At dawn on 7 August 1942, 10,000 US soldiers landed at Guadalcanal, the easternmost island of the Solomon archipelago. The island, which had formed part of the British Empire from 1568 until the Japanese occupied it in May 1942, would take on immense strategic importance. The Solomon Islands were the gateway to northern Australia, which was now vulnerable to Japanese invasion. And when the Japanese began building an airfield on Guadalcanal, from which they could attack supply routes between the US, Australia and New Zealand, it became vital for the Allies to retake the island.
The Guadalcanal Campaign was the first major Allied offensive against Imperial Japan. Lasting from August 1942 until February 1943, it consisted of a series of fiercely contested battles at sea, in the air, and on the ground. In the latter arena, US Marine and Army troops with little combat experience faced an enemy which hid in the jungle, launched attacks at the dead of night and obeyed a strict code of honour in which death was preferable to surrender.
US landings on Guadalcanal met with great initial success. The outnumbered Japanese defenders were quickly overwhelmed, and the airfield under construction (which would be named Henderson’s Field) was captured. Between August and November 1942, the Japanese, who were taken aback by the speed and strength of the Allied offensive, made several attempts to recapture the airfield. They used fast ships to ferry reinforcements and supplies to the island by night, so avoiding Allied air attack from Henderson’s Field. These nightly deliveries were known to the Allies as the ‘Tokyo Express’.
The struggle for the island culminated in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: the decisive moment in the Guadalcanal Campaign and a key turning point in the Pacific War. Between 12 and 15 November 1942, the Japanese staged a last ditch attempt to recapture the airfield, organising a transport convoy to ferry 7,000 troops to Guadalcanal, and sending several warships to shell the airfield. US forces, having learnt of Japanese plans, sent their own naval forces to intercept them.
Although the US suffered more losses than the Japanese, they succeeded in turning back Japanese warships send to attack the airfield. Air attacks carried out by Allied aircraft also managed to sink a great number of Japanese troop transports, preventing the bulk of the Japanese troops and equipment from reaching Guadalcanal. Although the Japanese did not finish evacuating their forces until February 1943, the Allies effectively won their victory in December 1942, when the Japanese abandoned any further attempt to recapture Guadalcanal.