The fight for Guadalcanal was a brutal first step in driving back the Japanese in the Pacific. The main objective for the campaign was to deny them use of the Solomon Islands. They threatened U.S. supply lines to Australia and the U.S. wanted to use the islands as a starting point for the larger war in the Pacific. The battle was fought on land, at sea, and in the air and involved every branch of the U.S. military. The aerial battle was fought mostly by the “Cactus Air Force” flying out of Henderson Field.
The Cactus Air Force was a conglomeration of Marine, Navy, and Army Air Corps assets operating in some of the worst conditions imaginable. Although the Marines jokingly referred to the campaign as ‘Operation Shoestring’ because of the lack of the supplies, the Cactus Air Force was actually named after the codename for Guadalcanal.
The 1st Marine Division attacked the Solomon Islands on the night of August 6th and morning of August 7, 1942 with the bulk of the division landing unopposed on Guadalcanal. The Marines captured the airfield on August 8th and immediately set to work completing the airstrip. The airfield was ready for use by August 18, and the first two Marine squadrons, one of F4F Hellcats and one of SBD Dauntless dive bombers, arrived on the 20th to begin combat operations the next day.
Two days later the Marine aviators were joined by five U.S. Army Air Force P-39 Airacobras. On August 24, eleven more Dauntless dive bombers landed at Henderson Field after being unable to return to the USS Enterprise due to damage it received during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. By the end of August, another Marine fighter squadron and another dive bomber squadron had also arrived on the island.
This assortment of men and planes were the beginning of the Cactus Air Force, and they were in for a hell of a time.
At the time of the Guadalcanal campaign, the Japanese Empire was at its peak and, aside from being denied at the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway, had yet to lose any territory they gained and were loath to do so. As such, the American airfield and its inhabitants were under near constant bombardment and attack. The Imperial Japanese Navy would shell Henderson Field from the sea while the Japanese Air Force sent daily bombing missions against the Americans. The constant bombardment continually damaged the runway, destroyed valuable aircraft, and inflicted numerous casualties.
To make matters worse, the island was not yet secure and the Japanese were continually attacking the perimeter attempting to dislodge the Americans from Guadalcanal. The 1st Marine Division reinforced by the 164th Infantry Regiment of the newly formed Americal Division held the line against Japanese assaults. During the Battle of Henderson Field, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines held out against some of the worst attacks, and it was during this action John Basilone earned the Medal of Honor and Lt. Col. Chesty Puller earned his third Navy Cross.
If the constant attacks on Henderson Field wasn’t bad enough, the living conditions were terrible as well. When the Americans captured the airfield it was far from complete and had no permanent living quarters. The pilots and mechanics were housed in mud-floored tents in a flooded coconut grove they referred to as “Mosquito Grove.” The squalid living conditions led to many diseases, including malaria, dysentery, dengue fever, and fungal infections.
The local climate contributed to the misery too. In the heat, black volcanic dust covered everything and when it rained the ground turned into a quagmire. Major Marion Carl, a Marine aviator stationed at Henderson Field, commented that it was “the only place on Earth where you could stand up to your knees in mud and still get dust in your eyes.”
Just surviving at Henderson Field was difficult enough, but the Marines, sailors, and soldiers still had to fly and fight. The dust fouled the engines of the planes, the mud kept them from moving, and the Japanese bombardment destroyed the planes and the runway. The runway was in such poor condition in the early stages of the battle that nearly as many Cactus Air Force planes were damaged just using it as they were in fighting against the Japanese. There were also no facilities for the aircraft: no hangers, no fuel trucks, and no bomb hoists. Damaged aircraft were cannibalized where they stood for their spare parts. Bombs had to be loaded by hand as did the fuel. Without fuel trucks the only way to fuel the planes was to hand pump it out of 55 gallon drums.
Despite all of these challenges, the Cactus Air Force fought tenaciously and was successful in helping the U.S. achieve victory. Six different airmen were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions while serving with the Cactus Air Force. An even greater number of pilots became aces during the campaign. Though total victories for the Cactus Air Force cannot be confirmed for the six months they were involved in combat, they claimed over 250 aerial victories. The dive and torpedo bombers from Henderson Field sank seventeen large Japanese naval vessels and damaged another eighteen. Most importantly, they sank transport ships that were attempting to deliver supplies and reinforcements to the Japanese on the island. These victories came at the price of 94 pilots killed or missing and a further 177 wounded or evacuated due to illness plus numerous ground crew killed or wounded. After the Guadalcanal campaign, the Cactus Air Force was consolidated with other allied air units under Aircraft, Solomons (or AirSols) which continued to support Allied operations in the Solomon Islands and Southern Pacific.