Navy Medicine Guadalcanal Campaign

By this time in 1942 – 70 years ago – the vicious battle for the control for Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands had been decided in the Allies’ favor, even though several battles were yet to be fought. This struggle was decisive: from now on, the Japanese would be fighting a defensive , and ultimately, losing effort.

With the American victory at the Battle of Midway in June and with the realization that construction of a Japanese airbase on Guadalcanal represented part of a strategic threat to Australia, CNO Admiral Ernest King convinced President Roosevelt to modify his “Europe First” policy(1) to permit a “limited offensive” to prevent this eventuality. This led to the US Solomon Island Campaign and the conquest of Guadalcanal.

The campaign to take Guadalcanal, the first major and extended effort in the Pacific, saw Marines and Army units fighting in extremely challenging jungle terrain, facing swarms of insects and mosquitoes, suffering from tropical rains and mud, experiencing frequently irregular food and ammunition supplies, all the while being continually threatened by a dedicated enemy who launched wave after wave of bombing, artillery, naval gunfire and infantry attacks.(2)

The landing force Marines were accompanied by Navy Battalion aid station units consisting of 2 medical officers and 20 hospital corpsmen. Medical companies, consisting of 6 medical officers and 80 corpsmen followed. Maintaining a position about 200 yards behind front lines, company aid men administered resuscitation fluids (typically plasma) and applied splints and dressings as required. Stretcher parties initially evacuated injured troops, but jeeps specially fitted as

Evacuation by Jeep, Guadalcanal. Source (3), p 69. Note plasma being administered (by soldier on the left) en route.

stretcher carriers were the preferred means of moving men to the rear, whenever this was feasible. Men had to be evacuated several hundred miles from the action before they could receive definitive surgical care because field hospitals on the island were subjected to virtually daily air or artillery attacks.

Initially, poor communication facilities and lack of centralized controls created chaotic evacuation patterns as wounded

Air Evacuation of Casualties, Guadalcanal. Source (3), p 72. This was a tremendous morale booster, even for the uninjured.

men were moved to ships offshore. As the battle progressed, air evacuation of casualties became feasible and then desirable. By mid September, just six weeks after the assault on Guadalcanal had begun, 147 men had been evacuated by air. During October and November, more men were evacuated by air (2,879) than by sea. Specially trained corpsmen and nurses tended the men during their flights to hospitals far away from the fight. Medical officers briefed on triage for air evacuation screened out wounded men with chest or abdominal wounds, as these generally did not tolerate air evacuation at high altitude.

In 20th century war, combat casualties typically outnumber casualties due to accident or illness. This was not the case at Guadalcanal, where tropical diseases like malaria and dengue fever laid Marines and soldiers low in numbers much greater that by enemy action. Although Atabrine malarial suppressive treatment was begun very early in the campaign, malaria nevertheless became rampant. For instance, nearly 69% of the Second Marine Division fell victim to the disease. It was soon learned that the troops were throwing away their medication and it fell to medical personnel to stand in the mess lines to dispense the medication – and then to inspect soldiers mouths to see that they had actually swallowed  the pills! Despite this, “…it is safe to assume that every man who served on the island during the period of 7 August 1942 and 9 February 1943 fell victim to the disease.”(3)

About 7100 allied forces died to capture Guadalcanal. The island became a major transport and resupply for the duration of the war in the Pacific.

(1) “Europe First” was the US strategy to fight a purely defensive war in the Pacific in order to concentrate Allied efforts on the defeat of Germany and its ally Italy in Europe. With victory in Europe assured, then Allied efforts would shift to focus on the defeat of Japan.
(2) Potter, E B, Editor. “Sea Power – A Naval History”. Annapolis. Naval Institute Press. 1981. An overview of the strategic and logistical problems facing US and Allied forces in the Solomon Islands campaign, pp 302-305.
(3) The History of the Medical Department of the United States Navy in World War II (Navmed P-5031), Volume I. Washington, GPO, 1953, p 73.
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Comments

  • Patrick Mahoney  On 16 Nov 2012 at 18:55

    I appreciate your article as I have been researching my father’s role as as 18 year Hospital Corpsman in “C” Co. 1st Medical Bn. 1st Marine Division. I would like to find out more about his Company and would welcome references.
    Thank you. Very well done !

    • Raymond Aguirre  On 10 Jul 2014 at 17:17

      Greetings,I believe we have a common interest. Our Fathers shared a common bond as healers during a very difficult time in the early days of WWII. My dad also served on Guadalcanal with a field hospital. I have done some record research and am aware of ‘C’ Co. 1st Med. Bn. I would like to learn more about this medical unit and share some information that might be of interest to you.
      I look forward to hearing from you and hope that we can add new light to our family’s service.
      Cheers
      Ray

  • Genealogy Lady  On 20 Dec 2012 at 18:21

    My grandfather was a Navy doctor. He served in Guadacanal, Solomon Islands. During the war, my grandparents wrote to each other every day. I just started a blog in which I will share a letter a day. Thank you for your blog. It is helping me to understand in fuller context my grandfather’s experiences during the war.

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