Although overshadowed in the public's mind by other World War II battles, the brutal land, sea, and air struggle for control of Guadalcanal proved the turning point of the conflict in the Pacific.
For the American generation who fought World War II, the significance of Guadalcanal was indelible. The landings on 7 August 1942, eight months exactly after the Pearl Harbor attack, marked the war's first U.S. offensive. For most of its six-month span, the Guadalcanal campaign faced no competitor for public attention. The seesaw tilt of fortunes riveted America. Its visibly swelling significance, and the very real prospect of defeat, emerged starkly even from the early terse official communiqués. On 16 October 1942, the New York Herald Tribune editorialized that "the shadows of a great conflict lie heavily over the Solomons—all that can be perceived is the magnitude of the stakes at issue." On this same date, with American fortunes at their lowest ebb, the New York Times provided its readers with words that sounded ominously like a eulogy: "Guadalcanal. The name that will not die out of the memories of this generation. It will endure with honor."1
Guadalcanal resonated deeply with the American people for a generation after the war, but its gradual decline in the national consciousness paralleled a shift in the dominance of the European over the Pacific theaters in historical memory. During the conflict, U.S. efforts as measured in casualties reflected approximately a 2 to 1 tilt to the European over the Pacific theater.2 While almost all well-stocked bookstores today feature a section of World War II titles, those works overwhelmingly address the war against Adolf Hitler's Germany. To restore Guadalcanal to its rightful place as a decisive event in not just the Pacific war but the whole sweep of American participation in World War II requires an appreciation for its contingency, its course, and the full span of its legacy.
No one anticipated an epic battle in the Solomon Islands, much less at Guadalcanal. The U.S. Navy's intensive examination of a potential war with Japan from 1906 to 1941 produced a consensus view ruling out efforts in the South Pacific. U.S. naval strategists believed that a Pacific war meant an American advance across the Central Pacific culminating in a showdown in the Western Pacific. Likewise, the British pledged to Australia and New Zealand that any potential threat from Japan would be met at distant Singapore, not near their shores in the South Pacific.3
Nor were the Japanese more farsighted. The centerpiece of Tokyo's war aims was the capture of resource areas of what was then the Dutch East Indies. Seizing positions as far to the south and east of the Home Islands as the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands only emerged at the last moment as a serious feature in Japanese plans for what they called "The First Operational Stage" of the Pacific war. The opening moves of this first stage included occupation of Rabaul on New Britain as Japan's southeasternmost outpost. During a "Second Operational Stage," a defensive perimeter would be established around the southern resource areas, including eastern New Guinea, New Britain, the Fijis, Samoa, the Aleutians, and Midway.
An important personality, however, intervened to reorient Japanese planning. Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue commanded the Fourth Fleet, charged with defense of the eastern perimeter of Japan's Pacific empire. Inoue preached the importance of Rabaul—a position only 700 miles from the main Japanese bastion in the Central Pacific at Truk in the Caroline Islands. Inoue pointed out that the Allies could outflank Truk by taking Rabaul. Moreover, Inoue insisted that securing Rabaul dictated seizing airfield positions on New Guinea (Lae and Salamaua) and on Tulagi in the Solomons. This was crucial because Inoue's command was very short on warships and men. At least in theory, aircraft shuttled between these bases to counter Allied threats could offset his other weaknesses. When Inoue prevailed in inserting additional operations into Japanese plans that would result in the seizure of Tulagi and the thrust at Port Moresby that led to the Battle of the Coral Sea, he became the grandfather of the Guadalcanal campaign.4
If Inoue was the grandfather, Admiral Ernest J. King, the commander-in-chief, U.S. Fleet (COMINCH), was the father. Without King's resolution, there would not have been a Guadalcanal campaign. His basic insights were that the United States would have resources that would permit offensive action against both Germany and Japan and that it would be pure folly to grant Japan the time until Germany was vanquished to buttress its defensive perimeter.
King also exploited a set of circumstances that created a path to Guadalcanal. The most important was a political decision by British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the Japanese would not be permitted to overrun Australia and New Zealand. Already at full stretch to defend its home islands and the Middle East, Britain lacked the resources to back that commitment. Moreover, the Japanese onslaught found almost all the small but excellent ground forces of the two Commonwealth nations (one New Zealand and three Australian divisions) in the Middle East. Roosevelt shrewdly offered American forces to fill the gap. This commitment led to the stationing of Army and Marine units not only in Australia and New Zealand, but also along a chain of islands protecting the lines of communication to those nations, and then to the deployment of American aircraft carriers to rebuff Japan's attempt to capture Port Moresby that resulted in the Battle of the Coral Sea.5
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Fleet, was likewise steered by a basic vision: Japan could not prevail in a long war with the United States. Hence, he conceived a plan to crush the U.S. Pacific Fleet's carriers and seize Hawaii. The population of Hawaii would become hostages. Combined with the demoralizing effect of successive defeats, Yamamoto hoped this would convince the Americans to negotiate a speedy end to the war. This vision led to the Battle of Midway. Radio intelligence, courage, skill, and a large ration of luck provided the stunning American victory.6
After Midway, Army General Douglas MacArthur, whose headquarters were in Brisbane, Australia, was first off the mark to propose following up the victory by immediately leaping into the lion's den in the South Pacific: Rabaul. As a strategic policy, this soared beyond daring to utter recklessness. Even if the United States and its allies had pooled all their resources under MacArthur, they lacked the combat power to carry Rabaul. In terms of high policy, this move also effectively would secure MacArthur's initial dominance in the direction of the Pacific war, a role he no doubt hoped to make permanent. Standing directly athwart MacArthur's ambition was Ernest King, who believed the Pacific manifestly was the Navy's domain. He further held MacArthur in low regard, if not contempt, as a leader.7
MacArthur's proposal did render aid to King by validating an immediate effort to exploit the Midway victory. But King gained impetus from another important strategic consideration. While Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall proved a staunch friend of MacArthur's and supported his Rabaul plan, he was even more committed to the "Germany First" strategy. In his view, this required both that the United States make its main effort in Europe, but also that the Soviet Union remain in the war as an indispensable precondition to defeating Hitler. Very much in doubt throughout 1942 were the questions of whether the Soviets could hold out militarily and whether they might choose to negotiate an end to their war with Hitler, a prospect given substance by the stunning 1939 German-Soviet nonagression pact. Marshall's favored strategy to advance both these goals was to launch an Anglo-American invasion of Northern Europe at the earliest possible date, preferably in 1942.
The insurmountable obstacle to Marshall's aims was that the British were the Western alliance's senior partner in 1942. Marshall came to realize that despite what appeared to be initial agreement to landing in Northern Europe, the British had no intention of actually embarking on that course in the immediate future. Instead, they advocated what emerged as the invasion of North Africa. For Marshall, as well as other members of the newly created Joint Chiefs of Staff, a Pacific offensive beckoned not just as a means of following the ancient military principle of following up success, it loomed as the only method of affording the Soviets tangible support in 1942. By tying down the Japanese, a Pacific offensive would at least indirectly aid the Soviets by protecting their rear.8
One of the ingrained misconceptions about the Pacific war is that Midway was the great turning point because it marked the end of Japanese offensives in the Pacific. The truth is that while the Imperial Japanese Navy assumed a defensive stance, the Imperial Japanese Army remained very much on the offensive. After rejecting a navy proposal earlier in the year to mount a direct assault on Australia—clearly beyond Japanese means—the army embarked on a much sounder alternative: a sickle cut down across the vulnerable lines of communication from America to New Zealand and Australia. That could prohibit the use of either as a springboard for a counteroffensive, a springboard much closer to Japan's vital resource areas than Hawaii.
The Japanese Army's offensive, however, did much more than threaten the security of Australia and New Zealand. The critical factor dominating Western Allied strategy well into 1944 was shipping. The shortage of shipping constrained and channeled strategy. Maintaining communication with Australia and New Zealand required disproportionate amounts of shipping resources. Army logisticians calculated that the same shipping space that would move five men to Europe would only move two to MacArthur's theater, an equation demonstrating just how devastating a Japanese threat to the antipodes would be to not just the Western Allied situation in the Pacific, but to the whole global situation.9
The final factor in the constellation of forces supporting King's strategic proposal was radio intelligence. Strategically, it disclosed that Germany proposed a master strategy whereby German forces thrusting through the Middle East would link up with a Japanese advance across the Indian Ocean, thus inflicting a crippling blow to Britain as well as cutting the key Western Allied supply route to the Soviets through the Persian Gulf. Tactically, radio intelligence delivered up Japanese intentions to construct an airfield on Guadalcanal.10
On 2 July 1942, Marshall and King agreed on a synthesis of strategy. It retained MacArthur's ultimate goal of retaking Rabaul. But rather than a direct leap, there would be a three-stage campaign. In Task One, Tulagi and the Santa Cruz Islands would be targeted. Task Two involved seizing the remainder of the Solomons and Lae, Salamaua, and the northeastern coast of New Guinea. Task Three would involve the attack on Rabaul and the adjacent positions in the New Britain–New Ireland area. At King's insistence, the boundary between MacArthur's domain—the South-West Pacific Area—and Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley's South Pacific Area was adjusted to place the southern Solomons in Ghormley's sphere. Command of the campaign would revert to MacArthur for Tasks Two and Three.11
In Tokyo, an article of faith was that no major American counteroffensive would materialize until 1943, and Japanese commanders deemed the landing on Guadalcanal a raid. Even after the continued U.S. presence made it clear that the operation was not merely a raid, both the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army refused to consider it a major challenge. The army remained focused on its strategic offensive on New Guinea, an advance overland from Buna on the northeast coast to seize Port Moresby on the southern coast. Japanese Army officers allocated only a reinforced battalion and then a brigade to what they presumed would be the relatively modest task of retaking Guadalcanal.12
Nor were senior American leaders quicker to perceive correctly the significance of what they had started. Despite the devastating tactical defeat of the Navy's covering force at the 9 August Battle of Savo Island, Admiral Ghormley found his superiors pestering him about operations after Guadalcanal, like taking the Santa Cruz Islands (ultimately an operation delayed and then dropped), rather than the desperate defense of the southern Solomons.13 This mutual misapprehension at top command levels proved more detrimental to Japan. It appears relatively clear that had Japan promptly massed its forces and acted with resolution, Guadalcanal would have ended in a humiliating American defeat. Instead, Japan followed a fallacious policy of piecemeal commitment of both forces and resolve.
The outstanding example of this is how, from August to October, the Japanese mounted counteroffensives ashore by successively a battalion, a brigade, and then a division. Another aspect that in the long run proved even more ruinous to Japan's overall position was that Japanese Navy aviators accepted battle at extremely long range. By attempting to conduct an air campaign from Rabaul, more than 500 miles from Guadalcanal, the Japanese straitjacketed themselves tactically. They limited the number of aircraft—particularly fighters—capable of conducting the campaign, and sustained many unnecessary losses of planes and especially crewmen because damaged or mechanically ailing Japanese aircraft could not fly back to a safe haven.
One little-noted but momentous facet of Guadalcanal was a change in American public information policy. Up to October 1942, the U.S. government sharply restricted information. Its brief communiqués were carefully tailored to avoid disclosing any information useful to the Japanese. This policy radically and permanently changed in mid-October. Washington feared Guadalcanal would end in defeat and therefore moved to prepare the American public for that eventuality. A flood of accounts suddenly appeared candidly explaining how perilous the situation was. According to the multivolume official Japanese history of the Pacific war, this outburst of American disclosure directly influenced the course of the campaign. After successive defeats in efforts to retake Guadalcanal in August, September, and October, Japanese leaders had hesitated to mount a fourth effort. They resolved to plunge ahead, however, based on overestimates of U.S. naval losses at the 26 October Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands but above all on American news accounts of the dire situation on Guadalcanal.14
The strategic effects of victory at Guadalcanal were multiple and vital. First, it represented the true turning point of the Pacific war. This is not to deprecate the importance of the Battle of Midway. That battle checked the Japanese strategic advance in the Central Pacific and crushed Yamamoto's ultimate design to bring about an end of the war on terms favorable to Japan. But the Japanese remained very much on the offensive in the South Pacific when the Marines splashed ashore on Guadalcanal in August 1942. It was only in September 1942, when the Imperial Japanese Army abandoned efforts to take Port Moresby that the real strategic pivot point was reached in the Pacific. This was the clear dividing line; thereafter Japan would be permanently on the strategic defensive in the Pacific.
A second key contribution merged into the successor campaigns in the South Pacific to February 1944. The Allied counteroffensive that defeated Japan commenced on 7 August 1942 and ended three years and eight days later on 15 August 1945. That span divides into two parts at about 1 November 1943. During the first phase, the United States, with vital help from Australia and New Zealand, snared Japan into an attrition struggle. The Japanese Army's air arm was crippled attempting to stem Allied advances on New Guinea. The Imperial Japanese Navy's air arm and light-surface forces sustained irreparable damage trying to halt Allied advances in the Solomons. Although the actual Allied advances in those two areas only measured about 200 to 300 miles, the losses among skilled Japanese air crews proved catastrophic and the loss of lighter naval units, particularly destroyers, extremely severe.15
But Guadalcanal overshadows Midway strategically in yet another dimension: global impact. The Axis enjoyed one of its greatest, if not its greatest, strategic opportunities in 1942. What Germany correctly perceived was that the effect of Japan's entry into the war could best be maximized not by having their Asian partner attack the Soviet Far Eastern provinces, but by a thrust across the Indian Ocean to meet a German drive through the Middle East. If German and Japanese forces met, not only would a crushing blow be administered to Britain, but also the key logistical pipeline from the Western Allies to the Soviets would be severed. The Japanese mounted some preliminary efforts to implement this strategy, but Guadalcanal forced them to abandon what might have been the masterstroke to win the war for Hitler and his partners.16
Finally, for the United States, Guadalcanal delivered one intangible benefit that outweighed all of the tangible profits. Looking back across the vivid wasteland images of Germany and Japan in 1945, it has become difficult if not impossible for successive generations of American to appreciate just how contingent events appeared in 1942. The record of the anti-Axis forces to that point consisted of a rarely broken string of frequently humiliating defeats. America and her allies faced enemies who extolled themselves as supreme warrior races, certain to prevail over decadent Westerners, no matter what the material odds.
In a very visceral sense the question of whether the Axis could be defeated was inextricably linked to the question of whether the generation of young Americans who would fight the war was tough enough to prevail in difficulty and adversity. The Americans who fought at Guadalcanal were the vanguard of the entire generation. Their victory in the face of such dire circumstances blazed the way for those who followed. This then is the most important reason why Guadalcanal is a name that endures with honor.
Richard Frank is the author of Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle (New York: Random House, 1990). His other books include MacArthur (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) and Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (New York: Random House, 1999).
1. New York Herald Tribune, 16 October 1942. p. 12; New York Times, 16 October 1942, p. 18. back to article
2. The actual numbers of casualties in the American armed services are 760,036 casualties in "Atlantic" theaters and 304,482 in "Pacific" theaters. Another 32,859 casualties occurred in "undetermined" theaters (mostly transit). These numbers do not include losses in the merchant marine. Army Battle Casualties and Nonbattle Deaths in World War II, Final Report, 7 December 1941 to 31 December 1946, Statistical and Accounting Branch, Office of the Adjutant General, pp. 92-93; History of the Medical Department of the United States Navy in World War II, the statistics of Diseases and Injuries, Navmed P-1318, Vol. 3 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1950), p. 84. back to article
3. Edward Miller, War Plan Orange (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991), pp. 51-8, 223-4; H.P. Willmott, Empires in Balance (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982), pp. 7, 35, 99-100 [hereafter Willmott, Empires in Balance]. back to article
4. John B. Lundstrom, The First South Pacific Campaign (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976), pp. 5-8; Willmott, Empires in Balance, pp. 24-25. back to article
5. Grace Pearson Hayes, The History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in World War II: The War Against Japan (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982), pp. 36-42, 54-55, 57, 59, 120, 139 [hereafter Hayes, History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff]. back to article
6. John J. Stephan, Hawaii Under the Rising Sun (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1984), pp. 89-119. back to article
7. Louis Morton, The United States Army in World War II, The War in the Pacific, Strategy and Command: the First Two Years (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1962 [hereafter Morton, Strategy and Command], Hayes, History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pp. 141-147. back to article
8. Mark A. Stoler, Allies and Adversaries: The Joint Chiefs of Staff, The Grand Alliance, and U.S. Strategy in World War II (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), pp. 84-102. back to article
9. Lundstrom, The First South Pacific Campaign, pp. 185-86; Robert W. Coakley and Richard M. Leighton, The U.S. Army in World War II, The War Department, Global Logistics and Strategy 1943-45 (Washington DC: Center of Military History, 1986), pp. 494-99 [hereafter Coakley and Leighton, Global Logistics and Strategy 1943-45]. back to article
10. CINCPAC Greybook, or "Captain Steel's Running Estimate and Summary, 7 December 1941 to 31 August 1942," Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, Daily Summary, 5 Jul 42, p. 707, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C. [hereafter Greybook]. back to article
11. Hayes, History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pp. 146-47; Morton, Strategy and Command, pp. 302-3. back to article
12. Senshi Sosho, Minamitaiheiyo Rikugan Sakusen, 1, Poto Moresbi-Gato Shoki Sakusen, Boeicho Boei Kenshujo, Senshishitsu, Asagumo Shinbun Sha, March 25, 1968, (War History Series, South Pacific Part 1, Army Operations, Port Moresby-Guadalcanal, Early Operations, Defense Agency, Defense Research Institute, Office of War History), pp. 250-51, 257, 269-293. back to article
13. COMINCH to SOMSOPAC 151951 Aug 42. Grey Book. p. 651; COMSOPAC to COMINCH 170230 Aug 42, Grey Book, p. 653; John Miller, Jr., The United States Army in World War II, The War in the Pacific: Guadalcanal: The First Offensive (Washington, DC: Historical Division, Department of the Army, 1949), p. 82. back to article
14. Richard B. Frank, Guadalcanal (New York: Random House, 1990), pp. 330-3, 405. back to article
15. The very insightful analysis about the division of the Pacific war into two phases was first articulated in this manner by H. P. Willmott. The Second World War in the East (London: Cassell, 1999), pp. 114-123. back to article
16. Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 346-48. back to article