March 2023

Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command

The hangar of the USS Long Island with the Wildcats and Seagulls on June 17, 1942. All aircraft are from VGS-1.

A month later, this ship was carrying VMF-223 towards Guadalcanal.

The Henderson Field area as it looked shortly after the Marines captured it.

Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command

Invasion on a Shoestring

Once the Allied fleet had retreated from

the Guadalcanal area following the defeat

at Savo Island, the primary objective for

the abandoned Marines was getting the

captured Japanese airfield on the Lunga

plain operational as quickly as possible.

Without air support, they were completely

at the mercy of Japanese aerial and naval

attacks, and highly vulnerable to ground


Almost as soon as the runway had fallen

into the hands of the 3rd Battalion, 5th

Marines on August 8, the division air and

engineering officers sized things up. They

reported they could put down 2,600 feet

of usable runway by August 10, and that

another 1,200-by-160-foot section could

be completed in the week after that.

Rear Admiral Turner promised on August

8 that aircraft would arrive on August 11.

Unfortunately, when the fleet was forced

to retire following Savo Island, they left

with nearly all the 1st Engineer Battalion’s

equipment that had yet to be unloaded.

Construction of the airfield commenced

August 9 when the 1st Engineer and 1st

Pioneer battalions managed to gather

sufficient gear to get started. A miserable

15 percent of their equipment and supplies

had been landed, with none of the heavy

equipment making it ashore. Thus, they

were forced to manhandle 100,000 cubic

feet of earth fill to cover the depression

in the center of the field that had been

left by the Japanese, who had begun their

construction at both ends and built toward

the center.

The engineers used a huge steel girder

as a drag, while a captured Japanese

road roller was used to pack the fill.

Japanese gear contributed heavily to the

small store of engineering equipment

available to the Americans, though in

general, the captured equipment was

in poor condition; ingenious American

mechanics kept it working hour after

brutal hour in their race against time. The

only earth-moving equipment was one

angle-dozer the pioneers had managed

to land. Dump trucks were nonexistent.

The engineers performed incredible

feats of improvisation as they overcame

monumental difficulties.

On August 18, eight Betty bombers arrived

over Henderson in the largest air strike

since August 9 as the 25th Air Flotilla

began the aerial assault leading up to

the first Japanese effort to land troops

and retake the island. Forced to remain

above 25,000 feet by antiaircraft fire,

the bombers did little harm. But it was

clear to all that the enemy was resuming

Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command


Marines building a defensive line on the perimeter around Henderson Field.

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