World War Two: Guadalcanal (1); Plans for Invasion

As Admiral King has written, “Because of the urgency of seizing and occupying Guadalcanal, planning was not up to the usual thorough standard.” Admirals Nimitz and Ghormley had begun planning in June, but the planes and men which were to make the attack were scattered from the South Pacific to California.

General MacArthur’s and Admiral Ghormley’s assertion that there were few troops available for beginning the attack was well founded. Besides the three divisions in Australia and the elements of the 1st Marine Division in New Zealand, there were several units in the South Pacific assigned to the defense of bases along the line of communications. Two Army divisions were in the area; the 37th Division was in the Fijis, the Americal Division in New Caledonia. The 7th Marines, a regiment detached from the 1st Marine Division, was in Samoa. Army infantry and artillery units were at Bora Bora; the 147th Infantry, formerly of the 37th Division, was at Tongatabu. Some Army, Navy, and Marine Corps troops were holding Efate in the New Hebrides and part of the Efate force was building an airfield at Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides.

The majority of the Army troops in the South Pacific had been dispatched prior to the establishment of the South Pacific Area; they had been administered directly by the War Department and supplied directly by the San Francisco Port of Embarkation. The organization of the South Pacific Area, the commitment of more Army Air Forces units, and the imminence of the forthcoming campaign led the War Department to organize these forces into a single command—the U. S. Army Forces in the South Pacific Area (USAFISPA). On 14 July Major General Millard F. Harmon was appointed its commanding general (COMGENSOPAC) with the concurrence of the Navy.

Prior to his appointment as Commanding General of U. S. Army Forces in the South Pacific, Harmon, who was one of the senior officers of the Army Air Forces and a pioneer in military aviation, had been Chief of the Air Staff. Born in 1888, he was graduated from the U. S. Military Academy in 1912, and entered the Aviation Section of the Army Signal Corps while in the Philippines.

After active service in France during World War I, he attended the Army Command and General Staff School and the Army War College, taught Military science and tactics at the University of Washington in Seattle, and served with various training and tactical air units until the end of 1940. In January 1941 he was sent to Britain as an air observer. Returning to the United States four months later, he was made a major general in July and in January 1942 he became Chief of the Air Staff.

General Harmon, under Ghormley’s command, was to be responsible for the administration and supply of Army units in the South Pacific. His letter of appointment directed him to advise the Area Commander, but gave him no operational or tactical authority. On 26 July he assumed his duties, with headquarters first at Auckland and later, adjacent to Ghormley’s, at Noumea, New Caledonia. His services proved so valuable that both Admiral Ghormley and his successor consulted him in the planning and execution of the Guadalcanal and subsequent South Pacific campaigns.

Despite the fact that there were about 32,000 Army ground troops in the South Pacific, they could not be freely used for reinforcement of the marines in the attack against Guadalcanal. There was not enough shipping space in the South Pacific for free movement, and the divisions holding the Fijis and New Caledonia could not be moved until replacements were available, or until the Japanese offensive threat had been eliminated.

Little was then known about the objective. The Solomons are a thinly populated and undeveloped area. Lying about 800 miles east of New Guinea, the Solomons form a double chain of tropical, mountainous islands extending from latitude 5 degrees South to latitude 12 degrees 30 minutes South, from northwest to southeast, and from longitude 155 degrees East to longitude 170 degrees East. They include several hundred islands, with a land area of 18,670 square miles. The largest in the northeastern chain are Buka, Bougainville, Choiseul, Santa Isabel, and Malaita. The southwestern islands consist of the Shortland, Treasury, and New Georgia groups, the Russells, Guadalcanal, Florida, San Cristobal, and Rennell.

The Solomon Islands chain was divided politically. Bougainville and Buka were part of the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea. The rest of the islands formed the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. A British district officer, responsible to the Resident Commissioner at Tulagi, administered civil affairs on each island in the protectorate. The Resident Commissioner reported to the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific in the Fijis, who in turn was responsible to the Colonial Office in London. Economic development had been slight. Lever Brothers, with local headquarters at Gavutu, had been operating fairly extensive coconut plantations since before the war, and the Burns-Philp South Seas Company, Ltd., controlled island shipping. The few white residents before the war were government officials, planters, missionaries, and their families.

Some, including the Resident Commissioner and several district officers, missionaries, and nuns, had remained in the Solomons during the Japanese occupation. The government officials, like the coast-watchers, had withdrawn to the hills. The missionaries and nuns, with some .exceptions, had not been molested, but had continued to operate their stations under surveillance.

The native inhabitants are Melanesians of primitive culture. Noted in former years for their ferocity, they remained generally loyal to the Allied cause and throughout the Solomons campaign assisted the coast-watchers, rescued fliers and sailors, and acted as guides, scouts, and laborers.

The Solomons are one of the world’s wettest areas. Rainfall in some places exceeds 200 inches per year; from 1922 to 1942, annual rainfall at Tulagi averaged 164 inches.6 The tropical temperatures are enervating, ranging daily from 73 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level. Humidity is high. There are only two seasons, the wet and the dry. Northwest monsoons bring almost daily rain during the wet season from November to March. The term dry is relative, for southeast trade winds bring frequent rains during the dry season.

There are few good harbors, but the narrow, restricted channels between the islands are usually calm. In the southern Solomons the best anchorage is Tulagi Harbor between Tulagi and Florida Islands. Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo Island, near Gavutu in Tulagi Harbor, all possessed some docks, jetties, and machine shops. There are few clear, flat areas suitable for airfields except on Malaita, Bougainville, New Georgia, and the grassy plain on Guadalcanal’s
north coast.

Between Guadalcanal and Malaita lies the smaller island of Florida (Nggela), which is separated from Guadalcanal by Sealark Channel. Reefs jut above the water to make the channel north of the center of Guadalcanal very narrow. The waters between the southern reefs and Guadalcanal are called Lengo Channel; those between the northern reefs and Florida are Nggela Channel.7 Between the southeast part of Guadalcanal and Malaita is Indispensable Strait, and at the northern end of Sealark Channel, between Guadalcanal and Florida, lies the small symmetrical island of Savo.

Air and Naval Plans
Admiral Nimitz’ Plan

By late June Admiral Nimitz had decided to send five Marine air squadrons to the South Pacific to take part in the campaign. Airfield construction in the South Pacific was, therefore, to be given a high priority. As the five squadrons, all consisting of short-range aircraft, would have to be ferried across the Pacific on an aircraft carrier, the pilots would first have to train for carrier operations. Following Admiral Nimitz’ request that more Army bombers be sent to the South Pacific, General Marshall authorized the creation of two Mobile Air Forces for the Pacific Theater—one in the Southwest Pacific Area and one in the Pacific Ocean Areas. Each was composed of one B-17 heavy bombardment group. The Pacific Ocean Areas Mobile Air Force might be used anywhere within the Pacific Ocean Areas at the Joint Chiefs’ discretion. The 11th Heavy Bombardment Group, then in Hawaii, was selected as the Pacific Ocean Areas Mobile Air Force on 16 July, and within four days its four squadrons had taken off for New Caledonia.

To provide more troops for the landings, Admiral King had suggested that the reinforced 2nd Marines (of the 2nd Marine Division), then in California, be shipped to the South Pacific immediately; Admiral Ghormley agreed, and he requested that the 2nd Marines be combat-loaded and ready for landing operations on arrival. Admiral Nimitz ordered the 2nd Marines to be ready to sail from San Diego aboard five ships on 1 July. Admiral Nimitz also decided to send the 3rd (Marine) Defense Battalion from Pearl Harbor to the South Pacific to provide antiaircraft and seacoast defense of the target areas. Three aircraft carriers, one battleship, and accompanying cruisers and destroyers would be available to constitute the naval supporting forces to which would be added warships from the Southwest Pacific Area.

Admiral Nimitz issued his final plan for the attack on 8 July. He ordered the South Pacific Force, under Admiral Ghormley, to capture the Santa Cruz Islands and the Tulagi-Guadalcanal area in the Solomons. As the Joint Chiefs had planned, marines were to capture the areas. Army forces, under Admiral Ghormley’s direction, would then relieve the marines. Naval forces would support these operations and construct and operate the air bases for both land-based planes and seaplanes, and Army aircraft were to operate from the bases as directed. A seaplane base, providing for thirty planes, was to be built at Tulagi.

Air bases, each large enough to support four air squadrons, were to be built both at Guadalcanal and at Ndeni in the Santa Cruz Islands. The Navy was to be responsible for maintaining radio stations, harbor facilities, inshore patrol, port control, hospitals, underwater defenses, and roads and bridges at the bases. A 60-day level of subsistence supplies and ammunition and a 90-day supply of building materials were to be maintained. The Navy was to furnish materials for the construction of airfields, bases, and harbors.

Admiral Ghormley’s Plan

The problems facing the South Pacific commanders in preparing for the invasion were tremendous, and time was short. Admiral Ghormley, acting on the first orders from Admiral King before the issuance of the Joint Chiefs’ directive and Admiral Nimitz’ final plan, had called the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division from Wellington to his headquarters at Auckland on 26 June. The 1st Division commander and part of his staff began conferring with Admiral Ghormley on that date, and were joined the next day by Rear Admiral John S. McCain, the commander of all Allied land-based aircraft in the South Pacific (COMAIRSOPAC). Not all the commanders who were to take part in the operation were present. Vice Admiral Frank J. Fletcher and Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, who were to command the Expeditionary and Amphibious Forces, had not then reached the South Pacific. Admiral Ghormley informed the Marine officers of the plan to invade the Solomon and Santa Cruz Islands, and ordered them to prepare plans and load ships in Wellington for the invasion. Detailed planning in the South Pacific had thus been initiated prior to the issuance of the directive on 2 July; the directive did not necessitate any basic changes in Ghormley’s or the marines’ concepts of the operation.

Admiral Ghormley issued his Operation Plan No. 1-42 on 16 July 1942. It was to govern the execution of Task One which was to be divided into three phases. The first would be a rehearsal in the Fiji Islands; the second would be the seizure and occupation of Tulagi and Guadalcanal. The projected occupation of Ndeni in the Santa Cruz Islands would be the third and final phase.

Operation Plan No. 1-42 organized two forces, Task Forces 61 and 63. The Expeditionary Force of eighty-two ships (designated as Task Force 61), was placed under the command of Admiral Fletcher. The main body of warships of Task Force 61 came from the Pacific and Atlantic Fleets, while a second came from the naval forces of the Southwest Pacific. The third component assigned to Task Force 61 was the amphibious force, which included the marines who were to make the landings. Admiral Turner was to assume command of the South Pacific Amphibious Force on 18 July. The second force, Task Force 63, consisted of all the Allied land-based aircraft in the South Pacific under Admiral McCain.

Analyzing the strength and capabilities of the enemy forces which Task Forces 61 and 63 were to attack, Admiral Ghormley anticipated that the Japanese garrisons in the Solomons and Bismarcks might soon be reinforced. The Japanese could shuttle their aircraft between the Marshall Islands, New Britain, and the East Indies. Elements of the 4th Fleet had already been operating in the vicinity of the Solomons and Bismarcks, and the addition of a submarine division might be expected. Rabaul was known to be a major air base, and seaplane bases were known to be in use at Gizo, Rekata Bay, Faisi, Kieta, Buka, and Gavutu. Two planes had been based at Tulagi, thirteen at Gavutu. The runway under construction at Lunga Point was not thought to have been completed.

Ghormley estimated that about 3,100 Japanese troops were in the Tulagi-Guadalcanal area. He believed that, of these, one thousand Special Naval Landing Forces and pioneers were stationed on Guadalcanal at Cape Esperance, the Segilau River, Lunga Point, Tenaru, and Taivu Point on the north coast. It was assumed that there were at least six antiaircraft guns at both Lunga Point and Kukum, with more at Taivu Point to the east. Ghormley considered, correctly, that the south coast was not held in any strength.

After assembling and rehearsing in the Fijis, the Expeditionary Force (Task Force 61) was to capture and occupy Tulagi and near-by areas, including that part of Guadalcanal most suitable for the construction of airfields. The tentative date for D Day set by the Joint Chiefs of Staff—1 August—could not be met. On 16 July Ghormley notified Admiral Nimitz that the late arrival of the 1st Marine Division’s second echelon at Wellington, New Zealand, coupled with the delay in loading caused by bad weather in Wellington, would necessitate postponing the target date until 7 August. The date could not be postponed further, however, lest the Japanese complete their airstrip for use against the Allied forces.

Once Tulagi and the landing field on Guadalcanal had been taken, the Expeditionary Force would occupy Ndeni, and troops were to be ready to work on airfields on Guadalcanal and Ndeni immediately. Airfield construction materiel and troops would be sent forward as soon as possible. To free the Amphibious Force for further offensive action, occupation troops were to be dispatched to relieve the marines. Operation Plan No. 1-42 did not specifically designate the forces to effect the relief and occupation but stated that orders would be issued at a later date.

The land-based aircraft of Task Force 63 were to support and cover the movements of the Expeditionary Force, arrange special missions at the request of Task Force 61, and carry out their regular scouting missions. Task Force 63 was to cover the Amphibious Force’s approach to Tulagi and Guadalcanal and the landing there, as well as to execute air attacks by arrangement with Task Force 61. Amphibious patrol bombers were to patrol temporarily from Ndeni, which had not been occupied by the Japanese, by D minus 1, and additional patrol planes would scout from the east coast of Malaita on D plus 1. After the conclusion of the Guadalcanal phase, Task Force 63 would cover the occupation of Ndeni by the landing force.

Admiral Ghormley, announcing his intention to proceed from Auckland to Noumea aboard his flagship Argonne about D minus 5, stated that he would arrange a conference between representatives of the commanders of the Expeditionary and Amphibious Forces and of the South Pacific land-based aircraft to settle the final details of air support and to co-ordinate the various air efforts. The commander of Task Force 63 was also ordered to arrange for air scouting by Southwest Pacific Air Forces.

Logistical plans for the operation took into account the lack of good bases in the South Pacific Area. During the rehearsal, all vessels were to take on fuel as the tactical situation permitted from tankers at Noumea and the Fijis, and from tanks on shore in the Fijis and Espiritu Santo and Efate in the New Hebrides. Fleet units were to take on full loads of ammunition after the rehearsal. Only minor ship repairs could be effected in the South Pacific. Auckland had a dockyard and a drydock, and a floating drydock at Wellington could accommodate a heavy cruiser. In addition the repair ship Whitney was stationed at Tongatabu, and a salvage tug was to be stationed initially at Espiritu Santo. For major repairs, heavy fleet units would have to go to Pearl Harbor.

Fleet units would carry sufficient provisions to be self-sustaining, while the Amphibious Force would embark sixty days’ supply and ten units of fire for the marines. Fresh foods would be supplied to the Amphibious Force if enough ships were available.

Once they were unloaded, ships of the Amphibious Force were to leave the Solomon and Santa Cruz Islands and return to Noumea unless directed elsewhere, and would be escorted by warships assigned by Admiral Fletcher. Returning ships would carry American wounded to the hospital ship Solace at Noumea, which would either retain the wounded on board or distribute them among the Army hospitals at Noumea and the Fijis, or take them to the naval base hospital at Auckland.

Admiral McCain’s Plan

Toward the end of July, when Admiral McCain’s tactical plan for Task Force 63 was completed, South Pacific air strength had increased and the air bases had been improved. Two companies of the 182nd Infantry and one engineer company of the Americal Division had occupied Efate in the New Hebrides on 18 March to build an airfield. Marine Corps and naval personnel followed these forces, until by May there were 7,500 on the island. On 28 May 500 men of the Efate garrison had occupied Espiritu Santo, 145 miles to the north. Admiral Ghormley had ordered the construction of a bomber strip on Espiritu Santo, to be completed by 28 July, in time to support the invasion of the Solomons. B-17’s of the 11th Heavy Bombardment Group arrived in the area during July. The 98th Squadron landed in New Caledonia on 22 July, followed by the 42nd the next day. The 431st Squadron landed in the Fijis on 24 July, and the 26th landed at Efate on 25 July.

By the end of July Task Force 63 consisted of 291 aircraft of various types, based on New Caledonia, the Fijis, Tongatabu, Samoa, and Efate, and assigned to the defense of those islands. Of the 291 planes, 31 Navy patrol bombers (PBY’s) were based on New Caledonia and the Fijis. Ninety-three naval fighters were based on Efate, New Caledonia, the Fijis, Tongatabu, and Samoa. Twenty-five naval observation planes were operating from Efate, New Caledonia, Tongatabu, and Samoa, and seventeen Navy scout bombers (SBD’s) were based in Samoa.

Ninety-five Army planes were in Task Force 63. Thirty-five Army B-17’s and twenty-two B-26’s were stationed at New Caledonia and the Fijis. Thirty-eight Army PAGO’S were also operating from New Caledonia. Nine Vincents, eighteen Hudsons, and three Singapores of the Royal New Zealand Air Force were based on New Caledonia and the Fijis.

Admiral McCain issued his orders on 25 July. He divided Task Force 63 into seven task groups. One group, consisting of the 69th (Army) Bombardment Squadron, the 67th (Army) Fighter Squadron, a New Zealand Air Force Hudson Squadron, and two PBY’s, was to scout over 400-mile sectors from New Caledonia. A second group, consisting of the 11th (Army) Heavy Bombardment Group, to be based on New Caledonia, Efate, Espiritu Santo, and the Fijis, was to scout between New Caledonia and the Solomons and over and west of the Solomons. It was this group which carried out bombing attacks on Guadalcanal and Tulagi prior to D Day. The third group, consisting of the seaplane tender Curtiss and attached patrol planes, was to move part of its patrol planes to Espiritu Santo. Beginning on D minus 2 the planes based in Espiritu Santo were to search both east and west of the Solomons, while the remaining patrol planes moved from Noumea to Ndeni and Espiritu Santo.

The fourth group, composed of the seaplane tender MacFarland and attached patrol bombers, was to move to Ndeni to inaugurate the air searches northeast of the Solomons on D minus 1. The fifth, composed of the seaplane tender Mackinac and attached patrol planes, was to proceed to the east coast of Malaita on D minus 3. The sixth group, consisting of Marine Fighting Squadron 212 and Scouting Squadron D-14, was to send three scouts to Espiritu Santo, and to aid the bombardment effort from Efate. The final group, consisting of Marine Observation Squadron 251, was to assist the bombardment effort from Espiritu Santo.

The air searches of Task Force 63 would thus cover the general area between New Caledonia and the Solomons, over the Solomons, east to Ndeni, and south to the Fijis. General MacArthur agreed to have Southwest Pacific air forces patrol the northern and western approaches to the Solomons during Task One. Prior to D minus 5, Southwest Pacific air forces were to reconnoiter over eastern New Guinea, Lorengau, Kavieng, Buka, Ontong Java, and Tulagi.

Thereafter no Southwest Pacific planes were to fly east of longitude 158 degrees 15 minutes East (a line just west of Guadalcanal and east of New Georgia, Choiseul, and Bougainville, in the Solomons group), and latitude 15 degrees South unless requested by Ghormley. From D minus 5 to D plus 4, Southwest Pacific aircraft were to conduct daily reconnaissance flights over eastern New Guinea, Kavieng, and the easternmost point of New Georgia, and combat aircraft were to be ready to strike any Japanese naval vessels within a 550-mile radius of Port Moresby. From D Day to D plus 4, when the transports and cargo ships of the Amphibious Force would be unloading at Guadalcanal and Tulagi, Allied aircraft would thus be interdicting Japanese aerial operations in the Rabaul-Kavieng area. At the same time Buka was to be attacked to prevent the Japanese from refueling there. During this critical period, short-range aircraft were to attack Lae and Salamaua periodically to prevent those bases from sending aircraft to reinforce Rabaul.

Admiral Fletcher’s Plan

The Expeditionary Force Commander, Admiral Fletcher, issued his Operation Order No. 1-42 to Task Force 61 on 28 July. Task Force 61 was divided into two groups, the Air Support Force and the Amphibious Force. The Air Support Force, under the command of Rear Adm. Leigh Noyes, consisted of twenty-six warships and five tankers. This group was subdivided into three units, each built around an aircraft carrier. The first included the Saratoga, two heavy cruisers, and five destroyers. The carrier Enterprise, the battleship North Carolina, one heavy cruiser, one light antiaircraft cruiser, and five destroyers constituted another unit. The third unit was composed of the carrier Wasp, two heavy cruisers, six destroyers, and five tankers.

The Amphibious Force, under the command of Admiral Turner, consisted of twenty-three transports and twenty-eight warships. Turner’s force was composed of the South Pacific Amphibious Force, the naval forces from the Southwest Pacific, and three heavy cruisers, one light antiaircraft cruiser, and six destroyers from the Central Pacific. The Amphibious Force was to sail from the Fijis to a point about 400 nautical miles south of the west tip of Guadalcanal, and then to sail north at 12 knots toward the objectives. This course would keep the force well away from Japanese-held islands until time for the assault.

As the Amphibious Force would be landing its troops on islands which lay beyond range of fighter planes from the nearest Allied bases, it was to receive tactical air support directly from the Air Support Force which would also execute necessary aerial reconnaissance. It was apparently Fletcher’s intention to withdraw the carriers prior to D plus 3, somewhat short of the time required for the Amphibious Force to unload its ships completely. Admiral Ghormley was aware of this intention. Emphasizing the need for continuous air cover over the target area, he stated that if the airfield at Guadalcanal was operational he intended to base there squadrons from the carriers. These squadrons would then be relieved by land-based fighters sent in from Efate with extra gasoline tanks. But Admiral McCain pointed out that ten days would be required to fit the extra tanks to the Navy F4F fighters.

The advancing Amphibious Force was to be further protected by submarines operating in the vicinity of major Japanese bases. Five submarines of the Pacific Fleet were to cover the Truk area from 22 July to 20 August, while submarines from the Southwest Pacific were to patrol the waters near Rabaul.

Admiral Ghormley’s plan provided that, on the withdrawal of the Air Support Force, the Amphibious Force was to secure air support from Task Force 63. It should be noted, however, that the distances separating Espiritu Santo and Efate from Guadalcanal would prevent Task Force 63 from providing fighter cover for the marines on Guadalcanal until the airfield there could be developed enough to serve as a base. The Amphibious Force was to furnish escorts for its transports returning to Noumea after unloading. Damaged ships were authorized to return either to Noumea or to put in to other convenient friendly ports.

Source: Guadalcanal: The First Offensive ; BY: John Miller, Jr.World War Two: Guadalcanal (1-2); Plans for Invasion

World War Two: New Guinea-Solomons; Japanese Actions 1942-43


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