The battle for Guadalcanal though on Australia's doorstep and an integral part of the Battle for Australia, had limited Australian involvement. The ground, and in particular the tank battle was fought by US Marines. Guadalcanal was possibly the first deployment of allied tanks in the jungle (the Japanese had effectively used light and medium tanks in Malaya), in the course of the action in the Solomon Islands the Marines learned the need to protect tanks (particularly light ones) in close country. The lesson was costly but when applied the Stuart (only one made it to the point of battle) was the bunker buster essential to victory in the last major incident of the campaign.
The 1st Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal and the nearby islands of Tulagi, Gavutu and Tanambogo on 7 August 1942. The objective on the main island of Guadalcanal was an airfield under construction near Laguna point. The nearby islands, part of the Florida Islands chain are about 35 kilometres distant and clearly visible from Guadalcanal. The objectives there were a seaplane base established by the Japanese on the islands of Gavutu and Tanambogo using port facilities developed by ICI as part of a chemical processing plant; and the administration centre on Tulagi where the Japanese had taken over the British capital of their Solomon Islands Protectorate.
The Florida Islands
On 7 August, the Japanese forces on Tulagi and Gavutu, consisted of a detachment of the 3rd Kure Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF) plus members of the Yokohama Air Group. Their commander signalled their commander at Rabaul that they were under attack, were destroying their equipment and papers, and signed off with the message, "Enemy troop strength is overwhelming, we will defend to the last man." The, commander of the SNLF unit, ordered his troops into pre-prepared defensive positions on Tulagi and Gavutu.
Gavutu and Tanambogo are mounds of coral, both about 40 m high, connected to each other by a 500 m long causeway. At 12:00 on 7 August, Gavutu was assaulted by the US Marine 1st Parachute Battalion consisting of 397 men. After about two hours of heavy fighting, Marines reached and climbed the coral mound. Then working from the top, the Marines cleared the Japanese fighting positions on the hill with explosive charges, grenades and hand-to-hand combat. His force depleted, the Marine commander on Gavutu radioed for reinforcements before attempting to assault Tanambogo.
Most of the 240 Japanese defenders on Tanambogo were aircrew and maintenance personnel from the Yokohama Air Group, not equipped for to fight as infantry. One of the few Japanese soldiers captured recounts fighting armed with only hand sickles and poles.
The initial Marine reinforcements, a company from 1 Bn 2 Marine Regiment, launched an unsuccessful seaborne attack in the evening of 7 August. 3 Battalion 2 Marine Regiment was then called forward, it began landing on Gavutu at 10:00 on 8 August and assisted in destroying the remaining Japanese defences on that islet by 12:00. Then the 3rd Battalion prepared to assault Tanambogo.
The assault began at 16:15, both by landing craft and across the causeway, and, with assistance from two marine Stuart light tanks from the 1st Marine Division's Tank Troop (company strength), began making headway against the Japanese defences. One of the tanks became stuck on a stump and isolated from its infantry support. The vehicle was surrounded by a "frenzied mob" of about 50 Japanese airmen. The Japanese set fire to the tank, killing two of its crew and severely beating the other two before most of them were killed by Marine rifle fire. The Marines later counted 42 Japanese bodies around the burned-out hulk of the tank, including the corpses of several seaplane pilots.
Throughout the day, the Marines methodically dynamited the caves, destroying most of them by 21:00. The few surviving Japanese conducted isolated attacks throughout the night, with hand to hand engagements occurring. By noon on 9 August, all Japanese resistance on Tanambogo ended. In the battle for Gavutu and Tanambogo, 476 Japanese defenders and 70 US Marines or naval personnel died. Of the 20 Japanese prisoners taken during the battle, most were not actually Japanese combatants but Korean labourers.
Lesson learned - in close country tanks require close infantry protection. The lighter the tank, the more vulnerable it is, thus the enhanced requirement for close protection.
The landing at Guadalcanal on 1 August was virtually unopposed. Most of those constructing the Laguna Point airfield (soon to be named Henderson Field) were Korean slave labourers, not interested in dying for the Emperor. Many of the labourers took the opportunity to surrender, the Japanese construction troops recognising they were hopelessly outnumbered by the invading Marines withdrew south and west.
The airfield, however, was key to the Japanese strategy to interdict the US supply line from Hawaii to Australasia. Over the next few months a number of attempts were made to re-take it and force the US to withdraw. The Japanese diverted forces from the Kokoda track, and as Henderson Field was developed by the US and populated by a scratch air force, they used destroyers to make resupply runs by night (the “Tokyo Express”) to build up troop numbers and keep their soldiers from starving.
The US soldiers were not fazed by the Japanese tactical combination of bluff and bluster with infiltration that had proved so successful in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. In August 1942 Australia had shown at Milne Bay that a Japanese incursion could be resisted and driven off. By January 1943 the Japanese were reduced to holding the Gifu, vital ground on the final approach to Mt Austen. Mount Austen was the highest piece of terrain on Guadalcanal, offering commanding views of Henderson Field. In late 1942, US Marines had been replaced by the better equipped Americal (164th) and 25th US Army Divisions.
The most strongly fortified Japanese position on Guadalcanal was nicknamed the Gifu by the Japanese (after the Gifu Prefecture in Japan). It consisted of a 1,500 metre line of 45 to 50 interconnected, mutually supporting, well camouflaged pillboxes dug into the ground and forming a horseshoe shape with the open end to the west. Only about 1 metre of each pillbox was above ground with walls and rooves, constructed from logs and dirt, up to 600 mm thick. Each pillbox contained one to two machine-guns and several riflemen. Each of these pillbox emplacements was sited to provide mutual support to the others. Supporting the pillboxes, numerous trenches gave additional riflemen and machine gunners greater flexibility in terms of visibility and fields of fire. Behind the line of pillboxes, the Japanese had sited 81 mm and long range 90 mm mortars.
This position had been under constant US attack since mid-December 1942, to no avail. But by mid-January, the Gifu was isolated, reinforcement was not possible, much of the garrison were casualties and things were becoming desperate for the Japanese. One Japanese officer defending the Gifu wrote in his diary, "I heard the enemy talking in Japanese over a loud speaker. He is telling us to come out - what fools the enemy are. The Japanese Army will stick it out to the end. Position must be defended in all conditions with our lives."
On 21 January, three Stuart tanks of the 25 Mobile Recon Troop, 25 Infantry Division headed up the supply trail toward the Gifu. The trail is steep, and in the monsoon season slushy. Two of the tanks were immobilised by the conditions. The third with the help of many labourers, and a log pathway made it to the ridge that leads to the Gifu.
The tank proved to be the decisive factor in the battle. At 10:20 on 22 January 1943, the tank protected by 16 to 18 riflemen blasted three Japanese pillboxes and penetrated into the Gifu pocket. Going forward, the tank completely traversed the Gifu and destroyed five more pillboxes, breaching a gap 200 m wide in the Japanese line. The American infantry surged through the gap and took positions in the middle of the Gifu.
That night, around 02:30, apparently realising that the battle was lost, the Japanese commander led his staff and most of the remaining survivors of his command, about 100 men, in a final charge on the Americans, all were killed. At sunrise on 23 January, the Americans secured the rest of the Gifu. Sixty-four men from the American 2nd Battalion, 35th infantry were killed during the assaults on the Gifu between 9 and 23 January, bringing the total number of Americans killed taking Mount Austen to 175. The Americans counted the bodies of 431 Japanese in the remains of the Gifu's fortifications and 87 elsewhere around Mount Austen. Total Japanese losses in the Mount Austen and nearby battles were probably between 1,100 and 1,500 men.
Here the lesson was applied. 18 infantrymen were allocated to protect the tank allowing it to do its work. Later in New Guinea, Australians using the British Matilda showed that a more heavily armoured tank was more effective in Jungle terrain. Light tanks were better than no tanks. Their light 37 mm guns were very effective against timber and earth bunkers. Their light armour was, however, a problem. The jungle offers many opportunities for a concealed approach. The Matilda with its heavier armour gave better crew protection.
Very few if any tank vs tank engagements in the jungle are recorded in World War 2. So the need for a gun able to penetrate armour was not demonstrated. When tanks came into contact with enemy artillery, like the three 1 AR AIF (RNSWL) Matildas at Manggar airstrip in Kalimantan that were destroyed by a 120 mm artillery piece at a range of 1200 metres in July 1945.
The requirement for dismounted protection of armoured vehicles in close country is as important now as it was in 1942, if not more so. Weapons available to an enemy able to conceal themselves close to a passing tank are now more sophisticated. World War 2 veterans told stories of Japanese soldiers using ropes to swing from trees with kindling in backpacks to light fires on the rear engine covers of Matildas, so few effective weapons did they have.
After the experience of using light tanks at Guadalcanal, the Americans used Sherman Mediums in later campaigns, the Sherman's heavy armour providing better crew protection. One of the Shermans that was brought to the Solomons for jungle familiarisation training is still there, a couple of kilometres south of Boko Beach via a jungle trail. $(SD)25 per head (paid to a local village elder) to view.
During the Solomon Islands campaign, many munitions were dropped, buried or fired. The buried ones, the mines, have for the most part disintegrated over the years and are no longer active. The shells, and in particular the air delivered munitions are still active. Locals find them in the jungle, under roads, and their backyards.
The rusting hulks of the five remaining Stuart tanks on Guadalcanal Island can be found at the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation's Bomb Disposal Facility at Hell's Point near Alligator Creek. The role of this organisation, funded mostly by the US Government, is to train the Solomon Islands Police in munitions recovery and disposal. Hell's Point was the site of three US supply dumps in World War 2; all had been blown up, but many munitions remain. At this facility the five Stuarts can be seen along with a display of munitions that the team have made safe. Dangerous munitions finding in and around Honiara is almost a daily occurrence, there is a team of trained Solomon Islands Police at Hell's Point ready to deploy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Frank Hough, Verle Ludwig and Henry Shaw History of US Marine Corps Operations in World War 2 US Government Printing Office 1989.
Richard Frank Guadalcanal Random House New York 1990.
John Howells 2014