This is the Living History podcast, broadcasting live across the airwaves.
Hello everyone. Welcome to Living History and thank you for tuning in, whether you are a regular listener to the podcast or indeed, this is your first episode. Thank you so much for joining me and if you are a new listener to the podcast, please go back and listen to some of the earlier episodes that we’ve done. We’ve had some fantastic interviews with wonderful historians from all around the world, and there are some really intriguing chapters of history we’ve explored in previous episodes.
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This week in history, what’s been happening, we’re in February now. The middle of a hot summer here, of course, but where a lot of the fighting occurred in the First and Second World Wars, particularly in Europe it was the middle of a winter, and if we look back to the First World War in France and Belgium, it was a pretty miserable time for the Australians and indeed all the forces fighting in France and Belgium during these incredibly harsh winters, and they didn’t have a choice. The soldiers couldn’t choose to leave the front line and go and sit in comfort in front of a fire. They were forced to hold those trenches through the worst of the winter weather, and there was probably no worse winter than the winter of 1916/1917 and by this stage, during the First World War, particularly in 1917, the Aussies were just about at their wits’ ends after occupying those trenches for so long in the mud and the snow and the rain. It was just a horrific time.
Many of the soldiers who served on the Western Front said that this winter of 1916 and 1917 was the worst time of the entire war that they spent there, and it was about this time in February 1917 that the Australians not only had to occupy these trenches, but were called on to make attacks, if you can believe that. They were called on to leave their trenches and try and capture the German positions. Just ridiculous decisions to be made to fight in the mud and the snow and the rain, but they had to do it. That was what they were there to do, and one of the most famous actions that occurred in February 1917 was the attack on a place called Stormy Trench, which is near the Somme Town of Gueudecourt, and during this action, a man by the name of Harry Murray won the Victoria Cross for his actions in leading his men in the attack on Stormy Trench, and Harry Murray actually went on to become the most decorated Australian soldier of the entire war.
Probably enough material there for a whole podcast on its own. The story of Harry Murray – really an absolute Anzac legend and most people haven’t heard of him. He flies a little bit under the radar, but go out and read about Harry Murray, VC and the myriad of other awards that he won. Really great bloke and typical heroic Anzac who became the most decorated Australian soldier of the First World War.
This week, fast forwarding to the Second World War, a lot was going on at this time, particularly in 1942 because the Japanese of course, after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 were now marauding through Asia and the Pacific and a lot of stuff were going on, and probably from an Australian perspective, the most important aspect of this early history of the Second World War was that the Japanese launched their first attack on Darwin this week in 1942, and it was one of almost 70 attacks that took place on Northern Australia during the war.
Isn’t that something that we just can’t comprehend? We think of the attack on Darwin, which occurred on the 19th of February, 1942 but in reality, the Japanese launched regular attacks for the next couple of years on the North. It must must’ve been absolutely terrifying and combine that with everything else that was going on – the fall of Singapore, the Japanese coming down and landing in New Guinea, landing in other Pacific islands, the midget submarines that came into City Harbour. It must have just been terrifying for the population to think that the Japanese were right on their doorstep, and even though we know now that the Japanese were not actually intending to launch an invasion of Australia, it must have really looked like it at the time, and Australians were absolutely terrified of this threat that the Japanese were going to invade, and with a very good reason It must have seemed at every turn that the Japanese were only one step away from landing in Australia.
So all of this was going on during February 1942. It was probably the darkest hour for Australia in that period of the war, so just a really traumatic time for the people of Australia, and it’s what led to a lot of young men enlisting in the service. A lot of young women left their farms and left their regional communities to move to the city for the first time to work in factories and to help with the war effort. People donated war bonds. It was just a time when everyone really pulled together, but it was based on a lot of fear of the Japanese. So we should always remember that February 1942 was a pretty dark time in Australia’s history.
Also in February if we fast forward to 1943 and this relates rather specifically to what we’re going to be talking about in this podcast, this was the end of the Guadalcanal campaign in 1943. February 1943 was when the Japanese gave up trying to recapture Guadalcanal, the island of Guadalcanal, and were pushed eventually out of the Solomon Islands altogether and then up through the islands of the Pacific. So we’re going to talk in detail about the Guadalcanal campaign today, and the reason I’ve decided to talk about Guadalcanal today is that there’s been a lot of emails this week that I’ve received from people, a lot of conversations online because the USS Hornet was discovered and when the announcement was made last week and the USS Hornet was a very famous aircraft carrier. You remember that the Lexington was discovered last year. The Lexington was one of the original carriers that the US had during the war, which was instrumental particularly in the battle of the Coral Sea, The Lexington.
The Hornet was also one of the famous early American aircraft carriers of the Second World War and the Hornet is best remembered for her participation in the Battle of Midway, but also most famously it was the Hornet that launched the aircraft that attacked Japan in the Doolittle raid, the famous American response to the attack on Pearl Harbour, when these lumbering bombers took off from the deck of the Hornet and launched an attack on Tokyo.
The attack itself didn’t do much in military value, but it did a huge amount for morale of the American people and it did a huge amount for shaking up the Japanese who had felt up until that point that they were too far away from America to be touched. The fact that there was an attack on their homeland by American bombers really changed the Japanese outlook, and it was an advantage for the allies for the rest of the war because Japan always held back a certain proportion of its fleet and of its Air Force to guard the homeland, just in case another attack was coming.
And that was all thanks to the Doolittle raid that the Americans launched from the Hornet and the Hornet was sunk during the Guadalcanal campaign in 1942 and Paul Allen, the late co-founder of Microsoft dedicated the last years of his life, really the last decade of his life, to funding research to find World War II wrecks, and he found dozens and dozens. His team have found more wrecks than anyone else who have been searching for these World War II wrecks, and it’s not just a question of discovering where these wrecks lie. They’re really telling a huge part of the story of World War II by uncovering these wrecks because they can see exactly what happened to these great ships in these battles, and often we don’t know. Often we know that a ship was sunk during a great naval battle during the Second World War, but we don’t know specifically what happened to it, and so the work that was done by Paul Allen and his team, which is ongoing, is absolutely fantastic in revealing these ships.
And it was announced last week that they had a great success that they’d found yet another ship they’d found the aircraft carrier Hornet, which was sunk during the Guadalcanal campaign, and this prompted a lot of conversation. I’ve seen a lot online. A lot of people have emailed me directly just asking about the Hornet and for a bit more information. I did a podcast last year when the Lexington was discovered, specifically about the fate of that ship. I’m not going to go into that much detail about the Hornet because I feel like I’ve done that before with the Lexington, talking about the fates of individual ships. But what it did prompt me to do was to talk more about the Guadalcanal campaign itself, this action that the Hornet was lost in, because I think particularly as Australians, we don’t have a great understanding of the point of the Guadalcanal campaign, and Guadalcanal is in the Solomon Islands, which is the closest the war effectively came to most Australians. New Guinea as well, of course off the northern tip of Australia, but also in the Solomon Islands, which today is only a three hour flight from the east coast of Australia. So this was as close as the war really came to Australia’s doorstep, and so it’s a very significant battle for Australians.
I think the issue with Guadalcanal from an Australian perspective is that there was not a huge amount of Australian involvement. There was definitely some Australian involvement; most notably the action of the Canberra, the ship that was lost in the opening stages of the Guadalcanal campaign with lots of lives and obviously losing the ship that was named after our capital city was quite a shock to the Australian people. That was during the opening days of the Guadalcanal campaign, so the loss of the Canberra was obviously a big blow to Australia. Australian Air Force units participated in the Guadalcanal campaign and certainly a lot of navy units participated, but we had no ground forces fighting in Guadalcanal. They were all fighting in New Guinea at the time. So I think from an Australian perspective, Guadalcanal is a bit misunderstood.
So hopefully today we can talk about that campaign in a bit of detail, and you can start to see just how important that campaign was, not just for the allied cause in general, for which it was very important but also for Australia’s position in the war, our role in the war and the future of the Pacific War, which obviously deeply affected Australia. So that’s what we’re going to talk today about the Guadalcanal campaign. Please keep sending in your questions. this podcast has been prompted by emails and by comments that you guys have all left online off the back of the discovery the Hornet, and so please keep doing that. There’s so many wonderful chapters of history we can talk about and it’s a really great guide to me to what you guys want to hear about when you send in that feedback to me.
So the Guadalcanal campaign, obviously part of the Pacific war, the Guadalcanal. The island of Guadalcanal and we should remember people hear the word Canal, Guadalcanal, and I think it’s to do with a sea battle. It’s not; Guadalcanal is the name of the island in the Solomon Islands, the main island where this battle was fought, and the reason that this battle occurred at all is because of Japan’s ambitions in the Pacific.
So going back right to the very start of the war, as far as we’re concerned, the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 and then the Japanese launching this huge attack in Asia and the Pacific. What the Japanese were trying to do is gain resources. Japan, especially in the 1940s when Japan was a huge military empire, ironically, they have very few resources themselves, so they rely on buying resources from other countries. It’s still the same today. Japan is an island that has a lot of people and very few resources and so in the 1940s, Japan relied on imports to keep its war machine going and they’d been fighting a war for over a decade against the Chinese. They’d been fighting before that against the Russians.
The Japanese at this time were a very militaristic society. They had a very big war machine and they needed to keep it fuelled and the key elements that they needed, the key resources were things like rubber, which they could get from the Dutch East Indies, oil which they could get from various parts of Asia, and a whole range of other resources they didn’t have a lot of access to themselves in the Japanese home islands. And in the 1940s Japan realized that trading partners such as the US were no longer going to support them and that they were in danger of having their resources cut off and that they would not be able to continue with this Great War machine that they’d built, and so they took a gamble. The attack on Pearl Harbour, and I won’t go into too much detail about that, because once again that could be a whole other podcast just talking about the ridiculous Japanese mistake that was the attack on Pearl Harbour.
Putting that aside, the question we should ask is what were the Japanese trying to do in Asia? Why did they want to attack all these places in Asia? And I should say it was much more than just the idea that they wanted a big empire. The Japanese had a very specific goal in mind. They wanted those resources, and particularly they wanted resources that stretched down to places like Thailand, Vietnam, today’s Cambodia, all down the peninsula, down through Asia and in particular as far down as the Dutch East Indies, because this was a very rich, very resource-rich area. Today’s Indonesia, this was a key target for the Japanese because of its rubber, because of its oil, and Japan needed these absolutely essential resources to keep operating, to keep its war machine going, and so they needed to seize ground to do it.
So in the weeks and months following Pearl Harbour, the Japanese launched these big attacks down through Asia and were very successful. They overran most of these countries and captured them. By early 1942, once the Japanese had secured these places that they wanted to capture in Asia, they then said, well how are we going to defend against them? And now America was in the war of course, because they had declared war on Japan after Pearl Harbour at the end of 1941. So Japan was in a frame of mind of how do we protect these gains in Asia, and the way they did it was not without merit or theory.
We have to remember that during the First World War, supplies were transported by ship and ships are very vulnerable to aircraft, and so the Japanese realized that if they could have strategically located air fields throughout the Pacific, it would make it very difficult for the Americans to sail within range of those gains in the Pacific and in Asia with their ships and with their aircraft carriers. So the plan for Japan was to fortify their gains in Asia by capturing strategically important islands in the Pacific and building airfields on them, and that is exactly what they set out to do. That’s the reason for the whole Kokoda Campaign in New Guinea. We often forget this. we think about it as some sort of Japanese surge on the Australian mainland, but it wasn’t like that at all. What the Japanese were after was Port Moresby, and the reason they wanted Port Moresby, there were airfields there, and if the Japanese controlled those airfields in Port Moresby, they would be able to launch attacks on Australia without us being able to resist at all. So bear that in mind that the Japanese aims in the Pacific were the secure strategic points and on those points to build airfields to defend their gains throughout Asia.
And so fast forward to later in 1942, we had the two big naval battles, which really disrupted those Japanese plans, the first one being Coral Sea, which prevented the Japanese from capturing Port Moresby, and so therefore led to them attacking Port Moresby overland along the Kokoda Track. So the Kokoda campaign was directly attributable to the Japanese failure at the battle of the Coral Sea, and then of course in June 1942, we had the Battle of Midway where the Japanese fleet was effectively destroyed by the Americans at the battle of Midway and the Japanese lost four aircraft carriers at the Battle of Midway, and that therefore really disrupted their plans and really crippled them for the rest of the war in terms of their ability to launch these big air strikes like we’d seen at Pearl Harbour.
While all this was going on in about May 1942 and about the same time the Battle of Coral Sea was going on, the Japanese landed in the Solomon Islands as part of this move through the Pacific to fortify islands and to protect their gains in Asia, and so they arrived in the Solomon Islands and the capital of the Solomon Islands, which was a British protectorate at the time. The capital was a little island called Tulagi and the Japanese landed on the island of Tulagi and they quickly took over and that was where they set up their base, and that was where they determined that they would stay. But during a reconnaissance mission, a Japanese patrol went over to a very large island that was nearby and this island is called Guadalcanal, and the Japanese went over to Guadalcanal and had a good look around. When they came back, the officer that had led the patrol, reported to his commander and he told his commander a story about when he’d gone over to Guadalcanal, he borrowed a horse from one of the natives and was exploring the island that way. The commander said, I don’t understand. I thought that island over there was nothing but mountains, and the officer said, well, it is all mountains except there’s an area near the longer river down near the sea, which is a big flat plain, and the Japanese had an idea, I wonder if it’s big enough to build an airfield, and the Japanese decided that it was.
So in June 1942, the Japanese began construction of an airfield on the island of Guadalcanal. Now we have to remember. Have a look at a map or have a look at the Google earth and get your bearings. This is very, very close to Australia. It’s only a few hours flying time from Australia. This is a very long way south and a very long way Southeast into the Pacific, and what it did when the Japanese started building an airfield and the allies realized that the Japanese were building an airfield, it really sent a shiver up the spine, particularly of the Americans, because the American plan had been to garrison the Pacific to basically prevent the Japanese from advancing any further, deal with the Germans and then come back to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific and to do that they were going to use Australia as their main base.
What the Americans realized was if the Japanese could complete that airfield on Guadalcanal, they would be able to cut off all the shipping routes between America and Australia and deny the Americans the opportunity to use Australia as their base to attack Japan, and they couldn’t let this happen. They couldn’t let the Japanese establish an airfield on Guadalcanal. So in a big hurry, the Americans looked around and said, well, we have to stop the Japanese from building this airfield. Who do we have nearby that we could send to take this airfield from the Japanese? And they looked around and through a complicated series of political manoeuvres related to the Australians and the Americans and the British, it turned out that there were some American units currently garrisoning the South Pacific and the First Marine Division was located in New Zealand. It was doing garrison duty in New Zealand. So the American authorities, even though they had not intended to take on the Japanese at this time, decided that they were going to launch an attack on Guadalcanal to take that airfield away from the Japanese.
So this is all going on in June and July of 1942. So they put this plan together. General Vandegrift was the commander of the First Marine Division and he said I need six weeks to get our troops together, and the response was we will give you six days, and they pushed back the scheduled date of invasion from the 1st of August to the 7th of August, 1942. So just think about this rush that was going on. The Americans hadn’t even intended to fight in the Pacific. They’d simply sent garrison troops out like these ones that were in New Zealand to just defend these islands in the Pacific. They were going to deal with Germany first. Their philosophy was Germany first. We’ve joined the war now. We’re going to help the British defeat the Germans and help the Russians defeat the Germans in Europe, and then once that’s taken care of, we’re going to come back and deal with the Japanese, and now they are being forced into this really two front war and to take action against the Japanese, probably years before they intended to.
The Japanese themselves felt that the Americans would not be capable of launching an attack until at least 1943 and probably 1944, so this was a great surprise to everyone involved, and when we look at the First Marine Division and who they were and how they were equipped, they were equipped for garrison duties. They were mostly young volunteers. They didn’t have a lot of combat experienced men in their ranks. America hadn’t been involved in a war for a long time, so there weren’t a lot of combat ready men in the ranks. They were mostly very young volunteers. The average age was 18 and these were young men who’d volunteered immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbour and had done a couple of months of training, and then much to their disappointment had found themselves stuck in New Zealand, not fighting the Japanese at all. So they were very excited to be given a chance to get amongst the Japanese, but because the Americans had this priority of defeating the Germans first, most of the materiel – the new technology, the new rifles, tanks – all of that technology had gone to Europe.
The troops in the Pacific were very poorly equipped. In fact, the First Marine Division was still equipped with World War I era weapons and equipment. They carried Springfield bolt action rifles, even though this was the stage when America had already adopted the M1 Garand semiautomatic rifle, one of the greatest infantry rifles of the Second World War. The Marines who would fight at Guadalcanal were not equipped with that rifle. They were equipped with aging Springfield bolt action rifles, most of which had been made in 1918 for the First World War. A lot of them wore First World War equipment, including helmets and packs and mess kits and ammo pouches. A lot of this stuff comes from 1918 and in fact, very occasionally I’ve held this in my hand when I’ve been on Guadalcanal. Even today, you will find a mess tin or a canteen or some piece of equipment and you turn it over, and the date on the bottom is not 1942 or 1943, it’s 1918, and it just shows the desperation of the Americans to just equip these men with whatever weapons and equipment they could find so that they could take on the Japanese at Guadalcanal. Even the food that they used, the rations that the Marines were given when they were on Guadalcanal was often 1918 issue and still pressed into service more than 20 years later. So that was the state of the Americans who were going to land at Guadalcanal, and the idea was they didn’t expect it to be a big battle. Simply land on this island and grab the air field from the Japanese and their job would be done.
So they set off towards the island of Guadalcanal and they landed early in the morning on the 7th of August, 1942. So this was the first American operation of the Second World War. A couple of groups of units landed on the island of Tulagi and that was actually where the first operations occurred of the Second World War. So the first Americans to step ashore in an offensive action were on the island of Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, and then about an hour and a half later, the Americans landed on the main island of Guadalcanal.
Now what the Americans anticipated being a very short campaign became the longest campaign of the Pacific war, because it just dragged on and on and on. The Japanese would not give up, but the early days were relatively easy. The Americans landed completely unopposed. The Japanese were so convinced that the Americans would not be ready to fight for at least another year, that they had virtually no combat troops at all on the island of Guadalcanal. The only troops they really had on the island were Korean labourers who were building the airfield, and of course, these men were not going to stay and fight when they saw this terrific bombardment arrived from the Americans, and then they saw thousands of troops landing on the beaches. The Koreans quickly scurried into the jungle, abandoning the airfield completely. So the day after the Americans landed, they captured the incomplete airfield from the Japanese.
Now the story of Guadalcanal is fairly simple from this point onwards, even though the battles that occurred get quite complicated, and the story of who was going where and what each side was doing get complicated. The fundamentals of why everybody was there and what they were trying to achieve were very, very straight forward. The Americans wanted to complete that airfield and use it against the Japanese, and the Japanese wanted to take it back. That was all the Japanese were trying to do on Guadalcanal. They did not want to give up that airfield. Everyone understood very early on the significance of the island and the significance of that airfield, and neither side wanted to give it up.
So that’s the situation in August 1942. The Americans have landed, they have captured the incomplete air field. They have pushed the Japanese away. There’s virtually no Japanese on the island at all now of Guadalcanal because they’d been so unprepared for this American attack. So the Americans set to work, finishing the work the Japanese had done on the airfield and the Japanese had been very good to the Americans by failing to recognize that attack was even coming. The Japanese did a terrible job of making the airfield untenable for the Americans. They basically left everything behind – construction material, even a bulldozer they left behind, rice, and supplies. Everything they left behind for the Americans, so the Americans fairly promptly finished the airfield. They knew that was absolutely essential. I saw a veteran interviewed about this and he said the way it was described to them is that airfield was an unsinkable aircraft carrier. That was what they thought of it as, that they could then use that airfield against the Japanese and the Japanese could do very little to stop them from using the airfield, and so as the Guadalcanal campaign went on and the various smaller campaigns that became Guadalcanal in general occurred, the whole focus was, as I said before, the Americans wanting to keep possession of that air field and the Japanese wanting to take it off them.
So the way the Japanese went about doing that is they would land thousands and thousands of troops over the course of this six-month campaign, and in each attack, their ambition was to capture the airfields from the Americans. And so there was a series of actions, the most famous of which was probably the one that took place in September 1942 which was known as the Battle of Edson’s Ridge or the Battle of Bloody Ridge, and it was a near run thing. The Japanese almost succeeded in capturing this ridge, which was located very close to the airfield, and had they succeeded in doing that, they would have had a clear run to the airfield.
I should mention, by the way, the airfield was known as Henderson field and it was named after Lofton Henderson, a pilot, a marine pilot who was killed during the battle at Midway, and Henderson field, the airfield that was began by the Japanese completed by the Americans and that was the focal point of the entire Guadalcanal campaign is now the international airport at Guadalcanal in the main city of Honiara, so a wonderful connection with history from the moment the plane first lands on Guadalcanal. And so the battle of Edson’s Ridge, the most famous Japanese attack, probably the most famous battle of the campaign took place in September 1942 when the Japanese sent a huge force, they landed a force on the island and then this force attacked the marine positions and the first raiders under a Colonel Merritt Edson were the defenders of that important ridge, and eventually pushed the Japanese back after several days and nights of very heavy fighting, and Edson’s Ridge is a great example of this very strange situation that we had on Guadalcanal where the Americans, because of their possession of the airfield, controlled the skies and the waters and the land by day. The Japanese could not move by daylight because American planes were flying all over the place. They would sink any ship that they saw. They would attack ground targets. They would shoot down any aircraft they saw.
So by day the Americans had total dominance of the Guadalcanal theatre from air, land and sea. But in World War II, aircraft could not operate at night. They could not attack at night. They needed visual indicators to know where to fly and where to attack, so those aircraft were grounded at night-time. At night-time, the Japanese in that area had a very strong navy located at Rabaul their main base, which was a couple of hundred miles from Guadalcanal, and so they could send their navy down as it was known, the slot, the waters between a string of islands that formed the Solomon Islands, and so every night the Japanese would come down the slot. They would send these fleets down to arrive in time to bombard the American positions. They’d send aircraft over to bomb the positions, and so we had this very strange situation where the Americans had complete domination of the theatre by day, and the Japanese had complete domination of the theatre by night. Just a very unusual and fascinating aspect to warfare in the Pacific island, and this went on for six months.
So the basic theory of the Japanese is we are going to send troops down from Rabaul. We’re going to land them on the island and they’re going to attack, and they’re going to valiantly capture the airfield and it’ll be a glorious victory. In my opinion, this is where the Japanese made two fundamental errors in the Guadalcanal campaign. Overarching everything is the fact that throughout the Second World War, if you want to take one thing away from the Japanese operations in the Second World War and their eventual defeat, one of the factors that played a huge part in that is for the entire Pacific war, Japanese intelligence was shocking. It was absolutely appalling. The Japanese never knew where the Americans were, and when they did know where they were, they grossly underestimated the number of Americans involved. As an example, the first operations on Guadalcanal, the Japanese predicted that less than a thousand Americans had landed in that first operation, so they sent a force of about a thousand men to meet the Americans and they met famously in the Battle of the Tenaru or also known as Alligator Creek, the first action of the Guadalcanal campaign.
But there weren’t a thousand Americans on the island. There were more than 11,000 men on the islands. So this was very typical of the Japanese throughout the Guadalcanal campaign and throughout the entire Pacific war. For whatever reason, Japanese intelligence was always shocking during the Second World War, and this led to some pretty disastrous results for the Japanese in numerous battles throughout the war. So that was the sort of overarching factor of what went on. But the specifics, the two things that I think are really important about the Guadalcanal campaign and why the Japanese failed is firstly their decision not to defend the airfield was ridiculous at the start. The Japanese should have had lots of troops defending that airfield and they should have fought the Americans off when they landed on the airfield.
But the second one, which went on for the entire campaign was that the Japanese were obsessed with putting boots on the airfield. They wanted Japanese soldiers to march in and take the air field from the Americans, in exactly the same way the Americans had done to them at the start of the campaign. Because of this, the types of attacks they launched tended to be very large attacks in small locations, which were not ideal for infantry to operate. They would send tens of thousands of men crashing through the jungle in an effort to break through the American lines and capture that airfield, and because of that, it meant that the Japanese attacks were often uncoordinated. It was very difficult to move large groups of men, and instead of getting entire battalions or regiments attacking the airfield or the American perimeter, they’d often just have companies or squads of men attacking the airfield.
So it meant that these attacks were uncoordinated. it meant that the Japanese had to march for dozens of miles through impenetrable jungle, just a hideous state of affairs for the Japanese soldiers. So I think if the Japanese had concentrated on simply denying the Americans the use of the airfield, for example, by getting artillery, by landing some heavy guns and getting them close enough to the airfield that they could regularly bombard the airfield, the Americans would not have been able to launch a plane from that airfield and the Japanese would not have had to occupy it. The Americans probably would have given up and gone home.
So those are the two factors that affected the Japanese, and there was a whole series of battles that went on, and again it gets very complicated, the specifics about what was going on. But the idea was the Americans were defending the airfield and the Japanese wanted to take it back. So there was that Battle of Edson’s Ridge in September. In October, there was the battle of Henderson field where the Japanese again launched a huge attack against the American positions and almost succeeded. This was where John Basilone won the Medal of Honor for his work in defeating the Japanese in that great attack, and this was probably the low point for the Japanese in October 1942 because they had the march in along a trial they’d cut through the jungle and by the time they got to the place for the attack, they were sick. They were worn out, they were exhausted from carrying all this heavy equipment and they didn’t have enough food because they expected their attack would be victorious, and they’d be able to dine on American rations. But when their attack was defeated, they then had to march back through the jungle. It took them more than a week to get back through the jungle and they were sick, malnourished, and they are carrying their wounded as well. Just an absolutely horrific time.
And I think if you went to Guadalcanal now and wanted to find relics from World War II, probably along that trail, it’s called the Murayama trail that cuts its way through the jungle, if you could find that trail and walk in the footsteps of those Japanese, I think you would find more material than just about anywhere else in the Pacific, because stories are rife from the men who were there that the Japanese, as they walked back along that trail after having been defeated in that battle, threw away so much of their equipment to lighten their load, so just a really terrible time.
The plight of the Japanese on Guadalcanal was quite horrific because they would be landed by their Navy at night. They would then be forced to fight against the Americans and then the navy couldn’t get back to them because the Americans had such domination of the skies, so it was really difficult for the Navy to get back to resupply them, and so Guadalcanal fairly quickly for the Japanese became known as Starvation Island. It was really quite a horrific time for the Japanese.
So this really continued for six months – the Japanese trying to take back the airfield and the Americans resisting very strongly. But later in the campaign, as we got later into 1942, the nature of the campaign started to change and the Japanese that were still on the island who were basically left leftover from previous attacks decided to dig in and the Americans went on the offensive, and so the later stages of the campaign from November to when the campaign ended in 1943 was the Americans basically pushing the Japanese back, and eventually defeating the Japanese and capturing the entire island. While all this was going on the land, there was some massive naval battles occurring and it was during one of these at Hornet, the aircraft carrier that we mentioned at the top of the podcast was lost.
There were seven massive naval battles that took place in the waters around Guadalcanal and each one is very specific about what it was trying to achieve, but again the overarching idea was the Japanese were trying to bring troops and supplies to Guadalcanal and the Americans were trying to sink as many Japanese ships as they possibly could. So the huge naval clashes occurred. Seven very big naval battles occurred in the waters around Guadalcanal, so a huge conflagration this Guadalcanal campaign. Air battles every day in the skies over Guadalcanal, huge naval battles in the seas, and of course, this constant, intense, brutal fighting on the land between the infantry troops.
So this went on and on until eventually the Americans kept landing more and more troops. The Americans eventually got the upper hand. They were free to land troops. The Japanese couldn’t really interfere with the American navy coming in and landing more troops. The Americans built up their numbers and eventually pushed the Japanese off the island entirely and defeated them. The final stages of the battle occurred in the early days of February 1943 when the Japanese had been pushed right back to the northwest corner of the island of Guadalcanal. There’s only a very small garrison left. The Japanese decided they could not win and they would withdraw from the island, and so the final hours of the Guadalcanal campaign from a Japanese perspective were boats, Japanese boats going up and down the beaches and men calling out on loudspeakers that we’re leaving. If you’re a Japanese person on the island, we are leaving. So come out now and jump on a ship, otherwise you’ll be left behind, and in point of fact, the Japanese left many hundreds of their men on the island, perhaps thousands of men. They left on the island, and in fact, my grandfather was a New Zealander who served with the Kiwis on Guadalcanal in ’43 and ’44, and he always recounted to me that just about every night the Japanese would sneak out of the jungle into the New Zealand camp, just looking for food and went there to cause mischief or to fight. They were there just desperately hungry for food, so they would sneak into camp and just about every night to steal food from the Kiwis.
So that’s the Guadalcanal campaign in a nutshell. I hope that description made some sense. It is quite complicated. It’s a very long campaign that went on for six months, but this all took place on Australia’s doorstep and it’s got a key significance for us as Australians. I’m going to say something here that’s going to come across as controversial, particularly for people who had relatives who fought in New Guinea, and I will never take anything away from the Australian achievements in New Guinea. There was an absolutely essential campaign that had to be fought in New Guinea against the Japanese, and the Australians did it very, very well. So let me say that at the top, I will never take that away from the Australians. However, we have to understand where Kokoda and New Guinea fits into the grand scheme of things.
So in 1942, the Japanese were fighting on two fronts in the southwest Pacific. They were fighting against the Australians, predominantly in Kokoda, and they were fighting against the Americans in Guadalcanal, and I mentioned that attack on Bloody Ridge or Edson’s Ridge in September 1942 when the Japanese launched this big attack on Guadalcanal to take back the airfield. After that attack and after the Japanese defeat, the Japanese hierarchy got together and they said we cannot sustain two battle fronts in the Pacific. We have to focus on one or the other, and so they sat down and had a conference to decide what was going to be the decisive battle. That’s what they called it. What will be the decisive battle we are currently fighting in the Pacific because whichever one that is, we want to put all our resources into that battle instead of splitting them between these two campaigns, and they decided that the Guadalcanal campaign was the decisive battle in the Pacific. What ramifications did that have? We’ve all heard the stories of Kokoda, how the Japanese managed to push the Australians back and back and back across the Owen Stanley ranges, and eventually the Japanese were within sight of Port Moresby, but then they pulled back and walked all the way back across the Kokoda campaign to the beach heads, and the beach head fighting then carried on. But we not only ask the question, well, why did the Japanese pull back when they could see the lights of Port Moresby ahead of them?
Sometimes we think maybe the Australians pushed them back. The absolute reality of the situation is it was right at this time when the Japanese were digging in overlooking Port Moresby on Kokoda that the Japanese conference was taking place to decide where Japanese resources would be sent for the remainder of these campaigns, and the decision was made to divert resources to Guadalcanal away from New Guinea, and because of that, the Japanese who were on New Guinea, who are now facing Port Moresby were told to pull back because they could not be resupplied and reinforced because those resources were being sent to Guadalcanal. So that was the reason that the Japanese began the fighting retreat along the Kokoda track, which was the second phase, the famous second phase of the Kokoda campaign. So we should remember that. So this isn’t anything to besmirch the Australians were fighting at Kokoda or to downplay the importance of the Kokoda campaign because it was absolutely essential and the Australians fought it brilliantly.
But from a Japanese perspective, the key battle that was taking place at this time in the Pacific was Guadalcanal, and so resources that were going to go to New Guinea that probably would have tipped the balance of the Kokoda campaign in Japan’s favour were diverted to Guadalcanal to fight against the Americans on that island. So that’s something we should remember as Australians. We should never look at these campaigns in isolation. We should never do that with any war. We should never just look at Gallipoli for example, and say, what Gallipoli means for the First World War without thinking about what was going on elsewhere. We should never do that with Vietnam. There’s no war that we should look at or there is no campaign within any war that we should look at in isolation, and we should not do the same thing with Kokoda either, and the truth of the matter is that the resources that would have been used against the Australians in Kokoda, diverted by the Japanese to Guadalcanal to fight against the Americans and Guadalcanal became the decisive battle.
Because of that, the eventual American victory on Guadalcanal meant the end of Japanese expansion in the Pacific. Once the Americans had won at Guadalcanal, the Japanese withdrew and they pulled back further into the Solomon Islands. They retreated in the Solomon Islands and once the Japanese were on the back foot, there were no way the allies and particularly the Americans were going to let them get on the front foot again, and so Guadalcanal is often called by Americans the Gettysburg of the Pacific because if you know your Civil War history, Gettysburg was the high watermark of the confederacy. This marked the furthest the confederates got in their efforts during the Civil War and Guadalcanal was exactly the same in the Pacific war.
Guadalcanal was as far south as the Japanese got. This was the last advance that the Japanese made in their conquest of Asia and the Pacific. Every step the Japanese would take after the Guadalcanal campaign would be backwards and it would end in August 1945 in Tokyo Bay. So Guadalcanal is incredibly important in the history of the Pacific war. It was the first campaign launched by the Americans. It was the longest campaign of the Pacific war, and just really important. It’s not a campaign that’s particularly well understood in Australia, but it’s one that we should and let me add to that, get over there and visit this battlefield. It is probably my favorite battlefield that I go to anywhere in the world. It is incredible, especially in the context of World War II. It’s an unbelievable battlefield because of the fighting was just so long and so intense and went on for so long.
When you go to Guadalcanal today, you will see foxholes where the Americans were fighting. You’ll see Japanese machine gun positions and you’ll see relics like you would not believe – grenades, bullets, rifles, helmets. There was so much fighting. It was so intense. There was so much material left behind that you can plot the advance of a unit by the cartridges that you find on the ground. It’s an absolutely astounding battlefield. So if you have the opportunity, I’d love you to join one of our tours and come over there and see this battlefield because you should certainly do it, and when we come over there on our tours, we also commemorate the loss of the Canberra, the HMS Canberra, and a few of the other Australian actions as well, and indeed the Kiwi actions, the New Zealanders were quite prominent in Guadalcanal later in the war. So if you’re interested in this chapter of the Pacific War and World War II history, I would strongly recommend you come to Guadalcanal because it’s quite a wonderful destination and only a three hour flight from Brisbane. So those of you who flown to Gallipoli or the Western Front will be quite relieved. They thought that you could fly three hours and be on this incredible battlefield.
So that’s really it. That’s the battle of Guadalcanal. I hope that wasn’t too complicated. I felt like I was moving a little bit all over the place, but it’s just a battle that I’m absolutely intrigued about and it’s a wonderful story. It’s a fantastic chapter of the Pacific war. We’ll do another one coming up soon on Kokoda and we’ll delve very deeply in the same sort of depth into the Kokoda campaign, but I thought now with the discovery of the Hornet and the all the talk at the moment about the Guadalcanal campaign, it was certainly worth getting my thoughts on record about what I believe were a very important campaign. So thank you very much for joining me.
Tune in, we’ve got lots of great content coming up in the coming days and weeks. So continue to tune into the podcast. Continue to visit us on Facebook and to send me messages. As I’ve said before, I try personally to reply to all the messages that come through on Twitter and Facebook and usually I succeed. So if it takes a little bit longer than you would have expected, my apologies for that but do send a note in. I’m always around. I always enjoy talking to you. So join us on a tour. Get your plans in place for Anzac Day. Whatever you’re intending to do, I hope it’s going to be a very special one for you. It’s not that far away; only a couple of months away from Anzac Day. So until I speak to you again, thank you for tuning in. It’s been a wonderful pleasure.