The Japanese defeat on Guadalcanal – a turning point of World War II

On 7 August 1942 Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift’s US 1st Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal island in the Solomon islands group to the east of New Guinea. The Japanese had occupied the island in the preceding month as a location essential to the security of the outer defence perimeter they were establishing to shield their gains of late 1941 and early 1942. The Japanese believed that the island could be developed as a base from which the Allied lines of maritime communication across the Pacific (from the USA to New Zealand and Australia) could be interdicted, so preventing the build-up of forces for a riposte against the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’. There followed a period of intense fighting not only on the island, but in the air above it and the waters surrounding it. Both sides ferried in reinforcements, but by a time late in 1942 the Americans had clearly gained the upper hand over Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake’s 17th Army, whose remnants were fighting a bitter rearguard action.

The Japanese now planned to evacuate these remnants in the period from 1 February 1943. Planned and prepared materially from November 1942 at Rabaul, the headquarters of the Japanese forces in the South-West Pacific theatre, this ‘Ke’ operation had been authorised on 26 December 1942 following a period throughout November when the Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo continued to support further efforts to retake Guadalcanal. At the same time, however, lower-ranking staff officers began quietly to discuss the abandonment of the island after the last Japanese troops had been evacuated. Later in the month the War Ministry informed the Imperial General Headquarters that there was insufficient shipping to support both an effort to retake Guadalcanal and to transport strategic resources to maintain Japan’s economy and military forces. On 19 December, a delegation of Imperial General Headquarters staff officers, led by Colonel Joichiro Sanada, chief of the operations section, reached Rabaul on New Britain for discussions about future plans concerning New Guinea and Guadalcanal. General Hitoshi Imamura, commanding the 8th Area Army controlling Japanese army operations in New Guinea and the Solomon islands, did not directly recommend a withdrawal from Guadalcanal but laid out the difficulty of any further attempt to retake the island. Imamura also stated that any decision to withdraw should include plans to evacuate as many soldiers as possible.

Sanada returned to Tokyo on 25 December and suggested that Guadalcanal be abandoned without delay and priority be given to the campaign in New Guinea. The Imperial General Headquarters’ senior members agreed with Sanada’s recommendation on 26 December and ordered their staffs to begin drafting plans for the withdrawal from Guadalcanal and establishment of a new defence line in the central Solomon islands. On December 28, General Hajime Sugiyama and Admiral Osami Nagano, the army and navy chiefs-of-staff, personally informed Emperor Hirohito of the decision to withdraw from Guadalcanal, and on 31 December the emperor formally endorsed the decision, which was passed to the 8th Area Army and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet on 3 January. By 9 January the Combined Fleet and 8th Area Army staffs had completed designing the ‘Ke’ plan. This called for a battalion of army infantry to be landed by destroyer on Guadalcanal on about 14 January to act as a rear guard during the evacuation; the 17th Army to begin withdrawing to the western end of the island on 25/26 January; and an air superiority campaign to be started around the southern end of the Solomon islands on 28 January. The survivors of the 17th Army were then to be evacuated in three lifts by destroyers during the first week of February with a target completion date of 10 February. At the same time, Japanese air and naval assets would conduct conspicuous manoeuvres and minor attacks around New Guinea and the Marshall islands, together with deceptive radio traffic, in an effort to confuse the Allies about Japanese intentions. Yamamoto detailed the aircraft carriers Junyo and Zuiho, battleships Kongo and Haruna, and four heavy cruisers plus a destroyer screening force under Admiral Nobutake Kondo, commander of the 2nd Fleet, to provide distant cover for ‘Ke’ around Ontong Java in the northern part of the Solomon islands.

The evacuation runs were to be supported and carried out by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa’s 8th Fleet, consisting of the heavy cruisers Chokai and Kumano, light cruiser Sendai and 21 destroyers, the last being charged with the actual evacuation. Yamamoto expected that at least half of Mikawa’s destroyers would be sunk during the operation. Supporting the air superiority portion of the operation were the Japanese navy air force’s 11th Air Fleet under Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka and the Japanese army air force’s 6th Air Division under Lieutenant General Giichi Itahana, based at Rabaul with 212 and 100 aircraft respectively. In addition, 64 aircraft from the carrier Zuikaku were temporarily assigned to Rabaul. An additional 60 floatplanes from the Japanese navy air force’s ‘R’ Area Air Force, based at Rabaul and on Bougainville island and the Shortland islands, brought the total number of Japanese aircraft involved in the operation to 436. The Japanese warship and naval air units in the area formed the South-Eastern Area Fleet, commanded from Rabaul by Kusaka.

Opposing the Japanese and led by Admiral William F. Halsey, commander of the Allied forces in the South Pacific Area, were the fleet carriers Enterprise and Saratoga, six escort carriers, three newer fast battleships, four older slow battleships, 13 cruisers and 45 destroyers. In the air, Brigadier General Nathan F. Twining’s US 13th AAF had 92 fighters and bombers, and Brigadier General Francis P. Mulcahy’s ‘Cactus Air Force’ on Guadalcanal had 81 aircraft. Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch was overall commander of Aircraft South Pacific. The air units of the fleet and escort carriers added another 339 aircraft. In addition, 30 heavy bombers were stationed in New Guinea with sufficient range to conduct missions over the Solomon islands. In total, the Allies had some 539 aircraft to oppose ‘Ke’.

By the first week of January, disease, starvation and combat had reduced the 17th Army on Guadalcanal to about 14,000 men, many of them too sick and/or malnourished to fight. The 17th Army possessed only three serviceable pieces of artillery, for which only minuscule supplies of ammunition were available. In contrast, the US commander on the island, Major General Alexander McC. Patch, fielded a combined force of US Army and US Marine Corps formations, designated as the XIV Corps, totalling 50,666 men. At Patch’s disposal were 167 pieces of artillery, including 75-, 105- and 155-mm (2.95-, 4.13- and 6.1-in) guns with plentiful stocks of ammunition.

On 1 January 1943 the Japanese changed their military radio communication codes, making it more difficult for Allied intelligence, which had heretofore partially broken Japanese radio ciphers, to divine Japanese intentions and movement. As January progressed, Allied reconnaissance and radio traffic analysis noted the build-up of ships and aircraft at Truk island in the Caroline islands, Rabaul and the Shortland islands. Allied analysts determined that the increased radio traffic in the Marshall islands was a deception meant to divert attention from an operation about to take place in either New Guinea or the Solomon islands. Allied intelligence personnel, however, misinterpreted the nature of the operation. On 26 January the Allied Pacific Command’s intelligence section informed Allied forces in the Pacific that the Japanese were preparing a new offensive, called ‘Ke’, in either the Solomon islands or New Guinea.

On 14 January a ‘Tokyo Express’ undertaking by nine destroyers delivered to Guadalcanal Major Keiji Yano’s ‘Yano’ Battalion as the ‘Ke’ rear guard. The battalion comprised 750 infantry and a battery of mountain guns with another 100 men. Accompanying the battalion was Lieutenant Colonel Kumao Imoto, representing the 8th Area Army, who was to deliver the evacuation order and plan to Hyakutake, whose 17th Army had not yet been informed of the decision to withdraw. Cactus Air Force and 13th AAF attacks on the nine destroyers during their return trip damaged Arashi and Tanikaze, and destroyed eight Japanese fighters escorting the convoy; five American aircraft were also shot down. Late on 15 January, Imoto reached the 17th Army’s headquarters at Kokumbona and informed Hyakutake and his staff of the decision to withdraw from the island. Grudgingly accepting the order on 16 January, the 17th Army staff communicated the evacuation plan to their forces on 18 January. The plan directed Lieutenant General Tadayoshi Sano’s 38th Division, currently seeking to check a US offensive on ridges and hills in the interior of the island, to disengage and withdraw toward Cape Esperance on the western end of Guadalcanal from 20 January. The 38th Division’s retirement would be covered by Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama’s 2nd Division, which had been on Guadalcanal since October 1942, and the ‘Yano’ Battalion, both of which would then follow the 38th Division to the west.

Patch launched a new offensive just as the 38th Division began to withdraw from the inland ridges and hills that it had occupied. On 20 January Major General J. Lawton Collins’s 25th Division attacked Hills 87, 88 and 89, which constituted a ridge that dominated Kokumbona. Encountering much lighter resistance than anticipated, the Americans had taken the three hills by the morning of 22 January. Shifting forces to exploit the unexpected breakthrough, Collins quickly continued the advance and captured the next two targets, Hills 90 and 91, by the fall of night, placing the US forces in a position to isolate and capture Kokumbona, and so trap the 2nd Division. Reacting quickly to the situation, the Japanese hurriedly evacuated Kokumbona and ordered the 2nd Division to start an immediate retirement to the west. The Americans captured Kokumbona on January 23. Although some Japanese units were trapped between the American forces and destroyed, most of the 2nd Division’s survivors escaped. Still fearing a renewed and reinforced Japanese offensive, Patch committed the equivalent of only one regiment at a time to attack the Japanese forces west of Kokumbona, keeping the rest near Lunga Point to protect the airfield. The terrain west of Kokumbona favoured the Japanese efforts to delay the Americans as the rest of the 17th Army continued its withdrawal toward Cape Esperance. The US advance was hemmed into a corridor only 300 yards (270 m) to 600 yards (550 m) wide between the sea and the thick inland jungle and steep coral ridges. The ridges, running perpendicular to the coast, paralleled numerous streams and creeks that crossed the corridor in a large number of places. As the US army and US Marine Corps’ formations on Guadalcanal has suffered heavy losses from combat and disease, Patch reorganised his pursuit forces to create the so-called Composite Army-Marine Division, which grouped the US Army’s 147th and 182nd Infantry with the US Marine Corps’ 6th Marines, together with artillery from Brigadier General Edmund B. Sebree’s Americal (sic) Division and Major General John Marston’s 2nd Marine Division; the rest of the Americal and 2nd Marine Divisions held the US perimeter east of the Matanikau river. On 26 January, as the 25th Division was executing a difficult north-westward swing toward Kokumbona, Brigadier General Alphonse de Carre’s CAM Division was advancing west and encountered the ‘Yano’ Battalion at the Marmura river. Yano’s troops temporarily halted the CAM Division’s advance and then withdrew slowly to the west over the next three days. On 29 January the ‘Yano’ Battalion retreated across the Bonegi river, where elements of the 2nd Division had constructed another defensive position. These Japanese defences at the Bonegi river checked the US advance for almost three days. On 1 February, with help from a shore bombardment by the destroyers Wilson and Anderson, the Americans successfully crossed the river but did not immediately press the advance westward.

In preparation for ‘Ke’, the Japanese tried to gain a measure of air superiority over Guadalcanal in an effort launched in the middle of January 1943. This campaign started with night harassment attacks on Henderson Field by anything between three and 10 aircraft, which caused little damage. On 20 January one Kawanishi H8K flying boat bombed Espíritu Santo, and five days later the Japanese navy air force despatched 58 Mitsubishi A6M Reisen ‘Zero’ fighters on a daylight raid. Brigadier General Francis P. Mulcahy’s Cactus Air Force, based on Henderson Field and centred on Mulcahy’s own 2nd Marine Air Wing but including major USAAF and US Navy contributions, responded by launching eight Grumman F4F Wildcat and six Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters, which shot down four A6M aircraft without loss. The Japanese launched a second large raid on 27 January by nine Kawasaki Ki-48 light bombers escorted by 74 Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa fighters of the Rabaul-based 6th Air Division. Twelve F4F, six P-38 and 10 Curtiss P-40 fighters from Henderson Field met the raid over Guadalcanal. In the resulting action, the Japanese lost six fighters while the Cactus Air Force lost one Wildcat, four P-40 and two P-38 fighters. The Kawasaki aircraft dropped their bombs on the US positions around the Matanikau river, causing little damage. Believing that the Japanese were beginning a major offensive in the southern part of the Solomon islands aimed at Henderson Field, Halsey responded, from 29 January, by sending a resupply convoy to Guadalcanal supported by most of his warship forces, separated into five task forces. These task forces included two fleet carriers, two escort carriers, three battleships, 12 cruisers, and 25 destroyers. Screening the approach of the transport convoy was Rear Admiral Thomas C. Giffen’s Task Force 18 with three heavy and three light cruisers, two escort carriers, and eight destroyers. A fleet carrier task force, centred on the carrier Enterprise, steamed about 250 miles (400 km) behind TF18. In addition to protecting the supply convoy, TF18 was charged with rendezvousing with a force of four US destroyers, stationed at Tulagi, at 21.00 on 29 January to conduct a sweep up ‘The Slot’ north of Guadalcanal during the following day and thus screen the unloading of the transports at Guadalcanal. The escort carriers were too slow to allow TF18 to make the scheduled rendezvous, however, so Giffen left the carriers behind with two destroyers at 14.00 on January 29 and pushed on ahead. Giffen’s force was being tracked by Japanese submarines, who reported on the US ships’ location and movement to their naval headquarters.

Around mid-afternoon, based on the submarines’ reports, 32 Mitsubishi G4M torpedo bombers of the Japanese navy air force were despatched from Rabaul and Kavieng on New Britain and New Ireland islands, staged through Munda and Buka airfields in the Solomon islands, and prepared for an air-launched torpedo attack on TF18 in the area between Rennell island and Guadalcanal. The G4M bombers attacked the ships of TF18 in two waves between 19.00 and 20.00. Two torpedoes hit the heavy cruiser Chicago, causing major damage and bringing the cruiser to a dead stop. Three of the G4M aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft fire from the ships of TF18. In response, Halsey sent a tug to take Chicago under tow and ordered TF18 to return to base on the next day. Six destroyers were left behind to escort Chicago and the tug. At 16.00 on January 30, a flight of 11 Mitsubishi torpedo bombers attacked the force round Chicago. Fighters from Enterprise shot down eight of them, but most of the Japanese aircraft were able to release their torpedoes before crashing. One torpedo hit the destroyer La Vallette, causing heavy damage. Four more torpedoes hit the Chicago, which sank. The transport convoy reached Guadalcanal and successfully unloaded its cargo on 30/31 January. The rest of Halsey’s warships took station in the Coral Sea south of the Solomon islands to wait for the approach of any Japanese warship forces supporting what the Allies believed to be an imminent offensive. The departure of TF18 from the Guadalcanal area removed a significant potential threat to the ‘Ke’ operation. Also on January 29, at 18.30 the corvettes Moa and Kiwi of the Royal New Zealand Navy intercepted the Japanese submarine I-1 which was attempting a supply run, off of Kamimbo on Guadalcanal. The two corvettes sank the submarine after a 90-minute battle.

Leaving his cruisers at Kavieng, Mikawa had meanwhile gathered all 21 destroyers of his 8th Fleet in the Shortland islands on 31 January to begin the evacuation runs. Rear Admiral Shintaro Hashimoto was placed in charge of this group of destroyers, which was styled the Reinforcement Unit. The ‘R’ Area Air Force’s 60 floatplanes were tasked with scouting for the Reinforcement Unit and helping defend against PT-boat attacks during the nocturnal evacuation runs. Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers of the USAAF attacked the Shortland islands anchorage on the morning of 1 February, causing no damage and losing four aircraft to Japanese fighters. On the same day, aircraft of the 6th Air Division raided Henderson Field with 23 Ki-43 fighters and six Ki-48 bombers, but caused no damage and suffered the loss of one fighter.

Believing that the Japanese might be retreating to the southern coast of Guadalcanal, Patch on the morning of 1 February landed a reinforced battalion of US Army and US Marine Corps troops, about 1,500 men under the command of Colonel Alexander George, at Verahue on the southern coast of Guadalcanal. The US troops were delivered to the landing location by a naval transport force of six landing craft tank and the high-speed destroyer transport conversion Stringham, escorted by the four destroyers which were to have joined TF18 three days earlier. A Japanese reconnaissance aeroplane spotted the landing force. Believing that the force posed a threat to that night’s scheduled evacuation run, the Japanese launched an attack force of 13 Aichi D3A dive-bombers escorted by 40 A6M fighters from Buin on Bougainville island. Mistaking the Japanese aircraft as friendly, the US destroyers withheld fire until the dive-bombers began their attacks. Beginning at 14.53, the destroyer De Haven was hit by three bombs in quick succession and sank almost immediately some 2 miles (3.2 km) south of Savo island with the loss of 167 of her crew. The destroyer Nicholas was damaged by several near-misses. Five dive-bombers and three fighters were lost to anti-aircraft fire and fighters of the Cactus Air Force, which lost three F4F fighters in the engagement.

Hashimoto departed the Shortland islands at 11.30 on 1 February with 20 destroyers for the first evacuation run: 11 destroyers were designated as transports and the other nine as escorts. The destroyers were attacked in the late afternoon near Vangunu by 92 Cactus Air Force aircraft in two waves. The US aircraft scored a near miss on Makinami, Hashimoto’s flagship, heavily damaging it. Four US aircraft were shot down. Hashimoto transferred to Shirayuki and detached Fumizuki to tow Makinami back to base. Eleven PT-boats awaited Hashimoto’s destroyers between Guadalcanal and Savo island. From 22.45 Hashimoto’s warships and the PT-boats engaged in a series of running battles over the next three hours. Hashimoto’s destroyers, with help from ‘R’ Area Air Force aircraft, sank three of the PT-boats. In the meantime, the transport destroyers arrived off of two pick-up locations at Cape Esperance and Kamimbo at 22.40 and 24.00 respectively. Japanese naval personnel ferried the waiting troops out to the destroyers in barges and landing craft. After embarking 4,935 soldiers, mainly of the 38th Division, the transport destroyers ceased loading at 01.58 and prepared to depart for the return trip to the Shortland islands. About this time, Makigumo, one of the screening destroyers, was suddenly wracked by a large explosion, caused by either a PT-boat torpedo or a naval mine. Informed that Makigumo was immobilised, Hashimoto ordered her to be abandoned and scuttled. During the return voyage, the ships of the Reinforcement Unit were attacked by aircraft of the Cactus Air Force aircraft at 08.00, but sustained no damage and arrived at the Shortland islands without further incident at 12.00 on 2 February 2. On 4 February Patch ordered the 161st Infantry of the 25th Division to replace the 147th Separate Infantry at the front and resume the advance westward. The ‘Yano’ Battalion retreated to new positions at the Segilau river and troops were sent to block the advance of George’s force along the southern coast.

Meanwhile, Halsey’s carrier and battleship task forces remained just beyond Japanese air attack range about 300 miles (480 km) to the south of Guadalcanal. Kondo sent two of his force’s destroyers, Asagumo and Samidare, to the Shortland islands to replace the two destroyers lost in the first evacuation run. Hashimoto led the second evacuation mission with 20 destroyers south toward Guadalcanal at 11.30 on 4 February. US land-based aircraft attacked Hashimoto’s ships in two waves beginning at 15.50 with a total of 74 aircraft. Near-misses heavily damaged Maikaze, and Hashimoto detached Nagatsuki to take her in tow her back to the Shortland islands. The Cactus Air Force lost 11 aircraft in the attack while the Japanese lost one A6M. The US PT-boats did not sortie to attack Hashimoto’s force during this night and the loading went uneventfully. The Reinforcement Unit embarked Hyakutake, his staff, and 3,921 men, mainly of the 2nd Division, and reached Bougainville without incident by 12.50 on 5 February. A force of US attack aircraft launched during that morning failed to locate Hashimoto’s force.

Believing that the Japanese operations on 1 and 4 February had been reinforcement rather than evacuation missions, the US forces on Guadalcanal proceeded slowly and cautiously, advancing only about 900 yards (820 m) each day. George’s force halted on 6 February after advancing to Titi on the southern coast. On the northern coast, the 161st Infantry finally began its attack to the west at 10.00 on 6 February and reached the Umasani river in the course of the same day. At the same time, the Japanese were withdrawing their remaining 2,000 troops to Kamimbo. On 7 February the 161st Infantry crossed the Umasani river and reached Bunina, about 9 miles (14 km) from Cape Esperance. George’s force, now commanded by George F. Ferry, advanced from Titi to Marovovo and dug in for the night about 2,000 yards (1830 m) north of the village.

Aware of the presence of Halsey’s carriers and other large warships near Guadalcanal, the Japanese considered cancelling the third evacuation run, but decided to go ahead as planned. Kondo’s force closed to within 550 miles (890 km) of Guadalcanal from the north to be ready in case Halsey’s warships attempted to intervene. Hashimoto departed the Shortland islands with 18 destroyers at 12.00 on 7 February, this time taking a course south of the Solomon islands instead of down ‘The Slot’. A Cactus Air Force package of 36 aircraft attacked Hashimoto at 17.55, heavily damaging Isokaze with a near-miss. Isokaze retired escorted by Kawakaze. The US and Japanese each lost one aeroplane in the attack. Arriving off Kamimbo, Hashimoto’s force loaded 1,972 soldiers by 00.03 on 8 February, unhindered by the US Navy. For an additional 90 minutes, destroyer crewmen rowed their boats along the shore calling out again and again to make sure no one was left behind. At 01.32 the Reinforcement Unit left Guadalcanal and reached Bougainville without incident at 10.00, completing ‘Ke’.

At dawn on 8 February the US Army forces on both coasts resumed their advances, encountering only a few sick and dying Japanese soldiers. Patch now realised that the ‘Tokyo Express’ runs over the last week had been evacuation rather than reinforcement missions. At 16.50 on 9 February the two US forces met on the western coast at the village of Tenaro. The Japanese had evacuated a total of 10,652 men from Guadalcanal, about all that remained of the 36,000 total troops sent to the island of Guadalcanal during the campaign: some 600 of the evacuees succumbed to their injuries or illnesses before they could receive sufficient medical care, and 3,000 others required lengthy hospitalisation or recuperation. After receiving word of the completion of the operation, Yamamoto commended all the units involved and ordered Kondo to return to Truk with his warships. The 2nd Division and 38th Division were shipped to Rabaul and partially reconstituted with replacements. The 2nd Division was relocated to the Philippine islands in March 1943, and the 38th Division was assigned to defend Rabaul and New Ireland. The 8th Area Army and South-Eastern Area Fleet reoriented their forces to defend the central Solomon islands at Kolombangara and New Georgia, and prepared to send reinforcements, comprising mostly Lieutenant General Hidemitsu Nakano’s 51st Division, originally detailed for Guadalcanal, to New Guinea. The 17th Army was rebuilt around Lieutenant General Masatane Kanda’s 6th Division and headquartered on Bougainville. A few Japanese stragglers remained on Guadalcanal, many of which were subsequently killed or captured by Allied patrols. The last known Japanese survivor surrendered in October 1947. ‘Ke’ had been a remarkable operation by any standard, and quite remarkably the Americans had failed to respond with determined surface attacks by anything other than coastal craft.