The six-month Guadalcanal campaign began on 7 August 1942, when Allied (primarily U.S.) forces landed on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and the Florida Islands in the Solomon Islands, a pre-war colonial possession of Great Britain. The landings were meant to prevent the Japanese using the islands as bases from which to threaten the supply routes between the U.S. and Australia, and to secure them as starting points for a campaign to neutralize the major Imperial Japanese military base at Rabaul and support of the Allied New Guinea campaign. The Japanese had occupied Tulagi in May 1942 and began constructing an airfield on Guadalcanal in June 1942.
By nightfall on 8 August, the 11,000 Allied troops secured Tulagi, the nearby small islands, and a Japanese airfield under construction at Lunga Point on Guadalcanal (later renamed Henderson Field). Allied aircraft operating out of Henderson were called the "Cactus Air Force" (CAF) after the Allied code name for Guadalcanal. To protect the airfield, the U.S. Marines established a perimeter defense around Lunga Point. Additional reinforcements over the next two months increased the number of U.S. troops at Lunga Point to more than 20,000 men.
In response, the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters assigned the Imperial Japanese Army's 17th Army, a corps-sized command based at Rabaul and under the command of Lieutenant-General Harukichi Hyakutake, with the task of retaking Guadalcanal. Units of the 17th Army began to arrive on Guadalcanal on 19 August, to drive Allied forces from the island.
Because of the threat posed by CAF aircraft based at Henderson Field, the Japanese were unable to use large, slow transport ships to deliver troops and supplies to the island. Instead, they used warships based at Rabaul and the Shortland Islands. The Japanese warships—mainly light cruisers or destroyers from the Eighth Fleet under the command of Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa—were usually able to make the round trip down "The Slot" to Guadalcanal and back in a single night, thereby minimizing their exposure to air attack. Delivering the troops in this manner, however, prevented most of the soldiers' heavy equipment and supplies—such as heavy artillery, vehicles, and much food and ammunition—from being carried to Guadalcanal with them. These high-speed warship runs to Guadalcanal occurred throughout the campaign and came to be known as the "Tokyo Express" by Allied forces and "Rat Transportation" by the Japanese.
Aerial view of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, late August 1942. The view looks northwest with the Lunga River
and Lunga Point
at the top of the image.
The first Japanese attempt to recapture Henderson Field failed when a 917-man force was defeated on 21 August in the Battle of the Tenaru. The next attempt took place from 12 to 14 September, ending in the defeat of the 6,000 men under the command of Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi at the Battle of Edson's Ridge.
In October, the Japanese again tried to recapture Henderson Field by delivering 15,000 more men—mainly from the Army's 2nd Infantry Division — to Guadalcanal. In addition to delivering the troops and their equipment by Tokyo Express runs, the Japanese also successfully pushed through one large convoy of slower transport ships. Enabling the approach of the transport convoy was a nighttime bombardment of Henderson Field by two battleships on 14 October that heavily damaged the airfield's runways, destroyed half of the CAF's aircraft, and burned most of the available aviation fuel. In spite of the damage, Henderson personnel were able to restore the two runways to service and replacement aircraft and fuel were delivered, gradually restoring the CAF to its prebombardment level over the next few weeks.
The next Imperial attempt to retake the island with the newly arrived troops occurred from 20 to 26 October and was defeated with heavy losses in the Battle for Henderson Field. At the same time, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (the commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet) defeated U.S. naval forces in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, driving them away from the area. The Japanese carriers, however, were also forced to retreat because of losses to carrier aircraft and aircrewmen. Thereafter, Yamamoto's ships returned to their main bases at Truk in Micronesia, where he had his headquarters, and Rabaul while three carriers returned to Japan for repairs and refitting.
The Solomon Islands. "The Slot" (New Georgia Sound
) runs down the center of the islands, from Bougainville and the Shortlands (center) to Guadalcanal (lower right).
The Japanese Army planned another attack on Guadalcanal in November 1942, but further reinforcements were needed before the operation could proceed. The Army requested assistance from Yamamoto to deliver the needed reinforcements to the island and to support their planned offensive on the Allied forces guarding Henderson Field. To support the reinforcement effort, Yamamoto provided 11 large transport ships to carry 7,000 army troops from the 38th Infantry Division, their ammunition, food, and heavy equipment from Rabaul to Guadalcanal. He also sent a warship support force from Truk on 9 November which included the battleships Hiei and Kirishima. Equipped with special fragmentation shells, they were to bombard Henderson Field on the night of 12–13 November and destroy it and the aircraft stationed there in order to allow the slow, heavy transports to reach Guadalcanal and unload safely the next day. The warship force was commanded from Hiei by recently promoted Vice Admiral Hiroaki Abe.
Because of the constant threat by Japanese aircraft and warships, it was difficult for Allied forces to resupply their forces on Guadalcanal, which were often under attack from Imperial land and sea forces in the area. In early November 1942, Allied intelligence learned that the Japanese were preparing again to try to retake Henderson Field in another attempt. Therefore, the U.S. sent Task Force 67 (TF 67)—a large reinforcement and re-supply convoy, split into two groups and commanded by Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner—to Guadalcanal on 11 November. The supply ships were protected by two task groups—commanded by Rear Admirals Daniel J. Callaghan and Norman Scott—and aircraft from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. The transport ships were attacked several times on 11 and 12 November near Guadalcanal by Japanese aircraft based at Buin, Bougainville, in the Solomons, but most were unloaded without serious damage. Twelve Japanese aircraft were shot down by antiaircraft fire from the U.S. ships or by fighter aircraft flying from Henderson Field.