Inside The Guadalcanal Story
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The Battle of the Coral Sea occurred during the first week of May 1942. It was the most decisive event of World War II for the Marine Corps although no Marine Corps combat unit was involved. That battle led to significant actions that would not only have a permanent affect on United States Marine Corps aviation, it very likely saved the F4U Corsair program.
It is also the first battle where aircraft carriers engaged each other, and the first time in history that the combatant’s ships never sighted or even fired a shot at each other; it was fought entirely by airplanes.
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The Battle of the Coral Sea
The Battle of the Coral Sea occurred during the first week of May 1942. It was the most decisive event of World War II for the Marine Corps although no Marine Corps combat unit was involved.
That battle led to significant actions that would not only have a permanent affect on United States Marine Corps aviation, it very likely saved the F4U Corsair program.
The Battle of the Coral Sea is well known as the first major WWII engagement where its opponent stopped the Japanese navy. It is also the first battle where aircraft carriers engaged each other, and the first time in history that the combatant’s ships never sighted or even fired a shot at each other; it was fought entirely by airplanes.
Medal Of Honor Aces
Japanese Tactical Victory
The Battle of the Coral Sea, measured in ships lost, was a tactical victory for the Japanese. The Japanese fleet turned north back to Truk in the Caroline Islands, but there was no doubt they would return.
The American fleet withdrew to the east towards their base at Nouméa, New Caledonia, not knowing they had won a strategic victory for the United States. While the Japanese fleet would not return to the Coral Sea, Japan did not abandon its Solomon Islands intrusion.
April 18, 1942
The Marine Corps’ Guadalcanal story actually begins on April 18, 1942; the day the Doolittle Raiders’ 16 B-25 Mitchells bombed Tokyo from the carrier USS Hornet (CV-8).
When President Roosevelt was queried about the mission, he said the bombers flew from Shangri La.1 Japanese leaders knew better.
Shocked by Army Air Force medium bombers flying off aircraft carriers, they decided to take two actions to expand the defense perimeter covering their territorial acquisition program, the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’2.
Photo of the U.S. Navy carrier USS Hornet (CV-12) from the cover of the ship's history issued to the crew on the occasion of Navy Day, 27 October 1945.
Hornet wears camouflage measure 33 design 3A, therefore the photo was taken before July 1945 when she was repainted in measure 22.
U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation
Photo No. 2000.290.008
First, the Japanese Imperial Headquarters determined that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s proposed eastern defense expansion to Midway Island was no longer debatable. It would proceed in early June 1942.
Second, Japan decided to extend its southern defensive ring of territorial possessions by penetrating the Solomon Sea into the Coral Sea in early May. This action would provide Japan with bases in the Solomon Islands, a precursor to finally pushing the Australians out of New Guinea, and perhaps even an invasion of Australia itself. It would also endanger the shipping route between the United States and Australia.
Why The Marines?
Coincidently that same day, April 18, 1942, the United States and Great Britain created the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA).
They also agreed that General Douglas MacArthur, evacuated from the Philippines on March 17, 1942, would be the SWPA Supreme Commander. His Pacific Ocean boundaries of responsibility, relative to the US Navy, were defined in the SWPA agreement by longitude. Guadalcanal was in General MacArthur’s geographical area of responsibility.
Why then did the Marines invade Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942 rather than General MacArthur’s army?
Japanese activity in the Pacific Ocean by the spring of 1942 alarmed President Roosevelt and Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest King, about the possibility of completely losing the Southwest Pacific to the Japanese. They were adamant, the Japanese expansion to the Solomon Islands and Coral Sea had to be prevented. However, General MacArthur’s army in Australia existed mainly on paper.
General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz
Photo By US Government
Prior to the United States entry into WWII there was an agreement between Great Britain and the United States that in the event of a two-ocean war, Europe would be the first priority.
‘Plan Dog,’ a 1940 memorandum confirming ‘Europe First’ was written by then Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold Stark. In 'Plan Dog", ‘Europe First’ meant offensive campaigns with the ‘Pacific Second’, meaning defensive actions. By the spring of 1942 the Army was already planning ‘Operation Torch’, the invasion of North Africa in November 1942.
‘Operation Torch’ was an awkward compromise between Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt with General Secretary Joseph Stalin of Russia opposed.
Stalin’s disagreement echoed a secret United States war plan known as ‘Rainbow Five’.3
This plan was one of a series of situational plans developed long before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into the European war that began in 1939. Predicated on a simultaneous war against both Japan and Germany, ‘Rainbow Five’ called for a cross channel invasion of France in the spring of 1943. The United States Army and Stalin supported ‘Rainbow Five’, but the US Navy and Prime Minister Churchill did not.
Knowing that ‘Operation Torch’ would preclude a spring invasion of France’s Atlantic coast, Stalin demanded that Great Britain and the United States forgo ‘Operation Torch’ and open a second front against Germany by executing ‘Rainbow Five’.
Germany’s invading army was rapidly collapsing the Russian defenses. Stalin needed the relief that would be created by the reallocation of German forces from Russia to defend the new front in France.
President Roosevelt, who was concerned about the affect of a Russian defeat, sympathized with Stalin but struggled with his own divided team.
Iconic photo of a Soviet officer (thought to be Ukrainian Alexei Yeryomenko) leading his soldiers into battle against the invading German army, 12 July 1942, in Soviet Ukraine
Britain was adamantly opposed to invading France in 1943. The British reluctance to an early invasion of the continent was rooted in their painful experiences in World War I, 1914 - 1918.
The fighting in France during that war cost the British over 900,000 killed and more than 2,000,000 wounded.
Fresher in British minds was the collapse of the defense of France that forced the Dunkirk evacuation in June 1940. That defeat left the United Kingdom alone in the world to battle Nazi Germany.
With all European countries except neutral Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland under Nazi control, Churchill knew that the English people would not stand for the huge losses expected from an invasion of France or another disaster like the retreat that led to Dunkirk.
Marshal Erwin Rommel
Additional stress for the Allies was the North African Campaign where in the spring of 1942 Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps was on the verge of turning the Mediterranean Sea into a German lake to include the oil rich reserves of the Middle East.
Stalin did not believe sufficient German resources would be redirected from the Russian front by ‘Operation Torch’ to provide substantial relief. Prime Minister Churchill prevailed and the US Army was committed to ‘Operation Torch’.
United States Army resources for an invasion of the Solomon Islands would not be redirected from the ‘Operation Torch’ campaign for any SWPA offensive.
Operation Torch; November, 1942. Torch Landings
Image by US Army Center of Military History Online Bookshelves
Divided Into Two
The ’European First’ commitment to ‘Operation Torch’ did not solve the United States Navy’s pending calamity in the Pacific.
The Japanese had landed on the Solomon Island of Tulagi and begun to build an airfield on Guadalcanal. Something had to be done immediately to preclude the Japanese from flying their long-range Mitsubishi G4M Betty bombers to isolate Australia from its air and sea lines of communication with the United States; the “vital flank” to the Territory of Hawaii as President Roosevelt called it.
Therefore, on May 8, 1942, the Pacific theater was divided into two main areas. General Douglas MacArthur would command the South Pacific Area (SOPAC) with Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, leading the newly created Pacific Ocean Areas (POA). The Joint Chiefs shifted the SWPA agreement one degree of longitude to the west so that Guadalcanal4 would fall under Admiral Nimitz’s operational jurisdiction.
That is how the Marine Corps became responsible for the Solomon Island campaign.
Send In The Marines
When the Marines invaded Guadalcanal on August 7, 19425, carrier-based Navy aircraft provided air support from the USS Saratoga (CV-3).
However, on the night of August 9, 1942, during the Battle of Savo Island, Admiral Robert Ghormley withdrew his Navy fleet because of continuous land based Japanese aircraft raids and the loss of four cruisers and a destroyer. The Marines were essentially left to fend for themselves.
On August 18, 1942, the Marines finished the airfield the Japanese had begun, using captured construction equipment and named it Henderson Field. The Marines at Guadalcanal were now in a position to provide their own air defense of the island.
The Cactus Air Force
On August 20, 1942, Henderson Field received its first Marine air support when the escort carrier USS Long Island (CVE-1) delivered two squadrons from Marine Air Group 23; VMF-223 with 19 F4F Wildcats and VMSB-232 with 12 SBD Dauntless aircraft.
In the absence of a commanding officer for Marine air, they reported directly to General Alexander Vandegrift.
First Marine Aircraft Wing Commander and WWI veteran Major General Roy Geiger, USMC, arrived on September 3, 1942 and became commander of Allied air operations from Henderson Field. This included USMC, USAAF, USN and eventually a New Zealand squadron. They collectively became the ‘Cactus Air Force’.6
The Wildcat, fighting essentially a defensive battle protected Guadalcanal to the point where the Japanese ceded the island to the Allies. However, supporting an offensive campaign was beyond the Wildcat’s capability.
Cactus Air Force
Cactus Air Force aircraft crowd Henderson Field, Guadalcanal in October, 1942.
Image By US Government
The Cavalry Arrives
Guadalcanal was declared secure on February 9, 1943. On February 12, 1943, VMF-124 arrived just in the nick of time with the first Corsairs.
It was a grand entrance, in a manner similar to the US Cavalry in the Western movies of the era. Rejected by the Navy for adverse carrier landing characteristics, but in production since July, the Corsair was relegated to ground based operations.
The Corsair’s superior performance eliminated the Zero’s advantage, and it quickly established air superiority that allowed the Marines to take the offense by moving north up the Solomon Island chain – into General MacArthur’s area of responsibility.
The first Navy Corsairs, VF-17, arrived in September 1943 on New Georgia at the confluence of the northern Solomon Islands and western New Guinea/Papua.
As a land based attachment to the USS Bunker Hill (CV-17), the squadron flew high cover for the carriers so their aircraft could generate maximum efforts against targets like Rabaul.
By late 1943 the Navy was satisfied with the F6F Hellcat, Grumman’s successor to its Wildcat, as their Pacific Theater carrier fighter.
During the Tarawa Island campaign that began on November 20, 1943, the Hellcat was responsible for close air support. After the battle, the Marine ground commander Major General Holland Smith complained the Navy’s support was inadequate and demanded Marine Corps close air support, i.e., Corsairs.
General Roy Geiger, Admiral Raymond Spruance, General Holland Smith, Admiral Chester Nimitz, and General Alexander Vandegrift, 11 Aug 1944
US Navy Photograph
Leader Of The Pack
With official Navy carrier operation approval still months away, on November 11, 1943, Corsairs of the Navy, VF-17, landed aboard the USS Bunker Hill to rearm and refuel, proving that experienced pilots could successfully operate from carriers.
The British Royal Navy accomplished the first carrier launched ‘Corsair’ combat mission on April 19, 1944. The Corsair was first assigned to United States carriers for combat operations in December 1944, 54 months after its initial flight.7
Operation Torch’ sent the Marine Corps to Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal opened a window of opportunity (from February through November 1943) for the Corsair to demonstrate its superior performance over contemporary enemy and Allied aircraft. At Guadalcanal, the Corsair vaulted from doghouse to indispensible leader of the pack.8