- Historic Sites
The Biggest Theater
Revisiting the seas where American carriers turned the course of history, a Navy man re-creates a time of frightful odds and brilliant gambles.
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
Some memories are good and some bad, but the fact is that they change over the years. All of us who were part of it can recall how angry we were about the war against the Axis Powers. We were mad at all of it: Pearl Harbor, enemy atrocities, everything. We were also angry on the personal level at the necessity of going to war, at the consequent disruptions to our lives, at the risks we had to take, the privations, and the all-pervading, constant fear. We hated it, or thought sincerely that we did. And yet, somewhere inside us, something told us to record what we were doing, commit it at least to memory. If we thought about it—when we thought about it—we knew, by everything we had learned during our whole existence, that what we were experiencing was extraordinary and would remain so forever, as the high point in our lives.
Today, nearly half a century since the close of the greatest war in history, most of us believe it was exactly that. More and more of the men and women of the 1940s, looking back on their youth’s great adventure, want to recapture the camaraderie, the heady feeling of health and ability and daring—and yes, truly, the irresponsibility, and non-responsibility—that were associated with our part of that war.
Recognizing the desire of so many now aging servicemen to go back at least once to some of the places where they participated in making history, tour companies have recently been offering Memory Cruises. The majority of such companies seem to be staffed in large part by members of the very fraternity they are seeking to serve. The president and founder of one such is the sole survivor of his Royal Air Force aircrew class of 486 persons. He is Bob Reynolds of Valor Tours, Ltd., who, as he puts it, for thirty-five years tuned out the war and its difficult memories. Now he feels it his duty to speak for his forever silent comrades by serving as tour coordinator for Pacific Memories Cruises. Moreover, noting the rather lavish memorials Japan has already placed on a number of once strategic islands, he has become involved with moves to put appropriate memorials to our own side there too. Most recently ground has been broken for one on Guadalcanal. A stirring Japanese memorial, with a healing inscription, is there already. Fund raising for our own memorial is in full swing—it will be dedicated in August—and all governments concerned are in full support.
Nimitz had one very important advantage: intelligence information far superior to anything available to Admiral Yamamoto.
Sail with us on a Memories Cruise where the Pacific War was fought,” the brochure said. The area involved was not that of the entire war by any means, but it was a part of it that I had studied and never seen. It was an important part too, and it had all taken place more than forty years ago. Though still in good health, my wife, Ingrid, and I could not ignore the accumulating evidence of the passage of time. This might be our last chance; we took it. That was how we met Bob Reynolds and began to understand what is driving his clients. The sands of time are nearing the bottom of the glass. The same thing is driving us too.
Our cruise ships (we embarked in two of them in succession) were very new and beautifully appointed, run by the Royal Viking Line, the Rolls-Royce of tour-ship companies. We knew we would lack for nothing in terms of comfort, excellent food (too much of it, of course), and all the other amenities. But we had come for more than a pleasure cruise.
My Pacific war had been fought in submarines. I wanted to see some of the rest of it, in particular where history was made in those terrible early days. At that time, confidence in our nation and our leaders was all we had to sustain us in the face of an enemy suddenly grown ten feet tall. I wanted to try to visualize and experience vicariously, if I could, some of the decisions Adm. Chester W. Nimitz and his staff had to face and the problems they had to surmount. And by going to the places where the battles were fought and letting my imagination take over, I want ed to feel how it must have seemed to those on the spot. My outlook, of course, would be almost entirely naval; I had grown up in a Navy family and had spent a lifetime in the Navy myself.
When I heard about Pearl Harbor, I was an ensign, at submarine school in Groton, Connecticut. Six months later, aboard the brand-new submarine Trigger as a junior-grade lieutenant, I took part in the Battle of Midway, though without discernible effect. Two months after that, in August, we were on patrol in the Aleutians. I was the communications officer, and though it was contrary to rules, I decoded messages not addressed to our ship because they told of our Navy’s early awful losses off Guadalcanal. A sudden night battle had taken place near tiny Savo Island. Four of our best cruisers had been sunk, and a fifth nearly so. What had caused this great defeat?
I knew, of course, about the landings on Guadalcanal. The ships were there to protect the U.S. Marine amphibious force that had gone ashore the day before. I had also read all I could find about the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Doolittle raid on Tokyo; but the accounts were less than full at the time, and my own personal appreciation of the relationship between these events and the rest of the war always seemed inadequate. Historians do not generally describe feelings, though they are frequently more important than anything else, and for a time I was unsure where to begin the reconstruction that seemed necessary. Once started, however, it was not hard at all. No facts needed to be changed, only the point of view.
Our two cruises were to take us to the islands where some of that terrible fighting took place. Battles on the sea cannot be evoked, however, merely by viewing the sites, for nothing remains there—only the unceasing sea. We knew the circumstances and details, but these were not enough. We were to sail over the invisible graves of mighty ships and brave men of both sides, and something more was needed: the personal impact. Oddly enough, we found this elusive ingredient before our cruises even began. There were clues everywhere in Australia, where no fighting occurred at all.
During a week’s touring between Sydney and Melbourne prior to the arrival of the Royal Viking Star, we met some of the people and saw many of the sights. Even after all those years we would sometimes hear the comment “We’ll never forget what your country did for us.” Once, the statement was accompanied by a matter-offact look at an ordinary road map showing Australia’s north coast; it also showed the Torres Strait and, only one hundred miles away to the north and east, the southern coast of New Guinea. New Guinea is shaped roughly like a huge bird, looking west. The bird’s tail, with a mountainous and heavily forested spine, droops southeast toward the east coast of Australia. The Coral Sea is the constricted body of water between the “tail” of the New Guinea “bird” and the Australian mainland, bounded on the west by the island-studded Torres Strait. For Australians the Coral Sea will forever symbolize sudden, terrible danger from the rapacious empire to the north and an American navy that stretched itself to the utmost to stand between.
The personal memories pervade all Australia. Besides the strong memories of the peopie there are numerous monuments. In Canberra, the capital city, a tall obelisk faces across the city’s central lake and park toward the new capitol building. Emblazoned on its near side, under the official Australian crest, is an inscription in burnished letters readable from a hundred feet away:
Things seemed desperate in Australia in 1942, far more desperate than in the United States. We had experienced the shock of our national life, but we had no thought of losing this war. There appeared no immediate threat to the territorial security of our country, despite Adm. Isoruku Yamamoto’s purported boast (a misrepresentation of that thoughtful man’s actual words) that he expected to dictate peace on the steps of the White House. In Australia the exact opposite was true. Australians lived with the knowledge that a Japanese invasion of their continent could happen almost any time.
Great Britain, with its back to the wall against Nazi Germany, had already marshaled all the forces it could field, not the least of which were the Aussies, excellent soldiers, who had been mostly deployed to the sands of North Africa. The flower of Australia’s military strength—army, navy, marines, and air—had been gone for two years. To a lesser degree much the same had happened to the Dutch East Indies, while the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, based in the Philippines, and our Pacific Fleet, based in Hawaii, both were finding a major percentage of their expected support and reinforcements diverted to the European theater.
The speed and ease with which Japan achieved its initial conquests should consequently have been no surprise to anyone, but even the Japanese high command was amazed at the absence of effective opposition. Manila was occupied on January 2, about three weeks after the surprise attack that began the war. In February Japan put Australia’s principal northern harbor, Port Darwin, out of action by heavy bombing. By the end of that month the combined American, British, Dutch, and Australian naval force—the ABDA—which included the handsome U.S. cruiser Houston, had been wiped out. Two weeks more, and Java, the principal island of Dutch Indonesia, was totally occupied. Apparently irresistible Japanese forces were only a few hundred miles northwest of Australia’s north coast, and going strong.
In the month and a half between Tokyo and Midway, our big carriers steamed four times across the Pacific—a distance halfway around the world.
Japan’s thrust into Burma simultaneously threatened India. Early in 1942 the same carrier task force that had hit Pearl Harbor severely battered British forces on Ceylon, in the Bay of Bengal, and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean. Outnumbered British naval and air forces withdrew to secure bases west and south of the Indian peninsula. Australia could expect no help from them. To the east, America after Pearl Harbor hardly seemed in condition to help. In short, Japan could go where it wished, do what it wanted, conquer what it coveted.
The easiest, shortest, most logical Japanese move was clearly due south, and this seemed to be what its high command had in mind. Early in March Japanese forces landed on the northeastern coast of the New Guinea “tail.” Port Moresby, with a fine harbor on the other side of the tail directly across from Australia’s Cape York, was their obvious objective, and immediately upon landing they began crunching overland toward it. Their air forces had already severely bombed the town and would continue to do so. Only the difficult mountain ridge along the tail’s center line obstructed approach from the land side, but this was not impossible for a determined army. Or the port could be attacked by sea, by an arm of Japan’s everywhere victorious navy. In April 1942 it seemed inescapable to Australians that Port Moresby would soon become the staging base for an all-out invasion of the sparsely inhabited and undefended continent a few miles to the south. It made eminent sense.
Today it does not appear the Japanese originally expected to invade Australia, but in early 1942, with the extraordinary momentum they had built up, they could not fail to appreciate the opportunity represented by the harbor at Port Moresby. Once it was in Japanese hands, the obvious threat to Australia, whether or not Japan chose to exploit it, would in itself have a massive effect on Allied strategy.
The initial reaction of the U.S. Pacific forces was an attempt to divert Japanese strategic attention back to the central Pacific by hit-and-run raids on Japanese-occupied islands, but these had little effect. The Japanese high command pretty much ignored them and continued drawing up plans to send Rabaul-based forces around the New Guinea tail to take Port Moresby from the sea. Then came a master stroke: the Doolittle raid on Tokyo, ordered from the White House by the President himself. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had opposed the idea as too risky for the little gain offered, but Col. Jimmy Doolittle, one of the foremost fliers of the era, was able to convince a higher audience.
Franklin Roosevelt realized Doolittle’s bombing planes could do no important damage to Japan, but he no doubt expected the raid to increase Japan’s attention to the central Pacific area. He could not have anticipated that it would speed up the timetable for the South Pacific as well. Japan’s navy chief, Admiral Yamamoto, had been urging a big movement directly eastward: occupation of Midway and the nearest Aleutian Islands. Doolittle’s exploit brought on an immediate go-ahead for that operation. Something of this nature—though in much less force—was expected, but what our leaders did not foresee was the acceleration also of Japan’s plans involving Port Moresby. Consolidation and solidification of gains are always important in war, especially when enemy intentions are unclear. To Japan’s high command, therefore, taking the southern coast of New Guinea and poising its forces opposite Australia gave it greater freedom to aim its later military moves west, south, or east, whatever might seem most called for.
In April 1942 Admiral Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, had one very important advantage: intelligence information that was far superior to anything available to Admiral Yamamoto. It was also far superior to anything the fleet commander during Pearl Harbor, Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, had ever received. Nimitz’s intelligence officer, Commander Edwin T. Layton, happened to be a close friend of his fellow intelligencer Commander Joseph J. Rochefort, who occupied a basement office in the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard and analyzed radio intelligence for hints at enemy intentions. Both commanders had agonized over the failure to keep Kimmel better informed. Rochefort also, as Layton well knew, was the best man the U.S. Navy had for actual decipherment of enemy messages. He had a good grasp of Japanese and seemed often to possess nearly extrasensory understanding of what the enemy intended to transmit in the messages. In short, Rochefort had a natural bent for code breaking. His chain of command, however, was direct to the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, D.C., on which Admiral Nimitz (like Kimmel before him) was institutionally required to rely for official estimates of enemy intentions and forces. Whether Rochefort possessed information he subsequently wished Kimmel might have had must forever remain a conjecture. What is known for sure is that he, and everyone in the intelligence branch, was appalled at the breakdown of the system so far as keeping Kimmel informed was concerned.
Nimitz was, of course, fully aware of the intelligence deficiencies that had contributed to the Japanese success at Pearl Harbor. Very soon after arriving at Pearl Harbor, he issued a verbal order, never written but fully understood by Layton, who transmitted it, and Rochefort, who received it: “Wherever else you send any intelligence information, if it concerns me in any way, if there is anything—anything—affecting the Pacific Fleet or the ocean areas under my responsibility, I, too, must be instantly informed. You may not keep anything from me that bears on my Fleet, no matter what your instructions!” This was exactly what the two commanders wanted to hear. Thereafter, unlike Admiral Kimmel, Nimitz received raw intelligence as it came off the line, hand-given to his own intelligence officer by the man who just happened to be the best the Navy had.
Late in March Nimitz began to receive Rochefort’s estimates that something was afoot regarding Port Moresby and the Coral Sea. Within days after the Tokyo raid, Layton informed him of Rochefort’s conclusion that the Port Moresby attack had been pushed up in time.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet commander’s great disadvantage lay in forces available. He had only four operational aircraft carriers, two in the South Pacific under Adm. Frank John Fletcher and two based at Pearl Harbor under Adm. William Halsey. Yamamoto had ten. Though Nimitz had carefully pointed this out in early March, when the Doolittle raid was ordered, he could not refuse the commander in chief even though the operation took Halsey’s whole force. The threat to Port Moresby began to become worrisomely evident, however, even as Doolittle and his planes were being embarked on board the Hornet at Alameda Naval Air Station, California. Nimitz was at least figuratively gnawing his fingernails while the Hornet and the Enterprise raced across the Pacific to the launching point, and had he understood what effect the raid would have on the timetable for New Guinea, his anxiety would probably have been beyond containing. But when Rochefort’s latest communication arrived, the near-supernatural calm with which he went about dealing with the situation was the clearest possible evidence of the depth of his concern.
The bare sequence of events illuminates the point: The Tokyo raid was on April 18. A week and a half later, the Japanese invasion force departed Rabaul for Port Moresby. The four-day Battle of the Coral Sea took place during the first week of May, and the Battle of Midway took place less than a month after that. During the month and a half between Tokyo and Midway, our four big aircraft carriers steamed at top speed four times across the Pacific: west, then east, then south, and finally north—in all, a distance equal to halfway around the world. They fought two big battles with enormous consequences, plus numerous skirmishes. Two of them were sunk. In the process they made history for all time, but it was a very near thing indeed.
A waterborne invasion of Port Moresby, of course, constituted an emergency. It had to be defeated if at all possible—and yet, with hints at a coming attack on Midway becoming ever stronger, what might be the cost of diverting even a small portion of our strength to the south? Naval doctrine ever since Horatio Nelson, and later our own Alfred Thayer Mahan, extolled the principle of the concentration of force. History had proved it the only way to achieve victory at sea. This long-tested principle could be disregarded only at national and historical, not to mention personal, peril. To all of us looking back with the hindsight of half a century, whatever else might be said about Admiral Nimitz’s stewardship of his trust, the way he handled the double whammy he faced at this moment must always rank as one of his finest hours.
As our air-conditioned cruise liner traversed the calm Coral Sea in the near-equatorial heat, I tried to visualize the dilemma in Nimitz’s headquarters—in his mind—five decades ago. What to do? What more could he do? He radioed Admiral Fletcher, commanding the Lexington and Yorktown in the South Pacific, to be ready for action in the Coral Sea by May 1, and he ordered Halsey to return to Pearl Harbor at full speed with the Enterprise and Hornet once the Doolittle fliers were off (they were to land in China). When Halsey’s two big carriers arrived, they were greeted with the news that the promised short R&R period would have to be postponed once again; after minimum turnaround time they were to set off, again at full speed, to join Fletcher in the South Pacific, a fifth of the earth’s circumference away.
Despite all the effort, Halsey was too late. On May 4 he was still far from the battle zone when news arrived at Pearl Harbor that the Lexington and Yorktown were in action. Anxiety mounted in Nimitz’s headquarters, and not only because of this battle far to the south. Important as was the relief of Australia, Rochefort was becoming daily more insistent that the big effort for which the Pacific Fleet had to be prepared was going to be an all-out attack on Midway. Japan had the strength to carry out invasions of both Port Moresby and Midway simultaneously; each of the two Japanese forces required could, with ease, be made superior to everything the Allies could scrape together. At the same time it was also more and more ominously evident that Yamamoto’s attack on Midway Island was to be by far the bigger operation, and it was to take place very soon. The four American aircraft carriers could not be allowed to stay one moment too long in the South Pacific, four thouand nautical miles away from where the main action was to take place—and yet the danger to Australia had not lessened an iota.
Midway has been compared to Jutland, but there England had an eight-to-five advantage; at Midway we were inferior by odds of four to one.
For four days the Pacific Fleet operations staff slept on cots near the plotting room, measuring distance against time and the predictions of the intelligence arm. Nimitz slept in his own office not too far away. The sparse messages from Admiral Fletcher were avidly awaited, dissected to the last coded syllable; but that admiral was not much of a communicator, and his messages suffered, in addition, from atmospheric interference. Most of them told little, except that battle had been joined. Halsey, driving southwestward at maximum speed and in absolute radio silence, was not yet close enough to help. After four worried days, on May 8 came the wonderful news that the light carrier Shoho, twelve thousand tons, part of the Port Moresby invasion force, had been sunk, and the Japanese landing force, bereft of its air support, had turned back.
About this time another Japanese task force arrived on the Coral Sea scene, down from the Japanese bastion at Truk, with two carriers far more powerful than the little Shoho. These two ships, Shokaku and Zuikaku, exchanged blows with Fletcher’s Lexington and Yorktown, and soon came the distressing information that our Lexington, three times bigger than the Shoho, had been badly damaged and had had to be scuttled and that Yorktown, while still afloat with engines functioning, had suffered seriously.
So ended the Battle of the Coral Sea, the world’s first fight between aircraft carriers. It was also the first naval engagement in which the opposing fleets never saw each other. The result was a victory for Japan in that the Americans suffered a considerably greater loss, but from the Australians’ point of view the greatest Japanese incursion yet had been defeated. A feeling of euphoria ensued; they had not been abandoned, and more to the point, it was now evident they would not be. America had made its commitment clear. The cost was regrettable, but the promise was heady wine.
With Halsey’s undamaged carriers virtually in range, their presence apparently unsuspected, Nimitz was strongly tempted to leave him there another day in hopes of inflicting more damage on the Truk-based carriers, at least to even out the exchange a bit more equally. Fortunately he decided against this; Shokaku and Zuikaku had already started back to Truk, with moderate damage to the first carrier and heavy casualties among the airmen of the second. The invasion of Port Moresby had been blocked, the threat to Australia at least temporarily lifted. The United States needed badly to make the most of what time and forces it had left, for it had lost a carrier and a half from the paltry four-carrier force that had begun the campaign. It would need everything it could muster, very soon. And Layton and Rochefort were climbing the walls.
Yorktown was only half a ship, a crucial loss, restorable in part if she could somehow be made fit for service. There was no time for any of the fine points, even for the growing controversy over our tactics at the Coral Sea. Get the ship ready; get her engines working as they should be, get the flight deck repaired, patch the holes in her bottom, replace damaged aircraft and injured fliers. There was only one thing to do: Get ready for another battle in the mid-Pacific against as many as ten aircraft carriers. Halsey was directed to return immediately at best speed but first—and this was a stroke of genius—to get within search-plane radius of the Japanese base at Tulagi, a few hundred miles northeast of the scene of the Coral Sea battle, and allow himself to be spotted. It was not hard to do, for he was practically there already. As expected, Yamamoto heard immediately of the presence of Enterprise and Hornet in the South Pacific; knowing that Lexington had been sunk and Yorktown severely damaged, Yamamoto would figure (Nimitz calculated) that the two ships had been sent to replace them. Thus the Americans could manage at most to have but one carrier, the damaged Saratoga, to oppose Yamamoto’s Midway adventure, about which, he believed, they as yet knew nothing. Perhaps this might reduce the force Yamamoto thought he required and thus reduce the odds faced by the Americans.
The fact was that Saratoga was nowhere near ready. Halsey’s two carriers, however, pushed their engines beyond limits as they raced back to Pearl. Yorktown too returned as fast as she was able and went directly into dry dock. Repairs, it was reported, would take three months; Nimitz himself went down into the dry dock to look her over, and he directed the damage be patched and the ship returned to the firing line in three days.
By this time Rochefort had informed him that the Japanese attack on Midway would come on the third of June and that a scouting ring of submarines, ordered to report all movements of U.S. Fleet units, would be in place on the first. Getting the Enterprise and Hornet beyond the submarine scouting line was easy; they made it with a day or so to spare. The damaged Yorktown was much more of a nip-and-tuck proposition; but luck was with the Americans, and she too got to sea and passed beyond the scouting line just in time. There was still more good fortune. Shokaku and Zuikaku, moderately damaged and depleted in aircrews at the Coral Sea, were scratched from the Midway operation (another piece of important information provided by the code breakers). The presence of these two additional first-class carriers at Midway might have given Yamamoto the extra strength events proved he needed. Halsey’s venture into Tulagi’s search radius had paid off a thousand times.
At the Battle of Midway the Japanese lost 4 carriers, 1 heavy cruiser, 322 aircraft, and perhaps as many as 2,500 officers and men. The story has been told many times, and it is not my purpose here to retell it again. Rather, I aim to point out some of the dilemmas besetting Admiral Nimitz and to extol the inspired performance of Commander Joe Rochefort, who supplied him over a continuous period with the critically important information that made possible the U.S. victory.
Nimitz certainly deserved all the honors he received, but fair-minded U.S. naval officers regret the niggardly treatment of Rochefort, not only during the war (in spite of Nimitz’s strenuous efforts) but also afterward. It is true he disobeyed the intelligence bureaucracy in giving Nimitz raw data, but by doing so he made possible one of the greatest naval victories in the history of man at sea. In consequence, and perhaps especially because he was right in so doing, the bureaucracy hated him. Even the posthumous award of a medal, many years later, was muted. It was bestowed, indeed, by President Reagan in the Rose Garden of the White House, but with minimum public notice. This man, who, more than any other, gave Admiral Nimitz the keys to victory in the most critically significant battle of modern times, was shamefully treated then and shamefully treated even after his death.
Midway has been compared with Jutland, the largest naval battle of World War I, decisive in that Germany’s High Seas Fleet never again challenged that of Britain. Since 1916, when it took place, Jutland has been studied and restudied by historians and scholars. Their general conclusion has been that Britain’s numerical superiority, on the order of eight to five, provided the margin over a highly effective but numerically inferior German fleet. At Midway—a far more significant battle—the winning side was inferior by odds of three or even four to one.
At Jutland the fighting was of the old school: two columns of huge steel fortresses, ponderously trying to swing into parallel lines so that their guns could blast each other. Midway, twenty-six years later, was different because of naval aviation. Here, only three weeks after the very first carrier battle, the same entirely new and unprecedented forces changed permanently the course of the greatest sea war ever fought. Yet the real differences between Jutland and Midway were only two: aircraft extended the main battery range from twenties of miles to hundreds of miles, while greatly increasing accuracy as well, and timely intelligence was intelligently applied.
The Battle of Midway was the only time that otherwise undistinguished island achieved national importance, and nearly all the fighting took place far away from it at that. During the remainder of the war it was used for a submarine halfway point, between patrols, and heartily disliked because it was by no means the equal of Honolulu. I visited it many times between 1942 and 1945 and returned now to find the atoll even less active and less interesting than it had been during the war. Not a vestige of the installations of the war years remains. The submarine-base paraphernalia has vanished or is overgrown; the piers and repair shops have disappeared. The aircraft hangars damaged during the battle have long since been repaired or removed. The airfield that saw our slow-flying patrol planes off for their long daily searches, and from which Marine fighter planes staged desperate sorties against the Japanese fleet, has been rebuilt into a fine modern landing strip; but planes use it only once a week. Only the original inhabitants of Midway Island are still there in force—the gooney birds. They have not changed a bit.
After Midway the feeling of jubilation obscured the reality that there remained a very serious threat to Australia. Japanese troops were still on the northeastern slope of New Guinea’s tail, slowly hacking their way across the mountainous spine. Nimitz and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reviewing the same sets of facts and obligations, came up nearly simultaneously with the identical answer: We did not have sufficient carrier strength to repeat the Coral Sea business even one more time. For the protection of Australia, it was essential that an island base be created, an unsinkable aircraft carrier, through which the growing strength of Rabaul could be countered and the Japanese thrust across New Guinea put under air attack.
The Santa Cruz Islands were selected for the new base, and the initial landing was set for August 1—when suddenly came a patrol-plane report that Japan was building an airstrip on Guadalcanal! Despite the defeat at Midway, Japan obviously had not given up the idea of coming in on Port Moresby’s seaward flanks. Guadalcanal was ideally located for this strategy, and an airfield there would double or triple the threat to Australia’s mainland. Our decision was instant: Instead of going into the Santa Cruz Islands, we would take over the nascent Japanese air base on Guadalcanal and make that our land-based carrier and staging area. Sixteen thousand Marines were told to forget about Santa Cruz, and given the job. They barely had time to digest the fact that they had a new target.
An armada of transports escorted by cruisers and destroyers brought them to Guadalcanal Island under air cover provided by three carriers (again, all there were available) on August 7, 1942, two months almost to the day after Midway. They were still being off-loaded against only token enemy resistance when Admiral Fletcher, in a highly questionable move, took his carriers away for a refueling rendezvous. This left the Marines, their transports, and the escorting ships without air cover. Shortly after midnight on the morning of August 9, unspotted by anyone, unreported by search planes because there were none, seven Japanese cruisers entered what became known from that day as Ironbottom Sound, between Guadalcanal and tiny Savo Island just to the north. Five cruisers (an Australian and four American), unsuccessfully attempting to maintain day and night alertness while guarding the landing area, were caught flat-footed. The actual fighting lasted only a few minutes; four cruisers were sunk, and the fifth, minus her bow, was put out of commission for months.
Only one thing lessened the disaster, and that was the Japanese admiral’s decision, made because he could not conceive that the U.S. carriers were absent, not to proceed into the landing area. The undefended transports would have been at his mercy. As it was, more than a thousand American and Australian sailors lost their lives: an expensive lesson, but not nearly as costly as it would have been had Adm. Gunichi Mikawa gone on as planned.
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.