Friday, August 07, 2009

Guadalcanal--Gettysburg in the Pacific

One of the most bitterly fought campaigns of the Second World War began this date, 7 August, sixty-seven years ago. The island chain eventually wrested from Japanese control was the first in a two-pronged strategy that rolled back the Axis tide in the Pacific. One of the later islands seized in this drive, Tinian, possessed excellent airfields from which the long-range strategic aerial bombardment of the Japanese home islands culminated in the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and the unconditional surrender of Japan) exactly three years (to the week) after this date's 1st Marine Division landing on Guadalcanal.

A few of the Marines who landed on Guadalcanal's beach and began to push inland through the dense jungle had experience with a similar type of terrain--they had fought in the so-called "Banana Wars" of the twenties and thirties. But chasing the likes of bandits like Sandino in the jungles of Nicaragua could prepare no one for the brutal fight that awaited the 1st Marine Division on "the 'canal." The environment's hostility was surpassed only by the fierce tenacity of the Japanese--twenty percent of the Marines fell prey to a severe strain of dysentery within the first two weeks on the island. Guadalcanal lay strategically astride the supply lines to Australia. The fate of Australia and New Zealand would be controlled by whoever controlled Guadalcanal. Japan's expansionist dreams depended on control of the South Pacific (including, eventually, Australia and New Zealand), and they fought ferociously to throw the Americans off of their foothold in the Solomons. Over the next several months, the Japanese landed reinforcements on one end of the island while the Marines dug in and expanded their beachhead on the other. Fierce battles raged on pieces of terrain that would become immortalized in Marine Corps lore--Lunga Point, Alligator Creek, Edson's Ridge, Matanikau River, and Henderson Field. Marines got their first, but not last, taste of the human wave banzai attack. At sea, the American Navy began to stand up to and lick their Japanese naval rivals, and in the air American pilots defending the 1st Marine Division learned valuable lessons in dogfights against the vaunted Zero.

By December of 1942, it was clear to the Japanese that their land and naval forces were no longer a match for the growing American strength in the Solomons and they began to withdraw their forces and retract their strategic perimeter in the Pacific. It was the beginning of the end for the Japanese. Although two and a half more years of horrendous losses on both sides were to transpire, it was only a matter of time before the gathering strength of the "Sleeping Giant" would overwhelm the Empire of the Rising Sun. Guadalcanal was, in a way, the Gettysburg of the Pacific, and marked the high water mark of Japanese expansion.

I have had the opportunity to meet a few of the Marines who fought on Guadalcanal with the 1st Marine Division. The comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda even has a great uncle who fought on Guadalcanal. It was their accomplishments and exploits (and those of their brothers in the other five Marine Divisions that swept across the Pacific over the next three years) that made being a Marine in my time such a special privilege and honor.
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