1942- The Year of the Aircraft Carrier; Part 15 – Guadalcanal, From the Start, A New and Different Context; Cactus (4/4)

Blown Slick Series #13 Part 15 (4/4)

 “…the only place on Earth where you could stand up to your knees in mud and still get dust in your eyes.” Marion Carl


First Marine Ace by Roy Grinnell. Capt. Marion Carl over Henderson Field  – the first Marine Ace of WWII, finishing with 18.5 kills. Awarded the Navy Cross.

Commander in Chief, United States Fleet (COMINCH) and Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Ernest King pushed hard in Washington for operations in the Pacific – Navy ops.  The victory at Midway gave him the leverage he needed in the Europe first Washington D.C. comings and goings. King directed Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet and Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, Chester Nimitz to move out and thus began the push to move to the offensive by invading  Guadalcanal. The number of ships would grow close to ninety, vastly more than say the Wake Island or Doolittle events. As noted previously it combined land, sea and air combat capability as never before. Watchtower was indeed a recognized gamble, and yet, the planning was seriously short of consideration of that complexity and what situations might evolve, not the least of this would be the lack of early land based air.

There is no Japanese defeat in the Solomons without the defense of Henderson Field and the combat flying of the Cactus Air Force.

Henderson Field and the Beginnings of the Cactus Air Force 

The Situation

The 7 August landings on Tulagi and Guadalcanal at Lunga Point, included the capturing of a partially completed Japanese airfield. Indeed, the uncompleted Japanese airfield was the reason the Americans landed on Guadalcanal in the first place.

With VADM Frank Jack Fletcher’s decision to move his three carriers farther away from Guadalcanal, which deprived the U.S. invasion force of close air cover, and with Rear Admiral Kelly Turner’s heaviest escorts sunk by the Japanese off Savo Island, the transport and supply ships unloaded as much as they could as fast as they could, but many supplies and much equipment was still aboard the ships when they departed. Because the concept of “combat loading” was still in a learning phase, much of what did get ashore was a hodgepodge, strewn up and down the landing beach. Because the ability to offload from boats exceeded the capacity to get the supplies off the beach, the Marines ashore  were left with about four days’ worth of supplies.


Fortunately for the Marines, there was minimal Japanese opposition in the first weeks on the island. Most of the Japanese on the island had been construction troops who were in the process of clearing land for use as an airfield, and who had fled into the jungle, where without supplies of their own they quickly became mostly combat-ineffective (but still executed some deadly ambushes).

Marines immediately took over the task of finishing the airfield mainly using captured Japanese equipment. The Marines named the airstrip Henderson Field, after Major Lofton Henderson, who had been commander of the Marine bombing squadron based on Midway Island, and who had been shot down and killed while trying to attack the Japanese carrier force in the first hours of the Battle of Midway on 4 June. On 12 August, the first landing was made on the airstrip by a U.S. Navy PBY Catalina flying boat and by 18 August, Henderson Field was ready for operation

Japanese reinforcement efforts began on 16 August, as Japanese destroyers began landing troops and supplies on Guadalcanal at night. This would set the pattern for the first months of the battle. Japanese destroyers (and their own versions of destroyer-transports) would arrive at night to offload troops and supplies, generally unmolested by the U.S., with the intent to be far enough back up the Solomon Island chain by daylight to avoid being attacked by U.S. carrier or Henderson Field based aircraft. During daylight hours, Japanese land-based bombers, escorted by Zero fighters, would fly from airfields in the northern Solomons to try to strike U.S. carriers, bomb the Marines on Guadalcanal, or sink any U.S. ships attempting to resupply the Marines ashore. By the end of August, the pattern was essentially that the Japanese owned the night at sea. Control of the sky during the day was hotly contested with heavy losses in aircraft on both sides, but any Japanese ships caught in daylight were vulnerable to U.S. attack.

The airfield

When the first planes began arriving on 20 August, the airfield could barely be described as an airfield. It was an irregularly shaped blob cut out of the island growth, half in and half out of a coconut grove, with a runway that was too short and few revetments to protect the aircraft from shrapnel.

Henderson Field

Map and picture of the airfield at Lunga point and the “Pagoda operations center.

The runway was 2,400-foot  long gravel surface with an extra 1,000 feet of Marston Matting that was frequently pockmarked with craters from Japanese artillery and naval gunfire. The strip was in such poor condition that it caused as many losses to aircraft as enemy action. In the heat, the field was a bowl of black dust which fouled the warplanes’ engines.  When it rained, the airfield quickly turned muddy, miring planes in liquid muck.  The heavier SBD dive bombers had it the worst, since their hard rubber tires, designed for aircraft carrier landings and take-offs, ripped up the runways like plowshares. The runway was extended and widened several times during the long Guadalcanal campaign, and by 4 September it was 3,800 feet  long and 150 wide.


Henderson Field was also very close to the thinly-held lines of the U.S. First Marine Division, so security was always a concern. There were no fuel trucks, aircraft hangars, or repair buildings. Damaged aircraft were cannibalized for spare parts, and with no bomb hoists, all aircraft munitions had to be hand-loaded onto the warplanes. Fuel, always critically low, had to be hand pumped out of 55 gallon drums. Even after the arrival of fuel trucks, aviation gasoline still had to be hand-pumped into the trucks.

(On 9 September 1942, the 6th Naval Construction Battalion (SeaBees) opened up a second runway about one mile to the east of the original runway. This new runway, called “Fighter 1”, consisted of tamped-down sod, and it was about 4,600 feet (1,400 m) long and 300 feet (91 m) wide. The Marine fighter squadrons began operating out of Fighter 1, with the rest of the aircraft operating out of  the original runway – thereafter  referred to as “Bomber Field No. 1.”)

Living conditions on Guadalcanal were some of the most difficult ever faced by Marine aviation. Pilots and mechanics lived in mud-floored tents in a flooded coconut plantation called “Mosquito Grove.” Most contracted tropical diseases such as malaria, dysentery, dengue fever, or fungal infections.

The misery was accompanied by mortal danger. The airfield was bombed nearly every day around noon by 20 to 40 Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers flying at 20,000 feet (6,100 m) in a perfect “Vee formation” escorted by fighter planes.  It was frequently shelled as well, by Japanese artillery in the day and Japanese warships at night. (The worst night of bombardment was on 13–14 October 1942, when two Japanese battleships fired more than 700 heavy shells into the airfield, providing cover for the Japanese Navy’s landing of Marine and army reinforcements further west on Guadalcanal.)

The Cactus Air Force

The first Marine aircraft arrival on 20 August  included part of Marine Aircraft Group 23 flying from the escort aircraft carrier USS Long Island and  included  18 F4F Wildcat fighter planes of VMF-223 led by Major John L. Smith and a dozen SBD Dauntless dive bombers of VMSB-232 led by Lt. Colonel Richard Mangrum. They conducted combat missions the following day.

Smith Mangrum Carl

Major John L. Smith, Lt. Colonel Richard Mangrum, and Capt Marion Carl.

They were joined on 22 August by the U.S. Army’s 67th Pursuit Squadron under Major Dale Brannon, with five Army P-400s (an “export” version of the P-39); and on 24 August by 11 SBD dive bombers that came from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise which were unable to land on their carrier, damaged in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons.

At the end of August, these warplanes were joined by 19 more Wildcats from VMF-224 under Major Robert E. Galer, and a dozen more SBD dive bombers from VMSB-231, also part of the Marine Air Group 23. This varied assortment of Army, Marine, and Navy pilots and warplanes was the beginnings of the Cactus Air Force. (“Cactus” was the Allied code name for Guadalcanal).


21 August brought the first Marine air-to-air combat, with mixed results. Japanese Zeros from the Tainan Air Group on a bomber escort mission (the bombers were fruitlessly searching for American carriers south of Guadalcanal) passed over Henderson Field on their way back to Rabaul, and six of these were met by four Cactus Air Force F4F Wildcats at 14,000 feet. Major Smith claimed the first air-to-air victory for the CAF, but two other pilots crashed while landing their damaged aircraft, with both of the Wildcats deemed a total loss except for salvaged parts.  That same night, an SBD Dauntless blew a tire on take-off, causing it to ground loop and crash for another aircraft loss.

On 24 August, during the carrier Battle of the Eastern Solomons, Japanese Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo sent the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) light carrier Ryujo ahead of the main Japanese warship force as an aircraft attack force against Henderson Field. The Ryujo mission was most likely in response to a request from Nishizo Tsukahara, the naval commander at Rabaul, for help from the Japanese combined fleet in neutralizing the land based air threat.  At 12:20 and 200 miles northeast of Guadalcanal, the Ryujo launched six “Kate” bombers and 15 A6M Zero fighters to attack Henderson Field in conjunction with an attack by 24 “Betty” bombers and 14 Zero fighters from Rabaul.

Unknown to the Ryujo force, however, the Rabaul aircraft had encountered severe weather and returned to their base at 11:30. The Ryujo’s aircraft arrived over Henderson Field at 14:23 and tangled with 14 Marine Wildcats and four Army P-400s while bombing the airfield. In the resulting engagement three Kates, three Zeros, and three Marine fighters were shot down with no damage was done to Henderson Field. Two Marine pilots were killed in the engagement as well as eight Japanese aircrewmen. All of these Japanese aircraft were eventually lost because, while they were attacking Henderson Field, the Ryujo was sunk by aircraft from  USS Saratoga, forcing the Japanese aircraft to ditch in the ocean upon returning to the previous location of their carrier. With Enterprise unable to recover aircraft due to battle damage, her aircraft landed at Henderson and continued as “part” of the Cactus AF.D748lVVU8AAfJ1x

By the end of August, only five of the Wildcats and four P-400s were still flyable. However, the number of aircraft based at Henderson gradually increased and continued as a constantly changing mix of mostly Marine, Navy and some Army Air Force fighter, dive bomber, and a few torpedo bomber aircraft, including carrier aircraft from remnants of Torpedo 8 flown off the USS Saratoga [CV-3] after she was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Since she was forced to return to Pearl Harbor for drydock repairs, most of the Saratoga’s aircraft and aircrewmen remained behind at Espiritu Santo and Admiral McCain sent some of these aircraft to reinforce the Cactus Air Force at Guadalcanal. By 3 September, the day of General Geiger’s arrival, the CAF consisted of only 64 flyable airplanes. Due to the continued heavy losses, Admiral McCain decided to immediately deploy the USS Saratoga’s fighter squadrons to Guadalcanal and on 4 September 24 F4Fs of VF-5 flew from Espiritu Santo to Henderson Field.

Air battles between Japanese fighters protecting Japanese bombers and U.S. fighters were an almost daily occurrence in the skies over Guadalcanal, interrupted only by weather and the extreme range that Japanese aircraft had to fly to reach the island. The Japanese would also frequently send a float plane or a bomber to harass the Marines at night; although annoying, these night flights were rarely effective.

Between 21 August and 11 September, the Japanese raided Guadalcanal a total of ten times, losing 31 aircraft and seven more heavily damaged, primarily due to the defensive efforts of CAF fighter planes. Most of the Japanese aircrewmen in the destroyed aircraft were killed.  From 1 September through 8 September the Japanese aviation units at Rabaul concentrated on providing air cover for Japanese Army forces operating along the Kokoda Track on New Guinea, but they resumed air operations against Henderson Field on 9 September. During this period, the CAF Marine Corps fighter squadrons lost 27 aircraft with nine pilots killed.


The Cactus Air Force mix of Marine, Navy and Army Air Corps aircraft would persist throughout the Guadalcanal Campaign, playing a major role in the 11-15 November Naval Battle of Guadalcanal which effectively ended Japanese efforts to retake Guadalcanal.

Cactus dive bombers and torpedo planes sank or destroyed 17 large enemy vessels, including one Japanese battleship, one heavy cruiser (the Kinugasa), one light cruiser,  three destroyers, and twelve transports, possibly sank three destroyers and one heavy cruiser, and heavily damaged 18 other ships, including one heavy cruiser and five light cruisers. Most notable was the battleship Hiei, which the CAF, along with aircraft from the Enterprise, and B-17s from Espiritu Santo, finished off after she had suffered serious damage from American cruisers and destroyers during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

The fifteen Marine combat squadrons that fought on Guadalcanal during this time suffered 94 pilots killed or missing-in-action, with another 177 evacuated with wounds or with sickness (especially severe malaria). Total figures for Japanese aerial losses during the Guadalcanal campaign have never been calculated.

The Battle of Guadalcanal would become the defining point for Marine Corps aviation in World War II and for the next fifty years. The great lessons learned for Marine Corps aviation units were the debilitating effects of not having air superiority; the importance of the use of radar; the vulnerability of enemy transport and warship targets; and the vital importance of quickly acquiring expeditionary airfields during amphibious operations.

For aerial performance at Guadalcanal The Medal of Honor was awarded to:

  • LtCol. Harold W. Bauer
  • Capt. Joe Foss
  • Maj. John L. Smith
  • Maj. Robert E. Galer
  • First Lt. Jefferson J. DeBlanc

Next Part #13 – The Battle of the Eastern Solomons

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