Historical Background: The Hard Way Back

For the United States, Guadalcanal was the most important land battle of WWII. The American victory, achieved at a terrible cost, stopped the Japanese advance southward toward Australia.

Starting with Guadalcanal, the strategy in the Pacific theater became a march of the airfields: Capture an island, take the enemy controlled airstrip and use it to provide an umbrella of air cover for the next invasion. This is "triphibious warfare" - air, land and sea - and it revolutionized the way wars were fought. "In the Central Pacific, great carrier fleets would land troops at daybreak on D-Day, on small, hotly defended islands, where they were usually met, head-on, at the water's edge," says historian Donald L. Miller, author of 'D-Days in the Pacific' and consultant on HBO's miniseries. These ship-to-shore assaults are "the most dangerous and desperate of military operations," says Miller. "The enemy is dug in and ready, and failure means to be pushed back into the sea." Most of these assaults on small islands in the Central Pacific were Marine operations, although many, like Okinawa, were combined Marine-Army assaults.

At Guadalcanal, the small Japanese garrison was caught by surprise and the Marine landing force encountered no opposition on D-Day, August 7, 1942. Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher covered the landing with three aircraft carriers. But after a lightning-like attack by a Japanese naval force sank four heavy cruisers in Savo Sound on the evening after the Marine landing, Admiral Fletcher-unwilling to risk his invaluable aircraft carriers should the enemy strike again -- left earlier than originally planned. When he withdrew, Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, amphibious forces commander, had to leave as well, because he no longer had air cover to land his vulnerable transports, filled with supplies and almost 2,000 additional Marines. The Japanese rushed in reinforcements and established control of the waters off Guadalcanal. "It was a siege now, and not even Washington was confident the Marines could be saved," Miller in D-Days in the Pacific. "Without air or naval support, the Japanese could attack anywhere, anytime."

This is "triphibious warfare" - air, land and sea - and it revolutionized the way wars were fought.

The young Marines of the First Division had no idea what they were in for. At sea, on the troopships headed for the islands, protected by an impressive naval armada, they had felt invincible. But their older comrades had seen action in Latin America; and stationed in China, they had seen the formidable power and fighting resolve of the Japanese Army. For the young Marines, the jungle changed everything. "One night in the jungle was all it took," says Miller. "The sounds, the smell, the vegetative decay, even the birds were unnerving. At night you couldn't see a guy four feet in front of you, and every movement sounded like the enemy."

Early on, Marines on Guadalcanal discovered the brutally mutilated remains of one of their jungle patrols, the now famous "Goettege Patrol." Beginning at this moment, the war in the Pacific would "a war without quarter. Prisoners were rarely taken and atrocities were answered in kind," Miller says.

"Most of the Japanese were kids who were drafted from rural areas," Miller says. "They entered a military climate of subjugation and physical brutality. Japanese officers slapped and physically tormented the troops under them. The conscripts were told that it was unmanly to surrender, that it would bring unforgivable shame on them, that it would be a betrayal of their families and their Emperor. This is one of the reasons they hated American prisoners and treated them so badly. When they captured an American, they despised him as a coward for not taking his own life for his country."

The Marines were up against an enemy they were totally unprepared for. "The Japanese are full of tricks, deceit and cunning," wrote New York Times reporter Hanson Baldwin. "Hard, ruthless, brave, well-equipped, they are the best jungle-fighters in the world." Their Banzai charges were "absolutely terrifying; the men seemed more eager to live than to die," says Miller. "The suicidal fury of these charges made the attacking Japanese easier to gun down; it also made the battles tremendously more savage." The Japanese refused to surrender. Every one of them had to be killed, as the Marines repulsed one after another desperate attempt to take control of Henderson Field, the island's immensely valuable airstrip, wondering how long they could hold on.

But once the American navy re-established control of the waters off Guadalcanal in a series of brutal, close-quarter battles, and increasing numbers of American Marine and Army reinforcements were landed, "it was the enemy's turn to be isolated and under siege," says Miller. Underfed and under-equipped, beaten down by attrition and disease, they fought on, knowing by November that defeat was inevitable. In January 1943, the Japanese evacuated their remaining troops on Guadalcanal. "It's all over guys," a lieutenant told his men.

"The Japanese juggernaut had been stopped," Miller says, and America began planning "the greatest re-conquest effort in all of history." It would be launched from Australia.