The first pilots operated under a score of handicaps which would not be substantially eased until hundreds of pilots had struggled through the same handicaps for nearly half a year. Henderson Field was a bowl of black dust which fouled airplane engines or it was a quagmire of black mud which made the take-off resemble nothing more than a fly trying to rise from a runway of molasses. (Hardly a day passed but a pilot or two failed to get off the muddy strip and crashed at the end of the runway.) The heavier SBD's operational difficulties had it the worst: for a couple of weeks there were no bomb hoists, and 500-pound bombs had to be lugged over and loaded by hand. Besides, the first SBD's were equipped, not with pneumatic tires on the tail wheels but with hard rubber intended for carrier landings. These chewed up the runway like a plowshare. Down in Noumea AirSopac made some wooden wheels; these, too, were unsuccessful.
The simple act of refueling a handful of planes often required several hours. Whatever gasoline was available was in 55-gallon drums. For a few days gassing had to be done out of the drums themselves, with hand pumps through chamois or from drums that were strung up in the rafters of the inherited Japanese hangars. Later, when there were gas trucks, the fuel had to be pumped from drums to trucks.
Radio communications were a nightmare. When the planes took off they could count on receiving the makeshift Guadalcanal radio only 20 miles out; fortunately, the plane radios were slightly better and Guadalcanal could usually pick up their scouting reports 100 miles from the base. The assigned frequency (6970) was all right for overwater carrier work; for working around a land mass it was awful.
Guadalcanal's first pilots (who had done very little high flying before) learned early that they had to wipe their six .50-caliber guns clean of oil before they took off; otherwise, the guns froze before they struggled up to the necessary 25,000 or 30,000 feet. They learned above all not to try to dogfight the rnaneuverable Zero. Their primary targets were the bombers, which usually came over 26 at a time in a V-of-V's formation. Usually it was possible to dive on the bombers at least once and flame a few of them before the Zeros jumped the Grummans. The marines evolved their tactics which remained basic throughout the war: a direct overhead or high-side pass on the bombers (to avoid their tail stingers); one quick burst at an attacking Zero (they flamed easily) then dive for home. It didn't always work out that way, of course. Sometimes a pilot got tangled in a dogfight with the faster, better climbing Zero. In that case he had best pray that somebody would shoot the Zero off his tail, because that is where the Zero usually would be found. The two-plane mutually protecting flight section was evolved very quickly. As one pilot put it: "The Zero could outmaneuver, outclimb, outspeed us. One Zero against one Grumman is not an even fight, but with mutual support two Grummans are worth four or five Zeros."
Despite their many disadvantages, the Guadalcanal fighter pilots found they had a sturdy plane with great fire power ("a Zero can't take two seconds' fire from a Grumman," said Major Joe Renner, "and a Grumman can sometimes take as high as fifteen minutes' fire from a Zero.") Under Secretary of the Navy Forrestal declared after a visit that "Grumman saved Guadalcanal," which may have been on the side of poetic license, since many things saved Guadalcanal, including half a dozen miracles, but it was true that the Marine pilots, skeptical since Midway, learned to place great confidence in their planes.
Living conditions were appalling. Pilots had to fight and fly all day on a diet of dehydrated potatoes, Spam or cold hash-and sometimes Japanese rice. The cigarettes they smoked - when there was anything to smoke - were frequently Japanese brands, too. Sleeping in a mud-floored tent was constantly interrupted by Japanese cruiser planes ("Louie the Louse" or Washing Machine Charlie) which flew around murdering sleep and dropping occasional bombs, or by destroyers or submarines which stood offshore and lobbed shells at Henderson Field. When a man could get away for a bath in the Lunga River, the only time he could take his clothes off, he frequently found there wasn't any soap. If he didn't catch malaria from the Anopheles mosquitoes which swarmed into his foxhole, he was almost certain to get dysentery that tormented his bowels, and many acquired both diseases.
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