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.”

If you read us, please support us.

Comment Policy requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

No personal harrassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Comments should be 1000 characters or fewer.

We moderate every comment. Please go to our FAQ for the full policy.

Privacy policy

Recent Stories

  • barbara morrow

    It is so good to be reminded of WWII in the Pacific Theater. That horrid transaction somehow receives less historical play in popular media than the war in Europe. Growing up, both my long time neighbor Guy Haskell (Iwo Jima) and my father Roy Morgan (Marine medic) reminded us that the Pacific war was a horrendous one. They are both gone now, but I am in awe of what they did and what they saw. They helped me understand early on what war really is, what duty is, and what resilience is.

  • Christian Noll

    Cheese if I were to list the number of World War II Island battles in the pacific theater where the USMC lost between 3-6 thousand marines it would be much more than Guadacanal.

    From a very young age I’ve studied ALL the WWI and WWII theaters and have often wondered why Guadacanal would recieve more attention than any of the other pacific engagements during WWII such as Iwo Jima, Peleliu, Saipan, Owkinaowa or the Battan death march or the Phillipians.

    It just seems strange that with very similar reasons of strategic importance as well as loss of life, that one battle be explained as “More significant” or more important than the all of the others.

    If you travel to Tarawa, you’ll notice that the same beach where over two thousand marines and a a very large number of Japanese lost their lives on one impossible beach, is now a trash dump. That’s right, its a trash dump.

    If you really study the Pacific theater of WWII you’ll notice that there are numerous island battles in which the number of losses are all around 3-6 thousand dead and often times more.

    Controling the “Slot” of the Solomon Islands was important but so were all of the other battles in the same theater.

    Many now say less life could have been spared to achieve our goal of conquering Imperial Japan.

    If you’re going to remember it, remember it all.

  • anthony zarriello

    As a veteran who’s dad flew 30+ missions over Germany in a B-17, who’s uncle watched the Enola Gay take off from Tinian,and who’s grandfather was gassed in the trenches during WWI, I believe the greatest honor we could give our vets is lasting peace.

  • It is not that the capture of Guadalcanal was more important than other actions in the Pacific, it was important at that time as the first of a series of islands taken and, especially for the US public, as a success. Richard Tregaski’s “Guadalcanal Diary” was the first book about the war that I recall reading as an 11 year old at the time.

    • Christian Noll

      Sam understood and I apologize if I sounded unappreciative of the history of the Battle of Guadalcanal.

      I remember trying to digest William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness one summer in High School while at the shore.

      In defense of Don Keelan’s article above, I think Guadalcanal was significant because it represented the “High Water Mark” of Imperial Japan During World War Two. Japan was on the defensive from then on and it also signified the transition of Allied actions from the Defensive to the Offensive.

      All the other battles after that got shorter and much bloodier. Just a year later at Tarawa in just 72 hours, 2,700 American Marines perished while attacking the island and the Japanese lost all but 125 of their entire 4,700 defending force. That’s 7,400 people killing each other in three days.

      Guadalcanal was six long months with numerous battles and attacks and total US Army and Marine losses were not more than 1,600(not including wounded or USN losses) compared to 25,000 Japanese.

      Seems lots of sacrifices were made, yes.