By Paul Sparrow, Director, FDR Library.
August 7th, 2017 marks the 75th anniversary of the Marine landing on Guadalcanal. It was the start of one of the most important campaigns in World War II. There were smashing victories and bitter losses, acts of incredible heroism and unspeakable carnage. And at a critical moment, President Roosevelt demonstrated his remarkable capacity for leadership and decision.
Guadalcanal is part of the Solomon Islands, 3,000 miles from Tokyo and nearly 6,000 miles from San Francisco. But this unknown swampy speck would soon become the most famous island in the world as the U.S. Navy and Japanese Imperial forces engaged in a nightmarish and bloody battle for control of a tiny airstrip in the South Pacific. A battle that lasted six months.
The summer of 1942 was a dire time for the Allies. Germany had inflicted massive loses on the Red Army and were on the outskirts of Moscow and Stalingrad. Rommel and the Africa Korps had taken Tobruk and the British were in retreating is disarray. The Japanese were preparing to invade Australia. The Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the Chinese were in desperate need of weapons, planes and supplies, and their only hope for survival was the industrial might of the United States. The fate of the free world was in the hands of Franklin Roosevelt.
Roosevelt had agreed to a Germany First strategy, meaning defeating the Nazis would take priority over the Japanese. While Americans wanted to avenge the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States simply did not have enough ships, tanks and planes to fight effectively on three fronts. But the Navy had uncovered Japanese plans to build an airstrip on Guadalcanal, the southernmost point on their pathway to Australia. The time had come to shift from defense to offense.
By mid-July the orders had been given and the fleet set sail for Guadalcanal on July 31st. The Japanese enjoyed a significant advantage in ships, men and airplanes, and were undefeated. The American armada arrived at Guadalcanal on August 7th undetected and the Marines landed and quickly took control of the island.
The Japanese were caught completely off guard and the small detachment on Guadalcanal was no match for the 10,000 U.S. Marines backed up by heavy cruisers and F4F Grumman Wildcats. The area around the airfield, renamed Henderson Field, was taken the next day and the Marines established their perimeter and dug in. The nearby islands of Tulagi and Florida were also captured. This was the first American military ground offensive of World War II, taking place eight months after Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese quickly launched a counter attack. Over the next six months there would be three major land battles and seven major naval battles and almost daily firefights, dogfights and bombing raids. The Japanese brought reinforcements in at night on destroyers in what the Marines called the Tokyo Express.
By early October the Tokyo Express had brought thousands of fresh troops to the island. On the night of Oct. 14 Japanese battleships and destroyers bombarded Henderson Field for hours. They then launched a massive ground and naval attack, sinking the US carriers Hornet and Wasp and badly damaging the Enterprise in a stinging naval defeat for the Americans. The ground attack was ferocious, and the Japanese broke through the line several times only to be driven back by the Marines. The Japanese suffered terrible losses, but news reports in the U.S. described how the Marines had nearly been overrun and were exhausted and desperate.
At that moment 9,000 miles away President Franklin Roosevelt was in Washington overseeing an increasingly complex global conflict. Tens of thousands of American and British troops were secretly crossing the Atlantic on their way to the invasion of North Africa. Stalin was demanding more tanks and trucks to keep the Nazi’s from capturing Moscow. But it was Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands that concerned FDR the most. On Oct. 24th he sat down with his closest advisor Harry Hopkins and wrote an extraordinary message to his Chiefs of Staff. In the first draft, hand written by Hopkins, it says:
“My anxiety about the Southwest Pacific is to make sure that every possible weapon gets into that area to hold Guadalcanal, and that having held it in this crisis that munitions and planes and crews are on the way to take advantage of our success.”
“Please also review the number and use of all combat planes now in the continental United States.”
This is one of the clearest and most revealing examples of FDR’s wartime leadership. Most of his instructions to the military took place in face to face meetings for which there is scant documentary evidence. But in this memo he clearly states his concern, acknowledges the global issues and asks what critical military resources can be redirected to Guadalcanal.
President Roosevelt ordered twenty more ships to Guadalcanal immediately along with troops and supplies. At the Imperial Headquarters in Tokyo Guadalcanal became THE decisive battle for control of the Pacific. They believed that with the recent loss of the American carriers and a battleships the balance of naval power had shifted in Japan’s favor.
The Japanese launched a massive ground, air and sea attack in mid-November, with the intention of driving the Marines off of Guadalcanal and retaking Henderson field. But because FDR had sent ships, troops and planes, the Americans were prepared. The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal raged for three days, including one of the most intense, nighttime battles of the war, with ships firing broadsides at point blank range in the pitch darkness. The Americans suffered staggering loses, but the Japanese invasion was thwarted. Within weeks the Japanese realized they could not win and began their withdrawal. By early February the evacuation was complete, marking the first time Imperial Japan lost territory it had conquered.
Guadalcanal was a major turning point in the Pacific. The Americans remained on the offensive and the Japanese were never able to fully recover from the loss of their ships and especially their highly trained pilots. Ultimately the campaign was a test of American leadership and the fighting prowess of the Navy and the Marines. They all rose to the challenge.