The Navy at Guadalcanal
Series of Naval Engagements Ends 75 Years Ago
The bombs landed on the ships and in the water, fast and furious, the dark night sky lit up like the Fourth of July. Sailors ran to and fro, manning their battle stations, returning the barrage, putting out fires, dragging wounded shipmates to safety.
The island, part of the Solomon chain, was the centerpiece of a months-long campaign during World War II, an Allied effort to finally stop the Japanese in their tracks. It was home to a fledgling airfield that U.S. Marines would name Henderson after a hero of the Battle of Midway. American war planners feared enemy planes would use it as a base to disrupt important sea lanes between the States and Australia. By contrast, they knew if the Allies captured Guadalcanal, they could use it as an important first stage in their campaign to liberate the Pacific.
During the initial landing in August, known as Operation Watchtower, Marines charged ashore almost unopposed. "The Japanese did not expect them to land there," said Chris Havern, a historian at the Navy's History and Heritage Command. "It was not a landing like you would later see in the central Pacific. We all know what Iwo Jima was like. We know what Tarawa was like. This was nothing like that. The U.S. showed up. They landed against no resistance. They established a beachhead and advanced inland. The Japanese who were building the airfield were overwhelmed. They basically left everything and went into the jungle."
However, determined to hold Guadalcanal and prevent that Allied toehold in the Solomon Islands, the Japanese quickly regrouped, attacking the Allies during the Battle of Savo Island, Aug. 8 to 9, in a brutal rout that cost the U.S. three cruisers and Australia one. Japanese ships received minimal damage, according to History and Heritage Command, which cited the battle as one of the worst defeats in U.S. naval history. The Navy withdrew, accused of abandoning the Marines, but naval leaders at the time needed to preserve their limited supply of ships, said Havern.