World War II in the Pacific
One practice amphibious landing was made at Fiji, 28July, for about 1/3 of the 1st Marine division, to familiarize the troops with boarding landing craft and in unloading cargo. All accounts say the test was a failure. Also, transports and troops direct from the U.S. were not packed for combat unloading, there was not time to reload every transport. The marines departed Fiji on 31 July. The transit of 82 ships of the invasion force were not sighted because of bad flying weather. Landings were made in five areas from 475, 36-foot Higgins boats at 8 a.m. Friday, 07Aug42, D-day.
The actual landing was easier than expected. Guadalcanal, an airfield construction site, went virtually unopposed -- the 600 man construction crew ran to the interior when confronted with a thousand U.S. Marines. They did not see that another 10,000 Marines also offloaded; the Japanese high command thought they were facing only 1,000 men on Guadalcanal for some weeks.
The existing Japanese seaplane base across the sound on Tulagi and the islands of Gavutu and Tanambogo were vigorously defended. Tulagi was taken Saturday afternoon, D+1, and the other two islands by late that night overcome by 6,000 additional Marines. The 1,500 defenders were killed with 108 Marine dead.
However all was not well. Unloading was continually delayed. Land based bombers and torpedo planes attacked in mass within hours. Unloading of landing boats was assigned to 490 men of 1st Pioneer Battalion -- exhausting work lifting cargo over gunwales -- only 115 Higgins boats had bow ramps. The few amphibian tractors proved their worthbeing able to go from shipside to inland supply dumps.
Enemy air attacks began within hours. Twenty-five twin-engine Betty bombers with 19 Zero fighter escort from Rabaul attacked the ships in the early afternoon. Warned by coast watchers, unloading stopped and the ships got underway to maneuver and fight off the attacks. A second attack occurred an hour later -- 3 hours of unloading time was lost. One troopship and one destroyer were damaged, Mugford (DD-389). Twenty-one U.S. Navy fighters were lost in the defense.
Morning of 8 Aug, D+1, saw attack by 40 more bombers. George F. Elliot (AP-13) was set afire and Jarvis (DD-393) damaged. Both were lost. Twice more ships had to get underway and more unloading time was lost.
The landing beach become congested as the men tired. By nightfall, 150 landing boats were beached or offshore unable to unload ; ship discharge stopped.
With the landing a success and because of the large number of enemy land based bombers and torpedo planes attacking the area and the fact that carriers were vital to the supply line from U.S. to Australia, the U.S. carriers were withdrawn with orders to move north of latitude 10°S only in pursuit of attacking fleets or convoys.
Turner called Vandegrift (Marines) and Crutchley (cruisers) to a midnight meeting to discuss taking the rest of the vulnerable cargo ships out of harm's way. The original schedule was to withdraw on D+4. Unloading delays and early departure meant that some cargo would go unloaded. 17,000 marines were landed with provisions for one month and ammunition for four days of intense fighting. Some headquarters, artillery and radar units did not get landed and almost none of the heavy construction equipment. 2,000 men in floating reserve, intended to take Ndeni on D+3, also withdrew. That island had been occupied by seaplane tender McFarland (AVD-14).
Just after midnight, a Japanese cruiser column arrived intending to attack the still unloaded transports. They ran into an Allied screening force of heavy cruisers near Savo Island. Inexplicably, the screening force of eleven ships (5 CA, 6 DD) was surprised by the eight attackers (5 CA, 2 CL, 1 DD). Four allied heavy cruisers were sunk in about a half hour. Lost were Astoria, Canberra, Vincennes, and Quincy. The Japanese, with much ordinance expended and delayed, called it a night and withdrew without attacking the now thinly defended transports in the sound, protected only by heavy cruiser HMAS Australia.
The three U.S. carriers withdrew before dawn Sunday as they were no longer needed for close air support of the successful landing unaware that the cruiser screen had been attacked and destroyed. The transports followed that afternoon.
Operational planning had the objective to take an offensive airfield away from the Japanese, not to create an airfield for the Allies. Heavy equipment, aviation fuel, and specialized equipment was provided, but as low priority and that which was included did not get unloaded before the cargo ships departed. 400 drums of aviation gas were there, but these were probably intended to service the scout planes aboard cruisers that were destroyed at Savo. The need for land based air cover was recognized with the withdrawal of the carriers.
Marines remember this departure to this day as the "great Navy bug out",
even though no significant ground fighting took place around Guadalcanal
until 21Aug after 916 Japanese troops landed from 6 DDs on 18Aug.
(Small unit activity took place from 12Aug.)
The Navy's responsibility was to spend the small U.S. fleet as expensively on the enemy as possible. This did not include sitting around while twin-engine torpedo bombers tried to sink the carriers -- Fletcher moved off to be prepared for the inevitable Japanese attempt to push the Marines off the island, which they did two weeks later with a fleet larger than Fletcher's. He vigorously attacked a superior force in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons and sank his sixth enemy carrier, forced the enemy troopships to turn back, and saved the Marines.
A convoy of four destroyer-transports landed aviation fuel, bombs, and ground crews on 14Aug : Calhoun, Gregory, Little, and McKean. A second convoy with 3 APDs brought 120 tons of rations 20Aug. One converted merchantman sank on the way (it was top heavy and turned over). Three of the four APDs were sunk within two weeks: Calhoun, Little, & Gregory. And Lakatoi, also top heavy, sank Aug 21 in heavy weather.
Henderson Field was declared operational 17Aug (a PBY had landed briefly 12 Aug to test the field.) That same day there was a diversionary raid on Makin Island made by Carlson's Marine Raiders.
Naval aircraft arrived 20Aug ferried from Long Island (AVG-1) : 19 F4F Wildcats fighters and 12 SBD Dauntless dive-bombers. Air resupply and evacuation with R4D (C-47) transports also began that day.
The first land battle on Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Tenaru River, began that night, at 01:30, 21Aug, in which almost 1,000 enemy were killed.
The rush to attack Guadalcanal can in no way let the Navy off the hook for the disaster at Savo Island in which 4 allied heavy cruisers of the defensive force were lost with no enemy losses. The Navy had been at war for eight months including Coral Sea, and Midway, yet were walloped.
The Marine's first battle was a victory, but other Marines had also fought heroically in the unsuccessful defense of the Philippines.
Both sides rushed to reinforce their part of the island in the coming months; the U.S. managed to stay a step ahead. Great naval battles that determined the course of the war were to begin in two weeks as the Japanese Combined Fleet, and with new troops, counter attacked : Battle of Eastern Solomons. Skylark Channel became Iron Bottom Sound during October and November. Guadalcanal was secured 7 Feb 1943 after six months of battle with 24,000 Japanese and 1,600 U.S. ground and air forces dead.
Guadalcanal is remembered by Marines and in the public mind as a
land battle, their first victory, and all the stories of
personal and unit heroism wrap around those interests.
Actually it was a sea battle in which 48 warships went down, plus auxiliaries – half ours, half enemy : 3 carriers, 2 battleships, 12 cruisers, 25 destroyers, 6 submarines. USN had over 3,200 men killed. Of these, 1,270 Allied sailors died in the very first of six great sea battles there, more than the total Marine count in six months of fighting.(1) The total lives lost at sea remains unknown ; the Japanese did not keep records of sailors killed or of the thousands of Japanese soldiers lost at sea when their transports were sunk.
The Allies were outnumbered : 10 carriers to 4, by 12 battleships to 8, yet the Navy kept reinforcements from overwhelming the Marines.
Postwar interviews with surviving Japanese high command date their loss of the War to the inability to retake Guadalcanal. U.S. commanders agreed.