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World War II Pacific: The Japanese Advance Stopped

Turning the Tide

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World War II Pacific: The Japanese Advance Stopped

US Marines rest in the field on Guadalcanal, circa August-December 1942.

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center
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The Tide Turns: The Battle of Midway

Following the Battle of Coral Sea, the commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, devised a plan to draw the remaining ships of the US Pacific Fleet into a battle where they could be destroyed. To do this, he planned to invade the island of Midway, 1,300 miles northwest of Hawaii. Critical to Pearl Harbor's defense, Yamamoto knew the Americans would send their remaining carriers to protect the island. Believing the US to only have two carriers operational, he sailed with four, plus a large fleet of battleships and cruisers. Through the efforts of US Navy cryptanalysts, who had broken the Japanese JN-25 naval code, Nimitz was aware of the Japanese plan and dispatched the carriers USS Enterprise and USS Hornet, under Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, as well as the hastily repaired USS Yorktown, under Fletcher, to the waters north of Midway to intercept the Japanese.

At 4:30 AM on June 4, the commander of the Japanese carrier force, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, launched a series of strikes against Midway Island. Overwhelming the island's small air force, the Japanese pounded the American base. While returning to the carriers, Nagumo's pilots recommended a second strike on the island. This prompted Nagumo to order his reserve aircraft, which had been armed with torpedoes, to be rearmed with bombs. As this process was underway, one of his scout planes reported locating the US carriers. Hearing this, Nagumo reversed his rearmament command in order to attack the ships. As the torpedoes were being put back on Nagumo's aircraft, American planes appeared over his fleet.

Using reports from their own scout planes, Fletcher and Spruance began launching aircraft around 7:00 AM. The first squadrons to reach the Japanese were the TBD Devastator torpedo bombers from Hornet and Enterprise. Attacking at low level, they did not score a hit and suffered heavy casualties. Though unsuccessful, the torpedo planes pulled down the Japanese fighter cover, which cleared the way for the American SBD Dauntless dive bombers. Striking at 10:22, they scored multiple hits, sinking the carriers Akagi, Soryu, and Kaga. In response, the remaining Japanese carrier, Hiryu, launched a counterstrike that twice disabled Yorktown. That afternoon, US dive bombers returned and sunk Hiryu to seal the victory. His carriers lost, Yamamoto abandoned the operation. Disabled, Yorktown was taken under tow, but was sunk by the submarine I-168 en route to Pearl Harbor.

Allies on the Offensive: Landing at Guadalcanal

With the Japanese thrust in the central Pacific blocked, the Allies devised a plan to prevent the enemy from occupying the southern Solomon Islands and using them as bases for attacking Allied supply lines to Australia. To accomplish this goal, it was decided to land on the small islands of Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tamambogo, as well as on Guadalcanal where the Japanese were building an airfield. Securing these islands would also be the first step towards isolating the main Japanese base at Rabaul on New Britain. The task of securing the islands largely fell to the 1st Marine Division led by Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift. The Marines would be supported at sea by a task force centered on the carrier USS Saratoga, led by Fletcher, and an amphibious transport force commanded by Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner.

On August 7, the Marines landed on all four islands. They met fierce resistance on Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tamambogo, but were able to overwhelm the 886 defenders who fought to the last man. On Guadalcanal, the landings went largely unopposed with 11,000 Marines coming ashore. Pressing inland, they secured the airfield the next day, renaming it Henderson Field. On August 7 and 8, Japanese aircraft from Rabaul attacked the landing operations. These attacks were beaten off by aircraft from Saratoga. Due to low fuel and concerned about further loss of aircraft, Fletcher decided to withdraw his task force on the night of the 8th. With his air cover removed, Turner had no choice but follow, despite the fact that less than half of the Marines' equipment and supplies had been landed. That night the situation worsened when Japanese surface forces defeated and sank four Allied (3 US, 1 Australian) cruisers at the Battle of Savo Island.

The Fight for Guadalcanal

After consolidating their position, the Marines completed Henderson Field and established a defensive perimeter around their beachhead. On August 20, the first aircraft arrived flying in from the escort carrier USS Long Island. Dubbed the "Cactus Air Force," the aircraft at Henderson would prove vital in the coming campaign. In Rabaul, Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake was tasked with retaking the island from the Americans and Japanese ground forces were routed to Guadalcanal, with Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi taking command at the front. Soon the Japanese were launching probing attacks against the Marines' lines. With the Japanese bringing reinforcements to the area, the two fleets met at the Battle of the Eastern Solomons on August 24-25. An American victory, the Japanese lost the light carrier Ryujo and were unable to bring their transports to Guadalcanal.

On Guadalcanal, Vandegrift's Marines worked on strengthening their defenses and benefited from the arrival of additional supplies. Overhead, the aircraft of the Cactus Air Force flew daily to defend the field from Japanese bombers. Prevented from bringing transports to Guadalcanal, the Japanese began delivering troops at night using destroyers. Dubbed the "Tokyo Express," this approach worked, but deprived the soldiers of all their heavy equipment. Beginning on September 7, the Japanese began attacking the Marines' position in earnest. Ravaged by disease and hunger, the Marines heroically repulsed every Japanese assault.

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