Sunday night, I laid across the bed to watch episode 2 of the new HBO series, The Pacific. Made by the same people who brought you Band of Brothers (Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg), it is quite different as it looks at specific soldiers rather than a single unit.It is quite gripping at times. As a historian, the best part for me is always the interviews of the soldiers before the episode. As the soldiers tell their tales, you wonder how the horror of war can be captured on film.
The war in the Pacific theater was nothing like fighting the Nazis in North Africa, Italy, France, Belgium, Holland, or Germany. The Japanese fought viciously, never giving up to the last man. Many times, the Americans were glad, and sad, to oblige them. Banzai attacks like the one seen at Alligator Creek in Episode 1 would become quite common.
The story of Guadalcanal begins at Pearl Harbor. The same day the Japanese attacked the naval base at Pearl, they also attacked major bases across the Pacific. Pearl Harbor was not the only thing happening that day. Over the next six months, the Japanese were dictating the field of battle deciding where and when the war would take. In the summer of 1942, the US naval forces stopped the Japanese at the Battle of Midway and the Battle of the Coral Sea halting the Japanese advance. After these two battles, US forces would go on the offensive. The first place chosen was Guadalcanal.
Guadalcanal was not an easy campaign – in fact, it lasted six months. Fought on land, in the air, in the jungle and on the sea, it is a conflict known for its ferocity. In waves of sheer terror, the Japanese were relentless in their pursuit of the island. The high command of the Japanese army underestimated the resolve of the 60,000 Americans who served there. Japanese casualties ran high. It was if the Japanese were still using World War One tactics. Through six months of the conflict, the Japanese lost over 31,000 of 36,000 troops. Even more staggering to the Japanese was the loss of machines – airplanes and ships. Where the US could easily replace the ships and planes, the Japanese could not.
As a piece of rock, Guadalcanal holds an airfield but little else. However, it is the airfield that could give the Japanese a base to disrupt shipping and supplies flowing between the US and Australia – an important ally for the US in the Pacific.
In describing the first days on the island, Pfc James Donahue states:
The jungle is thick as hell. The Fifth regiment landed first and marched to the airport. We went straight through and then cut over to block the escape of the Japs. It took 3 days to go 6 miles. Japs took off, left surplus first day which was done away with.
The second day was murder. All along the way were discarded packs, rifles, mess gear and everything imaginable. The second night it rained like hell and the bugs were terrible. The Second Battalion had reached the Lunga River. We had to cross four streams.
The third day we came back. The Japs had beat us in their retreat. We took up beach defense positions. We have been bombed every day by airplanes and a submarine shells us every now and then.
For the next four months, this hell would be home – or home as he knew it.
For if Guadalcanal was anything – it was a place of survival. Most times, American soldiers had little to eat or drink. They were bombed during the night and strafed during the day. In February of 1943, the Japanese gave up their pursuit of the island. Having proved too costly in men and machines, the Japanese moved onto a defensive posture of holding onto territory already won. Their days of being on the offensive were over.
There are several good videos about Guadalcanal out there.
The first one is this by the History Channel that looks at the campaign. It does contain the account of Basilone as seen in episode 2.