The Biggest Theater

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The drama of the Guadalcanal campaign conspires against the larger view. It began with an easy victory by an overwhelmingly superior landing force of U.S. Marines. The crucial airfield was captured almost immediately and very quickly put in operation—an indication of how close this issue was, for we could not have landed in the face of even mediocre air opposition. Japan, however, quickly understood what was at stake and increased its forces on the island. So did we. Before the fighting finally ended, fifty thousand Japanese troops and more than sixty thousand U.S. Army and Marine Corps troops were in action. With an enemy victory the Coral Sea would become a Japanese lake. No U.S. task force would be able to reenter it. But with that same air station in American hands at Guadalcanal, neither Rabaul nor Truk could hope to send naval forces around the drooping tail of New Guinea. If Port Moresby was to be captured, it would have to be by an expensive, and extraordinarily difficult, over-the-mountain military expedition, in which the defense would have all the advantage. Both sides realized the battle for Guadalcanal was a contest over the future of Australia.

A lifetime later, when I stood on the small rise in the ground level that became known in those days as Bloody Ridge, it was hard to visualize Col. Merritt Edson and his embattled Marines fighting for their lives on this very spot; that here, where peaceful tropical grasses grow lush and tall, is where the world came to an end for many fine men on both sides. American casualties were high, but Japan lost three-quarters of the men sent ashore.

Only eight months had elapsed since the initiation of hostilities. U.S. forces had seesawed along exterior lines, running a route from Tokyo to the Coral Sea to Midway and back to Guadalcanal. Nimitz had been forced to scatter his fleet and run his ships all over the ocean, planning desperately how to meet all the problems at once and still be at the right place at the right time, with enough force to win when he had to. During the entire period Japan, with interior lines and superior forces, held the undisputed advantage. Nimitz and his staff were playing against enormous odds, taking extraordinary chances, but doing so carefully, with full calculation of each situation. On Bloody Ridge and at the fine Japanese memorial on Mount Austen, I stood at the apex of the fighting, and wondered how any man could have put it all together.

Although my outlook on the events of the war remains a Navy man’s, one must keep in mind that General MacArthur commanded all our forces in the southwest Pacific and that he insisted upon returning to the Philippines when most of the service chiefs, among them the Navy’s, recommended it be bypassed. MacArthur’s contribution to our final victory was great and enduring and must, in fairness, be mentioned. He did not, however, figure in the Pacific story I have wanted to tell. It is also probable that had we not reinvaded the Philippines, bypassed them instead, the terrible revenge inflicted by Japan’s troops as they were forced out might not have taken place.

 
Guadalcanal began with an easy U.S. victory, but in the end, 36,000 Japanese and 60,000 American troops saw desperate action there.

In Australia, during those fearful early months, General MacArthur’s presence was evidence of American support, but he was for a long time a general without an army. Many Australians said they would fully understand if they had to be temporarily abandoned. Most discussion, in fact, concerned the length of the abandonment and just what they might have to endure before all came right again.

A Japanese success in any one of the three engagements—the Coral Sea, Midway, or Guadalcanal—would almost surely have been fatal to Australia. No wonder the Australians feel deeply about America today. It was no coincidence that the memorial obelisk at Canberra commemorating our “vital help” was dedicated on February 19, the anniversary of the first and last direct Japanese attack on Australian soil. I felt moved as I read the words on it and even more after cruising past the remote and now so quiet little islands where it all happened. It was clear to me as I visited them that in another few years no relics will survive to bear witness to the crucial battles fought on this soil and in these waters. In future years all the memories will fade, dying out as we pass on, until only the stones of monuments—Japanese and American, nearby but not adjoining—will remain to tell the few tourists who appear that here, in this distant portion of the world, enduring history was made.