Seventy years ago: Victory at Guadalcanal


Seventy years ago today, Major General Alexander Patch signaled to Admiral William Halsey:

Complete defeat of Japanese forces on Guadalcanal effected 16.25 today . . . ‘Tokyo Express’ no longer has terminus on Guadalcanal.”

After six months and two days of grinding attrition on the land, air, and sea around Guadalcanal, the island was firmly under allied control.  The strategic implications were readily apparent to anyone looking over a map at the time.  The tide of war in the Pacific shifted – from the slack following the Battle of Midway to decidedly in favor of the allies.

Gens. Patch and Vandegrift receive a status briefing

The campaign also premiered the joint approach to warfighting in the Pacific.  Consider the “land” component to the campaign.  Although the Marines (notably the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions, but with other smaller formations too) bore the brunt of the early fighting on land, later in the campaign the “Americal” Division and 25th Infantry Division (including XBrad’s 27th Wolfhounds) fought.  The Americal, unique in that it lacked a number designation, consisted of units originally intended to defend New Caledonia and other South Pacific outposts.  In October 1942 they joined the Marines defending Henderson Field.  The 25th arrived later in December, just as the Americans were taking the offensive.

For a short period of time General Patch formed the Composite Army-Marine (CAM) Division with the 6th Marines paired with the 147th and 182nd Infantry Regiments.  The CAM Division also assumed control of several Marine and Army artillery battalions.  The 2nd Marine Division’s staff served as the CAM Division’s headquarters.  Granted, this was a temporary measure – at most just task organization changes on the battlefield.  Still this is an example of the level of cooperation within the Army-Navy-Marines team at Guadalcanal.  Similar examples of joint (and combined) operations may be seen with the “Cactus Air Force” with Marine, Navy, and Army Air Corps squadrons.  Oh, and a squadron from the Royal New Zealand Air Force operating there too.  Was there perfect harmony between the services?  No.  But compared to the acrimonious relation between the Japanese Army and Navy, the rivalries on the US side looked more like minor spats.

So… go out and lift a glass today for those who derailed the Tokyo Express.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Seventy years ago: Victory at Guadalcanal

  1. For all the bitterness about he Navy leaving the Marines ashore before unloading, it should still be mentioned that operations ashore and afloat were coordinated, and air strikes and surface/carrier actions were similarly coordinated. Poorly, at times, but as Craig notes, it was to some extent the birth of combined arms operations.

    While the CAM was strictly provisional, the Americal quickly went from three regiments serving together by happenstance (a provisional division similar to the CAM) to an actual, War Department authorized division, with all the divisional elements, and in fact, did have a numerical designation, the 23rd ID, but has rarely been referred to as such.

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  2. SFC Dunlap 173dRVN (Ret.)

    You are superbly informed sir, many dogfaces have no idea of who the Americal Division was nevermind that they did have a numerical designation. One (of many) things I admire about the Marines at Guadalcanal: won primarily with bolt action 30-06 rifles.

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  3. Paul L. Quandt

    Craig:

    Because I am a pedant, I must point out that there were no Army Air Corps aircraft on Guadalcanal (or anywhere else) during WWII. The U.S. Army Air Corps became the U.S. Army Air Force in the summer of 1941.

    Paul

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    • Since I am a stickler for designations, I must point out that yes indeed those were Army Air Corps squadrons. When the Army Air Forces was created in 1941, that organization functioned as a part of the GHQ. However, the Army Air Corps remained as a designation accounting for the field organization components. Much in the same way that the “Infantry” or “Artillery” or “Coastal Artillery” functioned inside an army composed of Divisions and Corps. The AAF was formed just before the disbanding of the GHQ. It was analogous to the other branch chiefs in concept.

      In March 1942 when GHQ was disbanded, the Army Ground Forces (AGF), AAF, and Services of Supply all became separate organizations reporting to the Army CoS. But neither the AGF or AAF “commanded” combat elements directly. The AAC remained as an organizational entity, although for all practical purposes, unlike the subordinate organizations in the AGF, was subsumed by the parent organization. However, the AAC was, at least on paper, the proponent for air formations (squadrons, wings, etc). Again much in the same way the Infantry branch was the proponent for the infantry regiments, armor branch the proponent for armor regiments, etc. etc… Officers were commissioned into the “Air Corps” just as they were commissioned into the infantry, armor, artillery, transportation, etc. etc… Not all were, of course. A small percentage, perhaps 10%, were commissioned directly to the Army Air Forces, to serve more administrative positions.

      In short, the organization that set policy for the air arm was the AAF. The organization that provided manpower and equipment for the air arm was the AAC. Originally, the Army CoS would provide guidance, through the AAF, to the AAC as to what units were assigned where. But as the war went on, the AAF increased its autonomy in that regard. Likewise, the AAC shrank as an official entity to what amounted to an alternate designation of the same chairs at AAF.

      The Army Air Corps was NOT disbanded until the National Security Act of 1947. So when we say the pilots flying those missions from Guadalcanal (or anywhere else during WWII) were in the “Army Air Corps” that is in reference to the official accounting of the organization. Sorry for the length of the reply.

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    • Paul L. Quandt

      Craig:

      1) There is no reply thingy at the end of your reply to my post.

      2) I am reminded that it isn’t what you know that is dangerous, but what you know that is wrong. Thank you indeed for the lesson. All I can say on my behalf is that that isn’t how they taught it in the Basic Airman course at Lackland AFB in the summer of 1965.

      All these years I thought that my father had served in the AAC, AAF, and USAF (1939 to 1961). Now I’m not sure if he was in the AAF or officially remained in the AAC.

      Paul

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  4. ultimaratioregis

    Brad, great post. One thing that always sorta stuck in my craw with the coming of Goldwater-Nichols (I am old enough to remember the days before G-N) was how the new “Joint” bubbas acted like teenagers who thought they’d invented sex.

    The Solomons, and New Guinea, New Britain, and the Admiralties was a rich experience of true joint service and even coalition (Aussie) cooperation, which was as a whole MUCH smoother and more intricate than we tend to give credit to.

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  5. On to Saipan!
    No… wait….. :)

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    • I would guess you are referring to the “War of the Smiths” here. While the armchair generals like to cast that as some Army-Marine spat, when one looks, even with a glance, there isn’t so much there. Gen. Roy Geiger wrote an good overview of the incident from his perspective, published sometime in the 1950s (NI’s Proceedings I think). In the end, I think all would agree the issue was more personal friction than any differences in the services.

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  6. ultimaratioregis

    Craig,

    Mea maxima culpa. Excellent post.

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  7. Buck Buchanan

    Craig,

    And I think Geiger also brought out (haven’t read that account for years) that is was also a diffrence in doctrine between the Army and Marines.

    But it was a match and gasoline as far as personalities went.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      Buck,

      You are correct. It was the difference between very aggressive fire and movement tactics of the Marines and the VERY deliberate tactics of the Army. The Marines (and Army troops that had worked the islands in the Pacific) had learned that the aggressiveness, while seemingly reckless, actually reduced casualties significantly on the ground, and certainly that would prove true off Okinawa.

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    • I would say the real difference in doctrine was between the Marines and the 27th Infantry Division. The Marines (today) seem to forget the excellent job done by the 7th ID. That division brought lessens learned in the Aleutians , paired with USMC lessons from Tarawa, to Kwajalein-considered by many to be the best executed landing of the war.

      And again, the issue on Saipan wasn’t so much service rivalry as it was personalities. At no point was anyone on either service declining to support the other. Yet for the Japanese, one wonders if the Army and Navy were even on speaking terms at some critical junctures.

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  8. ultimaratioregis

    Craig,

    Agreed. Most of the Army units in the Pacific for any length of time adopted very similar tactics to the USMC. Contemporary accounts tell of Ralph Smith dismissing these tactics out of hand, with little regard for the combat experience of either the USMC or other Army outfits in the Pacific.

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    • Yes, and one wonders how long Ralph Smith would have been around had his division gone to the Southwest Pacific as originally intended. Say what you will, but “Doug” was quick to relive subordinates who couldn’t get the job done.

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