Guadalcanal 1942-43


Mark Stille




Date Reviewed:

January 14, 2023

hen I was reading Malcom Gladwell's book The Bomber Mafia, he made a remark about the battle of Guadalcanal, and I realized that I did not know much about that fight except that it was an intense confrontation between the Japanese and American forces. The Battle of Midway, in June of 1942, is always listed as the turning point for the war in the Pacific, but it was Guadalcanal (August of 1942 to February of 1943) that finally halted the expansion of the Japanese Imperial forces and turned the tide in the Allies favor. Wanting to learn more about this battle, I checked out Guadalcanal 1942-43 Japan's bid to knock out Henderson Field and the Cactus Air Force. from the library.

The Japanese were pursuing a strategy of island hopping - moving south toward Australia. They started to build an airbase on Guadalcanal, an island (which the Americans had code-named "Cactus") in the Solomon Islands, northeast of Australia. The Japanese wanted to cut off Australia from American supply lines. (This book does have good maps). Before the Japanese could complete their airbase on Guadalcanal, Americans landed Marines on August 7th on the island. The Japanese were surprised by this aggressive maneuver, and by August 8th the airbase was under American control. By August 12th, engineers had completed the construction of the base, and on August 20th the first Allied planes landed on the newly renamed Henderson Field (It was named after a Marine airman, Lofton Henderson, who had died in the battle of Midway) .

With an airbase in the Solomons, the American forces could harry the Japanese navy. The American carriers could stay out of range of Japanese forces until they decided to commit forces and sail close enough to attack or resupply Henderson. The airbase was too big to destroy with saturation bombing from the Japanese bombers, so a large invasion force of the Imperial Army was delivered to the northern end of the island. The Japanese army ultimately was repulsed by the Marines defending the airbase.

The book gives only the briefest recounting of the land battles fought on the island. Ultimately, the Japanese were defeated by the dense jungle, which made coordination between units almost impossible (one third of Japanese forces never even attacked), the ferocious defense of the US Marines, and crucially, the inability for the Japanese to deliver enough supplies to support their ground forces. When transports or barges sailed "The Slot", they were attacked by American planes. The Japanese resorted to putting supplies into half-filled drums and having their destroyers drop these drums overboard to float the goods to shore, but this strategy was ineffective. The distant Japanese base on Rabaul proved to be too far away to protect and supply their army units on Guadalcanal. Ultimately, the Japanese had to retreated, evacuating their emaciated troops after suffering 30,000 casualties. From then on, it was the American forces who were on the offensive in the Pacific.

American pilots originally refused to engage with the superior Japanese pilots. The Zeros were faster and more maneuverable. But the Wildcats were heavier and better armored. When incoming Japanese planes were detected on radar, the Wildcats would scramble and climb to a high altitude to await the arrival of the attackers. The heavy Wildcats would then dive at the Japanese bombers (effectively using "deflection shooting" against the Bettys - though if the author ever defined what "deflection shooting" was, I missed it). After diving through the Japanese formation, the Wildcats would fly away, and with the speed from their dive, the Zeros could not catch them. The Japanese planes were launched from a distant base in Rabaul, which meant that they had to fly a long way to reach Guadalcanal, and then they had only a limited amount of fuel to engage in combat once they arrived.

Later in the campaign, the Americans determined that heavy losses of experienced airmen meant that the Japanese pilots no longer had enough veterans - at that point, the Americans began to engage in dogfights with the Japanese pilots. The American planes were also suffering heavy losses, so how come the Americans were not also running out of experienced pilots?

There is a lot of detail in the book, but the lack of an overall explanatory narrative makes it hard to keep track of what is really happening.

Unfortunately, Guadalcanal 1942-43 is not a book that delivers much in the way of strategies, tactics or overall context. Much of the material is dry recounting of facts without much background. Here is an example of the dry reporting of the air battle:

With the Japanese land attack growing near, the 11th Air Fleet stepped up the pace of operations. The September 10th raid consisted of 21 Bettys escorted by 15 Zeros. Eleven Wildcats took off to meet the Japanese, but only five completed the interception. Three Bettys were destroyed at the cost of a single Wildcat downed. This left the Cactus Air Force with only 11 operational Wildcats.

Here is the first sentence of the very next paragraph:

On September 11, the Japanese sent down 27 Bettys with 15 Zeros. The Americans sent up 12 Wildcats to intercept.

After the September 10th raid, the Americans had only 11 operational Wildcats, and yet the very next day 12 Wildcats took off to fight the incoming Japanese planes? The book reports the numbers of planes flown by both sides, how many were shot down each day, yet it is hard to get any sense of how significant these losses are. The number of American planes at Henderson seems vary from paragraph to paragraph (Yes, there could have been new planes resupplied from the American carriers, and presumably mechanics worked feverishly to repair damaged aircraft, but it was not at all clear to me what was happening.) It is surprising how small the numbers are for some of these mission. Five dive bombers might attack the Japanese supply ships, and their mere presence seems to be enough to deter the Japanese, even though the torpedoes don't seem very effective. B-17 bombers occasionally appear in the narrative, but where were they based? I doubt those heavy bombers were taking off from the muddy runways on Guadalcanal.

For better summary of WWII battles, I'll have to look for other sources.