Guadalcanal was captured by the Japanese in May of 1942 nearly without resistance. The island was strategically important for the Allies as a foothold for a future offensive against Japan. Because of this, the American response to this was prepared in a hurry. A strike by port workers and problems with supplies meant that heavy artillery and tractors had to be left behind. The Marines had a week's worth of food, poor stocks of medicine, and ammunition for ten days. Mosquito nets and repellent were unavailable. The landing was nicknamed "the low-budget offensive".
The capture of Henderson Field
On the morning of August 7th, 1942, 11000 Marines commanded by Lieutenant-General Alexander Vandergrift landed on the island. They were in for a surprise: while the Japanese air force and navy were a force to be reckoned with, their infantry was disproportionately poorly equipped and unsuitable for combat. The most difficult part of the offensive was the 24 hour-long march through the jungle swamp to the unfinished airport at Cape Lunga.
The construction of this airport was started by 2000 forcibly transferred Korean workers. By August, it consisted of an uneven span of cleared jungle and two poorly flattened stretches of land about one kilometer apart.
After the construction site took fire from the sea and was attacked by naval aircraft on August 8th, the Japanese commander of construction and combat units, Kanae Mondzen, panicked and gave an order to retreat. Abandoning construction equipment, materials, cars, and supplies, the Japanese moved 3 kilometers away from the airport. The Americans, having occupied the site, formed a defensive perimeter, unloaded their equipment, and finished the construction that the Japanese were struggling with for four months in two weeks. The new airport was called Henderson Field. On August 20th, it received its first air group, a squadron of F4F Wildcat fighters and a squadron of 12 Douglas SBD Dauntess dive bombers.
On August 21st, about 900 soldiers commanded by Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki attempted to attack the airport, but catastrophically underestimated the amount of American marines. Instead of 2000 soldiers that were expected, they were met by 11000. The attack stalled, and by dawn, the Americans counterattacked. By noon, the battle turned into a beating. The Japanese were powerless against light M2A4 tanks with 37 mm guns and machineguns that would have seemed laughable in Europe. Canister shot and machineguns literally mowed down the jungle, along with anyone hiding in it. The Japanese suffered total defeat. Ichiki could not stand the shame and committed suicide.
In late August, the Japanese sent additional forces to Guadalcanal. The Japanese ships that went from the Shortland Islands through the New Georgia Sound received the nickname "Tokyo Express" from the Allies.
Japanese forces and equipment were delivered on destroyers and light cruisers that could not carry much cargo, but were more resistant to bombs. The garrison was supplied largely at night with containers that were hurriedly thrown overboard. Everything that was not scooped up by teams on the shore was blown away and lost. Ships were lost as well. The bottom of the sound was peppered with dozens of ships: destroyers, transports, even battleships and carriers.
Things were shaky for Allied forces as well. Their supply ships did not have time to unload. Captured vehicles were of typically low pre-war quality. Poor quality fuel was only compatible with captured vehicles. Disease put more men out of commission than actual combat.
The operation was in a shaky equilibrium.
A 600 mile trek
The airport was bombed by 20-40 Japanese D3A1 Val and G4M Betty bombers daily, even though they had to make a 600 mile trip one way. The bombing runs were ineffective, but this did not deter the Japanese.
In these conditions, the "Cactus" air group, aircraft based on Henderson Field, proved themselves. Even with little fuel, the group provided cover for the airfield. Each failed bombing attempt was a drain on Japanese resources, and far from every damaged plane could survive the 600 mile journey home.
The Americans flew in pairs. An F4F was sturdy enough to survive in a Japanese A5M2's sights for a while. While the Zero pursued one plane, another would get on its tail and tear it to shreds in seconds. The Americans were strictly forbidden from abandoning their partner and getting into duels. An American pilot that was shot down was promptly retrieved, while Japanese pilots became MIAs.
After several weeks of bombing, Henderson Field became a primary target for the Japanese. Special fighter groups were formed to lure the Americans, and two waves of bombers guaranteed that the second wave could not be intercepted. The Japanese did not know that most of their bombs hit the husks of shot down American planes, placed as decoys.
On the night of October 14th, the Japanese attacked the airfield from sea, with fair success: two battleships, Kongo and Haruna, destroyed 48 out of 90 American airplanes, but Henderson Field remained out of Japanese hands.
General Hyakutake's Fatal Mistake
- Timothy L. Cubb. CACTUS Air Power at Guadalcanal.
- Charles L. Updegraph Jr. US Marine Corps Special Units of WWII.
- Notes on Jungle Warfare from the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Infantry on Guadalcanal Island, 1942.
- Harmon M. F. Army in the South Pacific.