The Battle of Guadalcanal August 1942

More than seven months after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States finally takes offensive action. The First Marine Division assaults Japanese held Guadalcanal on 7 August, 1942.  It is a standard example of United States Marines doing what they are expected to do.

Excerpted from A Portrait of the Stars and Stripes, Volume II, by Bud Hannings. Glenside, Pennsylvania: Seniram Publishing. 1991

The story is below and if you would like to hear the podcast on the battle, here is the shortcut:

August 7th 1942-February 9th 1943 – (Pacific) THE BATTLE OF GUADALCANAL – The Japanese have, up to this point, knocked over and trampled over all Allied ground resistance in the Pacific and Asia. Because of a continual string of conquests, the Japanese are of course confident that any invasion mounted by the U.S. will be turned back. The Americans are coming, but not in force Though it has been almost eight months since Pear) Harbor, the Americans are only attacking with one Division (minus the 7th Marines) on their first offensive thrust of the war. But they are fortified with an extreme animosity against the Japanese. Stories are already legion about the Soldiers, Sailors and Marines, already slaughtered by the Japs during their carnivorous odyssey, that has already brought their terror to the gates of the U.S., in the Pacific. Stories of their rape and pillage, as they romped through their first inglorious trophies of conquest in Asia. have been added to the first-hand stories of atrocities, against Americans. In addition, Jap propagandists have been giving the Yanks a steady broadside since the war has begun. The one-sided conflict on the ground is about to be strenuously tested.

The time has come for a reckoning with the Japanese and the Solomons have been selected as the first chain to be seized. The First Marine Division, commanded by General Alexander Vandegrift, are to do what they have been trained to do, kill Japs, seize the ground and kill more Japs. If these Oriental Supermen bleed, the Marines should be able to get the situation well in hand. Guadalcanal, in the southwest Pacific off New Guinea is the largest of the Solomon chain, and there is very little intelligence known by the U.S., concerning defenses or exact numerical strength. The island has no roads, however, it is inundated with enormous swamps and treacherous jungle, which surrounds the mountains. It must be taken.


The Armada, under Admiral Fletcher passes the enemy shoreline during the night of the sixth, under a moonless sky. The Navy maneuvers precariously between the neck of water, separating the Savo Islands and Guadalcanal, approaching the fringes of Tulagi Bay, without a solitary Japanese shell being fired. The enemy silence works in reverse and causes some concern among the members of the Strike Force, which is happy, yet bewildered by the non-action of the defenders on Guadalcanal. The Vessels crash their way through the waves, approaching jump off hour. Some of the assault troops are curiously peering through binoculars at their new residence, although vision is blurred by both the darkness and the constant interruption of passing ships in the convoy. The backdrops of this massive undertaking are huge darkly colored mountains, which stand out in great contrast to the lighter color of the near morning sky. Guadalcanal is gradually moving to the forefront. as the ships move deeper into the Bay, passing Tulagi, situated to the east and the Florida Islands to the north, but still no enemy fire to induce a full throttle flow of adrenaline into the troops as they cruise southwardly.

U.S. Navy guns commence firing at 0614. Darkness and anxiety is replaced by furious fire and impatient troops. The first volley originates from a cruiser, followed by additional cruisers. The rumbling of thunderous guns, spewing large fiery shells, including tracers, which arc toward the landing sites add an ominous note to the invasion. Navy Gunners are joined by planes, which supplement the already multicolored skyline, giving the island an irridescent glow of death. One of the salvos hits a supply depot giving the exercise a magnificent finale.

By 0619, part of the armada (Admiral Turner), carrying General Rupertus’ Force, which will invade Tulagi, tails off to the left toward the objective. By this time the balance of the fleet has joined in the bombardment. The invasion timetable is pretty much on schedule. The Naval guns are still plastering the island at 0628, but a conspicuous raging fire to the front of the convoy attracts the attention of the men. The towering smoke turns out to be a Japanese vessel, which had gotten into the sights of the strafing planes. The schooner induces a mighty fire, as the cargo includes gasoline, and adds illumination to the American vessels, nearing the debarkation point, for the sprint by the Marines to the beach. At this time there is still no return enemy fire, against the armada, causing more intent thought, by the commanders of the invasion force. The immense bombardment startled the Japanese, catching them offguard totally. The entire area had been pummeled, without any reciprocal fire from the enemy. Cruisers continue to pour fire upon selected areas.

Close air support is afforded the 1st wave to hit the beaches, but the landing of the 5th Marines is completely unopposed at Guadalcanal (Beach Red). The First Marines, commanded by Colonel Cliftoon Cates, follow in Reserve. The Marines take full advantage of the lull and preparations are immediately taken to beat back an attack when it comes. Supplies pour ashore, including gasoline, ammunition and barbed wire. Within a couple of hours, the Marines have sent out extended patrols to scout the jungle. Others begin fortifying the perimeter with the wire and other obstacles, such as machine gun positions and foxholes. Communication systems are strung and preparations are made to attack and seize Henderson airfield, which they will accomplish, against no opposition on the following day. Later, Japanese Planes swarm in under a massive cloud cover several times and bomb the American shipping in the bay. Two of the enemy planes are destroyed American planes and one other by Anti-aircraft fire. The Marines spend a jittery night, consumed by jungle silence occasionally penetrated by a shot or volley, but more often by disgruntled Macaws and dive-bombing aedes and anopheles mosquitos.

The 7th Marines land on the Southern Solomons. During the day’s operations, the destroyer USS Mugford. is damaged by an enemy dive bomber. The 1st Raider Battalion, commanded by Colonel Merritt Edson, lands at Blue Beach, Tulagi. without incident and moves southeast, until heavy enemy resistance halts its progress at Hill 281 where the Japs hane entrenched themselves firmly in caves. The Second BatIaIion, 5th Marines, which had not landed with the 5th Marines on Guadalcanal, comes in behind the 1st Raider Battalion on Blue Beach. In addition, the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, hit the beach at the Southern portion of Florida Island, without meeting any opposition. At noon, the 1st Paratroop Battalion invades Gavutu and Tanambogo, clearing the majority of the two islets. The Paratroopers, assisted by the 2nd Marines, secure both Gavutu and Tanambogo by the following day.

On the 8th, Japanese Planes attached to the Eighth Fleet, under Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, arrive from Rabaul and swarm over the American transports at about noon and severely damage Allied naval operations in the vicinity of the Solomons. Suicide bombers hit the George F. Elliott (transport), inflicting enough damage that the U.S. scuttles the vessel. The USS Jarvis (destroyer) is also struck by a suicide bomber and damaged and the transport USS Barnett is struck by a torpedo. The USS Jarvis departs for Noumea, but it is never heard from again. During the night of the 8th, lasting into early morning of the 9th (Battle of Savo), the Japanese Eighth Fleet inflicts more punishment to the fleet, sinking the USS Astoria, Quincy and Vincennes (cruisers) and damaging other Allied vessels, while losing none themselves. Seventeen thousand of the 19,000 men make it to shore, before the support ships are forced to withdraw on the 9th, taking approximately one half of the 60-day supply of food and equipment with them, however, the Japanese have exhibited their night naval skills which becomes a costly lesson to the Yanks, who sustain over 1,200 men killed and over 700 wounded. Through some fortuitous luck, the U.S. transports are not attacked. The Americans have grasped a foothold on the islands and are there for the duration. The Marines fortify their positions quickly as they prepare for a bitter campaign. These tenacious men will learn the ways of jungle warfare quickly, deciphering the sounds of an animal and of the impostoring enemy, the cries of a wounded comrade and the ruse of a Japanese ambush.

As September settles down in the Solomons, 17,000 Marines control a 4-by-7 mile strip of Guadalcanal. Japanese continue to assault their positions and the Allied ships offshore, which are attempting to keep them resupplied, however, the Marines intend to hold their mosquito, snake infested paradise at all costs. Four Japanese carriers, with battle escorts, glide confidently through the sea, until they are confronted by two American Task Forces, commanded by the able Admiral Kinkaid, in the vicinity of Santa Cruz Islands on October 26th. The Japanese lose two Destroyers sunk, in addition to having two carriers and two Battleships damaged. The USS Hornet (carrier) is damaged and subsequently sunk by Japanese dive bombers.

The 164th U.S. Infantry, the first Army troops to assist the Marines on Guadalcanal, arrive on October 13th and initiate their part in the campaign, which will soon see the balance of the Americal Division arrive to relieve the Marines. On November 13th, the Japanese make another attempt to retake GuadalcanaI. The two opposing fleets confront each other in what is known as the Naval Battle of GuadalcanaI. The engaging vessels criss-cross each other at dangerously close distances, firing at point blank range. The U.S. loses two cruisers sunk and two damaged. The Japanese lose one battleship. On the 14th, patrol planes from the Enterprise spot another Japanese fleet approaching and inform headquarters. Land-based American bombers catapult from the airstrips and deliver a decisive blow to the encroaching enemy, sinking seven troop transports and damaging the remaining four. The remnants of the enemy fleet try to regroup and land on Guadalcanal, but yet another American Task Force, under Admiral Willis Lee, speeds across Iron Bottom Sound and crushes the flotilla, sinking another battleship and damaging two cruisers. The invasion is halted and the disoriented Japanese retire.

As each day passes, the fighting becomes more gruesome, but once the threat of another Japanese amphibious invasion is over, the Americans move swiftly, through the dense jungle terrain, until every Jap sniper is plucked from the trees and each enemy nest is destroyed by grenades, rifles and when necessary, the Yank’s second best friend; his silent and reliable bayonet. By early February, 1943, the Japanese evacuate approximately 12,000 troops from the northwestern tip of the island (Cape Esperance) as the triumphant U.S. secures the entire island by the ninth. The Americans, with Old Glory firmly entrenched, now share the island with monkeys, and mosquitoes. There are no live Japanese left to help celebrate the first American land victory and the first Japanese land defeat of the war. 

In conjunction, during the campaign to seize Guadalcanal, although there was constant combat, while the Marines continued to hold their ground, the Japanese initiated a massive attack to gain the advantage on 12 September at what became known as the BATTLE OF EDSON’S RIDGE (September 12th·14th 1942)–Three Japanese Destroyers and a light cruiser, lurking in the Sealark Channel, commence a bombardment of Henderson Field. This naval barrage is supplemented by a major enemy assault against Marine positions on Edson’s Ridge, in the western sector south of Henderson.

The Marines (800 men), commanded by Colonel Merritt Edson, are greatly outnumbered against the Japanese, who temporarily penetrate the Raider Parachute Battalion’s positions on the 13th. Through the daylight hours, Japanese snipers ring the perimeter with shots, keeping all Marines on edge through the night. Major Kenneth Bailey, commanding Company C, on the right flank, leads his men in a fight of gruesome hand to hand combat for ten grueling hours, after the enemy penetrates the main line of defense, during the first assault soon after nightfall. Major Bailey, suffering gravely from a head wound, insists on maintaining command and leading his men. His troops, along with the other defenders, hang tough against no less than twelve brutalizing assaults throughout the night.

Old Glory is victorious over the Samauri Bandits. As the sun rises on the 14th, exhausted, but enthusiastic Marines, their strength barely over two full Companies, have wrecked Kawaguchi’s force, numbering over two full battalions. As the remaining Japanese evacuate the slopes of what is now called “Bloody Ridge,” heading toward Kokumbona, aircraft blast them with machine gun fire and bombs. Henderson Field remains in control of the Marines and 600 dead Japanese line the perimeter. The Marines sustain 143 casualties. Colonel Edson and Major Bailey both become recipients of the Medal of Honor for their valiant efforts. Bailey receives the Medal posthumously.

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