The United States set its sights on Guadalcanal Island for its first wave of a counteroffensive against Japan after its victory at sea in the Battle of Midway. The Japanese forces would also lose on the ground in this battle. Japanese troops on remote islands in the Pacific Ocean became isolated as U.S. forces gained control over the air and sea. The Japanese gradually adopted “gyokusai”—death-for-honor attacks—one unit after another. Why did the tragedy of gyokusai happen? What was Prime Minister Hideki Tojo thinking?
Starvation and fever in jungle
The Imperial Japanese Navy landed on Guadalcanal Island, on the eastern tip of the Solomon Islands, northeast of the Australian continent, in July 1942 (the 17th year of the Showa Era). The Navy started building an airfield there, with a 2,600-man construction party and a 240-man garrison. The Navy’s aim in taking this jungle-covered small island was to use it as a front line base to attack the Australian base at Port Moresby in eastern New Guinea to cut off the supply of troops and goods from the United States to Australia.
Correspondingly, the United States had a plan to attack the Imperial Navy’s largest airbase of Rabaul on New Britain Island and decided to take Guadalcanal as a starting point. The U.S. forces had been updated on the whereabouts of the Japanese troops through tips from informants on the island. The U.S. forces seized the island, including the airfield, immediately in one sweep on August 7, by mobilizing the First Marine Division—an amphibious unit specially trained for landing operations—with well over 10,000 men.
The Japanese air unit based in Rabaul struck back in response to the surprise landing of U.S. troops but was unable to repel them from the island because Japan’s Zero fighters could stay over the island for only 15 minutes before they began to run out of fuel for the 1,000-kilometer flight back to the Rabaul. That’s how the six-month Battle of Guadalcanal started.
Imperial Army leaders, at the time, had never heard of Guadalcanal, and didn’t know that the Navy had been constructing an airfield there until they were notified by the Navy that U.S. forces had landed on the island. The Imperial Headquarters had predicted that any counteroffensive from U.S. forces would not start before the middle of 1943 and never imagined the United States would start a massive countercharge so early.
The Army accepted the Navy’s request to dispatch troops, without giving it thorough consideration. The decision was partly based on mercy—the Army should not stand by and watch Navy troops go down—and also on a judgment that the number of U.S. troops on the island was only as great as a “reconnaissance landing” force.
Hajime Sugiyama, Chief of the Army General Staff, ordered Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki to recapture Guadalcanal with his elite unit of only 2,400 men, mostly from the Twenty-eighth Infantry Regiment.
On August 18, 1942, a 900-man advance team of the Ichiki unit landed on Guadalcanal Island armed with rifles and hand grenades, but was, in effect, annihilated, overwhelmed by U.S. forces armed with automatic rifles, machine guns and tanks.
About the same time, at the Army General Staff, officers were having their photograph taken in the Chief of the Army General Staff’s room for a painting titled “The Eve of the Greater East Asia War,” to be painted later. There was no sense of tension there.
After the defeat of the Ichiki unit, a unit led by Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi landed on the island and carried out raids to recapture the airfield on the nights of September 12 and 13, but was repelled by U.S. troops. A fierce battle took place on Mukade Hill (Edson’s Ridge) which overlooked the airfield, and the hill was later called “Bloody Ridge.”
The Japanese troops were also losing the information battle. The U.S. troops had microphones hidden everywhere in the jungle to pick up the voices of Japanese soldiers and had pretty good leads on the enemy’s movements.
The Army’s piecemeal mobilization of troops led to a disastrous outcome. On October 24, the Second Division led by Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama carried out an all-out attack on the island but was again unsuccessful. That was the moment the myth that the Imperial Army could never be defeated collapsed.
Meanwhile, the Navy repeatedly engaged in fierce battles with the Allied fleet of the U.S. and Australian navies in the Solomon Sea. The Eighth Fleet, led by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, struck back immediately after U.S. troops landed on Guadalcanal Island and sank four battle cruisers during a night raid in the First Battle of the Solomon Sea, also known as the Battle of Savo Island. The Eighth Fleet, however, returned without attacking the Allied transport ships anchored in a port nearby at the time. Had it destroyed the convoy then, it is perceived, “The nature of desperate struggles that followed the battle would have been totally different.”
From then on, U.S. forces successfully confronted the Imperial Navy—which was skilled in night raids—by utilizing radar in sea battles for the first time.
The Japanese and U.S. forces inflicted great damage on each other’s aircraft carriers, battleships and destroyers in subsequent battles. This sea zone would later be called “Iron Bottom Sound.”
Using the airfield on Guadalcanal, the U.S. forces took control of the air and sank many of the Japanese supply ships en route to Guadalcanal in successful air raids. The Japanese could no longer deliver munitions and food to the island after mid-November. Japanese soldiers had to combat hunger in the jungle, in addition to diseases such as malaria.
The leadership in the Imperial Headquarters was not fully aware of the misery taking place on the front line. The focus of their attention was on measures to procure ships to send troop reinforcements and food to the island.
The Army General Staff requested the War Ministry allow an increase in the mobilization of merchant ships, but the ministry turned down the request, saying, “An increase in ships for operations would mean a decrease in ships for private use.” In other words, the ministry officials were afraid that they would fall short of ships to bring natural resources back to Japan from occupied territories in the south.
The Imperial Headquarters finally decided to withdraw troops from Guadalcanal at the end of 1942. The Army completed its retreat from the island in February 1943, supported by the Navy. The Imperial Headquarters announced that troops operating on Guadalcanal Island “left the island in early February after accomplishing their goal and shifted their position to another.” It covered up the truth of retreat by calling it a shift in position, without accomplishing the goal of recapturing the island.
The Summary Report on the Pacific War, compiled by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, said, “The Japanese committed in piecemeal fashion and lost all of their fully trained Navy air units, including those rescued at Midway, and a portion of their best Army air units. The Japanese never fully recovered from this disaster, the effects of which influenced all subsequent campaigns.”
According to Japanese war documents (Senshi Sosho), Japan lost 2,362 airmen in the Battle of Guadalcanal.
About 20,000 Japanese soldiers, among the 30,000 plus men who landed on the island, died. The cause of death for about 15,000 men—70 percent of the dead—is believed to have been starvation or disease, such as malaria.