Control the Solomon Islands, Control the War: Lessons Learned at Guadalcanal

Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, 12-15 November 1942: USS President Jackson (AP-37) maneuvering under Japanese air attack off Guadalcanal, 12 November 1942. In the center background is smoke from an enemy plane that had just crashed into the after superstructure of USS San Francisco (CA-38), which is steaming away in the right center. Photographed from USS President Adams (AP-38). Note the anti-aircraft shell bursts. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Meant to light the way toward victory for America and her allies in the South Pacific during World War II (WWII), Operation WATCHTOWER proved to be one of the most intense and knotted amphibious and open water operations in the U.S. Navy‘s history.

At this point in the war, the Japanese Imperial forces were determined to exert sea control of the trade routes in order to strengthen their replenishment efforts while cutting off those of their enemies. With seizure of Guadalcanal, the largest of the southern Solomon Islands, from the British in July 1942, they began building an airfield to solidify their occupation and launch bombing missions against the opposing Allied fleets.

USS San Francisco (CA-38) enters San Francisco Bay, 11 December 1942, after being damaged in action off Guadalcanal

In the end, after an excruciatingly long period of fighting (August 7th, 1942 – February 9th, 1943), the American Navy and Marine Corps offensive campaign proved victorious and established a permanent base for the expansion of American combat power, and ultimately provided the turning point in the war – for the first time in the war, the relative advantage for the Japanese Imperial forces were decisively reversed.  Momentum was now on the side of the Americans and their allies.

But make no mistake; while the spoils go to the victor – in this case the forward operating base established at “Henderson Field” and the Japanese Imperial forces’ desire to push into Australia thwarted –, the campaign was initially under-resourced with ships based on an underestimation of Japanese naval capabilities by U.S. Navy leadership. Ashore, the thinner ration of supplies allocated (60-day vs. standard 90-day pack-outs) for the amphibious campaign near the beginning of the engagement was so noticeable that it had the Marines involved nicknaming the engagement “Operation SHOESTRING.”  Both factors would contribute to the large losses felt by Allied forces.

Kinugawa Maru (Japanese cargo ship) shown beached and sunk on the Guadalcanal shore, November 1943. She had been sunk by U.S. aircraft on 15 November 1942, while attempting to deliver men and supplies to Japanese forces holding the northern part of the island. Savo Island is in the distance. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Allied and Enemy Estimated Losses Compared

Allied Powers                    Empire of Japan
7,100 dead                          31,000 dead
4 captured                           1,000 captured
29 ships lost                        38 ships lost
615 aircraft lost                   683–880 aircraft lost

That being said, regardless of circumstances handed American forces throughout the months of fighting, the grit of heroes like Congressional Medal of Honor recipients Sergeant John Basilone and Rear Admiral Norman Scott was demonstrative of the commitment needed, and exerted, to overcome such fierce aggression and opposition.

In today’s Surface Warfare Strategy, we talk about being ready “to hold potential adversaries at risk, a range, whether at sea or ashore.” We owe so much of our ability to maintain maritime superiority to the lessons learned from the courageous Sailors and Marines serving at the Battle of Guadalcanal.

Given perspective, we recognize that the fighting ashore was bloody, but the at-sea clashes between the Japanese Imperial and Allied navies were unprecedented. The close range fighting (some reported as close as 20 feet) was so devastating to both sides that the strait to the north of Guadalcanal became known as “Iron Bottom Sound” due to its floor being littered with sunken warships.

So given all the time that has passed and the developments in the Navy since, what lessons learned remain as relevant to us today as they did in 1940s?  

The answer can be found in how we organize surface forces for enhanced combat power today.

Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 2.05.36 PMTactics: Never underestimate the enemy. The American Navy had planned for daytime fighting operations being held at considerable distance.  Stunningly, the Japanese had grown their tactics with an asymmetrical approach, mastering night operations at sea. Today, we have the Surface Mine Warfare Development Center growing tactically proficiency in junior officers and deployed staffs by covering advanced tactics in amphibious warfare, anti-submarine warfare/surface warfare, integrated air and missile defense, and mine warfare.

Talent: Confidence is built through competence. Approximately three months after fighting began, the persistence of American Sailors tracking the enemy’s tactics would lead to the sinking of the Japanese ship, Hiei; it would be the first Japanese battleship lost during WWII. Today, we manage the extraordinary talent that exists within our surface force with a view towards building depth, breadth and experience for the future.  

Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 2.05.58 PMTools: Enhance naval power at and from the sea. The U.S. Navy had done a lot to enhance ships following World War I, including the addition of Radio Detection and Ranging (RADAR). Unfortunately, limited training and previous operational use led to limited confidence by commanders during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Today, weapons and combat system packages are put through extensive testing prior to implementation on operational deployments.

Training: Train like we fight. Battle of Guadalcanal was one of the first multi-service “joint” campaigns endured by American forces. Needless to say, it was a learning-rich environment. Today, we have integrated training that replicates the challenges of operating and sustaining warships in complex scenarios, and joint exercises and operations have become a standard reality.

As much as the Battle of Guadalcanal served to turn the tide of WWII, it now serves to remind us that the state of readiness is imperative to us holding our Nation’s seapower edge.


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