Inside the Capitol

Thursday, June 09, 2005

6-17 Guadalcanal

FRI, 6-17-05

GUADALCANAL � Hailed by the Marines as the turning point of the war, Guadalcanal was the beginning of our long march north through the Pacific.
But it didn�t come easily. This was the first major land encounter for the United States and Japan and both sides made many mistakes. Fortunately, the enemy�s mistakes were more costly.
Japan�s mistakes mostly were the result of supreme overconfidence. It bragged that it never had lost a battle, ever. It felt its culture was superior to the Americans�. And it believed its own propaganda that U.S. troops were beaten down and demoralized.
Our mistakes were caused mainly by a continued lack of commitment to fighting anything but a holding action in the Pacific until we had finished helping England win its war in Europe.
The U.S. military leaders assigned to the Pacific were in agreement that we couldn�t wait that long, but some in the naval command were very cautious about losing any more ships, especially carriers, until the Pentagon was ready to start diverting some of its war production away from Europe.
When we realized that Japan was building an airfield on the island of Guadalcanal to disrupt shipping lanes from the United States to Australia, we knew it had to be stopped. Guadalcanal was an extremely distant outpost to either attack or defend for both countries, lying not far off the east coast of Australia.
The Aussies could have taken a major role in the invasion, but England had its fighting units engaged in North Africa and Europe. So it was up to the Americans to stretch their supply lines far south and take the airfield, from which it could then conduct air operations to the north.
But two days after the August 1942 invasion, our Navy became fearful of losing ships and withdrew its support of the landings before they were half completed. The Marines found themselves abandoned, just as our troops in the Philippines, far to the north, had experienced six months earlier.
All that saved the Marines was the enemy�s cocksure attitude that this was merely an annoyance that soon would be over. The Marines were allowed to take the almost-completed airfield, along with Japanese construction equipment and food supplies.
Normally, all of that would have been destroyed, but the Japanese figured they would be back in control as soon as reinforcements arrived. The Marines completed the airfield, and in six months of fierce fighting, they never gave it up.
The battle swayed back and forth, with Japanese overconfidence and American under-commitment keeping either side from winning. Finally, the U.S. Army was sent in to relieve the beleaguered Marines and the highly respected Adm. �Bull� Halsey was put in charge of South Pacific naval operations.
The Japanese saw this and decided they were in a battle of attrition they could not afford to continue. They left a shoreline off Henderson Field that is now nicknamed Iron Bottom Sound, littered by 111 wrecks, one of them PT-109.
The Henderson Field vicinity now is home to the capital city of Honiara, which wasn�t here during the war. It is about the only flat area on this large, hilly island. The airfield is now an international airport.
The Solomon Islands were under British rule during the war and have since gained their independence. The people are of African heritage, in comparison to the more Asian look of the Marshallese we visited to the north.
Ethnic tensions plague the Solomons. It is a fairly popular cruise ship stop, but those visits are often interrupted for long periods by unrest. We are fortunate to be here at a time of both peace and good weather.
We engaged three young men with a van to take seven of us to see the sights, including Bloody Ridge out in the jungle. In the hot-humid weather, we gained an intense appreciation for those Marines, carrying heavy backpacks and looking for snipers, while fighting through the swamps of six-foot, sharp-bladed grass.



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