Author and historian Jeffrey Cox on his latest book, Blazing Star, Setting Sun
EXPERT ON THE PACIFIC THEATRE DISCUSSES THE IMPORTANCE OF THE GUADALCANAL-SOLOMON CAMPAIGN, AND SOME OF THE TOUGH LESSONS THE ALLIES HAD TO USE TO GAIN VICTORY OVER IMPERIAL JAPAN. THIS IS THE SUBJECT OF HIS NEW BOOK BLAZING STAR, SETTING SUN, OUT 25 JUNE
What were some of the main shortcomings and major changes that took place within the US Navy by late 1942?
The Java Sea campaign exposed more than a few shortcomings within the American military establishment as well as its major allies. Some of those shortcomings could be explained by the overwhelming Japanese superiority, especially in air power, in that campaign. But not all of it by any means.
There were massive logistical and supply issues in the Java Sea campaign, in part because the theatre was so far from the US and Britain but also because the US was unprepared for the war and Britain was stretched almost to the breaking point by her fight against Hitler. By August 1942, US Navy logistics, while hardly perfect, had improved exponentially. The importance of adequate supplies in the theatre cannot be overstated. During the Battle of Edson’s Ridge, Japanese troops had broken through the US Marine line, but instead of pushing through to their objective these famished soldiers stopped to gorge themselves on stores of American food. That by itself may have literally cost Japan the Guadalcanal campaign.
Another major problem during the Java Sea campaign was the area of information and communications. While separate facets, they are so interrelated that they must be considered together. Both were so bad during the Java Sea campaign that they were almost nonexistent.
The Guadalcanal campaign began with the disaster at Savo Island, in which almost everything that could go wrong with information and communications did go wrong, but this was perhaps a blessing in disguise because it was the proverbial wake-up call that got these seemingly mundane issues taken more seriously.
Was High Command unified in the island-hopping strategy? Were there any alternative plans that were considered?
No and no. The Guadalcanal-solomons campaign was ultimately the brainchild of Admiral Ernest King, the Commander-in-chief of the US fleet. He leveraged some lawyerly language in the ‘Germany First’ Arcadia Declaration into the Guadalcanal-solomons offensive. His counterparts on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General George Marshall and Army Air Force General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold were ‘Germany First’ to the point where they tried to starve the Pacific War of resources, Arnold to an almost ludicrous degree. They were completely uninterested in the Pacific War at all, let alone a Pacific offensive. That is, until General Macarthur escaped the disaster (partly of his own making) in the Philippines and was available for assignment. Then they became advocates of a Pacific offensive – if it was led by General Macarthur. That was not acceptable to Admiral King or the Navy, so at the start the Navy was on its own.
The opposition to the Guadalcanal campaign was not just with Admiral King’s colleagues on the joint chiefs, but some of his subordinates as well. While Admiral Nimitz was rather agnostic as to the entire thing, Admiral Robert Ghormley, made the South Pacific Commander and thus in strategic command of the campaign, was opposed to it from the outset believing it would fail, and to prepare for that failure hoarded resources that were badly needed on Guadalcanal. Even worse, Admiral Frank Fletcher, who led the US carriers in the South Pacific, famously declared in a combative conference meeting that the Guadalcanal offensive would fail.
Moving up the Solomons chain after Guadalcanal was secured was always in Admiral King’s plan. That involved Macarthur because the middle and upper Solomons were part of Macarthur’s command area. And Macarthur had his own ideas about how to proceed. They involved moving up through New Guinea and across New Britain to take Rabaul. This dispute was solved much later rather amicably and, ultimately, both the New Guinea and Solomons routes were incorporated into the planned campaign.
How prepared were the US ground forces for the conditions during the campaign?
To put it simply, they weren’t. That is not meant as a criticism of the US Marines or the US Army. Soldiers, sailors and air crews repeatedly train so that their duties and responsibilities in combat are ingrained in muscle memory and instinct. However, there is only so much you can train.
The Marines also had to fight not only the Japanese but the environment: the heat, the rain and especially the mosquitos. The 1st Marine Division was almost completely untrained in jungle warfare [so] they were lucky that for the first few weeks after the landing, the Japanese largely left them alone, giving the Marines time to adjust to the jungle environment. Later in the Guadalcanal-solomons campaign, during the New Georgia operation, troops had to adjust to the jungle and combat at the same time. It was too much at one time for many of those troops.
Amphibious operations were also a relatively new thing for the US military. Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner had to assemble an amphibious force from scratch. When he received this assignment, he commented to Admiral King that he did not know how to create and lead an amphibious force. King responded, “You will learn.” This line in essence became one of the bases for the Guadalcanal-solomons campaign and, indeed, the entire war effort, encapsulated by the phrase ‘makee learnee’.
The Guadalcanal landings were ‘makee learnee’ on a grand scale. Despite all of Admiral Turner’s preparations, the rehearsal for the landings were a disaster and the landings themselves, while successful, were a mess. Landing the troops was not so much an issue as landing the supplies. Combat loading was basically only a theory at this time, and the lack of proper loading both hampered unloading and left the Marines short of supplies for about the first month of the campaign.
Was a Japanese defeat in the Pacific inevitable?
Not at all. The Japanese government went into the war with no illusions as to the manufacturing disparity as well as the probable outcome of the war. But the Japanese strategy was the same strategy later used against the US by North Vietnam, the Viet Cong and the Taliban: to outlast the US politically. To take so much territory in that six months and so fortify the defences of that territory that efforts to liberate it would take such a long time and cause so many casualties that the American public would find it unacceptable and look for a negotiated settlement that would allow Japan to keep that territory. Of course, that strategy depended on not so infuriating the American public that such a negotiated settlement became politically unacceptable in the US. That was the effect of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Although the Japanese went to war in the Pacific to seize the resources needed to secure an acceptable resolution to their invasion of China, the Japanese could have withdrawn from China, but that would have been a loss of ‘face’, which remains an important facet of East Asian countries like Japan and China that remains imperfectly understood in the West. The inescapable fact is that when given a choice between a probable catastrophic loss in a war and a loss of ‘face’, the Japanese government chose the war. Such a choice might be unthinkable to us, but it is not in East Asia.
The Guadalcanal campaign is less well known than other Pacific operations. What do you think is the reason for this and what makes this unsung campaign so essential to understanding the Pacific theatre?
I don’t know that the Guadalcanal campaign is unsung so much as the Solomons campaign, which is one reason I’ve tried to tie the two together into one overall campaign, but to the extent that is so I would cite three primary reasons.
First is the length of the campaign. Operations to secure Guadalcanal took six months, from August 1942 to February 1943. Except for the sieges of Rabaul and Truk, that would be the longest active operation of the Pacific War by far.
Second would be the emotional impact of the campaign. For Midway, the emotional impact comes from the fact that the US Navy had not only stopped the Japanese but gave the Japanese a bloody nose with the loss of four carriers of Kido Butai and the cruiser Mikuma. But usually much of that impact comes from just how costly the campaign was in human lives. There were maybe 26,000 Allied casualties at Iwo Jima and roughly 82,000 at Okinawa. By comparison, the six months of Guadalcanal led to some 15,000 dead and wounded among all branches of the military. Heavy casualty figures capture public attention and emotion, and understandably so.
Finally, there is the campaign’s visual aspect or lack thereof, which are important in capturing the readers’ and viewers’ attention and imagination. For Iwo Jima, you have the, staged, photo of the US Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi. For Okinawa, you have the kamikaze run that ended in the sinking of the superbattleship Yamato, photos of whose explosion were disseminated widely.
What does Guadalcanal have? Nothing that can compare to any of the above. Most of the major battles of the Guadalcanal-solomons campaign took place at night or over long distances. Neither situation lends itself to good photographs.
All of these factors combine to make the Guadalcanalsolomons campaign very difficult to encapsulate. Though Midway shattered the myth of Japanese invincibility and victory, Guadalcanal started etching the Japanese defeat in the Pacific War in stone.
Navy troop transport USS President Jackson (AP-37) manoeuvring under Japanese air attack off Guadalcanal, 12 November 1942