Operation Watchtower: the Invasions of the Florida Islands, Tulagi, and Guadalcanal
In mid July, Admiral Frank Fletcher’s Task Force’s 61 and Rear Admiral Kelly Turner’s Task Force 62 began sailing for the Solomon Islands. Task Force 61 consisted the American aircraft carriers USS Wasp, Enterprise and Saratoga and Task Force 62 consisted of the transports carrying the invasion force. By the end of the month, the 75 ships of both Task Forces finally finished picking up the scattered Marine garrisons sent to the islands of the South Pacific to defend against the threatened Japanese invasions of New Zealand, Australia, and American Pacific possessions such as Samoa and Fiji; the threat of which ended with the Japanese loss at Midway.
On 31 July 1942, off the island of Fiji, both Task Forces did a full dress rehearsal of the future landings in the Solomons. Radio traffic for the rehearsal was picked up by Japanese signal’s intelligence. However, the Japanese assumed the Americans were going to reinforce the Australians in New Guinea, who were hard pressed defending against the recent offensive along the Kokoda track leading to Port Moresby. The rehearsal was absolute chaos, so much so that the Marines never actually landed on the beach.Nonetheless on 1 August 1942, the ships carrying Maj General Alexander Vandegrift’s 1st Marine Division left Fiji for their objectives of the Florida islands and the islands of Tulagi and Guadalcanal.
On 7 August, 1942, 2/5 Marines and the 2nd Raider Battalion splashed ashore unopposed on the island of Tulagi. The island was the Japanese administrative center for their forces in the area, and the Marines occupied the northwest half of the island as the surprised Japanese withdrew to the hills and caves of the southeast. With darkness approaching, the Marines settled in to wait for the morning to continue the assault. The admin personnel of the Yokohama Air Group, reinforced by a detachment from the elite Japanese Special Naval Landing Force didn’t wait.
Starting around 2230, five successive banzai charges hammered the Marine lines, breaking through twice, and infiltrators spread out behind the Marines’ main line of resistance. The Raider battalion’s headquarters saw significant hand to hand combat throughout the night. However, the Japanese took massive casualties, and after landing a third battalion on the island, Tulagi was secured by the night of the 8th. The Marines got their first taste of what was to come over the next year. A short distance away in the Florida Islands, they’d get a taste of what to come for the rest of the war.
Gavutu and Tanambogo were two islets in the Florida Islands connected by a causeway and located about three miles east of Tulagi. These two mutually supporting islets contained a seaplane base and were heavily defended by the bulk of the Yokohama Air Group personnel and Special Naval Landing Force. But unlike Tulagi, there was no room for banzai charges and infiltration tactics on what was essentially two giant mounds of coral. So the Japanese blasted deep bunkers in depth that covered every possible landing approach, from which they were determined to die in place inflicting as many casualties as possible.
U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers really worked over the seaplane base, but in their zeal destroyed the only covered landing zone, the supply pier, which was shielded from interlocking Japanese fields of fire by buildings. The Marines would have to approach and land on the exposed beaches.
At noon on the 7th, the the 1st Marine Parachute Battalion, in landing craft, assaulted into the teeth of the alert and awaiting Japanese. The paratroopers (Parachutists? Paramarines?) were massacred as they assaulted the beaches of Gavutu. Barely establishing a beachhead, what followed was a day long knife fight involving flamethrowers and satchel charges with every single covered and concealed Japanese machine gun as they advanced south to capture the island, all the while receiving accurate fire to their rear from Tanambogo.
Vandegrift ordered a company sized landing on Tanambogo that evening to clear the machine guns, but there were 600 Japanese packed on the tiny islet. The Marine company was slaughtered. Only 12, including the company commander, managed to even set foot on the islet. When darkness fell they were sure to be killed. Recognizing his dilemma, the captain led his men in a mad sprint in the twilight down the causeway to Gavutu. The astonished Japanese never fired on them.
The next day Vandegrift ordered his reserve battalion to Tanambogo, and the fighting mimicked Gavutu. However, with the threat to their rear distracted, the Parachute Battalion was able to reorganize and systematically reduce the remaining defenders. Tanambogo fell shortly thereafter.
Compared to Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo, the main landings by the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal were easy. The Japanese construction battalion that was slowly building an airfield there (the soon-to-be renamed Henderson Field) abandoned their equipment and supplies, and fled into the jungle. They left engines running, teapots boiling, and food on the tables, such was their haste. The Marines pushed inland and were greeted by a joyous former British colonial official and a Melanesian Sergeant Major who both worked for the Australian Coast Watchers. A defensive perimeter was established and Turner brought his transports closer in to expedite unloading.
The successful American landings in the Solomon islands were a strategic, operational, and tactical surprise to the Japanese. To their credit they responded immediately. The first Japanese air attacks from bases farther up the Solomons arrived on the evening of the 7th. However they were uncoordinated, spotted early by coast watchers, and easily defeated by the anti aircraft fire from the escorting cruisers and destroyers. It was a far cry from the Japanese destruction of Prince of Wales and Repulse under similar circumstances earlier in the war.
The Americans around Guadalcanal had fought a tough battle in trying circumstances against a determined and spirited enemy and had come out on top, with all objectives secured. Fletcher was feeling pretty confident as American forces settled in on the night 8 August 1942.
Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa (We will hear his name again) would shorty disabuse him of that notion.