Contents - Hirohito's War
15 Guadalcanal: Battles of Tulagi, Savo Island, Tenaru and East Solomons
[May 1942–August 1942]
[Maps: 15.1, 15.2, 15.3, 15.4, 15.5, 15.6, 15.7]
Strategies, Plans and Dissensions (p 436) Guadalcanal’s Topogrpahy and Japanese Overreach (p 441) The US Invasion of Tulagi and Guadalcanal (p 442) The End of Zero Supremacy (p 445) Saburo Sakai’s Dogfight (p 448) The Start of the Bomber War in the Solomons (p 450) Battles of the ‘Slot’ and Fletcher Does a Bunk (p 452) The Naval Battle of Savo Island (p 453) Henderson Field and the Seabees (p 460) The Battle of Tenaru (p 462) Machine Guns and Field Artillery (p 465)The Naval Battle of the East Solomons (p 467)
Strategies, Plans and Dissensions: [Map: 15.1] While Japan was pushing Australian forces back over the Owen Stanley Mountains in their advance on Port Moresby, the US Navy was initiating its own offensive in the southern Solomon Islands—the ultimate aim being to interdict Japan’s expansion into the Pacific east of Australia, which could have threatened supply routes to MacArthur’s Allied Forces in Australia. Furthermore Admiral Ernest King wanted to put pressure on Japan’s key South Pacific garrison at Rabaul.
Rabaul is a township on the easternmost tip of New Britain, an island 320 miles long and up to twenty-nine miles wide off the east coast of New Guinea. An unlikely place perhaps for a full-scale Japanese invasion faced by its garrison of just 1,400 Australian troops on 23 January 1942. Three days earlier, Japanese planes had appeared overhead. The Royal Australian Air Force’s eight multi-purpose Wirraway fighter-bombers, based on a 1934 design bought from North American Aviation, were no match for over a hundred Japanese planes from Vice-Admiral Nagumo’s four carriers, Akagi, Kaga, Zuikaku and Shokaku, fresh from their victory at Pearl Harbor. The Wirraways were quickly dispatched. As Gunner David Bloomfield recalled, “It was like hawks attacking sparrows.”1 On the ground, in spite of fierce initial resistance, the defenders were quickly overcome by Major-General Tomitaro Horii’s invasion forces and the Australian troops fled into the jungle from where, piecemeal, they proceeded to surrender over the following weeks. Those who stayed and fought were less fortunate. Natives recalled that “some retreating Australians were killed in a fight and their heads were cut with axes, bellies sliced open, and limbs removed with bayonets.”2
Rabaul, formerly the capital of Imperial Germany’s New Guinea colony, was built partly on the mangrove swamps from which it took its name. Tavurvur, a volcano, which had largely destroyed Rabaul in 1937, overlooks it. The town’s importance rested only on the scale and perfection of its almost totally enclosed natural harbor. Taken over from Germany by Australia as spoils of war after the Treaty of Versailles , it was awarded to Australia as part of a League of Nations ‘New Guinea Mandate’ and remained a quiet backwater of the Australian Empire until Japan’s Imperial HQ decided that its harbor would make it a perfect military and naval garrison for the outer perimeter of its Pacific Empire.