7 August 1942 – 8 February 1943

One of the longest and toughest battles the American army and navy had to fight in the Second World War was the struggle against the Japanese for control of the isolated, jungle-covered island of Guadalcanal in the British Solomon Islands.

In a naval engagement during the Battle of Guadalcanal on 12 November 1942 smoke pours from USS San Francisco, hit by a crashed Japanese plane (centre right). The ships of both sides suffered heavy losses to aircraft attack in the narrow waters around the island.

For months a small American beachhead had to be defended against wave after wave of Japanese attacks by air, sea and land. It was a harsh baptism of fire for the Americans. This was their first experience of combat against a Japanese army that had been fighting in China for years and had conquered Southeast Asia in a matter of weeks.

The island represented one of the furthest points reached in the violent burst of Japanese expansion that followed the strike on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The outer perimeter in the southwest Pacific ran through New Guinea and the Solomons. On Guadalcanal the Japanese decided to build an air base and a small port that would allow them to interrupt Allied supplies to Australia and act as a possible launch point for further aggression.

The American high command decided to make the island the first point at which to pierce the Japanese perimeter and neutralize the threat to American shipping. A task force was assembled and 19,000 US marines, commanded by Major General Alexander Vandegrift, were disembarked on 7 August 1942 under cover of darkness. After a tough two-day fight they had control of the Japanese airfield at Lunga (renamed Henderson Field) and the small port at Tulagi. This was to prove only the start of a fierce battle that raged on the island for six long months.

A field of dead Japanese soldiers on Guadalcanal after their banzai charge on 26 October at the second battle of the Matanikau River. Japanese tactics on the island became crude frontal assaults in which more than 20,000 Japanese soldiers died.

The Japanese commanders in the South Pacific, based further north at Rabaul in New Britain, reacted immediately. A large Japanese naval force arrived and the American naval commander, Vice Admiral Frank Fletcher, was compelled to withdraw after losing four cruisers. The Japanese ships ferried the 17th Army under General Haruyoshi Hyakutake to the island and Japanese units swarmed towards the airfield to drive the Americans into the sea.

Short of supplies and air support, the marines dug in. They found Japanese tactics almost suicidally primitive. Unarmed Japanese, reported one marine officer, would continue to attack armed marines until they were mown down.

Some swam across from small nearby islands without weapons and little uniform to join in the fight. From 670 Japanese defending the islands around Tulagi, 655 chose to fight to the death rather than surrender. When the newly arrived Japanese army units began to attack, almost all the 900 Japanese were killed in the first wave, for the loss of 40 marines.

Over the weeks that followed the marines faced an extraordinary ordeal. Hit from the air and subject to regular naval bombardment, they held on to a small segment of the island while wave after wave of Japanese soldiers tried to dislodge them. On 12 September around 6,200 Japanese soldiers were in position to storm the airfield.

They chose as their main advance line a small ridge to the south, which was defended by Colonel Merritt Edson’s Marine Raiders – around 840 marines who had earlier raided the nearby Japanese base, seizing supplies and documents. They had been sent to the ridge for a brief rest. Instead they found themselves facing the main axis of the Japanese assault. For two nights around 3,000 Japanese fought to gain possession of the ridge.

The marines were exhausted, deprived of sleep and short of ammunition, but, inspired by their commander, they fought endless waves of Japanese infantry charging towards the one remaining defensive position, Hill 123, with fixed bayonets. When American morale began to suffer, Edson rallied the men tirelessly, standing all the time rather than taking cover. Fighting with bayonets hand-to-hand stifled all attempts at infiltration, but Japanese soldiers were expected to fight to the death. Their constant assaults, recalled another marine, were ‘like a rain that subsides for a moment and then pours the harder…’

The Japanese commanders finally abandoned the attempt; their men were also exhausted and hungry, with some units down to no more than one-fifth of their strength. It was the first major defeat for the Japanese army since the start of the Pacific campaign. At least 830 Japanese were killed for the loss of 80 marines. The Battle of Edson’s Ridge – or Bloody Ridge – was the turning point of the whole battle and it depended on the remarkable courage of a few hundred marines fighting their first major engagement against an enemy that was expected to triumph or die in the attempt.

The victory on Bloody Ridge not only secured the survival of the first American invasion of Japanese-held territory but exposed the myth of Japanese invincibility that had taken root after the first months of Japanese military successes.

In October the Japanese commanders on the island again tried frontal assaults against the airfield perimeter but were once again repulsed with heavy losses. In November the decision was made to expand Japanese forces sufficiently to overwhelm the small American enclave.

Japanese naval vessels navigated the narrow strait running the length of Guadalcanal to deliver men and supplies – the so-called ‘Tokyo Express’. By 12 November, the Japanese army reached its largest extent on the island but a series of naval engagements on the nights of 12–13 and 14–15 November cut off Japanese attempts to land more men and supplies, and new American army units arrived to strengthen the garrison. The Japanese high command reluctantly accepted that the island could not be held and planned an eventual withdrawal. More than 20,000 Japanese died on Guadalcanal against the loss of 1,752 American servicemen.

On 8 February 1943 the last Japanese left the island in a well-concealed evacuation. Vandegrift went on to command the Marine Corps; General Hyakutake lived out the last years of the war hiding in the jungle on the island of Bougainville, in the northern Solomons. Colonel Edson fought in most of the major Pacific island campaigns, rose to the rank of major general, and committed suicide in 1955.