The first footprints appeared on the stretch of Guadalcanal shore code-named “Red Beach” on August 7, 1942. Made by Marine Corps–issue boots, these were truly historic imprints: America’s first steps toward the ultimate, unconditional victory over Japan almost exactly three years later.
By the conclusion of the crucial battle in the southern Solomon Islands—a battle that also raged in the skies above and roiled the waters around the roughly 2,000-square-mile island until February 1943, and resulted in nearly 40,000 total casualties—there would be countless more footprints, along with the rapid accumulation of more tangible evidence of the clash. As I prepared to set foot on Guadalcanal nearly 70 years later, I wondered how many of the battle’s footprints remained.
In Europe and the United States one typically finds shiny plaques, paved guide paths, and meticulously maintained museums, monuments, and cemeteries. But many Pacific War sites remain largely undisturbed, laden with potential for not only discovery, but head-shaking sadness as well. A combination of unchecked jungle growth, unrelenting tides, and the unremitting effects of time and poor preservation efforts is steadily erasing from existence the ruins, wrecks, guns, and bunkers that have stood as symbolic sentinels for decades.
So, much like the Marines who landed that August day with little ammunition and food, I commenced the expedition with uncertainty. Little did I know that on the “Canal,” history, however hidden, is always just a few footsteps away.
It was literally under my feet only moments after my Air Pacific jet landed on the tarmac: Honiara International Airport is built upon the exact site of Henderson Field, the focal point of the six-month campaign—awakening me to the realization that Joe Foss, Bob Galer, John L. Smith, and the other legendary pilots of the Cactus Air Force once trod this very same ground.
The past quickly vanished in the dusty bustle of Honiara, the seaside Solomon Islands capital city home to 79,000—but only temporarily, thanks to John Innes. Innes is the modern incarnation of the intrepid scouts and coastwatchers who guided the Marines throughout the battle. Born in London during the war, Innes arrived in the Solomons via Australia and a work-related move. He was bitten shortly thereafter. “You can cure malaria,” Innes likes to say, “but there is no cure for the history bug.”
After decades of locating aircraft wrecks, helping recover and identify remains, and accompanying veterans on what can best be considered emotional archaeological digs, Innes has assumed a much-needed role as Guadalcanal’s on-site historian. While Solomon Islanders are very friendly and hospitable, most remain largely unaware of the historical significance of the soil on which they live. Or perhaps they just want to forget. “Having no word for ‘war’ in their native tongue,” Innes said, those present at the time of the battle referred to it as the “Big Death.”
There are no signs marking the site of the infamous Goettge Patrol massacre on the grounds of the United Church in downtown Honiara. Nor, if not for Innes, would I have known that the fairways of the Honiara Golf Course were once home to Fighter Two, the airstrip from which the P-38s of the 339th Fighter Squadron lifted off on April 18, 1943, and shot down Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.
The majority of the island’s historic sites, however, are located outside of the littered, betel nut–spattered streets and sidewalks of Honiara. Over the course of several exhausting yet exhilarating days, I retraced the footsteps made by Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson’s Second Marine Raider Battalion on the Long Patrol, an epic march that cleared Japanese troops and artillery from Mount Austen, the 1,514-foot monolith that dominates Guadalcanal’s interior, and hunkered down behind strands of rusty barbed wire that still circle the Lunga Perimeter, as they had in October, 1942.
On Japanese Memorial Hill, I stood upon slabs of white sun-washed stone framed by white frangipani and red hibiscus, representative of the national colors of Japan, to scan the sweeping vistas of the island panorama. Atop an eerily calm Edson’s Ridge, where, from September 12–14, 1942, a handful of Marines repulsed a massive Japanese attack and saved Henderson Field, I crouched in a depression that was once a foxhole and contemplated the identity and the emotions of the young Marines who fought there The reverberating thunder of artillery salvos from the 11th Marine Regiment’s 105mm guns has long since faded; only ocean breezes breathe across the island, gently rustling the golden-green fields of kunai grass that carpet the ridges.
And I learned not to follow in Japanese footsteps—literally. The sprawling Lever Brothers coconut plantation that Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki’s men marched west through, toward a resounding defeat at the Battle of the Tenaru, no longer exists. The easiest contemporary route passes along what was once the southern boundary of Henderson Field, past clumps of red ginger and sugar cane, onto Block Four Road. That path, little more than a jungle trail, delivers you to Alligator Creek and the sandbar where hundreds of Japanese fell before Marine machine guns on August 21, 1942.
Near the inland area known as the Gifu, where American forces reduced the last pockets of Japanese resistance in the battle’s final stages, the residents of Barana village display war relics on crowded tables: rusty bayonets, helmets, .50-caliber machine gun barrels, Marston matting, Coca-Cola bottles, and shell casings. Just off Tetere Beach, rows of amtracs sit among massive banyan trees, as if in preparation for the next island invasion.
The most impressive collection of war relics is at the Vilu War Museum, located 21 kilometers west of Honiara off the northwest coastal road. Walled by towering coconut palms and flowering coroton trees are a series of boneyard “exhibits:” nearly complete skeletons of an F4F Wildcat, an F4U Corsair, an SBD Dauntless dive bomber, and a P-38 Lightning. There is also a Type 97 Japanese tank, three 105mm guns, and a 155mm howitzer, plus an arsenal of deactivated ordnance ranging from 500-kilogram Japanese bombs to mortar shells.
And the best part? Much like the rest of Guadalcanal, the museum is hands-on history. There are no display cases, velvet ropes, or flash photography rules. For the entry price of 25 Solomon Island dollars (about $3), proprietor/curator Anderson Dua will invite you to touch whatever you please. Dua even happily showed me how to fold the creaking wing of the carrier-design Wildcat.
I continued my march further west along the northwest road, bouncing down a tunnel of tall palms to remote Koli Point, where the Japanese were able to evacuate approximately 13,000 starving troops in February 1943. The surf softly laps the black sands of Koli, perhaps the best place to visually absorb Savo Island, which rises out of the glassy, swelling surface of Ironbottom Sound like a half-moon.
On August 9, 1942, the first major naval engagement of the campaign took place off Savo Island; it was the biggest naval disaster in American history with the exception of Pearl Harbor. Although the extreme depths of Ironbottom Sound insure that most of the wrecks will remain hidden history, some of the estimated 690 aircraft and 200 vessels in the waters around Guadalcanal are divable. For those who want to see wrecks up close without getting wet, there is LST 342. Torpedoed off New Georgia in July 1943, the tank landing ship was blown in two, yet the bow was deemed salvageable enough to be towed to what is now its eternal mooring in Purvis Bay, off Florida Island, about a one-hour trip via charter from Honiara.
History’s constant close proximity on Guadalcanal was driven home to me one evening, as Innes and I were relaxing at Honiara’s Point Cruz Yacht Club, overlooking Savo and Florida Islands. About 20 paces away was a plaque memorializing Signalman Douglas Munro, and I realized I was gazing out on the site where Munro had earned the Congressional Medal of Honor—the only member of the U.S. Coast Guard to do so. Munro was mortally wounded on September 27, 1942, while leading several Higgins boats to Point Cruz to evacuate Marines. He reportedly remained conscious long enough to ask, “Did they get off?”
Yet of all the memorials on Guadalcanal, no words are more appropriate than those etched into the marble walls of the American Memorial located atop Skyline Ridge overlooking the Matanikau River valley, on what was known during the battle as Hill 73:
“May this memorial endure the ravages of time until the wind, rain and tropical storms wear away its surface, but never
As long as one can follow the historic footprints, these memories will endure.
John D. Lukacs is a writer and historian whose work has appeared in USA Today, the New York Times, and on ESPN.com. His first book, Escape From Davao: The Forgotten Story of the Most Daring Prison Break of the Pacific War, will be published in paperback by Penguin/NAL in May. His next book, on the Battle for Manila in 1945, will be published by Penguin/NAL Caliber.
When You Go
Honiara International Airport is serviced by Air Pacific, Air Vanuatu, Our Airline (formerly known as Air Nauru), Pacific Blue, and Solomon Airlines. Getting around Guadalcanal is not difficult; rental cars are available, and taxis are both plentiful and affordable.
Where to Stay and Eat
The new Heritage Park Hotel (www.hph.com.sb, 677-24007), located in the Honiara waterfront area on the site of the former governor-general’s residence, offers superb service, a sparkling pool, luxury stylings, and multiple amenities. Japanese troops called Guadalcanal “Starvation Island,” but you won’t go hungry when visiting. The Point Cruz Yacht Club offers a tasty assortment of nightly specials and is highly recommended. The Renaissance restaurant and The Terrace at Heritage Park Hotel offer formal and casual dining experiences featuring European and Pan-Asian fare.
What Else to See
Guadalcanal is acquiring a reputation as one of the Pacific’s premier eco-tourism destinations. Birdwatchers, wildlife enthusiasts, fishermen, and scuba divers flock to the Solomons. Extreme Adventures (solomonadventures.com) offers “seafari” tours, snorkeling, and fishing expeditions. Divers should contact divemaster Neil Yates (www.tulagidive.com.sb, 677-32131). For fishing and day charters, as well as a few good fish stories, Mike Hammond at Fishing Solomon (677-24498) will help you get underway.