Photo: National Archives via NAAS
Text: Thomas McKelvey Cleaver
We left the pilots and mechanics of VMF-223 in the first
part of this article as they began to familiarize themselves
with Henderson Airfield and the situation on Guadalcanal.
The latter certainly did not make them so happy, but it did
compromise their combat determination.
It was fortunate the Japanese were initially
as nearly hamstrung as the Americans.
The Imperial Navy’s 25th Air Flotilla (5th
Air Attack Force), based at Rabaul, had
been reinforced only days before the
Allied incursion into the Solomons as
part of a general build-up preparatory to
occupying Guadalcanal and supporting
a further Japanese drive into the New
Hebrides. On August 9, Vice Admiral
Nishizō Tsukahara activated the Eleventh
Air Fleet at Rabaul and assumed control
of regional air operations. The one-armed
senior aviator, who had lost his arm to
a spinning propeller, advocated a policy of
strong reprisals against the Americans.
However, since his bomber force had
taken severe losses during the first two
days of aerial combat, the admiral was
restricted to planning harassment and
reconnaissance missions to the island.
The Americans were fortunate that
Guadalcanal and the Japanese airfields
at Rabaul were separated by more than
Photo up: Aerial view of the runway of Henderson
Airfield on August 22, 1942, two days after VMF-223
arrived on the island. The buildings to the south of the
runway were intended as workshops and the roofs
were made of 7/8-inch-thick steel.
600 miles of the Solomon and Coral Seas.
Though the Zero was the longest-legged
operational fighter in the world, the 1,300
mile round trip between Rabaul and
Guadalcanal taxed even its capabilities to
the limit, while the twin-engine Betty had
fuel for only 15 minutes over the target.
The range limitations of the Zero and the
Betty meant missions had to be flown by
the most direct route, with no margin for
feints or for speeding up the throttled-back
engines of the fuel-conserving fighters