Season 2 Episode 3 – “Guadalcanal: The First Offensive with Richard Frank"

World War II On Topic Podcast Series

About the Episode

Today’s episode is brought to you by the Museum’s Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.

Richard B. Frank, renowned Military historian, author, and Presidential Counselor at the Museum delivered the keynote address at the Museum's 2011 International Conference on World War II.

Richard’s first book, Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle, won the US Marine Corps’ General Wallace M. Greene Award, and his most recent book, Tower of Skulls, is the first in a trilogy on the war in the Asia-Pacific Theater.

On August 7, 1942, the US mounted its first major amphibious landing at Guadalcanal. This campaign proved a strategic turning point for the United States in the war with Imperial Japan.

Catch up on all episodes of World War II On Topic and be sure to leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform.

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • Pacific Theater
  • Imperial Japan

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Featured Historians

Richard B. Frank

Richard B. Frank is an internationally renowned expert on the Pacific war. After graduating from the University of Missouri, he was commissioned in the US Army, in which he served for nearly four years, including a tour of duty in the Republic of Vietnam as an aero rifle platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division. Frank completed his studies at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC. Soon afterward, he began research on his first book, Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle. Which was published in 1990 and won the US Marine Corps’ General Wallace M. Greene Award.

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Jeremy Collins 

Hi, I'm Jeremy Collins, the director of conferences and symposia at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. And you're listening to World War II on Topic. Today's episode is brought to you by the museum's Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and democracy. Richard B. Frank, renowned military historian, author, and presidential counselor at the museum delivered the keynote address at the museum's 2011 International Conference on World War II. Richard's first book Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle won the US Marine Corps's General Wallace M. Greene Award. And his most recent book, Tower of Skulls, is the first in a trilogy on the war in the Asia Pacific theater. On August 7, 1942, the US mounted its first major amphibious landing at Guadalcanal. This campaign proved to be a strategic turning point for the United States in the war with Imperial Japan.

Richard B. Frank

Well, let me say again that it's a great honor to be here at this conference, which has just been superb. The panels that you've seen the last two days are superior, and some of them markedly superior to those I've seen at supposedly high powered academic conferences. And we thank Don for that very generous string of lies that he put together. I appreciate it very much.

On August 7, 1942, there was an important assembly at Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo. Senior officers gathered to listen to a briefing by a Colonel Sugita Ichiji. Sugita was a rarity in the Imperial Army. He was an intelligence officer who was a specialist about the United States and the United Kingdom. Most intelligence officers, and there weren't that many in the Imperial Army, were specialists with respect to the Soviets, which the Imperial Army always regarded as its primary enemy. After conducting a review of the developments of the war to date, which from Sugita's standpoint had been highly successful both for Japan and for him personally, since he had participated in the British surrender at Singapore, he turned to that task that inevitably intelligence officers always face, which is to look into their crystal ball and project where the enemy will next strike.

And Sugita announced that, in his view, it was clear the Americans would not strike anywhere along Japan's long Pacific perimeter for the foreseeable future. That the most likely American move at that time was to attempt to establish bomber bases in the Soviet Maritime Provinces Northwest of Japan. And from those bases to launch a bomber offensive. On that exact same day, August 7, 1942, United States Marines splashed ashore at the then totally obscure island of Guadalcanal. Guadalcanal is almost on a bearing of 180 degrees and at a distance in excess of 4,900 miles from the Soviet Maritime Provinces. This briefing proved to be a turning point in Colonels Sugita's career.

When next we encounter him, he's not a neatly pressed perfumed staff officer enjoying the bounties of Tokyo. He is wearing a sweat stained uniform as an intelligence officer with the 17th Army on the island of Guadalcanal. Where he is, over here, crouched behind a bush, looking out on the American perimeter around Henderson Field, and about to make another astute observation about the situation. This is an atmospheric shot of some US Navy destroyers in the Solomons. I've suggested variously that perhaps the appropriate background source music for this would be something called Anchors Awry, since it is the most difficult, most bloody, and most interesting campaign the US Navy ever fought.

And the reason why there was a campaign was not due to a vast number of historical forces. It was due to this man you see here, Admiral Ernest King, the commander in chief of the US fleet. It is believed in some quarters that this is the only photograph of Admiral King taken during World War II where he is smiling. The official caption purports that this was taken during a reunion of his Naval Academy class. I've always thought that this was King kicking back after a hard day in one of his favorite occupations, which is watching a Naval officer being flogged for talking to a reporter.

You see listed there the thinking that was central to why King urged, and the other members, or actually General Marshall, agreed to a campaign that would involve Guadalcanal. This was following Midway. He believed it was absolutely essential to follow up immediately. He was, as had been argued, perhaps the first member of the Joint Chiefs who sort of fully comprehend what that great American industrial might would actually mean in terms of the war. That it would permit offensive action in the Pacific, as well as in Europe.

As Mark Stoler has argued, there's also some interesting background in the sense that one of the reasons why the army goes along with this is because the army General Marshall being frustrated about his proposed campaigns in Northwest Europe in 1942, sees Guadalcanal as a means of keeping the Japanese occupied and thereby off the back of the Soviets. So it therefore has a global implication. And finally General MacArthur had proposed his own operations. Then of course, Admiral King was not about to bureaucratically turn over warfare in the Pacific to General MacArthur.

This once again will orient you to the theater. You'll be gratified to notice that Rabaul has not moved during lunch. The area between the Solomon island is called The Slot. And of course, you'll see down there, near the lower right hand corner, Guadalcanal and the dot for Henderson Field, the airfield at Guadalcanal, which was the key aspect of the campaign and the surrounding area.

Now next slide. The operation is ordered on 2 July '42. We talked a little bit about that this morning. It's a three phase operation. The first part initially the order is to seize two logging adjacent positions. It doesn't even mention Guadalcanal. Then of course, the second phase going up to Solomons and on New Guinea. And the third phase, of course the ultimate target being Rabaul for the campaign.

Next slide. This is the modest assessment of the Marine Corps official history concerning the circumstances under which the operation is launched. I appreciate the understatement. So let's go over the operational checklist to see why they made this comment. Of course, we knew next to nothing, the Marines, and later the Army would execute the entire campaign without a map of Guadalcanal. The planning process, because the operation was ordered on 2 July, the landing takes place on 7 August, there's an enormous amount of transit time. There's no time for an orderly sequential planning process. Everyone is planning simultaneously at all levels. And fortunately the staff of the 1st Marine Division proves to be extremely astute in their plans, which are really the backbone to what happens in the initial phase.

The rehearsal is a bust. The area selected by map for the rehearsal is bounded by a reef. And it's not anything like they wanted to have. There's a commander's conference, which the local theater commander, South Pacific theater, is under an admiral named Robert Ghormley. And Ghormley for reasons that are mystifying to this very day, does not bother to show up for the commander's conference. And there's a good deal of strife engendered basically by the haste by which the operation is mounted.

And finally we have, what I think is the origins of a phrase that later became famous with respect to logistics. Famously a Naval officer who was heavily involved in the very sophisticated planning that will take place in '44-'45 told a historian post-war that basically had anyone who understood logistics as they did in '44-'45 been asked to take a look at the plan for Guadalcanal, they would've pronounced it impossible. So that is how the whole operation is set up.

Nonetheless, the operation launched on 7 August, achieves strategic operational and tactical surprise. The Marines move smartly to seize their initial objectives. They have a significant fight on Tulagi and some adjacent islands. Alan Millett's going to talk about the ground campaign. So I'm going to slide over those pretty cursorily in this presentation. The one great problem during these initial two days is the unloading of the transports with the supplies lags way behind schedule for a variety of reasons, and it's not where it was intended to be.

And this brings us to what I call the truth about Frank Jack Fletcher. I would highly recommend a wonderful book by John Lundstrom, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral, which I think not only is a tremendous restoration of the reputation of Frank Jack Fletcher, but is an extraordinarily insightful commentary on Pacific command in the first year of the war. And Fletcher is usually depicted in the history, or was depicted in the history, including when I wrote my version of it, as sort of a heavy in this. That he pulls out and leaves the Marine dangling, which I believe is still taught in mother's milk to Marines or whatever.

A very complex story reduced to the simple elements is that Fletcher only knew what was happening at Guadalcanal based on the operations plan he'd been given by Turner. Turner, never communicated to Fletcher in any message that got through to him exactly what was really going on about the delayed unloading. And Fletcher, unlike other commanders up the chain, was convinced right from when the operation was ordered, that the Japanese would react violently to this American initiative. And that he would be facing another major carrier battle to help hold and secure Guadalcanal. And he deemed it essential by the end of the second day that he preserve his carriers and the dwindling number of aircraft for which no replacements were in sight because of the logistical setup for the whole campaign.

Now he pulls the carriers back. And then a energetic Japanese Admiral, commander of the 8th Fleet, Admiral Mikawa, with great enterprise and no little level of luck. This is the first moment in what will be a repeated pattern in this campaign of these incredible oscillations and fortune of luck, if you will. Mikawa gathers a task force together at Rabaul, steams down The Slot, and surprises the American and Australian covering force off Savo Island. He simply makes a loop around Sabo with his task force, which nonetheless gets sort of split up. But in the most humiliating defeat at sea by the US Navy certainly in World War II, not its history, three US heavy cruisers and the Australian heavy cruiser Canberra, are sunk by Mikawa.

But Mikawa believing he's really accomplished what he needs to accomplish, pulls out without destroying the transports, thus granting a bounty to the Americans that he shouldn't have. What's interesting is that because as I indicated when I mentioned Sugita, I mean, he indicated the basic framework, which is that while they expected the Americans to do something, it would not be until '43-'44. So it was very difficult for the Japanese in these first opening weeks of the campaign to get their minds around the idea that this was really a major American initiative. They therefore, and they also grossly underestimate the number of Americans on Guadalcanal for a variety of reasons.

And their decision is to mop up the situation they're going to send this battle group, sort of a reinforced regimen, under a Colonel named Ichiki. This unit was initially designated to stage the landing on Midway. Ichiki is a firebrand of average firebrand order, which is the standard order in the Imperial Army. He arrives on Guadalcanal, ported down by some destroyers. Because of once again, the way the operation is launched, even though the Marines have occupied the airfield and had it ready early on in the first days after the landing, they are no aircraft to occupy it until the 20th of August when the first aircraft Marine two Marine squads, a fighter and dive bomber squadron are flown in off an escort carrier.

And what's significant in terms of long range, and indeed in American military history, is these initial aircraft are going to be part of what's eventually going to be called the Cactus Air Force. Cactus was a code name for Guadalcanal. And in the course of the campaign, those Marine aircraft are going to be joined by Navy aircraft, by Army Air Force aircraft. And what will, by force of circumstance rather than brilliant planning or pre-arrangement, will become the first truly integrated operation, I think, in American military history.

He marches down the beach and lunges right into the one prepared position that the Marines have right near the beach. Had he bothered to go inland only a few hundred yards, he would've found an open flank. And the Marines counterattack annihilate his unit. I would argue that this action called the Battle of the Tenaru, had enormously greater significance than the number of participants would indicate. Shortly before this action, a Marine patrol is ambushed. And from the survivors reports, it becomes clear to the Marines that the Japanese don't seem to be taking prisoners. Then in the aftermath of this battle, there are a number of episodes of Japanese, although wounded and Marines are attempting to take them prisoner or corpsman are attempting to treat them, they attempt to kill the Marines or sailors who are trying to aid them.

Because at this point in the war, every other American who engaged the Japanese on ground was either dead or a prisoner of the Japanese, there was no institutional understanding of what it meant to fight the Japanese. It was this action, at the Tenaru in this patrol action, that really set the cast for how the rest of the Pacific war was going to be fought in the sense that the Japanese battle ethics of no surrender were going to move the campaign in the Pacific to a level of savagery that would not be really matched in the European theaters that the Americans would fight in.

As Admiral Fletcher anticipated, the Japanese do react. They attempt to move in reinforcements, cover it with fleet carriers. And they bring on the third major carrier battle of 1942 called the Battle of Eastern Solomons. Fletcher, there's a lot of bumbling in this, as there were in all the 42 battles. But Fletcher went through, although the Enterprise is damaged, the Americans come out on top. Without going into any detail in this, the first thing I think I would emphasize about this battle is if you notice the air crew losses. Only eight American air crew are killed, and 62 Japanese are killed in this engagement for a variety of reasons.

There's one passage I'm fond of describing a Japanese dive bomber attack on the Enterprise. And oops, where'd that go? And this is the description of it. Captain Arthur C. Davis on Enterprise's bridge noted with icy professionalism the precise seven second intervals between planes and the dives, "were steep, estimated at 70 degrees, well executed and absolutely determined." Portland's gunnery officer who had witnessed five similar exhibitions by Japanese carrier flyers left a different perspective. This connoisseur assessed the attack as good, but sniffed that he had seen better.

Next, please. In these opening weeks of the campaign, a situation evolves, which is, I think, perhaps unique. We'll call it a mutual siege. Once again, if you'll notice down here on Guadalcanal, there's about a 200 mile radius out from here from which the dive bombers from Henderson Field can go. Let me get us over here. Yeah. About during the day, the presence of those aircraft prevent prevent the Japanese from bringing in any type of slow transports or whatever here. The presence of fighter aircraft on Guadalcanal permit the Americans to shuttle in supply ships to resupply the American Marines.

Then with sundown, the Americans leave. Samuel Eliot Morison described it as comparable to little children running from a graveyard, and down The Slot come to Japanese in what's going to be called the Tokyo Express, which are typically runs of three to 20 destroyers, sometimes light cruisers and other vessels, bringing down to the garrison on Guadalcanal supplies, reinforcement, and of course favoring the Americans with bombardment. But the Japanese can't tarry, they take off so that they can get back out of range of those dive bombers by dawn. So you have this bizarre situation of every 12 hours, sea control around Guadalcanal changes. And the attempts to change that circumstance are going to lead to most of the major service actions.

Next, please, the Japanese having tried with the battalion in August decide to send a brigade, the 35th Brigade in September under a general named Kawaguchi, who was probably the most astute Japanese senior ground officer who will serve on Guadalcanal. And Kawaguchi perceives when he originally gets to Guadalcanal, correctly, that the Americans have not yet completed an entire perimeter around their airfield. And that the area to the south of the airfield is open, and he plans to stage a jungle march and then a surprise attack through that open area to seize the airfield. And without the airfield, the Marines cannot hold out.

In another example of the excellence of the command and staff of the 1st Marine Division, when they get patrol reports indicating roughly where he's headed, they deduce that's his intended objective, identified the correct terrain that Kawaguchi has selected to attack along. And this leads to the Battle of Edson's Ridge, which is over two successive nights. And it's probably the moment that Japanese come closest to winning the campaign, at least ashore, during the entire duration of the campaign.

Next, please. Once again, here's the slide. Basically, the Japanese become disordered in the jungle, attacks are piecemeal. Due to great and brilliant leadership by Edson, their parachute and raider battalions are barely able to hold on to what becomes known as Edson's Ridge or Bloody Ridge. They're also ably supported by Marine artillery, and they hold off the Japanese and shatter the attack. The Americans having succeeded on land at Edson's Ridge of course are up. And then the next thing that happens is an attempt to bring in reinforcement. Results in the loss of the fleet carrier Wasp to a Japanese submarine. So up, down, up, down. This is the cyclic pattern that dominates in the Guadalcanal campaign.

The Japanese now have decided that this is now a serious matter on Guadalcanal. And besides cutting off operations on New Guinea, they also decide to bring in a full division of troops. Once again, they try a battalion, then a brigade, now they're going to try a division. Their lead up to this is a series of runs of the Tokyo Express. And for the first time, American Navy intervenes successfully at what's called the Battle of Cape Esperance, where an American cruiser destroyer group defeats a Japanese cruiser destroyer group. This happens on on Columbus Day.

No sooner, once again, do the American Navy enjoy success, then the next day the Japanese stage, what becomes known as the bombardment. The Marines are pummeled repeatedly scores of times by ships and constant air raids. Yet to the veterans who serve in the campaign, this particular night is known as the bombardment, as though there were no other because it's two Japanese battleships. Which in the course of their runs off Henderson Field discharge almost 1,000 14 inch rounds into the Marine perimeter. This does achieve the primary objective the Japanese have, which is the knockout the Cactus Air Force. The Japanese then, in daylight, are able to bring in a reinforcement convoy for the first time.

And at this point in mid-October 1942 in Washington, DC, among senior leaders, there is stark recognition that this could be heading very rapidly towards a catastrophic defeat. A reporter confronts Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, and asks whether we're going to hold on to Guadalcanal. And he gives an answer that goes something like, "A good, stiff fight is going on up there. Every man will give a good account of himself." But he does not make any categorical statement that we're going to hold Guadalcanal. Admiral Nimitz who has become increasingly frustrated over a number of issues, but most importantly from a visit, determines that theater commander, Robert Ghormley is not up to the task. After some soul searching, decides that Ghormley has to be replaced. And he brings in Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. to become the new South Pacific commander.

Halsey's reputation as a great fighter precedes him. It's a great fill up to morale. And this will be probably Halsey's greatest hour of the entire war. Halsey's aggressiveness is a tonic, but is not always a panacea to the situation. Now, Colonel Sugita, you recall, has been crouching here quietly by this bush next to my podium. He's always been, like any Imperial Army officer, well disciplined and always does what I tell him to do. The Japanese command, despite the reinforcements they've received on Guadalcanal, nonetheless looks at their tactical situation and perceives it as follows. Although an attack along the coastal area, an more open terrain, would seem to be an obvious solution, the Japanese perceive this as being a lead into a fire power contest they cannot possibly win.

They're perplexed about what to do as an alternative. Colonel Sugita and another staff obviously go up to the top of a feature called Mount Austen, which is high ground overlooking that American perimeter. And Colonel Sugita looks down and says to himself and his colleague, "You know, that terrain south of Henderson Field doesn't look so bad after all." And they go back and they pull out their map. Because the Imperial Army, unlike the Marines, has a map. And they look at the contour lines and decide that this looks doable for a surprise jungle attack from the south after a jungle march.

What the Imperial Army is an Imperial Navy map. The Imperial Navy map the Imperial Navy had copied from the Royal Navy. And the Imperial Navy had failed to convey to the Imperial Army that, oh, by the way, although the map was accurate as to coastal features, hydrographic features, it was the convention in the Royal Navy map making office that, as far as anything inland, some clerk would sort of sketch in some lines in the map to suggest that there was terrain there. So the map is completely inaccurate.

Nonetheless, the Japanese launch this incredible cross country march through the jungle to come up from the south. Meanwhile, the Marine command, which once again, this is one of those episodes in the war where you enter it knowing that there's a high reputation involved. But when you go through it nut and bolt, you can't help but be very, very impressed with what they do. They look at the situation and they recognize the Japanese capability of marching through the jungle. But they determine after their experience that even if the Japanese do this, they're confident the Japanese are going to arrive exhausted and disorganized.

And the Marines remain much more concerned about the prospects the Japanese are going to move artillery within range to knock out Henderson Field, which once again is the absolute critical lifeline that has to be maintained. So the Marines eventually orient their defenses. And the Japanese conduct feints to make them think so, that they're going to come from the west along the coast, where they're actually coming from the south up from the jungle.

On the night of 24, 25 October, after a series of delays, the Imperial Army launches its main effort south of Henderson Field. In theory, there are nine Japanese rifle battalions moving forward to attack a sector, which is held by a single Marine battalion under Colonel Puller, who is actually occupying a sector originally intended for two battalions on a regimental front. But the Marine command was correct that the jungle march has exhausted and disorganized the Japanese. And instead of attacking simultaneously with nine battalions, they come on by single battalions or companies or platoons. And of course the incredibly stalwart defense famously led by Colonel Puller, and of course the famous Marine John Basilone, machine gunner, hold off the Japanese.

The Marines will defeat a succession of attacks several days in October defending the airfield. Immediately after this, Admiral Halsey, in a very aggressive move, sends his carrier task force with two carriers, the Enterprise and Hornet against the Japanese fleet, which has moved down to support the attempt to seize Henderson Field. The carrier battle that takes place pits the two US carriers against four Japanese carriers. There's the aircraft compliments. You'll see that the Japanese are a little more preponderant.

Once again, I'm not going to go into any detail on this, but once again, the Hornet is overwhelmed and sunk. The aircraft losses numerically seem to be only slightly better for the US. But you'll notice once again, the air crew losses are absolutely devastating. 24 American air crew, both pilots and crewmen, are killed. The Japanese lose 148 carrier aviators. The Japanese lost 110 carrier aviators at Midway. So this is about a third more losses. And their loss of squadron and section leaders at this battle is absolutely devastating. Now the battle ends in other words, again, with this pattern. We have a success on land. We have a defeated sea.

The Japanese now really face up to a really hard choice. One thing that's going on is the Imperial Navy, which has been going on from the start that this was very important now, the Imperial Army now comes to believe that this could be the big decisive battle of the Pacific war. They're still uncertain because of the logistics as to whether they should continue to pursue it. But two things really spurred them on. First of all, they completely overestimate what they've achieved at the Battle of the Santa Cruz. Secondly, they perceived they were very near success in their October offensive. And moreover, at this point as a result of policies in Washington, where we began having far more candid reports about what the actual situation is on Guadalcanal, the Japanese are also monitoring those. And conclude that because they were very near success in October, they're going to try again in November.

The Japanese are going to, once again, reprise from their playbook from October a battleship bombardment to knock out the American aircraft on Henderson Field. Then they're going to bring in a very large reinforcement convoy, not only with troops, but also to try to make up a tremendous supply deficit. The Americans who are on Guadalcanal at this time, who includes the first Army reinforcements and more Marines, are languishing from a very inadequate supply line, eating very poorly. But the Japanese are still more dire situations and being ravaged by disease, much as the Americans are, but even worse. So that units that arrived early have become combat ineffective.

The American intentions are to bring in some more reinforcement and to block the Japanese reinforcement. This leads then to what's called the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal between November 12th and 15th, 1942, which is one of the great, great naval actions of the entire war, certainly for the US Navy. Interesting the first phase of this, the US Navy has ever never provided a specific subtitle for this particular action. I've called it the Battle of Friday the 13th. Two American admirals, Callaghan and Scott, are in charge of a cruiser destroyer force, which takes on the Japanese battleship bombardment force. There's the lineup of ships. By firepower, the Japanese have tremendous superiority and also with respect to their torpedo batteries, they're much superior. Not the least of which because their torpedoes work and ours usually don't.

The American task force, which is mismanaged by Admiral Callaghan, steams into a midnight melee with the Japanese Task force in the most savage, close, and confused action that will take place among naval forces in World War II. The Americans become intermingled with the Japanese task force. The American flagship, the San Francisco, is shown here in this image. The white circles represent a few of the 45 hits the ship will take in the course of this one evening. One of the hits on the bridge kills Admiral Callaghan.

As a matter of fact, there's a 31 year old signal officer named Bruce McCandless, who after he looks around on the bridge, determines that the admiral is dead. Most of the admiral's staff is dead, or those who aren't, are incapacitated. The captain of the San Francisco is dead. The executive officer of the San Francisco is dead. The acting executive officer of the San Francisco is dead. The navigator by one of those hits in the bridge is blown off the bridge level and down to a secondary five inch gun. His crumpled body is thrown into a corner by the crew who assumes he is dead. He's very severely injured.

And it comes to Bruce McCandless that he is now effectively the skipper of the San Francisco, directing it in the midst of this battle. And what's more, what comes to Bruce McCandless is realizing that as the flagship of the entire task force that is, in the confusion of the battle, that everyone will steer by what this flagship does. And at that moment, the San Francisco with 45 hits, 25 fires, 500 tons of water aboard, McCandless could have made the decision to retire, and I don't think anyone would've criticized him.

But he realizes what's going on, and the significance of anything that the San Francisco does. And he orders this young sailor who grabbed the wheel after the first helmsman zone was cut down, to turn the ship's head back into the middle of the battle. And for that action, he's awarded the medal of honor. And quite properly. So the sacrifice of Callaghan and Abe keeps the battleships from bombarding Henderson Field. The Japanese send down a cruiser force the following night, which fortunately fires with very bad aim and misses the airfield largely, and doesn't do any substantial damage to the American airmen.

The following day, November 14th, the Japanese convoy is coming down because the Japanese are confident they've suppressed the American airmen. The convoy is savage during the day. And then that night, the convoy keeps coming and we lead to next phase of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. The battleship action of Admiral Willis Lee versus Admiral Kondo, with basically one of the battleships that was supposed to perform this duty two nights before, and a task force the Japanese put together. And in this action, Admiral Willis Lee is the first American admiral who really fully comprehends the advantage that radar has given him. Will, in a very cool headed fashion, navigate his way through an action in which the American task force is successfully whacked down. All four of his destroyers are either sunk or knocked out. The South Dakota is severely shot up and has to withdraw. Leaving only the Washington, a beautiful ship, to stand alone against the Japanese. And Washington wins. And the Japanese bombardment effort is frustrated. The Japanese battleship is sunk. And this proves to be what one Japanese officer will later call the fork in the road.

Not withstanding the success that the Americans enjoy at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, at the very end of the month there's another painful lesson in the superiority of Imperial Japanese Navy at a place called Tassafaronga. American cruiser destroyer force is humiliated in an action against the Japanese destroyer force. The American lose a cruiser and have a bunch of others destroyed, damage or whatever, knocked out of the war for a long time, and only one Japanese destroyer sunk. But they do keep those Japanese ships from landing supplies.

And by this point, the Japanese garrison on Guadalcanal is in desperate shape. Initially, the Japanese resolved to try yet one more time. Having failed in August, September, October, and November, they are initially intending to try yet again to retake Guadalcanal. But after some sobering assessment by staff officers, they realize that this is just not in the cards. And the emperor sanctions the withdrawal order.

The American intelligence perception of what's going on now, of course, completely misses what the Japanese were up to, but it is hard to be severely judgemental about this given what had happened repeatedly over months. It was difficult for them to initially appreciate the Japanese had in fact intended to withdraw. The Japanese conduct a brilliant withdrawal with a new rear guard they land. The American effort to pursue them is very restrained. The 1st Marine Division being totally exhausted is now withdrawn. Some other American reinforcement arrive and pursue the campaign to the end, which will come to a conclusion after Japanese withdraw their last troops in February. And February 9th becomes the last day of the campaign.

In terms of the significance of the campaign, probably the single most important aspect is the air attrition inflicted on the Imperial Navy. What's interesting is when you look at the raw numbers of aircraft lost, 615 American to 683 Japanese, as far as we could compile it, it's not all that far apart. The combat losses are much higher for the Japanese than the US. And as a result of the fact that Americans are suffering a lot more operational losses due to the cruddy airfields they're operating from. Very quickly, there'll be no quiz on this. You can relax.

The warship loss is 24 to 25. But within the timeframe involved, this is a very heavy duty attrition on both navies. This is the fatality total. You'll notice that the Japanese lose about 25,000. About 20,000 Imperial Army soldiers and the balance being members of the Imperial Navy. The air losses, I report that as like 1,200 Japanese. It may very well be higher. To this day, we haven't been able to ascertain an actual number for Japanese airman loss at Guadalcanal. We know the number is very high and involves a very high number of high quality men. The other point, I always emphasize about this, not withstanding the fact that, quite properly so, this became extraordinarily famous for the US Marine Corps. When you look at who died on and around Guadalcanal, you'll notice that almost three sailors will die for every Marine or soldier who was killed on Guadalcanal.

Midway and Guadalcanal are clearly the two key battles of 1942. Midway's critical. It stops the offensive in the Central Pacific. Admiral Yamamoto, as far as we know, had a higher level plan that success at Midway would be followed by an effort to seize the Hawaiian Islands, to then insecure and negotiated a peace. That was his concept for ending the war promptly in Japan's favor. And the carrier losses of course are devastating. But I would argue that Guadalcanal is the real turning point. You really see the change in the strategic posture. The Japanese are still on the offensive in the summer of '42, or at least they have those intentions. And the Japanese suffered this tremendous attrition to air and light naval forces.

Now the campaign does one other thing. In the spring of 1942, German, Japanese, some staff officers were contemplating coordinated strategic plan, which would have permitted, I think you can argue, would be the last callable strategy that the Axis Powers could have followed to secure victory. And what that involved was the joining up of two of the most sinister forces. A campaign across the Indian Ocean, joining up with the Germans driving down through the Middle East to cut off India and China. And this, once again, arguably is the last plausible strategy the Axis Powers has had to bring success in the war.

The other thing, more recently I came to understand, is the Japanese also in their planning had contemplated that after the successful operations through the first part of 1942, they were going to withdraw forces and launch a final campaign to settle up things finally in China. They called this Operation Go-Go. I didn't invent that title. That's for real. I'm not making up.

The final point, and the one that I emphasize more and more as I think about this and reflect back on this year after year, is notwithstanding all these other things you can say about Guadalcanal, I think one aspect of it, which is of supreme importance is the psychological importance of Guadalcanal. And not just in the context of the war in the Pacific. When it looks like Guadalcanal is going to end up in a disaster in mid October 1942, the New York Times writes an editorial, which reads like a eulogy. And you see the quote, "Guadalcanal, the name will not die of memories of this generation. It will endure in honor." That perception of the psychological importance of this campaign to the generation was then captured again, and let me have the audio visual, at the concluding part of the Victory at Sea episode. This is-

Victory at Sea Audio

…men. Old, young men. A march of men leaving purgatory. The 1st Marine Division is being relieved. What's left of it. And on a lonely grave at Lunga Point, there is a prediction about the Marine who lost his youth. That when he goes to heaven, to St. Peter he will tell, "Another Marine reporting sir. I've served my time in hell."

Admiral Nimitz, commander in chief, Pacific Ocean areas, flies down from Pearl Harbor to pay what small tribute is within man's province. If there was horror and ferocity, there was also courage and self-sacrifice. If there was death, filth, and disease, the Marines turn the tide of war and stopped their enemy. The Japanese will advance no further. And as the surviving Marines wave goodbye, one of the greatest tales of heroism slips out of focus into history. To these men go the honors accorded the Greeks at Thermopylae, the colonials at Valley Forge, the British at Waterloo, and now the Americans at Guadalcanal.

Richard B. Frank 

This was produced in the early 1950s. It is, in my view, an accurate portrayal of how psychologically important Guadalcanal was viewed by the generation that would carry forward and win the war. That this was the pathbreaking effort by the Marines and the soldiers and the sailors who served at Guadalcanal, provided the clear indication that the generation that would fight the war had what it took to prevail in adversity against a ruthless foe. Thank you.

Jeremy Collins

If there are any questions, please raise your hand.

Audience Member 1

Richard, would you comment on the fate of the cruiser Juneau at Guadalcanal?

Richard B. Frank 

Right. The cruiser Juneau was part of the task force that fought that night action, Friday the 13th action. She was damaged by a Japanese torpedo. She was withdrawing in a small task force of surviving ships the following day. A Japanese submarine fired torpedoes at the cruiser San Francisco. The torpedoes missed the San Francisco, went beyond, and Juneau couldn't get out of the way. She was hit and blew up in a tremendous explosion, much like the Hood blowing up against the Bismarck.

The surviving command commanding officer of the cruiser Helena, examining the situation and realizing his destroyer escort was inadequate, chose not to stop for survivors. It turns out as we now know that there were over 100 men left in the water. And all but 10 of them would eventually perish. The crew of the cruiser Juneau contained the five Sullivan brothers. We know that one of the brothers, George, got off the Juneau and survived for several days in the water. The loss of the Juneau was one of the most catastrophic events of any major American worship during the entire Second World War. And of course there was a movie made about the Fighting Sullivans, and a destroyer famously called the Sullivans was commissioned during the war. And that name has been continued on in the Navy in the current vessel named the Sullivans.

Audience Member 2

Yes, Richard, right here. You had mentioned that radar was used successfully. And I wondered if you could briefly discuss some of the differences in technology between us and the Japanese at that time, that either gave us an advantage or disadvantage to either side.

Richard B. Frank 

Right. The Japanese had been working on radar, but did not have, well, except for a couple of experimental models, they didn't didn't have them operationally deployed around Guadalcanal. But there was a radar the Japanese had in one of the carrier battles that was affected. But generally speaking, the Japanese did not have radar. The Japanese, however, because they had intensely prepared for night combat pre-war had worked very assiduously in developing accurate visual lookout work. Including the use of these very oversized binocular, sort of crude intensification devices.

The US Navy had only begun the generalized fitting of radar with the start of the war in December '41. Anyone who reads the reports from that period will notice there were a lot of kinks and problems in radar. It didn't work properly. There was fading of the power. It could be masked by land mass. And there were all kinds of bugaboos. It was not a panacea. Not only that, the early generally fitted version called SC, Sugar Charlie, was pretty crude. A successor microwave version called SG, Sugar George, was much more effective, but that only became fitted within mid-1942.

And once again, there's a lot of fault that's been attributed to the flag officers and other commanders who served at Guadalcanal for not properly exploiting that radar. But the fact is that this was entirely new technology they had not been familiar with as a more junior officer. It was still in a very experimental stage. So there's a lot of fumbling with it. Lee, however, was tremendously talented gunnery officer who had studied it carefully, understood it carefully. And not only that, Lee had one other tremendous attribute. He had this incredible visual memory where he could keep in his head a tactical plot that was beyond what most other human beings would possibly hope to do. And that's one of the reasons why Admiral Lee was successful in battle.

But radar was not a panacea. In a talk I gave at the Naval War College, I tick off there are five major night service actions. And the Japanese saw the Americans first in two of them visually before radar detected the Japanese. Only three of them did the radar give the earlier warning. And that didn't always necessarily lead to victory.

Audience Member 3

Richard, Richard. Thank you. Was it true that when the Japanese construction crews fled when the Marines came, they left a large store of rice and sake.

Richard B. Frank 

Right. Oddly enough, the official historians tend to focus on the rice. The Marines, however, I believe gave equal attention to the alcohol content the Japanese had left behind. Yeah. They left a goodly amount of stores and rice. And that was very important. It was interesting going back to the original documents trying to figure out just exactly how much food actually had been landed, how much was available. And rice was clearly a mainstay. And the Marines only ate two meals a day, partly for tactical reasons because of the air raids or whatever, for a large part of the campaign.

But the Japanese, the Imperial Navy kept forwarding troops to Guadalcanal without providing food. And pretty soon everybody who'd been shipped there who had been there for any length of time was just an emaciated survivor. A staff officer came down from Tokyo who had been sitting back there, and had been very cavalier about what had going on until he got ashore and was utterly and totally shocked.

Oh, by the way, let me finish the story on Colonel Sugita. He is one of the survivors from Guadalcanal. And in September 1942, he will be a member of the Japanese surrender delegation on the USS Missouri, where he's in the photograph standing at the far left of the rear rank. Where I believe it's safe to assume the Japanese were relying upon him for his translator skills, as opposed to his estimate of the situation.

Jeremy Collins

Right here.

Audience Member 4

Mr. Frank, I wondered if you could expand a little bit on Chesty Puller, his background and his contribution.

Richard B. Frank 

I think Alan will probably be expanding and then re-expanding on Chesty Puller, legendary figure. There's a wonderful biography of him by Jon Hoffman. I'd recommend anyone who really wants to find, I think, a fair, full, and balanced to account of Chesty Puller. But without a doubt, the actions of that battalion he led that night in October, that was a stellar performance. And I would also add that it's a tribute to interservice relations, which always weren't of the very best, that when the Army, when they sent a reinforcing Army battalion, the Army battalion command had the excellent, good sense to just turn everything over to Puller.

Audience Member 5

During the Battle of Savo Island that Canberra was lost, how significant was that to the relations with the Australians? Did they hold a grudge? Or were they kind of, okay, that happened in war?

Richard B. Frank 

Maybe my Australian colleagues could... I am not aware that the Australians held any grudge over that. The Australian Navy did more than it's fair share in the Pacific, even however few the ships were. Americans are always glad to have an Australian ship with them. You get that, not just from the official accounts, you get that when you read the oral histories or whatever here. They held the Australians in very high regard.

And as far as, I mean, the Canberra is very unfortunate. There was a little bit of internal back biting, sort of minor, but an argument over whether the things would've been different if the other Australian cruiser had been present. Australia had been there and been at the position Canberra was initially. But as far as I know, between the US and the Australians, there was no back and forth about that.

Although there is a book, Shame of Savo, that's been published, which claims that in the heat of the battle, that the torpedo, and this is all disputed as to whether Canberra was hit by a torpedo or not, but the claim is that the torpedo that actually hit the Australia was an American torpedo that was misfired by an American destroyer and actually hit the Canberra. I'm sort of agnostic on that one. And the main reasons I told the author was because American torpedoes worked so seldom, it was sort of hard to imagine that this could have happened.

Audience Member 6

A Bloody Ridge, deservedly so, always get a lot of attention, but the battles are around the Matanikau, and Richard Greer can maybe talk about it later on this afternoon. But it was so fluid there and so critical. And the perimeters weren't established, and Marines are going offshore, amphibious assaults, get trapped up on the hill, Puller goes out and fires. I mean, could you comment on the significance of the battles of Matanikau.

Richard B. Frank 

The Matanikau River, which is a river which is west of where the main American perimeter was at the beginning of the campaign was terrain over which more clashes occurred than any other feature on the campaign. I'm sure Alan will get in into that. For a large part of the campaign, it was sort of a no man's land where each side was at various times attempting to dominate. One of the important considerations for the Marines throughout the campaign was this fear that Japanese would land artillery on Guadalcanal and be able to interdict Henderson Field with artillery. And keeping them beyond artillery range was an important component of why they were concerned about dominating the Matanikau. I regret to report that if you go to Guadalcanal today to see that the scene where all those battles took place, it is now a housing track, which has thus lost some of the ambience of 1942.

Audience Member 7

Hollywood released a movie right after this battle called Guadalcanal Diary, written by Richard Tregaskis, I believe. It's a wonderful propaganda film. Is it accurate, sir?

Richard B. Frank

Atmospherically, it's accurate. In terms of specifics, I can't say too much about the movie. That does trigger me on one thing. Tregaskis was one of the two correspondent who was originally on the island with the Marines. And one of the things it turned out when I was doing research for this book was I ended up effectively fact checking Tregaskis. Not because I set out to do so, but because I found that I was constantly tracking over. And the more I had occasion to fact check, the more impressed I was with Tregaskis. He was incredibly reliable on anything he actually saw. His reports match up.

But John Lundstrom caught one little inversion of two air battles where he apparently got his notes wrong. But apart from that, the guy was really... And in fact, because later in the campaign, when things were looking extremely grim, and the 1st Marine Division was contemplating at one point having to take to the hills, they destroyed some of their documents and reports at headquarters. So they had to recreate some of the events very early in the campaign. And there was at least one episode where I found a conflict between the official report and Tregaskis. And I, without hesitation, figured Tregaskis was probably right because those were his notes from the time. And I would add that 1st Marine Division report also I think is highly commendable in being as candid as it is and accurate as it is.

Jeremy Collins

Thank you very much, Richard.

Thank you for listening. If you liked what you heard, please consider visiting for more episodes. Again, that is nationalww, the number two, This series is made possible by the Albert and Ethel Herzstein Charitable Foundation, which supports content like this from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Don't forget to rate and subscribe. It goes a long way to helping others find this series. I'm Jeremy Collins signing off.