The Fight for Guadalcanal: The Battles of Henderson Field and the Santa Cruz Islands

Allied forces gained a critical foothold in the Solomon Islands in August 1942 after the successful invasion of Guadalcanal. While this gave the Allies a base of operations, including an airfield, the Japanese still had a presence on Guadalcanal.  And by mid-October 1942, two months after the initial invasion, Imperial Japanese forces remained locked in a struggle with American forces over the island and the surrounding seas.

The Japanese held the northwestern coastal strip of Guadalcanal, while the Allies controlled the adjacent central northern coast. The severe tropical environment made land operations complicated for both sides, and neither possessed the strength to defeat the other in a ground offensive.  Despite the Americans holding Henderson Field, neither side had air superiority.  Naval task forces came and went, often supporting supply ships that delivered cargos and reinforcements with difficulty.

From August 1942 to mid-October, regional Japanese forces made great efforts to land and sustain a larger force on Guadalcanal.  Japanese lines of supply were more tenuous, with no airfield or port facilities, and at a distance from supply bases.  Cargoes were unloaded hurriedly, even haphazardly, at night, and lingering supply ships invited American attacks. Critical supplies had priority over cargo vehicles or tractors. Men carried or pulled heavy weapons and supplies over jungle trails and roads cleared by hand. Despite significant challenges, Japanese forces added a company of tanks, and heavy artillery.  Even with reinforcements, success of the Guadalcanal garrison would require cooperation of naval and air forces.

Meanwhile, in the western end of the Allied sector, Henderson Field was a key element to continued Allied strength in the region. Defeat at sea or loss of Henderson Field could doom the American effort. They did all they could to improve their position as a secure base, and to strengthen its defenses.

They built a road along the coast for supply trucks and mobile reserves. New docks, landings, and storage sites improved efficient supply delivery, and Henderson Field was expanded. Seaplanes and torpedo boats operated from Tulagi Island across Iron Bottom Sound, then called Sealark Channel. Medical facilities were also established.

Even though Americans forces had no artillery as heavy as the Japanese, they possessed more tanks, heavier antitank weapons, and better supply. Like the Japanese, American naval and air forces were active in the area. The Japanese knew they needed to maintain their air and sea striking ability to give ground forces a hope of victory over the materially superior American beachhead. Each side awaited an opportunity to gain strategic advantage.

In mid-October the Japanese thought they could tip the balance in their favor by coordinating naval, air, and ground attacks on Henderson Field.  These destructive attacks would cover landings of tanks, heavy guns and fresh troops to take the airfield. On the night of October 11 – 12, Japanese naval forces, bound for bombarding the airfield, encountered an American force in the inconclusive Battle of Cape Esperance. On the following nights of October 13 and 14,  Japanese cruisers and battleships found more success when they seriously damaged Henderson Field, destroying dozens of planes, and fuel stores. 

Pharmacist's Mate 1st Class Louis Ortega, who was at Henderson Field that night, recalled:

“It started about 11 pm on 13 October 1942. We were laying down in our pillbox. A whistling noise and then boom! "What the hell was that?" And then another one. For the next 4 hours we were bombarded by four battleships and two cruisers. Let me tell you something. You can get a dozen air raids a day but they come and they're gone. A battleship can sit there for hour after hour and throw 14-inch shells. I will never forget those four hours. The next morning when they stopped shelling, there was a haze over the whole area. Five miles of coconut groves were gone! Where the day before you had miles and miles of coconut trees, now 5 square miles were wiped clean. Every tree was gone. The airfield was destroyed. And over on Point Cruz you could see six Japanese transport ships merrily unloading troops.”

Henderson Field sustained significant damage, but remained under Allied control. American Seabees repaired damage to the airfield and slowly replacement aircraft and drums of fuel were flown in.

Shortly after the bombardment of Henderson Field, the Japanese troops began cutting a road more than twelve miles through the hilly rainforest to attack Henderson Field from the south. Poor communication and delays over rough terrain turned a complex plan into three days of poorly coordinated assaults. Trail-weary, Japanese troops without heavy weapons made these attacks, desperate to gain a victory. These attacks cost the Japanese several thousand men, while American losses numbered less than 100.  Meanwhile other Japanese forces failed in attacks with tanks and artillery on the airfield from the west.

Expecting the success of their ground forces, the Japanese Navy prepared for the capture of Henderson Field.  A combined fleet of aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers and destroyers moved to the northeast of the southern Solomon Islands, to support Guadalcanal or engage intervening American naval forces. Simultaneously, the U.S. Navy approached with aircraft carriers, a battleship, cruisers and destroyers. The fleets clashed in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on October 26, 1942. American Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., said of the battle, “… Japanese ships outnumbered ours two to one, I sent my task force commanders this dispatch: ATTACK REPEAT ATTACK.” Japanese naval forces entered the battle with a greater number of ships and, ultimately gained a victory. But this victory came at a significant cost—only one operational Japanese carrier, Zuikaku, remained in the South Pacific after the battle.

While not the end of the fighting in and around Guadalcanal, the Japanese had lost the ability to eject American forces.  Two more famous sea battles added to the reason Sealark Channel became known as Iron Bottom Sound. And finally, in January 1943, the Japanese began evacuations, accepting the reality that they had lost Guadalcanal. Nearly 27,000 Japanese had been killed, died of disease or taken prisoner during the fight for the island.

Recommended Reading:

Stamps and Esposito, A Military History of World War Two with Atlas, V.2, (West Point, A.G. Printing Office, 1953).

John Miller, United States Army in World War II – The War in the Pacific - Guadalcanal the First Offensive (Washington, Historical Division of the Army, 1949).

Mary H. Williams, United States Army in World War II – Chronology 1941-1945 (Washington, Historical Division of the Army, 2010)

Richard Humble, Japanese High Seas Fleet (New York, Ballentine, 1973).

Masanori Ito, The End of the Imperial Japanese Navy, (New York, McFadden-Bartell, 1965)

Excerpt from Oral History of Pharmacist's Mate First Class Louis Ortega, With the Marines at Guadalcanal, Oral History - Battle of Guadalcanal, 1942-1943, US Navy History and Heritage Command. 10/12/2017