Flight Petty Officer Saburo Sakai was having a good day.
His squadron of A6M2 Zeros of the Tainan Wing had departed Rabaul, New Britain, more than 500 miles northwest of the previously obscure island of Guadalcanal, responding to an American amphibious landing. In a series of combats north of the island, Sakai had shot down a Douglas SBD-3 scout-bomber and a well-flown Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat, and was about to set course for home. But he saw a favorable setup: another flight of eight U.S. Navy aircraft, at 8,000 feet, apparently unaware of him. He pushed the throttle, stalking his prey in a fast run-in from low and behind. He selected one of the rearmost aircraft, framed it in his gunsight, and pressed the triggers.
His world exploded.
From less than 300 yards, the rear gunners in at least two of the six SBDs opened fire on their assailant. Sakai’s windscreen was smashed; a bullet creased his head, and shards of glass and metal slashed into his face, chest, arm and leg. Instinctively, he hauled back on the stick, zoom-climbed, and was lost to view of the Americans.
Sakai and his wingman had put machine gun and cannon rounds into two SBDs but neither went down. Only long after the war did any of them learn that Sakai, with more than 50 enemy aircraft destroyed or damaged, exerted a powerful survival instinct.
Sakai was nearly knocked unconscious. “Sudden pain engulfed me,” he said. “My right eye! It began to throb as the pain steadily increased. I felt it with my fingers, and jerked them away. The pain was becoming unbearable. I placed my hand over my right eye again; my vision remained the same. I was blind in the eye!”
Half blind, dazed and bleeding, Sakai logged one of the most remarkable tales of aviation survival ever told. He returned to Rabaul, eventually flew combat again and survived the war. He had just participated in the first round of a six-month bloodletting that determined the course of the Pacific War.
Carriers to Cactus
Three U.S. carriers supported the First Marine Division’s landing on August 7, 1942. Operation Watchtower was America’s first offensive of the war, seizing the initiative after the spectacular defeat inflicted upon Japan at the Battle of Midway two months before. USS Saratoga, Enterprise, and Wasp gained temporary command of the air over Guadalcanal, but Tokyo could not let the operation go unopposed. Nor could the U.S. Pacific Fleet keep its priceless flattops pinned to a narrow beachhead. Following the humiliating drubbing of an American-Australian cruiser force in a surface battle the next night, the carriers and the troop transports departed. The Marines ashore were largely on their own.
Guadalcanal lay 10 sweltering degrees above the equator. Ninety malarial miles long, its northern plain hosted a single runway that became the axis upon which the entire campaign turned. Its code name was “Cactus.”
On August 20, the plankowners of the Cactus Air Force alit at newly named Henderson Field: a dozen SBD-3s led by Lt. Col. Richard Mangrum of VMSB-232 and 19 F4F-4s under Maj. John L. Smith of VMF-223. The 31 planes had catapulted off the original escort carrier, USS Long Island.
Dick Mangrum was a lean, mustached officer whose session with the Sunday paper had been spoiled on December 7. His crews landed with almost no information on what they would find, and concluded “The general concept of Marine Corps operations and training envisions rough field conditions, but just how rough is sometimes a bit shocking even to Marines!”
A Navy servicing unit provided the only support, refueling aircraft with hand-cranked pumps from gasoline barrels. Henderson’s runway was mostly gravel before pierced steel planking was laid, and Marines pronounced Guadal the only place in the world where you could stand in mud up to your knees and get dust in your eyes. Food largely consisted of captured Japanese stores: 232’s operations officer, Capt. Bruce Prosser, ate so much rice at Henderson that he still banned it from his home 40 years later.
Smith and Mangrum’s enlisted men had to do most of their own maintenance, and aircraft quickly ran short. Not only combat attrition but the rough facility and tropic climate degraded Dauntless and Wildcat capabilities.
Air combat occurred almost daily, affording repeated opportunities for Wildcat pilots. From August through October, Guadalcanal produced the first major American aces of the war: John L. Smith and Marion Carl of VMF-223, and Capt. Joseph J. Foss of -121.
Odds meant little to Cactus fighter pilots. Sometimes eight to 12 Wildcats tackled 27 Betty bombers escorted by 15 Zeros, and while some Marine and Navy fliers counted the odds, others like Smith and Foss thought: “Look at all those targets!”
Yet the unrelenting pace of operations and the oppressive environment took a toll. Few were like the combative Capt. Marion Carl whose Nordic stamina kept him going, permitting him to sleep anywhere. A Navy pilot, Lt. David Richardson, said, “On Guadalcanal I learned that frequently how much courage a man had depended on how much food and sleep he had in the previous 72 hours.” Food and amenities were problematical: CO of the second F4F squadron to land was Major Robert Galer of VMF-224 who recalled, “I was ashore for three days before I could wash my hands.”
Defense of Henderson Field and its later auxiliary strips depended on coastwatchers—usually Australian planters and Solomons old hands equipped with radios farther up the island chain. Wildcats needed about 40 minutes notice of inbound bombers to scramble, claw to altitude, and gain position for an intercept.
Land, sea, and air
Watchtower was the first “triphibious” operation in U.S. military history. Delivering and supporting the ground forces ashore required a symbiotic relationship with naval and air forces, often with the advantage over the Japanese waxing and waning between day and night. With land-based airpower ashore, the Americans controlled access to the area during the day, but Japanese expertise at night maneuvers kept reinforcements and supplies coming. Marines dubbed the nocturnal deliveries “The Tokyo Express,” often supported by “Washing Machine Charlies”—Japanese aircraft that bombed and harassed the Americans who lacked night fighters.
The joint-service operation included the Army Air Force which provided fighters to the CAF, mainly the Bell P-39 Airacobra and its P-400 export version. Because of its mediocre performance, “Peashooter” pilots insisted that a P-400 was a P-40 with a Zero behind it. However, the Airacobra’s 20mm cannon and six machine guns were effective strafing tools. In mid-September, ’cudas of the 67th Fighter Squadron helped sweep Japanese infantry off “Bloody Ridge” threatening Henderson Field.
Additionally, B-17s provided long-range reconnaissance with Navy PBY Catalinas, and both types occasionally attacked enemy shipping.
With Henderson operational, the Japanese sought every means of redress. On August 24 they committed three carriers to support an Imperial Army reinforcement effort, resulting in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. Both carrier fleets exchanged blows with Saratoga’s air group sinking the light carrier Ryujo in a combined dive-bombing and torpedo attack.
However, the Imperial Navy struck back. The carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku launched 27 Aichi D3A dive-bombers, and several got through the Wildcat CAP to inflict serious damage on Enterprise. Two hits and a near miss killed 66 of the crew, jammed the ship’s rudder, and forced her out of action. Eleven “Big E” pilots and gunners also were lost, further thinning her ranks.
It only got worse.
A week later, a Japanese submarine torpedoed Saratoga, sending her to the West Coast almost until year end. Her Wildcat squadron, VF-5, moved ashore to augment the Marines. But then on September 25 another sub fired a devastating salvo, sinking Wasp and a destroyer and damaging a battleship. Some of the slack was taken up by Enterprise’s younger sister Hornet, which had launched the Doolittle raid in April.
Without enough carriers for transport duty, Navy and Marine aircraft often had to fly nearly 600 miles from the New Hebrides to reinforce Cactus. Meanwhile, auxiliary airfields were completed including “The Fighter Strip” a mile east of Henderson, operational in September. It relieved some of the congestion at Henderson and dispersed aircraft during Japanese bombing raids.
October 26 was Navy Day in the U.S. but across the International Date Line that day was the world’s fourth carrier battle. Like Eastern Solomons, the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands revolved around another Japanese effort to land more troops on Guadalcanal. The American lineup comprised Enterprise and Hornet in Rear Adm. Thomas Kinkaid’s Task Force 61 versus four imperial carriers, including the Big E’s August opponents Shokaku and Zuikaku under Vice Adm. Chuicho Nagumo. Both sides probed for each other and both found what they sought.
Hornet’s air group found widespread Japanese fleet units but concentrated her dive-bombers on the flattops. Thirteen SBDs shot their way past the Zero combat air patrol and dived on Shokaku, hitting her at least three times. They lost two planes but knocked one of Nagumo’s two big decks out of the battle.
But Nagumo was persistent. He lofted 138 planes against Kinkaid, more than at Midway and Eastern Solomons combined. Many penetrated the Wildcat CAP, and during the day they hammered Hornet with five bombs and two torpedoes. Two Vals also crashed into her, whether intentionally is unknown. But her damage was beyond control, and she was abandoned to be scuttled.
It was a day of stellar performances, especially for Enterprise. Lt. Stockton B. Strong and his wingman flew a scouting mission but monitored a report of Japanese battleships in an adjacent sector. En route to that position they learned of enemy carriers farther afield. Strong was described by a subordinate as “The most obnoxious little SOB you ever met, but good, really good.” He ran the time-distance figures and concluded that he had just enough fuel to divert about 150 miles out and back. Arriving overhead Nagumo’s force, he selected the nearest carrier and led Ensign Chuck Irvine in a surprise attack. The SBDs put both 500-pounders through Zuiho’s flight deck and got away clean. They landed on fumes, arguably completing the finest mission ever flown from U.S. carriers. Strong and Irvine had been perfect: navigation, fuel management, tactics, and bombing.
As November opened, both sides recognized the impending climax at Guadalcanal. Enterprise was far too valuable to risk in the confined waters around the island, so she shuttled most of Air Group 10 back and forth to Henderson Field. On the 13th her Avengers, with Marine TBFs and other bombers, helped sink the Japanese battleship Hiei, crippled in another night gunbattle in “Ironbottom Sound” north of the island. She was the first enemy battlewagon sunk by the U.S. Navy in WW II—a feat celebrated by Lt. Albert “Scoofer” Coffin’s crews who consumed improvised cocktails—high-grade torpedo alcohol mixed with grapefruit juice.
Bombardments by Japanese battleships and cruisers became a nightly feature in mid-November. They pasted Henderson with hundreds of explosive shells, trying to keep the Cactus Patch impotent to contest the next day’s effort. But the CAF was tough and resilient: though damaged, it survived.
Then the Japanese threw their biggest effort at Guadalcanal. On the 14th, 22 ships loaded with troops and supplies steamed down The Slot, the stretch of open water northwest of the island, determined to put them ashore. To meet the crisis, Cactus replied with every aircraft available, including most of the Big E’s Air Group 10. Throughout the day, American formations winged away from Henderson and environs, often without much regard to squadron or even service unity. Marine and Navy aircrews traded cockpits as needed, taking off whenever a worthwhile strike could be organized.
The Japanese tried to provide a constant umbrella over the convoy, cycling Zeros down from Rabaul. Jimmy Flatley, cool and professional, assigned targets to the bombers, spreading the destruction as evenly as possible. Said Lt. Martin D. Carmody of Bombing 10, “In combat, Jimmy was unflappable.” Zeros and flak downed at least 20 Cactus planes but they kept coming. American fighters also piled in, diving low to strafe decks crowded with Japanese soldiers.
By evening, The Slot was littered with burning, sinking ships but four beached themselves on Guadal’s coast the next morning. However, the troops and supplies were too few to affect the battle’s outcome, and Tokyo began preparing to withdraw. The six-month campaign officially ended on February 9.
Read the entire article by Barret Tillman in the August 2012 issue of Flight Journal.