Guadalcanal (GC), neither a canal nor guadal, sits at the south east end of the Solomons, a collection of Islands near New Guinea and Australia. The Solomon chain of islands run from the south east to the north west, with Japanese held New Ireland and New Britain at the western end. In between is a collection of islands that create a sea lane called "The Slot", with Iron Bottom Sound just off Savo Island (the site of two major engagements) and GC at the east end. It is not hard to imagine how Iron Bottom Sound got its name.
If you are a movie buff, you will recall They Were Expendable w/John Wayne and PT 109, the true story of President JFK in the Solomons. You also might remember Black Sheep Squadron (also based on a true story), the TV series with Robert Conrad.
The conventional wisdom was that the Battle of Midway was the turning point of the war. Not so. It halted the Japanese north of the equator, but the real turning "point" was GC. I put quotes around "point" because the fight for GC lasted 6 months starting in August 1942. There were many bloody battles for islands of the Pacific, Iwo Jima and Tarawa being the worst, but none were as protracted as GC. This was due in large part to the US focusing its attention on Europe and Hitler.
Why GC? Mostly because the Japanese were building an airstrip on GC and the Americans wanted it. GC is more than 5,000 sq. kms, about 80- km long and 60 wide. The Americans attacked and took the airstrip quite easily. The airstrip was renamed Henderson Field. The subsequent fighting went on for 6 months.
There were five major naval engagements, daily air battles, and a protracted fight on the GC ground during all of it.
The five naval battles were B/o Savo Island, B/o Eastern Solomons; B/o GC ; B/o Cape Esperance; and the B/o Santa Cruz. The Americans lost the carriers Wasp and Hornet (which famously launched the Dolittle Raid), leaving just the Enterprise alone in the Pacific for some time. All these battles were roughly a draw. The Japanese's secret weapon was the Long Lance torpedo, which they used to great effect at Pearl Harbor. By contrast, the American torpedo was a piece of junk. It would often hit its target and then simply fail to explode. The American secret weapon was radar, something they did not fully appreciate during the fight for GC..
The air battle was on-going throughout, and was also roughly a draw.
The land battle also went the duration. The Americans, stretched thin with a war on two fronts, resupplied GC from the east as they could. The Japanese did the same from the west, using destroyers and submarines at night. This re-supply chain was known as the Tokyo Express. The Americans managed to stay ahead of their material demands, but the small payloads of destroyers and submarines could not keep up for the Japanese.
The Japanese had not tasted defeat on the ground before GC. Many horrific battle were fought on the island between the ever-stronger Marines divisions facing off against the slowly starving Japanese. When the island was finally abandoned by the Japanese, many were at death's door for lack of food.
Henderson Field was the big prize and it still surprises me how easily the Japanese gave it up. Once the Americans had it, they never let go despite daily bombing raids. There were two things that helped the Americans enormously in the air battle: radar and coast watchers. This gave the Americans what they needed to keep the field.
Once GC fell, the island-hopping campaign that characterized the rest of the war on the Pacific got started in earnest.
This was a long book, long on detail. The ebb and flow of war is fascinating. One piece of good data, one lucky guess, one unexpected storm, or one good shot, could change a naval battle from a tie to a rout. By this time in the war, both sides understood the importance of air power to a navy. This was true for GC. But GC also featured 5 battles of a type that did not repeat again during the war: battles of ship on ship, gun on gun. In the largest naval battle in history at Leyte Gulf, no ship ever came within sight of the enemy on the water. Like Midway, the fight was in the air.
One amusing moment happen during ship-on-ship action when an American ship's radar was knocked out. A quick thinking officer climbed the radar mast and affected repairs. Radar antennae in the day were large structures that rotated. When the repairs were done, the over anxious radar crews fired it up immediately before the sailor could detach from his safety cord. He took a dozen turns around the mast in a wide arch before anyone heard his cries to stop.
GC was the Pacific turning point of the war. It is worth noting that during the course of the 6 month conflict, the US commissioned a heavy carrier, a light carrier, a battleship, 4 cruisers, 18 subs and 62 destroyers. During the same period, the Japanese commissioned 7 destroyers and 14 subs. During 1942, the Americans built 50,000 planes vs. 9,000 from the Japanese. In the long run, the Japanese never really stood a chance.
Lots of detail from research on both sides of the battle.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.