Before the battle, U.S. planners were able to build up Pacific Theater resources more quickly than anticipated and take the offensive against the Japanese. This campaign, Operation watchtower, was the brainchild of U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King. It had as its objective the seizure of the islands of Tulagi and Gavatu as a preliminary step in securing the Solomons and then the recapture of the Philippines and the eventual defeat of Japan.
These plans soon changed when intelligence revealed that the Japanese were building an airstrip on the nearby island of Guadalcanal. Once operational, such a base would pose a serious threat to Allied operations in the South Pacific. Therefore, its seizure became the primary objective of the campaign.
Although hamstrung by a lack of adequate resources because of sealift required for Operation torch, the British and American invasion of North Africa, Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley pieced together forces from the United States, Australia, and New Zealand for the invasion. Resources were so meager that some of his officers nicknamed the plan Operation Shoestring. Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift commanded the 1st Marine Division landing force, and Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher had charge of the naval support element.
The U.S. Navy's tasks were to sustain forces ashore and provide naval and air protection for the Marines defending the airfield, which was captured shortly after the landing and renamed Henderson Field. The lack of a harbor compounded supply problems. The Japanese operated aircraft from Rabaul and later from other closer island airfields, but Allied "coast watchers" on islands provided early warning of many Japanese naval movements.
The Marines went ashore beginning on 7 August, but the sealift was so limited that they were without much of their heavier equipment and heavy artillery. The first naval engagement with the Japanese occurred on the night of 8–9 August 1942 in the Battle of Savo Island. A Japanese cruiser squadron overwhelmed an Allied force of equal size, sinking one Australian and three U.S. cruisers and damaging several destroyers, losing none of its own ships. The battle clearly showed the superiority of Japanese night-fighting techniques. The battle was the worst defeat ever suffered by the U.S. Navy in a fair fight, but it was only a tactical success, because the Japanese failed to go after the vulnerable American troop transports off Guadalcanal and Tulagi.
Nonetheless, the Battle of Savo Island and Japanese air attacks led Fletcher and Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner to withdraw supporting naval forces from Guadalcanal, leaving the Marines ashore isolated, bereft of naval support, and short of critical supplies. Long-range aircraft and destroyers did bring in some resources. The Japanese made a critical mistake in not capitalizing on the U.S. vulnerability to commit their main fleet assets. For the most part, they sent only smaller units in driblets, chiefly in the form of fast destroyers. The so-called Slot was controlled by the United States during the day but the Japanese owned it at night.
The next major confrontation at sea off Guadalcanal came on the night of 24–25 August in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. Fletcher's carrier-based aircraft intercepted and attacked the covering group for a Japanese convoy of destroyers and transports carrying 1,500 troops to Guadalcanal. The Americans sank the Japanese light carrier Ryujo and damaged another ship, but the U.S. fleet carrier Enterprise was located and attacked by Japanese aircraft and badly damaged. The Japanese destroyers and transports delivered the reinforcements and the destroyers and then shelled Henderson Field, although a U.S. Army B-17 sank one of the Japanese ships.
On 31 August, the U.S. carrier Saratoga was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and put out of action for three months. That left only the carrier Wasp available for operations in the South Pacific. On 15 September, the Wasp was in turn torpedoed and sunk while it was accompanying transports lifting the 7th Marine Regiment to Guadalcanal from Espiritu Santo. A Japanese torpedo also damaged the battleship North Carolina, which, however, held her place in the formation. Admiral Turner continued to Guadalcanal, delivering the 7th Marine Regiment safely three days later.
Heavy fighting, meanwhile, was occurring on Guadalcanal; the Japanese were mounting unsuccessful attacks to recapture Henderson Field. The next big naval encounter off Guadalcanal was the Battle of Cape Esperance during the night of 11–12 October. The Japanese sent in their supply ships at night (the so-called Tokyo Express). U.S. ships equipped with radar detected a Japanese convoy off the northwest coast of Guadalcanal. In the ensuing fight, the Japanese lost a cruiser and a destroyer, and another cruiser was heavily damaged. The Americans lost only a destroyer and had two cruisers damaged. The first Allied success against the Japanese in a night engagement, the Battle of Cape Esperance, was a great boost to U.S. morale. A few days later, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz replaced the methodical Ghormley with the offensive-minded Vice Admiral William "Bull" Halsey.
A major engagement occurred on 26–27 October in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid and his Task Force 16 centered on the carrier Enterprise followed Admiral Halsey's instructions to engage Japanese forces under Admiral Kondo Nobutake. Each side conducted carrier strikes against the other. U.S. aircraft inflicted severe damage on the heavy carrier Shokaku, putting her out of action for nine months, and damaged the light carrier Zuiho. On the U.S. side, the heavy carrier Hornet was badly damaged and had to be abandoned while under tow; she was soon sunk by Japanese destroyers. Kondo then withdrew. He had won a major victory over the Americans, but he had also lost 100 aircraft and experienced pilots, half again as many as the Americans. Had he continued to pursue the withdrawing U.S. ships, he might have destroyed the Enterprise.
During 12–15 November, a series of intense sea fights occurred in what became known as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. It took place near the entrance to Ironbottom Sound (so named for being the resting place of many Allied and Japanese ships) off Savo Island between Guadalcanal and Tulagi. In the first, U.S. ships and aircraft fought to block reinforcement of the island by 13,000 Japanese troops in 11 transports, escorted by destroyers, all commanded by Admiral Tanaka Raizo. At the same time, a powerful squadron under Abe Hiroaki arrived to shell Henderson Field. In a confused engagement, both sides suffered heavily. The Japanese lost the battleship Hiei and two cruisers sunk; all other Japanese vessels were damaged. The Americans lost two cruisers and four destroyers. A cruiser and a destroyer were close to sinking, and all other ships, save one, were damaged. Among those killed were Rear Admirals Daniel Callaghan and Norman Scott. Tanaka was obliged to retire, and the planned Japanese bombardment of Henderson Field did not occur.
On 13–14 November the Japanese returned, and their heavy cruisers shelled Henderson Field. But the Americans sank seven Japanese transports and two cruisers. During the third phase on 14–15 November, U.S. warships under Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee met and defeated yet another Japanese force under Kondo when the two sides met near Savo Island. The Americans lost two destroyers, but Kondo lost the battleship Kirishima and a destroyer. The net effect of the three-day battle was that Tanaka landed only some 4,000 troops (he rescued another 5,000 on his return to Rabaul), whereas the Americans regained control of the waters around the island.
The last major naval battle for Guadalcanal occurred on 30 November at Tassafaronga Point. The Japanese again attempted to land reinforcements on Guadalcanal and were surprised by a larger U.S. Navy task force. However, the Japanese once more demonstrated their superior night-fighting ability. In the exchange, the Japanese lost a destroyer, and the Americans lost a cruiser.
Japanese leaders now came to the conclusion that they could no longer absorb such losses in trying to hold on in Guadalcanal. The final battle of the campaign was a skirmish off Rennell's Island on 30 January 1943. In early February 1943, the Japanese evacuated their remaining ground forces from Guadalcanal.
The Americans won the campaign thanks largely to their superior supply capability and the failure of the Japanese to throw enough resources into the battle. The Tokyo Express down the Slot was haphazard and inadequate; often drums full of supplies were simply pushed off ships to drift to shore. The campaign for Guadalcanal proved to be as much a turning point for the United States as Midway. The Japanese advance had been halted, opening the way for the long island-hopping advance toward Japan. In combatants the Japanese lost 1 light carrier, 2 battleships, 3 heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser, 14 destroyers, and 8 submarines. Particularly serious from the Japanese point of view was the loss of 2,076 aircraft (1,094 to combat) and many trained pilots. U.S. Navy losses were 2 heavy carriers, 6 heavy cruisers (including the Royal Australian Navy Canberra), 2 light cruisers, and 15 destroyers, but new U.S. naval construction more than offset the U.S. losses. The campaign also destroyed the myth of Japanese naval superiority.
U.S. control of the air had rendered the Japanese ships vulnerable to attack. It also allowed Allied forces to determine the timing and location of offensive operations without Japanese foreknowledge. William P. McEvoy and Spencer C. Tucker
Frank, Richard B. Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle. New York: Penguin, 1990.; Grace, James W. The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: Night Action, 13 November 1942. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999.; Hamel, Eric M. Guadalcanal: Decision at Sea: The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, November 13–15, 1942. New York: Crown, 1988.; Hough, Frank O., Verle E. Ludwig, and Henry I. Shaw. History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II: From Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1966.; Lundstrom, John B. The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994.; Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 5, The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942–February 1943. Boston: Little, Brown, 1949.
William P. McEvoy and Spencer C. Tucker