The information below is an amalgamation of information gleaned from History.com, a second History.com page, Historynet.com, Navsource.com, and many conversations with my dad, Willie E. Jolly who was at the Battle of Guadalcanal.
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on Dec. 2, 1941, US forces in the Pacific Theater were crippled, allowing the Japanese to spread their control over a number of islands in the western Pacific. They wanted to use these islands for air strips and supply chains for their expanding forces.
In early 1942, the Japanese quickly drove the British out of British Malays, the Dutch were driven out of the East Indies and then they drove the Americans out of the Philippines.
Then they set their sights on the Solomon Islands, located about 3,500 miles south of Japan. The Solomon Islands are located about 1,000 miles off the northeast coast of Australia and about 3,500 miles southwest of the Hawaiian Islands. Not only would the Japanese occupation of the Solomon Islands be a threat to nearby Papua New Guinea, they also provide a stepping stone to other South Pacific island groups including Vanuatu and New Caledonia on to Fiji and then to American Samoa.
The Solomon Islands consist of 992 islands and atolls. Of those only 347 are inhabited. The largest island is Guadalcanal where the capital of Honiara is located.
The Japanese advanced on Guadalcanal on June 8, 1942 and quickly set about building their air strip for their planes. An American reconnaissance plane flew over the island and spotted the construction of the landing field. When news of this reach fleet command, they realized this was an immediate threat to our allies, the Australians, so a plan to counter the Japanese efforts.
On August 7, the first major offensive against the Japanese in World War 2 was launched with the arrival of US Marines on Guadalcanal. The Japanese quickly responded with land, air and sea forces. For the next four months, the ocean around Guadalcanal witnessed 6 major naval battles. Both sides suffered heavy losses.
My dad, who was on board the USS Fomalhaut (AK-22) said that the sky was black with the smoke of burning ships. During most of the Battle of Guadalcanal, the Fomalhaut was a large cargo ship, supplying food and other necessary items for our Naval and Marine forces.
However, on Feb. 1, 1943, the Fomalhaut was re-classified as an Attack Cargo Ship (AKA-5), meaning that it was now mostly an ammunition ship. They converted 2 of the huge refrigerator holds into ammo bays. With that much ammunition on board, the Fomalhaut was forced to keep a safe distance from the rest of the fleet. Supplies and munitions were ferried over to other ships.
Everyone on board knew that one torpedo or bomb would most likely blow the ship to pieces with such a force that it could destroy any ship that got too close. Even keeping their distance, some of the hits taken by other ships shook their ship. At Guadalcanal, the Fomalhaut had a several torpedoes fired at them. One hit the ship but didn’t explode and the others narrowly missed the ship. They had some guns on board the ship but nothing like most of the other ships had.
On more than one occasion, dad witnessed the bodies of American and Japanese troops floating in the water. Some were severely burned, some were bloating and some were being eating by sharks. The last I knew, those sights stayed with him till his death in 2014.
At the end of World War 2, the Fomalhaut was mothballed for a time. During the process, the ship’s captain presented my dad with one of the ship’s flags. This was highly unusual for a ship’s captain to present an enlisted man with a flag, but dad had developed a special bond with the captain as according to the captain, dad could operate the captain’s skip better than most on board. That flag, which flew at either Guadalcanal or the battle of Saipan, is now proudly displayed in a case in my living room and is one of my prized possessions.
Towards the end of December 1942, US forces were steadily gaining ground. On the 31st, Japanese Emperor Hirohito issued an order allowing the Japanese forces to withdraw from Guadalcanal. However, the fighting didn’t stop for several weeks. Finally, on this day, Feb. 8, 1943, US forces secured Guadalcanal, marking the first major victory over superior Japanese forces. When news of the victory spread through US forces in the Pacific, it gave them the hope that many had lost at Pearl Harbour.
The victory at Guadalcanal was paid for with the lives 1,600 Americans, over 4,000 wounded. Sadly, several thousand more died from various diseases they contracted during the bloody battle. The US also lost 29 Navy ships, including 15 destroyers, 2 light cruisers, 6 heavy cruisers and 1 heavy aircraft carrier.
The Japanese lost approximately 24,000 troops in the battles. Their navy lost 6 submarines, 11 destroyers, 1 light carrier, 3 heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser, and 2 battleships.
One strategically located small island in the South Pacific turned the tide of World War 2 and helped lead to the victory over the Japanese on this day 73 years ago today.