Day By Day

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

This Day In History

Today is "National Toothache Day". Yep, that's what it says. I don't really know what that means, or how to celebrate it, so I'm going to fall back on an observance I overlooked yesterday. Today is the day after "Clean Out Your Computer Day" which is observed on the second Monday of each month. So take some time today to go back over those document and picture files that are cluttering up your drive, check your e-mail lists, clear your caches, and by all means run a security scan on your hard drive.

On this day in 1943 the Guadalcanal Campaign came to an end. This was the first major Allied offensive against the Japanese empire and in many ways represented the first step on the march to victory in the Pacific.

After Pearl Harbor the Japanese had acted quickly to over-run much of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. The naval component of this huge offensive was finally halted in the battles of the Coral Sea [May 4-8, 1942] and Midway [June 4-7, 1942]. While the Japanese took the following several months to consolidate their gains in the South Pacific a furious bureaucratic battle took place in the American high command as various military and political leaders argued over how to respond.

It was finally decided that an Allied counter-offensive should begin in the southern Solomon Islands where the Japanese presence threatened both Australia and Allied supply lines. Guadalcanal turned out to be a crucial part of this offensive because it was there that the Japanese were constructing a major airfield.

"Operation Watchtower", as the offensive was named, was a combined U.S. and Australian effort and was mostly a Navy and Marine operation. Overall command was in the hands of Major General Alexander Vandergrift [USMC]. The naval component was commanded by Vice Admiral Frank Fletcher whose flagship was the USS Saratoga, and the amphibious forces were commanded by Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner.

After a few minor assaults on small neighboring islands and a major bombardment, Allied forces went ashore on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. The landing was almost unopposed and the airfield was quickly captured and renamed "Henderson Field". This became the focus of operations for months thereafter. The Japanese launched a major assault on the airfield which was repulsed with heavy losses while naval forces fought to a standstill, then both sides poured in reinforcements. What followed was a war of attrition on the land, on the sea, and in the air with both sides taking heavy losses. What eventually decided the outcome was the fact that the Allies were much more effective in resupplying their forces than were the Japanese. In December, the Japanese high command decided to withdraw from Guadalcanal, fighting a ferocious rear-guard defense as they left. On February 9th 1943 that evacuation was complete and the Allies claimed victory on Guadalcanal.

In retrospect Japanese leaders considered Guadalcanal to have been the turning point of the War in the Pacific. Americans usually point to Midway. It was certainly a decisive confrontation, not least because Allied victory there caused Washington to change its mind about the conduct of the war. Prior to Guadalcanal the "Europe First" strategy had dictated that in the Pacific Theater we would be fighting only on defense, seeking to slow or contain Japanese offensives. Victory at Guadalcanal opened the way for offensive Allied operations and prompted a reallocation of resources to that theater.

You might want to look at the Victory at Sea treatment of the battles surrounding Guadalcanal [here]. It covers the main points pretty well and makes the crucial point that logistics -- the vast resources America was able to mobilize in support of the troops -- was the crucial element in victory not only at Guadalcanal, but throughout the Pacific. It is also a neat little document illustrating mid-twentieth century American triumphalism. Check it out. Highly recommended.