Over the course of the Solomon Islands campaigns, which began in August 1942 with landings on Guadalcanal, Allied forces slowly established air and maritime superiority over the region. While both the Allies and the Japanese operated at the end of long, tenuous supply lines—the closest major Japanese base was at Rabaul and the closest Allied base was Efate, each over 600 miles from Guadalcanal—the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps seized the initiative when they established an operating airbase at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal soon after the initial landings. This put the Japanese in a difficult logistical situation, as their land-based strike aircraft had to sortie the six hundred miles from Rabaul to reach Allied targets. This was an untenable situation, as Japan was short on twin-engine bombers as many squadrons were needed in China and Southeast Asia, and carrier-based aircraft could not make up the difference since their presence was intermittent. After weeks of costly attempts to neutralize Henderson Field with air strikes during August 1942, the Japanese ceded air supremacy in the Solomons to the Americans.
The inability to provide consistent friendly air cover around Guadalcanal meant Japanese forces had difficulty supplying ground troops on Guadalcanal, primarily because cargo and troop ships were too easily bombed and sunk by American aircraft based on the island. The root of the problem was Japan’s inability to maintain air superiority near Allied bases, which were better equipped and operated more aircraft than their Japanese counterparts. This meant that once Allied forces established an “air umbrella” over the various Japanese bases in the Pacific, resupply efforts were immediately jeopardized. Yoshida Yutaka, emeritus professor at Hitotsubashi University, cites the U.S. Navy’s “island hopping” strategy in the Southwest Pacific as the primary cause for the Japanese evacuation of Guadalcanal in early 1943. “In the end,” Yutaka concludes, “the loss of control of the air on the South Pacific front, combined with a lack of long-term strategic planning on the part of the [Japanese] military command, left deployed forces constantly under threat of starvation.”
The frequent disruption of the Japanese sea supply lines from Rabaul was the primary reason for Japanese starvation on Guadalcanal in late 1942.
The physical condition of the men garrisoned on Guadalcanal was already in decline prior to their deployment. In a May 1942 report penned by the Japanese Army Ministry’s Medical Bureau—“On the Physical Strength of Young Conscripts”—the body mass of personnel examined over the previous three years exhibited an alarming downward trend. The report cited an unnamed Ministry official who aligned increased urban migration from the countryside as one of the causes for declining health, as the post-First Sino Japanese War factories and facilities were not exactly promoters of good health. Tuberculosis, too, affected young male conscripts, as did a general decline in the quality and quantity of food imports to Japan following U.S. and Allied sanctions starting in 1940. The expanding war and chemical industries coupled with the substantial increase in military recruits meant that the mortality rate of Japanese men between the ages of 20 and 24 increased substantially in these years.
With immune systems already susceptible to infection, the Japanese infantry on Guadalcanal had the added misfortune of an inconsistent diet due to the irregular delivery of medical and food supplies from Rabaul. In the early days of the campaign, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) attempted daylight supply runs, but those suffered too much from American air attacks. Later, just like the Americans did, the Japanese planned missions so the supply ships arrived at night to unload before hurriedly putting out to sea before dawn in the hopes of avoiding air attack. But even that approach fared poorly, with the wrecks of many Japanese cargo ships soon dotting the northwest coast of Guadalcanal.
In late-November 1942, Japanese logisticians developed a plan described by IJN Rear Admiral Raizō Tanaka as “the drum method” in which sterilized 55-gallon supply drums were linked together with strong rope and pushed overboard from passing destroyers. The tide’s current, the theory went, would drift the drums toward waiting motor boats whose occupants would then drag the supplies ashore.
The violent surface action at the Battle of Tassafaronga scuttled the initial delivery effort, however. Of the over 200 drums that departed Rabaul on six destroyers, none reached their destination. Three days later, on December 3, the IJN made a second delivery attempt. American pilots engaged in strafing attacks that sank all but 310 of the 1,500 supply drums destined for Guadalcanal.
After Tassafaronga, the situation was grim. Food was scarce and basic medical supplies were nonexistent. Kashichi Yoshida, a noncommissioned officer, detailed in a poem the truly dire circumstances he and his comrades faced on Guadalcanal.
No matter how far we walk
We don’t know where we’re going
Trudging along under dark jungle growth
When will this march end?
Hide during the day
Move at night
Deep in the lush Guadalcanal jungle
Our rice is gone
Eating roots and grass
Along the ridges and cliffs
Leaves hide the trail, we lose our way
Stumble and get up, fall and get up
Covered with mud from our falls
Blood oozes from our wounds
No cloth to bind our cuts
Flies swarm to the scabs
No strength to brush them away
Fall down and cannot move
How many times I've thought of suicide.
While American troops on Guadalcanal and Tulagi could reasonably expect the regular delivery of hundreds of tons of supplies, “the Japanese logistical flow amounted only to dozens of kilograms at times,” according to Saburō Hayashi, a member of the Imperial General Staff. On December 31, the Imperial Japanese Palace hosted a conference of the Imperial General Headquarters. Attendees included the Emperor, his Aide-de-Camp, the Ministers of Navy and of War, Operations Sections heads, the Chiefs of the Operations Bureaus, the Deputy Chiefs of Staff, and the Chiefs of the Army and Navy General Staff. For nearly two hours, they ruminated over how best to proceed. When the conference adjourned, they agreed to suspend “operations to recapture Guadalcanal” and initiated plans to evacuate the grossly over-estimated 20,000 Japanese troops garrisoned on the island. The Eighth Area Army Headquarters, led by General Hitoshi Imamura, had been embellishing their totals to emphasize the critical food and supply shortage.
Nine destroyers, under the command of Rear Admiral Tanaka, transported a unit of 600 men to Guadalcanal on 14 January 1943. The Matsuda Unit served as the rear guard during the evacuation. Four of Tanaka’s destroyers received minor damage from American aircraft sorties out of Henderson airfield. Two weeks later, on the night of 2-3 February, one light cruiser and twenty destroyers evacuated the first group of 4,935 men with no damage sustained. The destroyer Makigumo hit a mine, however, and before Yugumo could initiate a tow, the vessel sank. The following night, aerial attacks forced Tanaka’s unit to retire, but not before the force managed to collect 3,921 men. The destroyer Maikaze suffered damage and required a tow to the Shortlands by the destroyer Nagatsuki. On the final night, 7-8 February, the convoy evacuated another 1,796 men from the Guadalcanal and Russell islands. All told, 31,358 men representing all of the Japanese services, landed on Guadalcanal during the campaign. Of that number, 20,706 died by starvation, disease, or in battle, or were listed as missing in action.
Raizō Tanaka, “The Struggle for Guadalcanal,” in The Japanese Navy in World War II: In the Words of Former Japanese Naval Officers
, 2nd ed. (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2017), 198.
Kashichi Yoshida quoted in Saburō Ienaga, The Pacific War: World War II and the Japanese, 1931-1945
(New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 144.
Hayashi, Kōgun: The Japanese Army in the Pacific War
(Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1959), 62, 64.
Paul S. Dull, A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1941-1945
(Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1978), 268, 269.