Facia Georgius: Guadalcanal From The Marines’ Perspective


Below is a re-posting of a blog piece I wrote for USNI in August of 2011.  A bonus is a spirited exchange between the author of the blog (yours truly) and Jim Hornfischer.   Few elements of the Navy-Marine Corps rivalry engender as much emotion as the Marines’ utter contempt for Frank Jack Fletcher.  In fact, I had a long and enjoyable conversation with a RADM a couple weekends ago about the very incident described below, and he was entirely in agreement with my assessment of Fletcher’s blunder.   As the 72nd anniversary of the beginning of the epic struggle for the Solomons approaches, I suggest Hornfischer’s books highly.  Despite our differences regarding Fletcher, his books are a must-read to a serious historian of the Pacific War.  And he portrays brilliantly how thin the line was between success and failure in the struggle for the Solomons.  

The medal above is the “George Medal”, which was an unofficial award commemorating the early struggles of the Marines on Guadalcanal. The image depicts, legend has it, the sleeve of Frank Jack Fletcher, with his hand dropping a hot potato onto the Marines ashore. The inscription is “Facia Georgius“. “Let George do It”.

Let me state that, in my opinion, James D. Hornfischer is unquestionably one of the finest writers of Naval history in the last half-century. His books, especially Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, are iconic works that tell superbly the tales of the US Navy in the Second World War in the Pacific. However, during a recent episode of MIDRATS, Mr. Hornfischer’s assertions about the US Marines’ history of the Guadalcanal campaign are entirely incorrect. The issue at hand in those assertions is the decision of Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher to depart the Guadalcanal area on the morning of 9 August 1942, after just two days of supporting the amphibious operations ashore.

Fletcher was concerned with the risk to his carriers, Saratoga, Wasp, and Enterprise, by having them tied to support of operations ashore. While understandable, what Fletcher refused to acknowledge was that with amphibious operations, once the landing takes place and forces are ashore, a commander is all in, and must support the forces ashore. The landings by the Marines were the entire reason for having Task Force 61 in the waters of the Solomons. Admiral Turner (commanding the amphibious task force, TF 62) and First Marine Division Commander General A. A. Vandegrift argued the point heatedly in a conference aboard Saratoga, but to no avail.

Chapter 5 of the splendid History of the First Marine Division, “The Old Breed” (Infantry Journal Press, 1949), begins:

The feeling of expendability is difficult to define. It is loneliness, it is a feeling of being abandoned, and it is something more, too: it is as if events over which you have no control have put a ridiculously low price tag on your life.

When word got around Guadalcanal in the second week of August that the Navy had taken off and left the Marines, the feeling of expendability became a factor in the battle.

“I know I had a feeling” says a man who was there, “and I think a lot of others felt the same way, that we’d never get off that damned island alive. Nobody said this out loud at the time. I was afraid to say it for fear it’s come true”.

“But”, says a Captain, “there was an awful lot of talk about Bataan.”

Even the greenest Second Lieutenant in the Division knew enough to understand that an amphibious operation cannot be sustained without Naval support.

The Guadalcanal Campaign, the official historical monograph published by the USMC History Division, is somewhat more matter-of-fact, but still states:

The withdrawal of the supply ships, therefore, was, from a troop standpoint, little short of a catastrophe, but Admiral Turner’s decision was not changed.

And sums up the situation of the Marines ashore this way:

The withdrawal of the transports had left the Marine forces with only a part of their initially scanty supplies ashore. Ammunition supply was adequate, but the situation in the matter of food was serious. Even with the acquisition of a considerable stock of rice and canned food from the captured Japanese area, supplies were so short that it was necessary on 12 August to begin a program of two meals per day. There was a similar shortage of defensive material, barbed wire (of which only 18 spools were landed), and entrenching tools and sand-bags.

The most serious shortage of all, however, from the point of view of the engineers who were charged with the completion of the airfield, was that of specialized equipment necessary for the task. No power shovels had been landed, nor dump trucks.

So, on 9 August 1942, the day Admiral Fletcher departs with his warships of TF 61, and the cargo vessels of Admiral Turner’s Amphibious TF 62, the Marines of the First Marine Division are ashore. But not all of them. Vandegrift’s reserve, the 2nd Marines, is still embarked. Those that are ashore have barely 96 hours of ammunition. They are short of food. The enemy strength and disposition is largely unknown. Their lifeline, the airstrip, is not yet repaired and has no aircraft. They are all but defenseless against the frequent Japanese air strikes.

Vandegrift and his staff had agreed to come ashore with an initial load plan that represented significantly less than their minimum requirement due to constraints on cargo space, with the promise that the Navy would surge supplies to them. Now, most of even that small amount was out of reach of his Marines, headed to sea in Turner’s cargo holds, as the latter was forced to withdraw when Admiral Fletcher’s warships departed.

But for three absolutely miraculous occurrences in the fortunes of war, the Guadalcanal landings might have been a disaster comparable to the loss of the Philippines just a few months before.

The first occurrence is that the Japanese commander, caught off guard, underestimate both the strength of the landing force (believing only a few thousand ashore), and the fighting spirit of the Marines, and did not move decisively to reinforce the small garrison on Guadalcanal with elements of the 17th Army that were available. (A single reinforced battalion of the 28th Regiment, about 1,100 Japanese, was given the mission of re-taking the island.)

The second was the fortuitous capture, with slight damage, of a single bulldozer, which the Marines used to maximum effect to complete a 2,700 foot airstrip on the Lunga plain. Without that stroke of luck, several weeks likely would have passed before any aircraft could have operated out of Henderson Field.

The third near-miracle was the capture of large stores of Japanese canned fish and rice, which becomes a staple of the Marines’ diet in the absence of rations still in the holds of the Navy ships.

Meanwhile, the arduous task of building of bunkers and of obstacles to defend the Marine positions and the all-important airfield, was done by hand in the searing jungle heat. The Marines, short of wire and sandbags, improvised as best as possible. By the time the 2nd Marines arrived (22 August) and additional supplies were landed, the Marines had been engaged in a number of short, sharp fights with the Japanese, the first of dozens and hundreds of bloody slugging matches in the rotting heat of the jungle on Guadalcanal.

The fight for Guadalcanal has been well-documented, and by the time last of the First Marine Division embarked for good from the island, the Division had suffered nearly 700 killed, 1,300 wounded, and more than 8,000 sick with malaria and other jungle diseases. For veterans of that time on Guadalcanal, men who didn’t have our perspective of inevitable victory either on Guadalcanal or in the Solomons, their resentment of (at the time) the US Navy and of Admiral Fletcher (which persists to this day) is entirely warranted.

Fletcher’s departure with his carriers, claiming the need to fuel (“always fueling”, wrote Morrison) was an exceedingly poorly considered move. His decision to do so infuriated Admiral Turner, commanding TF 62, who understood that his ships and their cargo were they keys to survival for the Marines ashore. While Fletcher’s aircraft carriers were precious commodities, his decision to minimize risk to those units had the effect of placing the entire of Operation Watchtower in considerable danger of failure. The lack of supplies and support which the Marines ashore endured in the opening weeks of the fight for Guadalcanal negated Vandegrift’s plans for immediate offensive operations (with an expanded airfield) to clear the island, left them all but defenseless to Japanese air and naval forces, and prolonged what became a protracted and savage fight under unspeakably miserable conditions.

In his efforts to protect his carriers, Fletcher inexcusably risked something even more precious and irreplaceable. The only trained and equipped amphibious force that the United States had in the entire Pacific. The loss of the carriers would have had severe operational implications, but defeat on Guadalcanal, resulting in an evacuation, or worse, capitulation, would have been strategic disaster.

Attempts at “reassessment” of Fletcher’s decision to pull support for the Marines on Guadalcanal, and justifying that decision six decades hence as “prudent”, are exercises in revisionism mixed with ample doses of 20/20 hindsight. The Marines’ bitterness at Fletcher is well-placed. Asserting differently dismisses the situation the Marines faced in mid-August of 1942 vis a vis the enemy as well as their own logistics. The Marines would gain a new respect for the Navy once Fletcher and the overmatched and timid Ghormley are replaced, the latter by the legendary William F. Halsey, who immediately visited Vandegrift and the Marines on Guadalcanal. Halsey’s “battle-mindedness” and promise of the support of the Navy was a refreshing and comforting change from his predecessor, and was immediately reflected in the morale of the Marines ashore.

Mr. Hornfischer’s goal in his exploration of Naval history, to put himself (and his reader) in the shoes of the commander, is extremely admirable. He would be remiss, however, if the sets of shoes he places himself in do not include the muddy boondockers of a First Division Marine on Guadalcanal. Were Mr. Hornfischer able to interview the First Marine Division veterans of Guadalcanal forty years ago, he would have gotten their perspective on those weeks without Navy support, expressed in the most colorful of language. Which needs no revision.

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Interesting comments from the esteemed author, James D. Hornfischer:

I’m delighted to find this colloquy unfolding in this reputable forum between such well-informed service professionals.

As I tried fervently to convey in NEPTUNE’S INFERNO, I’m sympathetic to the plight of the Guadalcanal Marines who were forced to persevere without air cover or full provisions for a period of time that they could not know at the time. Doing their business under these conditions, they were gallant and resourceful as ever. They are entitled not only to their pride, but also their chagrin. The question is whether the study of this history should end there. Is their heat-of-the-moment rage sufficient to serve as the final word on Frank Jack Fletcher and the Navy’s performance in the campaign? This question pretty well answers itself in the asking.

The blogger labels as revisionist any assessment of Fletcher that does not comport with the partisan, Corps-centric assessments formulated during and immediately after the war and abetted by Samuel Eliot Morison (and never rebutted by Fletcher himself).

The Marines’ resentment of Frank Jack Fletcher was well placed in its day. Our burden today is to see it in light of everything else we know about the complex circumstances that attended the campaign. Most of these, of course, were invisible from the beach. In NEPTUNE’S INFERNO I tried to thread that needle without resorting to the kind of interservice partisanship that characterizes many of the Corps-centric accounts of the campaign.

Admiral Nimitz instructed his commanders at all times to operate under the guiding star of “calculated risk,” that is, to weigh the potential benefits of an action against its potential costs and drawbacks. In choosing how long to expose the Pacific’s only three carriers in direct support of the Guadalcanal landings, Admiral Fletcher determined how much risk he was willing to accept in the opening act of Operation Watchtower. He informed his colleagues in advance of the operation and his decision was extensively debated in advance.

Today, it’s all over but the shouting. History bears out the wisdom of his determination. The Marines were left without carrier air support from the carriers’ withdrawal on August 9 until August 20, when the USS Long Island delivered the body of the Cactus Air Force. The consequences of those eleven days of exposure turned out, happily, to be negligible. The Japanese did nothing to seriously threaten the U.S. position on Guadalcanal during that time. The carriers returned in time to fight the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. (His conduct of the battle demonstrated the sincerity of his caution; he ordered one of his three carriers, the Wasp, out of the battle area to refuel.) Fighting with one hand behind his back, so to speak, he used the Enterprise and Saratoga to deflect the Japanese push. He saved his fleet for that moment and the others that followed. One could well speculate that had he left his carriers near Guadalcanal continuously from August 7, they might have been struck, making the close victory of Eastern Solomons impossible and imperiling the Marine position even more seriously.

This, much like Marine partisans’ complaints of “inexcusable risks to the landing force,” is a fruitless exercise in speculation. It’s only proper to damn Fletcher—or say the “risk” he took was “inexcusable”—by assuming an alternate universe of events where his decisions led to disaster. That’s when you ask the question Why and cast the arrows of judgment at the perpetrators.

It seems reasonable to judge the final wisdom of a particular risk by looking at the results that flowed from it. If we do that, there is no compelling basis for labeling Admiral Fletcher anything other than a winner.

As events actually unfolded, the Battle of the Eastern Solomons marked the beginning of the Navy’s sustained commitment to fight in defense of the Marine position on Guadalcanal, risking its most valuable assets the whole way through. By the time it was over, the Navy had fought seven major naval actions in which its KIA outnumbered infantry KIA by a factor of nearly 3 to 1.

It is entirely coherent to sympathize with the authentic anger of the Marines on Cactus, and simultaneously recognize the balance of merit favoring Admiral Fletcher’s controversial decision. The Marines lacked air cover for eleven days, and a large portion of their supplies, and suffered the bracing uncertainty how long those circumstances would attend.

By the time it was over, the three-to-one KIA ratio stood starkly apparent to anyone who was watching, and victory absolves all sins. General Vandegrift remembered the November 13 deaths of Admirals Scott and Callaghan with his famous dispatch “lifting our battered helmets in deepest appreciation.” To wallow in the bile of interservice partisanship, from a tendentious evaluation of a fragment of events, in spite of the actual outcome of history, is little more than a parlor game that negates the final judgment of the 1st MarDiv commander himself regarding the performance of the fleet. Nearly 70 years after events, we can do better than that.

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And response from the “blogger”:

The questioning of Admiral Fletcher’s decision to remove the carriers of TF 61 from supporting the Marines ashore at Guadalcanal is far more than “a fruitless exercise in speculation”, or “bile of interservice partisanship”.

To assert that because the Japanese failed to take advantage of a golden opportunity to interdict the US drive into the Solomons and bring about a potentially crippling strategic setback, the decision Fletcher made to withdraw was correct is to assert that “all’s well that ends well”. Such is a singularly dangerous approach to the study of military history, as it goes great lengths toward the already-prevalent tendency to believe that the winners have little to learn from an ultimately successful outcome.

In any amphibious operation, support from the sea is critical to success, irrespective of the service executing the amphibious assault. Nimitz’ concept of “calculated risk” is in no way sufficient to excuse the willful passing of initiative to the enemy in the very place that was the US main effort at the time in the Pacific. Fletcher left Vandegrift without the forces and supplies to execute his plan ashore, in fact with barely enough to defend a thin perimeter against an enemy whose strength and disposition was largely unknown. That the enemy did not seize that initiative is to our eternal good fortune. We have several bloody examples of what happened in amphibious operations when the initial advantage of the initiative is allowed to pass. At Anzio seventeen months later, Army General Lucas dithered in his beachhead while Kesselring acted, reinforcing the threatened area as fast as he could with every available formation at his disposal. The result was a costly slugging match against what was by then an enemy well prepared to meet the breakout. We should be grateful that Hyakutake was no Kesselring.

It remains speculation, as well, whether Fletcher represented truthfully to Ghormley that both General Vandegrift and Admiral Turner had stated that 96 hours was the time required for full unloading of the transports. Both had done so, and had argued vehemently against Fletcher’s decision while aboard Saratoga.

No, this debate is not “partisan service” anything. Initiative is among the most precious commodities on the battlefield, to be surrendered only at dear cost. Fletcher did so, or rather forced Vandegrift ashore to do so, but the Japanese did not take it. He was, as were the Marines ashore, fortunate in the extreme.

As stated above, the Marines by and large came to respect greatly the efforts of the Navy in the waters around Guadalcanal. It has been a subject of intense study on my part, and worthy of the highest of admiration for the bravery and tenacity of the American Sailor. However, the anger of the Marines and their contempt for Fletcher is understandable. The loss of the transports and the Division reserve crippled the commander ashore, and prevented the undertaking of immediate offensive operations that could have cleared the island before Japanese reinforcements arrived in significant numbers. Instead, Guadalcanal became a protracted and bloody fight on the island and in the surrounding waters that ended only with the evacuation of the Japanese survivors in early 1943.

Fletcher’s decision should be recognized for what it was, a major tactical blunder that could have had severe strategic consequences. That he, and his boss, Ghormley, were removed from command, speaks volumes. That is true, seventy years or seven hundred years after the battle.

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103 responses to “Facia Georgius: Guadalcanal From The Marines’ Perspective

  1. This is an argument that has been going on for over 50 years with no winner as yet. Frankly, from everything I’ve read and studied in the matter is that the reliefs you speak of speak volumes about the politics of the situation rather than the military situation. The idea that things turned out well is justification for a poor decision is silly. But, historical events have turned on less. Had Fletcher stayed, there was significant risk to the carriers.

    As I see it, there were two things at serious risk, the ships and the 1st Marines. At the time both were irreplaceable. The loss of either could have meant the loss of the war in the Pacific.

    By the by. My father’s 2nd oldest brother was a Navy Corpsman who went ashore with the 1st Marines on the Canal. We never could get him to talk much about it either.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      The US had other carriers in the Pacific. We only had one amphibious force capable of meeting the Japanese. Of the two, it was the latter that was irreplaceable.

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    • The clearest evidence that Fletcher erred was that he was soon shunted off to serve as Commander of the 13th Naval District.

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    • Should we next refight the Battle of the Smiths?

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    • ultimaratioregis

      Why not? Nuthin’ better to do!

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    • Well, I think you know what side I come down on.

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    • Sorry Brad, but that’s not evidence of anything but the political situation resulting from 20/20 hindsight. Fletcher may not have had the killer attitude of Halsey, but I can see the decision going either way. That other carriers might have been available is not really an argument either. If the Japs had been able to sink those 3, it would have been a very serious setback for the war effort. Fletcher’s behavior in that regard was also commonplace through the rest of the war. The Navy was very skittish about risking carriers in the littorals for good reason.

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    • Take it up with Ernie King. He fired Fletcher by the end of the month.

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    • timactual

      “Take it up with Ernie King. He fired Fletcher by the end of the month.”

      I doubt he was fired. He had been in action since the beginning of the war and had won three battles in four months. His flagship, Yorktown, was damaged at Coral Sea and sunk at Midway. His next flagship, Saratoga, was damaged after the Battle of the Eastern Solomons and he was slightly injured. That’s a pretty full dance card and a dam fine record. He needed a rest, and it would be a very ungrateful sob who relieved him for any other reason.

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  2. Jason

    It’s been quite a while since I read through John Lundstrom’s biography of Fletcher and of the naval aspects of the Guadalcanal Campaign in his First Team duology, but, IIRC, pre-invasion planning was that the carriers left several days after the Marines were ashore to avoid being a target for the IJN and that the log force under Turner would leave about the same time. This was apparently agreed to by all parties before hand.

    Supposedly Turner engaged in quite a bit of revisionism after the war to coverup his agreement and to put himself in a much better light by aligning himself with the Marines when he didn’t give Fletcher much of an argument for staying. I might have gotten some of this incorrect, but the decisions at that time have a lot more nuances than is often acknowledged.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      Jason, the source I quote extensively is the USMC monograph of Guadalcanal. Those are interviews, some done while the war was still being fought, with some of the primaries who participated in the events. Either they were lying, or Fletcher ignored them. The account of RK Turner being furious comes not from Turner but from Vandegrift.

      The carriers, and the transports, were to stay 96 hours. Fletcher changed that to 48 hours. Which precipitated a long and bloody slog on Guadalcanal and in the surrounding waters. His risk aversion got the better of him.

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  3. SFC Dunlap (Ret.) 173d RVN

    …and much of that ammunition the Marines had plenty of was primarily for their ’03 Springfield bolt action rifles as the fielding of Garands had slowed considerably and the Johnson family of weapons were in the process of fielding for the USMC. So in a manner of speaking, the Marines on Guadalcanal started out short depending on how one feels about ’03’s vs Ariska’s.

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  4. Halsey had a better grasp of KILL, KILL, KILL, than Fletcher. Fletcher should have never abandoned the beachhead. With adequate reserves and supplies for the Marines, and SeaBees and their equipment ashore, there never would have been the close-run Battles for Henderson Field, as it would have been up and running by Mid August, and defended by sufficient forces.

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  5. All this discussion and not a peep about the disaster at First Battle of Savo Island and the way it affected decision making. Also, no mention of the failure to combat load the Marines essential gear. Last, as best as I recall, there were no other carriers in the Pacific…big deck carriers.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      Well, Byron, Savo did not figure into the decision-making on Fletcher’s part at all. The meeting aboard Saratoga was prior to Savo, when Fletcher announced to the horror of his Marine CLF and his commander of TF 62 that he was leaving in 48 hours.

      As for combat loading, the vessels available for transport were as combat loaded as they could be. The Marines worked like mad to do so, but the ships were conversions of civilian merchantmen with little correlation to how later AKAs and APAs were built. One of the main AAR points from WATCHTOWER was the need for purpose-built amphibious auxiliaries.

      In the Pacific, there was Hornet. And, if the surge was necessary, Ranger was stateside. Essex was nearing completion.

      Hornfischer’s assertions regarding Fletcher leaving his carriers there “continuously from August 7th” is misleading. Nobody, not even the Marines on the island, advocated that. What they advocated was that the carriers, and the transports they protected, stay the promised 96 hours to unload the Division reserve, the ammunition and food, and the engineering assets to build defenses and complete the runway. It was THIS that Fletcher refused to do, and his decision reflected an aversion to risk that had no place in this operation, appropriate as it might have been for others (relief of Wake). The result was handcuffing Vandegrift in his ability to execute operations to secure the island, and give the Japanese a golden opportunity to reinforce decisively.

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    • Tarl

      In the Pacific, there was Hornet. And, if the surge was necessary, Ranger was stateside. Essex was nearing completion.

      Essex did not serve in the Pacific until May 1943. In other words, she and the rest of her class were 9 months to a year from being available for combat. This is not a good argument for hazarding carriers in August 1942.

      In WW2 it took three years to build a carrier. It took less than a year to raise an amphibious division. Which one was more irreplaceable?

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    • ultimaratioregis

      “Nearing completion”. Shipyards often accelerated work on specific units based on fleet requirements. Certainly could have been done with Essex, and in fact was proposed for CV-9 and CV-10 in that summer-autumn of 1942.

      17,000 Marines vs an aircraft carrier, and you choose the aircraft carrier? Huh. Slated for higher command, are we?

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  6. TrT

    As someone who knows little of the war in question, there do appear to be a few obvious questions.

    The plan was to land the entire marine force in one uninterrupted block yes?
    This didnt happen, why?

    Fueling?
    Who was responsible for the decision not to refuel before the landings? Were they misinformed about fuel levels? Was there some sort of accident that lost a significant fuel store? Was fuel use higher than expect during the landing? Again why, who was responsible for that calculation, were there figures correct?

    Fuel is easily thrown around as a reason, but its one that is easily verifiable.
    And that verification doesnt seem to have occured.

    Which leaves enemy action.
    And again, surely this must have been agreed, the carriers will stay on station until x, y and z, then they are departing?

    I’ll end with a quote from a Royal Navy Admiral
    “It takes three years to build a ship, it takes three centuries to build a tradition.”
    Cunninghams response when asked if the Royal Navy should cease efforts to evacuate the Army from Crete.

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  7. Overall, however, as Hornfischer points out, history vindicates Fletcher’s decision. We must keep in mind what Fletcher knew, and what “coins” he had in his pocket to weigh when making decisions. Had he lost three carriers in the operation, the next three replacements were not due out to the Pacific (if at all) until the following spring. Without those carriers, there was simply no need for an amphibious landing force. Seriously, how would one conduct any amphibious operations in theater (SoPac or CentPac) without flat tops for support?

    The argument you offer about the only trained/equipped amphibious force in theater bears context. In the fall of 1942, the priority of effort was: 1:)North Africa, 2) Invasion of France, someday, 3) Hawaii, 4) the Aleutians, and finally, somewhere tied at the lower part of the list – Australian, New Guinea, and Guadalcanal. The commitment of resources to Guadalcanal signaled a willingness, at the highest levels, to risk that combat force on what was a strategic objective, yet of lower significance to the war effort. And it bears note, had the Japanese not taken possession of Attu and Kiska, that whole calculation changes. Arguably, trained/equipped Army divisions then are committed to North Africa instead… and Torch proceeds to its original time line. All the while, there were plenty of planers (both Army and Navy to be sure) in Washington arguing if “Germany First” were adhered to with vigor, there was no requirement for amphibious operations in the Pacific until 1944. (And that, I would counter, was not realistic to say the least to either side of a speculative time line.)

    It’s always good to look back at history and offer a “what if.” But the value of such lies in the interpretation of the actions, while avoiding the pitfalls of second guessing the participants. In this case, we must understand the context, in the broader sense, before delving into the tactical decisions.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      Events hardly vindicate Fletcher, and Hornfischer is mistaken in asserting so, as are you. His actions created a bloody stalemate which cost both the USN and USMC a tremendous price. The assumption is always that Fletcher would automatically have lost all of his carriers, which was hardly a probability, let alone a certainty. But abandon 17,000 Marines on Guadalcanal for three weeks against an enemy who, had he taken the initiative, could have reinforced with superior combat power, and the 1st Marine Division would VERY likely have been doomed.

      No, events in no way vindicate Fletcher, for his blunder cost the US severely, and had the Japanese commander acted aggressively, might have doomed the entire operation. Which is why he and Ghormley were sent packing.

      As for another trained amphibious force in July-August 1942, many of the forces who executed Torch in November of that year had yet to be aggregated and begin any serious training in amphibious operations.

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    • Ah, but you are indeed falling into the armchair general’s pitfall here – the “what if.” Again, the reality was that those higher up on the command chain were willing to take some risk… But not THAT risk which drove Fletcher’s decision making. All well and good to critique the decision, but the context is needed for proper assessment. Reality, even if Fletcher stood too for weeks, Japanese reactions would have lead to a stalemate as was seen. As you point out yourself, Japanese reaction was delayed. Just as the allies saw Guadalcanal as a lower tier objective, likewise the Japanese. And are we to presume senior Allied leaders were blind to such?

      Are you saying by default 17,000 had no hope of holding out on Guadalcanal in the face of determined Japanese effort?

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    • ultimaratioregis

      Sorry, Craig, the “what if?” pitfall is the Fletcher apologists insistence that he would have lost all his carriers had he stayed the 96 hours he initially promised and was informed of well before the landing was the minimum to unload the supplies, ammunition, and equipment for 1st MarDiv, as well as the Division reserve.

      Not coincidentally, Guadalcanal and Tarawa would cement into doctrine that it was the Commander, Landing Force who would dictate the pace and nature of unloading the transports once command had been transferred ashore.

      Without requisite ammunition and supplies, the Marine Division ashore would have been in desperate straits indeed. Hyakutake had the bulk of 17th Army available and otherwise unemployed because of the defeat at Coral Sea, enough combat power to make the situation very grim for the Marines. The Japanese had, without the carriers or a completed airstrip, unchallenged air superiority and the IJN owned the waters over which resupply and reinforcement would come. That he did not seize the opportunity is to our great good fortune.

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    • I think you are talking past the points I’ve made. It is NOT that Fletcher would have lost three carriers. Rather THAT Fletcher was unwilling to risk losing three carriers in light of the emphasis placed on that resource by his superiors. Doesn’t take a graduate of the War College to understand that more things are at play here than just leaving some Marines on the beach.

      So let’s get beyond the “What if” that you keep running back to. The proper question, from the historical standpoint is – “Why did he?” And the answer is something which takes a lot more gray matter to derive.

      And at the same time, I cannot help but wonder at the other counter-factual in the room here – as you keep contending – that the Marines on Guadalcanal would have been overrun, destroyed, or otherwise had the Japanese responded swiftly. Really? That needs to be discussed in more depth than Fletcher’s departure. Sort of puts a wet blanket on a lot of warm fires, if you ask me.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      What I said was “would have been in desperate straits” and that the “situation would be very grim indeed”. Without US naval and air forces, just what was to stop Hyukatake from landing two-plus divisions and his long range artillery onto the island? With plenty of ammunition, fuel, food, and supplies? Not a thing. NOTHING, save Hyukatake’s disdain for Americans and his low-balling of his estimate of enemy strength. He had plenty of lighterage and would have been entirely free of American interference. No matter how desperately the Marines would have fought, without airpower and without ammunition, a week or more of combat against superior combat power would have been an unwelcome prospect whose outcome was far less than certain.

      Vandegrift had planned to have the runway functioning inside of 96 hours, and with requisite ammunition and the Division reserve available, had planned to push a perimeter outside of artillery range around the airfield, and commence immediate construction of a second strip. Fletcher’s precipitous skedaddle at 48 hours instead of two days later put paid to that plan. Simply, neither he nor Ghormley were the men for the jobs. And they were sent packing forthwith, in large measure because of his skittishness in the opening days of the campaign.

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    • So… Reading you here, you make this as a minor counter-factual point of order. OK.

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  8. TrT

    If the reason for retreating was to save the carriers, why the talk of fuel?

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  9. timactual

    Despite all the hysteria about Marines in mortal peril and the outcome of the war in the Pacific in jeopardy, I am inclined to give Fletcher the benefit of the doubt.

    Let’s not forget, Guadalcanal was Fletcher’s third major operation in 4 months. Coral Sea in May, Midway in June (where his flagship was badly damaged), and Tulagi/Guadalcanal in August. He may have been a bit tired, and at 57 he was no spring chicken. He had also seen at Midway that it didn’t take much in the way of bad luck to lose four carriers in a couple of hours, and he only had three.

    So, in the face of constant land-based air attack, a submarine threat, and the threat of attacks by Japanese aircraft carriers he probably decided to withdraw to a safe distance to see how things developed.And to refuel. Does anyone know whether he also needed aviation fuel? It’s certainly possible, and aircraft aren’t much good without it.He also had only 78 fighters left, out of a starting force of 99. There was basically no ground threat on Guadalcanal at this time, and Tulagi and Gavutu had been secured. As for supplies, it was Adm. Turner’s decision to withdraw all of his ships.

    Supporting the forces on Guadalcanal was only one of his missions.

    Henderson Field, on Guadalcanal, was ready for operation on Aug. 18, about 10 days after the landing. The first planes arrived on Aug. 20. Their delivery was covered by the carriers.

    In response to the Battle of the Tenaru on Aug. 21, Fletcher turned north towards Guadalcanal with his remaining two carriers. Wasp was engaged in patrol and covering operations for convoys and reinforcements headed for Guadalcanal.

    On Aug. 24 the Battle of the Eastern Solomons was fought. Fletcher had two carriers, the Japanese had three three plus land-based air. Fletcher won. Again.

    I would imagine that a lot of “what if?s” ran through Fletcher’s mind at Guadalcanal, and he evidently decided that keeping his ships and planes intact and ready to fight in a position unknown to the enemy was a better decision than wearing down his ships and men in inconsequential actions within range of enemy forces.

    My vote is for Fletcher.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      Quite a bit of 20/20 hindsight. Are you asserting Turner should have stayed without TF 61 for protection?

      Your vote may have been for Fletcher, but Nimitz’s sure wasn’t. He was sent away, as he should have been, and his career after that was nondescript. That Nimitz and King sent Ghormley and Fletcher packing speaks volumes.

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    • timactual

      “Quite a bit of 20/20 hindsight.”

      If you call listing historical facts hindsight, then I plead guilty.

      No, I am not asserting Turner should lhave stayed, I merely pointed out that it was his decision to leave, not Fletcher’s.
      \
      “That Nimitz and King sent Ghormley and Fletcher packing speaks volume”

      Speaking of hindsight.
      As I wrote in response to xbradtc, above, he needed a rest and his record up to that point was exemplary, particularly having beaten the Japanese in three battles in four months. Did anyone else match that?

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    • timactual

      PS
      The Japanese found a way to supply their forces on Guadalcanal in the face of an enemy force. Why couldn’t Turner, with even more resources?

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  10. As a historian, I have often rated Fletcher down in comparison to some of the other flat-top admirals of WWII. That said, I still think he made the correct choice on August 8. The reality of the situation:

    1. Japanese air from Rabaul had already mortally damaged one US transport, and badly damaged a destroyer. (The wartime tallies demonstrate the USN had more to fear from land based IJN aircraft than carrier aircraft, but that’s an aside for another time).

    2. Following Midway, the top brass in Hawaii and in Washington issued cautionary guidance with regard to carriers. These were THE strategic asset of most value. Despite the tremendous victory that June, the IJN still had more decks. Fletcher and everyone between him and Washington knew that well.

    3. Operation Watchtower was a limited offensive move. And even then, we have to use qualifications when saying “offensive.” It was best seen as a limited counter-offensive designed to keep the Japanese from isolating Australia.

    4. The forces brought to Operation Watchtower can hardly be considered a “trained and equipped” amphibious division. It was a division on paper. But in reality, the 1st Marine Division was a force gathered from all about the Pacific at that time, with only minimal division-level experience. At the regimental level, yes. The force was lacking in many details. And to be blunt, what was needed for Guadalcanal (as the next six months demonstrated) was a corps-sized force. Because of Torch and the Aleutians, there were no units of that size to scratch up for the Pacific in mid-1942. Six months later… different story.

    5. Allied intelligence correctly identified the major immediate threats to any force on Guadalcanal to be air and naval. Japanese ground forces were off balance and not even able to force their way on New Guinea – a side effect of “victory disease” if you will. It would take more than a month for the Japanese to build up a force able to seriously threaten Guadalcanal.

    Given those points, Fletcher’s decision to withdraw on August 8 actually seems like the smart play. What interesting is that while most of the wartime generation of historians pointed to Savo (occurring that evening), most had to begrudgingly admit that Mikawa’s attack was made DESPITE the threat of Fletcher’s carriers, not due to the absence of them. And the nature of the next six months of actions in the “slot” lead most to believe Mikawa would have made his sortie without interference from Fletcher either way. More to the point, Savo should be referenced as “evidence” if we are going to start pointing fingers at Fletcher’s decision in the first place.

    Likewise, if we start playing the “what ifs” about Fletcher’s risk aversion on August 8, we have to start playing those logical “ifs” out against the next six months of carrier battles. But for one well placed Betty’s torpedo … or one Long Lance here or there….

    Next, go back to point five above. The Japanese were at that time coming to a strategic reckoning of their own. The Navy was explaining now to the Army how “reach exceeds grasp” works. Not until August 19 did the first ground reinforcements arrive on the island, in the form of less than 1000 men from the 28th Infantry Regiment. Poor intelligence and very little support…. The battle of the Tenaru, to some degree, should also be entered as evidence in favor of Fletcher’s August 8 decision.

    Also, keep in mind, if the Americans landed on Guadalcanal ill-prepared and on the ‘shoestring,’ that went double for the Japanese. However, nobody wants to study up on Harukichi Hyakutake to point out lessons learned from any mistakes he made along the way. Just food for thought.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      “Japanese ground forces were off balance and not even able to force their way on New Guinea”

      What was 17th Army up to in early August 1942? They were idle. the fact that it took a month to put substantial forces ashore is precisely Hyukatake’s mortal (and inexcusable) error. He had both the forces and the transports to get them ashore in a few days, absolutely unimpeded by US action. That he did not was one of the great opportunities missed by the IJA in the entire war. And made Fletcher’s blunder a lot less consequential than it would have been. Fletcher showed a clean pair of heels, when he should have stayed and covered the unloading of the landing force for another 48 hours. The “smart play” would have been to execute the mission.

      Whether the 1st MarDiv was the efficient amphibious force it would later become is not the point, by the way. It had considerably more training than any other US unit in the Pacific in amphibious operations. And Vandegrift had been promised he would not be committed for six months, so that he could train to the standards he knew were necessary. But he got the call less than a week after establishing Division HQ. So, 1st MarDiv was all that was available for a trained and equipped amphibious force.

      Like

    • In early August 1942, the 17th Army had only two regiments which were not directly employed in either ground campaigns or important garrisoning. The 17th Army’s primary mission at the time was New Guinea. Again, knowing how extended, and strategically off balance, the Japanese were, Fletcher’s decision of August 8 is actually the “smart play.”

      Facts are facts. The First Marine Division was going into its first fight. It had not conducted full scale maneuvers as a Division. Calling it a “trained” division is a stretch. I’d side with you in regard to individual subordinate units. But as a division, it was not.

      And again, look at the original Torch timeline. Look at the Army formations pulled out of that operation, where they went, and what they did. There’s a lot of tie in between Watchtower and Torch… so much in fact that more than one historian has suggested King put forward Watchtower as a parry against the “Europe First” strategy. But now we are talking “big history.”

      The bottom line here – and why I’ve always felt this was a marginal “what if” at best – is that the Marines were left isolated on Guadalcanal for a few weeks. So what? That sort of thing happens in war. Talk to the 101AB about Bastonge. The Aussies about Tobrok. Or the 3rd ID about Anzio. Oh, and let us not forget the handful of Australians who were fighting, at the same time as the Guadalcanal landings, in isolated pockets on the Kokoda Track. 1st Marines are not the only organization asked to deal with an adverse tactical situation due to some strategic concerns.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      I beg to differ regarding 17th Army. 2nd and 38th Divisions were sent into the fight some weeks later, so their garrison duties were not so important. That the Japanese commander passed up a golden opportunity does not validate Fletcher’s blunder in any way. Hyukatake had the means to put a hell of a lot more than 1,100 men ashore any time he chose. What was to stop him?

      “That sort of thing happens in war”. It sure does. Particularly when the commanders whose mission was to support the Landing Force show a clean pair of heels. Fletcher deserves the scorn of the Marines. Nimitz and King sure as hell thought so. And we know what Vandegrift and the Marines thought.

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    • “I beg to differ regarding 17th Army. 2nd and 38th Divisions were sent into the fight some weeks later, so their garrison duties were not so important.”

      I would recommend further reading in this regard, as that assessment is in error. The 17th Army did NOT have those formations free to send into Guadalcanal until after August. The IJA had to make some serious decisions in order to free up those resources. One was the reduction of operations in China. The other was to shift resources away from New Guinea.

      And what was to stop Hyakutake? Logistics. “Reach exceeds grasp.” The IJN was having trouble getting enough hulls in place to maintain what they had, much less move a couple divisions forward in the combat zone.

      Simple facts here – in the time period in which the 1st Marines were on Guadalcanal without air support, the Japanese were only able to counter with 1000 men. Period. And later increments of Japanese reinforcements arrived piecemeal. If you want to argue they could have sent more, then the argument is – “what if.” So let’s not portray the destruction of the 1st Marine Division as some likely course of events. It was far less likely than portrayed in the post above.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      We will have to disagree in the extreme on this. Since 17th Army was not headed to New Guinea, it was a major uncommitted ground formation. Yes, the IJA would have had to make decisions regarding asset allocation, but that was precisely Hyukatake’s responsibility.

      The IJN had enough lighterage to move 2nd and 38th Division onto Guadalcanal, unmolested by US air or naval forces. To say that Hyukatake could “only” move 1,100 men is a misrepresentation. He chose to do so because of his disdain for his American opponent and his underestimation of US strength that had landed on the island.

      I would suggest reading the US Marine Corps’ official monograph from the battle, and the the official history of the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal. Those tell a very different story from the seven-decades hence glossing over of Fletcher’s serious blunder and the tenuousness of the Marines’ hold on Guadalcanal.

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    • ” Since 17th Army was not headed to New Guinea”

      This is NOT an “agree to disagree” issue. This is a statement on the FACTS. And unfortunately, you have your facts wrong here. The 17th Army was part of the 8th Area Army, IJA. When stood up in the spring of 1942, it constituted the Japanese Army forces operating in the area east of the Philippines, and south to New Guinea and the Solomons. Some of its resources were already earmarked for to support New Guinea at the time of the August 1942 landings.

      “The IJN had enough lighterage to move 2nd and 38th Division onto Guadalcanal, unmolested by US air or naval forces.”

      Yes… over a period from SEPTEMBER to OCTOBER! Not in August as you keep stating they could have arrived in order to annihilate the 1st Marine Division. It’s a simple matter of historical fact we are dealing with here. Not a “agree to disagree” opinion.

      “I would suggest reading the US Marine Corps’ official monograph from the battle, and the the official history of the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal.”

      I have a copy if it open right now as I write. I’ve used that as a guide for these responses. It confirms what I’ve written above. Look again for the dates on which the 2nd and 38th divisions arrived at Guadalcanal.

      “Those tell a very different story from the seven-decades hence glossing over of Fletcher’s serious blunder and the tenuousness of the Marines’ hold on Guadalcanal.”

      I think what we are seeing here is a seven-decade old emotional response, and not one ground in the statement of facts. The honest assessment of the situation is clear. The tenuousness of the Marines’ hold on Guadalcanal was due to a division being sent to do a mission which required three divisions. And that’s no slight on the 1st Marine Division, as they got the job done.. and then some.

      Like

    • timactual

      Where do you think Fletcher got off to with those carriers? Antarctica? He was about 400 miles south of Guadalcanal. As I pointed out, supporting the forces on Guadalcanal/Tulagi was only ONE of his objectives.

      “Fletcher showed a clean pair of heels”

      Frankly, that is a despicable insult to a man who had accomplished more in eight months than you or most other men would in their entire lives.

      “He had both the forces and the transports to get them ashore in a few days, absolutely unimpeded by US action”

      No, he didn’t. If he had, the Ichiki detachment would have been a leetle bit larger. Even if he did the allies had coast watchers, submarines, and other intelligence assets that would give them enough warning to respond. This is precisely what happened in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, about two weeks after the landings. As I said before, where do you think Fletcher’s carriers went to? The thing about carriers is that you do not have to be within hailing distance to support.

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    • timactual

      Speaking of New Guinea, the US Army 32 Inf Div. was put in a much worse position than the marines on Guadalcanal.

      “Since 17th Army was not headed to New Guinea, it was a major uncommitted ground formation.”

      No, it was not a major uncommitted ground formation. It was a corps sized formation and was already in action in New Guinea. The closest uncommitted element was Ichiki’s regiment, which was in transports near Guam.

      ya know, I am really curious about your sources. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      Oh, sorry, it wasn’t the 38th Division, but the 38th BRIGADE. That is my mistake. Nevertheless, Hyukatake had sufficient forces for a much larger effort. He did not make one because of his faulty intelligence and his disdain for US fighting abilities.

      From the Army’s monograph:

      “The landing on 7 August had taken the Japanese by surprise. They had retaliated with surface and air attacks, but there were not enough troops under 17th Army command to permit the immediate dispatch of strong forces to Guadalcanal. The Japanese thought that a small force had been landed on 7 August. Some estimated that only 1,000 American troops had come ashore. The Japanese Army apparently based its estimates of the forces needed to destroy the American beachhead upon its experiences in China and Malaya. The officer who was later to become Chief of Staff of the 17th Army, Maj. Gen. Shuicho Miyazaki, was then in Tokyo. He wrote later that “at that time we had no means of ascertaining actual facts regarding the extent of the enemy counter-offensive.”

      and-

      “The 17th Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Harukichi Hyakutake, had decided to retake the Lunga area. Hyakutake planned to use initially a force composed of part of the 28th Infantry of the 7th Division and the Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Forces, and later the 35th Brigade–about 6,000 troops in all.”

      and-

      “At no time had the Ichiki Force seriously threatened the airfield. The amazingly small force which attacked the marines indicated either defective intelligence work, or sublime confidence on the part of the enemy. If by 20 August Ichiki had become aware of the numerical strength of the Americans he was attacking, he must have had complete contempt for the military prowess of the marines.”

      Even pending arrival of 2nd Division from its far-flung occupation, Hyukatake had far more forces available to him than he used. A blunder of enormous consequence.

      Like

    • Tarl

      From the Marine official history:

      http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USMC/USMC-C-Guadalcanal/index.html

      “While Vandegrift’s Marines dug in east and west of Henderson Field, Japanese headquarters in Rabaul planned what it considered an effective response to he American offensive. Misled by intelligence estimates that the Marines numbered perhaps 2,000 men, Japanese staff officers believed that a modest force quickly sent could overwhelm the invaders.” (The Army green book also notes, “The early Japanese estimates of American strength had proved to be disastrously low.”)

      Thus our alternate history in which the Japanese make a major effort to destroy the 1st MarDiv must assume the Japanese had better intelligence, and knew the entire division was on the island.

      The USMC history continues,

      “Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo had ordered Lieutenant General Haruyoshi Hyakutake’s Seventeenth Army to attack the Marine perimeter. For his assault force, Hyakutake chose the 35th Infantry Brigade (Reinforced), commanded by Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi. At the time, Kawaguchi’s main force was in the Palaus. Hyakutake selected a crack infantry regiment–the 28th–commanded by Colonel Kiyono Ichiki to land first. Alerted for its mission while it was at Guam, the Ichiki Detachment assault echelon, one battalion of 900 men, was transported to the Solomons on the only shipping available, six destroyers. As a result the troops carried just small amounts of ordnance and supplies. A follow-on echelon of 1,200 of Ichiki’s troops was to join the assault battalion on Guadalcanal.”

      This would seem to contradict the view that the Japanese could quickly have moved major forces to Guadalcanal to crush 1st MarDiv.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      No, it certainly does not. Had Hyukatake bothered to confirm his intelligence and not be dismissive of US fighting capability, those same six destroyers that carried Ichiki, augmented with other elements of 8th Fleet, could have put a substantial force ashore over the period of more than a week. Once again, what was to stop him? Not a thing. Hyukatake dithered, not helped at all by Tokyo. Had he reacted aggressively, and had the INJ formulated something similar to KA a week or more before they did, when it finally hit home that the Marines were on the island in some strength, they could have had substantial forces ashore, including the 38th Brigade, and the 2nd Division, which was chopped to the Solomons eventually anyway.

      The Japanese had two viable courses of action available to them. They could have withdrawn from the island completely and looked to have forces in New Britain and the Admiralties isolate and interdict at Guadalcanal. Or they could have responded quickly and with force, accelerating the buildup of forces on the island as quickly as possible. They did neither. Hyukatake lost a golden window of opportunity when Japan had complete mastery of the air and waters around the Island, and belatedly sent forces in dribs and drabs, where they attacked Marine positions piecemeal and without supporting arms.

      As one IJA officer admitted later, “We had been used to fighting the Chinese”.

      Like

    • “one battalion of 900 men, was transported to the Solomons on the only shipping available, six destroyers.”

      And that is from the source URR states is the “gospel” on this matter.

      At that point we have to start addressing the five questions posed elsewhere on this thread. We cannot start inventing “if… and if… and if…” speculation. Hard facts.

      In this case, the hard facts are that Hyukatake threw in what he could at that moment in time. And further that Hyukatake could not have countered the 11,000 man Marine force on Guadalcanal, man-for-man, before August 19 (and historically not even before mid-September). That established, with irrefutable weight of evidence, we are left to conclude the 1st Marine Division was NOT at risk of being overrun, annihilated, or destroyed during the period of risk (August 9-19).

      As said earlier – QED.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      So, Hyukatake was able to transport some 2,100 troops in two days, yet was unable somehow to transport another 2,100 in the two days hence? And again after that? And after that? What was to stop him? They had mastery of the air and waters around the island.

      What you established was that the way events turned out is the only possible way they could have turned out. Which is nonsense. An aggressive, competent commander could have done far more than Hyukatake did, and had the means to put the Division in serious jeopardy. The IJA, Hyukatake included, was woefully deficient in its planning and negligent in the extreme in execution. Which is forever to our great good fortune.

      Just because the Japanese didn’t, doesn’t mean they could not have. Those conclusions are not foregone, and goes right back to looking at history as if the winners have nothing to learn. Fletcher’s decision was a major blunder, and but for a slow and weak Japanese reaction, could have been disastrous.

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    • “So, Hyukatake was able to transport some 2,100 troops in two days, yet was unable somehow to transport another 2,100 in the two days hence? And again after that? And after that? What was to stop him? They had mastery of the air and waters around the island. ”

      Hyukatake was able to transport ONLY 900 troops from August 9 to August 19. Historical fact. As mentioned in the official history, he lacked transports to send more. And even if he had more transports, there were only about 1000 more that could have been sent in that time period. (Keeping in mind the Marines were around 11,000 strong.) After August 19, anything Fletcher did or did not do on August 8 was OBE.

      Q.E.D. Do we need to cover any more of this history lesson?

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    • “The IJA, Hyukatake included, was woefully deficient in its planning and negligent in the extreme in execution. Which is forever to our great good fortune. ”

      Let’s put this statement in context here. What URR is saying is that Fletcher was negligent because Hyukatake, his Japanese opponent, was incompetent. Somewhat like critiquing Russell Wilson’s passing game by pointing out Peyton Manning threw two interceptions.

      “Just because the Japanese didn’t, doesn’t mean they could not have. ”

      And the Japanese could have landed on Guadalcanal with a division of men equipped with Hello Kitty backpacks! Anyone can make up some theoretical circumstance.

      You, URR, are introducing a “what if.” So you are charged with fleshing it out. So give us the details, as it could have happened given the constraints of the historical realities. I’ve asked you five questions that would lead into your “what if.” Perhaps you want to address those? Or not, considering the answers would pretty much invalidate your “what if” from the start.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      “The 17th Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Harukichi Hyakutake, had decided to retake the Lunga area. Hyakutake planned to use initially a force composed of part of the 28th Infantry of the 7th Division and the Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Forces, and later the 35th Brigade–about 6,000 troops in all.”

      Huh. A bit more than “a thousand more”. Rabaul was the largest IJN base east of Truk. Major elements of the IJN 8th Fleet occupied the anchorage. Japan dominated the air and waters around the island for 12 days. They had garrisons all over the AO, most of them underemployed. Yet you are telling me that the weak and fragmented response, ten days late, was all the Japanese could possibly muster? Sorry, not buying it. Proper planning and an aggressive commander could have done infinitely more, including putting the Marines in a significant pinch.

      The history lesson is from the School of the Foregone Conclusion. History, especially warfare, is full of opportunities and blunders, exploited and not exploited, which decide the fate of armies, nations, and empires. That Wellington won at Waterloo does not mean he could not have lost. That Army Group Center failed to take Moscow does not mean they did not have the opportunity. Nor that the Soviet defensive campaign in 1941 was a success. The same is true for Guadalcanal. Fletcher blundered, handing initiative to the Japanese on a silver platter. Their arrogance and slipshod planning prevented them from exploiting the blunder and seizing that initiative.

      You want your five questions answered so badly? Here you go.

      1. Japanese ground-based air represented a grave threat. But because of the distances involved, Fletcher had the option of moving his carriers to where they could still support the unloading and be out of range of the Japanese air threat. While leaving enough DDs and CLs to cover the beaches, even if he chose to keep North Carolina with him as AA protection.

      2. I want to see in writing the guidance that told Fletcher to pull away from the landings on Guadalcanal two days early, when he’d already consented to the landing plan. Caution, in proper measure, is justified. Overcaution and creating a risk to the entire operation on the “WHAT IF” of Japanese air and naval forces sinking his carriers in the succeeding 48 hours, was not justified then.

      3. WATCHTOWER may have been a “limited offensive move”, but to that point represented the first counteroffensive in the Pacific War. It remained to be seen in July of 1942 whether Midway would turn the tide or merely pause the Japanese advance. With an airfield on Guadalcanal and the excellent anchorage in Tulagi as a major IJN naval and air base, the lifelines to Australia would have been seriously threatened.

      4. Despite the imperfections, the 1stMarDiv was the only trained amphibious force America had in the Pacific. The offensive surely wasn’t Vandegrift’s idea. He was told not to expect to be committed for six months. Without purpose built transports, and what we now call “connectors”, the Division pulled off a minor miracle. Its load-out, however, was pared down greatly at the Navy’s insistence, with the distinct promise that supplies and equipment would be delivered. Yet, most of the equipment and most of the Division reserve sailed away with Turner.

      5. The major threat was of course air and naval. Which allowed Hyukatake complete freedom of maneuver. His disdain for the Americans and his sloppy intelligence gathering caused him to piecemeal his forces into the island. 8th Area Army, 17th Army’s parent unit, and 8th Fleet, were among the very few IJA/IJN commands that had cordial relations. When the landings took place, Hyukatake and his seniors should have immediately been prioritizing which of the garrison units in the New Britain/Admiralties area could be sent to Guadalcanal, and arranging for the shipping to get them there.

      Because he believed the landings to be very small, and that his soldiers could defeat the Americans easily, Hyukatake dithered and wasted an opportunity. It was after Marine aircraft from VMF-224 arrived at Henderson (20 August) and word of the disastrous end of the Ichiki Force made its way back to Rabaul that the Japanese finally realized how serious the situation had become. Which was the impetus for KA and the Battle of the Eastern Solomons 24-25 August. By that time, at least local command of the air was up for grabs, and the waters around the island were no longer solely under Japanese control. Had that same effort been made ten days earlier, Japanese troops could have shuttled onto the island unopposed. All of the resources which formed Tanaka’s transport group for Operation KA were available somewhere around Rabaul long before 20 August. They didn’t appear from thin air. An aggressive commander would have put them to use, and gotten sufficient forces ashore. Because there was nobody to stop him until 21 August.

      Compare Hyukatake’s reaction to that of Kesselring in Italy. Hyukatake had complete freedom of maneuver, and didn’t use it. Kesselring was under constant Allied TACAIR threat, and still managed to bring his Panzer units to contain the landings.

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    • “You want your five questions answered so badly? Here you go.”

      Where? You still won’t address the questions raised.

      Look, I don’t mean to give you a hard time. But you started this off by saying how much “better” you were at this history thing than a professional historian. Well, you’ve done little to support your stance. Why don’t you answer the questions I posed earlier?

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    • “All of the resources which formed Tanaka’s transport group for Operation KA were available somewhere around Rabaul long before 20 August. They didn’t appear from thin air. An aggressive commander would have put them to use, and gotten sufficient forces ashore. Because there was nobody to stop him until 21 August. ”

      Then your task should be easy there. Just list off all the Japanese ground troops involved with KA, state where they were as of August 8, and state how long it took them to get from that “Point A” to “Point B” with B being Guadalcanal.

      Can you do the work, like the historian you were so quick to smear did?

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    • ultimaratioregis

      Yes, you do mean to give me a hard time. I didn’t “smear” anyone, I disagreed with him. I also praised him rather liberally as the excellent author he is. So quit playing the asshole.

      You believe whatever the fuck you believe and keep as narrow a focus as you choose. You think because it took the Japanese x-amount of time to get to Guadalcanal that they could not have done things any quicker, then you hold to that. If you didn’t think they had troops occupying islands in the Solomons and the surrounding area that could not be spared for something as vital as recapturing Guadalcanal, believe that, too.

      From a Japanese account:

      “…no specific discussions or research was carried out jointly by the Army and Navy Departments concerning the operations to break this counter-attack, particularly defensive operations in the Solomon Islands area.

      Even at the Guadalcanal airfield, which was originally established to support the invasion of New Caledonia, there were few defensive mechanisms installed. Furthermore, senior officers in the Army Department and staff officers had not even heard of Guadalcanal, let alone that the navy had established an airfield there. The army held no interest and disregarded any information on Guadalcanal despite the navy having made clear their intentions.

      Not only was it expected that Guadalcanal would be recaptured by the landing of the Ichiki Detachment Advance Party, but the enemy counter-attack was not anticipated to be significant owing to the arrival of the main force of the Combined Fleet to the waters to the east of the Solomon Islands from 23 August.”

      Sp spare me the bullshit that the Japanese were not arrogant and haphazard in their planning. And that better planning, less arrogance, better intelligence, and stronger leadership would not have made a difference. Unless you think the Japanese account is “what if”.

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    • “Sp spare me the bullshit that the Japanese were not arrogant and haphazard in their planning. And that better planning, less arrogance, better intelligence, and stronger leadership would not have made a difference. Unless you think the Japanese account is “what if”.”

      And where have I said otherwise?

      Q.E.D.

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  11. The facts remain the same: The Navy lost three men for every Marine that died on Guadalcanal. In the early days of war the Navy pushed as far and as hard as it’s resources allowed it too. Fletcher was tied to Ghormley’s apron strings and it wasn’t so much fear of losing carriers that hamstrung the Navy as it was the fear of losing more oilers (oilers were precious in the early days of the war, and Ghormley/Nimitz would not allow them to approach too close to the beach head area.

    Further, it was decided before the Marines went ashore that the carriers would pull off their close in position after 72 hours. Turner decided to pull the merchies and the remaining surface forces after the disaster at Savo Island. Nevertheless, the Navy was committed to operation and paid a blood price to insure the Marines held on….3 sailors dead for every Marine.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      Turner’s decision, like Fletcher’s decision, hadn’t anything to do with Savo. The conference aboard Saratoga was before the action was fought, and the time that Fletcher stayed was not 72 hours after the landing, but 48, of the 96 he had promised. The heroism of the Navy in subsequent actions does not erase Fletcher’s blunder, nor the Marines’ very rightful criticism of him.

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    • Indeed, to not mention Savo is to ignore the elephant in the room. Savo should be “front and center” for any discussion of Fletcher’s decision on August 8. That Mikawa attacked in the face of an American carrier threat speaks volumes to the perceived threat on which Fletcher made his decision.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      Fletcher made his decision BEFORE Savo, which was a tactical disaster for the USN. A force of cruisers was slaughtered not by superior combat power, but by an equivalent one, after a series of poor decisions and omissions on the parts of the Allied command. To point to Savo as some ex post facto justification for Fletcher’s timidity two days earlier is not a valid construct.

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    • “Fletcher made his decision BEFORE Savo”

      Again, maybe you aren’t reading this part.. .and it is very important – Mikawa made his attack BEFORE he knew Fletcher had departed. That means that the Japanese in sector were more than willing to match their surface fleet against the Americans, even with carriers, in a night engagement. Such validates Fletcher’s caution. By shunting Savo to the side as a non-issue here, you are disregarding the very situational factors at play and thus relegating the operational decisions to something akin to a toss of the coin!

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    • ultimaratioregis

      That is circuitous logic to be sure. Of course the Japanese were going to challenge the USN. That was why TF 61 was supporting the landing. Vandegrift had already agreed to a greatly reduced embarkation on the specific promise that Fletcher would protect the offload. Fletcher reneged on that promise. Fletcher’s unwillingess to accept risk to accomplish the mission is why he was relieved. Ghormley, too.

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    • “That is circuitous logic to be sure.”

      But it is sound. Ironbottom Sound logic, as a matter of fact.

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    • timactual

      ” Fletcher’s unwillingess to accept risk to accomplish the mission is why he was relieved”

      I assume you have some evidence for that slander? Other than your opinion.
      Just what the f do you think he had been doing, successfully, ever since Pearl Harbor? And I reiterate, SUPPORTING THE LANDINGS AT GUADALCANAL/TULAGI WAS NOT HIS ONLY MISSION.

      You effing jarheads need to get over yourselves. Believe it or not, there were others involved in the Pacific war who had it just as tough.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      Oh, sorry, did Fletcher remain in command of TF 61? And Ghormley stayed, too?

      As for the rest of your “comment”, save it. You haven’t any idea of what I think of Frank Jack Fletcher, nor why.

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  12. TrT

    I’m seeing a lot of reasons to cancel or delay the landings, but not to stop supporting them half way through.
    And that’s the key in my view.

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    • TrT, in retrospect, the first half of your assessment is very much valid. We can, with 20/20 hindsight, say that Watchtower could have been delayed by 30-90 days and been pulled off better. Reality is that pressure from King played into the timing. I could fill a blog post and then some just painting out the high level details. But the bottom line is that King wanted something to put up against the “Germany First” strategy (and also against that guy with a corncob pipe, while he was at it).

      There is simply no way that Guadalcanal could have been taken, completely, by the 1st Marine Division in August 1942. The division had not enough manpower to do so. The job required a corps-sized formation. The Marines might have taken a larger portion of the island. But that would still leave the opening for the Japanese to contest the island’s occupation, as they did historically. (And before we start second guessing this statement, consider the historical events – even with the Cactus Air Force and full committal of the US Navy through the fall of 1942, the Japanese were still able to land substantial ground forces on the island. That would not have changed had Turner landed every single paperclip on August 9, 1942.)

      As I’ve mentioned here before, the 1st Marine Division went into action having never trained as a division. Elements were to varying degrees trained. But this was not the 1st Marine Division of 1944 by a long shot. The two most experienced (and that is relative to the time period) US formations in the Pacific were the 24th and 25th ID. Those were pinned to Hawaii. They were not yet released from the defenses there (and a credible threat still existed post-Midway). Looking at divisional logs for that period, the 24th ID was already taking part in amphibious training in anticipation of something… which was in the Aleutians. But, as things would play out, the 24th and 25th would get pulled instead to the SoPac and SWPac. This was due to an increased tempo, not foreseen by the “Germany First” advocates… and now we get back to King and the timing of Watchtower! There were simply not enough US ground forces (USA and USMC combined) to take on Watchtower in August 1942.

      Because the US didn’t have an endless supply of resources (which the History Channel leads us to believe), every one of these assignments and reassignments had implications on the strategic plans. Units originally earmarked for the Torch landings went instead to the Aleutians or Pacific. The 7th ID is a prime example of such. Likewise, follow the assignment of USAAF squadrons – particularly the much desired B-24s. We can even say Watchtower’s timing set in motion a chain of events leading to delays with Operation Dragoon in 1944… but that’s another storyline.

      So, as you say, there are plenty of arguments to make that the landings shouldn’t have taken place in August 1942. And every single one of them leads back to justification of Fletcher’s decision on August 8 to withdraw the carriers. Those second guessing Fletcher in that respect should rightfully be bringing in analysis of King and others for what it is worth.

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    • Once a date is set, it’s awfully hard to change it. Some reasons such as tides and lunar illumination. Plus, then everyone else would need to refuel. Eventually, you just have to go.

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    • XBrad, there is absolutely no indication that tides, moonlight, etc. were a major factor picking a date for the landings on Guadalcanal. But the 20/20 hindsight call here would be to delay the landings by a quarter or more, until proper US ground forces are amassed. And I’m sure by that time a proper date with respect to moon and tides would align, given the rather large window of opportunity. However, that counter-factual would run up against the historical context – King wanted an operation in August 1942. And he got that. If there is anyone who need be blamed for the short rations that 1st Marine Division subsisted on, it is King.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      You must be kidding. They were on occupation duty, some units quite a ways away. But they were no place where they couldn’t be got. Hyukatake had more than 6,500 men WITH HIM on Rabaul he could have immediately put ashore while fetching 2nd and 38th Divisions, who were mostly in Java and the East Indies. He had hundreds of barges and lighters, and the 8th Fleet available to him in support of reinforcing Guadalcanal. And nobody to stop him. Nobody. He was dismissive of US fighting capability, and accepted a slipshod and poorly executed reconnaissance that informed him that only a couple thousand had landed. So he committed the cardinal sin of piecemealing his forces into battle rather than put ashore substantial forces and supporting arms to make a major strike.

      Like I said, he was no Kesselring. Thank the Lord. Or Fletcher’s skedaddle might have been mortal.

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    • ” Hyukatake had more than 6,500 men WITH HIM on Rabaul he could have immediately put ashore while fetching 2nd and 38th Divisions, who were mostly in Java and the East Indies. He had hundreds of barges and lighters, and the 8th Fleet available to him in support of reinforcing Guadalcanal. ”

      So… how many ships did Hyukatake actually command? And also, what field armies were the 2nd and 38th Divisions in at that time????

      We are getting close here, but you should address these details. Real close.

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  13. Tarl

    Fletcher inexcusably risked something even more precious and irreplaceable. The only trained and equipped amphibious force that the United States had in the entire Pacific.

    The Second Marine Division fought on Guadalcanal, but presumably wouldn’t have if the First Marine Division had been destroyed right after the landing. They would have been available for another effort in the fall of 1942 if they hadn’t been engaged in the Solomons.

    Consider also that we didn’t do another amphibious assault in the Pacific until the summer and autumn of 1943 (a year or more after Guadalcanal). At that point there were indeed other amphibious units available, and the lack of the First Marine Division would not have precluded them.

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    • In August of 1942, the Second Marine Division was not in the Pacific in its entirety. The only element then available was 2nd Marines, the Division reserve, which was still embarked when Fletcher beat a hasty withdrawal. Had Guadalcanal been a serious setback, the offensive across the Central Pacific would not have taken place. 1st MarDiv wasn’t relieved by 2nd MarDiv until 9 December 42.

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    • Tarl

      Had Guadalcanal been a serious setback, the offensive across the Central Pacific would not have taken place.

      Sure it would. The offensive in the Central Pacific started (experimentally) in November 1943 at Tarawa and (for real) in February 1944 with the invasion of the Marshalls — and neither involved the 1st MarDiv. Therefore, if the 1st MarDiv had been lost on Guadalcanal, the Central Pacific drive would not have been affected.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      With the Japanese in firm possession of the Solomons? Fat chance.

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    • Tarl

      With the Japanese in firm possession of the Solomons? Fat chance.

      Nah. They would have been left to wither on the vine. They could not threaten the supply lines to Australia from there. To do so, they’d have to take New Caledonia, Fiji, or Samoa, which they were in no position to do.

      And if we decided not to let them wither, nothing would stop us from advancing in the Solomons in late 1943, as we actually did, as the preamble to the attack on the Marshalls in early 1944.

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    • “Nah. They would have been left to wither on the vine.”

      Very correct Tarl. Operation Cartwheel following Guadalcanal featured about a dozen or so amphib landings (the majority of which were carried out by US Army formations, but Aussie, NZ, and Marines also). And most of those were completed before Tarawa and the advance into the CentPac. The main objective for Cartwheel was Rabaul. And as we know, Rabaul was never invaded. Instead that objective was OBE with dueling thrusts across the Pacific.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      Not sure Nimitz and King and MacArthur saw it that way. But then again, what did they know?

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    • ultimaratioregis

      CARTWHEEL doesn’t happen with Japan in control of the Guadalcanal with the ability to interdict. Which is why reconnaissance photos of the airstrip spurred WATCHTOWER.

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    • “CARTWHEEL doesn’t happen with Japan in control of the Guadalcanal with the ability to interdict. Which is why reconnaissance photos of the airstrip spurred WATCHTOWER.”

      CARTWHEEL was the direct outcome of WATCHTOWER. So in that regard you are correct. But without WATCHTOWER there is no need for CARTWHEEL. Go figure.

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    • “CARTWHEEL doesn’t happen with Japan in control of the Guadalcanal with the ability to interdict. Which is why reconnaissance photos of the airstrip spurred WATCHTOWER.”

      Japan would not have this ability to interdict in late 1943, even if they controlled Guadalcanal. Possession of Bougainville did not enable them to interdict the landings on New Georgia, and possession of Rabaul did not enable them to interdict the landings on Bougainville. In each case the US brought in superior forces and repelled enemy air attacks.

      Japanese garrisons in the Solomons, like everywhere else, were merely hostages to fortune who could be picked off or ignored as the situation dictated once the US gained decisive superiority in carrier-based airpower in late 1943.

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  14. TrT

    Craig
    I just don’t see how saying you are prepared to stay on station for 4 days and leaving after 2 can be justified. Youre making it worse, because your argument boils down to fletcher didn’t have the stones to stand up to his boss and so knowingly abandoned and risked the destruction a division he swore to support!

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    • TrT, I’m not arguing that. It isn’t that Fletcher doesn’t have the stones to stand up to his boss, it’s that his boss and boss’s boss and boss’s boss’s boss had all said “by all means don’t lose another carrier!”

      As said above, the risk to the division was minimal. Very minimal. There was far more risk the 9th Aussie Division would be annihilated at Tobruk (about a year earlier) as there were real German tanks and guns pointing at them. For the weeks in question here, the Japanese could barely muster a 1000 man, un-reinforced landing. The threat to the 1st Marine Division was just not tangible, and thanks to the decoding efforts by “Hal Holbrook,” the Americans knew the immediate Japanese response would be limited to air and sea… and not ground forces.

      To paint a picture that the 1st Marine Division was going to be overrun before the next supply run was made is simply a straw man argument. It cannot be supported against the historical fact.

      At the same time, as I’ve said above, the division was put ashore to do a corps-level task. As such there was absolutely no way to avoid a prolonged campaign.

      Those two points made (and I would say those are unassailable given the historical facts) there’s absolutely nothing Fletcher could have done or not done on August 8 that would have changed the campaign… save losing a carrier or two when the Japanese torpedoes started running. I think we all would agree that the loss of one carrier at that time would have put the entire campaign in jeopardy.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      Your “risk to the Division was minimal” comment smacks of extreme 20/20 hindsight. And a certitude that the Japanese commander was somehow preordained to commit a blunder even worse than Fletcher’s.

      As I tell Hornfischer, “all’s well that ends well” is a very poor way of evaluating the courses of action in the study of military history.

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    • “Your “risk to the Division was minimal” comment smacks of extreme 20/20 hindsight.”

      No, this is how HISTORY is studied. The only “extreme 20/20 hindsight” is the gross assertion that the “only amphib force in the Pacific” was in danger of elimination, in some Stalingrad-esque collapse (a proposition I’m sure veterans of the 1st Marine Division would have some issue with).

      “And a certitude that the Japanese commander was somehow preordained to commit a blunder even worse than Fletcher’s.”

      Funny.. Ha.. not. I’ve pointed out at length how Hyakutake had his hands were tied as the Japanese were caught off balance. Later in the campaign come the mistakes. Keep focus on the middle weeks of August 1942, where you contend Fletcher’s blunder was made. Please explain to the readers how exactly Hyakutake could have moved his forces faster than historically possible? And likewise explain how Vandergrift, with possession of every last thumbtack and paperclip on board those transports, could have expanded the perimeter on Guadalcanal sufficiently to prevent Hyakutake from contesting the position? Such would indeed offer a “extreme 20/20 hindsight” premise.

      Let us stick to the facts – Hyakutake was not able to respond during the period in which the 1st Marine Div was at risk. And the 1st Marine Div, due to strategic limitations, could not have prevented the campaign of attrition that followed. And thus what Fletcher did or did not do on August 8, 1942 bears less on the history than we are hearing in this post. It is in fact, a non-issue – and that’s not “extreme 20/20 hindsight” but rather the verdict of history.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      You are factually in error. Fletcher showed a clean pair of heels, and he was rightfully relieved, as was his boss. Precisely the fate he deserved. Same with Ghormley.

      Vandegrift’s plans were to push a perimeter out past artillery range and rapidly complete the airstrip. With his Division reserve (2nd Marines), sufficient ammunition, engineering equipment, and foodstuffs, he could have done so. Without those things, still on Turner’s transports, he could not.

      I think you would have to explain how, even with US attempts to interdict the “Tokyo Express”, the Japanese were able to move substantial supplies and reinforcement, but somehow in the middle weeks of August, WITHOUT US interdiction from sea or air, they could not have done so.

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    • “I think you would have to explain how, even with US attempts to interdict the “Tokyo Express”, the Japanese were able to move substantial supplies and reinforcement, but somehow in the middle weeks of August, WITHOUT US interdiction from sea or air, they could not have done so.”

      Whoa there…. step back from the window ledge!

      I don’t have to explain how the IJN could have operated the Tokyo Express in the days between August 8 and 22… I don’t because it wasn’t built yet! If you look back in this thread, I’ve already covered this. “Reach exceeds grasp,” remember. The Tokyo Express, as most historians point out, didn’t start running until AFTER the Henderson Field was in operation. Ichiki’s 900 to 1,000 troops didn’t arrive until August 19. After that it was a maximum effort just to put the 5k or so troops that Kawaguchi had on September 7. And that was a force half the size or so, of the Marine force, which was 12,000 or more by that time. (A force you would have us believe was under threat of being overrun… let’s do the math, please.)

      So YES in the middle weeks of August the Japanese were unable to reinforce Guadalcanal despite the fact that no US aircraft were able to interdict. Had nothing to do with how many Dauntlesses or Wildcats were operating over Guadalcanal. Had to do with the inability of the Japanese to respond to the situation. Just the facts, man. Just the facts.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      So the Japanese managed to construct all of the ships, boats, and barges that would carry Japanese troops to Guadalcanal starting on 19 August? Or perhaps was it a matter of Hyukatake taking the initiative to deploy the unemployed 38th Division to Guadalcanal by reallocating resources in Rabaul that were otherwise less gainfully employed?

      Neither the 2nd nor the 38th Divisions were heavily engaged anywhere, and were certainly available to Hyukatake, had he acted decisively.

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    • “So the Japanese managed to construct all of the ships, boats, and barges that would carry Japanese troops to Guadalcanal starting on 19 August?”

      Where did I say or imply that? Please, let’s not play silly games here. You KNOW exactly what I was saying in that comment. YOU of all people shouldn’t need a lesson in logistics and transportation means.

      “Or perhaps was it a matter of Hyukatake taking the initiative to deploy the unemployed 38th Division to Guadalcanal by reallocating resources in Rabaul that were otherwise less gainfully employed?”

      Or, as documented, it was a matter of the 2nd and 38th Divisions to be dis-engaged where they were located in August 1942 and then AUTHORIZED to move to Guadalcanal. Neither formation could have arrived on the island between August 8 and 19, given any wild “What if” scenario you care to offer.

      Go look this up. Where were those two divisions on August 8, 1942? And what was, historically speaking, the level of effort to lift those units to the front lines? Please, prove me wrong if you can.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      ???? Rabaul, where 17th Army HQ was located, was by July of 42 a major Japanese naval base. 8th Fleet, among others, were in Simpson harbor and smaller anchorages. The transport fleet that had landed some parts of 17th and 18th Armies in New Guinea had returned, without major loss. Hyukatake had the resources to move 1,000-1,500 men a night for ten nights, quite easily. Along with all their equipment, artillery, ammunition, and supplies.

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    • “???? Rabaul, where 17th Army HQ was located, was by July of 42 a major Japanese naval base. 8th Fleet, among others, were in Simpson harbor and smaller anchorages. The transport fleet that had landed some parts of 17th and 18th Armies in New Guinea had returned, without major loss. Hyukatake had the resources to move 1,000-1,500 men a night for ten nights, quite easily. Along with all their equipment, artillery, ammunition, and supplies.”

      Come on man, you are better than this… Look it up. Where were the 2nd and 38th IJA Divisions (which you cite) as of August 8th of that year?

      This really goes to your argument that the 2nd Marine Division was in serious danger or such. Shouldn’t be too hard for you to explain what Japanese formations could have moved to Guadalcanal and how fast they could have arrived. You can look that up, can’t you?

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    • I’m seeing a lot of “redacted” comments, or at least “disappearing” responses here. Let’s try to clear this up:

      1. What units did Hyakutake have at Rabaul (earlier URR mentioned some 5,000 troops, but that has been removed….)?

      2. What IJN Army did the 2nd and 38th Divisions belong to on August 8, 1942, and where were they stationed?

      3. What was the reasonable transit time for those two divisions to Guadalcanal?

      4. How is it that Hyakutake had “hundreds” (URR’s words) transports and barges at Rabaul, yet only enough to transport 900 of Ichiki’s men, leaving over half the command behind?

      All goes to the situation – was the 1st Marine Division indeed in danger of being crushed by some overwhelming Japanese force laying in wait for Fletcher’s departure? History says “no.”

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    • ultimaratioregis

      8th Fleet was in Rabaul, with the transport shipping intact from the operations in New Guinea. I mentioned barges, of which there were hundreds. Lighters. The very same ones used in the early days of the Tokyo Express. In fact, from those came the transportation for Ichiki’s men.

      Your rather intentional misrepresentation of my comments about the situation with 1st MarDiv is telling. Half of Ichiki’s force was left behind as much because it was thought that the force was not needed as lack of transport. Again, the arrogance of the Japanese commanders. The rest of the command could have been sent the next evening, and another similar sized group the evening after that. THERE WAS NOTHING TO STOP THEM. Had Hyukatake been determined to strongly oppose the Marines, he had more than enough assets. He dithered when he had an opportunity to put the Marine Division in quite a bind. The outcome of which would not at all have been certain.

      How long was transit time? Some days, to be sure. But Guadalcanal was devoid of ANY air cover for eleven days, and had the barest of air assets until nearly the end of the month. Had the Japanese launched KA a week and a half earlier, things might have turned out very differently.

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    • But you still haven’t addressed the questions. Is it because the answers pretty much defeat your premise? Yes, indeed. Put a QED on this one. It’s done.

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    • ultimaratioregis

      You believe there is some magical question that explains the Japanese blunder? Even if the 2nd Division had never been released to the Solomons, Hyukatake had far more combat power than he at first used. That he committed his forces late, and in penny packets, even the forces he had immediately at hand, is his grave error. Please show me where there is some question you think you might ask that can undo that premise. QED? Not hardly.

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    • Questions… remaining unaddressed… just a lot of damning statements without much supporting information.

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  15. TrT

    “TrT, I’m not arguing that. It isn’t that Fletcher doesn’t have the stones to stand up to his boss, it’s that his boss and boss’s boss and boss’s boss’s boss had all said “by all means don’t lose another carrier!” ”
    And when did that order come down the chain?

    The Facts as I know them:
    Fletcher agreed a plan
    Part way through, Fletcher unilaterally altered that plan, an alteration that could have gone disastrously wrong. Sod reinforcement of the defenders, what if the defenders had managed to blow their food supply before the Marines seized it? Disaster right there.

    Dont get me wrong, if the war effort required it, I would have no problem with Fletcher leaving the 1stMarDiv to be wiped out, but its the *requirement* that I am struggling with

    If the fuel situation was that bad, it should have been known in advance, and the plan altered, unless there was a spill during, which doesnt appear to be the case.

    If head office ordered that the carriers couldnt be risked, again, surely that would be known in advance, unless the order came down during the operation, in which case it should be noted who gave that order.

    So did Fletcher agree a plan he was unable, unwilling or had no intention to carry out his part of?
    Or was he ordered not to carry out his part during the operation?

    I’m happy to learn the reasons, but I struggle to see how the loss of 19 fighters and a destroyer changes anything.

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    • “So did Fletcher agree a plan he was unable, unwilling or had no intention to carry out his part of?”

      Neither. Flat simple – the situation changed. Fletcher made an assessment of that change. Here’s what Fletcher said at 1807hrs August 8, 1942:
      “Figher-plane strength reduced from 99 to 78. In view of the large number of enemy torpedo planes and bombers in this area, I recommend the immediate withdraw of my carriers. Request tankers sent forward immediately as fuel running low.”

      So what we’ve missed in the analysis, on this lengthy thread, is this little point of fact – Fletcher’s main justification for withdrawing the carriers as the threat of Japanese bombers. Over the previous two days, Japanese attacks had caused the loss of one transport (USS George Elliot, IIRC) and damage to a destroyer (USS Jarvis). Furthermore, as Fletcher detailed, it had cost the USN a 21% loss in fighter strength. At that level, Fletcher could not sustain operations another day (those who have “gamed” these WWII scenarios know, CAP is a 2/3rds toll on the air wing – 1/3rd in the air, 1/3rd recovering. A few months later, the solution was to increase the fighter strength at the expense of scouts.). He would barely have enough fighters for CAP over his flat-tops, much less cover Ironbottom Sound.

      So at dusk on August 8, Fletcher is making a decision which is NOT “do I stay and cover the landings and hope the Japanese don’t hit my carriers” Rather it is “do I stay on station knowing I only have enough fighters to cover my carriers.”?

      At that point, we must step back from the numbers and consider Fletcher himself. Of all the line admirals in the navy, he had been on combat operations practically from the first day of the war through to that day. Eight months of carrier operations. He’d seen two carriers lost in that time. And in each case after the fighter strengths had been whittled down through a day’s worth of air combat.

      I’ll be blunt in my opinion here. I don’t think I’m a better admiral than Fletcher. And I dare say none of us reading this today are qualified to carry his hat on this issue. If in his assessment at 1800hrs on August 8, 1942, keeping his carriers on station any longer was risking loss of valuable assets, then I’m not in a position to second guess that. It goes down as a statement of record, where I’m concerned.

      And for the record, Fletcher was NOT relieved for his actions on August 8. He was granted a leave of absence to recover from wounds sustained on August 31. … yes AFTER he had put his carriers “in harms way” to deflect the first major Japanese counterattack on Guadalcanal – August 24-25…. not exactly “turning tail and running” if you ask me.

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  16. ultimaratioregis

    For the record, Fletcher’s “wound” was a bump on the noggin that served as a convenient excuse for Nimitz and King to move him out of the way without humiliating him. His absence on 9 and 10 August from his responsibility of protecting the landing are and transports that should have been unloading the equipment that the Division needed ashore was turning tail, to be sure.

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    • “His absence on 9 and 10 August from his responsibility of protecting the landing are and transports that should have been unloading the equipment that the Division needed ashore was turning tail, to be sure.”

      This is beginning to sound like a Pravda story. Repeating the same broken line, over and over….

      Can we skip the propaganda and stick to the facts?

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    • ultimaratioregis

      Recommend reading the monograph and Division history. That must be Pravda, too.

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  17. And Fletcher was still operating under the same guidance he received at Midway: calculated risk, but only if it’s worth the loss of a hard to replace carrier. Yes, Hornet was Stateside…it’s air wing was NOT worked up. Yes, Essex was nearly ready…but “nearly ready” does not a fighting unit make. We had 3 carriers for Watchtower with no reasonable hope of gaining another in any meaningful time frame. The entire operation was an enormous gamble on the part of Nimitz and King. Everyone knew it was going to get done on a shoe string. Everyone knew there was a good chance it would end badly. Only the fact that both the Navy and the Marines didn’t have a lot of quit in saved the day.

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  18. timactual

    Great galloping goobers! Have none of the soi-disant military experts here heard of the concept of “overwatch”? You don’t have to be in hand-holding range to do it.

    Has nobody here ever heard the maxim “No plan survives contact with the enemy”?

    How about “priority of effort”?

    Flexibility?

    Maintaining a reserve?

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  19. Being a nice guy, URR, I’ll help you out with your research and give you the benefit of my notes, from roughly three decades of study on this campaign. Let’s consider the Japanese land units involved on Guadalcanal in August (just August) 1942. Let us limit the discussion to just August, as that is the only time period in which Fletcher’s tactical decision on August 8 might possibly have any proximate causation.

    Start out, when the Marines landed on Guadalcanal, the Japanese garrison’s fighting force was roughly 600 men of the 5th Yokosuka SNLF (There were 1.5K Korean laborers, but no indication they were equipped… or willing… to fight). So that’s the set line on August 8.

    The next formation that arrived was the 28th Infantry Regiment, which I’ll use the short name “Ichiki” for it’s commander. That regiment, originally supposed to occupy at Midway BTW, was on August 8 on transports near Guam. On slow transports, I would add. Not until August 17 did the full regiment arrive at Rabaul. And at that time, there were insufficient fast transports to move the full regiment into action. So only 900 arrive on August 19.

    The next move to Guadalcanal was on August 23. An additional 1,400 of Ichiki’s men and 500 of the 5th Yokosuka. (Incidentally that SNLF detachment was for all practical purposes the only reserve for the 17th Army. They were originally earmarked for a place called Milne Bay… you may know that place and it’s importance. There IS a lot of connection between Guadalcanal and New Guinea Campaigns in space and time.)

    These troops moved by “slow” transports. And they suffered. Important here is the timing. When did the Cactus Air Force start flying sorties? August 21. At that point, we can honestly say anything Fletcher did on August 8 is OBE. At that point, the tactical decision was old history and for historians to sort out. But for argument’s sake, let us continue to look at the other formations that arrived in August, to say that those are the only others which might possibly have arrived at a time to be of importance to our discussion here (about Fletcher’s August 8 decision).

    The only other Japanese units to arrive in August were portions of the 35th Infantry Brigade and a single regiment from the 2nd Infantry Division, the 4th Regiment, or Aoba Detachment. Going back to the start of August (and leading to our question if these units could have moved faster), the 35th was on Palau, and part of the 25th Japanese Army (NOT the 17th). As for the Aoba Deatchment, they were in the Philippines on August 8, and were also not part of 17th Army at the time. Aoba’s men were also preparing for actions against Port Moresby at that time. Now, due to the American move on Guadalcanal, both units were transferred to Hyukatake’s 17th Army. These units started arriving on Guadalcanal on August 29 and did not complete transit until September 4. Most sources agree these numbered around 5,000 men. Neither formation would be ready to fight on Guadalcanal before August ended.

    That’s the historical rate at which the Japanese reinforced Guadalcanal, and the baseline from which any “what if” is begun. The Japanese were, historically, only able to land 7,900 men on Guadalcanal in August and first days of September. And that was excreting every effort to do so – pulling troops from other armies, pushing the transportation system to its limit, and making daring night transits to Guadalcanal. The Americans started with around 11,000 Marines. So at best, historically speaking, the Japanese were not even up to a 1:1 force ratio on the island.

    The question is if the Japanese, specifically Hyukatake, could have pushed more into Guadalcanal? To answer that, the person posing the “what if” must identify the formations that could have moved, how they could have been moved, and how soon those could have arrived. Otherwise, the “speculative” history is just that – speculative. Historians don’t work from speculation – not even revisionist historians.

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  20. “Compare Hyukatake’s reaction to that of Kesselring in Italy. ”

    OK… lets…

    As I pointed out earlier, Hyukatake could not achieve a 1:1 ratio of forces on Guadalcanal by D+30. If you want to argue otherwise, you must provide something in the form of who, what, when, and where. History is not speculation.

    Kesselring had, at the time of the allied landings, 60k German troops and 230k Italian troops. Say what you may about the quality of the troops. But Kesselring had more than double the heads than the Allies landed. And more to the point, Kesselring was on the defensive, only to make localized counterattacks.

    That’s not true with the Japanese on Guadalcanal. They had to carry the offensive to a Marine force, greater in number, who could hold a perimeter and wait for the logistic clock to tick.

    At best, there’s an apples to oranges comparison to make. But the bottom line is the Japanese had less of less on Guadalcanal. But that didn’t curb their aggressiveness.

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