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News Navigator: What did WWII's Battle of Guadalcanal mean for Japan?

A fallen Japanese A6M "Zero" fighter plane is seen on flatlands in the northern part of the island of Guadalcanal, on Feb. 10, 1943. (Mainichi)

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about the Battle of Guadalcanal during World War II.

    Question: Was there a fierce battle on an island in the South Pacific about 75 years ago?

    Answer: Yes, the Battle of Guadalcanal during WWII. The island of Guadalcanal is roughly a third the size of Shikoku, and is one of the Solomon Islands some 5,400 kilometers southeast of the Japanese archipelago.

    In December 1941, Japan had mounted a strong offensive against the United States and other Allied powers, but lost the Battle of Midway against the U.S. in June 1942. Fearing losing ground in the Pacific, Japan began to build an air base on Guadalcanal in hopes of strengthening its local air power. However, U.S. and other Allied forces landed on the island early on Aug. 7, 1942, while the airfield was still under construction.

    Q: What kind of battle was it?

    A: When the Allies landed, the majority of Japanese personnel on the island were construction workers building the air base, so it was taken by the U.S. swiftly and with little resistance. Some 900 advance troops led by Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki arrived on Guadalcanal on Aug. 18 to attempt to retake the island, but his unit was completely wiped out by U.S. troops. Similar attempts in mid-September and October the same year also ended in failure.

    After the Imperial Japanese Navy suffered crushing losses at the Third Battle of the Solomon Sea -- also known as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal -- in mid-November in another attempt to retake the island, the surrounding air and sea came under Allied control. By the end of December, Japan decided to abandon the campaign to recapture Guadalcanal, and the Imperial Japanese military had completely evacuated the island by early February 1943. The campaign was the first time Japan had lost a ground battle against the Allied Forces, suffering some 20,000 dead and relinquishing the initiative in the Pacific Theater in the process.

    Q: Why did the Imperial Japanese forces lose?

    A: The book "Shippai no Honshitsu" (The nature of defeat), written by Ryoichi Tobe and five others and published by Chuokoron-Shinsha Inc., points out that the Japanese central command did not properly research how the enemy would counter-attack, while Imperial Army and Navy operations were not well synchronized. This was in sharp contrast to the U.S., which viewed Guadalcanal as a strategic "stepping stone" to the Japanese home islands, and also mounted highly coordinated attacks with its air, land and sea forces.

    Meanwhile, Japanese forces were badly undersupplied, receiving only about a third of what was required. An estimated two-thirds of Japanese fatalities during the battle were caused by starvation or illness. A short "tanka" poem written by an officer discovered in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, paints a picture of the suffering on Guadalcanal: "Day by day I am distressed hearing of the end of my comrades who continue to grow thin and melt away." (Answers by Noboru Hirose, Cultural News Department)

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