November Marks the 70th Anniversary of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal

This month marks the marks the 70th anniversary of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. As we reflect on Veteran’s day and look forward to Thanksgiving, this is a good opportunity to reflect on events that unfolded in 1942.

Guadalcanal is most often rightly remembered as a hard fought and iconic victory for the United States Marine Corps, but other services played their parts as well. The United States Navy had the missions of sustaining the Marines ashore and intercepting Japanese maritime efforts to do them harm. The United States Coast Guard assisted the operation by manning Naval ships and piloting landing craft to the beaches.

On Nov. 12, a Japanese task force led by two battleships set out to demolish Marine-held Henderson Field and the aircraft operating from it. A convoy of eleven transports carrying 7,000 troops with their supplies and equipment heavily escorted by destroyers followed close behind. These were to reinforce Japanese troops already on Guadalcanal. Were Henderson Field to be disabled, a ground assault might evict the embattled Marines from the island.

Outnumbered and outgunned, two United States Navy task groups led by Rear Admirals David J. Callaghan and Norman Scott sped to intercept the Japanese warships before they could range Henderson Field. Colliding in exceptional darkness off Savo Island around 1:25 a.m. on Nov. 13, the two naval forces hammered each other in a confused melee. One participant described it as “a barroom brawl after the lights had been shot out.” Stunned by the ferocity of the American attack, the disabling of one of their battleships, and the wounding of their commander, the Japanese temporarily withdrew. With daylight planes from Henderson Field picked off disabled Japanese ships and sank seven Japanese transports.

It was late on the night of Nov. 13 when the cruiser USS Juneau was struck by a Japanese torpedo and went down. Among those lost from the crew were five brothers from Waterloo, Iowa. Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison and George Sullivan enlisted in the Navy on the condition they would serve together. All five were killed in the ship’s explosion or died from exposure following the sinking. Of the Juneau’s crew, only ten sailors survived.

On the night of Nov. 14-15, the Japanese tried again, and again were met by American naval forces in a confused brawl. Two battleships had joined the Americans, compensating for earlier losses and adding to their firepower. The Japanese warships again withdrew. Four Japanese transports forced a landing on Guadalcanal, but were destroyed by American planes and artillery in the light of day.

Three nights and two days of fierce fighting cost the Japanese two battleships, three destroyers, 11 transports and 64 aircraft. American losses were two light cruisers, seven destroyers and 36 planes. Henderson Field came through intact, and contributed heavily to the American success. Of the 7,000 Japanese troops dispatched to reinforce Guadalcanal, fewer than 3,000 made it ashore. These landed by and large without necessary supplies and equipment. Japanese aspirations to mount a major offensive fizzled. The dead totaled somewhat less than 2,000 on each side, suggesting a tactical draw. However, the Japanese failure to neutralize Henderson Field or get appreciable reinforcements ashore amounted to a significant American strategic victory. Within a month the Japanese Navy recommended abandoning Guadalcanal altogether. Concurrence from the Japanese Army soon followed.

The American Battle Monuments Commission honors all 1,732 Americans who gave their lives in this fierce fighting. Many are buried or memorialized at its Honolulu Memorial and Manila American Cemetery. Rear Admirals David J. Callaghan and Norman Scott number among these. Both died in the first night of fighting, and were buried at sea. Their names are inscribed on the Walls of the Missing at Manila American Cemetery. Both were awarded the Medal of Honor for their courageous acts, turning back a more powerful foe who threatened to tip the Guadalcanal Campaign into a downward death spiral. On the Manila Walls of the Missing they are joined by 36,286 American servicemen and women killed in the Pacific during World War II including all five of the Sullivan Brothers who were lost during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Manila American Cemetery is also the final resting place of 16,632 Americans and 570 Philippine Nationals who died in the Southwest Pacific during the war and are interred in the cemetery. Most of those interred or memorialized at Manila lost their lives in operations in New Guinea and the Philippines.

Manila American Cemetery is the largest of the cemeteries operated by the American Monuments Commission. The first chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission, General of the Armies John J. Pershing, made a promise that “time will not dim the glory of their deeds.” That is a promise the commission intends to keep.