Henderson Field was located in a cleared area near the north coast of Guadalcanal, just east of the Lunga River and west of the Ilu River, nicknamed “Alligator Creek.” When the first planes arrived, the field was little more than a cow pasture cut out of the island’s jungle, mostly surrounded by coconut palms. The rolled dirt and gravel airstrip stretched 3,778 feet long and 150 feet wide. Only 1,000 feet of it was covered with Marston matting—joined perforated steel planks. The 3d Defense Battalion provided antiaircraft defense of the field with three automatic weapons and three 90-mm batteries, which succeede+d in keeping Japanese bombers at a reasonably high altitude. Henderson later would be lengthened and taxiways and plane revetments added.
Initially, there were no fuel trucks, aircraft hangars, or repair buildings. Damaged planes were cannibalized for spare parts, and with no bomb hoists, all aircraft munitions had to be hand-loaded onto warplanes. Marine Major Charles H. Hayes, responsible for airfield operations, said the first field lighting system “consisted in taking half coconut husks and spacing them at intervals on one side of the runway and filling them with gasoline. If they were needed, we’d run along with a jeep and light them.”1
Fuel, always critically low, had to be hand-pumped from 55-gallon drums and strained through chamois to remove condensation that had collected in the containers. Even after the arrival of fuel trucks, aviation gasoline still had to be hand-pumped into the trucks. Refueling just a handful of aircraft often took several hours.
The strip was in such poor condition early on that it caused as many aircraft losses as enemy action. The Japanese had laid out the airfield in a basin, and when it rained, the field quickly became a rutted slough; when the sun beat on this mush for an hour, its friable top layer easily crumbled into choking dust that fouled aircraft engines. VMF-223 ace Captain Marion Carl remarked, “It was widely held that Guadalcanal was the only place on earth where you could stand up to your knees in mud and still get dust in your eyes.”2
Nevertheless, Henderson was a lifesaver for many of the U.S. aviators fighting overhead. “If they shot one of us down, and the plane didn’t burn, we went in and had a dead stick landing on the field,” recalled Major John Smith, VMF-223 commanding officer. “If the plane burned our pilots jumped out over the field and were saved. That is the reason for the small number of casualties that we received while we were there.”3
Each landing and takeoff was an adventure. Army Air Forces Captain Dale D. Brannon, a P-400 pilot, described taking off from the muddy field. He lowered half flaps to give his thin wings more lift, and ran his engine up to full throttle while standing on the brakes. The power began dragging the aircraft through the slippery mud, even though the brakes were locked. Then Brannon released his brakes and wrestled the plane down the strip. Somehow he staggered off the end of the runway. One wag described the field as a quagmire of black mud that made the takeoff resemble nothing more than a fly trying to rise from a runway of molasses.
A month after the Marines landed on Guadalcanal, Seabees of the Sixth Naval Construction Battalion finished an auxiliary airstrip. Officially it was known as Fighter One, but pilots nicknamed it “the cow pasture.” Because of a shortage of Marston matting, it was little more than strip of cut grass, rendering it only suitable for light fighters.4
2. Marian E. Carl, Pushing the Envelope (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 30.
3. MAJ John Smith, interview, 10 November 1942, Record Group 38, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.
4. Thomas G. Miller Jr., The Cactus Air Force (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 82.
One Tough Wildcat
The Grumman F4F Wildcat was designed for the challenging takeoffs and landings on small, heaving carrier decks. It had a top speed of 318 mph, a range of 830 miles, and a ceiling of 34,000 feet, with a climb rate 2,200 feet per minute. The F4F-4 model had six .50-caliber machine guns, heavy armor, and self-sealing gas tanks. The earlier -3 model, also flown from Henderson, had only four .50-calibers and was lighter but carried more ammunition—1,800 rounds (450 per gun) versus the -4’s 1,440 rounds (240 per gun).
The Wildcat was not as agile as the Zero, but the U.S. fighter could “take a hit” and bring the pilot back. Major Joe Renner, commanding officer of VMF-121, remarked, “A Zero can’t take two seconds’ fire from a Grumman, and a Grumman can sometimes take as high as fifteen minutes’ fire from a Zero.” The rugged Wildcat’s combat kill-to-loss ratio against the Japanese was claimed to be 5.9:1 in 1942 and 6.9:1 for the entire war.
The fighter was tricky to fly and unforgiving. Its landing gear was not well suited to the muddy and dusty conditions of Henderson Field. The pilot had to hand-crank the gear up or down (29 turns), which required holding the control stick with the left hand. The controls could be mushy when maneuverability was most needed, and the pilot’s cramped seat was too low for optimal visibility. But the F4F could make quick takeoffs and its overall maneuverability was excellent..
Agile But Imperfect
The Mitsubishi Type “0” Carrier Fighter (A6M) was the Imperial Japanese Navy’s standard fighter at Guadalcanal. The plane acquired the evocative name Zero from the custom of designating aircraft in reference to the Japanese calendar. Since 1940 (the year it became operational) corresponded to the year 2600, the fighter was designated the Type “00” fighter, which was shortened to “0.” It was officially known as the Zero, but Allied intelligence gave it the code name “Zeke.”
The A6M had retractable landing gear, an enclosed cockpit, and carried two 20-mm cannon and two 7.7-mm machine guns. The A6M3 Model 32 Zero had a maximum speed of 338 mph and could climb to 20,000 feet in 7 minutes, 19 seconds. The later Model 22 featured two wing fuel tanks, instead of one tank in the fuselage, increasing fuel capacity (and range) from 15½ gallons to 23½.
While the Zero/Zeke could outclimb and outmaneuver the Grumman F4F, the plane had fatal flaws: no protective armor plating for the pilot or self-sealing gas tanks and a light air frame that could not stand up to the F4F-4’s six .50-calibers. Lieutenant Tsunoda Kazuo, an Imperial Japanese Navy fighter pilot from 1937 to 1945, was well aware of the flaws. “The Zero easily caught fire,” he remarked, “and when I was hit, I usually pulled out of the fight for fear of catching fire.”