I read it again. And again. And one more time. It was two sentences under the “Today in History” column of a local newspaper. It carried me instantly miles and years away from the kitchen table…..
It was the August 7 paper and the highlighted year was 1942. The brief synopsis read, “U. S. and other allied forces landed at Guadalcanal, marking the start of the first major allied offensive in the Pacific during World War II. (Japanese forces abandoned the island the following February.)”
It left out the part about the seven thousand allied troops, mostly U. S. Marines, who died there. Or the eight thousand that were wounded or the twenty-nine ships we lost or the six hundred American airplanes that fell from the sky…..
The Japanese “circle” of control in the South Pacific was ever widening in the early 1940’s. They were growing bolder with each expanding conquest. Pearl Harbor was just one aspect of the overall plan. Japanese forces had captured the Philippines, Singapore, Wake Island, Thailand, the Gilbert Islands and Guam.
Early in the summer of 1942 they moved to secure the Solomon Islands, a string of small islands lying alarmingly close to the northeast coast of Australia. Any Japanese bases here, especially a landing strip, would directly interfere and threaten vital troop movement between the U. S. and its stanch ally, Australia.
The Japanese picked Guadalcanal as the Solomon Island on which to build their airbase.
The problems were innumerable. First and foremost, we didn’t have much of an army. We had lots of recruits! They had come running from all across the nation to sign up in the wake of Pearl Harbor. But we had few training facilities, antiquated weapons and not enough space for the hundreds of thousands of eager young Americans getting off the buses.
The plain truth is, by August 7, 1942, America had not engaged any large opposing land forces as the war expanded around us. Hitler had to be contended with in Europe. Even as the troopships steamed toward Guadalcanal, we were also readying another American force for a North Africa landing. Quick now, how many countries can you name in the history of mankind that have successfully waged war on two separate fronts ten thousand miles apart?
Many in high command worried that our troops were “under trained” and “ill prepared” for an all out assault on a fortified enemy position. No one knew for certain if we were ready or not……
They were green alright, untested, apprehensive and, if they had any sense, scared half to death……but they were United States Marines! And somebody had to do something before the Japanese could finish that airstrip!
They waded onto the beaches of Guadalcanal on that fateful August 7, armed with a bolt action M1903 Springfield rifle—an outdated World War I weapon! Each soldier carried a ten day supply of ammunition.
The early news reports shocked America. It was somewhat heroic, even romantic, to send young men off to defend our nation. There was nothing gallant or courageous about the death tolls coming out of a tiny place nobody had ever heard of! We also realized the Japanese were going to fight with a frenzied craziness to the very end. This “thing” wasn’t going to be over in a couple of months!
History records the jungle fighting was ferocious at times, hand to hand, eye ball to eye ball, no quarter asked, nor given. The Japanese withdrew their forces February 9, 1943; six months and two days of horrific warfare had ended in a U. S. victory.
The Japanese myth of invincibility was proven to be just that. And, boy howdy, did we ever learn that our farm boys, teachers, New England clerks, college kids and depression era youths could fight like American Soldiers when the chips were down!
It also marked the beginning of the end for the Japanese. Oh, they were not going to go quietly. It would take another two and a half years….. But their sphere of control would be ever shrinking from Guadalcanal on. America took the offensive in the South Pacific on the merit of that battle and they marched with it all the way to Tokyo.
You can understand why a one liner in a “Today in History” column can’t do it justice. It wasn’t meant to do so. But it does give us the opportunity to pause, appreciate, remember, and be thankful all over again for those young warriors.
It’s a trip we need to take every chance we get!