Imperial Japan Should Have Given Up Guadalcanal When It Had A Chance

Imperial Japan Should Have Given Up Guadalcanal When It Had A Chance

The U.S. Marines were coming.

Key point: Emperor Hirohito was not ready to surrender.


The first Japanese general officer to suggest abandoning Guadalcanal to the Americans was probably Maj. Gen. Kenryo Sato, the War Ministry’s chief of its Military Affairs Bureau. More important, General Sato was also an adviser to General Hideki Tojo, Japan’s prime minister. At Army headquarters in Tokyo, Sato advised Tojo not to send any more men and supplies to the island and that he should “give up the idea of retaking Guadalcanal.”

“Do you mean withdrawal?” Tojo wanted to know.

“We have no choice,” Sato replied. “Even now it may be too late. If we go on like this, we have no chance of winning the war.”

Tojo listened to what Sato had to say and recognized the truth of his argument. Japan had already overextended itself in men and equipment for the Guadalcanal campaign. But many senior officers, as well as Emperor Hirohito himself, were not yet ready to give up. During a special meeting of his cabinet on December 5, 1942, Tojo agreed to send 95,000 tons of supplies to the starving troops on Guadalcanal. This was in addition to 290,000 tons that had already been agreed upon. The subject of abandoning Guadalcanal had been raised, however. It would come up again in the very near future.

The exchange between General Sato and Tojo had also taken place in early December 1942, when the Japanese War Ministry and the Army General Staff were already beginning to talk about withdrawing from Guadalcanal. It was a subject that would have been unthinkable even a month earlier, but after nearly four months of brutal fighting, the realities of the costly and frustrating campaign were beginning to sink in.

The Three Attempts of the Tokyo Express

Japanese forces had been trying to retake Guadalcanal and its airfield, named Henderson Field by the Americans, since August 7, 1942, when U.S. Marines first landed on the island. During the next several months, Japanese and American forces fought six major naval battles in the waters around Guadalcanal and engaged in almost continual ground fighting. Both sides endured serious losses in men, ships, aircraft, and resources. The major difference was that the Americans could afford the losses; the Japanese could not.

The Japanese Army General Staff had never intended to give up even though all its efforts had ended in failure and insisted that the troops on Guadalcanal be resupplied. The Navy came up with an improvised method of delivering food, ammunition, and medical supplies, a system that would employ the use of metal drums. These would be partially filled with whatever they were carrying, leaving enough air inside to keep the drum afloat. They were then sealed and strung together necklace fashion and loaded aboard a destroyer. Destroyers had been used to deliver troops and supplies to Guadalcanal for months. They had made their runs down the channel separating islands of the Solomons archipelago, which had come to be known as the Slot, with such regularity that they had been nicknamed the Tokyo Express. The only new twist was the use of floating drums.

Several destroyers would be dispatched to Guadalcanal to unload their cargoes. The strings of drums were to be unloaded over the side and towed as close to shore as practical. When the destroyer came as close to the beach as possible, the drums were released. While the destroyer headed back to sea, swimmers from shore would pick up one end of the string and pull the drums toward the beach.

The plan looked good enough on paper. Rear Admiral Tamotsu Tanaka was given the job of seeing if it would work. On the night of November 29, Admiral Tanaka’s flagship, the destroyer Naganami, led a column of seven other destroyers toward Guadalcanal. Six of the destroyers were loaded with the supply drums. At about 11 pm, the column steamed past Savo Island and turned southeast toward Tassafaronga Point. The six supply destroyers were preparing to cast off their drums when American warships— actually five cruisers and six destroyers—were sighted. Tanaka ordered the supply destroyers to stop unloading, rejoin the column, and prepare for battle.

In the engagement that followed, sometimes referred to as the Battle of Tassafaronga, the Americans had the advantage of radar. But Admiral Tanaka had the Long Lance torpedo, which turned out to be even more of an advantage. Radar-directed gunfire from the American cruisers smothered the destroyer Takanami with a wall of water splashes and soon turned the destroyer into a flaming wreck. The gun flashes provided a very nice aiming point for Tanaka’s torpedomen, who proceeded to launch their Long Lances at the bursts of light.

Aboard the cruiser USS Minneapolis, the men on deck cheered as they watched Takanami absorb close to a dozen hits and burst into flame, but their cheering stopped abruptly when two torpedoes hit their own ship. In short order, the cruisers New OrleansPensacola, and Northampton were also jarred by torpedo hits. Northampton actually took two torpedoes and sank stern first. After launching his torpedoes, Admiral Tanaka reversed course and headed back to base in the Shortland Islands.

Tanaka had certainly gotten the better of the larger American force. In about half an hour and without benefit of radar, his destroyers had sunk one cruiser and badly damaged three others at the cost of just one of his destroyers. As one historian put it, “An inferior, cargo-entangled and partially surprised destroyer squadron had demolished a superior cruiser-destroyer group.” In spite of this success, Tanaka had not done what he had set out to do—deliver supplies to the troops on Guadalcanal. Not a single drum of much-needed food or medicine reached the starving Japanese soldiers.

Admiral Tanaka tried again a few nights later and succeeded in unloading about 1,500 drums at Tassafaronga Point. Only about 300 of the drums were actually hauled onto the beach, however. The others floated out to sea. The third attempt was a total failure. Air strikes and aggressive attacks by U.S. PT boats forced the Japanese destroyers to turn back without delivering any supplies.

Starvation Island

By mid-December, the Japanese Navy was ready to cut its losses and cede Guadalcanal to the Americans. Senior naval officers were not prepared to lose any more ships or men in what had become a totally futile campaign. Also, the drum method of supplying the garrison had turned out to be another waste of time and another drain on their overtaxed resources.

The Army General Staff did not agree. The generals still hoped that a new offensive would dislodge the Americans from the island, although some of the more realistic leaders were trying to concoct a way of withdrawing without making it seem like a defeat.

A communiqué from Lt. Gen. Harukichi Hyakutake, the commander of the Japanese Seventeenth Army on Guadalcanal, seemed to bring the matter to a head. On December 23, Hyakutake informed Tokyo of the desperation on Guadalcanal. “No food available and we can no longer send out scouts. We can do nothing to withstand the enemy’s offensive. Seventeenth Army now requests permission to break into the enemy’s positions and die an honorable death rather than die of hunger in our own dugouts.”

The General Staff finally faced the reality of what the men on Guadalcanal were suffering on a daily basis. Hyakutake’s men had drawn up their own method of determining how long a man might survive on Starvation Island:

“He who can rise to his feet—30 days left to live

He who can sit up—20 days left to live

He who must urinate while lying down—3 days left to live

He who cannot speak—2 days left to live

He who cannot blink his eyes—dead at dawn.”


The Decision to Withdraw

Two days after Hyakutake’s sobering message arrived, senior Army and Navy officers held an emergency meeting at the Imperial Palace to work out the details of the withdrawal from Guadalcanal. The Navy blamed the Army for not making better use of the men and equipment they had been given. The Army blamed the Navy for not supplying enough food and ammunition for the troops.

“You landed the Army without arms and food and then cut off the supply,” one officer complained. “It’s like sending someone on a roof and taking away the ladder.”

The arguing went on for four days, until a staff officer named Colonel Joichiro Sanada arrived from Rabaul with a recommendation regarding Guadalcanal. The recommendation was that all troops should be taken off the island as soon as possible, and it had been endorsed by every Army and Navy officer in the Solomons who had been consulted. To examine the situation even further, war games were held to explore what might happen if an attempt to strengthen the Guadalcanal garrison was carried out. War gaming reached the same conclusion—in the course of the games, American air and naval forces destroyed any convoys attempting to resupply or reinforce Guadalcanal.