Guadalcanal: First to Fight —Part IV

Between 5-9 November, the Tokyo Express delivered additional soldiers from the 38th Infantry Division, including most of the 228th Infantry Regiment.  General Hyakutake send these fresh men to reinforce the IJA perimeter at Point Cruz and Matanikau.  Allied and Japanese forces continued to face one another along a line west of Point Cruz for the next six weeks.

After their defeat at the Battle for Henderson Field, IJA headquarters decided to make yet another attempt to oust the Americans from Lunga Point.  Hyakutake needed additional troops, however.  Admiral Yamamoto was asked to assist the Army (again) to deliver reinforcements and provide support for the next offensive.  Yamamoto agreed to provide 11 large transport ships to carry the remaining 7,000 troops from the 38th Infantry Division, their ammunition, food, and heavy equipment from Rabaul to Guadalcanal.  He also agreed to provide a warship support force that included two battleships equipped with special fragmentation shells.  The plan called for the IJN to bombard Henderson Field on the night of 12–13 November and destroy it and any aircraft stationed there.  This would ensure that the slow transports reached Guadalcanal and unload safely the next day.  The warship force commander was Vice Admiral Hiroaki Abe.

However, in early November, Allied intelligence learned about these Japanese ambitions and responded by sending Task Force 67 to Guadalcanal on 11 November.  Under the command of Admiral Turner, the task force included much-needed Marine replacements, two US Army battalions, ammunition, and food stores. Two task groups provided protection for Turner’s ships, one commanded by Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan, and the other commended by Rear Admiral Norman Scott.  Japanese aircraft attacked Task Force 67 on 11-12 November, but Turner was able to unload most ships without incurring any serious damage.

American reconnaissance planes spotted the approach of Admiral Abe’s bombardment force and passed a warning to the Allied command, prompting Turner to detach all usable combat ships under Callaghan to protect the troops ashore from Japanese naval attack and ordered his supply ships at Guadalcanal to depart before dusk on 12 November.  Callaghan’s force included two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and eight destroyers.  At around 0130 on 13 November, Admiral Callaghan intercepted Abe’s bombardment group between Guadalcanal and Savo Island.  In addition to his two battleships, Admiral Abe commanded one light cruiser and 11 destroyers.  In the blackness of night, the two forces intermingled before opening fire at close quarters.  Admiral Abe sank or seriously damaged all but two of Callaghan’s ships.  Rear Admirals Callaghan and Scott both died in the melee.  The Americans sank two Japanese destroyers; the Battleship Hiei and a destroyer were heavily damaged.  Despite this American defeat, Abe ordered his warships to retire without bombarding Henderson Field.  After repeated attacks by the CAF, Hiei went under later in the day.  Admiral Abe’s failure to neutralize Henderson Field prompted Admiral Yamamoto to order the Japanese transport convoy to wait another day before heading toward Guadalcanal; he ordered Admiral Nobutake Kondo to assemble another bombardment group and attack Henderson Field on 15 November 1942.

Meanwhile, at 0200 on 14 November, a cruiser and destroyer force under Admiral Gunichi Mikawa conducted an unopposed naval bombardment of Henderson Field.  The attack did cause some damage but failed to impede the operational capability of the airfield or its aircraft.  Trusting that Mikawa’s force destroyed or heavily damaged Henderson Field, Tanaka’s transports began their run down the slot toward Guadalcanal.  Throughout the day on 14 November, aircraft from Henderson Field and USS Enterprise attacked Japanese shipping, sending one Japanese heavy cruiser and seven transports to Iron bottom Sound.  Japanese destroyers rescued most of the troops and returned them to the Shortland Islands.  After dark, Tanaka and his remaining four transports continued toward Guadalcanal. Admiral Kondo’s force approached Lunga Point.

Admiral Halsey, who was now low on undamaged ships, detached two battleships and four destroyers from the Enterprise Battle Group.  USS Washington and USS South Dakota, under the command of Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee, reached Guadalcanal and Savo Island prior to midnight on 14 November —an hour or so before Admiral Kondo’s task group arrived to execute his mission.  Admiral Kondo commanded the battleship Kirishima, two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and nine destroyers.  Shortly after hostile contact, Lee lost three destroyers —a fourth heavily damaged.  As Kondo turned his attention to USS South Dakota, USS Washington opened fire on the Kirishima,repeatedly smashing her with main and secondary batteries. Kirishima’s fate was thus sealed. Kondo retired without bombarding Henderson Field.

Tanaka’s four transports beached themselves near Tassafaronga at 0400 and quickly began unloading men and material.  Two hours later, Allied aircraft and artillery began firing on the transports, destroying all four ships and most of their supplies. Between 2-3,000 Japanese soldiers made it safely to shore, but their numbers were still inadequate to the planned offensive, prompting the Japanese IJA command to suspend it.

Lieutenant General Hitoshi Imamura assumed command of the newly formed Eighth Area Army at Rabaul on 26 November 1942.  In this capacity, he was responsible for operations in the Solomon Islands and in New Guinea.  Initially, General Imamura prioritized the seizure of Henderson Field and Guadalcanal, but the Allied offensive in New Guinea prompted him to rethink his urgencies. New Guinea posed a greater threat to Rabaul than did Guadalcanal.

Japan’s greatest difficulty was resupplying its widely dispersed IJA/IJN force. The situation among Japanese forces on Guadalcanal was dire; these men were starving to death; they were dying of diseases.  Pushed to the point of using submarines to resupply Hyakutake’s force, this effort was grossly inadequate.  A separate attempt to establish bases in the central Solomons to facilitate barge convoys to Guadalcanal also failed due to destructive allied air power.  On the very day Imamura assumed command in Rabaul, General Hyakutake notified him that the 17th Army was facing a food crisis: front line units were entirely out of food and rear-echelon troops were on one-third rations.  The only solution to this problem was returning to the employment of destroyers for resupply missions —with an interesting twist.

The Japanese devised a plan to help reduce the exposure of destroyers delivering supplies to Guadalcanal.  They cleaned and filled large oil drums with medical supplies and food, leaving enough air space to provide buoyancy, and then strung them all together linearly with rope.  As Japanese destroyers arrived at Guadalcanal, they would make a sharp turn and the cut-loose the drums.  Boat crews from shore could then retrieve the buoyed end of a rope and return it to the beach, where the soldiers could haul in the supplies.  Responsibility for implementing this plan fell to Admiral Tanaka (commanding the Tokyo Express).  On the night of 30 November, Tanaka loaded six destroyers with between 200 and 240 supply drums each and sent them down the slot to Guadalcanal.

Recall, however, that the Americans were reading the IJN’s mail. When notified of the Japanese effort to resupply their men on Guadalcanal, Admiral Halsey ordered Task Force 67 to intercept Tanaka’s destroyers.  Under the command of Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright, Task Force 67 included four cruisers and four destroyers.  Two additional destroyers joined Task Force 67 while en route to Guadalcanal from Espiritu Santo on 30 November.

Admiral Tanaka’s force arrived off Guadalcanal at around 2240 and began preparations to unload the supply barrels.  Admiral Wright’s command approached the island through Iron Bottom Sound.  Wright detected Tanaka’s force on radar but waited too long before giving the order to attack.  Wright’s hesitance allowed Tanaka to escape an optimum firing setup.  All American torpedoes missed their intended targets. At the same time, Admiral Wright’s cruisers opened fire, destroying one IJN guard destroyer.  Tanaka abandoned his supply mission, increased the speed of his vessels, and launched a total of 44 torpedoes toward Wright’s cruisers. His salvo resulted in the demise of USS Northampton.  USS Minneapolis, USS New Orleans, and USS Pensacola were all heavily damaged.  Admiral Tanaka managed to escape, but his supply mission failed.  Within a week, General Hyakutake was losing 50-men per day from malnutrition, disease, and Allied air/ground assaults.  Additional efforts at resupply failed to alleviate the food crisis, and Admiral Tanaka lost another destroyer to a U. S. Navy Patrol/Torpedo Boat.

IJN headquarters proposed to abandon Guadalcanal on 12 December 1942; IJA headquarters concurred —given their inability to resupply forward ground forces, further efforts to retake Guadalcanal from the Americans would be impossible.  The order to begin planning for the abandonment of Guadalcanal was issued on 26 December.  The Japanese wanted to focus on New Guinea, instead.  Emperor Hirohito formally approved this decision on 31 December.  The effort to withdraw from the island was code named Operation Ke —it would commence during the latter part of January 1943.

During December 1942, the war-weary 1st Marine Division was withdrawn from Guadalcanal for rest and recuperation, replaced by the US XIV Corps (consisting of the 2nd Marine Division, 25th Infantry Division, and 23rd Infantry Division) under the command of Major General Alexander Patch, U. S. army. On 1 January, allied forces on Guadalcanal numbered around 50,000 troops.

On 18 December, XIV Corps began attacking Japanese positions on Mount Austen, but the Japanese mounted a sturdy defense and the American assaults stymied and halted on 4 January 1943.  The Army renewed its offensive on 10 January.  As Marines advanced along the coast, Army units poured into the Mount Austen area. The operation cost the Americans around 250 lives, but the Japanese suffered around 3,000 killed in action.

The Japanese delivered a battalion of soldiers via the Tokyo Express on 14 January.  This unit was to provide a rear-guard for Operation Ke.  Japanese warships and aircraft moved into positions around Rabaul and Bougainville in preparation of the withdrawal.  Allied intelligence detected these enemy movements but misinterpreted them as a preparation for another attempt to seize Henderson Field and Guadalcanal.  General Patch, an overly cautious commander, committed only a small portion of his troops to continue a slow-moving offensive against General Hyakutake.

Admiral Halsey, acting on the same intelligence assessment, dispatched a supply convoy to Guadalcanal with a screening force of several cruisers. Sighting these cruisers, Japanese torpedo bombers attacked and heavily damaged USS Chicago, which the Japanese sunk the next day in a separate action.  Halsey directed the remaining cruisers to take up station in the Coral Sea, south of Guadalcanal, and prepare to counter a Japanese offensive.  While Halsey anticipated a renewal of a Japanese offensive, the 17th Army withdrew to the west coast of Guadalcanal.

Twenty destroyers operating under the command of Admiral Shintaro Hashimoto successfully evacuated General Hyakutake and roughly 5,000 of his soldiers on the night of 1 February 1943.  Additional evacuations occurred on 4 and 7 February.  In total, the number of Japanese soldiers evacuated from Guadalcanal numbered 10,652 men.

America’s first offensive in World War II … what did we gain?  It was the first step in recovering advanced Pacific bases.  The United States developed Guadalcanal and Tulagi into major forward operating bases supporting the Allied advance further up the Solomon Islands chain, including additional fighter/bomber capable airstrips at Lunga and Koli Point, and major port and logistics facilities.

The Guadalcanal campaign transformed the Pacific war into a defensive war for the Japanese.  They were a fierce and determined enemy, but clearly the Empire of Japan had bitten off far more than it could chew when it attacked the United States of America.  In early 1943, the Allied forces gained a strategic initiative that they never once relinquished throughout the war.  Japan’s withdrawal from the southern region of the Solomon Islands enabled the Allies to deny the Japanese Navy access to the sea; forward units of the IJA could not long survive without the IJN.  Incrementally, the Allied forces neutralized Rabaul and facilitated the South West Pacific Campaign under General Douglas MacArthur and the Central Pacific Island-hopping campaign of Admiral Chester Nimitz.  It was now up to the Allies to decide whether to destroy a Japanese held island or by-pass it.

The war was far from over, however.  It would take bucket more blood to win the Pacific War.

Sources:

  1. Braun, S. M. The Struggle for Guadalcanal (American Battles and Campaigns).  New York: Putnam, 1969
  2. Christ, J. F. Battalion of the Damned: The 1st Marine Paratroopers at Gavutu and Bloody Ridge.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007
  3. Coggins, J. The Campaign for Guadalcanal: A Battle That Made History.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1972.
  4. Hersey, J. Into the Valley: Marines at Guadalcanal. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002

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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

6 thoughts on “Guadalcanal: First to Fight —Part IV”

  1. All five Sullivan brothers, from Waterloo, Iowa, were lost when the USS Juneau was sunk October 13.

    Two Wilson brothers, from Dallas County, Iowa, had served on the USS Chicago before the war. Their cousin, Merrill Goff, on a 5-inch Marine gun crew aboard the USS Pensacola, which was torpedoed November 30, in that same area.

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    1. The loss of the Sullivan brothers changed military policy respecting the assignment of family members to naval and military ships/units. My heart breaks for the Sullivan family. Such a loss no family should have to endure. Thank you for reminding us about these tragedies, and for your contribution to this history.

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  2. By the time you reported on the deastic resupply method by tethered drums, Yamamoto had come to the realization that Guadalacanal was lost. Further, he realized any offensive effort in New Guinea would be a nightmarish offensive – if not defensive. Yet he continued through that November’s end to resupply. One sub, the I-17, managed to unload over ten tons of supplies. Still, the ground leaders of the Seventeenth Army reported only a pittance of rice and assorted foodstuffs could be counted in cases. Not much for over 30,000 starving men scattered about the island. Perhaps my uncle endured the same hunger just two years later on Leyte.

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    1. It is likely that your uncle experienced the same fate, Koji. The Japanese naval and military forces were a lethal strike force, one able to project their power, albeit for a short period of time. They did not have the ability to replenish their military assets, or resupply their forward elements. Japan was doomed from the beginning, and even if we supposed that they could have pushed the US out of the Pacific area (and they dearly tried to do just that), they would not have been able to defend such a large area for more than a few years. As horrific and tragic as the atomic bombs were, their use no doubt did save tens of thousands of American lives and many more Japanese civilians on the home islands. Recall the loss of civilian life during the battle of Okinawa, where I believe half of the entire civilian population perished.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment/contribution to this series.

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    2. Indeed, Yamamoto’s prophecy about being able to be victorious for about six months to a year held true, almost to the day. He knew for a few years before Pearl that the Imperial Japanese Army leaders were full of themselves and that they turned a blind eye to their near absence of raw materials and natural resources as you point out. He essentially referred to them as 馬鹿, or “baka”. Yamamoto also saw as a huge hurdle the relative absence in Japan of huge factories like Ford and GM’s; in pre-war Japan, manufacturing was done in smaller setups scattered about.

      But even Yamamoto underestimated the effectiveness and tenacity of one weapon – the United States Marine Corps of which you were a proud member of for many years. Thank you for your service, Colonel.

      As you know, my Hiroshima cousins (still alive) were all subjected to the atomic bomb. Given that, I agree the atomic bomb did keep many millions of others alive in total (American and Japanese). Perhaps making civilians the victims was the outcome in this case, but millions of civilians perished around the world by all hands. Many products of our Liberal schooling system today are tainting America’s decisions but they completely ignore facts, the sacrifices and the war-weary civilians and combatants at that time. Frankly, my own cousins, grandparents, mother and aunt may have perished from starvation or illness – or worse yet, invasion with safety’s off – if the Occupation did not happen when it did.

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  3. Imagine what could be accomplished on this planet if it were not for the military industrial complexes. And megalomaniacs of course.

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