Two attempts by the Japanese to extend their defensive perimeter in the south and central Pacific were thwarted in the battles of Coral Sea (May 1942) and Midway (June 1942). These two strategic victories for the Allies provided an opportunity to take the initiative and launch an offensive against the Japanese somewhere in the Pacific. The Allies chose the Solomon Islands, specifically the southern Solomon islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida.
Allied strategists knew the Japanese Navy had occupied Tulagi in May 1942 and had constructed a seaplane base near there. Concern grew when in early July 1942 the Japanese Navy began constructing a large airfield near Lunga Point on nearby Guadalcanal. These bases, when complete, would protect Japan's major base at Rabaul, threaten Allied supply and communication lines, and establish a staging area for possible future offensives against Fiji, New Caledonia, and Samoa.
The Allied plan to attack the southern Solomons was conceived by U.S. Admiral Ernest King, Commander in Chief, United States Fleet. He proposed the offensive to deny the use of the southern Solomon islands by the Japanese as bases to threaten the supply routes between the U.S. and Australia, and to use them as starting points for a campaign with the goal of isolating the major Japanese base at Rabaul while also supporting the Allied New Guinea campaign, with the eventual goal of opening the way for the U.S. to retake the Philippines. U.S. Admiral Chester Nimitz, Allied commander in chief for Pacific forces, created the South Pacific theater, with U.S. Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley place in command on June 19, 1942, to direct the Allied offensive in the Solomons.
On August 7, 1942, the 1st Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal and captured the airfield marking the first offensive action taken by the Allies during in the Pacific Theater. Work began on the airfield immediately, mainly using captured Japanese equipment. On August 12, the airfield was renamed Henderson Airfield after Major Lofton Henderson, who died at the Battle of Midway and was the first Marine pilot killed during the battle. By August 18, the airfield was ready for operation.
When the first planes began arriving, Henderson could barely be described as an airfield. It was an irregularly shaped blob cut out of the island growth, half in and half out of a coconut grove, with a runway that was too short and few revetments to protect the aircraft from shrapnel. Upon landing on Henderson on September 4, the Commanding Officer of Marine Aircraft Group 25, Colonel W. Fiske Marshall described the field by stating it "looked like a Doré drawing of hell."
The runway was a northwest to southeast running, long gravel surface with an extra of matting that was frequently pockmarked with craters from Japanese artillery and naval gunfire. The strip was in such poor condition that it caused as many losses to aircraft as enemy action. In the heat, the field was a bowl of black dust which fouled the planes' radial engines and when it rained the field quickly turned muddy, miring planes in liquid muck. Major Marion Carl described it as "...the only place on earth where you could stand up to your knees in mud and still get dust in your eyes." The heavier SBD dive bombers had it the worst as their hard rubber tires, designed for carrier landings, ripped up the runways like a plowshare. Wooden wheels were experimented with but these did not fare any better. The runway was extended and widened several times during the campaign and was long and 150 wide by September 4.
The field was also very close to the thinly held lines of the 1st Marine Division so security was always a concern. There were no fuel trucks, hangars or repair facilities. Damaged aircraft were cannibalized for parts, and with no bomb hoists all aircraft munitions had to be hand loaded onto aircraft. Fuel, always critically low, had to be hand pumped out of 55 gallon drums. Even after the arrival of fuel trucks, gas still had to be hand pumped into the trucks.
On September 9, 1942 the U.S. 6th Naval Construction Battalion (SeaBees) opened a second runway about a mile to the east of Henderson Field's original runway. The new runway was called "Fighter 1," consisted of tamped-down sod, and was about long and wide. The Marine fighter squadrons began operating out of Fighter 1 while the rest of the aircraft operating out of Henderson Field continued to use the original runway, which thereafter was referred to as "Bomber Field No. 1.
Henderson's facilities began to improve around November 15, when it was officially declared a Marine Corps Air Base. Proper runways began to be installed using imported coral since the local coral was deemed too rotten and slushy.
Living conditions on Guadalcanal were some of the most difficult ever faced by Marine aviation. Pilots and mechanics lived in mud floor tents in a flooded coconut plantation called "Mosquito Grove." These living conditions led to most Marines contracting a tropical disease such as malaria, dysentery, dengue fever, beriberi or a fungal infection. At night, Japanese naval ships would bombard the airfield and by day Japanese artillery was a constant problem. The worst night for this was on October 13, 1942 when two Japanese battleships lobbed more than 700 rounds onto Henderson Airfield to provide cover for the Japanese navy's landing of reinforcements further west on the island. Also, everyday around noon, a flight of 20 to 40 Mitsubishi G4M "Betty bombers" would fly in at in a perfect "V formation" to bomb the airfield. They were always escorted by a flight of A6M Zeros and helped make life on the island even more miserable.
From the time of the first Marine squadron landed on August 20 until August 25 there was no commanding officer for Marine air, which instead reported directly to General Vandegrift. The Marines had not designated an air operations commander, the Army already had a squadron present and the field had already acquired the air of a naval base after having been promised to certain naval units. The first Marine commander was Colonel William W. Wallace but he only retained command temporarily. Cactus Air Force technically was under the command of Rear Admiral John S. McCain, who commanded all land based Allied aircraft in the South Pacific. Vandegrift and his operational commanders, however, exercised local command over the Allied aircraft operating out of Henderson Field.
On September 3, 1942, the fortunes of the beleaguered aviators changed with the arrival of Brigadier General Roy Geiger on-board the first SCAT plane to land on the island, an R4D Skytrain. As the "Commander, Aircraft, Guadalcanal" (ComAirCACTUS) and the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, Geiger set up his headquarters in a wooden Japanese pagoda that was up on a hill about from the airfield. Through his energy, example and sheer force of personality he raised the collective spirits of the squadrons survivors. He was described as ...curt, cold and some said ruthless....he was determined to squeeze the ultimate ounce of performance from men and machines. During his time in command, it was said that there was a, "...sense of desperation but never defeatism. Ultimately, the strain of command and harsh living conditions seriously fatigued, both mentally and physically, the then 57 year old Geiger. Geiger turned over the command on November 7 to his Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Louis E. Woods.
Brigadier General Woods, a 21 year aviation veteran, commanded the Cactus fliers during what was viewed as the lowest point of the campaign. He was, however, the right man for the job and quickly transformed from a, "kindly colonel to a blood thirsty brigadier general." Woods also turned the Cactus command over, this time the day after Christmas to Brigadier General Francis P. Mulcahy, then Commanding General of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.
The 5th's principal bomber unit was the 4th Air Group that flew Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" bombers. Twenty-four of the fighter aircraft in the 5th belonged to the Tainan Air Group under Captain Masahisa Saito. The Tainan contained of some of the top-scoring Japanese fighter aces and flew the A6M2 Zero fighter. With 55 pilots and but 24 aircraft, only the most experienced and able Tainan pilots were allowed to consistently participate in combat operations. The dive bombers (Aichi D3A1 "Vals") and the rest of the fighters (A6M3 Zeros) belonged to the 2nd Air Group. Most of the Vals were lost during the August 7 and 8 strikes on the Allied landing forces. On August 7 and 8, the Misawa Air Group of the 6th Air Attack Force (also called the 26th Air Flotilla) under Vice Admiral Seigo Yamagata from Tinian with 27 Bettys joined the 5th Air Attack Force at Rabaul. Admiral Tsukahara also moved from Tinian to Rabaul to directly supervise air operations against Allied forces around Guadalcanal.
The 4th and Misawa Air Groups took heavy losses during attacks on the Allied landing fleets off Guadalcanal on August 7 and 8, losing 24 bombers and 153 crewmen killed while the Tainan Air Group lost four Zeros and four pilots. Until reinforcements could arrive, the 5th was unable to continue attacking Marine positions on Guadalcanal, giving the U.S. time to prepare the captured airfield at Lunga Point uninterrupted by air attack. On August 20, 19 Bettys from the Kisarazu Air Group of the 6th Air Attack Force arrived at Kavieng. On September 2, ten Bettys from the Chitose Air Group of the 24th Air Flotilla joined them at Kavieng. Both groups participated in subsequent bombing raids on Guadalcanal. Thirteen Zeros and pilots from the 6th Air Group joined the 2nd Air Group at Rabaul on August 31 and began flying combat missions over Guadalcanal on September 11.
From October 1 until the end of the war, the 11th Air Fleet was commanded by Jinichi Kusaka, also located at Rabaul. Some notable pilots flying with the 11th Air Fleet included Hiroyoshi Nishizawa and Junichi Sasai.
A force of Japanese seaplanes called the R-Area Air Force was created on August 28 under Rear Admiral Takatsugu Jojima and operated from Rabaul as well as forward operating bases at Buin, the Shortland Islands, and Rekata Bay, Santa Isabel. The R-Area aircraft came from the four squadrons assigned to the Japanese seaplane tenders Kamikawa Maru, Chitose, Sanyo Maru, and Sanuki Maru. The R-Area Air Force mainly provided cover for Japanese convoys delivering troops and supplies to Guadalcanal, conducted reconnaissance missions around the Solomon Islands' area, and occasionally attacked Henderson Field. Also, air units from Japan's Combined Fleet's aircraft carriers, including Shōkaku, Junyō, Zuikaku, and Ryūjō, either operating from land bases with the 11th Air Fleet, or operating from the carriers themselves, engaged Cactus Air Force aircraft at various times during the Guadalcanal campaign.
August 21 brought the first Marine air combat but it resulted in mixed results. Japanese Zeros from the Tainan Air Group on a bomber escort mission (the bombers were fruitlessly searching for U.S. carriers south of Guadalcanal) passed over Henderson on their way back to Rabaul and six of them were met by four Cactus F4F Wildcats at . The engagement resulted in Major Smith claiming the first air to air victory for the CAF but two of the other pilots crashed while landing their damaged aircraft, with both of the Wildcats deemed a total loss except for salvage parts. The Japanese actually suffered no losses in the engagement. That same night an SBD Dauntless blew a tire on takeoff causing it to ground loop and crash for another aircraft loss.
On August 24, during the naval Battle of the Eastern Solomons between aircraft carrier forces of Japan and the U.S. east of the Solomon Islands, Japanese Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo sent the light carrier Ryūjō ahead of the main Japanese warship force to send an aircraft attack force against Henderson Field. The Ryūjō mission was most likely in response to a request from Nishizo Tsukahara, the naval commander at Rabaul, for help from the Japanese combined fleet in neutralizing Henderson Field. At 12:20 and northeast of Guadalcanal, Ryūjō launched six "Kate" bombers and 15 A6M Zero fighters to attack Henderson Field in conjunction with an attack by 24 "Betty" bombers and 14 Zero fighters from Rabaul. Unknown to the Ryūjō force, however, the Rabaul aircraft had encountered severe weather and returned to their base at 11:30. The Ryūjō aircraft arrived over Henderson Field at 14:23 and tangled with 14 Marine Wildcats and four Army P-400s while bombing the airfield. In the resulting engagement three Kates, three Zeros, and three Marine fighters were shot down and no damage was done to Henderson Field. Two Marine pilots were killed in the engagement as well as eight Japanese aircrew. All of the Japanese aircraft were eventually lost as, while they were attacking Henderson Field, Ryūjō was sunk by aircraft from the U.S. aircraft carrier Saratoga, forcing the Japanese aircraft to ditch in the ocean upon returning to the previous location of their carrier.
On August 31, the U.S. aircraft carrier Saratoga was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Forced to return to Pearl Harbor for repairs, most of Saratoga's aircraft and aircrew remained behind at Espiritu Santo. Admiral McCain planned to send some of these aircraft to reinforce the CAF at Guadalcanal.
By September 3, the day of Geiger's arrival, the CAF consisted of only 64 flyable aircraft. Due to the heavy losses that the CAF had sustained, Admiral McCain decided to immediately deploy Saratoga's fighter squadron to Guadalcanal. On September 4, 24 F4Fs of VF-5 flew from Espiritu Santo to Henderson Field.
From September 1 through September 8 the Japanese air units at Rabaul concentrated on providing air cover for Imperial Japanese Army forces operating along the Kokoda Track in New Guinea. On September 9, however, the Japanese resumed air operations against Henderson Field with the objective of destroying the CAF and isolating the U.S. forces on Guadalcanal.
Between August 21 and September 11, the Japanese raided Guadalcanal a total of ten times, losing 31 aircraft destroyed and seven more heavily damaged, primarily due to the defensive efforts of CAF aircraft. Most of the Japanese aircrews in the destroyed aircraft were killed. During this same time, the CAF Marine fighter squadrons lost 27 aircraft with nine pilots killed.
On September 12, 25 Bettys and 15 Zeros from Rabaul raided Henderson Field. Alerted by coastwatcher Donald Kennedy and by radar at Henderson Field, 20 Wildcat fighters from the Marine and Navy fighter squadrons took off to intercept the raid. In the resulting battle, two Bettys were downed by Marine anti-aircraft fire and four Bettys and one Zero were shot down by the Wildcats. One U.S. Navy pilot died attempting to land his damaged fighter back at Henderson following the action.
That night the field was shelled by the Japanese cruiser Sendai and three destroyers that were supporting the Japanese Army attacks on the Lunga perimeter in the first night of the Battle of Edson's Ridge. The shelling killed two pilots from VMSB-232 and one pilot from VMSB-231, but didn't damage any aircraft or the airfield.
On September 13, 18 wildcats arrived at Henderson from the carriers Hornet and Wasp. The morning of this same day, Tsukahara sent a reconnaissance mission consisting of two Type 2 aircraft escorted by nine Zeros to find out if the Japanese Army had succeeded in capturing Henderson Field during the night. The Zeros tangled with Cactus fighters from VMF-223, 224, and VF-5, losing four Zeros along with their pilots. Cactus lost four fighters, two in combat and two to accidents with two Cactus pilots killed. An afternoon raid the same day by 27 Bettys and 12 Zeros attacked Henderson at 14:00 and again resulted in intense clashes with the Cactus defenders. In the skirmish, two Bettys were lost and two were heavily damaged, with three crewmen killed and six captured. Two Wildcats, one each from VMF-212 and VF-5 were lost, with both pilots killed. That same day two R Area float Zeros from Rekata Bay swept over Lunga Point and shot down a scout SBD from VMSB-231, killing both of its crewmen. Another CAF scout SBD from VS-3 ditched in the ocean that afternoon during their search patrol and neither of the two crewmen were ever seen again. Later that day 12 VS-3 SBD's and six VT-8 TBF's arrived at Henderson as reinforcements.
On September 14, the R Area force attacked Henderson throughout the day with a total of 24 float fighters and bombers, losing eight of them with no losses to the CAF. A fighter sweep by seven 2nd Air Group Zeros from Rabaul also attacked Lunga that day, losing one aircraft and pilot. A Japanese reconnaissance aircraft was also shot down over Guadalcanal that day. The only CAF loss was one VMF-223 Wildcat that wrecked on takeoff, seriously injuring the pilot.
A lull occurred in the air war over Guadalcanal, with no Japanese air raids occurring between September 14 and September 27 due to bad weather, during which both sides reinforced their respective air units. The Japanese delivered 85 fighters and bombers to their air units at Rabaul while the U.S. brought 23 fighters and attack aircraft to Henderson Field. On September 20, the Japanese counted 117 total aircraft at Rabaul while the CAF tallied 71 aircraft at Henderson Field.
The CAF reached its peak of combat power on November 12 when they were able to count 47 fighters, 23 tactical bombers and 12 medium bombers. After a month and a half of enduring continuous shelling at night the pilots at Henderson got their first crack at a Japanese battleship when the Hiei lost control of her steering gear following the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. The ship was repeatedly attacked by aircraft from Henderson and the USS Enterprise (CV-6). After numerous direct hits she was scuttled by her crew. The first allied units to arrive at Henderson came on November 26 in the form of a squadron of Lockheed Hudsons from the Royal New Zealand Air Force.
Navy and Marine fighter pilots, who had little high flying experience to begin with, were at a disadvantage from the start because their F4F Wildcat was not in the same class as the Japanese A6M Zero when it came to altitude, rate of climb and maneuverability. The Zero was lighter, faster, a better climber and had a cannon as well as machine guns. The pilots learned quickly not to dogfight the Zero. Instead, if they became engaged with one, they would give a quick burst of fire and then dive for home. Cactus pilots had to constantly refine their tactics and techniques, rely on teamwork in dogfights and improve their gunnery to remain effective against the Zeroes.
Because of the Zeroes' maneuverability, U.S. pilots quickly adapted hit and run tactics similar to those of the Flying Tigers in China and the tactic of a two-plane mutually protecting flight section. This technique had previously been developed by John Thach and Edward O'Hare and was known as the "Thach Weave." The aircraft would remain in the same general area of one another and if Zeroes showed up they had a better chance of engaging the aircraft on the tails of their wingmen.
One American pilot had remarked,
Disadvantages aside, the Wildcat was not without its merits. The plane was found to be very sturdy compared to the lightly armored Zero, had a self-sealing fuel tank and possessed more than adequate firepower. Marine pilots, very skeptical since Midway, did place a great deal of confidence in their aircraft. Because they could not effectively dogfight the Zeroes, the Henderson defenders realized that the best they could do was break up each day's raid and live to fight another day. With this in mind their primary targets became the bombers instead of the fighters and many of the tactics introduced were largely devised by Major John L. Smith. American aircraft always sought to initiate the attack at least above the Japanese formations and concentrated their attack on the trail aircraft in the formation. This gave them a good angle to shoot at the exposed fuel tanks of the Bettys and also presented a difficult gunnery problem for the bombers as the high overhead passes of the American fighters put them in a blindspot for the Japanese gunners. This tactic also caused the escorting Zeroes to climb and burn precious fuel thus reducing their time over the island.
Because of the limited number of aircraft and fuel available during the early stages of the campaign the CAF was unable to maintain a standing combat air patrol over Henderson Field. Therefore, it was crucial for the CAF to receive early warnings of incoming Japanese aircraft so that it's aircraft weren't caught on the ground during Japanese air attacks. Members of the Australian Coastwatchers, including W. J. Read in northern and Paul Mason in southern Bouganville, Donald Kennedy on New Georgia, and Geoffrey Kuper on Santa Isabel were able to relay ahead when Japanese airplane formations were heading for the island giving the defenders on Guadalcanal time to get airborne. On August 16, Lieutenant Commander Hugh A. Mackenzie of the Royal Australian Navy, the Deputy Staff Intelligence Officer for the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, set up a radio station at Henderson Field to monitor coastwatcher transmissions and relay their warnings to the CAF. Admiral Bull Halsey would later say the coastwatchers, "saved Guadalcanal".
Several coastwatchers were stationed at various points around Guadalcanal, including Martin Clemens (who was also a local official for the British Solomon Islands Protectorate), Leif Schroeder, Donald Macfarlan, Ken Hay, and Ashton Rhoades. These coastwatchers, with help from native Solomon Islanders, helped rescue and return several Allied pilots during the campaign.
The CAF's dive bombers and torpedo planes sank or destroyed 17 large enemy vessels, including one heavy cruiser (Kinugasa), one light cruiser (Yura), three destroyers (Asagiri, Murakumo, and Natsugumo), and twelve transports, possibly sank three destroyers and one heavy cruiser, and heavily damaged 18 other ships, including one heavy cruiser and five light cruisers. Most notable was the battleship Hiei, which the CAF, along with aircraft from the Enterprise and B-17s from Espiritu Santo, mortally damaged after she took a serious mauling from US warships during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
The fifteen Marine combat squadrons that fought on Guadalcanal during this time suffered 94 pilots killed or missing-in-action with another 177 evacuated for wounds or sickness, Total figures for Japanese aerial losses during the campaign were never calculated
The Battle of Guadalcanal would become the defining point for Marine aviation in World War II and for the next fifty years. The great takeaways for the Marine Corps were the debilitating effects of not having air superiority, the vulnerability of targets such as transport shipping and the vital importance of quickly acquiring expeditionary airfields during amphibious operations.
Aboard the USS Enterprise