Keelan: Guadalcanal – 70 years later

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Don Keelan, a certified public accountant and resident of Arlington. This column is a modified version of a previously written account of the Battle of Guadalcanal.

On Aug. 7, 1942, the late Michael Scelsi, who had been a resident of Manchester Village, was a second lieutenant with the 1st Marine Division of the United States Marine Corps. He was on board the U.S.S. American Legion, preparing to go ashore on the island of Guadalcanal, a 25-mile wide, 90-mile long volcanic and rain forest island, located in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific.

Mike Scelsi had never heard of Guadalcanal. He was not alone. On that August day, for most of the 60,000 Americans who were participants in the invasion, code-named “Watch Tower,” Guadalcanal was completely unknown to them. In America, when the press broke the story of the landing, there was a rush to the world atlas to locate the island where the Americans had begun their first land offensive against the Imperial Japanese forces.

“We had no idea what we were going to be up against, only that it had to be done,” Scelsi said to this writer 50 years after he had gone ashore at Guadalcanal. “We had taken so much from the Japanese up to that time.”

It was eight months earlier, on Dec. 7, 1941, that the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor, and within weeks came the fall of Corregidor, Bataan, Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia.

It wasn’t that America had not struck back. Lt. Col. James Doolittle’s raid of 16 B-25 bombers brought the war to Tokyo’s doorstep on April 18, 1942. The symbolic raid was followed by
the naval battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway. It was the latter, that many consider to be the turning point of the war for Japan’s Imperial Navy.

However, it was in the battle for Guadalcanal that America’s land, sea and air forces came together as one cohesive unit. According to Scelsi, “We had no idea if we would be successful, fortunes kept changing, success followed failure and failure followed success.” The campaign would last six months, until Feb. 9, 1943.

The losses in human life and material, on both sides, were staggering. For the Japanese, two-thirds of their 30,000-plus land force never left the island. Its naval and air forces lost 38 ships and 682 planes.

The losses in human life and material, on both sides, were staggering. For the Japanese, two-thirds of their 30,000-plus land force never left the island. Its naval and air forces lost 38 ships and 682 planes. According to Richard B. Frank, author of the 1990 historical work, “Guadalcanal, the Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle,” the intent of the Imperial Command, which has only recently become known, was to take and hold the Solomon Islands, thus preventing the Allies from going north from New Zealand and Australia.

By meeting this objective as well as controlling Midway, the islands of Hawaii could then be invaded by three Japanese divisions, thus interring the 400,000 civilian and military personnel. American would have had no choice but to sue for peace.

America paid an awful price defeating Japan’s grand scheme. At a loss of more than 6,000 U.S. Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen, 615 planes and 26 ships, the island of Guadalcanal and the Solomons became the first piece of real estate taken from the Japanese in World War

In the naval battle, two of America’s great naval leaders perished, Adms. Callahan and Scott. And off the coast of Guadalcanal, on Nov. 13, 1942, the Sullivan brothers – Francis, George, Joseph, Madison and Albert – were all killed when their 6,000-ton cruiser, the U.S.S. Juneau, was sunk during a night action with a Japanese submarine.

When he heard of the Sullivan tragedy, Scelsi was on his way back to the states, recuperating from malaria. All he could think of was the fate of his four brothers who were serving in the Airborne, Navy and the Marines. The Scelsi family was more fortunate – all five brothers
survived the war.

The Guadalcanal campaign also saw Rutland native Merritt A. Edson, leader of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, earn the Medal of Honor for his efforts to save the island’s critical airfield. In 1947, the highly decorated marine general would return to Vermont and establish
the Vermont State Police.

Guadalcanal became the basis of many books, movies and even a musical, “South Pacific,” based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific.” However, it was James Jones’ novel of 60 years ago, “The Thin Red Line,” as well as Richard Tregaski’s “Guadalcanal Diary,” which captured the “living hell” that was Guadalcanal.

Frank, the author, believed that noted naval historian Samuel Elliot Morison best summed up all that Guadalcanal was when he said, “For us who were there, or whose friends were there, Guadalcanal was not a name, but an emotion.”

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