75th Anniversary of Japanese Defeat on Guadalcanal

The US Army’s 182nd Infantry Regiment on the march during the Battle of Guadalcanal

In 1942 Australia was under direct threat of invasion. Having already occupied sections of mainland East Asia, Japanese forces were rapidly expanding south along the chain of Pacific Islands that lead to Australia. The Japanese plan was to control trade routes in that part of the Pacific, thus cutting off supplies to its enemies such as Australia and China and removing any foothold from which the Allied forces could launch as Island hopping counter-attack of their own.

In July 1942 the furthest point of Japanese expansion was Guadalcanal, the largest of the southern Solomon Islands.  The Japanese were building an airstrip on the island from which they could launch air defences as well as bombing raids against Allied fleets. This made the capture of Guadalcanal of critical strategic importance for the Allied forces.

The Allied landing started well on 7 August, 1942 United States Marines successfully occupied smaller surrounding and advanced with limited engagement with Japanese forces inland on Guadalcanal, taking control of the airfield and setting up a strong base, which would prove critical as the campaign unfolded.

In the early hours of the morning of 9 August 1942 the Royal Australian Navy heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra was severely damaged off Guadalcanal (Solomon Islands) in a surprise attack by Japanese naval forces in an action that became known as the Battle of Savo Island.  HMAS Canberra was the lead ship of the US Marine’s amphibious landings screening force and received the full force of the Japanese barrage, being hit 24 times in less than two minutes leaving 84 of her crew dead and 109 wounded.  The Sydney born Captain of HMAS Canberra, Frank Getting, who despite being severely wounded remained at his post following the engagement, refusing medical treatment. He was subsequently evacuated to an American Hospital ship but later died of his wounds and was buried at sea.

Dawn was to reveal that the Japanese had sunk the cruisers Quincy and Vincennes; and the cruisers Canberra and Astoria, and destroyers Ralph Talbot and Patterson were badly damaged.  As a result of the Battle of Savo Island just over 1,000 Allied sailors were killed or died of wounds and another 700 were wounded.  For the United States Navy this is considered by many to be the worst defeat in its history.  Allied sailors subsequently referred to the site of the battle as Ironbottom Sound.

The Japanese controlled the seas around Guadalcanal for the next three months and prevented Australian and American ships from supporting the US Marines ground forces who had to be supported by Air while the Japanese ships landed ground forces of their own and bombarded the Marines on a daily basis, which became known as the Tokyo Express.

Japanese control of the Western Pacific area between May and August 1942.

Finally, in November, 1942 the Allies achieved the naval victory they needed in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, sometimes referred to as the Third and Fourth Battles of Savo Island or the Battle of the Solomons.  The battle consisted of combined air and sea engagements with heavy losses on both sides.  The only two United States Navy Admirals to be killed in a surface engagement in the Second World War were lost in this battle. Now the Japanese troops on Guadalcanal were not able to be re-supplied by sea.

Japanese troops fought with the tenacity and courage for which they were renowned despite the lack of supplies, but could not breach the well defended United States position on the airfield.  The cost to Japan in terms of soldiers, planes and ships was very high.

The Japanese evacuated 13,000 troops from Guadalcanal between 1-7 February 1943.  It is estimated the Japanese lost 31,000 soldiers and 38 ships and 600 planes during the six month Battle of Guadalcanal and that the Allies lost 7,100 soldiers and 29 ships.

This was the first time that the Japanese had lost ground in the war and had a major impact on the morale of both sides. The shipping lanes to Australia remained open and the American Force assembled on Guadalcanal became the launching pad for the “island hopping” campaign against the Japanese in the Pacific.