Part Six -- The Turning Point: Guadalcanal

Chapter 1: Background and Preparations1

Scarcely had Admiral Yamamoto pulled his Combined Fleet away from its defeat at Midway before the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff began reconsidering basic Pacific policy. They wanted an offensive which would aid containment of the Japanese advances toward Australia and safeguard the U.S. communication lines to the Anzac area. As early as 18 February, Admiral Ernest J. King., Commander in Chief of the U.S. Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations, told Chief of Staff George C. Marshall that he considered it necessary to garrison certain South and Southwest pacific islands with Army troops2 in preparation for launching U.S. Marines on an early offensive against the enemy.3 And shortly after the Battle of the Coral Sea, General MacArthur advanced plans for an attack against the Japanese at Rabaul. For this move he requested aircraft carriers, additional troops, and more planes.4 But Nimitz rejected this plan. His carriers were too precious for commitment in waters so restricted as the Solomon Sea, he told the general. Besides, the admiral had a plan of his own. He wanted to capture Tulagi with one Marine raider battalion.5 Admiral King's reaction to this plan was initially favorable, but on 1 June he sided with Marshall and MacArthur that the job could not be done by one battalion. (See Map 11)


But now time and the victory at Midway had improved the U.S. position in the Pacific, and on 25 June Admiral King advised Nimitz and Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, Commander of South Pacific Forces,6 to prepare for an offensive against the Lower Solomons. Santa Cruz Island, Tulagi, and adjacent areas would be seized and occupied by Marines under CinCPac, and Army troops from Australia then would form the permanent occupation garrison.7 D-Day would be about 1 August.

The task seemed almost impossible. Ghormley had just taken over his Pacific job after a hurried trip from London where he had been Special Naval Observer and Commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe; the 1st Marine Division, slated for the Solomon landing, was making an administrative move from the United States to New Zealand; and Marshall and King continued to debate matters of command. The general contested the Navy's right to command the operation. The area lay in the Southwest Pacific, Marshall pointed out, and so MacArthur ought to be in charge.8

Never mind arbitrary geography, King's reply seemed to say. The forces involved would not come from MacArthur, but from the South Pacific; and King doubted that MacArthur could help the operation much even if he wanted to. The Southwest Pacific's nearest land-based bomber field was 975 miles from Tulagi. The command setup must be made with a view toward success, King said, but the primary consideration was that the operation be begun at once. He stated unequivocally that it must be under Nimitz, and that it could not be conducted in any other way.9

The Joint Chiefs resolved this conflict on 2 July with issuance of the "Joint Directive for Offensive Operations in the Southwest Pacific Area Agreed on by the United States Chiefs of Staff." The directive set the seizure of the New Britain-New Ireland-New Guinea area as the objective of these operations, but it broke this goal down into three phases designed to resolve the dispute between MacArthur and Nimitz. Phase One would be the seizure of the island of Santa Cruz and Tulagi, along with positions on adjacent islands. Nimitz would command this operation, with MacArthur concentrating on interdiction of enemy air and naval activity to the west. And to remove MacArthur's geographic claim on the Phase One target area, the Joint Chiefs shifted the boundary between the general and Admiral Nimitz to place the Lower Solomons in the admiral's South Pacific area. MacArthur then would take command of Phase Two, seizure of other Solomon Islands plus positions on New Guinea, and of Phase Three, the capture of Rabaul and adjacent bases in New Britain and New Ireland. Questions of timing, establishment of task organizations, and arrangements for command changes from one area to another would be governed by the Joint Chiefs.

Preparation of this directive in Washington had prompted King's warning


order which Ghormley received on 25 June; and when the directive arrived in the South Pacific the force commander there already was making his plans for Phase One, which Washington labeled Operation WATCHTOWER. But, valid as was the Chiefs' of Staff determination to lose no time in launching this first offensive, problems facing Ghormley and Nimitz were so grim that the pseudo code name for the undertaking soon became "Operation Shoestring."

Japanese Situation

Since Pearl Harbor the Japanese had expanded through East Asia, the Indies, and much of Melanesia to a gigantic line of departure which menaced Australia from the Indian Ocean to the Coral Sea. Lae, Salamaua, and Finschafen on New Guinea's north coast had been occupied, and a force for the capture of port Moresby--a New Guinea town just across the north tip of the Coral Sea from Australia's Cape York Peninsula--stood poised at Rabaul in the Bismarcks, a position taken by the Japanese on 23 January 1942.

A month later the Japanese took Bougainville Island in the Northern Solomons, and on 4 May they took a 300-mile step down this island chain to capture Tulagi, which lay between the larger islands of Florida and Guadalcanal. This started the Japanese encirclement of the Coral Sea, a move that was thwarted by Admiral Fletcher in the naval battle that preceded the fight at Midway. (See Part V, Chapter 1).

Defeat of their fleet at Midway forced the Japanese to alter many of their ambitious plans, and on 11 July they gave up the idea of taking New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa. But if Admiral Yamamoto realized that the failure of his fleet at Midway spelled the doom of Japanese ambitions in the Pacific, U.S. fighting men were to meet a number of his countrymen who did not get the word, or who were bent on convincing Yamamoto that he was wrong. Rabaul and Solomons positions grew stronger after the Battle of Midway, and reduction of Fortress Rabaul would occupy efforts of the Allied South Pacific forces for nearly two years. Operation WATCHTOWER, which turned out to be the landing against Tulagi and Guadalcanal, was the first Allied step toward Rabaul.

In 1942 the Australian garrison at Tulagi consisted of a few riflemen of the Australian Imperial Force, some members of the Royal Australian Air Force, a member of the Australian Naval Intelligence, and Resident Commissioner, the civil staff, and a few planters and missionaries. Most of these people evacuated the area after a heavy Japanese air raid of 1 May, and the subsequent sighting by coastwatchers of enemy ships en route toward the Southern Solomons. Among those who remained in the Solomon area were the coastwatchers, courageous old island hands who now retired into the bush and hills from which they would observe Japanese movements and report regularly by radio to their intelligence center in Australia.11

The 3d Kure Special Landing Force made the Tulagi landing from the cruiser-mine layer Okinoshima which flew the flag of Rear Admiral Kiyohide Shima. One group of these Japanese "marines"--a machine gun company, two antitank gun


platoons, and some laborers-occupied Tulagi while a similar task organization from the 3d Kure Force went ashore on Gavutu, a smaller island nearby. They met no opposition, except that from Admiral Fletcher's planes in the action ancillary to the Battle of the Coral Sea, and defensive installations were set up immediately to protect the base construction and improvement work which soon got under way. The Japanese set up coastwatcher stations on Savo Island at the northwest end of the channel between Florida and Guadalcanal, and on both tips as well as the south coast of Guadalcanal.

Tulagi has an excellent harbor,12 and initial efforts of the Japanese landing force improved this and developed a seaplane base there. The enemy took no immediate steps to develop airfields, and a full month passed before surveying parties and patrols crossed the 20mile channel to Guadalcanal where they staked out an air strip site on the plains of the Lunga River. They finished this survey late in June and began to grade a runway early in July.

With a scrapping of the plans to occupy Samoa, Fiji, and New Caledonia, and with the importance of Rabaul thus increased, Japanese holding in the Lower Solomons had gained in value. Tulagi with its excellent harbor, and Guadalcanal with its broad plains suitable for airstrips, would be an important outwork to Rabaul. A new offensive likewise could be mounted from the Bismarck-Solomon positions, to erase the Coral Sea and Midway setbacks. Japan still had her eye on Port Moresby. The troops slated for that occupation already waited at Rabaul, and now a new fleet, the Eighth, under Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, was created to help look after this southern end of the Japanese conquest string. This fleet, with the help of aircraft from Rabaul and the Lower Solomons, would protect the ferrying of troops to Buna, and the subsequent overland march of these troops across New Guinea's Owen Stanley Mountains to capture Port Moresby. The Australia would be well blocked if not complete isolated; and maybe if the Japanese did not think about the defeat at Midway the sting would just go away and everything would be all right again.13

U.S. Preparations

After reinforcing the Anzac lifeline (see Part II, Chapter 3), the U.S. began edging toward its Solomon Islands target area. Near the end of March some 500 Army troops from Major General Alexander M. Patch's Americal Division in New Caledonia went up to garrison Efate in the lower New Hebrides. On 29 March the 4th Marine Defense Battalion and Marine Fighter Squadron 212, diverted from their deployment from Hawaii to Tongatabu, also landed on this island. These Marines and Army personnel built an airstrip for the fighter squadron. Naval forces also began to arrive during this time, and in April other elements of Marine Air Group 23, parent organization of Squadron 212, came to the island. The prewar seaplane base at Vila, Efate's largest


town, was improved, and another such base was built in Havannah Harbor on the island's northwest coast.

This was a hazardous and rather unnerving extension of defensive lines for the meager American force of that period. The Japanese were just 700 miles to the north in the Lower Solomons, and this fact gave these New Hebrides islands and waters that same hostile, "creepy" feeling that members of the unsuccessful Wake relief expedition had sensed while on that venture deep into the enemy zone. The Japanese made a few air raids into this area, but the greatest opposition came from the anopheles mosquito.

In the New Hebrides American troops of World War II had their first wholesale encounter with this carrier of malaria, and the field medical units were not prepared to cope with the disease in such proportions. Atabrine tables were not yet available, and even quinine was in short supply. By the end of April there were 133 cases of malaria among the 947 officers and men of the 4th Defense Battalion, and by the time of the Guadalcanal landing early in August the entire New Hebrides force reported the disease in even greater proportions. Medical units were dispatching requests for "an enormous amount of quinine."14

In May both General Patch and Admiral Ghormley recommended that a force be sent even farther north, to Espiritu Santo. An airfield there would put the Allied planes 150 miles closer to the Solomons, and the force there would be a protective outwork for Efate until that first offensive started. Admiral Ghormley also recommended that the Ellice Islands, between the Samoan group and the Gilberts, be occupied as an additional outpost of the communication lines to Australia. This move was postponed, however, and it was not until October that Marines landed at Funafuti in the Ellice group. Espiritu Santo was immediately important to the Solomons operations, however, and on 28 May a force of about 500 Army troops moved from Efate to the larger New Hebrides island farther north. The first attempt of these troops to build an airfield there bogged down in a stretch of swamp and new outbreaks of malaria.

By this time, plans for the WATCHTOWER landings were firming up, and the effort at Espiritu Santo was reinforced so that the airfield would be completed in time. On 15 July a detachment from the 4th Marine Defense Battalion went up to Santo with a heavy antiaircraft battery and an automatic weapons battery. The airfield was completed in time, but the Army troops and Marines were mostly walking cases of malaria by then. However, important islands had been reinforced, new garrisons formed to protect the communication lines, and these displacements toward enemy bases had been accomplished. The time had come to strike back at the Japanese.

Plans for Battle

When Admiral Ghormley received the WATCHTOWER warning order on 25 June, the 1st Marine Division, commanded by Major General Alexander Archer Vandegrift, was en route from the United States to Wellington, New Zealand. The advance echelon had arrived on 14 June, and the rear was at sea. It would land on 11 July. Until 26 June when information of the operation reached the division staff, Vandegrift had planned to continue


training his division in New Zealand.15 The division, the Marine Corps' major unit available for employment on such short notice, was understrength by about one third because of detachment of the reinforced 7th Marines to Samoan duty.

Army troops in the area, originally under Ghormley's command, could provide little more than moral support to the landings. This shoestring venture would not remove the need for garrison forces elsewhere in the South Pacific. Besides, Ghormley lost his direct control of these troops on 1 July when Major General Millard F. Harmon, USA, became Commanding General, South Pacific Area, to head all Army forces in the theater. Even though Harmon would be under Ghormley's command, the admiral at first disliked this command setup. But he later came to regard Harmon as one of the finest administrators and coordinators he had ever met.16

Admiral Ghormley's job in the South Pacific seemed almost to resemble that of a traffic director more than it did the role of a commander. According to plans, Nimitz would order task force commanders, with their missions already assigned them, to report to Ghormley when they were going to carry out missions in his area. Ghormley then would direct these commanders to execute the missions Nimitz had assigned them, and he could not interfere in these missions except when tasks were opposed by circumstances of which Nimitz was not aware.17

To complete the picture of command for WATCHTOWER, Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner arrived from Washington on 18 July and reported to Ghormley as commander of the amphibious force. Ghormley, under Nimitz, was in over-all strategic command, but he would remain at his headquarters in Noumea. Admiral Fletcher would command the joint expeditionary force. But in practice Fletcher confined himself almost completely to providing air cover from his carriers, and this left Turner, in addition to commanding Vandegrift and his division, in charge of almost everything else as well.

This command setup which placed Vandegrift under the Navy's amphibious force commander rankled until nearly the time of the withdrawal of the 1st Marine Division from Guadalcanal fighting. It was not a case of small jealousy about control or any sort of petty peevishness on the part of either Vandegrift or Turner. Rather it was a clash of serious opposing convictions about how such an operation should be conducted. Turner and many other Naval authorities looked upon the landing force as just a detachment from the force afloat, and still connected to the Navy's amphibious force by firm command lines. That was a traditional view from an earlier age.

But this was the beginning of a big new war, and Marines had experience and thinking time enough in amphibious matters to have definite studied opinions about how these intricate over-the-beach operations should be conducted when they reached the proportions which would be


necessary in the Pacific. Vandegrift, faced with the task of putting these studied opinions and experiments into practice, wanted a clear-cut command right, free from any vestige of divided responsibility shared with the commander afloat. Once firmly established ashore, Marine opinion held, the landing force commander should command his own land operation. His training and position on the battleground made him more qualified for this job than was the amphibious force commander. It took some arguing, and this matter finally had to be taken to the top of military hierarchy, but the Navy eventually saw the point and agreed with it.

Turner's second in command was Rear Admiral V.A.C. Crutchley, RN, whose covering force would include eight cruisers (three Australian and five U.S.) and fifteen destroyers (all U.S.). These ships were to provide naval gunfire support and antiaircraft protection. In all, the naval contingent included three aircraft carriers with a strength of 250 planes; a number of light and heavy cruisers; two new battleships; and the available screening vessels and auxiliary craft. Transports and cargo vessels were at a premium, and would continue so for some time.

In addition to the approximately 250 carrier aircraft, Ghormley could muster only 166 Navy and Marine Corps planes (including two Marine squadrons--VMF-212 and VMO-251), 95 Army planes, and 30 planes from the Royal New Zealand Air Force. These 291 aircraft--all unfortunately based beyond striking range of the target area--were under the command of Rear Admiral John S. McCain whose title was Commander Aircraft South Pacific. He was instrumental in bringing about the construction of the Espiritu Santo airfield and seeing that it was available for aircraft of 28 July, in spite of all the troubles which befell the force in the New Hebrides.

VMO-251 came in to Noumea on 12 July on board the USS Heywood. The outfit barely had time to set up camp at Tontouta and uncrate its aircraft before it got the word to go up to that new field at Santo and back up the landing. On 2 August the unit began to arrive at this northern New Hebrides field, and within nine days Lieutenant Colonel John N. Hart had his squadron installed there with its sixteen FGF-3P long-range photographic planes. Hart still was short his wing tanks for long-range flying, however, These were finally flown out from Pearl Harbor and arrived on 20 August.

MacArthur's contribution to the Guadalcanal operation consisted of about sixteen B-17s which flew reconnaissance over the area west of the 158th meridian east (the boundary between the South and Southwest Pacific Areas for air search) and attempted to put a stopper on the enemy air from Rabaul.

Thus Ghormley could rely only on the services of a small, highly trained striking force of fluctuating but never overwhelming power. He had no assurances of reserve ground troops, although plans were under way to release both the 7th and 8th Marines from their Samoan defense missions,18 and he had been advised that garrison forces would have to come from the troops already within his area on base defense


duty.19 The 1st Base Depot had set up an advance echelon in Wellington on 21 June, and other supply bases were to be established later at Noumea and Espiritu Santo.

The general structure organized to employ these resources against the Japanese was laid down in Nimitz's order to Ghormley of 9 July, and Ghormley's Operation Plan 1-42 of 17 July 1942.20

Ghormley, exercising strategic command, set up his organization in three main groups:

Carrier Forces (Task Force 61.1), commanded by Rear Admiral Leigh Noyes, was composed of elements of three task forces from Nimitz's area--11, 16, and 18. It would include three carriers, Saratoga, Enterprise, and Wasp, the fast new battleship North Carolina, five heavy cruisers, one so-called antiaircraft cruiser, and 16 destroyers.

Amphibious Force (Task Force 61.2), commanded by Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, included the Marine landing force carried in 13 attack transports, four destroyer transports, and six cargo ships; a fire support group of one antiaircraft and three heavy cruisers plus six destroyers; a screening group of one light and three heavy cruisers as well as nine destroyers; and a small mine-sweeping group.

Shore-Based Aircraft (Task Force 63), under Rear Admiral J.S. McCain (ComAirSoPac), included all aircraft in the area except those on carriers.

Complicating this symmetrical structure was the tactical command role played by Vice Admiral Fletcher. He was in over-al command of TF 61 which included the forces of Noyes and Turner.

Ghormley called for a rehearsal in the Fiji area and directed that all task force commanders arrange to hold a conference near the rehearsal area. He himself would move from Auckland to Noumea about 1 August in order to comply with his orders to exercise strategic command within the operating area.21

By this time the planes and orders were formed, the target selected, the forces organized, and the Navy given leeway to operate without poaching in the territory of the Southwest Pacific. Only the detail of a landing date remained unsettled. Vandegrift pointed out to Ghormley that the late arrival of his second echelon, and a stretch of bad weather, had so complicated his loading problem as to make it impossible to meet the date of 1 August. Ghormley and Nimitz agreed that an additional week was needed, and King consented to postpone the landing until 7 August. King warned, however, that this was the latest date permissible and that every effort should be made to advance it.

Accumulation of Intelligence

From an intelligence point of view, the Guadalcanal-Tulagi landings can hardly


be described as more than a stab in the dark. When General Vandegrift received his initial warning order on 26 June 1942 neither his staff nor the local New Zealand authorities had more than the most general and sketchy knowledge of the objective area or the enemy's strength and disposition, and there was but a mont available before the scheduled date of mounting out, 22 July.

As in the case with most tropical backwaters, the charting and hydrographic information was scanty and out of date. Lieutenant Colonel Frank B. Goettge, Intelligence Officer of the 1st Marine Division, therefore set out to locate traders, planters, shipmasters, and a few miners who had visited or lived at Guadalcanal or Tulagi. A number of likely sources resided in Australia, and while his subordinates tabulated the formal data available, Goettge left for Australia on 2 July. He returned to New Zealand on the 13th.

Long after the conclusion of the campaign, it was learned that Colonel Goettge's efforts deserved better success than they had enjoyed. During his hurried trip to Australia, he arranged with the Southwest Pacific Area for maps to be made from a strip of aerial photographs and to be delivered prior to the sortie of the 1st Marine Division. The maps were made, but were not received because of certain oversights and confusion in mounting out the division.

From Buka and Bougainville in the north, the Solomons form a double column of islands streaming southeast between latitudes five and twelve degrees south. Looking northwest toward Bougainville, the large islands on the right are Choiseul, Santa Isabel, and Malaita. In the column to the left are the islands of the New Georgia group, the Russells, Guadalcanal, and San Cristobal. Buka and Bougainville at the outbreak of the war were part of the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea; the remainder of the double chain formed the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. In all, the islands number several hundred, with some 18,600 square miles of land area. (See Map 11)

Florida, the largest island of the Nggela Group, lies between Malaita and Guadalcanal; and between the northern tips of Guadalcanal and Florida is the small, nearly-conical island of Savo. Indispensable Strait separates Florida from neighboring Malaita to the east, and the twenty-mile-wide strait between Florida and Guadalcanal to the south is known generally as Sealark Channel.

Nestled into the northwest rim of a jagged bight in Florida's south coast lies Tulagi, seat of the British Resident Commissioner. Tulagi Harbor, the water between the two islands, is the best anchorage in the Southern Solomons.

In the middle of Florida's bight, generally east southeast of Tulagi, lie the smaller causeway-connected islands of Gavutu and Tanambogo. Gavutu was the local headquarters of Lever Brothers which operated coconut plantations in the area, and this island, as well as Tanambogo and Tulagi, possessed some docks, jetties, and other developments for shipping, management, and copra processing.

Mostly volcanic in origin and lying within the world's wettest area, the Solomons are jagged, jungle-covered, and steamy with humid tropical heat. Lofty peaks and ridges cross-faulted by volcanic action and dramatic erosion cuts from swift rivers chop the islands into conflicting


Map 11: Solomon Islands with Inset Showing Santa Cruz Islands


terrain that became a nightmare for military operations.

Guadalcanal, some 90 miles in length and about 25 miles wide, presents a varied topography ranging from plains and foothills along the north coast to a mountain backbone dropping rapidly to the south coast. Rainfall is extremely heavy, and changes in season are marked only by changes in intensity of precipitation. This, together with an average temperature in the high 80s, results in an unhealthy climate. Malaria, dengue, and other fevers, as well as fungus infections, afflict the population.

Rivers are numerous and from the military point of view may be divided arbitrarily into two classes. The first of these is the long, swift, relatively shallow river that may be forded at numerous points. Generally deep only for a short distance from its mouth, it presents few problems in the matter of crossing. Examples of this type on Guadalcanal are the Tenaru, the Lunga, and the Balesuna. The second type is that of the slow and deep lagoon. Such streams are sometimes short, as in the case of the Ilu River, and some lagoons are merely the delta streams of rivers of considerable size, as in the case of the Matanikau. This type, because of depth and marshy banks, became a military obstacle.

Although such accumulation of data afforded much enlightenment beyond the little previously known, it included corresponding minor misinformation and many aggravating gaps, for detailed information in a form suitable for military operations was mainly lacking.

In spite of the number of years which had elapsed since initiation of the systematic economic development of the islands by the British, not a single accurate or complete map of Guadalcanal or Tulagi existed in the summer of 1942. The hydrographic charts, containing just sufficient data to enable trading schooners to keep from grounding, were little better, although these did locate a few outstanding terrain features of some use for making a landfall or conducting triangulation. Such locations were not always accurate. Mount Austen, for example, was assigned as an early landing objective, but the landing force discovered that instead of being but a few hundred yards away from the beaches, the mountain actually lay several miles across almost impassable jungle.22

Aerial photographs would have been a profitable source of up-to-date information, but the shortage of long-range aircraft and suitably located bases, and the short period available for planning, combined to restrict availability of aerial photos in the quantity and quality normally considered necessary.

Perhaps the most useful photographic sortie carried out prior to the Guadalcanal-Tulagi landings was that undertaken on 17 July by an Army B-17 aircraft in which Lieutenant Colonel Merrill B. Twining, assistant operations officer of


CRUDE SKETCH MAP used in the planning and early operational phases of the Guadalcanal campaign by units of the 5th Combat Team; it is an adaptation of a map prepared by the D-2 Section and typifies the scarcity of reliable terrain information available to the 1st Marine Division when it left New Zealand.


the 1st Marine Division, and Major William B. McKean, member of the staff of Transport Squadron 26, conducted a personal reconnaissance of the landing areas. They assured General Vandegrift that the Lunga beaches appeared suitable for the landing.23

The coastal map of Guadalcanal finally adopted by the 1st Marine Division (and employed, with such corrections as could later be developed, through the entire campaign) was traced from an aerial strip-map obtained by Colonel Goettge on his mission to Australia. It was reasonably accurate in general outline, but contained no usable indications of ground forms or elevations. The Goettge map was supplemented by aerial photos of Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo Islands, and these constituted the sum of the Marines' knowledge of Tulagi and Guadalcanal prior to the landings.24

Information concerning the enemy's strength, dispositions, and activities was collected by the U.S. planners from coastwatcher reports.25 Strength figures were by non means as definite or convincing as were the factual accounts of the defenses. Various intelligence estimates, prepared during July, gave figures as high as 8,400. Admiral Turner's Operation Plan A3-42, issued at the Koro Island rehearsals in the Fijis on 30 July, estimated that 1,850 enemy would be found on Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo, and 5,275 on Guadalcanal. Both figures were high. A count of enemy dead in the Tulagi and Gavutu area placed the number of defenders at about 1,500 (including 600 laborers), while study of positions, interrogation of prisoners, and translation of enemy documents on Guadalcanal proper indicated that about 2,230 troops and laborers had been in the Lunga area at the time of the Marines' landing.

Close and determined combat was anticipated with these forces; and on 17 July, Admiral Nimitz notified Admiral King that it would be unsafe to assume that the enemy would not attempt to retake the area to be attacked, and that, if insufficient forces were assigned, the Marines might not be able to hold on.26

Planning and Mounting Out

For the dual landing operation, General Vandegrift divided his organization into two forces. The units landing on the Florida side of Sealark Channel (Group Yoke) were to be commanded by Brigadier General William H. Rupertus, the assistant division commander (ADC), while Vandegrift himself would exercise command over Group X-Ray landing at Lunga Point.

Map 13: Guadalcanal and Florida Islands

It was expected that the Florida-side landings would be more severely contested by the Japanese, and to that landing group the general assigned his best-trained units: the 1st Marine Raider Battalion, commanded


by Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. Edson; the 1st Parachute Battalion of Major Robert H. Williams; and the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines under Lieutenant Colonel Harold E. Rosecrans, all with their reinforcing units attached. Edson would be the commander of the Tulagi landing force; Williams the commander at Gavutu-Tanambogo. The Guadalcanal group included Colonel Clifton B. Cates' 1st Marines and Colonel Leroy P. Hunt's 5th Marines (less 2/5), both reinforced, plus the balance of the division special and service troops.27

The Tulagi plan called for the 1st Raider Battalion and 2d Battalion, 5th Marines to land in column on the island's south coast, turn east, and attack down the long axis of the island. This would be followed by 1st Parachute Battalion landings on Gavutu and Tanambogo, and a two-company sweep along Florida Island's cost line fronting Tulagi Bay.

The Guadalcanal scheme envisaged landing the 5th Marines (less 2d Bn) across a beach some few hundred yards east of the Lunga Point area where the Japanese were expected to be concentrated, and there to establish a beachhead. The 1st Marines then would come ashore in a column of battalions and pass through this perimeter to take Mount Austen. The primary goal was to establish a beachhead in an area not strongly defended.28

To make up for the division's manpower shortage caused by the detached duty of the 7th Marines in Samoa, Admiral King on 27 June had proposed that Vandegrift be allotted the 2d Marines of the 2d Marine Division. Accordingly this unit (reinforced) sailed combat loaded from San Diego on 1 July.29 The regiment would be the landing force reserve.30

While staff planners contemplated a target area nearly as unfamiliar to them as the back side of the moon, other members of the landing force wrestled the monumental chore of preparing for the movement to combat. "Seldom," General Vandegrift said later, "has an operation been begun under more disadvantageous circumstance."31

When the decision to land on enemy beaches reached the 1st Marine Division, the command post and the 5th Marine Regiment were in Wellington, New Zealand; the 1st Marines and the 11th Marines, less two of its battalions, were at sea en route to New Zealand; service and special troops were split between the forward and rear chelons; the 2d Regiment was on


the way from San Diego to the South Pacific; the 1st Raider Battalion was in Samoa, and the 3d Defense Battalion was in Hawaii. Preliminary plans and moves had to assemble these widely scattered units into a fighting force which could make an amphibious landing, one of the most intricate of military maneuvers. From the understanding that it would be the nucleus for the buildup of a force which would be trained for operations which might come late in 1942, the 1st Marine Division had to shift at once into hurried preparations to mount out for action.

Most of the ships transporting units of the division had been loaded organizationally for the voyage to New Zealand, but for the proposed amphibious assault the supplies had to be reshuffled and ships combat loaded so that items first needed in the fighting would be readily at hand in the holds. The reloading and re-embarking of Combat Group A (5th Marines, reinforced) went smoothly, uncomplicated by the necessity for simultaneous unloading and reloading which plagued the rear echelon. THe group began embarkation on 2 July and remained on board its transport to await the arrival of the rear echelon.

The second echelon arrived on 11 July, and had eleven days to empty and reload its ships. No troops were disembarked except those who were to remain in New Zealand as rear echelon personnel. All others, who already had been cramped quarters during the long trip across the Pacific, were put to work in eight-hour shifts, and parties of 300 men were assigned to each ship.32

Aotea Quay at Wellington was the scene of this squaring away. It was inadequate in all ways save that it could accommodate five ships at a time. Labor difficulties with the highly unionized stevedores resulted in the entire task being undertaken and carried through by Marines. Because of security regulations, no appeal to patriotism could be made to the regular dock workers since care was taken to have civilians believe that all the flurry was merely preparation for a training exercise. Dockside equipment was meager, and there was no shelter close at hand.

As the gear began to be juggled from ship to dock and back again, a cold, wet "southerly" settled down to lash New Zealand. But in spite of the weather, work had to continue around the clock. Carton-packed food and other supplies "deteriorated rapidly," the division later reported by way of an understatement, and the morale of troops followed the direction of the down-slanting rain.

On the dock, cereal, sugar, and other rations mushed together with globs of brown pulp that once had been cardboard boxes. A great number of wet cartons that were rushed to the hopeful safety of wool warehouses later gave way under the weight of stacking. Lieutenant Colonel Randolph McC. Pate and his logistics section had a herculean task in managing this unloading


and reloading. Transport quartermaster of the various ships supervised work on board while a relay of officers from the division took charge of the eight-hour shifts dockside. The New Zealand Army furnished 30 flatbed lorries and 18 ten-wheelers to transfer fuel, small-arms ammunition and explosives to dumps several miles away.

There was not enough hold space for all the division motor transport. Most of the quarter- and one-ton trucks were put on board, but 75 percent of the heavier rolling stock was set aside to stay with the rear echelon that would be left behind when the division sailed for the Solomons.

Engineers loaded what little dirt-moving equipment they owned, but it was so meager that they hoped the Japanese would have most of the airfield built by the time it was captured. THe engineer battalion also loaded bridging material, demolitions, and all available water supply equipment. No major construction was contemplated in early phases of the operation, however, and equipment and supplies for such work were not taken.

With the D-4 or an assistant in constant touch with the dockmaster, order began to appear from the chaos of strewn gear, swelling cereal, wilting cardboard cartons, and frayed tempers. But there were still serious problems. Supplies and equipment piled on docks often made it difficult for trucks to negotiate the narrow passages to reach all areas of the stacked gear, and during this mounting out certain modifications of the logistical plan became necessary. As finally loaded, the Marines carried 60 days supplies, 10 units of fire for all weapons, the minimum individual baggage actually required to live and fight, and less than half the organic motor transport authorized.

Regardless of the difficulties, however, the force sailed as scheduled on 0900 on 22 July, under escort of cruisers of Admiral Turner's Task Force 62.33 General Vandegrift, despite his request for a vessel better suited in communications and accommodations, had been directed to embark his command post in the USS McCawley.

Rehearsals and Movement to the Objective

In accordance with orders received from Nimitz on 1 July,34 Ghormley had directed that all forces involved in the assault make rendezvous at a position south of Fiji, out of sight of land so that there would be no chance of observation by enemy agents and no chance that an inadvertent tip-off would be made by friendly observers.35 At that point there would be a conference between the commanding officers who had not as yet been able to discuss in person the various aspects of the operation.

The components of the assault force not previously in New Zealand with the division were converging upon the rendezvous point from many direction. Colonel John M. Arthur's 2d Marines (reinforced), embarked in the Crescent City, President Adams, President Hayes, President Jackson, and Alhena, steamed south under escort of the carrier Wasp and a destroyer


EQUIPMENT FOR THE 1ST MARINE DIVISION, including tanks and amphibian tractors, is unloaded in New Zealand preparatory to the Guadalcanal operation. (USN 11526)

MARINE RAIDERS and the crew of the submarine Argonaut line the deck of the vessel as it returns to Pearl Harbor after the Makin Island raid. (USN 13859)


screen.36 The 1st Raider Battalion, in the four destroyer transports of Transport Division 12, had been picked up at Noumea.

The 3d Defense Battalion (Colonel Robert H. Pepper) on board the USS Betelgeuse and Zeilin was en route from Pearl Harbor where it had been stationed since the outbreak of the war. It would meet the remainder of the force on 2 August. The Carrier Force, built around the Saratoga and the Enterprise, with Fletcher flying his flag in the former, likewise was on its way from Pearl Harbor. Rendezvous was made as planned, at 1400 on 26 July, some 400 miles south of Fiji. The conference convened at once on board the Saratoga. Ghormley, unable to attend, was represented by his Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan and his Communications Officer, Lieutenant Commander L.M. LeHardy.

The conference pointed up several serious problems. General Vandegrift learned he would not have adequate air and surface support for the completion of the unloading phase of the operation. Fletcher wanted to retire within two days after the landing, and this meant that transport shipping would have to clear out within an unreasonably short period. The Marine general also learned that the 2d Marines, counted as his reserve, actually would be used for the proposed operation at Ndeni in the Santa Cruz islands. Admiral Callaghan reported Fletcher's retirement plans to Ghormley: "This sounds too sanguine to me," Callaghan reported, "but they believe it can be done. ... AKs [cargo ships] may not be unloaded for three or four days."37 Ghormley, too, believed that the ships could not be pulled out that soon.

Landing rehearsals at the island of Koro in the Fijis were conducted from 28 through 30 July, but Vandegrift labeled them a waste of time and effort. "A complete bust," he observed later.38 Necessity for conserving landing craft made it impossible to conduct the practice landings in a realistic way, although the men involved were given additional training in debarkations,39 and attack force ships were able to practice their gunfire support.

On 31 July, as night was falling, the ships weighed anchor and departed from Koro. The carrier task force proceeded north and west while the transports and their screen plodded steadily toward the Solomons. Almost 19,000 Marines were embarked in the 19 transports and four destroyer-transports.40

All circumstances favored the advancing convoy. Weather conditions during the final two days were extremely favorable: sky topped by a low ceiling and winds gusty with intermittent rain squalls. There was no sign of enemy aircraft or submarines, and no indication that the approach was observed. In fact, enemy


patrol planes were ground at Rabaul on 5 and 6 August because of bad weather.41

The convoy headed generally west from Fiji and well to the south of the Solomons chain. The course gradually shifted to the northward, and the night of 6-7 August found the entire group of ships due west of the western extremity of Guadalcanal.

Task Force 62, commanded by Admiral Turner, was divided into two Transport Groups. Transport Group X-Ray (62.1) commanded by Captain Lawrence F. Reifsnider, with the Guadalcanal forces embarked, consisted of four subgroups, as follows:

Transport Group Yoke (62,2) commanded by Captain George B. Ashe, and carrying the assault troops for the Tulagi landing, consisted of the following subgroups:

At 0310, 7 August, the force was directly west of Cape Esperance with an interval of six miles between groups and a speed of 12 knots. Transport Group X-Ray steamed in two parallel columns of eight and seven ships each with a distance of 750 yards between ships and an interval of 1,000 yards between columns. The rugged outline of the Guadalcanal hills was just visible to starboard when the course was shifted to 040º, and a few minutes later the two groups separated for the completion of their missions. X-Ray, shifting still further to starboard, settled on course 075º, which took it along the Guadalcanal coast, while Yoke, on course 058º, crossed outside Savo Island, toward Florida. The final approach to the transport area was made without incident, and there was no sound until, at 0614, the supporting ships opened fire on the island.43

There are some indications that the Guadalcanal operation on D-Day morning was something of a minor Pearl Harbor in reverse for the Japanese. A recent study of Japanese wartime messages indicates the enemy was aware that a U.S. force had sortied from Hawaii. Warnings were issued to Central Pacific outposts; Rabaul and points south were to be notified for information only. Commander of the Japanese Twenty-Fourth Air Flotilla (Marshall-Gilbert-Wake area) relayed his warning message south the next morning--at 0430 on 7 August. It was too late. Less than an hour later he received Tulagi's report that the U.S. striking force had been sighted in Sealark Channel at 0425.44


Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (Part V, 5) * Next Chapter (2)


[1] Unless otherwise noted the material used in Part VI is derived from 1st MarDiv FinalRept on the Guadalcanal Operation, Phases I through V, issued June-August 1943, hereinafter cited as FinalRept (with Phase No); action reports, war diaries, and journals of the various units which served with or as part of the 1st MarDiv; Marine Air History; Strategic Planning; W.F. Craven and J.L. Cate (eds.), The Pacific: Guadalcanal to Saipan--The Army Air Forces in World War II (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950); J. Miller, Jr., Guadalcanal: The First Offensive--United States Army in World War II (Washington: HistDiv, DA 1949), hereinafter cited as Miller, Guadalcanal; S.E. Morison, The Struggle for Guadalcanal--History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950), herinafter cited as Struggle for Guadalcanal; Capt H.L. Merillat, The Island (Boston: Hoghton Mifflin Company, 1944), hereinafter cited as This Island; Maj J.L. Zimmerman, The Guadalcanal Operation (Washington: HistDiv, HQMC, 1949); VAdm R. Tanaka with R. Pineau, "Japan's Losing Struggle for Guadalcanal," two parts, USNI Proceedings, July and August 1956, Copyright 1956 by the U.S. Naval Institute, hereinafter cited as Tanaka Article. Specific citations of material, in addition to direct quotations, taken from FinalRept have been noted where the information presented may be of special interest.
[See also other Guadalcanal histories at HyperWar]

[2] CominCh ltr to CofSA, 18Feb42 (located at NHD).

[3] Specific mention of Marines for assault work came after Marshall questioned King's plans and asked why these FMF troops could not perform the garrison duty. CofSA ltr to CominCh, 24Feb42; CominCh ltr to CofSA, 2Mar42 (located at NHD).

[4] CinCSWPA msg to CofSA, 8May42 (located at OCMH).

[5] CinCPac ltr to CinCSWPA, 28May42 (located at NHD).

[6] Two days earlier a message from Nimitz gave Ghormley the Midway victory tally and suggested that the carriers now might be made available for support of an operation against the Solomon Islands. ComSoPac War Diary, June 1942 (located at NHD)

[7] CominCh disp to CinCPac and ComSoWestPacFor, 25Jun42 (located at NHD).

[8] CofSA ltr to CominCh, 26Jun42 (located at NHD).

[9] CominCh ltr to SofSA, 26Jun42 (located at NHD).


[11] For an exccellent account of the work of these men see Cdr E.A. Feldt, RAN, The Coastwatchers (New York and Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1946), hereinafter cited as Coastwatchers.

[12] Earl Jellicoe, the British admiral who commanded at Jutland, recommended after a South pacific inspection trip following World War I that the Tulagi harbor be developed as a major fleet base.

[13] FOr an idea of the pains taken by official Japan to hie the facts of the Midway defeat, see the preface of Mitsuo Fuchida in Battle That Doomed Japan, xii-xv.

[14] MedRept, 4thDefBn, March-August 1942.

[15] Gen Vandegrift was under the impression that his division would not be called for combat duty prior to early 1943.

[16] Adm R.L. Ghormley personal notes, n.d., hereinafter cited as Ghormley MS; Maj J.L. Zimmerman interview with Adm R.L. Ghormley, January 1949.

[17] ComSoPac War Diary, 9May42 (located at NHD).

[18] Relief for 7th Mar. was to leave the U.S. on 20 July and that for the 8th Mar on 1 September. ComSoPac War Diary, June 1942 (located at NHD).

[19] Adm King's effort to secure quick release for the assault troops was not successful. The Army's commitments to the European Theater were such that no units were available for such missions. Initially assured that air support and air replacements would be avaialbe, King was advised on 27 July but LtGen Joseph C. McNarney, acting Chief of Staff, that commitments in other areas would not permit further air reinforcements of the South Pacific--a dictum which King protested strongly. CominCh memo to CofSA, 1Aug42 (located at NHD).

[20] Ghormley MS, 54, 58.

[21] Ibid., 59.

[22] This was the so-called "Grassy Knoll" assigned to he 1st Marines. Guadalcanal residents described it as lying virtually within the perimeter area ultimately occupied and defended by Gen Vandegrift, whereas its true location was six miles to the southwest. This discrepancy, unexplained for years, has given much cause for speculation to historians of the Guadalcanal campaign, some of whom have raised the question whether Mount Austen was really the "Grassy Knoll" which Goettge's informants had in mind. This school of thought suggests that a feature within the described limits which might answer that description would have been the high ground later to become known as Edson's Ridge.

[23] HistSec, HQMC, interview with Col W.B. McKean, 18Feb48.

[24] Two aerial photos, taken on 2 August by a ComAirSoPac B-17 and developed aboard the USS Enterprise, were forwarded to Division Headquarters. They showed Tulagi defensive positions in sharp detail, and verified the reports of coastwatchers about the rapidly approaching completion of the airstrip in the Lunga plains.

[25] "The invaluable service of the Solomon Islands coastwatching system ... cannot be too highly commended." FinalRept, Phase I, Annex E, 2.

[26] CinCPac disp to ComonCh, 17Jul42 (located at NHD).

[27] At this time, the later-used phrase "regimental combat team" (RCT) had not come into uniform use. This we would currently style a "regimental landing team" (RLT). What Guadalcanal Marines labeled a "combat group" included a rifle regiment with its direct-support artillery battalion, engineers, signal, medical, and other supporting elements. Within the so-called combat groups, similar battalion-sized aggregations were designated combat teams. This usage will be followed throughout this narrative.

[28] 1st MarDiv OpOrd 7-42, 20Jul42. See Appendix E.

[29] Original plans called for this unit to carry out projected landings at Ndeni in the Santa Cruz Islands. Needless to say, these were never made, although occupation plans for that island, always involving Marine forces, continue to appear in Adm Turner's record until October 1942.

[30] "It is most desirable that 2d Marines be reinforced and combat unit loaded and ready upon arrival this area for employment in landing operations as a reinforced regimental combat team." ComSoPac War Diary, 27Jun42 (located at NHD).

[31] FinalRept, Phase V, 1.

[32] The passage from the United States to New Zealand had been particularly trying for the officers and men on board the Ericsson, a commercial ship under charter. Lack of proper food, and use of oil substitutes for shortening, resulted in loss of weight of as high as 23 pounds per man. Two meals only were served during the greater part of the passage, and one of these often consisted of soup or soup and bread. Medical officers estimated the daily calorie content of meals at less than 1,500. The ship's personnel enjoyed a full and well balanced diet during the same period. Ibid., Phase I, Annex M, 1.

[33] Adm Turner assumed the title of Commander, Amphibious Force South Pacific on his arrival in the South Pacific on 24 July.

[34] CinCPac OpOrd 34-42, cited in CinCPac War Diary, July 1942. By terms of this order also, Fletcher, CTF 11, had been ordered to assume command of the combined task forces at the rendezvous, and Ghormley had been put in command of the operation.

[35] Ghormley MS, 64.

[36] The regiment had been on board since 1 June, lying in the harbor of San Diego.

[37] Ghormley MS, 67.

[38] Statement at Princeton, N.J., 12Mar48.

[39] Gen Vandegrift noted at the time that the precious landing craft were not in the best of condition in any event--12 of them were inoperative on one ship alone. Gen A.A. Vandegrift ltr to CMC, 4Feb49.

[40] A seemingly irreconcilable discrepany of figures between those of the Amphibious Force, South Pacific, and the 1st Marine Division prevents a wholly accurate statement as to the number of troops embarked then or landed subsequently. The amphibious force lists a figure of 18,722, while the division records list, variously, 19,546 or 19,105.

[41] Cdr J. Shaw ltr to Maj J.L. Zimmerman, February 1949.

[42] CTF 62 OPlan A3-42, 30Jul42

[43] CTG 62.1 ActRept 7-9Aug42, 3.

[44] Capt. E.T. Layton, USN, ltr to HistBr, G-3, HQMC, June 1955.

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation