For six months, Japan maintained what military analysts call "the strategic initiative." Japan acted, the U.S. and its allies reacted. Japanese forces, with their fast aircraft carriers providing the offensive muscle, seized territory and threatened allied lines of communication in the central, western and southern Pacific. Japanese commanders determined when and where major combat action would occur.
The heady, fast-paced and sensational days of Japanese offensive superiority lasted until the first week of June 1942, when the U.S. Navy skillfully ambushed an advancing Japanese fleet near Midway Island. The Battle of Midway ended on June 7 with four Imperial Japanese Navy carriers on the sea floor and the rest of the battered Midway invasion fleet retreating west toward Japan.
The strategic initiative had shifted. Where and when major offensive action occurred became American decisions.
U.S. intelligence discovered that Japanese troops were building an airfield on the island of Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands east of New Guinea. Guadalcanal and its small neighboring islands, Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo, became the first offensive where.
Seventy years ago this month became the when. The 70th anniversary of the Guadalcanal invasion may not seem particularly significant, until we realize that by the 80th anniversary, the World War II generation will be gone.
On Aug. 7, 1942, the 1st Marine Division waded ashore on Guadalcanal and the Japanese garrison disappeared into the island's jungle. The Marines 1st Parachute Battalion hit Gavutu-Tanambogo. First Raider Battalion and 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment landed on Tulagi.
The U.S. had previously struck back at Japanese territory with carrier air strikes on Japanese-held islands and the spectacular Doolittle air raid on Tokyo in April 1942. The Doolittle raid was a truly sensational operation, but a psychological counter to Japan's military and political successes, not a decisive military response.
At Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Gavutu, however, America was engaged in an actual take-back.
Take-back proved to be anything but heady and fast-paced. The Marine's who captured Guadalcanal's airfield (and renamed it Henderson Field) quickly discovered the island was a tropical morass of mud, jungle, oppressive heat and insects. In his official history of the battle, Samuel Eliot Morison described the island as the "happy hunting grounds of the malaria carrying mosquito," with vegetation that "gives the island a strange leprous appearance."
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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