Midnight in the Pacific

Guadalcanal -- The World War II Battle That Turned the Tide of War


By Joseph Wheelan

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A sweeping narrative history — the first in over twenty years — of America’s first major offensive of World War II, the brutal, no-quarter-given campaign to take Japanese-occupied Guadalcanal

From early August until mid-November of 1942, US Marines, sailors, and pilots struggled for dominance against an implacable enemy: Japanese soldiers, inculcated with the bushido tradition of death before dishonor, avatars of bayonet combat — close-up, personal, and gruesome. The glittering prize was Henderson Airfield. Japanese planners knew that if they neutralized the airfield, the battle was won. So did the Marines who stubbornly defended it.

The outcome of the long slugfest remained in doubt under the pressure of repeated Japanese air, land, and sea operations. And losses were heavy. At sea, in a half-dozen fiery combats, the US Navy fought the Imperial Japanese Navy to a draw, but at a cost of more than 4,500 sailors. More American sailors died in these battles off Guadalcanal than in all previous US wars, and each side lost 24 warships. On land, more than 1,500 soldiers and Marines died, and the air war claimed more than 500 US planes. Japan’s losses on the island were equally devastating — starving Japanese soldiers called it “the island of death.”

But when the attritional struggle ended, American Marines, sailors, and airmen had halted the Japanese juggernaut that for five years had whirled through Asia and the Pacific. Guadalcanal was America’s first major ground victory against Japan and, most importantly, the Pacific War’s turning point.

Published on the 75th anniversary of the battle and utilizing vivid accounts written by the combatants at Guadalcanal, along with Marine Corps and Army archives and oral histories, Midnight in the Pacific is both a sweeping narrative and a compelling drama of individual Marines, soldiers, and sailors caught in the crosshairs of history.


It is well that war is so terrible—we should grow too fond of it.



MAP 1: Western Pacific Theater, 1942

MAP 2: Guadalcanal, Florida, and Savo Islands

MAP 3: The Slot

MAP 4: Battle of Savo Island, August 9, 1942

MAP 5: Battle of Alligator Creek, August 21, 1942

MAP 6: Bloody Ridge I, September 12–14, 1942

MAP 7: Matanikau Offensive II, September 24–27, 1942

MAP 8: Matanikau Offensive III, October 7–9, 1942

MAP 9: Bloody Ridge II, October 23–26, 1942

MAP 10: Carlson's Raid, November 4–December 4, 1942

MAP 11: The Gifu, January 2, 1943

MAP 12: Final Offensive, January 26–February 9, 1943

MAP 1. Western Pacific Theater, 1942.

MAP 2. Guadalcanal, Florida, and Savo Islands.

MAP 3. The Slot.

MAP 4. Battle of Savo Island, August 9, 1942.

MAP 5. Battle of Alligator Creek, August 21, 1942.

MAP 6. Bloody Ridge I, September 12–14, 1942.

MAP 7. Matanikau Offensive II, September 24–27, 1942.

MAP 8. Matanikau Offensive III, October 7–9, 1942.

MAP 9. Bloody Ridge II, October 23–26, 1942.

MAP 10. Carlson's Raid, November 4–December 4, 1942.

MAP 11. The Gifu, January 2, 1943.

MAP 12. Final Offensive, January 26–February 9, 1943.


August Part I:
Marine Invasion and Naval Disaster

The enemy force is overwhelming. We will defend our positions to the death, praying for eternal victory.


The blackest day of the war.


BEFORE SUNSET ON AUGUST 6 the American fleet divided south of Guadalcanal. Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, Watchtower's tactical commander, positioned his air support group a hundred miles south of Guadalcanal; it consisted of aircraft carriers Saratoga (Fletcher's flagship), Wasp, and Enterprise; the battleship North Carolina; and six cruisers. Meanwhile Turner's amphibious force proceeded northwest, skirted Guadalcanal's west coast, and, turning eastward, approached Savo Island in Sealark Channel, where it split again at 2:40 a.m. on August 7 into transport groups Yoke and X-Ray.

Yoke's eight transports sailed north of Savo toward Sealark's northern shore to land nearly five thousand Marines and supplies on Beach Blue on Tulagi as well as on Gavutu, Tanambogo, and Florida Islands. X-Ray's fifteen transports, with fourteen thousand troops and supplies, turned south of Savo and approached Beach Red on Guadalcanal's northern coast.2

Before sunset, blue-shirted sailors oiled their winches and tested them by swinging the Higgins boats out from their davits. The Marines checked their packs and resharpened their knives and bayonets. The "hushed, tense activity" did not cease until daylight began to fade, a contrast to the more relaxed atmosphere of previous days. D-Day was now hours away. When nighttime arrived with equatorial suddenness, the command to "darken ship" was issued, and in the silence that followed, the men could hear the wind whistling through the rigging.3

At 3:00 a.m. reveille sounded on the transports. After a hasty breakfast in the galley—for many, an apple and two hard-boiled eggs—the Marines made their final preparations prior to climbing down cargo nets to the landing craft. The air was charged with tense anticipation.

Although a handful of officers and noncoms had fought in the distant Great War and the recent Banana Wars, most of the Marines had never fired a shot in anger. Many had learned the "fine points of the art of war," such as throwing and launching grenades, just recently aboard ship. Boot camp had taught them discipline and how to fire and care for their rifles—older bolt-action Springfield '03s with five-round magazines. The Navy refused to purchase the faster-firing semi-automatic M-1 Garands for its Marines, although the Army had them. The hasty deployment and World War I weaponry did not dampen the young Marines' eagerness to meet the enemy.4

Just after 6:00 a.m. the roar of swarming Wildcat fighters, Dauntless dive bombers, and bomb-armed Avenger torpedo bombers from the Saratoga, Enterprise, and Wasp drew the eyes of thousands of sailors and Marines to the skies. Making shrieking dives, the combat planes strafed and bombed the unfinished airfield on the lumpy green land mass of Guadalcanal and struck targets across Sealark Channel. Within minutes, flames and black smoke billowed from fifteen wrecked float planes that never got airborne from Tanambogo, Tulagi, and Florida Islands.5

"Our ships covered the waters below—dozens of them as far as the eye could see," observed Ensign Harold L. Buell, a dive-bomber pilot flying from the Enterprise.

At 6:14 a.m. Admiral Turner's cruisers and destroyers opened fire on Guadalcanal and Tulagi, as Turner and Vandegrift watched from Turner's flagship McCawley, nicknamed the "Wacky Mac." "The concussion of the firing shook the deck of our ship," wrote Richard Tregaskis, a lanky International News Service reporter whom Guadalcanal would make famous, "and stirred our trouser legs with sudden gusts of wind, despite the distance." Flames shot high from a fuel dump hit by the Navy gunners. The air reeked of cordite.

Lieutenant C. Raymond Calhoun, aboard the destroyer Sterett, wrote, "It was probably the biggest show of seapower ever assembled in the Pacific at that time, and it was awe-inspiring."

"What a good feeling to know we are doing the dishing out this time," wrote Sterett quartermaster Tim Cleere. "Right now it looks as though we are giving them a surprise party."6

TWENTY MILES INLAND FROM THE Guadalcanal beaches, amid the high, cold, wet mountain peaks and roaring river gorges, Captain Martin Clemens of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate Defense Force heard the naval gunfire and turned on his radio set. He and his team of natives had abandoned their "coast-watcher" station in Aola, Guadalcanal's administrative center, and withdrawn into the mountains when Japanese troops invaded Tulagi in May.

The Scotsman, a renowned footballer at Cambridge, for three months had shivered through cold nights in Guadalcanal's high mountains while faithfully submitting radio reports to the Royal Australian Navy over his bulky, battery-powered radio-telegraph, which operated only intermittently because of the high humidity. He had reported the arrival of Japanese labor troops and materiel and, since July 6, closely monitored the progress of the airfield project. Since late July there had been a sharp increase in allied bombing attacks on the island, and he was told something big was going to happen. Clearly it was happening today.

Clemens listened on his radio set to air traffic controllers on American carriers talking to their pilots. He could see scores of ships in Sealark Channel, plastering Guadalcanal's north shore from Kukum to Tasimboko.

Clemens had also kept a diary, and in it, on Friday, August 7, he recorded his elation over what he was seeing and hearing: "Wizard!!! Calloo, callay, oh, what a day!!!" As Allied planes roared overhead he "could not resist waving madly and giving the chaps in the air a cheer."7

IT WAS SWELTERING ON THE transports despite the early hour. Even before they began climbing down to the Higgins boats, most of the Marines were dripping with sweat. The Marines wore the new sage-green herringbone twill cotton jacket and trousers issued in November 1941 to replace the decades-old issue. On the jacket's four bronze-finished steel buttons appeared in relief the words, "U.S. MARINE CORPS." Stenciled on the jacket pocket was the famous emblem and the letters "USMC."

More conspicuous and nearly as ubiquitous was the new "steel pot" M1 helmet, which covered more of the head than the shallower World War I "Doughboy" helmet, the M1917. Because not all of the old helmets had been replaced yet, some Marines still wore the antique headgear.

As the Marines prepared to descend the cargo nets into the landing boats, "Our sailor friends came by, and shook our hands as if we would all be dead before the day was over," wrote Private Sid Phillips.

The George F. Elliott rocked in the gentle waves as Private Robert Leckie and his First Marines platoon negotiated the swaying net. "My rifle muzzle knocked my helmet forward over my eyes. Beneath me, the Higgins boats wallowed in the troughs." Weighed down by fifty pounds of gear, the Marines dropped the last three feet from the end of the cargo net into the flat-bottomed boat, known in military parlance as the LCVP (landing craft, vehicle, personnel). It was one of thousands made by Andy Higgins on a roped-off New Orleans street in front of his shop.

Expecting hostile gunfire and casualties on the beaches, the Marines were not talkative as the boats made ready to head for shore, although on Sergeant Jim McEnery's boat the men sang "Roll Out the Barrel" to relieve the tension. The stream of Higgins boats emerging from the transports pleased dive-bomber pilot Buell. "From my grandstand seat in the sky, everything appeared to be proceeding in good order and as planned." From the stern of each boat snapped a three-by-five-foot American flag; the line of flags "seemed to reach to eternity," wrote Phillips.8

TASK FORCE YOKE, ITS OBJECTIVE Blue Beach (Tulagi), Florida Island, and the two adjacent flyspecks, Gavutu and Tanambogo, landed its Marines first. At 7:40 a.m. B Company of the Second Marines, 2nd Marine Division, became the first unit to invade Japanese-occupied territory during World War II. Private Russell Miller was the first Marine ashore. The assault troops had to jump over the gunwales; the newer Higgins models featuring a bow ramp were earmarked for Operation Torch, the North Africa landings scheduled in the fall. Miller and his comrades entered Haleta Village on Florida Island without a hostile shot fired.9

After fifteen fighters, fifteen dive bombers, and navy gunfire pummeled Tulagi, now wreathed in clouds of smoke, Colonel Merritt Edson's shock troops, the 1st Raider Battalion, approached the shore at 8:00 a.m. They had covered their M1 helmets with squares of burlap issued the previous night to blur their headgear's domed shape and dim its reflection. As expected, none of the landing craft reached the beach; the assault's planners had avoided Tulagi's deep-water harbor because it was too obvious. They had chosen a remoter, less likely landing spot, which was guarded by offshore coral formations. Without exception the Raiders' LCVPs became hung up on coral reefs thirty to one hundred yards from shore, and the Raiders had to wade through waist- to armpit-deep water to get to dry land. No one fired on them, and they might have briefly dared to hope that the Navy's preliminary bombing and shelling had wiped out the defenders. If Edson's 828 carefully selected and trained Raiders or the 2nd Battalion, Fifth Marines behind them entertained such a notion, their hopes would soon be dashed.

Tulagi was a hilly, heavily wooded island dominated by a long, 350-foot-high ridge that, as developments would prove, was honeycombed with caves ideal for defense. Bitter fighting would erupt shortly. As the Raiders came ashore near the small island's northwest tip, the Japanese radioed a last message from Tulagi to Rabaul before destroying their radio equipment: "The enemy force is overwhelming. We will defend our positions to the death, praying for eternal victory."10

Three miles away at Gavutu the 1st Parachute Battalion landed at noon amid a torrent of machine-gun fire. The parachutists, like the Raiders armed lightly for hit-and-run missions, could have used heavier firepower. As it was, they had only 60mm mortars, light machine-guns, and their '03 Springfield rifles to counter the heavy machine-gun fire raking them from Gavutu's Hill 148 and adjacent Tanambogo, connected to the tiny island by a five-hundred-yard causeway.11

AT 9:19 A.M. THE 1ST and 3rd Battalions of the Fifth Marines splashed ashore on Beach Red on the north coast of Guadalcanal, code-named "Cactus." The "Fighting Fifth," famed for its assault at Belleau Wood in 1918, was one of just two Marine regiments—the other being the 6th Regiment—entitled to wear the French Fourragere on the left shoulders of their uniforms.12

The Fifth Marines sprinted across the beach, hiked up a low ridge one hundred yards inland, dug foxholes, and braced for enemy machine-gun and mortar fire.

Except for the squawks of alarmed parrots and lories, it was utterly silent.

The Marines began to hope they might be spared a stand-up fight on the beachhead. One had been expected. Intelligence estimates of Japanese strength on Guadalcanal had ranged as high as 5,200, with another 1,850 enemy troops believed to be in the Tulagi area.

The invaders raised their heads and looked around.

"It was a lovely mile-long, gently shelving and sandy beach, ideal for a landing," observed Lieutenant William H. Whyte. "We were puzzled by the stillness.… Maybe, we thought, there weren't any Japanese on the island at all."13

The Marines began helping themselves to the coconuts knocked to the ground during the naval bombardment, despite a sergeant's shouted warnings that the Japanese might have poisoned them. "We just laughed—and went on husking the nuts, cracking the shells, drinking the cool sweet coconut milk," wrote Private Robert Leckie. "No one bothered to point out the obvious difficulties involved in poisoning Guadalcanal's millions of coconuts."14

While the Fifth Marines held the beachhead, the First Marines, arriving in the second wave, passed through and pushed inland toward their initial objective, a prominent hill that overlooked the airfield. The Marines' primitive maps showed the so-called Grassy Knoll to be just a thousand yards away from Beach Red, but it was actually eight miles distant, behind successively higher ridges, and it was impossible to reach in one day. When Colonel Clifton Cates, who commanded the First Marines, informed Vandegrift of the problem, the commanding general agreed to suspend the regiment's mission. Cates's men established a night perimeter a mile inland along the Tenaru River, about two miles east of the airfield.

The Fifth Marines left the beachhead perimeter and marched westward to capture the airfield, five miles distant. In the tall kunai grass some of them became lost, and jittery Marines fired wildly at one other through the grass screen—luckily without casualties. The hours slipped away, and they dug in along the mouth of Alligator Creek a mile from the airstrip. Vandegrift's staff grumbled that for all their experience and training, the Fifth Marines, commanded by Colonel Leroy Hunt, were "sluggish in moving and carrying out their missions."15

Although the Marines had encountered no opposition on Guadalcanal, save for sporadic sniper fire, and no casualties except for a man who cut his hand trying to open a coconut, they had been introduced to the hostile natural environment: the sharp-tipped kunai grass, jungle undergrowth that snagged their clothing and slashed their skin, and the oppressive heat and humidity. It was a harbinger of the manifold miseries that lay ahead.

William White of the Eleventh Marines artillery regiment, in top condition when he left the United States, became painfully aware on the first day that two months aboard ship had taken a toll on him and his comrades. "We were sadly out of shape," he lamented. Panting for breath, they found simply moving forward to be "mind-numbing work." "Our clothing, wet with sweat, was like an airtight sack, trapping the heat and making life miserable," he said.16

AN EPIC TRAFFIC JAM DEVELOPED at Beach Red as boats unloaded supplies. Every square inch of the narrow, shallow beach soon was jammed with food, clothing, ammunition, and materiel that had been landed haphazardly from Navy lighters. Scores of lighters stacked four deep were waiting to be guided in and unloaded, but there was too little room on the beach and not enough men assigned to unload and move the cargo. "The logistic situation was poor," Colonel Gerald Thomas, the division operations officer, said of the colossal tie-up.

The Navy and Marines disagreed over who was responsible for supplying stevedores. Fearing Japanese counterattacks, Vandegrift would not spare more than the men already detailed from his reserve battalion. The Navy believed its job was to bring the supplies to the beach and no more; it ignored Vandegrift's request to give him more shore workers.

Many of the Marines, told not to help unload supplies but to be ready for Japanese counterattacks, lounged under the palm trees eating coconuts or swam in the lagoon. There was no counterattack.17

THE LAST JAPANESE RADIO MESSAGE from Tulagi stunned the Imperial Navy at Rabaul. It knew from the intensified air attacks on Tulagi and Guadalcanal that something was afoot—but nothing of this magnitude. "Enemy forces overwhelming," the message had said. The army high command, preoccupied with the capture of New Guinea, was perplexed. What could possibly be the enemy's interest in Guadalcanal?

At this point the Japanese navy informed the army for the first time that it was building an airfield on Guadalcanal. This surprising lack of communication on a matter as important as a new airfield illustrated the two services' insularity from one another. The army and navy traditionally cooperated only with the greatest reluctance, while jealously guarding their prerogatives. Interservice rivalries would cost the Japanese future victories.18

Nonetheless the Japanese reaction to the American landings was instantaneous, although high military officials believed it to be a "landing by a few units for reconnaissance purposes"—no more than two thousand men. Having conquered 20 million square miles—an area five times the size of Nazi Germany's territories—Japanese leaders were supremely confident they could fend off pinpricks such as this.

When Emperor Hirohito announced that he would cut short his vacation and return to the palace to deal with the crisis, the chief of the navy general staff, Admiral Osami Nagano, told him, "It is nothing worthy of your Majesty's attention."

But in Rabaul Rear Admiral Sadayoshi Yamada, in charge of the 25th Air Flotilla, scrubbed that day's planned attack on Milne Bay, New Guinea. Instead, he dispatched to Guadalcanal and Tulagi a strike force of fifty-four planes: twenty-seven Mitsubishi G4M1 medium bombers from the Fourth Air Group—dubbed "Type One Bombers" by the Japanese and "Bettys" by the Americans—with an escort of nine Aichi 99 "Val" dive bombers and eighteen Mitsubishi M6M2 Zero fighters, the best fighter planes in the Pacific.

The Japanese also made sea and ground counterattack plans. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto began gathering his Combined Fleet from across East Asia for a counterstrike and ordered the waters around Guadalcanal cleared.

The diminutive, fifty-eight-year-old admiral—five-feet-three and 130 pounds—liked to gamble and write poetry. He did not drink, having become a teetotaler after a drunken episode when he was an ensign. Yamamoto had fought in the Russo-Japanese War and had lost two fingers to shrapnel. Later, during two duty tours in the United States, he became fluent in English and cultivated great respect for America's military potential. During his first posting he witnessed some of the early advances in US military air power and returned to Tokyo urging Japan to develop a strong air force. During his second posting Yamamoto took an English class at Harvard and toured the Texas oilfields. In 1939 he became commander in chief of the Combined Fleet.19

THE SEVENTEENTH ARMY WAS GIVEN the responsibility of retaking Guadalcanal. The Ichiki Detachment, about two thousand infantrymen whose mission to seize Midway was aborted after the US naval victory, was sent from Guam to the Seventeenth Army for the first ground operation on Guadalcanal. Many Japanese military leaders believed that recapturing Guadalcanal would be as easy as Japan's previous conquests—merely a "mop-up" operation. "With the big success of the southern operations [Southeast Asia], the illusion that the United States and Great Britain were not worth being afraid of began to prevail in the Japanese Army and Navy from the top down," wrote Commander Toshikazu Ohmae, an Eighth Fleet staff officer. "The caution heretofore exercised in operational policies suddenly disappeared."

Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake, who commanded the Seventeenth Army, was less certain of a swift victory than were most of his peers. Before launching his counteroffensive, the general showed a Japanese news reporter Guadalcanal on a map. "This is our new destination—Gadarukanaru. I know you think this might be small-scale warfare. It's true there will be nothing heroic in it, but I'd say it will be extremely serious business."20

JAPAN'S TOP ACE, SABURO SAKAI, with fifty-eight victories, had been ready to fly another fighter sweep over New Guinea that day with the crack Tainan Group, veterans of the Philippines and Dutch East Indies campaigns. Two other well-known aces also flew in the group: Hiroyoshi Nishizawa and Toshio Ota. When their mission was canceled and the fighter pilots reported to their command post, they found it in "wild turmoil," wrote Sakai. They received new orders: attack the American invasion force on Guadalcanal's beaches and sink or drive away the troop transports.

Charts were passed around, and when the pilots checked the distance from Rabaul to Guadalcanal, "there were whistles of disbelief," said Sakai. "Five hundred and sixty miles!… The distance was unheard of." The Zeros and Vals would have to burn every ounce of fuel they could carry to hit their target and return to Rabaul. The air command advised the pilots to use a dirt airstrip on northern Bougainville if they ran low on fuel, and it sent a recovery ship and plane off southern Bougainville to collect pilots who were forced to ditch. The improvised strike force was airborne at 8:30 a.m.

Coast watcher Paul Mason heard the drone of the Betty medium bombers when they flew over his southern Bougainville station around 11:30, and he went outdoors to count them; Mason's station was midway on the direct air route between Rabaul and Guadalcanal. To his control station at Port Moresby, Mason radioed, "Twenty-seven bombers headed southeast," evidently not seeing their fighter escort or the Vals. Mason's message was forwarded to Australia, bounced across the Pacific to Pearl Harbor, and then relayed to the invasion fleet, which was reading Mason's report twenty-five minutes after he sent it. The US Navy used its two hours' lead time to prepare for the attack. When the Australian cruiser Canberra


  • "Current-day readers, accustomed to an era of perpetual war with no end in sight, will find this expert, nuts-and-bolts history of a famous victory thoroughly satisfying."
  • "[Wheelan] does an excellent job of highlighting the desperate fighting on all fronts."—New York Journal of Books
  • "Very enjoyable."—Open Letters Monthly
  • "Written with scholarly precision, yet thoroughly accessible to readers of all backgrounds."—Midwest Book Review
  • "Highly readable and provides a comprehensive examination of America's first offensive operation in World War II. This would be an excellent addition to the library of any historian or student with an interest on the subject."—Army University Press
  • "An entertaining, fast-paced, adventure wrapped in stories of valor, horror and survival while remaining a necessary contribution to the history of Guadalcanal."
    WW2 Reads
  • "Midnight in the Pacific brings to life the qualities of those who endured one of the critical struggles of World War II...Wheelan delivers the story in meticulously researched, chilling, riveting, and often gruesome detail...It will not only captivate those with a serious interest in the Pacific War, but it will also intrigue and inform a much broader audience."—Marine Corps Gazette
  • "Midnight in the Pacific is a highly detailed account of the battle for Guadalcanal that those with a love of military history are sure to enjoy."—On Point: The Journal of Army History
  • "An impressive chronicle of one of the critical campaigns of the war."—WWII History

On Sale
Aug 1, 2017
Page Count
400 pages
Da Capo Press

Joseph Wheelan

About the Author

Joseph Wheelan is the author of nine previous books, including the highly-acclaimed books Terrible Swift Sword and Midnight in the Pacific. Before turning to writing books full time, Wheelan was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press for twenty-four years. He lives in Cary, North Carolina.

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