World War II Pacific Naval Campaign: The Solomons--Guadacanal and the Slot (August 1942-February 1943)


Figure 1.--This photograph comes from the Solomons, probaly Guadacanal or Bougainville during 1942-1943. It was in a photograph album put together by Corpoal Peter Krell, a reconnaissance photographer, 13TH Army Air Force, 17TH Photo Recon Squadron. He was a Medal of Honor/Siver Star winner, killed in action. The caption read, "7 LITTLE NATIVE BOYS, WEARING CROSSES....MAYBE HEADHUNTING TRIBE?".

The initial important naval battles were carrier battles. It was in the Solomon Islands that the U.S. Navy surface fleet first came to grips with the Imperial Navy. The Pacific Fleet with its battleships devestated at Pearl Harbor faced a far superior naval force. The Japanese after seizing the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) took the Solomon Islands (mid-1942). Allied inteligence detected the construction of an airbase on Guadalcanal. This was a step of considerable importance as an airbase on Guadacanal would assist the Japanese in cutting off American troops and supplies fromn reaching Australia. Unlike the Americans, Japanese construction methods were slow, giving time for the Americans to prepare its first major offensive action of the Pacific War. The First Marine Division still training in New Zealand under Alexander Van der Grip dispatched in great secrecy. They reacged Guadalcnal undected by the Japanese. The Marines took Tulagi, a small island off Guadalcanal on Augut 7. They also landed on Guadalcanal and quickly seized the unfinished Japanese airfield, naning it Henderson Field after an aviator killed during the Battle of Midway. The surprised Japanese on Guadalcanal reorganized inland and counter attacked. The Japanese sent a force of seven cruisers and one destroyer from their base ar Rabal. The route traveled was "The Slot", a slot-like channel formed by the parallel configuration of the Solomons. In a night action off Savo Island they destroyed the Allied cruisers covering the landing (August 9). The Allied landing force was forced to withdraw without unloading all of the Marines' supplies and snuck into the waters. This left the Japanese with air and naval supperority over the Marines that had landed. The Japanese came down the Slot daily to bomb and shell the Marines. Their main target was the airstrip which the Marines rushed into operation. Despite the American victory at Midway, the Japanese still had superior carrier and naval forces. The Japanese did not at first appreciate the importance of the American action. Henderson Field thus played a major role in proecting the Marines from Japanese air strikes and naval bombardment. American fighters fought off Japaneseplanses and made it impossible for the Japanse Navy to direct intense naval bombardment. American bombers launched strikes on Japanese bases in the northern Solomons. The Marines were helped by friendly Melanisian natives which the Japanese had uickly alienated when they arrived. Continuing Japanese pressure began to ground down the Marines. Nimitz transferred overall command to Admiral Bull Halsey who pledged the Navy would intensify support. This was a dangerous commitment at a time when the Japanese still had superior carrier and naval forces. The Japanese launched a major force to destroy American naval forces supporting the Marines. The Battle of Santa Cruz occured when the Japoanese found Hornet which was badly damaged (October 26). Hornet was left dead in the water and had to be scuttled. Santa Cruz was a victory for the Japanese, but they did not press their victory. The Americans on Guadalcanal relieved the hard-pressed Marines with fresh Army units. The Japanese had managed to buildup a sizeable force on the island, but were unable to keep them supplied because of the American fighters on Henderson Field. Finally Guadalcanal was declared secure (February 9, 1943). The Americans had retaken the first island on the long road to Japan.

The Islands

Virtually no Americans and few Australians had ever heard of the Solomon Islands, let alone Guadacanal. The Solomons at the time of World War II were British territory administered from Australia. No pre-War assessments by either the Japanese or the Americans had given any consideration to the islands. There were no important natural resources. The islands included some of the most formidable juggle in the South P{acifiv, infested with malarial swamps and leeches. The islands wee to become some of the fought over realestate during the War. What made the Solomons important was their location. They stood between Japanese and Allied positions. The Japanese had seized northern New Guinea and were building a powerful bastion at Rabaul. The Allies after the loss of the Dutch West Indies had withdrawn to Australia, holding out in New Guinea primarily at Port Moresby. This would turn the Solomon Islands into one of the important battlefields of the Pacific War.

Japanese Strategic Thinking

For the Japanese in 1942 they seemed like more islands that could be easily seized from the Allies and that proved to be the case. They were stepping stones toward the complete domination of the South Pacific. Initially this meant Port Moesby the final piece of New Guinea, after which the conquest of Australia could be launched. This was complicated by the Battle of the Coral Sea in which a Japanese task force to seize Port Moresby was forced to turn back. Further major actions by the Japanese were postponed until the Imperial Fleet dealt once and for all with the remnants of the American Pacific Fleet at Midway. After Midway they could resume the offensive in the South Pacific The Japanese believed that both Lexington and Yorktown were sunk at the Coral Sea and the Americans were down to two carriers. Yorktown survived and after rush repairs was dispatched to Midway. The result was a disaster for the Japanese. They lost four of their large carriers and sinking only Yorktown. The Japanese still had the capability with their remaining carriers to initinate another major fleet action. Yamamoto decicded against it. It was the major Japanese strategic mistake of the War. The Japanese instead decided to renew their South Pacific offensive. The Imperial Navy without four of its carriers orderec the construction of an air base on the southnern Solomon Island of Guadacanal. This air base could assist in naval opperations to sever Australia sea lanes with America. The Japanese Army was focused on New Guinea. The the extent of the losses at Midway was a national secret--from theJapanese people. The Imperial Navy did not even inform the Army of the extent of the disaster. Thus the Army decided to complete the conquest of New Guinea with an overland attack over the forbidding Owen Stanley Mountains. Army planners believe that the Americans would not be in a position to launch an offensive in the South Pacific until the summer of 1943.

Naval Struggle

The initial important naval battles were carrier battles. It was in the Solomon Islands that the U.S. Navy surface fleet first came to grips with the Imperial Navy. The Pacific Fleet with its battleships devestated at Pearl Harbor faced a far superior naval force. The American public and even much of the U.S. Navy until Pearl Harbor were dimssive of the Japanese. The terrible Naval Battles which comprised the Solomons showed just how good the Japanese were. The Japanese fleet had modern, well-designed ships with comopetent leaership and superbly trained crews. It was not only the carriers, but the Japanese cruisers and destroyers were more than a match for their American and Australian counterparts. A major advantage the Japanese held was their long-lance torpedo. The Japanese were especially effective in night fighting. The Allies had two advantages. One was radar, but few commanders in 1942 knew how to effectively use it. Two after the Marines landed at Guadacanal was Henderson Field and the Cactus Air Force. The Navy was cautious about deploying it precious carriers to support the Solomonos operations, the result was some of the most ferocious ship to ship engagements of the Pacific War. The outcome was decided by the fact the Pacific fleet committed virtually its entire combat force while the Japanese did not. This along with the possession of Henderson field proved to be decisive. The campaign was notable for the fact that it would be last naval campaign of the Pacific War in which the Imperial Fleet would hold amaterial advantage--an advantage on which they failed to capitalize.

Japanese Invasion: Seizure of the Solomons

The Japanese after seizing the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) proceeded to move south down the Solomon chain (mid-1942). The Japanese seized the Solomons with virtually no opposition (January-May 1942). Rabaul in the north was turned into a major base--the most powerful in the South Pacific. It was a marvelous natural anchorage abnd he Japanese surrounded it with airfields. It was to be the primary naval and air base to be used to support the conquest of New Guinea and ultimately Australia. The last rung down the Solomon chain was Guadacanal.

Japanese Southern Air Base

The Japanese after Midway had to reassess their stategy. The loss of four carriers meant that they were no longer the overwealingly dominant naval force. They knew that American forces were flowing into Australia by sea. They decided to build an air strip on a southern island in the Solomons--Guadacanal. Interestingly the Japanese never deployed their powerful submarine fleet to interdict the American convoys in a meaningful way. They were much mnore focused on naval warships. Allied inteligence soon detected the construction of an airbase on Guadalcanal. This was a step of considerable importance because an airbase on Guadacanal would assist the Japanese in cutting off American troops and supplies from reaching Australia. This could no longer be easily done with carriers because of the Midway losses. Guadacanal could, however, serve as an unsinkable carrier. The Japanese were having trouble supplying thge islands they had already taken, but were still focused on seizing more islands. They had not changed their objectives, only their strategy for achieving those objectives. Unlike the Americans, Japanese construction methods were slow. And the Japanese did not believe that the Americans were yet capable of an offensive stroke and did not expect an American offensive until mid-1942. They were partially correct--the Marines were not. The Imperial Navy had not, however, fully informed the Army about the Midway disaster.

American Offensive: Guadalcanal Landings (August 1942)

The slow speed of Japanese construction on Guadalcanal gave the Americans time to prepare their first major offensive action of the Pacific War. Allied resources were limited. The Japanese knew that and thus did not expect such a stroke. The Japannese did not believe that America would be prepared for offensive action until mid-1943. In fact they were correct. The Marines were not ready. The American action would be an offensive on a shoe string. The Americans decided to commit the still only partially trained 1st Marine Division. The First Division were old school marines, but with many raw recruits. The First Marine Division had just reached New Zealand in great secrecy. General Alexander Vandegrift was to have time to train them there, not go into immediate action. Elements of the 1st Division were still enroute. The Wellington Dock Strike complicated their embarcation. The 89 ships carrying the 1st Division finally departed Wellington (July 22). General Vandergrift described landing exercizes on Koro Island as a "disaster" (July 28-30). Air cover was provided by Admiral Fletcher's carriers. The Marines reached Guadalcanal undetected by the Japanese. The Marines landed (August 7). Thankfully, the Japanese did not believe the American forces were capable of an offensive action. There were as a result no Japanese combat units on the island. The Marines landed on Guadacanal unopposed. Conscript Korean workers fled into the jungle. The mayhem at Wellington, however, impaired what the Marines were able to load and what they were able to unload on the beaches before Japanese naval and air forces began to target the Marine bridgehead. The Marines also landed and took Tulagi, a small island off Guadalcanal. Here they were oposed by a small force of Japanese marines. The Marines quickly seized the unfinished Japanese airfield (August 8). Posswession of the field would prove decisive, but that was far from clear over the next 4 months. The Marines rushed the air strip to completion with captured Japanese equipment. They named it Henderson Field after Maj. Lofton Henderson, a pilot killed at Midway. The American invasion surprised the Japanese. But air attacks from Rabaul drove off the supply ships leaving the Marines without much of their supplies and equipment. The Japanese were stunned by the Guadacanal invasion. They initially assumed that the Marine force was small, probably a small raiding force that could not hold. And the Japanese did not believe the U.S. Pacific Fleet had the capability of supporting the Marines. The Imperial Navy had not informed the Army of dimensions of the Midway defeat. Thus they did not understand the shift in the balance of naval forces. The ensuing combat on an arond Guadalcanal would prove to be the turning point of the Pacific War. The Japanese did not understnd this at first, but came to see it.

Naval Battles (August-December 1942)

Despite the American victory at Midway, the Japanese still had superior carrier and naval forces. Without the four fleet carriers lost at Midway, the Japanese was no longer overwealming supperior, but it still possessed the more powerful naval force. The Japanese did not at first appreciate the importance of the American action on Guadalcanal. What the American and Australian Navy primarily faced in the narrow waters of the Slot were the Japanese destoyers and cruisers. Only gradually were more powerful fleet elements drawn into the fight. Once Admiral Yamamoto comprehended the importance of the struggle and committed the Imperal Fleet in force. While the Japanese possessed the most powerful naval force, to the equation has to be added Henderson Field which proved to be essentially an unsinkable carrier. While the Marines fought it out on Guadcanal, the still outclassed U.S. Navy fought a series of desperate battles to keep the supply lines open to the hard-pressed Marines. No matter how hard the Marines fought, they would be lost unless the Navy kept the supplies open. Unlike the subsequent naval battles in the Pacific, this swas bit the Big Blue Fleet with Essex-Class carriers, advanced aircraft and a host of new ships. This was largely the Navy which had survived Pearl Harbor. Naval forced commsned by Bull Halsey fought it out with superior Japsnese forces. They suffered substanyial losses, but so did the Japanese. These were the most desperate battles of the Pacific War. And the Navy managed to keep the supply lines open to the Marines. Finally the Japanese decidd they could not continue to suffer the level of losses they experienced. The Americans could not only replace theiur losses, but expand the fleet. The Japsnese coulkd not even replace thor losses. As aesult the Imperial Fleet not only wiyhdrew from the South Pacific, but began to withdraw from the Central Pacific, believing that a well entrenched garrison could hold off ampphibious assaults. The Imperial Navy meanwhile refrouped in Singapore and the Home Islands and bgan prepsring for a final decidive fleet action.

Final Stages

The Americans on Guadalcanal relieved the hard-pressed Marines with fresh Army units. The Japanese had managed to buildup a sizeable force on the island, but were unable to keep them supplied because of the American fighters on Henderson Field and naval patrols. The Emperor granted permission for the Japanese forces on Guadcanal to evacuate (December 31, 1942). Guadcanal was one of the few Pacific islands that the Japanese did not defend to the death. Kiska in the Alleutians was another island abandoned by the Japanese. Finally Guadalcanal was declared secure (February 9, 1943). The Americans had retaken the first island on the long road to Japan.

Air Combat

The Sollomons campaign is usually duiscussed as we have done here as a naval campaign in terms of fleet engagements and ships lost. And the steady attrition of Japanese naval assetts which could not be replaced is an important part of the story. But something else very important was going on. Japan began the War with six fleet carriers, superior aircraft, and a relatively small core of marvelously trained air crews. In the Coral Sea and at Midway, the United States with inferior aircraft had begun to widdle way at the Japanese air crews. In the Solomons fighting, what was left of the Japanese air crews were seriously depleted. And like the lost ships, these flyers could not be replaced. Japanese flight training was a lengthy, involved program. After the Solomons, the Japanese would fight the rest of the Pacific War with young, poorly trained flight crews. And if this was not bad enough, thousands of well-trained American Army, Marine, and Naval aviators were graduating from flight schools and reaching both the Pacific Fleet and land bases. And in 1943 they would fly new aircraft which outclassed the capabilities of Japanese planes. The American planes, were faster, had higher ceilings, and better armed and armored than Japanese aircraft. The result was slaughter in the air. The last major air battle would be called the 'Marianas Turkey Shoot'. The Japanese would basically fly the same aircraft types with which they began the War. As a result, after the Solomons, American sailors and soldiers would enjoy undisputed air superority. And this air superority would eventually extend to the Home Islands. The Japanese stopped even attempting to engage American aircraft and instead were left with onky Kamakazze tactics, flying into American ships.

Rabaul

The Japanese based their defense of the Sollomons on the naval base at Rabaul on New Britain in the northern Solomons. They based their best pilots and planes there, even reassigning air crews from carriers. The Americans first considered a costly assault on Rabaul itself. Finally MaArthur and Nimitz decided to seize the islands around Rabaul--"Rings around Rabal" to cut off the base. Eventually this made it impossible for the Japanese to resupply it and subjected it to a whithering air assault. Allied troops on Los Negros in the Admiralty Islands played a major role in cutting off and neutralizing Rabaul (December 1943). The Japanese at Rabaul would not surrender until the end of the War, but after 1943 they were an isolated garrison playing no role in the Pacific.

Military Question

Military historians have not adequately explained wgat happened to the Japnese Navy, once so domiinant but after the Sollomoms Campaign was largely a non factor in the Pacific War. One historian poses he question, "... the problem for historians of the Pacific War is to explain how the Imperial Navy, so powerful in its day, could have achieved so little in exchange for its utter destruction. One element that sustains my proposition that the Solomons marked the turning point is that during this campaign the Japanese remained capable of giving as good as they got. Deterioration was just setting in. In the Solomons the Imperial Navy inflicted eleven major warship (cruiser and above) losses and endured the sinking of nine of its own big ships. But from the end of the campaign until their surrender the Japanese managed to sink just to major enemy warships while losing dozens of their own." [Prados] Most historians consider the decisive turning point of the Pacific War to be Midway (June 1942). We tend to agree, but it was not the point when the balance pf forces irevocably hifted to the Americans. The Japanese Navy after Midway was no longer diminant. but still held an advantage over the americans. In fact the two navies were still evenly matched, especially after Japanese submarines damaged Ameican carriers. One historin insists that that it was the Solomons Campaign which consolidated Allied power in the Pacific. [Prados] American forces attacked the Japanese in Guadalcanal and Tulagi, forcing a series of naval engagements to determine the outcome of the fighting on Guadalcanal. This eventually forced a costly withdrawl. This prevented the Japanese from cutting off New Zealand and Australia. And was the beginning of the American island-hopig campaign, which not onlt took island after island on the path to the Home Islands, but isolated counless Japanese garrisons which by the end of the war were starving.

Sources

Birkitt, Philip D. Guadalcanal Legacy, 50th anniversary, 1942-1992 (Turner Publishing Company).

Generous, William Thomas. Sweet Pea at War: A History of the U.S.S. Portland.

Lewon, Ronald. The Chief.

Lundstrom, John B. Guadalcanal Campaign.

Morison, Samuel Eliot.

Prados, John Islands of Destiny: The Solomons Campain and the Eclipse of the Rising Sun (2012).

Spector, Alan. The Eagle and the Rising Sun: The Japanese-American War 1941-1943 (Norton, 2003).

Thomas, Evan. Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign, 1941-1945 (Simon & Schuster: New York, 2006), 414p.

Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 (Random House, 1970).







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Created: December 7, 2003
Last updated: 1:10 PM 10/14/2014