Morning Star, Midnight Sun

Morning Star, Midnight Sun

The Early Guadalcanal-Solomon’s Campaign of World War II August–October 1942

Jeffrey R. Cox

Osprey Publishing, New York, 2018, 448 pages

Book Review published on: March 8, 2018

Just over seventy-five years ago, the 1st Marine Division found itself marooned on Guadalcanal when all the Navy transports and cargo ships quickly left, carrying away most of the marines’ supplies and leaving no definitive timetable for return. The marines had enough food for possibly thirty-seven days and enough ammunition for four. Over the next six months, marines and other Allied forces battled Japanese forces in a brutal no-quarter-given Solomon’s campaign for the island of Guadalcanal. Jeffrey R. Cox, author of Rising Sun, Falling Skies, examines this decisive campaign in Morning Star, Midnight Sun. This welcome addition to the study of the war in the Pacific 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.

Morning Star, Midnight Sun goes beyond traditional works, which focus primarily on Guadalcanal, to a more balanced view of the campaign itself. As a result, readers are provided a deeper appreciation of the challenges faced by combatants on both sides. Cox begins by describing events leading up to Guadalcanal, the Allied theater strategy, and the parochial infighting between the services over an Allied operational approach for the Pacific. Naval planners became quickly concerned upon learning in July 1942 that Japanese construction troops were building an airstrip on Guadalcanal. Completion of the airstrip would threaten vulnerable sea lines of communication between the United States and Australia. Adm. Ernest King, commander in chief of the United States Fleet, advocated for an immediate seizure of Guadalcanal. However, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area, desired an approach back to the Philippines and did not share the Navy’s concerns for Guadalcanal.

The book’s primary focus is describing how the Allies surprised the Japanese and recounting the numerous Japanese attempts to destroy the marines and regain control of Henderson Field before redirecting their efforts to simply neutralizing the Cactus Air Force on Henderson Field. Most notable were 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, neutralize or destroy Henderson Field, and destroy the Allied naval forces in the area. The Japanese naval victory at Savo Island inflicted the worst defeat ever on the U.S. Navy, forcing the Allied fleet to withdraw and leaving marines ashore without much of their equipment and provisions while other marines were left aboard transport ships. The marines quickly established a thin defensive perimeter around Henderson Field and Lunga Point, and the campaign quickly became a war of attrition, as both sides battled each other, hunger, tropical diseases, and a repressive climate.

Morning Star, Midnight Sun also chronicles the incredible bravery of the pilots of the Cactus Air Force. The Cactus Air Force pilots were at a disadvantage from the start, as they lacked combat experience and were flying aircraft not on par with the Japanese A6M Zero. They flew from an airfield that was under constant attack, one at which Navy Seabees worked around the clock to patch numerous bomb craters on the runways. The Cactus pilots, fresh out of flight school, quickly learned they were no matched for their Japanese counterparts of the famed Tinian Air Group who had hundreds of combat hours flying the nimble Mitsubishi Zero. The Cactus pilots constantly refined their tactics and techniques in becoming a formidable foe for their Japanese counterparts.

On 18 October, Lt. Col. Joe Bauer, commander of VMF-212, instructed his pilots to dogfight with the Japanese Zeros. This marked a turning point in the air war over Guadalcanal, as conventional wisdom up to this point was to avoid dogfighting a Zero. The change was tacit recognition that after two months of intensive combat, many of Japan’s best pilots were dead, and the pilots of the Cactus Air Force was more than their equal.

Morning Star, Midnight Sun examines two points in the campaign when Allied leaders feared defeat. Cox recounts when Hanson Baldwin, a Naval Academy graduate and New York Times military affairs correspondent, told Marine general Alexander Vandegrift on 19 September that top officials in Washington seemed ready to give up on Guadalcanal. Baldwin told Vandegrift defeatism had taken hold of Vice Adm. Robert Ghormley, the commander of U.S. forces in the South Pacific. Ghormley had increasingly grown reluctant in diverting resources, personnel, and aircraft to Guadalcanal.

The second time Allied leaders became apprehensive was on 16 October following the bombardment of Henderson Field by the Japanese battleships, Kongo and Haruna, when Japanese reinforcements raised their strength to fifteen thousand men. Marine requests for reinforcements and additional aircraft were disapproved by Ghormley, who was still unwilling to take forces from the rear bases to support the marines on Guadalcanal. He remained resolute in his belief that the Guadalcanal offensive would fail. However, Vandegrift, the 1st Marine Division commander, bristled at the idea that his marines were on the verge of defeat on Guadalcanal.

Cox challenges the accepted narrative of many contemporary historians of Japanese military superiority at this early point in the war. His research indicates that Japan’s operational reach was already overextended after being significantly degraded at Midway. The lack of transports made rations and uniforms low priority, resulting in Japanese forces starving on Guadalcanal. The Japanese army’s “bamboo spear” infantry tactics, usually referred to as a “banzai charge,” reflected the belief that the superior “spiritual power” of an individual Japanese soldier would overcome any numerical or technological advantage on the part of the enemy. While it had worked well in China, the famed Ichiki Detachment was destroyed by the 1st Marine Regiment at the Battle of the Tenaru on the night of 21 August 1942. The battle boosted the morale of the marines, as they realized that the Japanese army could be defeated. A shocked, disbelieving Japanese army headquarters failed to learn from its mistakes and proceeded with its plans to deliver additional forces for a follow-on attack at Edson’s Ridge.

Morning Star, Midnight Sun’s strength is Cox’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 the first three months 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