Co-Authored by Kelsey Noel and Corbin Apkin.
This August marks the 75th anniversary of Operation Watchtower, otherwise known as the Guadalcanal Campaign. Operation Watchtower was a series of engagements between the Allied forces (comprised heavily of U.S. Marines) and the Japanese military. The campaign began on August 7th, 1942 with the first amphibious landings by U.S. Marines on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida islands. By August 8th, the Japanese airfield at Lunga Point was secured.
127-GR-14-88-58869: Suspension Bridge on Guadalcanal. Photo shows bridge built by “seabees” across Matanikau following battle of Matanikau River. This bridge enabled Marine Corps Assault troops plus small supply unites to make hurried crossings to reinforce unites already in enemy territory. The bridge is constructed of steel matting, the same kind used on the Guadalcanal runway at Henderson Field. 9-28-43
127-GR-14-88-50831: Marines on the March. Through jungle thickets, swamps and burning sands, the fighting Leathernecks march on to their goal. With rifles and full packs, on days and nights of endless marching it is plain to see why they are called the toughest fighting men in this world. In this photo a patrol starts on a mission at sunset on Guadalcanal.
127-GR-14-88-51722: Ferry Crossing. Marine engineers on Guadalcanal, set up the raft and rope arrangement to ferry troops across a small river.
127-GR-14-88-74085: Knee Deep in Guadalcanal. Four marines wade up the main street of their camp area on Guadalcanal, while a fifth (first tent on the left) bails out his foxhole. There were times it was easier to row than walk and this was one of them. Guadalcanal has two seasons, the rainy, between November and May, and the wet. The only difference is that during the wet season there are no floods. Or as the natives put it when the rainy season comes: “White men leave the island, and natives die.” American Marines, soldiers and sailors couldn’t leave the island and when the rainy season reached it’s peak recently they were amazed at the vast quantities of water that poured constantly from the clouds. As much as eight inches of rain fell in 24 hours and rivers rose as high as seven feet above normal in two hours. Practically everything was under water and most forms of transportation was by boat.
127-GR-14-88-50921: Birds Nest. This pagoda was headquarters for U.S. Marine and Navy Fliers at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal Island. After surviving numerous Jap[anese] bombings the building was torn down following a near miss which rendered it useless as a shelter.
Other nearby islands including Gavutu and Tanambogo were taken by Allied forces in quick succession over the next several days, but the campaign was not soon over. The Allies and the Japanese continued to engage throughout the region through air strikes and amphibious operations for six months, making Guadalcanal one of the first extended campaigns in the Pacific. Finally, on February 9th, 1943, following a four night long Japanese evacuation, Guadalcanal was declared secured – the Allies had won.
127-GR-14-88-52160: Hanging out the wash. Any day is wash day at this South Pacific base, and here is a Marine style laundry. They are hanging machine gun bolts up to dry, utilizing low hanging tree limbs for clothes lines.
127-GR-14-88-51761: A 40mm Gun Emplacement on Guadacanal.
127-GR-14-88-51539: AA search lights. Leathernecks gun crew are ever on the alert for a Japanese attack on Marine manned out posts in the South Pacific.
127-GR-14-88-51394: Gun Position. A 155mm gun position on Guadalcanal.
127-GR-14-88-50515: Gunnery Experts. These Marines on Guadalcanal proved to the Jap[anese] that Marines are artillery experts. The gun crew here is using a 75mm. pack howitzer, a favorite Marine weapon because of its mobility, to shell a Jap[anese] position.
Many consider the Allies’ success at Guadalcanal to be one of the major turning points of WWII. As such, photographic documentation of U.S. activities and experiences at Guadalcanal is particularly insightful. The Still Picture Branch is excited to share many of the Guadalcanal photos that can be found in RG 127-GR here on The Unwritten Record, presented with transcribed original captions. The entire series was recently digitized for online access and will soon be available to researchers through our Catalog.
127-GR-14-88-108572: Guadalcanal, December 10, 1942. Marine SBD squadron warms up before strike at Henderson Field during December, 1942.
127-GR-14-88-50516: Marine Fighter Plane Saved. Set afire by a Japanese bomb hit on the hanger in the background, this Marine fighter plan was pulled into the open by Leatherneck who used dirt and chemicals to extinguish the flames. The plane, a Grumman “Wildcat” was NOT damaged seriously and was able to return to the air. The picture was taken shortly after the Marines captured a strategic Guadalcanal airport from the Japanese.
127-GR-14-89-52200-F: U.S.S. New Orleans.
127-GR-14-89-52200-A: Guadalcanal Area, Feb 43. USS New Orleans.
127-GR-14-88-53439: Aft guns salvo from destroyer. Naval gunfire support, off Guadalcanal.
127-GR-14-88-73892: General Sherman tanks on manuevers [sic], Guadalcanal.
Maps housed in the Cartographic Branch also help to provide insight into military operations at Guadalcanal. A number of different types of maps were used by Allied forces to plan the campaign, in which some 60,000 Allied troops outnumbered the Japanese defenders by nearly twofold. Interesting examples can be found among the Marine Corps WWII Strategic Maps from RG-127WWII. A wide variety of information was used by the Marine Corps to create these maps, including hydrographic charts, photographic interpretation, sailing directions, and captured Japanese maps.
RG 127: Strategic and Tactical Maps, 1939 – 1944, Guadalcanal, Map 1
RG 127: Strategic and Tactical Maps, 1939 – 1944, Guadalcanal, Map 2
The Allied strategy for the Guadalcanal operation is also seen in maps that accompanied General Douglas MacArthur’s reports. These maps detail various aspects of Operation Watchtower and provide context for the battle, including the location and types of weaponry used and the military units involved. Because they depict the situation during different parts of the battle, these maps provide a more complete picture of the campaign.
RG 496: General MacArthur Report Maps, 1940 – 1947, Vol. II, Plate 37, Map 1
RG 496: General MacArthur Report Maps, 1940 – 1947, Vol. II, Plate 37, Map 2
The Allied forces lost around 7,100 men during the Guadalcanal Campaign; the Japanese lost somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000. Many more were wounded on both sides. While the Japanese suffered greater loss (not only in lives but in ships and aircraft as well), the Guadalcanal Campaign was indeed a costly victory for the Allies. Yet a victory it was, and undoubtedly one of the most significant campaigns of WWII. The islands continued to hold strategic importance for the Allies following their victory there, and Operation Watchtower continues to capture our interest even today.