Operation Watch Tower - 80 Years Later

  • Published
  • By Mr. Walt Napier III
  • 514th Air Mobility Wing

To continue the series on the 80th anniversary of World War II, this discussion will look at the events on and around Guadalcanal.  Following Pearl Harbor, the US was largely unable to strike back against the Empire of Japan.  Japan took advantage of U.S. weakness in the Pacific to extend their empire throughout the region.  Following the Battle of Midway in June 1942, however, the U.S. finally had the ability to begin pushing back.  The first allied offensive against Japan would take place on a small group of islands called the Solomons.

On May 6, 1942, outnumbered, outgunned and exhausted, the battered troops on the Philippines finally surrendered to the Japanese.  With the loss of the Philippine garrison, the US had no major garrisons remaining in the Pacific.  In May of 1942, the U.S. Navy was beginning to rebound from Pearl Harbor at the Battle of the Coral Sea (4-8 May 1942), but despite the improved strategic position, the U.S. had to retreat again.  Finally, at Midway, the U.S. inflicted a clear defeat on the Japanese Navy, sinking four imperial aircraft carriers.  With increased tactical and strategic mobility, the U.S. began planning a campaign in the Solomon Islands: Florida Island, Tulagi, and Guadalcanal.  Acquiring these islands produced a couple of advantages, including securing the shipping routes to Australia and New Zealand, and creating a strong show of faith with the U.S.’s British ally.  The British had a vested interested in the area, but were unable to provide assistance due to the ongoing European war.

 The European theatre caused other issues planning for the war in the Pacific.  The U.S. government concurred with Great Britain that the European campaign took precedence over action in the Pacific.  The U.S. Army focused on plans to counter Nazi Germany, additionally the Army’s lead Pacific general, General Douglass MacArthur, had few men remaining after the fall of the Philippines.  Due to these circumstances, the campaign was placed under the command of Admiral Chester Nimitz, who began planning a complex campaign in the Solomons.

On August 7, the First Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and some of the smaller islands.  First Marines split into two groups, around 3,000 men invaded Tulagi and Florida Island, whereas the primary force of 11,000 men landed on Guadalcanal.  The landings surprised the Japanese, bad weather the day before the landings masked the Navy’s movements.  The landings were supported by air and naval bombardment overhead, and while the smaller islands put up some opposition, the primary force at Guadalcanal faced little resistance, securing their objective, an airfield on Lunga Point, on August 8th.  Despite the struggle on Tulagi and Florida Island, the Marines worked quickly, clearing the islands by August 9th.

 The swift success of the initial operations, however, shifted rapidly on Guadalcanal into an entrenched struggle.  Almost immediately, the Japanese responded by transporting reinforcements to the island, and engaged the U.S. Navy for supremacy over the waters around the Solomons. Air battles were taking place constantly, with 19 allied aircraft destroyed by August 9th. On the night of August 8-9, the first major naval battle took place at Savo Island, when the allies were surprised by a group of Japanese cruisers.  The U.S. Navy lists Savo Island as the worst defeat ever suffered in a single fleet action by the U.S. Navy.  After the Japanese success at Savo, and the amount of aircraft being lost the U.S. Navy decided to withdraw its aircraft carriers to ensure their safety.  Protecting the carriers came at the cost of stranding the Marines on the island.  The Marines only hope was to make Lunga Point an operational airfield, which they did by August 11th, renaming it Henderson Field after a Marine aviator killed at Midway.

 The operation taught the U.S. painful lessons, as the Marines faced a well-organized and determined enemy, lack of supplies, extreme weather and tough terrain.  When the navy pulled out of the area, the Marines had landed with only five days’ worth of rations, and after capturing some Japanese supplies, had around two weeks’ worth total.  The Marines soon faced a medical crisis as well with a strain of dysentery going through the ranks.  To make the situation worse, air resupply was a relatively new concept, but a necessary one for the isolated Marines.  The battle for Henderson Field became a pivotal point of action in the sky and on the ground.

By October, both sides began increasing their troop numbers and supply stores for a major push.  The Marines began receiving reinforcements, and on October 13th, the 164th Infantry Regiment landed on the island, the first Army unit to take part in the campaign.  The added manpower arrived not a moment too soon, as the Japanese 7th Army attacked Henderson Field on October 23rd.  The Japanese had drastically underestimated the number of U.S. troops on the ground prior to the attack, and this resulted in devastating casualties for the Japanese.  During the battle for the airfield, an American legend was forged.  Staff Sergeant John Basilone of the 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division manned, maintained and reinforced numerous machine gun positions, while also forcing his way through enemy lines when ammunition was running low to resupply the Marine machine guns. The Japanese regiment that opposed 7th Marines was virtually annihilated by the end of the battle.  Basilone would be awarded the Medal of Honor and cement himself in Marine Corps legend for his actions.

The four day offensive caused significant casualties to U.S. forces, but their defensive stand broke the Japanese Army’s back, rendering offensive operations no longer viable.  On sea the Japanese were also losing ground.  On October 26th, during the Battle of Santa Cruz Island, the Japanese sank the U.S. carrier Hornet, but paid heavily in aircraft.  In November, a final large scale naval and air attack on Henderson Airfield was rebuffed.  The losses of Japanese soldiers, pilots, aircraft, and ships could not be sustained.  They Japanese fought a tenacious defensive action, but the island was lost.  In February of 1943, the Japanese abandoned Guadalcanal securing a major U.S. victory.

 The campaign was a brutal and hard fought victory.  It included seven different naval battles, near continuous air warfare, and numerous ground engagements.  According to the World War II museum, the entire campaign in the Solomon Islands cost the US 7,100 men, 29 ships, and 615 aircraft.  The Japanese, in comparison, lost 31,000 men, 38 ships and 683 aircraft.  Not only were their losses greater, but the Japanese industrial capabilities could not replace the losses at the same rate as the United States.  Already in 1943, the U.S. alone was outpacing combined Axis production of ships and aircraft, and U.S. production would steadily increase.  The first major offensive ground action of the U.S. had been a success, and the island hopping campaign had begun in the Pacific.

Further Reading and Sources:

Robert Leckie Helmet for my Pillow.