Guadalcanal August 1942 - February 1943: Alpha and Omega of Airpower


On February 8, 1943, the Imperial Japanese Navy whisked the last soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army off Guadalcanal. The following day, Major General Patch of the United States Army sent a triumphant message to Admiral Halsey, the commander of the South Pacific: “[A]m happy to report this kind of compliance with your orders...‘Tokyo Express’ no longer has terminus on Guadalcanal.”[1] Six months after United States Marines waded ashore on August 7, 1942 to seize control of the island—and most importantly its airfield—the battle was finished.

These Japanese prisoners were among those captured by U.S. forces on Guadalcanal Island in the Solomon Islands, shown November 5, 1942. (AP/Atlantic)

The 10,000 Japanese soldiers pulled off Guadalcanal in February 1943 were walking corpses and would never be reconstituted as a fighting force. They left behind more than 15,000 dead comrades. Although their original enemy, the 1st Division of the Marine Corps, received respite from the U.S. Army in December 1942, it still took eight months for those marines to recover from the lack of sustenance, the humid climate, and the harsh fighting of the island. The average marine in the 1st Division lost 30 pounds during his four months on Guadalcanal.[2] This final tally of the battle for control of the island mirrored the health of the belligerents; the Americans hungry but able to reconstitute, the Japanese famished and debilitated.

Despite Guadalcanal’s remote location in the vast Pacific Ocean, command of the sea did not dictate which side could supply their forces. Although the Japanese Navy sunk 35 allied ships and either destroyed or damaged three U.S. carriers, the Japanese could not hold the island.[3] Japanese sea power was so dominant in the early stages of the campaign, it forced U.S. carriers out to more forgiving open waters, leaving the marines on Guadalcanal without air cover for almost 13 days. Had the pre-war planners and wargamers of either side been given these statistics alone, they would have concluded Japanese victory instead of crushing defeat. At Guadalcanal, though, control of the air determined which side could supply itself from the sea for the first time in history. Why the campaign started, how the battle was fought, and what determined the outcome began with the small airfield Japanese engineers carved out of the jungles of Guadalcanal in the summer of 1942 and ended in the bellies of the belligerents in February 1943.

The Logistical Battle for Guadalcanal

Map of Pacific theater of operations during World War II showing the boundaries of the Japanese Empire. (Clayton R. Newell/U.S. Army Center of Military History)

In the summer of 1942, the Japanese Empire had expanded to its apex. With their port and runways at Rabaul, New Guinea, the Japanese could strike Australia. Guadalcanal, hundreds of miles to the southeast of Rabaul in the Solomons, offered the opportunity to cut the shipping lanes between the United States and Australia, but required a runway for aircraft to interdict allied shipping. In July of 1942, the Japanese sent an engineering team with Korean workers from their base at Shortland (near Bougainville) to the east to lay the pavement on Guadalcanal. On the other side, the Americans needed to relieve the pressure on the Australians and protect MacArthur’s build up of forces for an eventual offensive. With the Japanese gains in the Pacific, the Solomons with Guadalcanal at their western limit, presented a line of attack that would allow the Americans to strategically position their own aircraft and ground troops and gain a toehold in the Pacific. With the Japanese threat to begin air operations from Guadalcanal, the die was cast.[4] The Venn-diagram of competing interests met on August 7,1942 as 11,000 marines of the 1st Division stormed the beaches of an island 3,335 miles from Tokyo and 5,947 from San Francisco.

This action began a six-month long struggle between the air, land, and sea forces of Japan and America for control of the island. The American air force (the “Cactus Air Force”) was a menagerie of marine, Navy, and Army Air Forces aircraft—always in short supply due to the sheer distance from the United States mainland and the allied focus of Europe first.[5] By day, the Americans stubbornly held onto the airfield, using it to launch aircraft to intercept Japanese ships and planes attempting to attack Guadalcanal. Japanese fighters and bombers made the long and treacherous journey to the island from Rabaul on an almost daily basis in an attempt to dislodge American airpower. By night, when flying was too dangerous, the Japanese sent cruisers and destroyers to shell American positions and disembark men and weapons onto the island. The Americans began calling the Japanese operation the “Tokyo Express” and came to dread the nearly nightly bombardment. All the while, both armies fought in significant land battles as the Japanese Army attempted to push the marines off the airfield.

Control of the island bifurcated with the changing of light—the Americans owning the day and the Japanese the night. For the Japanese, the best night-fighting navy on the ocean, the darkness brought great victories such as the Battle of Savo Island, which cost the United States four cruisers and the lives of 1,077 sailors.[6] However, control of the sea at night was a Pyrrhic victory for the Japanese. While the Japanese navy might win the night, the poor operational and logistical choices and the domination of Japanese shipping and land-based forces during the daylight by American airpower would spell doom for the Japanese Army on Guadalcanal.

Japanese troops load onto a destroyer in preparation for a "Tokyo Express" mission to Guadalcanal in 1942. (Pacific Ground War/Wikimedia)

Since the transport ships of the Japanese navy were too slow to make the journey overnight from the base at Shortland to Guadalcanal, disgorge their cargo, and return before American aircraft from Henderson field could take off at daylight to destroy them, the Japanese chose the quick-running destroyers to move men and supplies to the island. While the destroyers were fast, their capacity was severely limited and they burned oil at an alarming rate.[7] In addition, the amount of food they carried was limited, and the Japanese staff continued to favor men and weapons over food. By mid-September this left the Japanese Army with 7,500 soldiers on the island and a food deficit of 10 days, a disparity growing to 15,000 soldiers and almost unfathomable food deficit of 20 days by mid-October.[8] Surviving in the fetid jungle without food and under continuous harassment from U.S. aircraft during the day, the Japanese army wasted away, making their offensives against the American positions ineffective. In an ironic twist, the Japanese had over 25,000 soldiers and heavy artillery, but could not push the marines off the island due to a lack of food rather than combat power.

To sustain their army and try and push the Americans off the island, the Japanese led two massive resupply missions to Guadalcanal in October and November. For both missions, Japanese cruisers cleared the seas at night and then shelled the marine positions. Following the sea bombardment, Japanese aircraft attacked the airfield during daylight hours, while destroyers screened Japanese transports as they attempted to land at Guadalcanal. Despite their efforts, the Japanese could not eliminate the Cactus Air Force. As a result, during both resupply missions, the transports succeeded in landing Japanese soldiers, but the Cactus Air Force destroyed many of the supplies. While the October delivery netted the Japanese a positive food supply, it also brought 5,000 more mouths to feed. The attempted November delivery, which took place on 14-15 November as part of the larger First and Second Naval Battles of Guadalcanal, was even less successful—U.S. aircraft sank 11 Japanese transports and only allowed a four-day supply of rice to the island.[9] By the morning of 16 November, the Japanese could no longer supply their nearly 30,000 strong force with food, and the Japanese army on Guadalcanal ceased to be capable as an offensive fighting force.

By the time the 1st Division was relieved by the U.S. Army in December of 1942, the tally of supply was stark. In the first week of the month, an American liberty ship offloaded “thirty thousand cases of beer” at Guadalcanal.[10] On the opposite side of the ledger, a Japanese soldier recorded the following macabre calculus of death by starvation:

Those who can stand—30 days
Those who can sit up—3 weeks
Those who cannot sit—1 week
Those who urinate lying down—3 days
Those who have stopped speaking—2 days
Those who have stopped blinking—tomorrow [11]

Conclusion: Air over Sea

Although the fighting to dislodge the Japanese military was not easy and presaged the vicious combat of future island campaigns for the rest of the war, the Americans were fed and could fight while their opponent wasted away. It was not seapower that guaranteed the delivery of food to the Americans fighting and dying on the island, however, but control of the air. Emphasizing the preeminence of airpower to island operations, the Japanese sent hundreds of aircraft to protect the night movements of the debilitated Japanese force off the island during early 1943—losing 56 aircraft during the retreat.[12] Even given the perilous nature of flying at night in the early 1940s, control of the air was the only guarantee that the men could be moved off the island safely.

U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers. After the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, in which the USS Enterprise was damaged and forced to return to Pearl Harbor, these aircraft operated from Henderson Field, Guadalcanal. (U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation/Wikimedia)

Japanese efforts to wrest control of the airfield from the Americans failed due to their miscalculation of the preeminence of airpower and their refusal to understand that food was more important than soldiers or weapons. Although Major General Patch sent the good news of American victory on February 9, 1943, in reality the Japanese Army had been starved from the air four months earlier. Airpower had come to legislate the movement of supplies by sea.

Jobie Turner is an airpower strategist in the Headquarters Air Force, Strategy Division. He is a senior pilot with operational experience and tours in the C130J, C-130E, and C-21A. He is a 1996 graduate of the United States Air Force, has an M.Phil in Military Strategy from the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, and a PhD in Military Strategy from Air University. he views expressed are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Four Japanese transports, hit by both U.S. surface vessels and aircraft, beached and burning at Tassafaronga, west of positions on Guadalcanal, on November 16, 1942. They were part of the huge force of auxiliary and combat vessels the enemy attempted to bring down from the north on November 13th and 14th. Only these four reached Guadalcanal. They were completely destroyed by aircraft, artillery and surface vessel guns. (AP/Atlantic)


[1] Thomas Alexander Hughes, Admiral Bill Halsey: A Naval Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), 222.

[2] A. A. Vandegrift and Robert B. Asprey, Once a Marine: The Memoirs of General A.A. Vandegrift, United States Marine Corps (New York,: Norton, 1964), 217-218.

[3] See Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (New York: Cambridge, University, 2004), 343. Also James D. Hornfischer, Neptune's Inferno: The US Navy at Guadalcanal (New York: Bantam, 2011). Hornsfischer has the most accessible and complete listing of all the ships sunk during the campaign.

[4] Weinberg, A World at Arms, 342.

[5] Ibid., 344.

[6] Hornfischer, Neptune's Inferno, 63-65.

[7] Jonathan Parshall "Oil and Japanese Strategy in the Solomons: A Postulate." Parshall details the fuel consumption rates of destroyers which approached 10 times that of a transport ship.

[8] Jobie Turner, “Victualing Victory: Logistics from Lake George to Khe Sanh, 1755-1968” Phd diss., Air University, 2016, 271.

[9] "Japanese Monograph No. 98, Southeast Area Naval Operations Part I, May 42-Feb 43," (edited by General Headquaters Far East Asia Command Second Demobilization Bureau, 1949), 490.

[10] Hornfischer, Neptune’s Inferno, 396.

[11] Richard Frank, Guadalcanal (New York: Random House, 1990), 527.

[12] Ibid., 596.