On August 7, 1942, 11,000 Marines of the 1st Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida islands. Following the crushing defeats at Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, Bataan, and Corregidor, this was America's first land offensive against Japan. The goal was to capture the airfield the Japanese were building on Guadalcanal and use it deny them the ability to block the sea routes between the US and Australia as well as halt their expected invasion of Australia.
America strikes back: the Marines land:
Given only weeks to train, the 1st Marine Divison attacked Guadalcanal on August 7. The operation had been so hastily planned the Marines were issued only a 10-day supply of ammunition, and 1st Marine Div. was given 60 days of supplies instead of 90.
Guadalcanal was lightly defended, and the major issue was 'tangled rain forest' that held the Marine advance to some 1,000 yards. The next day, with still no resistance, the Marines captured the newly-built airfield, naming it "Henderson Field, after Maj. Lofton Henderson, the first Marine pilot killed at Midway. The fleeing Japanese left food, supplies, construction equipment, and vehicles.
Tulagi and the nearly islands of Gavutu and Tanambogo was also assaulted on the 7th, however the 3,000 Marines encountered fierce resistance. Tulagi was secured the next day, with Tanambogo and Gavutu following. The Japanese were wiped out, while the Marines suffered 122 killed, giving notice to the ferocity of the upcoming fight. See: Read a first-hand account from a 1st MarDiv Marine
The battle of Savo Island: the Navy Abandons the Marines:
After the Marines landed, Japanese fighters attacked the Navy ships on Aug 7 and 8th, sinking a transport, damaging a destroyer, and shooting down 19 American planes. Some ammunition and food has been unloaded on the 7th, but the emphasis was on landing Marines, with supplies to follow. However the Japanese Navy then attacked the Allies on the night of the 8th, sinking four of five Allied cruisers and crippling the fifth. The American fleet departed that morning, taking food, ammunition, artillery, and medical supplies with them. The Marines had four days of food, along with captured Japanese stocks, giving them two weeks worth. The Marine commander, MajGen Alexander Vandergrift, immediately put the Marines on half-rations.
Malaria, Jungle Rot, Eating Weeds...and Edson's ridge
With control of the sea, the Japanese landed reinforcements nightly, along with bombing them and shelling the Marines from battleships. Although the Marines had defeated the Japanese in the 21 August Battle of the Tenaru River, (killing some 800 of 917 Japanese), the Army Air Force refused to send aircraft, American merchant ships refused to sail there with supplies, Gen Douglas MacArthur said the Marines survival was 'open to the gravest doubts," and on Sept 12, US Navy Vice Adm Robert Ghormley informed MajGen Vandergrift that this ships were needed elsewhere and he 'would no longer support the Marines."
Hours later, the Japanese, led by MajGen Kiyotake Kawaguchi, attacked the Marines defending Henderson Field. Commanded by LtCol Merrit Edson, the 1st Raider and 1st Parachute Battalion cameclose to being overrun in a three-day battle in which much of the fighting was hand-to-hand. Kawaguchi's forces had been decimated, with 800 killed as compared to 59 Marines. See: "Guadalcanal," from the television special "Victory at Sea"
Surprised by the Marine landing on the 7th, and understanding the importance of the airfield, the Japanese made repeated attempts between August and November 1942 to retake it. Three major land battles (Tenaru River, Edson's Ridge, Battle of the Matanikou), seven large naval battles (five nighttime surface actions and two carrier battles), and almost daily aerial battles in which the Marines scrappy Cactus Air Force barely kept the Japanese at bay,culminated in the decisive Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in early November 1942 which marked the last Japanese attempt to bombard Henderson Field and land sufficient troops to retake it. By February 1943 the Japanese had evacuated their surviving forces. Nine Marines were awarded Medals of Honor, two posthumously.
Andrew Lubin is a Contributing Writer for the Truman Doctrine. Views expressed are his own. This article originally appeared in Answers.com's Military section.