Guadalcanal was the primer of ocean and jungle war. It was everything the United States could do at that moment against everything the Japanese could manage at that place. From this the Americans learned that they could beat the enemy, and they never stopped doing it. The headlines from Guadalcanal did more for home front morale than did the fast carrier raids of 1942’s winter and early spring, for at last Americans had come to grips with the enemy; and the outcome of this fighting added in the bargain a boost to the spirit of the Pacific fighting man. The benefits from official and unofficial circulation of lessons learned there by the Army, Navy, and Marines were many and far-reaching.
Veterans of all ranks from all branches of the service came home to teach and spread the word while many more stayed on to temper the replacements coming out to the war. Barracks bull sessions and bivouac yarns added color and not a little weight to the formal periods of instruction. Thus was the myth that the Japanese were supermen shattered, and the bits of combat lore or the legendary tall tales and true which begin, “Now, on the Canal . . .“ still have not entirely disappeared from the Marine repertoire.
General Vandegrift summed it up in a special introduction to The Guadalcanal Campaign, the historical monograph which contains the Marine Corps’ first study of the operation:
We struck at Guadalcanal to halt the advance of the Japanese. We did not know how strong he was, nor did we know his plans. We knew only that he was moving down the island chain and that he had to be stopped.
We were as well trained and as well armed as time and our peacetime experience allowed us to be. We needed combat to tell us how effective our training, our doctrines, and our weapons had been.
We tested them against the enemy, and we found that they worked. From that moment in 1942, the tide turned, and the Japanese never again advanced.
Likewise, Guadalcanal was more than just another battle for the Japanese, but the lesson they learned there was a bitter one. The occupation which they started almost on a whim had ended in disaster, and from this they never quite recovered. Captain Ohmae summed it up:
...when the war started, it was not planned to take the Solomons. However, the early actions were so easy that it was decided to increase the perimeter defense line and to gain a position which would control American traffic to Australia. Expansion into the Solomons from Rabaul was then carried out. Unfortunately, we also carried out the expansion at the same time instead of consolidating our holdings in that area. After you captured Guadalcanal, we still thought that we would be able to retake it and use it as an outpost for the defense of the empire. This effort was very costly, both at the time and in later operations, because we were never able to recover from the ship and pilot losses received in that area.
Unfortunately for the Japanese there were very few lessons from Guadalcanal that they could put to effective use. In a sense this was phase one of their final examination, the beginning of a series of tests for the military force which had conquered the Oriental side of the Pacific, and they failed it. After this there was neither time nor means for another semester of study and preparation. Admiral Tanaka had this to say about the operation and its significance:
Operations to reinforce Guadalcanal extended over a period of more than five months. They amounted to a losing war of attrition in which Japan suffered heavily in and around that island. . . There is no question that Japan’s doom was sealed with the closing of the struggle for Guadalcanal. Just as it betokened the military character and strength of her opponent, so it presaged Japan’s weakness and lack of planning that would spell her defeat.
The Allies entered this first lesson with sound textbooks. In the field of amphibious warfare, Marine doctrine hammered out in the peacetime laboratory now could be polished and improved in practice and supported by a rapidly mobilizing industrial front at home. Modern equipment which everybody knew was needed began to flow out to the test of combat. There it took on refinements and practical modifications, as doctrines and techniques improved. New models continued to arrive and were quickly put to use in the hands of now-skilled fighting men.
For example, landing craft which went into mass production aided the tactical aspects of amphibious assaults and also lessened the logistical problems at the beachhead. Improved communications equipment made it possible for the Marine Corps to improve and make more effective many of the special organizations and operational techniques which previously had been little more than carefully-sketched theory. Air and naval gunfire liaison parties experimented with on Guadalcanal later became the efficient tools of integrated warfare that Marines had been confident they could become. Improved equipment brought improved technique, and thus began a continuous cycle of increasing efficiency which made the final amphibious assaults by cooperating U. S. forces at Iwo Jima and Okinawa remarkable models of military precision.
This strength of new equipment and ability enabled the Allies to take command of the strategy in a contest in which the enemy had been able to set his men for a checkmate before the contest began. The psychology of total war found expression for the front-line Marine in his observation that “the only good Jap is a dead one.” But an even better one was the one bypassed and left to ineffective existence on an island in the rear areas: he cost the Allies less. Strength gave the Allies this capability to bypass many garrisons.
Likewise Guadalcanal proved that it often was cheaper and easier to build a new airfield than to capture and then improve one the Japanese had built or were building. This coincided well with the basic amphibious doctrine long agreed upon: never hit a defended beach if the objective can be reached over an undefended one. Together these principles sometimes made it possible for the Allies to land on an enemy island and build an airfield some distance from the hostile garrison. This the Marines did in November 1943, at Bougainville. A perimeter was established around the airfield, and there defenders sat waiting for the Japanese to do the hard work of marching over difficult terrain to present themselves for a battle if they so desired. It was a premeditated repeat of the Guadalcanal tactic, and when the Japanese obliged by so accepting it, they were defeated.
All services, units and men in the Pacific, or slated to go there, were eager to learn the valuable lessons of early combat and to put them into practice. For the Marine Corps, an important factor in the continuing success of the advance across the Pacific was the delineation of command responsibilities between the naval task force commander and the amphibious troop commander.
Late in this first offensive General Vandegrift was able to initiate an important change in naval thinking concerning the command of amphibious operations. The general and Admiral Turner had often disagreed on the conduct of activities ashore on Guadalcanal, and Vandegrift had maintained that the commander trained for ground operations should not be a subordinate of the local naval amphibious force commander. His theory prevailed, and in the future the amphibious troop’s commander, once established ashore, would be on the same command level as the naval task force commander. Both of them would be responsible to a common superior.
With this point cleared, and with the valuable lessons of Guadalcanal combat a part of his personal experience and knowledge, Vandegrift as a lieutenant general became commander of the I Marine Amphibious Corps in the fall of 1943 and was able to guide an ever-expanding fighting force already involved in new actions in the Solomons. Later, on 10 November 1943, he left the Pacific to become the eighteenth Commandant of the Marine Corps.
The cost of Guadalcanal was not as great as some later operations. Total Army and Marine casualties within the ground forces amounted to 1,598 men and officers killed and 4,709 wounded. Marines of the ground forces killed or dead from wounds numbered 1,152; and 2,799 were wounded and 55 listed as missing. In addition 55 individuals from Marine aviation units were killed or died of wounds while 127 were wounded and 85 missing. Defeat for the Japanese was more costly. Although some 13,000 enemy soldiers were evacuated from Guadalcanal for new defensive positions farther north, more personnel than this had lost their lives on the island. Japanese sources list approximately 14,800 killed or missing in action while 9,000 died of wounds and disease. Some 1,000 enemy troops were taken prisoner. More than 600 enemy planes and pilots also were lost.
Combat shipping losses were about even for the two opponents. The Allies and the Japanese each lost 24 fighting ships, with the loss amounting to 126,240 tons for the Allies and 134,839 tons for the Japanese.
There would be bigger battles later. There would be tiny atolls for which the Japanese would demand higher prices on shorter terms. And far away to the north a dead volcano waited to be the backdrop of a photograph which would become the symbol of the entire island war ahead. But nothing could take from Guadalcanal its unique spot in history. The first step, however short and faltering, is always the most important.