The History

The first months of America's involvement in World War II saw the Japanese run wild with success. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the fall of Wake Island and the Philippines in December 1941, the first two major battles of the Pacific were more successful for the U.S.. The Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 and the Battle of Midway in June 1942 both thwarted Japanese invasion attempts, though at the cost of a much-needed U.S. aircraft carrier each time (the U.S.S. Lexington, and U.S.S. Yorktown, respectively). After the dramatic victory at Midway the United States prepared to go on the offensive for the first time in the Pacific.

Reconnaissance revealed that the Japanese were constructing an airfield on the island of Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands chain. The strategic importance of this airfield was immediately apparent, and the U.S. began planning for the invasion of Guadalcanal. The plan was known as "Operation Watchtower" (but to all who were stationed on Guadalcanal during those first few months it was known as "Operation Shoestring"). In any case, the plan called for the 1st Marine Division to take the island, thus denying the airfield to the enemy. Time was short, as the Japanese would soon complete the airfield.

The invasion took place on August 7th, 1942 under the protective watch of Admiral Fletcher's carrier task force. The Japanese forces were strong in this part of the Pacific, however, and Fletcher withdrew his forces to safer waters. To make matters worse, the Marines onshore were left with few supplies as their unprotected fully loaded supply transports were forced to prematurely leave the area before they could be sunk.

Despite this, within two weeks the Americans had secured a piece of the island that included the valuable airstrip. This airfield was soon repaired and converted to American use, and was given the name of "Henderson Field" (named after Major Lofton Henderson, a Marine pilot killed at Midway). The Marines dug in and awaited reinforcements and the inevitable Japanese counter-attacks.

On August 20th twelve SBD dive bombers of VMSB-232 and nineteen F4F fighters of VMF-223 flew off of the escort carrier Long Island and arrived at Henderson Field. They were warmly greeted by the ground Marines, who had felt abandoned ever since the American naval forces had left the area.

With few supplies and very little help from the outside world, the Marines really were "on their own".  Everything depended on the aviators and aircraft stationed at Henderson Field to protect the Marines on the ground, who had their hands full fighting off the frequent Japanese attacks. The pilots and planes at Henderson Field soon became known as the "Cactus Air Force", since Cactus was the Allied code name for the island of Guadalcanal.

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A few days after the arrival of the first U.S. aircraft, the Japanese made their first attempt to reinforce their own troops on Guadalcanal. This effort was supported by a Japanese fleet that included three aircraft carriers. American Admiral Fletcher sent in his two available carriers (the Enterprise and the Saratoga) to oppose the Japanese, and the resulting Battle of the Eastern Solomons became the third carrier clash of the war. The Japanese lost the light carrier Ryujo and a number of skilled naval pilots, while the U.S. suffered serious damage to the Enterprise. Cactus pilots also got their licks in, downing seven planes from the Ryujo, at a cost of three Wildcats and two pilots.

After the Battle of the Eastern Solomons things did not get easier for the Americans.  In the three weeks beginning August 21st, the Japanese land- and carrier-based squadrons attacked the U.S. beachhead ten times , averaging more than 30 aircraft per raid. With repeated opportunities, Major John L. Smith (commander of VMF-223) and his engineering officer Capt. Marion Carl quickly became the first triple aces of the U.S. armed forces in World War II.  Even though VMF-223 was reinforced by Major Robert E. Galer's VMF-224 on August 30th, the F4F Wildcats were nearly always outnumbered, even with the addition of the USAAF's 67th Fighter Squadron's P-39 Airacobras.

The men on Cactus soon settled into what was to become a familiar routine. It seemed like the Japanese aerial attacks on Henderson Field were an almost daily occurrence. Bombing raids by Japanese "Betty" bombers, escorted by Zero fighters, would be sent down the Slot from their base at Rabaul.  It would take four hours for these raids to reach Guadalcanal.  Along the way, Allied "coastwatchers" would spot the Japanese and report on their progress to Cactus Headquarters. This early-warning system allowed the U.S. to get airborne in time to get up to altitude to meet the raids (most of the time). The U.S. fighter pilots were almost always outnumbered, yet they tenaciously attacked their foes without hesitation.  The Japanese raids were usually sent home with losses, sometimes heavy.  While American victory claims were sometimes over-enthusiastic, it was probably more than made up for by the fact that seriously damaged Japanese aircraft would rarely be able to survive the four hour flight back home.  

The Americans suffered their losses, too.   Aircraft were shot down by Japanese ships, ground-fire, and Zeros. Shot-up American aircraft were frequently ditched in the ocean or brought back to base, only to serve as junkpiles to have their parts scavenged. At least the Americans stood a better chance of   being rescued if they should have to ditch or parachute. 

The men suffered under the conditions of the campaign as well as combat.  Many of the pilots had malaria, but they continued to fly despite their illness.  Combat fatigue was a danger due to  the sustained pace of operations, the occasional shelling of the field by Japanese naval ships, and the ever-present likelihood of death.  There were times when aircraft, aviation gas, and other crucial items were in short supply (or were non-existent).  Yet the men on Cactus made do with what they had, and fought on.  (Click HERE for further details about conditions of life and operations in the Guadalcanal environment.)

Despite near constant combat, improvements were steadily made at 'Cactus'.  One of the most important was begun in late August when a grassy area east of Henderson Field was prepared for flight operations. Officially called the "Fighter Strip" (and later "Fighter One"), it was commonly called the "Cow Pasture" due to its rural nature. Aside from relieving some of the congestion at Henderson, it allowed the Wildcat squadrons to operate more independently.

During this time 'Cactus' became the unexpected host of another fighter squadron: (U.S. Navy) VF-5  with 24 Wildcats arrived from the carrier Saratoga. The Saratoga had been torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, and it sent most of its air group to Guadalcanal while it was out for repairs.  The arrival of this big, confident squadron with twice as many planes as the two Marine outfits put together gave a real boost to the Cactus Air Force's sagging morale. While lacking the experience of the battle-hardened Marines, the Navy pilots of VF-5 soon learned the kind of fighting required, and they began their tour with six credited victories in their first engagement. This meat-grinder of a campaign exacted its price, however; out of the 24 F4Fs that arrived on September 11th, only 5 remained after five weeks of combat.

The Marine fighter pilots were scoring heavily during this time (it was a target-rich environment). Both the leader of VMF-224 (Major Robert Galer) and the leader of VMF-212 (Lt. Col. Joe Bauer, whose squadron had not arrived on Guadalcanal yet) had run their scores into double-figures.

Another group of reinforcements arrived on October 9th, when Major 'Duke' Davis' VMF-121 came to Cactus with 24 much-needed Wildcats.   Davis' executive officer was Capt. Joseph Foss, who had connived his way out of a photo squadron into fighters. Foss immediately began setting records.  He claimed his first victory just four days after landing on Guadalcanal, and became an ace five days after that! On October 25th he became the Marine's first ace-in-a-day, when he got five Zeros in two missions.

However, by early October VMF-223 and VMF-224 were largely a spent force. The unrelenting pace of operations resulted in their removal from the theater, despite there being few replacements to take their place. John Smith left with 19 victories to his credit, with Marion Carl close behind with 16 1/2 victories.

On October 25th the fourth carrier battle of the war occurred. Called the Battle of Santa Cruz (because of its proximity to the Santa Cruz Islands, 300 miles to the east of the Solomons), it was outside of the reach of the Guadalcanal airmen, but it was important to them nonetheless. The Japanese carrier task force was covering a major reinforcement attempt of Guadalcanal, and if it got through, the Marines on the island would be in deep trouble. Outnumbered four carriers to two, the Americans lost the carrier Hornet and had to send the damaged Enterprise away for repairs, and the victory went to the Japanese. However, the Japanese lost many valuable aircrew and had two carriers damaged, and they withdrew from the area.   Cactus had once again received a reprieve.

In mid-November Japanese Admiral Yamamoto made his final bid to take the island of Guadalcanal.  He sent a force of   battleships, cruisers, and destroyers to level the airfield with gunfire. American warships and aircraft (including planes detached from the crippled Enterprise) met his forces in what was later called the Naval Battle Of Guadalcanal. At the end of three days of fighting, the Imperial Navy had had 13 ships sunk and 9 others damaged. Japanese Admiral Yamamoto decided that the cost was not worth it, and favored abandoning the island to the Americans. However, it was not until the end of the year that the continual losses of men, aircraft, and ships persuaded General Tojo (the head of the Japanese military) to concede the island. During the first week of February 1943 the last 11,000 Japanese survivors were taken off what they had come to call the "Island of Death".

The losses suffered by the Japanese during the Guadalcanal campaign were heavy. The loss of highly-trained aircrew during the continual air battles was to haunt them later in the war, when their remaining flyers were too-often rookies, who were undertrained and no match for the vast groups of well-trained American pilots who used their new aircraft like the F6F Hellcat, F4U Corsair, and P-38 Lightning to destroy the remainder of their opposition.

That the Americans could be so successful in combat against the cream of the Imperial air forces during the first year of the war was an impressive feat. The F4F Wildcat was considered by many to be inferior to its opponent, the Japanese Zero. The Americans had to develop tactics to counter the Zero's advantages, and the determination and training of the U.S. aviators helped make up the difference.

The price was not cheap, however. The U.S. Navy had a 21% loss rate in its fighter  pilots during the first year of the war. This included 31 pilots killed during the Guadalcanal campaign, with another two captured. This equated to one out of three pilots engaged being killed. The Marine pilots lost 25 fighter pilots, sustaining a 20% loss rate during the campaign.

Even with Guadalcanal firmly in American hands, the aviators stationed there continued to see combat.  The island would be used as a jumping-off stage for further offensive actions, including one of the most famous fighter missions of the war. On April 18, 1943 USAAF P-38 Lightnings took off from Henderson Field and made a long-range interception of Admiral Yamamoto's flight, shooting him down over the island of Bouganville.

And so the battle for Guadalcanal passed into history. The hard-fought battles of the American ground forces and the aerial combats of the "Cactus Air Force" began their slow slide into obscurity, with 19 more months of combat still to go in the war.  But for those who were there, and for those who knew them, they will never be forgotten.  If this site helps preserve that memory in some small way, then it will have served its purpose.


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