Initial U.S. Marine defenses around the airstrip at Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, 12 August 1942
On July 6, 1942, 400 Japanese soldiers and engineers plus about 2,000 mostly Korean laborers under the command of Captain Tei Monzen began constructing an airfield on Guadalcanal. To speed the process, local labor was conscripted at no pay, but meals were provided. The effort went on 24 hours a day, the Japanese using flares and floodlights at night to illuminate the emerging red clay and gravel strip. While the work was underway, protection was afforded by aircraft operating out of Rabaul in New Britain and from the strips being cleared on islands along the air and navigation route down “the slot” between New Britain and Guadalcanal.
The necessary Japanese air, sea, and island movements were duly reported by the string of Australian coast watchers who had remained behind with their radios in secluded locations on many of the islands. On Guadalcanal there were four coast watchers: Martin Clemens, Snowy Rhodes, Don Macfarland and Ken Hay, the latter two located together. Reporting to them on Japanese activities were a number of loyal native scouts, several of whom had infiltrated the runway construction team at Lunga. As a result, none of the Japanese initiatives had gone unnoticed by either General MacArthur in Australia, Admiral Nimitz in Hawaii, or by the Joint Chiefs in Washington. The question was what to do about it.
MacArthur had troops in training at Rockhampton on the northwest coast of Australia, but he had no naval force. He wanted carriers along with more land-based planes and troops to begin the counteroffensive against New Britain and New Ireland. Admiral Nimitz had no intention of releasing any carriers to MacArthur and wanted to attack Tulagi as a first step before moving on New Britain and the Japanese base at Rabaul.
U.S. Army and Navy plans differed radically, but the biggest obstacle was deciding who was to command the operation. Though the Solomons were in MacArthur’s theater, Nimitz and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral King were leery of MacArthur’s ability and perseverance in protecting carriers from bases 1,000 miles away in Australia. Chief of the Joint Staff in Washington, General George Marshall, sided with MacArthur, but the Navy had won a great victory at Midway, and Admiral King had momentum with which to press the advantage.
On July 2, the decision was made by General Marshall and Admiral King in favor of the Navy. The boundary between Admiral Nimitz’s South Pacific Area and MacArthur’s area was nudged west sufficiently to include the southernmost islands in the Solomons under Nimitz. Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley would be on-scene commander of the land and sea effort. Directly under him was Rear Admiral John S. McCain, head of the committed land-based aircraft. Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher would command the naval task force. Under Fletcher was Rear Admiral Leigh Noyes, responsible for the carriers, and Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, commanding the amphibious forces that would assault the beaches. Leading the Marines was Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift.
By late June, Nimitz had sent five Marine air squadrons to the South Pacific to take part in whatever campaign was eventually decided upon. The admiral also requested B-17 heavy bombers from the Army. Four squadrons were sent to New Caledonia. In addition to Marines and the troopships needed to make the assaults, three aircraft carriers, one battleship, and the accompanying cruisers and destroyers were dispatched to join with additional forces made available by MacArthur and the Australians.
In a pre-invasion meeting of the principals under Ghormley, Admiral Fletcher announced that he would not risk his carriers within range of Japanese land-based aircraft for more than 48 hours. Ghormley was absent from this gathering of subordinates, and no one there was able to reverse Fletcher’s resolve.
On July 22, the U.S. 1st Marine Division departed Wellington, New Zealand. The task force proceeded north for a dry rehearsal of the intended Guadalcanal invasion off Koro Island in the Fijis. Two landing exercises were planned but were called off after two botched attempts to reach the beaches. Coral reefs made reaching shore safely impractical given the landing craft on hand. Admirals Fletcher, Turner, and McCain plus General Vandegrift attended the rehearsal and, from the chaos, implemented changes in debarkation procedures and the timing of invasion boat waves. It was there that the decision was made to land first on Tulagi and later at Guadalcanal on D-Day.
The flotilla departed the Fijis on July 31, and proceeded to a point southwest of the Solomons. On August 5, 82 ships in the expeditionary force swung north with a landing force of over 19,000 men who would scramble over the side into some 450 landing boats of various types. The weather that night was overcast with visibility reduced by haze and scattered squalls. There was no contact with the Japanese. The following morning found the troop ships poised just off Guadalcanal and Tulagi, near the end of the Solomon chain.
Guadalcanal is 90 miles long by 25 miles at its widest and is shaped like a bulky caterpillar. The island, a mound of coral, rainforest, swamps, and inactive volcanoes, would soon make its mark in history.
On the evening of August 6, 1942, on Guadalcanal, Japanese Captain Monzen had been pleased with construction progress at the new airfield. The job was nearly finished. Repair shops, bomb storage sheds, a medical clinic, and an administration building were ready. Serviceable roads now connected the facilities and perimeter guard posts. Only a small section of the runway needed to be graded. In spite of the daily attacks in the preceding week by high-altitude B-17 bombers, construction was ahead of schedule. For the first time, there would be no work done after dark. Monzen approved extra sake rations for the Korean laborers and local islanders, among whom was 15-year-old Bruno Nana. ”We sold them food,” he recalled, “and I worked on the communication lines. That night, though, there were rumors that the Americans were coming, so I left for my village.”
At 2:00 a.m. on the 7th, the American amphibious force under Admiral Turner was still undetected by the Japanese as the fleet sailed in from the southwest. The seamen sighted Savo Island and its narrows to the north and south that opened into Sealark Channel. Transport elements were separated 40 minutes later, with the Tulagi group swinging north of Savo and the Guadalcanal support ships cutting in from the south of the island.
The Marines on the troop ships roused from slumber at 3:00 a.m., made their way to breakfast, then began to gather on deck to await dawn. H-hour for Tulagi was set for 8:00 a.m., and Zero-hour for the landings on Guadalcanal was to commence 70 minutes later. The islands of Gavutu and Tanambongo, some 3,000 yards east of Tulagi, were to be taken the same morning by smaller contingents of Marines.
As twilight began to lift the shroud of darkness just before 6:00 a.m., the Japanese occupying Tulagi looked seaward. They were astounded by the number of deep-draft vessels that littered the channel to the south, looming dark and foreboding in the light of a quarter moon. A radio message was beamed toward Tokyo. ”Large force of ships, unknown number or types, entering the sound. What can they be?”
Preparatory fire from three cruisers and four destroyers opened up on Tulagi and Guadalcanal at 6:14 a.m. The Japanese men on the islands shook sleep from their eyes and stared into the waning darkness as red tracers streaked toward them. Moments later shells struck the beaches and geysers of red flame burst skyward into the gloom.
The noise also roused the Australian coast watchers who peered seaward, then reveled at the sight of the massive amount of shipping offshore. Allied cruisers and destroyers lay close in, their guns pounding the beaches. Beyond were transports and freighters. The concussion of exploding rounds could be felt at their mountain hideouts, miles away.
Protecting the troop convoy was Admiral Jack Fletcher’s Task Force 61 positioned 60 miles southwest of Guadalcanal and included the aircraft carriers Saratoga, Wasp and Enterprise. On board were 94 Wildcat fighters with which to support the invasion and defend the fleet. Fletcher had no intention of allowing any gaps in coverage above his prized flattops. Two carriers had gone to the bottom on Fletcher’s watch: the Lexington during the battle of the Coral Sea and the Yorktown during Midway. In the process, the Japanese had lost a total of five carriers, an excellent exchange ratio for the Allies against an opponent who had limited ability to quickly replace losses. Though the lessons of the victory at Midway were still being digested, one thing stood out: failure of the Japanese to adequately provide air cover at all times above their carrier force had proven fatal. Fletcher’s staff laid on the requirement to maintain no less than 24 F-4Fs constantly on combat air patrol (CAP) above his flattops and a like number over the transports congregating in Sealark Channel 60 to 80 miles north of his maneuvering task force. Available aircraft beyond that would be used to provide close air support over the beaches. If shortages occurred, the CAP over the carriers would have priority.
In the early morning darkness, Task Force-61 turned into the wind in rough seas and under heavy clouds. From the carrier ready rooms, pilots made for the flight decks at 5:00 a.m. Climbing aboard an F4F Wildcat fighter on the Saratoga was 30-year-old Lieutenant James J. “Pug” Southerland II, a strapping naval academy graduate who was leader of a four-ship flight in Fighting Squadron Five’s “Scarlet 2” Division. Lieutenant (j.g.) David C. Richardson, who would later retire as a Vice Admiral, was with Southerland that day. “Well, you know ‘Pug’ stands for ‘pugnacious,’ and he was that. He boxed at Annapolis, and was very good at it, lettering in the sport [as well as in wrestling and golf]…. [He] was well liked by everyone in the squadron, had a gregarious kind of personality. He graduated a year late, I’m not sure why, some kind of thing with too many demerits.” In fact, he missed his ship’s departure home from their European trip his senior summer and was pushed back a year in punishment. “He was a good pilot, though.” Pug was “an aggressive type, very competent, very cheerful individual. Lot of fun to be with,” recalled Richardson. “Pug was an excellent shot. He scored consistently in the top four to five pilots in our squadron,” but was untested in aerial combat.
Southerland started his engine as twilight broke in the east, his first mission would be on combat air patrol (CAP). Operation Watchtower, the retaking of the Solomons, was about to begin. About 30 minutes after VF-5’s first scramble, Southerland’s flight began launching at 6:17 a.m. Later described as “an ominous beginning,” Pug watched as Charles “Ike” Eichenberger released brakes, then lost control of his Wildcat in the slipstream of the aircraft just launched ahead. His wing scraped against Saratoga’s pitching deck, causing the plane to yaw sideways, get hung up in the catwalk, and flip overboard. The Wildcat smacked into the sea inverted, but Eichenberger struggled free from the flooded cockpit. He emerged gasping for air only to be re-submerged under the foaming curl of the carrier’s cascading wake. Spit out behind the big ship, he was soon hoisted aboard plane-guard destroyer Phelps, his injuries such that he would not take to the air again during the campaign.
Southerland and the other two F4F-4s launched and conducted a short flight which afforded a first-class view of the American landings on Tulagi. He returned and trapped aboard the Saratoga at 8:30 a.m. Forty-five minutes later he was deck launched, and was back on deck at 11:30 a.m. His next flight was scheduled for 1:15 p.m. in what was turning into a very busy day.
As soon as the American naval force off Tulagi and Guadalcanal were reported to Imperial Japanese Headquarters, Hirohito and Yamamoto were immediately informed. Yamamoto was fully aware of what this counteroffensive meant should it be allowed to succeed. All available naval and air power needed to be marshaled in an effort to thwart the American scheme. Within two hours, orders were sent to Vunakanau Air Field near Rabaul on New Britain Island. The 4th Air Group had been scheduled to launch 27 Betty bombers to attack the air base at Milne Bay, New Guinea. Escort was to be provided by Zeros from the famed Tainan Kokutai. That mission was put on hold while countering the Guadalcanal invasion was being discussed.
Rear Admiral Sadiyoshi Yamada, commander of the air assets at Rabaul, had little to go on. From the initial radio message, Yamada suspected that Tulagi was being invaded, so he launched a reconnaissance bomber to investigate. By this time however, U.S. Marines in the first wave destined for Tulagi had boarded their landing craft and were on their way. At 8:00 a.m. sharp, a few Japanese peeked from protective cover and watched the first Marines set foot on the west coast of the island. Before the Japanese reconnaissance plane out of Rabaul was anywhere near Tulagi, another message arrived from Tulagi. ”Enemy forces overwhelming. We will defend our posts to the death, praying for eternal victory.”
Admiral Yamada assembled his staff and began to brief an intended counterstrike. The Milne Bay mission was scrubbed, and an attack on the seaborne transports off Guadalcanal was ordered. The 4th Air Group staff officer wanted time to download the general purpose bombs intended for land targets and rearm with aerial torpedoes, but the Admiral overruled. With no idea regarding the location of any Allied aircraft carriers, he was concerned that his bombers might be caught on the ground during an air strike.
The Betty, with its 81-foot wingspan and 1,100-gallon wing tanks had the exceptional range needed for the mission. The Japanese dubbed the bomber the Type One Lighter, which due to its lack of self-sealing tanks and absence of armor presaged a richly deserved nickname. The planes easily caught fire when hit. However, armed with 7.7 mm machine guns in the nose, top turret, and mid fuselage, and one 20 mm cannon in the tail, its gun crew could launch a hail of bullets at any attacker. But unlike the sporadic Allied attempts at intercept using obsolete fighters over New Guinea, the bomber crews knew they would be challenged by a large force of U.S. Navy pilots flying F-4F Wildcats. On February 20, they had encountered the same type of planes from the Lexington operating east of Rabaul. During that melee, 15 of the 17 unescorted Betty bombers in the attack force were either shot down or ditched. Fighter escort was deemed mandatory if the bombers were to have any chance of success.
The staff decided that the strike force would be protected by 18 Zeros, but Lieutenant Commander Tadashi Nakajima, flight leader of the Tainan Air Group, protested that the 1,100-mile round trip to Tulagi was too extreme and might cost him half his command. The argument became heated, but the admiral overruled again, and the longest fighter mission up to that time in history was laid on.
At 9:50 a.m., the first five Zeros lifted off (one aborted), their mission to sweep ahead of the bomber force and engage any interceptors. Sixteen minutes later, 27 G4M1 Betty bombers took to the air, followed by the remaining 12 Zeros.
The bombers assembled into three nine-plane “V”s, forming a huge arrowhead in the sky. Above and behind the armada were 12 of Japan’s most experienced Zero pilots. In the second flight (Shotai) was Saburo Sakai, element leader of the third section. He had bested the American flyers over the Philippines and later during the East Indies campaign, but that was against the P-40 Warhawk, a relatively inferior aircraft compared to the Zero. He was eager to match skills against American Navy pilots in their Wildcats, but he knew that carrier training whittled out the weak and mediocre, so he would be up against the best Allied aviators in the business.
Sakai’s Zero, V-128, as well as the others on the mission, all had their troublesome radios removed to save weight. The pilots would rely on visual signals to communicate between wingmen and leader. Due to the 560-mile distance each way, the Zero pilots had been briefed to keep the external fuel tank still attached during fighting, jettisoning it only after it was empty.