An intrepid Coastwatcher monitors the Japanese airstrip on Guadalcanal

When sleep claimed Coastwatcher Martin Clemens on the night of 6 August 1942, it came as a blessed relief from hunger, exhaustion, and the dangers of the previous ten weeks. Clemens had left the government post at Aola on the northern coast of Guadalcanal on 18 May when the Japanese occupying the nearby island of Tulagi began to show increasing interest in Guadalcanal. Clemens was now engaged upon the very dangerous duties of a Coastwatcher in Japanese-occupied territory.


Coastwatcher Martin Clemens is shown on Guadalcanal with six of his loyal native scouts. Facing enormous risk of capture and execution, they monitored the construction of the Japanese airfield at Lunga Point, and reported their observations to Allied Intelligence. After the US Marines had captured the airstrip, Clemens and his scouts joined them as guides and intelligence gatherers.

The Royal Australian Navy had given Clemens the nominal rank of Lieutenant in its Reserve List and instructed him to report Japanese naval and air activities by radio to Coastwatcher headquarters in Australia. Although not required to stay after the Japanese had occupied Guadalcanal, Clemens elected to stay and report Japanese military activity despite the very real risk of capture and execution. Accompanied by his loyal Solomon Islander scouts, Clemens set up an observation post in the jungle-covered hills above Lunga Point. From this elevated position, he could observe and report activity at the recently established Japanese flying boat base at Tulagi and warship movements across the 30 mile (48 km) wide stretch of sea that separated Lunga Point from Tulagi.

On 1 July 1942, Clemens was able to report to Australia that the Japanese had landed in force at Lunga Point and were building an airstrip. The Japanese soon became aware that Australian Coastwatchers on the northern coast of Guadalcanal were reporting their activities, and patrols were sent out to capture them. As the Japanese closed in, Clemens was forced to withdraw deeper into the hills. To keep Coastwatcher headquarters informed of progress on the airstrip at Lunga Point, Clemens ordered his scouts to infiltrate the native labour force working for the Japanese at the airfield.

By the middle of July, the Japanese had landed about two thousand troops and construction workers at Lunga Point and the airfield was nearing completion. On either side of Lunga Point lay the native coastal villages of Kukum and Tenaru. These villages were about 4.5 miles (7.2 km) apart, and Clemens' scouts reported that the Japanese were establishing dispersed supply dumps along the whole length of the coast between the two villages. It became apparent to Clemens that the Japanese were establishing a major airbase at Lunga Point, and he reported this information to Coastwatcher HQ in Australia. He also reported that the airfield was nearing completion.

Under constant threat of capture, and with his food supplies gone, Clemens was appalled to learn from one of his scouts on 5 August 1942 that the airstrip at Lunga Point had been completed and was ready to receive Japanese aircraft. Surely, he thought, the Allies would not allow this to happen. Clemens knew that Japanese bombers based at the Lunga Point airfield would be able to strike at ships carrying American troops and military supplies to Australia. He knew that these Japanese bombers would also be able to strike at Allied military installations on the New Hebrides, including the Coastwatcher station that relayed his radio messages to Australia. Clemens sent off an urgent warning by radio to his superiors in Australia. The bleakness of his situation was weighing heavily on Clemens' mind when he fell asleep on the night of 6 August 1942.

United States Marines land on Guadalcanal and Tulagi

Clemens awoke early on the morning of 7 August 1942 to the sound of heavy detonations from the direction of Lunga Point and Tulagi. He knew instinctively that help had finally arrived. When he was able to reach a position from which he could view the sea, he saw more than fifty Allied warships and transports standing off Lunga Point. Warships and aircraft were pounding the Japanese airfield and installations. Over his radio, he heard descriptions of Japanese running in panic in all directions. He also heard American pilots reporting that they had hit key targets at the airfield including the power station and ammunition and fuel dumps. These targets had been identified by Clemens' scouts and he had taken pains to report their locations accurately to Coastwatcher HQ.

US Marines land unopposed at "Beach Red" on the morning of 7 August 1942. This
landing on Guadalcanal was the first major Allied land offensive of the Pacific War.

The landing of men of the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal and Tulagi on Friday, 7 August 1942 opened the first phase of the Allied campaign to recover the Solomon Islands from the Japanese. Vice Admiral Robert. L. Ghormley, Commander in Chief of the South-Pacific Area, was in overall command of this operation which involved eighty-two warships and transports. The landing force comprised 14,500 marines under the command of Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift. The naval covering task force at Guadalcanal was commanded by Vice Admiral Frank J. Fletcher. His warships included the carriers Saratoga (CV-3), Enterprise (CV-6), and Wasp (CV-7), and the battleship USS North Carolina. The amphibious force was commanded by Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner. The escort group for the amphibious force was under the command of Rear Admiral V. A. C. Crutchley, RN and comprised cruisers HMAS Australia, Canberra, Hobart, and USS Chicago and San Juan, and nine destroyers.

The haste with which this first major Allied offensive of the Pacific War was undertaken created a number of serious problems for the participants. The marines were intending to seize and hold a Japanese airfield on Guadalcanal that was within easy striking distance of Japanese bombers and warships based at Rabaul and Kavieng. Despite this major hazard, the planning, preparation, and coordination for this complex operation were necessarily rushed in order to prevent the Japanese airfield become operational. Even the vital aspects of intelligence and communications did not receive the attention that they deserved. The marines who landed on Guadalcanal were guided only by rough sketch maps produced from aerial photographs. They knew very little about the topographical features of the Lunga Point area. They would eventually obtain this vital information from Martin Clemens and his native scouts when they were able to reach the marine lines.

To compound these formidable problems, command arrangements were complex and soured by Fletcher's early indication to Turner and Vandegrift that he would withdraw his carriers from Guadalcanal after two days to refuel and protect them from air attacks. In response to protests by Vandegrift and Turner that it would take at least four days to land all of the marines and their equipment, Fletcher responded that he would withdraw his carriers regardless of whether the marines were all ashore.

The amphibious task force approached Guadalcanal undetected, and at 6.14 am, the escort warships began to pound the Japanese airstrip and installations. From a position south of Guadalcanal, aircraft from Fletcher's carriers were launched to attack the Japanese naval base at Tulagi and the newly completed airbase on Guadalcanal. Sixteen F4F Grumman Wildcat fighters from Wasp attacked the Tulagi base and destroyed seven large Kawanishi military flying boats (Allied code name "Mavis") and eight Mitsubishi float plane variants of the Zero fighter (Allied code name "Rufe").

The Japanese troops and construction workers on Guadalcanal responded to the heavy bombardment by fleeing into the jungle. The amphibious force was then able to approach Guadalcanal and begin landing Major General Vandegrift's marines at "Beach Red", a strip of beach about 6,000 yards/metres east of the airstrip at Lunga Point. These marines landed without opposition. The marines who landed on Tulagi and the neighbouring small islands of Gavutu and Tanambogo were less fortunate. They encountered very stiff Japanese resistance.

The Japanese respond to the American landings

Although taken completely by surprise, the Japanese response to the American landings in areas of vital strategic importance to Operation FS was swift. At Rabaul, Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa set about assembling a composite force of cruisers and transports to confront the Americans on Guadalcanal. On the morning of the American landings, bombers from the 25th Air Flotilla at Rabaul were diverted from a routine attack on Port Moresby to attack the American transports and their warship escorts. The Japanese aerial strike force comprised twenty-seven medium bombers (Allied code name "Betty") and eighteen Zero fighters as escorts. At 10.30 am, the Japanese bombers were sighted by Australian Coastwatcher Paul Mason as they passed over his observation post on the island of Bougainville. Mason quickly radioed a warning that enemy bombers were headed for Guadalcanal. As a result of Mason's timely warning, American carrier aircraft were aloft and ready to intercept the Japanese bombers when they neared the warships and transports of the amphibious force. Under assault by American fighters, and hindered by heavy cloud cover over the fleet, the Japanese bombers were unable to coordinate their attack and inflicted only minor damage on the destroyer USS Mugford. Five of the Japanese bombers and two zeros were shot down. The Americans lost nine Wildcats to the deadly Zeros.

On the afternoon of 7 August, Coastwatcher Mason reported a group of twelve unescorted Japanese Aichi dive-bombers (Allied code name "Val") heading for Guadalcanal. This attack was even more disastrous for the Japanese. None of the Allied ships were damaged and only three enemy aircraft returned to base.

In Tokyo, news of the American landings at Guadalcanal and nearby Tulagi did not produce undue concern at Imperial General Headquarters. The Japanese Navy had misrepresented the outcome of the Battle of Midway to the Japanese Army, and had led the generals to believe that the United States Pacific Fleet had been so weakened at Midway that the Americans would be incapable of mounting a major offensive in the South Pacific before 1943. As a result of this deception by their Navy colleagues, the Japanese generals believed that the American landings in the southern Solomon Islands chain were merely a reconnaissance in strength and that the American landing force was unlikely to number more than 2,000 troops. This delusion caused Japan's senior generals to anticipate little difficulty in ejecting the Americans from Guadalcanal and Tulagi.

Despite the misconceptions as to American military capabilities deliberately fostered by the Imperial Navy, the Army Section of Imperial General Headquarters agreed with the Navy Section that immediate action was necessary to expel the Americans from Guadalcanal before they could seize and use the newly completed airfield. General Gen Sugiyama, Chief of the Army Section of Imperial HQ, spent the morning of 7 August searching for a suitable army unit for this task. Fortunately for the marines on Guadalcanal, six battalions of Japan's elite jungle-trained South Seas Detachment had already been committed to the drive across the rugged Owen Stanley Range to Port Moresby.

While the Japanese Army had been deceived into believing that it was finding troops for a routine housekeeping activity in the southern Solomons, the Imperial Japanese Navy was well aware of the seriousness of the threat to Japan's defensive perimeter created by the American landings. The Chief of the Navy General Staff, Admiral Osami Nagano, directed Vice Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to treat the recovery of the airbase at Guadalcanal as a matter of the highest priority. Yamamoto immediately ordered all available ships and aircraft in the South-East Area to concentrate and prepare for a decisive counter-attack on the Americans.

On Day 2 of the Guadalcanal landing, the Japanese responded with a low level attack by Mitsubishi medium bombers (Allied code name "Betty") equipped with torpedoes. They ran into a storm of anti-aircraft fire from the American warships and transports, and only five survived.

Early on the morning of Saturday, 8 August, Australian Coastwatcher Jack Read on Bougainville observed twenty-seven torpedo-equipped Japanese medium Betty bombers heading for Guadalcanal. They were escorted by fifteen Zero fighters. He quickly sent out a radio warning.

Although the message took forty minutes by a circuitous route to reach the American naval force off Guadalcanal, American carrier aircraft were launched and lay in wait for the Japanese over Savo Island. However, the Japanese had learned well from the debacles of the previous day. Before reaching Savo, the Japanese bombers abruptly changed course to the east and skirted well clear of Savo before approaching the American amphibious force from a north-easterly direction at very low altitude. Although they had avoided the American Wildcat fighters stacked at high altitudes over Savo Island, the Japanese torpedo-equipped bombers ran into a storm of anti-aircraft fire from the warships and transports standing off Lunga Point. The Americans suffered heavy damage to one destroyer and one transport. Only five Japanese bombers survived to return to Rabaul. Two Zeros were shot down.

Vice Admiral Fletcher decides to withdraw air cover for the landing force

Towards evening on 8 August, Vice Admiral Fletcher decided to withdraw the three carriers, the battleship, six cruisers and sixteen destroyers from the vicinity of Guadalcanal. Despite Rear Admiral Turner's protest at Fletcher's withdrawal of air protection for the amphibious force, Vice Admiral Ghormley felt that he should not interfere. He appreciated that Fletcher's decision to withdraw the covering warships before all marines had been landed with their equipment on a hostile shore would leave the amphibious force without air cover and dangerously exposed, but he accepted Fletcher's explanation that there was an urgent need to retire and refuel the ships of his covering force.

Fletcher had received no reports of approaching Japanese naval ships from reconnaissance aircraft, and he took the decision to withdraw a large portion of his covering force in the belief that the landing force was under no immediate threat from the Japanese Navy. Fletcher's belief was based on communication failure and turned out to be ill founded. A powerful Japanese naval force, under the command of Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, was steaming towards Guadalcanal at the very moment that Fletcher's aircraft carriers and their escort warships were withdrawing.

The stage was now set for the Allied naval disaster at Savo Island.