[February 9, 2021] I’ve written of many battles in my leadership blog and frequently gave accounts of heroism, lessons learned, the horrors, and the struggle of the ordinary foot soldier and basic seaman. No other battle – actually a series of battles over six months – portrays the American spirit in times of great difficulty than the Battle of Guadalcanal.
“As they prepared themselves to go ashore no one doubted in theory that at least a certain percentage of them would remain on the island dead, once they set foot on it. But no one expected to be one of these. Still it was an awesome thought and as the first contingents came struggling up on deck in full gear to form up, all eyes instinctively sought out immediately this island where they were to be put, and left, and which might possibly turn out to be a friend’s grave.” – James Jones, The Thin Red Line
The United States had been at war for only eight months when this epic battle began on August 7, 1942. Both our Navy, Army, and Marine Corps were untested either at the tactical or strategic levels. The enemy, the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army were battle-hardened, experienced, and tough. The fight would be one of the most significant battles of the war and would foretell how the American effort would go in the future.
After the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1942, the Japanese military quickly expanded into the Western Pacific, occupying many islands to build a defensive perimeter around their conquests and to threaten lines of communication in this region. The Japanese were spotted in May of 1942 building an airfield on Guadalcanal that was a direct threat to ally Austrailia. WWII was about to begin in earnest.
U.S. Marines, landing on August 7, 1942, captured the airfield on Guadalcanal but spent the next six months fending off a concerted effort by the Japanese to retake it. This campaign would become one of the most hotly contested campaigns of the entire war. The island of Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands in general are of little value other than their strategic location. Like in real estate, location is everything.
With the Japanese in the Solomon Islands, their air force could fan out, menacing shipping along sea routes connecting North America with beleaguered Austrailia. Japan could stop the U.S. from commencing their long march up the island chain toward the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul, the Philippine Islands and thence toward Japan itself. And, Guadalcanal could become a jumping off point to expand Japan’s claim to even more Pacific areas.
On this date, February 9, 1943, the Battle of Guadalcanal ended.
To the U.S., taking and holding Guadalcanal was paramount. There are many lessons we can derive from this campaign and I recommend we explore those lessons.1 But that is for another time.