Magazine article Army

Operation Watchtower: Soldiers Were Key in World War II's First U.S. Offensive

Magazine article Army

Operation Watchtower: Soldiers Were Key in World War II's First U.S. Offensive

Article excerpt

From August 1942 through February 1943, World War II in the Pacific centered on the tough, bloody action around Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. The Army played a significant role in the campaign, which officially was known as Operation Watchtower.

Operation Watchtower was the first American offensive of World War II, coming ahead of both the Allied offensive in New Guinea in October 1942 and the Allied landings in North Africa the following month. It began with the amphibious assault to take Guadalcanal as well as nearby Tulagi, Gavutu and Tanambogo.

The Guadalcanal campaign was extremely important for the Army, its sister services, and for the nation's overall war effort in the Pacific Theater. It affected the remainder of World War II, with American forces continuing the offensive across the Pacific until victory over Japan was secured in 1945. The attrition of Japanese forces was pronounced, the ability to defeat the Japanese on the ground was proven, and future promising leaders were identified or validated. It helped pave the way for our ultimate victory over Japan in World War II, and gave us new innovations in warfare such as time-on-target artillery fire and ground-directed close-air support.

Graveyard of Japanese Army

For the Japanese, seeking to position themselves to either isolate or assault Australia, winning at Guadalcanal was important to blunt Allied pushback on their plans. For the Americans, Guadalcanal was vital in beginning and maintaining the offensive against the Japanese in the wake of the U.S. victory at Midway in June 1942.

One indication of the importance of this campaign was that President Franklin D. Roosevelt mentioned it six times-more than any other battle-during the wartime press conferences he delivered. Another indication is a quote from Japanese Maj. Gen. Kiyotake Kawaguchi, commander of the 35th Infantry Brigade. "Guadalcanal is no longer merely a name of an island in Japanese military history," he said. "It is the name of the graveyard of the Japanese army."

This operation was the first of what would become many successful American amphibious assaults during the war, with lessons learned there playing a key role in those future successes. Prior to this operation, whether amphibious assaults could succeed was an open question. The failure of the Gallipoli campaign in World War I cast a long shadow in the minds of many political and military leaders.

Operation Watchtower caught the Japanese by surprise, and initial landings at Guadalcanal on Aug. 7, 1942, were unopposed. The Japanese airfield construction unit withdrew into the jungle away from the beaches during the preliminary U.S. naval bombardment. However, the Japanese special naval troops stationed on the nearby islands gave a spirited defense of Tulagi, Gavutu and Tanambogo. U.S. Marines secured these islands by the end of Aug. 8. But Japanese naval forces defeated U.S. naval forces around Guadalcanal in early August, beginning a seesaw contest on land, sea and air that would last until the Japanese withdrawal in February 1943.

The Japanese found themselves in a grinding attrition campaign, losing valuable troops, ships, planes and skilled aircraft crews. Their 2nd and 38th Infantry divisions both were severely mauled in the fighting and served only in garrison and defensive duties for the remainder of the war. And while U.S. naval losses were heavy, the U.S. shipbuilding program was gearing up to become "the arsenal of democracy." Meantime, the Japanese shipbuilding program was already at maximum capacity and would be starved of raw materials by U.S. submarines and air attacks as the war went on. Perhaps the most painful loss for the Japanese was their loss of trained, experienced aircrews. The skill level of the Japanese pilots noticeably dropped off as the fighting around Guadalcanal wore on.

The aura of the invincible Japanese soldier was quickly shattered at Guadalcanal. American soldiers and Marines gave better than they received in subsequent fighting and quickly realized that their Japanese opponents, though tough, were not unbeatable. …

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