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."
On Tulagi and Gavutu, however, the Japanese didn't flee. They resisted, fiercely. The troops on Tulagi were rikusentai -- Special Naval Landing Forces. First Raider's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Merritt A. Edson, had observed Japanese soldiers fighting in China, so stiff resistance didn't surprise him. As retired Marine Col. Joseph Alexander noted in his book "Edson's Raiders" (Naval Institute Press, 2001), the Raiders were prepared for night attacks and camouflaged log-and-coral fortifications.
"Yet there was one dramatic element of the Japanese defense of Tulagi," Alexander wrote, that neither Edson "nor anyone else in the Pacific anticipated. The Japanese defenders of the small islands, from Tulagi and Gavutu to Tarawa and Saipan, would fight to the death -- or commit suicide -- rather than surrender. ... The battle for the small islands of Tulagi and Gavutu ... provided a sobering foretaste of the battles to come across the Central Pacific."
Alexander could have added other Pacific island bloodbaths. Japanese defenders on Tulagi utilized caves and conducted local counterattacks in a manner that prefigured their bitter defense of Okinawa.
The Japanese Navy surprised U.S. naval forces near Guadalcanal on Aug. 8. The U.S. Navy temporarily withdrew, leaving the Marines short on heavy weapons and supplies. Japan ultimately reinforced the island. Subsequent Japanese Army attacks on Henderson Field were as ferocious as the death-fight on Tulagi.
The battle for Guadalcanal would last six months, until February 1943. It was a hard slog, anything but sensational. Securing victory over Japan would take another two-and-a-half years of slug-it-out perseverance. Japanese fanatical resistance exacted heavy casualties, which America accepted as the price of victory in the Pacific. Only the sensationally destructive atomic bomb attacks of August 1945 prevented the final battle for Tokyo from being a Tulagi and Okinawa writ large.
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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