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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Japanese Evacuate Guadalcanal, February 8, 1943

Today in 1943, the last Japanese troops were evacuated from Guadalcanal in the Pacific. This signaled the end of the six-month struggle for control of the island and marked a major milestone in the defeat of Japan.

Guadalcanal is located northeast of Australia in the Solomon Island chain. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the invasion of the Philippines in December, 1941, the Japanese turned their attention towards Australia and planned to use Guadalcanal as a major base. Construction crews were sent to the island to build an airfield and other facilities.

The Allies learned of the Japanese intentions and prepared a plan of their own. If Guadalcanal could be used by the Japanese as an airbase, it could also be used by the Allies as a base from which to attack other Japanese installations in the area, especially the large base at Rabaul, located at the northern end of the Solomons chain.

The invasion began on August 7, 1942 when the US 1st Marine Division came ashore. There was very little resistance at first because the island was mostly occupied by Japanese construction crews working on the airfield. The muddy airstrip was soon captured and renamed Henderson Field after Major Lofton Henderson, who lost his life during the battle of Midway.
It didn’t take long for the Japanese to respond. They sent reinforcements from Rabual and first attacked the Marines on August 20th. This battalion-sized unit was almost completely destroyed, but the Japanese were not to be deterred that easily. Soon, thousands of Imperial soldiers were landing on the island with the intention of retaking the airfield and driving the Marines into the sea.

During the ensuing months, battles raged in the ocean near the island that were just as fierce as those fought on land. Six distinct naval battles were fought in those waters and so many ships were lost that the strait between Guadalcanal and Florida Island earned the nickname Ironbottom Sound. Losses on both sides were massive, but the Americans were successful on two points. First, they stopped the Japanese from sending large numbers of reinforcements to the island and reduced them to using destroyers and other small, harder-to-spot ships as troop carriers. Second, American industrial might was already putting new ships in the hands of Navy crews while the Japanese could not hope to replace all their loses.
The 1st Marine Division was withdrawn from the island in December, 1942 and replaced by the 2nd Marine Division, the Army’s 25th Division and the Americal Division. This overwhelming replacement force began offensive operations in January, 1943 and soon had the Japanese on the run. The day after the last Imperial forces were evacuated from the island on February 8th, the island was declared secure.

All told, the Allies lost nearly 1,500 men and another 4,500 were wounded. The Japanese fared much worse, losing 15,000 men; it is said that 9,000 of those died from malaria. The hard-fought campaign made the war planners re-think future invasions. For the rest of the war, the Allies would engage in what was called “island hopping”. This was the concept of securing a staging area on an island and then moving on to the next one while the first was secured by other troops. While casualties continued to be incredibly high (especially on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, both in 1945), it is likely the war would’ve lasted several more years had this strategy not been put into practice.

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