Tuesday, August 7, 2012

10 Things You Don't Know About Guadalcanal


Today marks the 70th anniversary of the first offensive land operation taken by the United States in World War II. On August 7, 1942, the U.S. Marines landed at Guadalcanal. The general outlines of that battle which lasted which lasted 6 months until February 9, 1943 are known by many but here are 19 things about Guadalcanal that you might not know.

This is the first of my regular "10 Things You Don't Know" posts that I hope will encourage the History Channel to bring back that series. You can read my full mission statement about this in my introductory blog post here. And now on to 10 Things You Don't Know About Guadalcanal:

1. Most of the enemy force on Guadalcanal when the Marines landed on August 7, 1942 were actually ordinary laborers, not combat troops.  Of the 2800 enemy personnel on the island, 2200 were laborers, of whom many were Korean, not Japanese.

2. The most hated uniform of WWII met its demise at Guadalcanal. It was the one-piece coverall jungle uniform issued to army troops. The main defect was that when the dysentery suffering troops, of which there were many, had to relieve themselves (or what they called the “Tulagi Trots”), the entire uniform had to be removed. One improvised solution was to use a razor blade to cut the thread in the crotch area and make sure not to wear skivvies. Ultimately the one-piece coverall was replaced by a more practical two-piece jungle uniform.

3. Malaria caused many more American casualties than Japanese bullets on Guadalcanal. One estimate is that every American who served on Guadalcanal between the landing on August 7, 1942 until the official end of the campaign in February 1943 had been infected to one degree or another by malaria.

4. As a result of the many Japanese ships sunk trying to resupply their troops, the waters off Guadalcanal are among the most popular scuba diving sites in the world. Many of these scuba tourists are Japanese.

5. On the morning of August 7, 1942, a Japanese radio operator on Tulagi off of Guadalcanal answered his own question when he keyed off this message to the Japanese base at Rabaul:

LARGE FORCE OF SHIPS, UNKNOWN NUMBER OR TYPES, ENTERING THE SOUND. WHAT CAN THEY BE?

The answer he sent shortly afterwards followed by silence, due to intense shelling:

ENEMY FORCES OVERWHELMING. WE WILL DEFEND OUR POSTS TO THE DEATH, PRAYING FOR ETERNAL VICTORY.

6. The best equipment and supplies that the Marines had  in the early days following their landings on Guadalcanal were provided by the Japanese themselves. The landings so surprised the Japanese they did not have time to destroy their equipment at the airstrip which was soon named Henderson Field. Among the supplies  left behind were construction equipment, lots of food, and even an ice making machine. The latter must have been very welcome in that tropical environment.

7. The U.S. Navy suffered its worst naval defeat of WWII outside of the Pearl Harbor attack (which can be considered peacetime) at Guadalcanal. On the night of August 8-9 a Japanese force of seven cruisers and one destroyers sank one Australian and three American cruisers near Savo Island off of Guadalcanal. Ironically the Japanese commander, Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa was later strongly criticized for not destroying the unprotected American invasion transports following his naval victory. Had he done so, it would have removed the tenuous  American foothold on Guadalcanal.

8. A New Zealand longshoreman’s union almost caused the cancellation of the Guadalcanal campaign. Even though New Zealand was facing a dire threat from the expanding Japanese Empire, the unionized dockworkers of Wellington went on strike rather than load American naval vessels with supplies during poor weather for the Guadalcanal invasion. The union refused to budge despite the pleas from the navy so finally the dock workers were ordered off the docks and their places taken by Marines. Unfortunately the loading situation was a mess. The food supplies were packed in thin cardboard and the rains made a soggy mess of much of it. The dock was covered with soggy cornflakes and mushed up chocolate bars. Meanwhile the Marines covered much of Wellington’s walls with profane graffiti describing what they thought of the Wellington dock workers.

9. The marines on Guadalcanal became quite skilled in counterfeiting red “meatball” Japanese flags which they traded to sailors unloading supplies on the beach for candy bars and other products.

10. The number of warships lost by each side during the Guadalcanal campaign was precisely equal: 26 with almost exactly the same amount of tonnage. The big difference was that the Japanese could not replace such losses due to their decreasing industrial output while the Americans were able to vastly increase their supplies and equipment over the course of the rest of the war.

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