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Operation WATCHTOWER and National Lighthouse Day

Yeah, I know…running late.  Sue me.

So, 7 August marks a number of auspicious events, among them being the creation of the Order of the Purple Heart in 1782 (making 7 August Purple Heart Day), the US War Department in 1789,  the patenting of the revolving door in 1888, the beginning of the Battle of the French Frontiers in 1914, and the passing of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964.  But today, we talk about Guadalcanal, and lighthouses.

The exgenesis of what would become the Guadalcanal campaign of WWII is shrouded less in mystery than in myth.  Yes, the big island at the far eastern end of the Solomons Islands chain had a central plain large enough to support an airstrip, but that’s not why the Japanese went there: that’s why the Americans went there.  The Japanese were more interested in Tulagi, the smaller island to the north of Guadalcanal that had a longer, deeper beach that could support a seaplane base: the strip they started on Guadalcanal that so alarmed the Australians was to be for fighters to protect the seaplane base.  Japan wanted a seaplane base from which they could control the waters on the northern side of the Coral Sea and around New Zealand and New Caledonia, further isolating Australia; the Americans wanted to prevent both from happening, to build an airfield from which they could control those same waters, and as a starting point in the isolation of not only Rabaul but the Marshall Islands.

So was born Operation WATCHTOWER (colloquially, as Operation “Shoestring” for the meager support it got in the early months), the naval/ground/air operation in the eastern Solomons Islands that ran from the Marine landings on 7 August 1942  to 9 February 1943 when the Americans declared the island secure. Guadalcanal, in Navy/Marine parlance, was Task One for the South Pacific, and in many respects it was the most important single operation for both the Americans and their allies and for Japan.  Control  of the Eastern Solomons by either side meant control of the waters around eastern Australia, the springboard for the southern Pacific offensive. against Japan.  But too, it was the first test of Japanese resilience in the face of an Allied counter-offensive, of their ability to control events far from Japanese waters, and without strategic initiative.  As the end of the Guadalcanal offensive showed, Japan’s ability to outlast the Allies was wanting.  It was the first major chink in Japan’s island cordon.

The Guadalcanal campaign is well-covered by several authors, but for my money the best is The Guadalcanal Campaign by Richard Frank.  His dynamic, nearly day-by-day account of the three-month long campaign best covers both American and Japanese problems, but the one Japanese issue that Frank does not cover is the increasing desperation not of the senior commanders or even the common soldiers, but of the ever-increasing weariness of the overworked aircrews and their mechanics, which is best described in Okumiya Masatake’s Zero!. 

As some of you know, my co-author. Lee Rochwerger, and I have been working on a…retooling…of our What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan at War (Merriam Press 2009) book.  The new version, Why the Samurai Lost, will be bigger and better, with maps and tables that the first version lacked, and more information on the infighting between the Japanese Army and Navy.  Expect to see Why the Samurai Lost at the end of 2018.  Of which, more later.

On 7 August 1789 the US Congress approved an act for the support of “Lighthouses, Beacons, Buoys and Publik Piers” that marked the beginning of what would become the Lighthouse Service, which would be eventually be rolled into the Coast Guard. Two hundred years later, Congress passed a commemorative bill designating 7 August as National Lighthouse Day.

Sometime in the 1960s, the Coast Guard determined that the older the lighthouse, the more costly it would be to knock down because of their stout construction. As of the 1980s, all of these innocuous structures that dot the coastlines of every major body of water in the US  have been automated, many shut down and abandoned. The Lighthouse Preservation Society is dedicated to keeping at least some of these landmarks as monuments, museums, or other repurposed function. For those of you who live on or near the Great Lakes or one of the three major coastlines of the US, have a look at those old brick piles with the big light domes and remember: it’s likely at least one of you had some friend or relative that counted on that light to keep from being wrecked on some rock or shoal.

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