The amphibious nature of the war in the Pacific imposed on the Marine Corps greater tasks than any it had ever been called upon to perform. The expansion of the Corps and equipping it with the weapons and support facilities necessary for modern amphibious undertakings was an administrative achievement of the greatest magnitude. This was overshadowed by the willingness of the Fleet Marine Force to undertake the Guadalcanal operation at a critical time early in the war when other ground forces were still undergoing training.
Between 7 and 9 August 1942, Marines landed on the beaches of Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. These landings marked the first Allied land offensive in the Pacific and were the first amphibious assaults against the enemy forces by the 1st Marine Division (Reinforced). In the face of stubborn counterattacks, the courageous division held on to the beachhead. Units of the 2d Marine Division and the Army Americal Division began to arrive during October, and the American forces soon took the offensive. After several months of desperate fighting in the steaming tropical jungles, the Japanese were beaten and driven from the island by 9 February 1943.
The importance of aviation to Marine tactics was graphically demonstrated at Guadalcanal where one of the first objectives of the assault was a partially completed Japanese airfield, later renamed Henderson Field. After the airfield had been taken, Marine aviation based on Henderson Field devastated overwhelming numbers of the highly vaunted Japanese air force and exploded the myth that the Japanese pilots and Zeros were invincible.
The capture of Guadalcanal marked the turning point of the war in the Pacific. Japanese losses during the campaign were listed as approximately 14,800 killed or missing in action while another 9,000 died of wounds and disease. About 1,000 enemy troops were taken prisoner and more than 600 enemy planes and pilots were destroyed. In addition, seven of 11 Japanese transports carrying two reinforced divisions were sunk while attempting to reinforce the island, costing the lives of numerous enemy troops. Marine and Army casualties within the ground forces amounted to 1,598 killed and 4,709 wounded. Of this total, the number of Marines killed or died from wounds was 1,152 along with 2,799 wounded and 55 listed as missing. Marine aviation losses were 55 dead with 127 wounded and 85 missing.
The importance of the victory at Guadalcanal was later summed up by Gen Alexander A. Vandegrift, who commanded the 1st Marine Division during the engagement:
“We struck at Guadalcanal to halt the advance of the Japanese. We did not know how strong he was, nor did we know his plans. We knew only that he was moving down the island chain and that he had to be stopped.
We were as well trained and as well armed as time and our peacetime experience allowed us to be. We needed combat to tell us how effective our training, our doctrines, and our weapons had been.
We tested them against the enemy, and we found that they worked. From the movement in 1942, the tide turned, and the Japanese never again advanced.”
Capt William D. Parker, USMCR, A Concise History of the U.S. Marine Corps 1775-1969 Historical Division, HQMC, Washington, D.C. 1970.