to cover the entire Pacific.

At this point, the Japanese started looking for ways to strengthen their perimeter.  As early as mid-May, they had been scouting the Solomon Islands, and before a month had passed, the decision was made to build an airfield on the largest of the islands – Guadalcanal.  The second week of June, even as final plans were still being made, the first Japanese soldiers arrived, with the task of building a wharf. Before too long, heavy smoke hung in the air as large areas of grass were burned on the Lunga Plain.

And on July 6, 1942, the first serious forces arrived on Guadalcanal.  A twelve-ship convoy landed, disembarking 2,500 men of the 11th and 13th Construction Units.  Their job was to build an airfield.

Not a single one of these 2,500 men could have possibly known that, just the day before, the American military (through its knowledge of Japanese codes) had discovered Japan’s interest in Guadalcanal.  Suddenly, Admirals King and Nimitz were also interested in owning this piece of real estate as well.

And thus was set in motion the single most pivotal land campaign in all the Pacific War…the Battle of Guadalcanal.

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In all of our time together, we’ve spent plenty of time on and around the island of Guadalcanal.  It’s no secret that the battle for this large chunk of rock and trees was absolutely pivotal in wresting the initiative from the Japanese in the Pacific War.  But in all of our time spent concerning this largest of the Solomon Islands, we’ve talked very little about Admiral William Halsey.

Let’s do that for a couple minutes this evening.

At the time the Battle of Guadalcanal was being fought, Bull Halsey was a man on the mend.  The 60-year-old had been debilitated by an extremely irritating skin disease, so much so that he had been forced to give up his command just before the Battle of Midway in June of 1942.  Fortunately, as we well know, Admiral Raymond Spruance was more than adequate as his replacement.  Now with October passing, Halsey was ready for command again.

It’s just a shame that, this time, he was called on to replace Admiral Robert Ghormley.  Halsey and Ghormley had been friends for nearly 40 years, and there was a bit of discomfort for both men.  But it was clear that, for the South Pacific Fleet, change was needed.

Richard Frank gives his thoughts in Guadalcanal, his terrific one-volume account of the battle.  “However sympathetically Ghormley’s situation is viewed, his relief was amply justified.  Contemporary explanations for Ghormley’s replacement share the common theme that he lacked aggressiveness, but this was really a symptom of defeatism, a disease that had become rampant at his headquarters.”  Frank continues on that the Admiral had become a workaholic, denying himself recreation and exercise, which led to exhaustion and a general malaise.

With a nickname like “Bull”, it’s easy to picture Halsey as a the proverbial “bull in the china shop”, displaying a certain amount of recklessness and ram-rodding impetuousness.  Frank sets the record straight.  “He was not so impulsive as the nickname ‘Bull’ (which was not used by his friends) suggests, but he always displayed a certain indifference to detail that looked like carelessness.”

And whatever indifference to detail Halsey displayed was quickly forgotten on October 20, 1942.  It was then, just two days after Halsey had taken command, that the Japanese sub I-176 put a torpedo smack dab in the middle of the USS Chester’s starboard side.  The Northampton-class heavy, cruiser was rocked, but not sunk, and casualties were relatively light (11 killed and a dozen more wounded).

It’s probably no small coincidence that, also on this day, Halsey gave the order that all naval officers in the South Pacific would dispense with wearing ties with their tropical uniforms.  Frank continues, “Halsey said he gave this order to conform to Army practice and for comfort, but to his command it viscerally evoked the image of a brawler stripping for action and symbolized a casting off of effete elegance no more appropriate to the tropics than to war.”

For Admiral Halsey, the gloves were coming off at Guadalcanal.  Round 1?…The Battle of Santa Cruz.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal

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The Marine landings on Guadalcanal may have caught the Japanese military by surprise, but it shouldn’t surprise us in the least that they, at this stage of the Pacific War, responded rather quickly.  We’ve already talked a bit about the Japanese “response from the air”, but their surface vessels weren’t far behind.

In addition to all the aircraft stationed at Rabaul, the newly-formed Japanese 8th Fleet had also dropped anchor there.  This force of cruisers and destroyers was commanded by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, a steady and rational leader.  When messages of invasion began coming in from Tulagi on the 7th of August, he immediately gathered his men, hoisted the anchors, and made for the Solomons.

Mikawa’s plan for a night attack during the evening of August 8/9 gave his immediate superiors pause, and for good reasons.  There was precious little information coming from Guadalcanal concerning the size of the enemy forces.  Were there carriers?…battleships?  It was assumed that the transports would be well-protected, and Mikawa’s fleet, while powerful, might be signficantly smaller than that of the U.S. Navy.  And while the Japanese were excellent naval night-fighters, fighting an unknown enemy at night was fraught with peril.  But Isoroku Yamamoto, knowing Mikawa to be a cautious fighter with a good head on his shoulders, gave his blessing.  Mikawa was off…reaching Bougainville at dawn on the 8th, where they were spotted by Australian reconnaissance.

Meanwhile, on the other side…

As the night of August 8th was ending, the U.S. leaders were meeting.  General Vandegrift (in charge of the Marines on Guadalcanal) met with Admiral Fletcher and Admiral Turner (Fletcher’s boss).  Turner informed Vandegrift that Fletcher was moving his carriers to the south due to reports of Japanese forces coming from the north.  Vandegrift was livid…there were still tons of supplies to be unloaded for his troops on the island, and leaving them now would put them in a terribly vulnerable position.  But Fletcher had already made up his mind and Turner backed him.  Vandegrift would have to get settled in, at least for the moment, on his own.

Savo Island is small and conical-shaped, sitting about 10 miles off the northwest coast of Guadalcanal.  And from the north, Mikawa’s forces were closing in for the kill.  Now General Vandegrift hadn’t been left totally alone.  British Admiral Victor Crutchley’s fleet of cruisers and destroyers were operating near Savo as a screening force, and it was they who were punished by the Japanese.

I say “punished”, because that’s precisely what Mikawa’s smaller force did in the early morning hours of August 9, 1942.  Crutchley’s forces didn’t spot the enemy first, and when they did, they were concerned about firing on their own ships.  The Japanese Eighth Fleet used this small window to tremendous advantage.

When the sun rose on Savo the following morning, four heavy cruisers had been sunk, with another badly damaged.  Nearly 1,100 sailors had perished.  And Mikawa’s forces were long gone, have suffered little damage and 58 killed.

Much has been made of Mikawa’s decision to withdraw.  His opposition had been plastered, and there was nothing between him and the largely exposed (and mostly helpless) 1st Marine Division just forty or fifty miles away.  He polishes off the enemy ships, moves a bit south, lays waste to the Marines with heavy gunfire, and the Guadalcanal operation is an unmitigated U.S. disaster two days after it starts.  The U.S. campaign in the Pacific would have been set back indefinitely.

But Mikawa was operating at night with only the information he had.  He knew there were enemy carriers out there, he just didn’t know where.  It never entered his mind that Fletcher had moved (or even would move) them south, and reconaissance couldn’t locate them.  The Admiral also knew he had no carrier support with him, and against enemy carriers he would have been at a colossal disadvantage.  So while it was a terrible mistake on his part to pull back, his decision (made at 2:20 in the morning) was the right one.

The landings on Guadalcanal and the capture of its airfield were a real boon to U.S. military morale…the first time U.S. forces had taken the fight to Japanese-controlled soil.  The Battle of Savo Island was a sobering reminder of just how tough and resourceful the enemy was gonig to be.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal: Starvation Island

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It’s been a few days since anything has come from this keyboard.  For some odd reason, there’s a “topic gap” in the first week of August.  I’m sure that historical things have happened during those days, but nothing that grabbed my attention.  So either I need to read some more, or widen my circle of interests.  Anyway, the spreadsheet has stuff on it for today, so let’s chat for a few minutes.

When the U.S. Navy began shelling Guadalcanal in the early-morning hours of August 7, 1942, it caught the Japanese garrison stationed there completely by surprise.  The same held true for the small nearby island of Tulagi and the twins of Gavutu-Tanambogo (I call them “twins” because they were small islands joined by a man-made causeway).  Frantic messages from the defenders (many of them in uncoded, plain-language text) were sent up the equally-surprised Japanese chain of command.

The Japanese had a bunch of planes at their main base at Rabaul that were being prepared for attacks on U.S. air bases in New Guinea, but were quickly retasked (and re-armed with torpedoes) to support their brothers-in-arms in the Solomon Islands.  Among the attackers were 18 planes of the elite Tainan Air Group, and one of its premier aces was Petty Officer First Class Saburo Sakai.  Boarding his Zero and taking off in the morning, he and his fellow pilots joined the fray over the Guadalcanal early that afternoon.

After downing a Wildcat and a Dauntless dive-bomber, he turned to attack another group of Wildcats, only to discover too late that they were also Dauntlesses.  The SBD featured a rear tailgunner that could give an attacking pilot grief.  But Sakai was attacking several of them with only a wingman, so nearly all the return fire was concentrated on him.  The barrage of gunfire shattered his plane’s canopy and a bullet hit him in the head.  Recovering a bit, he found himself blinded by blood, paralyzed on his left side, and hurtling toward the Pacific Ocean.

He pulled from the dive and got out of the action enough to take stock of his situation, which was grim to say the least.  His left side was truly paralyzed (the bullet had punctured his brain), and his right eye was also blind, even after removing the blood.  Saburo Sakai now faced a nearly-impossible 565-mile return flight to his base.  Blood loss threatened a fall into unconciousness, but he kept himself semi-alert with the help of the searing pain caused by slapping his own head wound.  And in one of the more remarkable flights of the entire War, Sakai (with only one eye, one arm, and one leg functioning) nursed his crippled plane (and his more crippled body) the entire way home…a five-hour flight.

The young pilot endured a long surgery (without any anesthesia) and made a partial recovery (the vision in his right eye never fully returned).  He convinced his superiors to let him fly again, and survived a kamikaze mission late in the War (when he was unable to locate enemy ships).  And in a testament to the Japanese military’s reluctance for advancement, this talented and tough pilot (a fighter ace a dozen times over) would not be promoted to Ensign (the next level above Petty Officer First Class) until two years later.

Sakai survived the War.  And after being surrounded by death for years, and experiencing his own incredible escape from its clutches on that day over Guadalcanal, he vowed to not so much as kill an insect.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal

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Today we bid adieu to the USS Chicago.  The heavy cruiser was sunk off Rennell Island, situated roughly 200 miles straight south of Guadalcanal, during the afternoon of January 30, 1943.  The Chicago was part of a task force that was sent to Guadalcanal due to increased enemy naval activity in the area.

The U.S. Navy had incorrectly assumed that a flurry of recent Japanese movements were the first moves in another offensive action in the area.  So Admirals Nimitz and Halsey deployed as large a force as possible.  The USS Enterprise (recovering from war wounds sustained near Santa Cruz)  was augmented with carrier USS Saratogo.  And a bevy of heavy cruisers and destroyers, including the Chicago, was ordered to rendevouz, under the leadership of Admiral Richard Giffen.

In reality, the Japanese were getting their ducks in a row to completely evacuate Guadalcanal.  Operation Ke was now underway, and the Imperial Japanese Navy was working to keep the soldiers on the ground safe.

Giffen’s force was attacked in the final hours of January 29th and, despite the cover of darkness, they gave a good account of themselves.  But a couple of enemy aircraft shot down near the Chicago silhouetted her against the darkness.  Japanese Betty torpedo bombers targeted her, and hit her with two torpedoes, killing the engines and leaving her listing and dead in the water.

Her sister ship USS Louisville began towing the damaged Chicago out of harm’s way (shown above), but she was found again the next afternoon by enemy torpedo planes and hit with four more torpedoes.  At this point, she rolled over and sank.

Looking back, the loss of a single cruiser doesn’t seem to be much in light of the reality that the U.S. was just about to wrest its first major chunk of Pacific territory from the enemy.  But the naval side of the 7-month struggle had been sprinkled with bad decisions and a tendency to underestimate the enemy’s capability while simultaneously acting with a bit too much self-confidence.

The loss of the Chicago was, in some ways, the proverbial broken record.  Admiral Giffen’s push to reach his sector caused him to move his forces in predictable patterns.  At one point, he even gave up the standard zig-zag movements.  These tactics angered Admiral Nimitz a lot, though he didn’t replace Giffen who, despite his errors off Rennell Island, was a capable Admiral with significant experience.

The sinking of the USS Chicago, and the loss of 62 of its men, left a bitter taste to mingle with the sweet when Guadalcanal was secured a week later.

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For two months, the Japanese had been trying to keep their soldiers on Guadalcanal supplied with food, ammunition, and replacement troops.  They had been less than successful in doing so.  The combination of the U.S. Navy and the Cactus Air Force (stationed at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal) was enough to keep the Japanese attempts at resupply at bay…barely.  No one should think that this was a cake-walk.  The Japanese often taught the U.S. Navy hard lessons at places like Tassafaronga Point and Santa Cruz, but they could never really deliver the blow that kept American forces off their backs long enough to get supplies ashore.

Oh sure, supplies were landed.  But all too often, it was a scant portion of what was required to feed the men, who pointedly referred to their locale “Starvation Island”.  As December was passing, the Japanese Combined Fleet decided that continued operations on Guadalcanal were pointless.  And so they drew up plans to focus instead on New Guinea, which meant the abandonment of Guadalcanal to the U.S. Army (which was now relieving the Marines that had first landed there).

The Japanese Navy was taking a bit of an “interservice” gamble with the decision.  It was the Japanese Army who had committed, to this point, upwards of 30,000 troops to the endeavor in the Solomon Islands, with assurances from the Imperial Japanese Navy that those men would be resupplied.  And it was the IJN that had failed in its obligations.  For them to now come and push policy onto the Army…well…that didn’t bode well for future combined operations.

The Army, surprisingly enough, was amenable to a withdrawal…relieved, actually.  They discussed the matter on Christmas Day of 1942, talking of an immediate withdrawal rather than a phased operation, and a refocus on New Guinea and a new, stronger defensive line.  The Navy leadership heard, and also accepted, the plan on December 26, 1942.

Operation Ke, the Japanese withdrawal from Guadalcanal, was born.

For the Japanese soldier trained (“brainwashed” is very nearly appropriate here) in the code of bushido, the “way of the Samurai”, and “suicide before surrender”, Operation KE would be a paradigm shift in their thinking.  And from their perspective, it was fortunate that this decision would be rarely repeated in the Pacific War.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle

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