In its urgency, its desperation, its hair-thin margins between success and failure, and in its profound effects upon both the U.S. and the Japanese war efforts, it may well rank as one the decisive campaigns of history.
Between August and November of 1942, the seemingly irresistible advance of the Japanese collided head-on with the scanty forces which the United States could throw in their path. By the end of November, the enemy had been halted on the ground, turned back at sea, and virtually driven from the air above Guadalcanal. After 7 August 1942, when U.S. Marines opened the assault, the Japanese never again advanced beyond the Pacific positions which they held at that time. Their succeeding movements throughout the war were always to the rear. This turn of the tide, largely accomplished by the forces of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, inflicted at least 27,500 casualties upon the enemy, and cost us 6,111, including 1,752 killed or missing in action.1 What is more, it gained for the United States a strategic initiative which was never relinquished.
In many respects, Guadalcanal was a victory in relative terms. That is to say, when the Fleet Marine Force was committed to action in the summer of 1942, no one could pretend that we were fully ready, afloat, ashore or in the air, to assume and sustain an offensive of this character. On the other hand, however, as a result of the battle of Midway and their position of extreme extension, the Japanese were less ready, either to meet our resolute thrust or to dislodge our forces, than we were to attempt such a venture. Because of the enemy's unbalanced position, August 1942 was--strategically--a time of now or never. Relatively, the United States was lessunready for the Guadalcanal campaign than were the Japanese.
Relatively speaking again, the autumn hemorrhage of naval strength between the Japanese and U.S. force told more heavily against the enemy than against ourselves. Both sides sustained serious losses, but, after the November sea-fights, it was the U.S. Navy which held the balance, slim as it was, and with that balance held the sea, and with that control of the sea, inevitably held ultimately victory.
Examined as a victory of seapower in its broadest sense (which includes all elements of a balanced fleet, by they air, surface, subsurface or ground), it is apparent that the outcome, and indeed the outset, of Guadalcanal, as a naval campaign, was profoundly influenced by the existence within the U.S. Naval Establishment of the Fleet Marine Force. Organized and trained--as no other U.S. force then was--to act as an amphibious expeditionary component within the Fleet, the FMF was ready, just as it had been a year before, in the occupation of Iceland. The fact that Admiral King had at his
disposal a balanced ready force of the combined arms, including marine Corps Aviation, enabled the United States to embark without hesitation upon the operation, and at the unique moment. Without the Fleet Marine Force, Guadalcanal would never have taken place.
In considering the fighting on shore, especially as compared to later great battles such as Iwo Jima or Okinawa, it is easy to dismiss the Guadalcanal campaign as a protracted series of small-unit actions, bitterly fought, perhaps, but small. Unless we can weigh the consequences of those actions, this view is perhaps true. We have already seen, however, that the importance of Guadalcanal lay in its character as a turning-point, as the moment when the Japanese drive reversed itself. That, certainly, is how the most astute of the Japanese themselves evaluated it.
Prior to the latter part of 1942, Japan had counted on a relatively easy victory and a war effort which could readily be supported by what was, after all, their rather limited economy. In the Japanese thinking, even the battle of Midway was only a single defeat, a disastrous but temporary setback. Guadalcanal, however, removed the blindfold, and it was only from that time on that the Japanese--too late--set their economic and strategic sights for total war. For example, after the war, Mr. Hoshino Naoki, Chief Secretary of the Tojo Cabinet, stated that the calendar of the Japanese war economy should be dated "After Guadalcanal." As an official U.S. Government appraisal2 of the war (based on interrogation of high enemy officials) added,
The entire Guadalcanal campaign lasted from 7 August 1942 to 9 February 1943, but the handwriting on the wall had become plainly visible in mid-November 1942. This date, 11 months after the Pearl Harbor attack, marked the end of the first phase of Japanese economic development in the Pacific war. With November 1942 began the really energetic effort. . . .
At another point, the same source summarizes,
At midyear 1942 the Japanese could set the occupation of the southern regions, including Burma and much of New Guinea, against the one major defeat at Midway. In August the American forces secured a position on Guadalcanal and thereafter the picture changed rapidly. By October-November the decisive engagements for control of Guadalcanal were being fought. . . . By the end of November, total Japanese merchant shipping was reduced to 5,946,000 tons, or 430,000 tons below the December 1941 and July 1942 level. (Italics supplied)
Not only from an economic point, however, did the Japanese feel the immense impact of Guadalcanal. Fleet Admiral Nagano Osami, IJN, Supreme Naval Adviser to the Emperor and (from April 1941 to February 1944) Chief of Naval General Staff, was asked, after the war:
Admiral, what would you consider was the turning point from the offensive to the defensive for Japan, and what was that caused by?
After a moment, the Admiral replied,
I look upon the Guadalcanal and Tulagi operations as the turning point from offense to defense, and the cause of our setback there was our inability to increase our forces at the same speed as you did.3
GUADALCANAL WAS THE TURNING POINT, and on Guadalcanal the crucial position was Henderson Field, shown here as defending Marine, Navy and Army airmen (and Japanese bombers) knew it from the air.
Captain Toshikazu Ohmae, IJN, one of the foremost of general staff planners of Japan, confirmed this view without hesitation. "After Guadalcanal, in the latter part of 1942, I felt we could not win," he said.
Lieutenant General Kawabe, former Deputy Chief of the Japanese Army General Staff, reached, from the Army's standpoint, virtually the same conclusion, which he expressed as follows:
As for the turning point (of the war), when the positive action ceased or even became negative, it was, I feel, at Guadalcanal.
Not only from those high officers just cited, but from many other such interrogations of the defeated Japanese, comes this same theme: The theme of Guadalcanal as the turning point. From the slim victories by small forces; from the discipline and ability of Marines to hold on despite hunger, fatigue and disease; from the resolution of U.S. airmen and seamen who were often outnumbered but never outfought; and from the fact that, at this ultimate single point of extension and conflict, the United States, straining its utmost, as against Japan straining its utmost, could exert a few more ounces of effort--from this aggregate came victory, not only on Guadalcanal, but ultimately in the whole Pacific.
1 Army and Marine Corps figures only. Navy casualties for the campaign had not been worked out at 29 March 1949. [Samuel Eliot Morison's The Struggle for Guadalcanal, published the same year gives "certainly in excess of that figure [1,592 Army and Marine Corps ground troops KIA, plus "several score fliers". U.S. Naval losses amounted to 2 aircraft carriers, 6 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 14 destroyers, plus transports and other auxiliaries. Richard B. Frank's Guadalcanal give total Allied naval casualties (including Australian losses on Canberra, Achilles, and Moa) as 5,041 KIA.]
2 "The Effects of Strategic Bombing on Japan's War Economy," Over-all Economic Effects Division, U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, December 1946, p. 19.
3 Admiral Nagano was interrogated on 20 November 1945 by Rear Admiral R.A. Ofstie, USN, Chief of the Naval Analysis Division, U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey.
Table of Contents ** Abbreviations * Military Map Symbols
Return to HyperWar: U.S. Marine Corps in World War II
Return to HyperWar: World War II on the WorldWideWeb
Last updated: September 5, 1998
Compiled and formatted by Patrick Clancey