If you’re thinking, “Guadalcanal? Do I know that name?” you might not be alone. A story: not long after I had first moved to Washington, D.C., I was driving around the city with a friend. Idling at a stoplight, I was startled to look up and find that we were on Bataan Street, NW. A few minutes later, I spotted Corregidor Street, NW. When I remarked on this to my friend, musing on the fact that these streets must have been renamed in the immediate post-World War II era, she asked offhandedly, “Where’s Corregidor?” I was shocked at her lack of recognition of these places, the names of which carry such resonance for me.
While there is no Guadalcanal Street in Washington, if there was, it would likely elicit the same reaction (or lack thereof). Guadalcanal—it doesn’t have the immediate name recognition of D-Day, or the Battle of the Bulge. There is no iconic image, such as the flag-raising on Iwo Jima, cemented in American memory. Its name may sound like a misnomer—is there a canal there?—and funny to American ears; as veteran Theodore Cummings related, “We couldn’t even pronounce Guadalcanal…”
And yet, for those who know what happened there in late 1942 and early 1943—especially those who lived through it—the name comes off like a punch to the gut.
Arguably the most breathtaking aspect of the campaign was the sheer scope of it, both the length of its duration and the number of troops involved. Fought between August 7, 1942 and February 9, 1943, the Battle of Guadalcanal, also known as the Guadalcanal Campaign, was an epic, six-month-long effort to capture and hold the island of Guadalcanal—specifically, a key air field there called Henderson Field—and surrounding islands in the southern Solomon Islands. Only after seven major naval battles, land battles that sometimes involved hand-to-hand combat, and near-daily aerial battles, would the Japanese finally evacuate their remaining troops from the island and cede it to the Allies.
Some of those who took part in the battle, such as Jesus Soto and Harold Ward, were Pearl Harbor survivors. Despite this baptism by fire, many were largely unfamiliar with combat conditions, as Guadalcanal marked the first offensive operation against the Japanese in the Pacific. Sergeant George Arthur Stewart, Jr., who served with the 1st Marine Division, explained in his oral history, “We were green as grass, most of us.” Though they might go on to become hardened combat veterans, the realities of war on Guadalcanal came as a shock to the system; his first night of the invasion, Theodore Cummings explains, “We were enveloped with fear.”
Given the mortality rate, they had a right to be scared. Nearly 6,000 Americans were killed or wounded during the campaign, with thousands more dying from disease. Most of the veterans profiled in Guadalcanal: 75 Years Later comment on the numerous close calls that they faced, and the loss of friends and comrades during the bloody campaign. In William Parks’ platoon of 44 men, part of the 1st Marine Division, less than a dozen survived. Marine William E. Lentsch, stationed aboard the USS Vincennes, was badly injured when the ship was torpedoed and sunk. Observing the bay off Guadalcanal from the air after a particularly fierce naval battle, pilot Samuel Folsom remarked, “The bay was unbelievable—ships in all directions in various states of distress, bows blown off and sinking and all.” The bay would later be nicknamed “Ironbottom Sound,” in reference to the vast number of ships sunk during naval battles there.
In addition to the enemy, the tropical island also posed extreme threats to the safety and health of those there. Malaria and dysentery ran rampant, killing thousands. Samuel Folsom was the only member of his unit to avoid malaria; possibly as a result of dosing confusion, he took two pills a day instead of one. On the ground, many were forced to bushwhack through and fight in dense, swampy jungle terrain that easily concealed the enemy. Constant rain meant constant mud; foxholes would scarcely have been dug before they were flooded. Even for sailors stationed aboard ship, such as Garnett Moneymaker, the equatorial sun felt like “heat waves directly from hell.”
Particularly for units that arrived on Guadalcanal early on, such as the 1st Marine Division, chronic supply shortages meant months of foraging for food, existing on coconuts, taro roots, lizard meat, and captured Japanese rice. Even after the supply lines were restored, rations were particularly unpalatable: Joseph Lane, Jr., a cook with the 4th Marine Division, related the daily menu as “sheep tongue, rice, spam, powdered eggs, powdered milk, and orange marmalade.” No wonder those evacuated to Australia and New Zealand after months of battle, such as William Parks, stuffed themselves full of fresh produce and milk as soon as they arrived.
Grueling seems to be the most appropriate word to summarize their experiences. Whatever their role or perspective—from a muddy foxhole to a ship’s deck or the cockpit of a plane—these veterans spent months dodging bullets, bombs, and grenade fire, over and over and over, under the blistering sun and drenching rain, slapping mosquitoes all the while. Many of those who survived would go on to weather two or three more years of similar conditions in the Pacific Theater.
After experiencing Guadalcanal: 75 Years Later, we hope that next time you see the island on a map or in a history book (or on a street sign), perhaps you’ll think of the personal experiences of those who took part in the fight for Guadalcanal, so many of whom never made it home.