History Remembered: February 9, 1943

February 9, 1943: After confirming that remaining Japanese forces had slipped away, Major General Alexander Patch, commander of XIV Corps, declares Guadalcanal secure. This ends the bloody six-month campaign for this southern lynchpin of the Solomon Islands.

Guadalcanal had begun as America’s first offensive operation in the Pacific, the first step in the long road to Tokyo. Together with the capture of Buna and Gona on New Guinea, victory on “the ‘Canal” placed Imperial Japan on the defensive for the rest of the war and eliminated its hopes of isolating or invading Australia.

In July 1942, U.S. commanders learned that the Japanese were building an airfield on Guadalcanal. Together with a recently completed seaplane base at Tulagi, that would have posed a serious threat to America’s supply lines to Australia.

Thus Guadalcanal became the scene of bitter land battles and the focal point of fierce naval clashes and near-daily aerial contests.

U.S. forces, primarily the 1st Marine Division, landed on Guadalcanal and several smaller nearby islands on August 7, 1942. Fighting was fierce on the other islands, but the Guadalcanal landing initially encountered light resistance. The marines captured the airfield, finished construction and renamed it Henderson Field, in honor of Marine Corps aviator Lofton Henderson, who was killed in the Battle of Midway.

Japan rushed reinforcements and supplies to Guadalcanal by sea. At that point of the war, with U.S. Navy use of radar not yet perfected or widespread, beginning, Japan’s navy had an advantage in night fighting. The Battle of Savo Island on the night of the initial Guadalcanal landings was a lopsided Japanese victory.

In the months to come, however, seaborne reinforcement and resupply improved for the Americans and became increasingly difficult for the Japanese. And U.S. Marine Corps and Army Air Force aircraft operating from Henderson Field established air superiority over the southern Solomons. They were known as the Cactus Air Force, for Guadalcanal’s codename. Air transport became a major artery for the Americans.

In October, the first major Army unit arrived on Guadalcanal, the Americal Division arrived to bolster the Marines. Patch stood up the new unit a few months earlier on New Caledonia. (Its name stood for “American, New Caledonian.”) On Guadalcanal, the marines and Americal soldiers worked so closely together that the Marine Corps awarded one army officer the Navy Cross.

The 1st Marine Division was withdrawn by December, while the Americal Division was joined by the 25th Division, Americal Division and 2nd Marine Division. The 25th had been formed with some units from the pre-war Hawaiian Division and on Guadalcanal, it would earn the nickname that it carries today, “Tropic Lightning.”

Fighting continued on Guadalcanal through December and January, particularly around Mount Austen and the ridges known as Galloping Horse and Seahorse. Japanese leaders, however, had decided to abandon the island, and destroyers evacuated more than 10,000 troops in early February by the time U.S. forces discovered they were gone.

The prolonged fighting on Guadalcanal cost the United States about 1,600 killed in action, and the Navy lost more than 5,000 at sea around it. Japan lost nearly 20,000 men ashore, the majority most of them from disease and starvation.

Photo: January 10, 1943: Litter bearers of the 25th Infantry Division’s medical battalion give first aid to two men wounded by grenades while on patrol on Guadalcanal. It was on Guadalcanal that the division earned its nickname, “Tropic Lightning.” (U.S. Army photo)