This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. The battle is one of seven naval engagements that—together with hard-ground fighting on the part of the U.S. Marines and Army—make up a six-month bloodletting known to history as Guadalcanal . It’s a struggle replete with insights into martial strategy and operations.
There are three big ideas that come out of studying the Solomon Islands campaign. First of all, the physical setting may impel strategic and operational deliberations. The Solomon Islands is a chute of an island chain. Guadalcanal constitutes its southeastern terminus, while the Japanese fortress at Rabaul lay just beyond its northwestern terminus in yesteryear. The Solomons commands little intrinsic value apart from its strategic geography. It invites the greats of literature to turn eloquent phrases disparaging it. James Michener, to name one, terms Guadalcanal “that godforsaken backwash of the world.”
Yet “location, location, location” makes as good a slogan in strategy as in real estate. War is a business of positions, as the little Emperor Napoleon liked to point out . Position augmented by military power translates into strategic advantage for a site’s holder.
And the Solomons abounded in geostrategic potential during World War II. Imperial Japanese Navy warplanes based on Guadalcanal could fan out, menacing shipping steaming along sea routes connecting North America with beleaguered Australia. They could help isolate a crucial American ally in the Pacific War. They could stop the U.S. armed forces from commencing their long march up the island chain toward the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul, the Philippine Islands—which had fallen during the onslaught that engulfed Pearl Harbor—and thence toward Japan itself. And Imperial Japanese Navy warbirds could help Japan stake its claim to even more South Pacific turf.
The U.S. high command, spurred by Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King, pronounced surrendering such strategically located ground unacceptable. Admiral King agitated constantly on behalf of offensive action in the Pacific theater—and he made the Solomons his project in mid-1942. The fight in and around the Solomons would last for twenty-six weeks, from the American amphibious landings in August 1942 until the Japanese pullout in February 1943. That’s a lot of resources, manpower and time to expend on something about which you care little.
Lesson one: it may be worthwhile to undertake a campaign to deny an adversary something rather than wrest it away for yourself. If so, you surrender some strategic autonomy. You go somewhere because an antagonist precedes you there. Contenders, in short, may not get to fight on ground of their choosing. Sometimes they fight where and when they wish. Other times they fight where and when they must. And once in awhile neither combatant especially cares to contest a particular battleground. They bestride the field to deny it to each other.
Such was the case with Guadalcanal. American and Japanese forces waged a “bloody and desperate campaign” for—as historian Samuel Eliot Morison puts it—real estate that “neither side really wanted, but which neither could afford to abandon to the enemy.” It’s doubtful the U.S. leadership would have felt constrained to go to Guadalcanal had the Imperial Japanese Navy not gone there first and commenced constructing an airstrip, which was dubbed Henderson Field once it was under U.S. Marine management.
For their part, it’s doubtful Japan’s military rulers would have elevated the Solomons above their principal objective in the South Pacific, Port Moresby in Palau, had the U.S. sea services not contested Guadalcanal and Henderson Field with such ferocity.
Second, setting and enforcing priorities proves dicey in theater-wide contests, let alone in contests spanning the globe. Scatter forces across the map in smaller and smaller packets, and you render each packet weaker and weaker—perhaps subjecting each one to defeat, and dooming the force to piecemeal defeat. U.S. commanders and their political masters had to juggle not just commitments within the Pacific Ocean, but between the Pacific and European theaters.
Top political leaders had agreed to defeat “ Germany first ” even before America entered the war. The Germany-first covenant wrong-footed partisans of naval action in the Pacific for quarrels over how to apportion resources for what amounted to two full-blown wars—both of which commanded compelling importance.
Protagonists of the European theater had official policy on their side. They argued, in contemporary parlance, that the Allies should hold in the Pacific until they could win in the Atlantic. Only then would they turn full force to the war against Imperial Japan. “Holding” for Europeanists meant parrying Japanese blows while doing little, if anything, offensive in reply. It connoted passive defense. Doing the minimum against Japan would allow Washington to conserve manpower, military hardware and resources of all sorts to thrash the Axis in Europe.
Sometimes the highest authority has to adjudicate such disputes, and so it was in 1942–43. As Morison observes, preparations for Operation Torch —the invasion of North Africa—represented the marquee show in the Atlantic theater that fall, even while battle raged in the Solomon Islands (D-Day in North Africa came that November). In October, nevertheless, President Franklin Roosevelt overruled his Europe-first military chiefs. He instructed them to reinforce on Guadalcanal while still pressing ahead with Torch.