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The State of the Pacific in Mid-1942
The first half of 1942 was a dark year for Japan's enemies in the Pacific. After the brilliant strike on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the US Navy was primarily concerned with preventing its last major fleet assets- its aircraft carriers- from being destroyed. The British Empire, already heavily engaged in North Africa and the Battle of the Atlantic, couldn't spare many warships to fight Japan, and many of those it had sent, like the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, had been destroyed.
The Free Dutch forces in the Indies as well as the Australian and New Zealand naval forces had also been savaged, and Japan's flag soon flew over Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, and most of the islands of the West and Central Pacific.
There had been setbacks for Japan, of course: the Doolittle Raid sent nearly twenty bombers off the deck of the USS Hornet to launch a militarily ineffectual but politically embarrassing raid on the Japanese Home Islands. The offensive to take New Guinea had stalled, and pinprick hit and run raids by US aircraft carriers and submarines took a toll. And by the end of June, two major engagements left Japan's Navy severely weakened in comparison to its opponents. The Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway saw Japan lose four of its large aircraft carriers and sink only two Allied carriers in exchange. However even while sustaining such losses, Japan was still on the march in the South Pacific and was preparing to take a series of islands that would effectively cut off Australia and New Zealand from North America, possibly forcing them to abandon the fight against Japan.
So while later years would look back on mid-1942 as the period where the tide turned, at the time the outcome of the Pacific War was still very much in doubt. An Allied defeat was not out of the question, and Japan began expanding its island defensive perimeter to help make it a certainty. One of the preliminary efforts made to push further into the South Pacific was the construction of an airfield on the Solomon Group island of Guadalcanal - a field that would backstop any naval movements in the region.
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Guadalcanal: The First Major Allied Pacific Offensive
For its part, the United States contribution to the Allied cause in the Pacific was destined to be significant, but was also destined to be hampered by a political decision to focus on defeating Germany first, and only then turn to Japan. This "Europe First" idea made sense during a time when Germany still threatened to defeat the Soviet Union and make itself supreme in Europe, but did have the effect of limiting the resources that could be devoted to stopping Japanese advances in the Pacific.
But this material weakness was set aside when it was recognized, via intelligence reports and the tireless work of Australian and Solomon Islander "Coast Watchers," that Japan was constructing a major air base on the island of Guadalcanal. From there its long range aircraft could hit American Samoa and New Caledonia, which both served as major staging bases in the South Pacific. This was an unacceptable danger, and hit-and-run carrier raids would not be able to permanently stop the airfield from being built. It was decided to seize the island in an amphibious assault.
Undertaken on a tight budget, the assault was officially known as Operation Watchtower, but many of the Marines there called it "operation shoestring." The landing was a success and caught the Japanese by surprise. The nearly finished airfield was captured intact and rapidly made ready by Seabees to support a Marine air unit called the Cactus Air Force.
Naturally, the Japanese were not about to take this lying down. Their naval, air, and ground forces were all tasked to retake Guadalcanal. Killed in action counts were guaranteed to go up from the moment the first ships were dispatched to the island.
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Surface Battles Around Guadalcanal
The land campaign on Guadalcanal proper was vicious and bloody, but the sea campaign was equally terrible. So terrible, in fact, that the United States Navy was long reluctant to publish the actual casualty reports stemming from the long battle.
Surprisingly, after the epic carrier engagements at the Coral Sea and Midway, many of the bloodiest battles were between surface ships using naval guns and torpedoes. These often took place off the island itself, and were so damaging to both sides that no fewer than forty transports and warships are permanently located at the bottom of the waters off Guadalcanal. In fact, due to the extreme losses, the sound itself is often called "Ironbottom Sound" to the modern day. Many of the battles that took place there occurred as desperate nighttime engagements between destroyers, but several notable major battles took place as well.
Early in the campaign Admiral Gunichi Mikawa of the Japanese Navy brought seven cruisers to do battle with eight cruisers of the Allied Forces screening the invading Marines. The warships met at night off Savo Island near Guadalcanal, and the First Battle of Savo Island ensued. The result was an unmitigated disaster for the Allies. No fewer than four cruisers were sunk and a thousand sailors were killed. The Japanese escaped with only minor to moderate damage and about sixty sailors dead.
In October of 1942 a major Japanese effort to reinforce Guadalcanal gave the Allies a chance to turn the tables. In the Battle of Cape Esperance an Allied force of 4 cruisers intercepted three Japanese cruisers and sank one of them, forcing the others to retreat. Only one Allied cruiser suffered significant damage.
Most memorable of all was the battleship engagement known as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Killed in action were two Japanese battleships, the IJN Kirishima and IJN Hiei, when they engaged the Allied fleet during an attempt to shell the US forces holding the airfield and cover a group of transports as they unloaded badly needed Japanese equipment and reinforcements. This battle, which took place in November, saw the Hiei sunk by cruisers with air support from USS Enterprise in exchange for two allied cruisers. Kirishima ran into the battleship USS South Dakota and heavily damaged her before being ambushed and destroyed by the battleship USS Washington in one of the few battleship vs battleship engagements of the Pacific War.
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Carrier Battles For Control of Guadalcanal
Just as dramatic as the frenetic surface engagements that left steel corpses littering the waters off Guadalcanal were the carrier battles waged to establish air superiority over the island. Two were fought, and although the US Navy received more damage than the Imperial Japanese Navy, the loss of highly trained pilots severely limited later Japanese air operations at sea.
The first carrier battle, the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, took place in August after it was clear that the Japanese needed to commit major forces if they hoped to retake Guadalcanal. Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, commander of the attack on Pearl Harbor, led the fleet carriers IJN Shokaku and IJN Zuikaku as well as the light carrer IJN Ryujo against the USS Enterprise and USS Saratoga. The US admiral on the scene opposing Nagumo was Admiral Jack Fletcher, who had led one section of the carriers at the Battle of Midway.
After trading aerial punches both the Japanese and American fleets retired from the field, neither side victorious. Japan lost Ryujo but the Enterprise was struck by several bombs and badly mauled. However, although tactically inconclusive, the Japanese suffered a defeat in that their primary objective of reinforcing Guadalcanal failed.
The second, and more devastating, carrier battle was the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in October. There again Admiral Nagumo led the Shokaku and Zuikaku and the new carrier IJN Junyo, backed by the light carrier IJN Zuiho, against the Americans who had repaired the Enterprise and retained the Saratoga and Hornet in their battle line. The carrier Wasp had been torpedoed by a submarine the month before, so this constituted the entire US Pacific carrier force at the time.
The two fleets engaged in a melee of speeding torpedoes, crashing bombs, and vast stocks of anti-aircraft munitions. And when the battle was over, the Hornet was burning and abandoned (later to be torpedoed by Japanese destroyers), Enterprise was badly damaged again, Saratoga was moderately damaged, and many aircraft had been forced to ditch in the sea. No Japanese carriers were lost, although Zuiho was damaged and Shokaku put out of action for months.
Although a victory for the Japanese, the number of elite aviators listed among the Guadalcanal killed in action was cruel. Hundreds of top notch pilots had died in the campaign, never to be replaced. One poignant Guadalcanal quote from Admiral Nagumo indicates that many Japanese naval commanders viewed the loss of these pilots to be a strategic catastrophe for Japan. Indeed, although technically the Japanese had three undamaged carriers available, their dearth of trained pilots meant that they would play no further role in the fight for Guadalcanal.
- Janes Fighting Ships of World War II, 1946 Janes Publishing Company, 1994 reprint edition
- George Sullivan: The Day Pearl Harbor Was Bombed, 1991 Scholastic Inc
- All Images Courtesy of the United States Government/United States Navy, via Wiki Commons
- Arthur Zich, The Rising Sun, 1977 Time Life Books