A bloody six-month cam-paign in a previously obscure part of the world sealed the fate of the Japanese Empire. The stun-ning victory at Midway allowed the United States to take the offensive, starting at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. The American code name for Guadalcanal was “Cactus.”
The First Marine Division waded ashore on August 7, supported by tailhook aircraft from Enterprise, Saratoga (CV-3), and Wasp (CV-7). Japan was quick to reply, sending land-based bombers and fighters from Rabaul, New Britain, New Guinea, over 600 miles northwest. So began an almost daily round of air and sea battles, including two carrier engagements.
The Imperial Navy consistently bested the Allies in surface contests, beginning the second night of Operation Watchtower. But the first two Marine squadrons landed on August 20, with steady reinforcement by other flying leathernecks and Navy and Army units. Thus, a symbiotic relationship grew in the equatorial climate of Cactus. Airmen sought to limit the Japanese seaborne reinforcements, while infantry sought to keep enemy troops from overrunning “the Cactus patch.”
A pattern soon emerged: American airpower ruled by day, Japanese seapower by night. Probably nowhere else in the war had such a pattern emerged for so long.
Two major Japanese reinforcement attempts produced the third and fourth carrier battles. On August 24, Enterprise and Saratoga faced three Imperial flattops in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. Saratoga planes sank the lone Ryūjō, but Japan again fielded Shōkaku and Zuikaku, which had slain Lexington at Coral Sea. Enterprise took bomb hits that required repair at an advanced base, but she soon returned.
Meanwhile, Japanese submarines struck again. They sent Saratoga back to the States and sank
Wasp in September. That left “The Big E” and Hornet to oppose the next reinforcement. In the October 26 battle near the Santa Cruz Islands, Imperial aviators sank Hornet and again battered
Enterprise. Nonetheless, her air group was crucial in defeating the final Japanese attempt to land reinforcements.
Guadalcanal could not have been held without U.S. airpower, afloat and ashore. In the course of the campaign, the United States lost 29 ships, Japan 38. The Americans wrote off at least 600 aircraft to all causes, Japan perhaps more than 800. Some 7,100 Americans perished in the campaign and nearly three times as many Japanese.
An early F4F-4, the Grumman Wildcat bore the brunt of carrierand island-based operations until the arrival of the F6F late in 1943. (Photo courtesy of Stan Piet)
Above: On the afternoon of June 16, 1943, Capt. Jim Shubin of the 339th Fighter Squadron stands by his P-38F #129 on Fighter Two Airstrip on Guadalcanal. Shubin holds two 20mm shells casings in a “V” signifying his downing of five Japanese Zeros...
Below: Pilots of the the 68th Fighter Squadron pose with one of the squadron’s P-40F-5 Warhawks on Fighter Two Airstrip on Guadalcanal in February 1943. The 68th FS was the first of two Merlin-powered Warhawk squadrons to see action in the Pacific...