In most history textbooks today, coverage of the war in the Pacific consists of a summary of the Battle of Midway, a brief mention of leapfrogging islands, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Battle of Midway is almost invariably described as the “turning point” in the Pacific campaign that put the Japanese on the defensive. While Midway was a spectacular and stunning American victory, it did not put the Japanese on the defensive or mean that America had achieved naval supremacy. The American triumph meant only that Japan would not occupy Midway Atoll or use it as a staging ground for an invasion of Hawaii and that Japan would have one less ring of defense in the Pacific. After the battle, Japan continued on the offensive in the CBI (China-Burma-India) theater and in the Southwest Pacific, areas of far more importance to her than Midway or Hawaii.
The battle that changed the course of the war in the Pacific was Guadalcanal. It is a name unknown to most students today, perhaps because a discussion of the campaign would entail a description of Japanese savagery that would shatter politically correct sensibilities. This was certainly not the case until well into the 1960’s, when just mention of the name sent shivers up and down the spine. And well it should, for it was on Guadalcanal that the Marines, including two of my cousins, learned that the Japanese had no regard for the Geneva Accords or any other rules of warfare and committed atrocities that would make the Apache envious.
On August 7, 1942, Marines of the 1st Marine Division waded ashore on a mountainous, jungle-clad island at the southeastern end of the Solomon chain. Approaching Guadalcanal under a foul-weather front, the American fleet and the Marines caught the Japanese by surprise. By nightfall, 10,000 Marines were ashore. The next day, the jarheads captured a nearly completed airstrip, which they named Henderson Field in honor of Maj. Lofton Henderson, a Marine pilot who had died at Midway. Control of Henderson Field would be critical for the Marines in the battle for the island that raged for more than four months. Then the Army arrived and spent two months mopping up.
At sea, the U.S. Navy was fighting to survive. In the Battle of Savo Island on August 9, the Navy suffered its worst defeat in history, losing four heavy cruisers and more than 1,000 men. Six more major battles would follow, including the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in which admirals “Uncle Dan” Callaghan and Norman Scott, both posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and the five Sullivan brothers died. The brutal punch-outs at sea cost each side more than two-dozen warships—carriers, battleships, cruisers, and destroyers—and thousands of men.
On land, the Marines were fighting not only the Japanese but disease and hunger. Dengue fever and malaria debilitated thousands, and a shortage of food meant the average Marine, lean to begin with, lost 25 pounds in his four months on the island. Col. “Red Mike” Edson told his men of the 1st Raider Battalion, “There’s plenty of chow. The Japs have it. Take it away from them.”
Japanese warships bombarded the Marines nightly, and Japanese aircraft bombed Henderson Field daily. The thousands of crack Japanese troops already on the island were reinforced every few nights by men and materiel dropped off by the “Tokyo Express”—fast destroyers—steaming down “The Slot,” the channel through the Solomons. The Japanese commander on Guadalcanal told his troops, “This is the battle that will decide the fate of the Japanese Empire.” But not to worry. A training manual told them:
Westerners—being very haughty, effeminate and cowardly—intensely dislike fighting in the rain or mist or dark. They cannot conceive night to be a proper time for battle—though it is excellent for dancing. In these weaknesses lie our great opportunity.
The Japanese counteroffensive began in pitch-darkness early on August 21 at Alligator Creek, a mile east of Henderson Field. Mortar rounds arched overhead toward the Marines positioned there, and Japanese machine-gun fire erupted. Then the cry of “Banzai!” filled the air, and more than 800 Japanese, with fixed bayonets, came on the run, firing from the hip and lobbing grenades. The Marines returned fire with ’03 Springfields, Thompsons, BARs, and machine guns—until their barrels warped from the heat of continuous firing. At different points, fighting became hand-to-hand. With K-bars, bayonets, and rifle butts, the Marines took on the vaunted jungle fighters who had overrun much of Asia and the Pacific and shredded them. Of the attacking force of Japanese, only two remained alive by late afternoon. The Marines suffered 44 dead and 71 wounded.
Similarly fierce battles with similar results continued night after night, week after week. Unarmed Navy corpsmen, treating wounded Marines, were shot by Japanese snipers. Wounded Japanese would cry out for aid, but when a corpsman went forward to help, the wounded enemy would detonate a grenade. The Japanese lived and died by their code of bushido, giving no quarter to themselves or the enemy. Captured Marines suffered unspeakable torture. Their bodies were found skinned, dismembered, or decapitated, often with their genitals severed and stuffed in their mouths. This was not Europe. For their part, the Japanese learned that they were not fighting “effeminate Westerners” but the descendants of Boone, Crockett, and Hickok. Now their names were Scott, Callaghan, Sullivan, and Edson—and “Chesty” Puller, John Basilone, Joe Foss, Marion Carl, Ken Bailey, Doug Munro, Joe Bauer, Mitchell Paige, and hundreds of others of the breed.
In the battle for Guadalcanal, the Japanese lost more than 30,000 men. A few days after his evacuation by destroyer, Maj. Gen. Kiyotake Kawaguchi told a Japanese war correspondent, “We lost the battle. And Japan has lost the war.”