Operation Watchtower: The Guadalcanal Campaign

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

RG127_WWII_Guadalcanal_01
RG 127: Strategic and Tactical Maps, 1939 – 1944, Guadalcanal, Map 1
RG127_WWII_Guadalcanal_02
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.

RG496_MACARTHUR_VOL2_PL37_01
RG 496: General MacArthur Report Maps, 1940 – 1947, Vol. II, Plate 37, Map 1
RG496_MACARTHUR_VOL2_PL37_02
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.

5 thoughts on “Operation Watchtower: The Guadalcanal Campaign

  1. Years ago I worked with a colleague who had served in the Marines at Guadalcanal. His name was Fred Blackman and he was a lovely man. He suffered from bouts of Maleria contacted during his time there.

  2. My Dad, Clarence Lester Burklow, was a Topgrapher (map maker)on Guadalcanal during this Campaign. He got maleria and was sent to Camp Wolters (Mineral Wells Tx) after the campaign was over in 1943.My Uncle, Glen Burklow, was a Marine, on Guadalcanal. He got jungle rot in his feet Because of climate. Proud of their Service.

  3. My dad, Roy Thomas White, aka “PeeWee” dropped out of his senior year of high school right after Christmas, 1941 and enlisted in the US Navy, with his best friend, Virgil Lusk. Dad left on the troop train from Minden, Nebraska, was sent to San Diego, CA, January, 1942, for basic training and then assigned to Balboa Hospital for medic training. He was assigned to the !st Marine Division and embarked with the troops for OPERATION WATCHTOWER, April 1942, the Guadalcanal invasion. He was one of the 20% of surviving military of the initial campaign who were relieved 8-9 months later and sent to New Zealand. Afflicted with malaria, dysentery and starvation, he was assigned to the Navy Hospital as soon as he was recovered. He remained in New Zealand until 1944 and then returned to San Diego to be reassigned to a medical crew in Astoria Oregon after a 30 days’ leave. He caught the troop train back to Nebraska, convinced Lucille Valentine, a classmate and high school locker neighbor, with whom he had corresponded during that time, to elope to Smith Center, Kansas and return to California with him. He caught the train, she caught the bus. He got to San Diego and was immediately reassigned to Astoria, Oregon. She got to San Diego and then caught another bus north to Portland, Oregon. The war ended in August 23, 1945. Much celebration followed and exactly nine months later, I was born, the first wave of “baby boomers”.

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