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Donald A. Yerxa


Guadalcanal

Turning point in the Pacific War.

In August 1942, on an obscure island in the Solomon Islands inhabited by 15,000 Melanesians and about fifty Europeans (mostly missionaries), the United States launched its first offensive of the Pacific War. It was probably the only time in the war that Japan and the United States met on more or less equal terms, and the outcome remained in doubt for several months. Both sides eventually recognized that Guadalcanal might well be the decisive campaign of the war and poured reinforcements into the South Pacific theater. Though they fought doggedly, in the end the Japanese could not match superior American airpower, firepower on the ground, and logistical support. In early February 1943, the Imperial Navy evacuated the tattered, malnourished remnants of a once-proud Japanese ground force. Although years of fighting remained in the Pacific, the strategic postures of Japan and the United States had shifted irreversibly. The Japanese, not the Americans, were on the defensive. Guadalcanal was the turning point in the Pacific War.1

Few battles in American history stir the emotions like Guadalcanal. Mention of it conjures up images of beleaguered Marines in hideous jungle conditions desperately defending what for a few months was the most precious real estate in the Pacific, of rotting corpses, of emaciated Japanese soldiers attempting to blunt American firepower with little more than courage and determination, of deadly Japanese Long Lance torpedoes sending many American warships and crews to their graves in the shark-infested waters of Iron Bottom Sound, and of underpowered American P-400s and sturdy F4F Wildcat fighters scrambling from Henderson Field to meet daily attacks from Mitsubishi-built Betty bombers and Zero fighter-escorts. The epic air, sea, and land campaign—"triphibious" in Churchillspeak—still serves as a source of inspiration, horror, instruction, scholarly debate, box-office receipts, and authors' royalties.

Guadalcanal had it all. Horrific combat ...

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