Midnight in the Pacific
Guadalcanal: The World War II Battle that Turned the Tide of War
Da Capo Press, Boston, 2017, 400 pages
Book Review published on: December 1, 2017
Seventy-five years ago, marines, sailors, and airmen battled Japanese forces in a brutal six-month, no-quarter-given campaign for the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Joseph Wheelan, author of Terrible Swift Sword and Jefferson’s Wars, examines this decisive campaign in Midnight in the Pacific. This welcome addition is the result of meticulous research of primary and secondary sources in describing how the first American offensive operation during World War II may have been the decisive operation during the war in the Pacific.
Wheelan begins by describing Guadalcanal and relating how it became a priority for Allied planners in the Pacific when U.S. intelligence reported 1 July 1942 that Japanese construction troops were building an airstrip on the island. The completion of this airstrip would threaten vulnerable lines of communication between the United States and Australia. Quickly devised by Allied planners for execution on 7 August 1942, Operation Watchtower was assigned to the newly formed 1st Marine Division.
The book’s primary focus is describing how the Allies surprised the Japanese, and the numerous Japanese attempts to neutralize or regain control of Henderson Field. Most notable are the failed attempts at the battles of the Tenaru, Edson Ridge, and Henderson Field. Japanese air and naval forces focused their efforts to isolate Guadalcanal, to neutralize or destroy Henderson Field, and to destroy the Allied naval forces in the area. However, the Japanese naval victory at Savo Island forced the Allied fleet to withdraw, leaving marines ashore without much equipment or provisions, and also marines still aboard transports. The marines quickly established a thin defensive perimeter around both Henderson Field and Lunga Point. The campaign quickly became a war of attrition, as both sides battled each other, hunger, tropical diseases, and a repressive climate.
Wheelan describes the incredible bravery of the Cactus Air Force pilots. From the start, these pilots were at a disadvantage; they lacked combat experience, and their aircraft were not in the same class as the Japanese A6M Zeros. They flew from an airfield that was under constant attack, and they constantly had to refine their tactics and techniques to become a formidable foe against their Japanese counterparts. Wheelan relates the transformative moment on 23 October, when Lt. Col. Harold Bauer told his surprised pilots to engage the Zeros. This change was a tacit recognition that after two months of intensive combat, many of Japan’s best pilots were dead, and the abilities of the Cactus Air Force pilots were more than equal to those of the remaining Japanese. Air losses for the Guadalcanal campaign were reported by historian Richard Frank as 615 Allied aircraft and 683 Japanese aircraft. However, Japanese historian Masanori Ito stated that Japanese aircraft losses totaled 893. Aircraft loses only tell part of the story, as they do not account for the loss of aircrews and ability to replace aircraft. Wheelan again cites Frank, who reported that 420 Allied aircrew died during Guadalcanal, while 800 to 1,700 Japanese airmen perished. Japanese losses reduced one-third of Japan’s cadre of experienced Imperial Navy pilots.
The often forgotten heroes of the Guadalcanal campaign were the coast watchers, who provided timely invaluable intelligence and early warning of Japanese warship and air movement. Wheelan describes the bravery and contributions of several coast watchers, including Sir Jacob C. Vouza. Vouza survived brutal interrogation and torture by the Japanese to warn the marines of an impending attack. Vouza is also credited with rescuing a down aviator from the USS Wasp and for capturing Japanese soldiers for interrogation by Marine intelligence personnel. The Marine Corps recognized Vouza’s bravery and contributions by awarding him a Silver Star and a Legion of Merit, and by making him an honorary sergeant major in the Marines. The British government awarded him the George Medal and Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Guadalcanal was more than just America’s first offensive operation against Japan during World War II. Wheelan quotes Gen. Kiyotake Kawaguchi, who described Guadalcanal as “no longer merely a name of an island in Japanese military history. It is the name of the graveyard of the Japanese Army.” Wheelan asserts Guadalcanal was the turning point of the Pacific War. U.S. forces defeated the vaunted Japanese military, stopped Japanese expansionism, and placed Japan on the defensive for the remainder of the war.
Midnight in the Pacific’s strength is Wheelan’s use of illustrations, vignettes, and in-depth analysis of opposing strategies and the militaries involved. It reminds us of the indomitable will, courage, and contributions of Allied personnel in the early, dark days of World War II. The work is highly readable and provides a comprehensive examination of America’s first offensive operation in World War II. This would be an excellent addition to the library of any historian or student with an interest on the subject.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas