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  • Guadalcanal
  • Guadalcanal
  • Guadalcanal
  • Guadalcanal
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Guadalcanal: America’s First Offensive

It was on shaky legs that America began its first ground offensive against the Japanese on 7 August 1942 in the Solomon Islands. Operation Watchtower landed US Marines at Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Florida islands to protect the sea lanes from America to Australia, and with the hopes of using the islands of Guadalcanal and Tulagi as bases for future attacks on the Japanese fortress of Rabaul on the island of New Britain.

The marines had landed virtually unopposed on Guadalcanal and quickly captured the Japanese airfield under construction, renaming it Henderson Field. Defending troops had previously fled into the jungle. On Tulagi, marines encountered stiff resistance but succeeded in capturing the island. Despite initial success, events were beginning to take a turn for the worse. General Vandegrift, commander of the newly formed 1st Marine Division, had not expected his division to be called into action until early 1943. To make matters worse, Naval Task Force 61 was forced to withdraw due to the approach of a large Japanese naval force.

The campaign for Guadalcanal became one of the longest in the Pacific and turned into a battle of attrition, as both American and Japanese forces struggled to stay in a fight that stretched the limits of their supply lines. Combat in the Solomons was conducted in every form: on the ground, in the air and at sea. Land battles raged as compartmentalized sea and air battles played out simultaneously. By 9 February, all remaining Japanese forces had been evacuated and the island was declared secure. The Guadalcanal campaign became the first offensive victory for US forces in the war against Japan.

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Click on the buttons below to get more details on the ground, air and sea operations of the Guadalcanal campaign.

On the Ground In the Air At Sea dividing bar


Watch the oral histories from the Museum's collection.

Guadalcanal Diaries Part 1 Guadalcanal Diaries Part 2 Richard Greer

Guadalcanal Diaries, Part 1
Featuring interviews with Frank Pomroy, H Company 2nd Battalion 1st Marines, and Richard Greer, D Company 1st Battalion 7th Marines, as they discuss their experiences on the ground at Guadalcanal.


Guadalcanal Diaries, Part 2
Jack Glass, Aviation Radioman 2nd Class, and Edward Feightner, F4F Wildcat Pilot, discuss their experiences on the USS Enterprise during the Guadalcanal campaign.


Richard Greer
Richard Greer, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, recalls the defense of Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, against the brutal Japanese attack during the night of October 24 – 25, 1942.

View lectures and panels about Guadalcanal from the 2011 International Conference on WWII.

Richard Frank Panel Discussion Interview with Richard Greer by Hugh Ambrose

Richard B. Frank, "Guadalcanal: The First Offensive"
Richard B. Frank delivers the keynote address at the 2011 International Conference on WWII.


"Guadalcanal: The First Offensive" Panel Discussion
Don Miller moderates a discussion with Allan Millet and James Hornfischer.


"With the Old Breed at Guadalcanal" A Conversation with a Veteran
Hugh Ambrose interviews WWII vet Richard Greer about his time in combat on the Solomon Islands.

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Learn More:

View archival photos, download an educational fact sheet and a geography lesson plan and support the Museum's mission by purchasing books and items from the Museum Store.

National Archive Photos Educational Materials Museum Store dividing bar

On the Ground:

After the withdrawal of the naval air support from Task Force 61, the marines would be on their own for a week’s time. They improved their defensive position around Henderson Field, while feverishly working to complete it. By 20 August, aircraft from Marine Air Group 23 had arrived and began flying combat operations the next day. The first major Japanese attempt to dislodge the marines from Guadalcanal came on 21 August. A recently landed Japanese assault force of about 900 troops made a nighttime frontal assault against the marines defending Henderson Field. Having previously ambushed a patrol from the Japanese force; intelligence from the Japanese dead alerted the marines to the impending enemy assault.

The Americans made their stand at the Tenaru River, a tidal lagoon separated from the ocean by a sandbar. Just after midnight on 21 August, Japanese troops charged across the sandbar towards the marines on the far bank. Despite devastating losses from machine gun and 37mm anti-tank gunfire, the Japanese kept pressing the attack. By daybreak, hundreds of Japanese dead were scattered across the sandbar. Now supported by tanks and aircraft flying from Henderson Field, the marines counter-attacked the surviving forces on the other side of the river. Aircraft strafed survivors attempting to flee up the beach. Only about thirty Japanese troops escaped.

The annihilation of the Japanese assault force was a major US victory, teaching the marines that the Japanese could be defeated, but they wouldn’t surrender. Japanese forces made several more attempts to land troops and drive US forces off of the island in the coming months, but were unable to do so because of a steady influx of marine and army reinforcements.

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In the Air:

The so-called “Cactus Air Force” was a collection of US Navy, Army Air Forces and Marine flyers operating from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, code-named “Cactus.” Air operations began on 21 August 1942, two weeks after D-Day. The rag-tag flyers operated under the same abysmal conditions as the infantry, and struggled to maintain their aircraft with the bare minimum in spare parts, tools and equipment. Despite those challenges, the Cactus aircraft gained air superiority in the campaign. US airpower denied the Japanese Navy from operating in the daylight. The Japanese were forced to operate at night using fast destroyers to race to the island to land troops and supplies and leave before daylight would reveal them to devastating air attacks.

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At Sea:

Over a half-dozen major naval engagements occurred in the waters around the Solomon Islands. Nearly every one of them was fought to deny the Japanese from landing and or supplying troops ashore. The waters around the southern end of the New Georgia Sound between Guadalcanal and Savo Islands (also known as “the Slot”) became known as “Iron Bottom Sound” because of the dozens of Japanese and Allied ships that were sunk there. One of these naval battles off the Solomons resulted in the loss of the cruiser Juneau. Among the ship’s company of 700 officers and men were the five Sullivan brothers. Juneau was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and went down in about 20 seconds. Approximately 100 survivors were lost at sea, exposed to the elements and shark attacks for over a week. When help finally arrived, only 10 men were rescued. The US Armed Forces adopted the sole-survivor policy as a direct result of the death of the Sullivan brothers. The policy states that the sole-surviving sibling of a family is exempt from military service or, if already serving, to be discharged immediately.

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Images of the Guadalcanal Campaign Courtesy of the National Archives:

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Educational Materials:

Learn more about Women in World War II by reading and downloading the Guadalcanal Fact Sheet and Pacific Geography Lesson Plan.

Guadalcanal Fact Sheet Pacific Geography Lesson Plan dividing bar

Learn More with Items from the Museum Store:

Proceeds from Museum Store purchases fund the continuing educational mission of The National WWII Museum.

D-Days in the Pacific D-Days in the Pacific DVD The Pacific Blu-Ray

D-Days in the Pacific
by Donald L. Miller


D-Days in the Pacific DVD


The Pacific Blu-Ray

Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account Strong Men Armed The Pacific

Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account
by Richard Frank


Strong Men Armed: The United States Marines Against Japan
by Robert Leckie

The Pacific: Volume One — Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal
by Jay Wertz

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