Allied morale in the South Pacific had reached its lowest point on the night of the 16 October 1942, and had the Japanese attacked the Marine perimeter on Guadalcanal at Lunga Point on the 16th or 17th, the fight would have been much chancier than it turned out to be. But the Japanese were having their own problems. They were having issues getting into position. Japanese engineers had hacked only one small trail out of the jungle from the landing areas on the southwest of the island, where the Tokyo Express hastily unloaded, to the assault positions south of the airfield. Even worse, the Japanese were chronically short of food, and even Hyakutake’s newest troops were starving. The Tokyo Express gave priority to men and ammunition during their runs. Moreover, food required transports and docks to unload, and was space prohibitive on the fast destroyers that constituted most of the runs down the Slot. Because the Tokyo Express had to be out of range of Henderson Field by dawn, small boats quickly ferried troops from the destroyers, and supplies were placed in drums and pushed over the side for the tide to take in. Bulk food, especially rice which salt water contaminated, could not be unloaded in this manner. Also, what food did land usually never made it up the trail. Hyakutake had the same problem with food that Rommel had with fuel: the supply line was consuming the bulk of it before it reached the front line troops. Hyakutake told his men to tighten their belts, and in any case, banzai charges usually lessened the Japanese supply burden. However, the starving troops were taking too long to get into position, and the final assault on Henderson Field was continuously pushed back, first to the 21st, then the 23rd.
These delays were critical. On the morning of 17 October 1942, Vice Admiral Ghormley, the American commander in the Southern Pacific, sent a doom filled message to Nimitz that ended, “My forces totally inadequate (to) meet situation. Urgently request all aviation reinforcement possible”. Ghormley was prone to request forces that Nimitz didn’t have and routinely predicted “or else” if he didn’t get them, but this message was the first time that he expected defeat. And Nimitz didn’t have anything more to give without uncovering Pearl Harbor. Ghormley had every operational aircraft carrier remaining, two fast battleships and their escorts, and more Army air assets than were stationed in Great Britain (Remember Germany First?), not to mention those that MacArthur controlled. Ghormley complained that he couldn’t risk his ships in the confined waters of the Slot, but the Japanese had no such problems doing the same thing. And Scott’s Task Force 64 proved they could at the Battle of Cape Esperance a few days before. Even MacArthur commented that Guadalcanal would fall, “unless the Navy accepts successfully the challenge of the enemy surface fleet.” The job had to get done with what was on hand. The only thing that could change was the leadership.
Nimitz said this was one of the toughest decisions he had ever had to make. Ghormley was a good friend to Nimitz’ for his entire career. Their wives played bridge together. No one less than FDR recommended him to lead America’s first counteroffensive of the war. FDR and Ghormley went back to FDR’s Secretary of the Navy days, and “Ghorm” was the senior American military representative to Great Britain in the dark days of 1940 and 41. Ghormley was an administrator and diplomat, and that might have been what was needed in the early summer to deal with the French, Australians, British, and MacArthur, but that was not what was needed in September and October to deal with the Japanese. He was a product of a peacetime Navy where he spent too much time on special assignments and working the system by himself. Now he was trying to do the same at Noumea, and running himself into the ground. Ghormley is Exhibit A of a career officer who micromanaged his career, and couldn’t make the transition to war, when you couldn’t micromanage anything as a flag officer. Late on the night of the 16th, Nimitz’ staff had an intervention with him about Ghormley, “that bordered on insubordination”. The stately Nimitz in his pajamas told the animated officers whom crowded into his room that he understood. Whether he made the decision or not at that point is unknown, but Ghormley’s message the next morning certainly forced the issue.
Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey was already enroute to the South Pacific on the 17th. His aircraft carrier Enterprise was fully repaired after the Battle of the Eastern Solomons in September, and was much needed to assist the Hornet, already in theater. (Two carriers were four times more effective than one carrier. If a single carrier had to do combat air patrol and reconnaissance, it could only put up a strike of two dozen or so planes if a target was located. Also, the transition from “duty” ops, to “strike” ops was time consuming. Two carriers allowed one for duty ops, and one for strike ops. A second carrier allowed the first carrier to execute duty ops more effectively and efficiently, while maintaining its entire complement of 90 planes for an immediate strike.) Halsey flew ahead, and when he landed in Noumea’s harbor, one of Ghormley’s aides handed him a message from Nimitz that simply stated, “You will take command of the South Pacific Area and the South Pacific Forces immediately”. The completely surprised Halsey exclaimed, “This is the hottest potato they ever handed me!”
Halsey was Ghormley’s opposite in almost every way. Halsey had a reputation for straight talk and believed naval combat came down to one thing: putting ordnance on target, something he passed on to other fighting admirals, like Norman Scott. His mission orders contrasted sharply with Ghormley’s administrivia. Even before his transition with Ghormley was complete, which it would be by sun down(!), Halsey ordered Scott back into the Slot.
The next day, Halsey realized Ghormley’s predicament. There was simply too much work for a single man to do. He’d have to delegate most of the work to his staff. And Halsey sure as shit wasn’t going to have them do it from the dank recesses of Ghormley’s headquarters ship, the USS Argonne. Halsey was protective of his staff – he overworked them mercilessly when they were on duty, and for that reason he took care them when they were off duty. That morning he sent his chief of staff to speak with the French about administrative space on the island. The French dismissed him. At lunch, Halsey and his Marine security platoon planted the American colors in the French colonial administrative building. They threw out anyone who spoke French as a first language. By that evening, the colonial governor’s gardens were bulldozed for a new recreation center. The French protested to De Gaulle, but he was busy at the moment (See Operation Torch).
The news of the new commander spread like wildfire throughout the South Pacific, and was a “shot of adrenaline” to the soldiers and Marines on Guadalcanal. All of the diary entries, field reports, and recorded conversations of that day agree on only one thing: the tenor of the entire theater changed with Halsey’s assumption of command. There was no more talk of evacuation. The Marines were going to win or go down swinging. More concrete assistance came that night when the cruiser USS Atlanta sat off the coast, and with Marine fire support officers ferried out to the ship, blasted Japanese troop concentrations for eight hours, until the sun came up. The Atlanta was detached from TF 64, which was prowling the Savo Sound. Scott threw a gauntlet down for the Japanese. However, a Japanese I boat spotted Scott’s two battleships, and Yamamoto cancelled the Tokyo Express run for the night.
Nothing had changed but the leadership.
The Americans in the South Pacific did have some fight left in them. That realization came none too soon.