“I’ve Served My Time In Hell”

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On May 3, 1942, a small detachment of Japanese sailors, the grd Kure Special Landing Force, landed without opposition on Tulagi Island, then capital of the British Solomon Islands.

Their prize was a group oi faded, tin-roofed wooden buildings, a cricket field, and one of those peculiarly British colonial institutions called “The Residency.” The usual inhabitants of the little seat of government, the mixed group of missionaries, civil servants, and Chinese traders, had been forewarned and had left.

After making what shift they could for their own comfort, the Kure men settled down in the tropic heat. They were only an outpost. They had been landed on Tulagi as the flank of the New Guinea front the Japanese were trying to develop in the late spring of 1942.

After they had been there a month, the men of the Kure unit started laying out an airstrip. Because Tulagi was totally unsuited, they chose a location on the larger island across the bay: Guadalcanal.

No one needs to be told that a battle was fought at Guadalcanal. It was one of the few battles in World War II that the United States stood a real chance of losing. And the outcome hung in (he balance, not for a Jay, but for three months. It often rested on life-and-death combat between individuals, between a handful of Americans and a much larger Japanese force, fighting hand to hand.

It is not surprising that the style and stereotypes of the entire Pacific war were drawn at Guadalcanal. The dungaree-clad Marine, his helmet covered with camouflage cloth, lunging forward at the enemy with his rirle at the ready, became the single, larger-than-life figure of the Pacific theatre of operations. And when anybody in those days said, “the island,” there was no doubt about which island he meant.

What is surprising is that the facts about Guadalcanal live tip to the fictions. Guadalcanal was pivotal in a purely military sense, too. With twenty years of hindsight and careful research behind them, military and naval historians agree that it was a turning point of the Pacific war. At Guadalcanal the United States moved from the defense to the offense. The only direction in which the Japanese moved after Guadalcanal was backward.

As early as February, 1942, there had been talk in Washington about sonic kind of operation in the islands north ol New Caledonia. Mut there was little or nothing in ihe way of men or materiel with which to carry out such an operation. Resides, the Joint Chiefs of Stall had given the war in Europe clear priority.

There were only 291 land-based airplanes in the hundreds of thousands of square miles the United States still held west of Hawaii, and fewer than half of these were modern, first-line combat aircraft. Excepting a few Marine defense battalions and Army anti-aircraft units, there was only one amphibiously trained major combat unit in the Pacific—the First Marine Division, which was in the process of moving from the States to New Zealand for further training. It had been told it would not be used until 1943.

But all this suddenly changed when the Kure force lit grass fires to clear away the underbrush for their airfield on Guadalcanal. Suddenly every man, every plane, every ship, and every minute counted.

The Japanese could not be allowed to finish that airstrip. Their bombers would for the first time be within range of the vital American shipping lanes to Australia. The United States was going to have to try to retake Guadalcanal. And it would be just so much easier to do it the island could be retaken belore the Japanese finished the strip and could add land-based airplanes to their defense.

 

The race to get there in time began. On June 26, the newly appointed South Pacific Commander, Vite Admiral Robert Ghormley, held a conference at his headquarters at Auckland. Major General Archer Vandegrift, Commander of the First Marine Division, was to work out a training schedule for his outfit. Hut Ghormley had just received a warning order from Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, calling for an operation in “the lower Solomons” with D-day set for August 1. Vandegrift was to be It.

Vandegrift was in a fix: he was going to have to have his division ready to fight in thirty-seven days. His advance echelon had been in Wellington only twelve days. His rear echelon was still at sea, not due to arrive until July 11. The rehearsal was to take place at Koro in the Fijis, six days’ travel from Wellington. That left thirty-one days. Koro is seven days from Guadalcanal: thai left twenty-four days.

In those twenty-four days Vanclegrift had to reconnoiter his target, get information about it, plan his assault, issue orders, load thirty-one transports and cargo carriers, and embark nearly 20,000 men and sixty days’ supplies.