Military Wiki
Cactus Air Force
Cactus Air Force aircraft crowd Henderson Field, Guadalcanal in October, 1942
Active August 20, 1942 – April 1943
Country United States,
New Zealand
Allegiance Allies of World War II
Branch United States Marine Corps,
United States Army,
United States Navy,
Royal New Zealand Air Force
Type Ensemble air unit
Role Aerial warfare
Garrison/HQ Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands
Roy Geiger,
Louis E. Woods
Francis P. Mulcahy

Cactus Air Force refers to the ensemble of Allied air power assigned to the island of Guadalcanal from August 1942 until December 1942 during the early stages of the Guadalcanal Campaign, particularly those operating from Henderson Field. After December, the official name of the unit became Commander, Aircraft, Solomons (AirSols), but Cactus Air Force was still used frequently to refer to the organization. The term "Cactus" comes from the Allied code name for the island. In April 1943 the organization was redesignated as AirSols.


The Pacific Ocean area in August 1942. Guadalcanal is located in the lower right center of the map.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack crippled much of the U.S. battleship fleet and led to a state of war between the two nations. In launching this war, Japanese leaders sought to neutralize the American fleet, seize possessions rich in natural resources, and obtain strategic military bases to defend their far-flung empire. Japanese forces also attacked and took control of Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Wake Island, New Britain, and Guam.[1]

Two attempts by the Japanese to extend their defensive perimeter in the south and central Pacific were thwarted in the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942) and the Battle of Midway (June 1942). These two strategic victories for the Allies provided an opportunity to take the initiative and launch a counter-offensive against the Japanese somewhere in the Pacific. The Allies chose the Solomon Islands, specifically the southern Solomon Islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida.[2]

Allied strategists knew that the Japanese Navy had occupied Tulagi in May 1942 and had constructed a seaplane base near there. Concern grew when in early July 1942 the Japanese Navy began constructing a significant airfield near Lunga Point on nearby Guadalcanal island. These bases, when complete, would protect Japan's major base at Rabaul, threaten Allied supply and communication lines across the South Pacific to Australia and New Zealand, and establish a staging base for possible future offensives against the New Hebrides, Fiji, Samoa, and New Caledonia.[3][4]

The airfield at Lunga Point on Guadalcanal under construction by Japanese forces in July 1942.

The Allied plan to attack the southern Solomons was conceived by U.S. Navy Admiral Ernest King, the Commander in Chief of the United States Fleet. King proposed the counter-offensive to deny the use of the southern Solomon Islands by the Japanese as bases to threaten the supply routes between the United States and Australia, and to use them as starting points for a campaign with the goal of isolating the new and major Japanese base at Rabaul while also supporting the Allied New Guinea campaign. All of this had the eventual goal of opening the way for the U.S. to retake the Philippines.[5] The American Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Allied Commander-in-Chief for all forces in the Pacific, created the South Pacific theater of operations, with Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley placed in command on June 19, 1942, to direct the Allied offensive in the Solomons.[6]

On August 7, 1942, the First Marine Division landed on Tulagi and Guadalcanal at Lunga Point, capturing the partially completed Japanese airfield and marking the first counter-offensive taken by the Allies during in the Pacific Theater. More construction work began on the airfield immediately, mainly using captured Japanese equipment. On August 12, the airfield was renamed Henderson Field, for Major Lofton R. Henderson, who was killed during the Battle of Midway and who was the first Marine Corps pilot killed during the battle. By August 18, Henderson Field was ready for operation.[7]

Henderson Field

Aerial view of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, August 7, 1942

When the first planes began arriving, Henderson Field could barely be described as an airfield. It was an irregularly shaped blob cut out of the island growth, half in and half out of a coconut grove, with a runway that was too short and few revetments to protect the aircraft from shrapnel.[8] Upon landing on Henderson Field on September 4, the Commanding Officer of Marine Aircraft Group 25, Colonel W. Fiske Marshall described the field by stating it "looked like a Doré drawing of hell."[9]

The runway was a northwest to southeast running, 2,400-foot (730 m) long gravel surface with an extra 1,000 feet (300 m) of Marsden Matting that was frequently pockmarked with craters from Japanese artillery and naval gunfire. The strip was in such poor condition that it caused as many losses to aircraft as enemy action. In the heat, the field was a bowl of black dust which fouled the warplanes' engines.[10] When it rained, the airfield quickly turned muddy, miring planes in liquid muck. Major Marion Carl described it as "...the only place on Earth where you could stand up to your knees in mud and still get dust in your eyes."[11] The heavier SBD dive bombers had it the worst, since their hard rubber tires, designed for aircraft carrier landings and take-offs, ripped up the runways like plowshares. Wooden wheels were experimented with, but these did not fare any better.[12] The runway was extended and widened several times during the long Guadalcanal campaign, and it was 3,800 feet (1,200 m) long and 150 wide by September 4.[13]

Henderson Field was also very close to the thinly-held lines of the U.S. First Marine Division, so security was always a concern. There were no fuel trucks, aircraft hangars, or repair buildings. Damaged aircraft were cannibalized for spare parts, and with no bomb hoists, all aircraft munitions had to be hand-loaded onto the warplanes. Fuel, always critically low, had to be hand pumped out of 55 gallon drums.[11] Even after the arrival of fuel trucks, aviation gasoline still had to be hand-pumped into the trucks.[12]

On September 9, 1942, the U.S. 6th Naval Construction Battalion (SeaBees) opened up a second runway about one mile to the east of Henderson Field's original runway. This new runway, called "Fighter 1", consisted of tamped-down sod, and it was about 4,600 feet (1,400 m) long and 300 feet (91 m) wide. The Marine fighter squadrons began operating out of Fighter 1, with the rest of the aircraft operating out of Henderson Field continued to use the original runway - thereafter was referred to as "Bomber Field No. 1."[13]

Henderson Field's facilities began to improve around November 15, when it was officially declared a Marine Corps Air Base. Proper runways began to be installed using shipped-in ground-up coral, since the local coral was deemed to be too rotten and slushy.[14]

Living conditions

A flooded coconut grove near the airfield where the air wing Marines called home.

Living conditions on Guadalcanal were some of the most difficult ever faced by Marine aviation. Pilots and mechanics lived in mud-floored tents in a flooded coconut plantation called "Mosquito Grove." These living conditions led to most Marines contracting tropical diseases such as malaria, dysentery, dengue fever, or fungal infections.[15] At night, Japanese warships would periodically bombard the airfield, and by day, Japanese artillery shelling frequently struck. The worst night of bombardment was on October 13–14, 1942, when two Japanese battleships fired more than 700 rounds of heavy shells into Henderson Field—providing cover for the Japanese Navy's landing of Marine and army reinforcements further west on Guadalcanal.

Also, nearly every day around noon, flights of 20 to 40 Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" bombers would fly in at 20,000 feet (6,100 m) in a perfect "V formation" to bomb the Henderson Field. These were always escorted by a flight of Japanese fighter planes, and this bombing helped make life on Guadalcanal even more miserable.[16]


General Roy Geiger (left) and Major Joe Foss, the top fighter ace on Guadalcanal

From the time of the first Marine squadron landed on August 20 until August 25 there was no commanding officer for Marine air, which instead reported directly to General Vandegrift. The Marines had not designated an air operations commander, the Army already had a squadron present and the field had already acquired the air of a naval base after having been promised to certain naval units. The first Marine commander was Colonel William W. Wallace but he only retained command temporarily.[17] Cactus Air Force technically was under the command of Rear Admiral John S. McCain, who commanded all land based Allied aircraft in the South Pacific. Vandegrift and his operational commanders, however, exercised local command over the Allied aircraft operating out of Henderson Field.[18]

On September 3, 1942, the fortunes of the beleaguered aviators changed with the arrival of Brigadier General Roy Geiger on board the first SCAT plane to land on the island, an R4D Skytrain.[19] As the "Commander, Aircraft, Guadalcanal" (ComAirCACTUS) and the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, Geiger set up his headquarters in a wooden Japanese pagoda that was up on a hill about 200 yards (180 m) from the airfield. Through his energy, example and sheer force of personality he raised the collective spirits of the squadron's survivors. He was described as "...curt, cold and some said ruthless....he was determined to squeeze the ultimate ounce of performance from men and machines".[20] During his time in command, it was said that there was a "sense of desperation but never defeatism,"[21] Ultimately, the strain of command and harsh living conditions seriously fatigued, both mentally and physically, the then 57 year old Geiger. Geiger turned over the command on November 7 to his Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Louis E. Woods.[22][23]

Brigadier Woods, a 21-year aviation veteran, commanded the Cactus fliers during what was viewed as the lowest point of the campaign. He was, however, the right man for the job and was quickly transformed from a "kindly colonel to a blood thirsty brigadier general."[24] Woods also turned the Cactus command over, this time the day after Christmas to Brigadier General Francis P. Mulcahy, then Commanding General of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.[25]


Enlisted pilots of the Tainan Kokutai pose at Lae in 1942. Several of these aviators would be among the top Japanese aces, including Saburo Sakai (middle row, second from left), and Hiroyoshi Nishizawa (standing, first on left). These pilots fought with Allied fighter pilots during the Battle of Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands campaign.

The great majority of the Japanese aircraft engaged by the Cactus Air Force during its history were from Imperial Japanese Navy air units. On August 7, when the Guadalcanal campaign began, the 5th Air Attack Force, under Rear Admiral Sadayoshi Yamada, operated from Rabaul, New Britain and Lae, Papua New Guinea and was responsible for naval air operations in eastern New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The 5th was a hybrid organization composed mainly of attached units from the 25th Air Flotilla and reported to the 11th Air Fleet (also called the "Base Air Force"), under Nishizo Tsukahara. On the morning of August 7, the 5th's air strength consisted of 39 fighters, 32 medium bombers, 16 dive bombers, and 17 seaplanes, including the 15 seaplane aircraft at Tulagi that were destroyed in the initial Allied air strikes during the landings on Tulagi and Guadalcanal.[26]

The 5th's principal bomber unit was the 4th Air Group that flew Mitsubishi G4M Type 1 "Betty" bombers. Twenty-four of the fighter aircraft in the 5th belonged to the Tainan Air Group under Captain Masahisa Saito. The Tainan contained some of the top-scoring Japanese fighter aces and flew the A6M2 Zero fighter. With 55 pilots and 24 aircraft, only the most experienced and able Tainan pilots were allowed to consistently participate in combat operations. The dive bombers (Aichi D3A1 "Vals") and the rest of the fighters (A6M3 Zeros) belonged to the 2nd Air Group. Most of the dive bombers were lost during the August 7 and 8 strikes on the Allied landing forces. On August 7 and 8, the Misawa Air Group of the 6th Air Attack Force (also called the 26th Air Flotilla) under Vice Admiral Seigo Yamagata from Tinian with 27 Type 1 bombers joined the 5th Air Attack Force at Rabaul. Around the same time, Admiral Tsukahara moved from Tinian to Rabaul to directly supervise air operations against Allied forces around Guadalcanal.[27]

The 4th and Misawa Air Groups took heavy losses during attacks on the Allied landing fleets off Guadalcanal on August 7 and 8, losing 24 bombers and 153 crewmen killed while the Tainan Air Group lost four Zeros and four pilots. Until reinforcements could arrive, the 5th was unable to continue attacking Marine positions on Guadalcanal, giving the U.S. time to prepare the captured airfield at Lunga Point uninterrupted by air attack. On August 20, 19 Type 1s from the Kisarazu Air Group of the 6th Air Attack Force arrived at Kavieng. On September 2, ten Type 1s from the Chitose Air Group of the 24th Air Flotilla joined them at Kavieng. Both groups participated in subsequent bombing raids on Guadalcanal. Thirteen Zeros and pilots from the 6th Air Group joined the 2nd Air Group at Rabaul on August 31 and began flying combat missions over Guadalcanal on September 11.[28]

From October 1 until the end of the war, the 11th Air Fleet was commanded by Jinichi Kusaka, also located at Rabaul. Some notable pilots flying with the 11th Air Fleet included Hiroyoshi Nishizawa and Junichi Sasai.

A force of Japanese seaplanes called the R-Area Air Force was created on August 28 under Rear Admiral Takatsugu Jojima and operated from Rabaul as well as forward operating bases at Buin, the Shortland Islands, and Rekata Bay, Santa Isabel. The R-Area aircraft came from the four squadrons assigned to the Japanese seaplane tenders Kamikawa Maru, Chitose, Sanyo Maru, and Sanuki Maru. The R-Area Air Force mainly provided cover for Japanese convoys delivering troops and supplies to Guadalcanal, conducted reconnaissance missions around the Solomon Islands' area, and occasionally attacked Henderson Field. Also, air units from Japan's Combined Fleet's aircraft carriers, including Shōkaku, Junyō, Zuikaku, and Ryūjō, either operating from land bases with the 11th Air Fleet, or operating from the carriers themselves, engaged Cactus Air Force aircraft at various times during the Guadalcanal campaign.[29]



F4F-4 Wildcats on Guadalcanal.

P-400s from the 67th FS, USAAF on Guadalcanal in August.

On August 20, Marine pilots from Marine Aircraft Group 23 with eighteen F4F Wildcat fighter planes of VMF-223 led by Major John L. Smith, and a dozen SBD Dauntless dive bombers of VMSB-232 led by Lt. Colonel Richard Mangrum, flying from the escort aircraft carrier USS Long Island, landed at Henderson Field, and these warplanes were conducting combat missions on the next day.[30] They were joined on August 22, by the U.S. Army's 67th Pursuit Squadron, under Major Dale Brannon, with five Army P-400s (an "export" version of the P-39), and on August 24 by eleven SBD dive bombers that came from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise because they were unable to land on their own carrier, with battle damage sustained during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. At the end of August, these warplanes were joined by nineteen more Wildcats from VMF-224 under Major Robert E. Galer, and twelve more SBD dive bombers from VMSB-231, also part of the Marine Air Group 23. This varied assortment of Army, Marine, and Navy pilots and warplanes was the beginnings of the Cactus Air Force.[31]

August 21 brought the first Marine air-to-air combat but it resulted in mixed results. Japanese Zeros from the Tainan Air Group on a bomber escort mission (the bombers were fruitlessly searching for American carriers south of Guadalcanal) passed over Henderson Field Field on their way back to Rabaul, and six of these were met by four Cactus Air Force F4F Wildcats at 14,000 feet (4,300 m). The engagement resulted in Major Smith claiming the first air-to-air victory for the CAF but two of the other pilots crashed while landing their damaged aircraft, with both of the Wildcats deemed a total loss except for salvaged parts. The Japanese actually suffered no losses in this aerial engagement. That same night, an SBD Dauntless blew a tire on take-off, causing it to ground loop and crash for another aircraft loss.[32]

On August 24, during the naval Battle of the Eastern Solomons between aircraft carrier forces of Japan and the U.S. east of the Solomon Islands, Japanese Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo sent the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) light carrier Ryūjō ahead of the main Japanese warship force to send an aircraft attack force against Henderson Field. The Ryūjō mission was most likely in response to a request from Nishizo Tsukahara, the naval commander at Rabaul, for help from the Japanese combined fleet in neutralizing Henderson Field.[33] At 12:20 and 200 miles (320 km) northeast of Guadalcanal, the Ryūjō launched six "Kate" bombers and 15 A6M Zero fighters to attack Henderson Field in conjunction with an attack by 24 "Betty" bombers and 14 Zero fighters from Rabaul. Unknown to the Ryūjō force, however, the Rabaul aircraft had encountered severe weather and returned to their base at 11:30. The Ryūjō's aircraft arrived over Henderson Field at 14:23 and tangled with 14 Marine Wildcats and four Army P-400s while bombing the airfield. In the resulting engagement three Kates, three Zeros, and three Marine fighters were shot down and no damage was done to Henderson Field. Two Marine pilots were killed in the engagement as well as eight Japanese aircrewmen. All of these Japanese aircraft were eventually lost because, while they were attacking Henderson Field, the Ryūjō was sunk by aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, forcing the Japanese aircraft to ditch in the ocean upon returning to the previous location of their carrier.[34]

On August 31, the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Since she was forced to return to Pearl Harbor for drydock repairs, most of the Saratoga's aircraft and aircrewmen remained behind at Espiritu Santo. Admiral McCain planned to send some of these aircraft to reinforce the Cactus Air Force at Guadalcanal.[35]


Shore-based Enterprise SBDs en route to the Japanese seaplane base at Rekata Bay.

On September 2, the U.S. Marine 3rd Defense Battalion began operating an air search radar at Henderson Field, which, along with reports from the coastwatchers, helped provide early warning of incoming Japanese warplanes.[36]

By September 3, the day of Geiger's arrival, the CAF consisted of only 64 flyable airplanes.[37] Due to the heavy losses that the CAF had sustained, Admiral McCain decided to immediately deploy the USS Saratoga's fighter squadrons to Guadalcanal. On September 4, 24 F4Fs of VF-5 flew from Espiritu Santo to Henderson Field.[38]

From September 1 through September 8 the Japanese aviation units at Rabaul concentrated on providing air cover for Japanese Army forces operating along the Kokoda Track on New Guinea, during the Kokoda Track campaign. On September 9, however, the Japanese resumed air operations against Henderson Field, with the objective of destroying the CAF and isolating the American forces on Guadalcanal.[39]

Between August 21 and September 11, the Japanese raided Guadalcanal a total of ten times, losing 31 aircraft destroyed and seven more heavily damaged, primarily due to the defensive efforts of the CAF fighter planes. Most of the Japanese aircrewmen in the destroyed aircraft were killed. During this same time, the CAF Marine Corps fighter squadrons lost 27 aircraft with nine pilots killed.[40]

On September 12, 25 Bettys and 15 Zeros from Rabaul raided Henderson Field. Alerted by the coastwatcher Donald Kennedy, and by the radar at Henderson Field, 20 Wildcat fighters from the Marine and Navy fighter squadrons took off to intercept this raid. In the resulting battle, two Betty bombers were shot down by Marine anti-aircraft fire, and four Bettys and one fighter were shot down by the Wildcats. One U.S. Navy pilot died attempting to land his damaged fighter back at Henderson Field following the action.[41]

That night the field was shelled by the Japanese cruiser Sendai and three destroyers that were supporting the Japanese Army attacks on the Lunga perimeter in the first night of the Battle of Edson's Ridge. This shelling killed two pilots from VMSB-232 and one pilot from VMSB-231, but it did not damage any aircraft or the airfield.[42]

On September 13, 18 Wildcats arrived at Henderson Field from the carriers USS Hornet and USS Wasp. The morning of this same day, Tsukahara sent a reconnaissance mission consisting of two Type 2 aircraft escorted by nine Zeros to find out if the Japanese Army had succeeded in capturing Henderson Field during the night. The Zeros tangled with Cactus Air Force fighters from VMF-223, 224, and VF-5, losing four Zeros along with their pilots. The CAF lost four fighters, two in combat and two to accidents with two CAF pilots killed. An afternoon raid the same day by 27 Bettys and 12 Zeros attacked Henderson Field at 14:00 and again resulted in intense clashes with the Cactus defenders. In the skirmish, two Betty bombers were lost and two were heavily damaged, with three crewmen killed and six captured. Two Wildcats, one each from VMF-212 and VF-5 were lost, with both pilots killed. On that same day, two R Area floatplane Zeros from Rekata Bay swept over Lunga Point and shot down a scoutplane SBD from VMSB-231, killing both of its crewmen. Another CAF scout SBD from VS-3 ditched in the ocean that afternoon during their search patrol and neither of the two crewmen were ever seen again. Later that day 12 VS-3 SBDs and six VT-8 TBF Avenger torpedo planes arrived at Henderson Field as reinforcements.[43]

On September 14, the R Area force attacked Henderson throughout the day with a total of 24 float fighters and bombers, losing eight of them with no losses to the CAF. A fighter sweep by seven 2nd Air Group Zeros from Rabaul also attacked Lunga that day, losing one aircraft and pilot. A Japanese reconnaissance aircraft was also shot down over Guadalcanal that day. The only CAF loss was one VMF-223 Wildcat that wrecked on takeoff, seriously injuring the pilot.[44]

A lull occurred in the air campaign over Guadalcanal, with no Japanese air raids occurring between September 14 and September 27 due to bad weather over the Bismarck Islands, during which both sides reinforced their respective air units. The Japanese delivered 85 fighters and bombers to their air units at Rabaul while the Americans brought in 23 fighters and bombers to Henderson Field. On September 20, the Japanese counted 117 total aircraft at Rabaul while the CAF tallied 71 aircraft at Henderson Field.[45]



The Pagoda that served as the headquarters of the Cactus Air Force

The CAF reached its peak of combat power on November 12 with 47 fighters, 23 tactical bombers, and 12 medium bombers.[46] After a month-and-a-half of enduring continual shelling at night, the pilots at Henderson Field got their first crack at a Japanese battleship, when Hiei lost control of her steering following the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. This battleship was repeatedly attacked by aircraft from Henderson Field and from the USS Enterprise. After suffering numerous direct hits, and being set ablaze, the Hiei was scuttled by her crew.[47]

The first aviation units from another country to arrive at Henderson Field came on November 26, 1943, with the arrival of No. 3 Squadron of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, with Lockheed Hudson light bombers for reconnaissance work.[48]


On December 26 there were 161 aircraft of all types at Guadalcanal.[49]

Tactics employed

A Grumman F4F Wildcat parked on Henderson Field in August 1942.

U.S. Navy and Marine fighter pilots, who had little high-altitude flying experience to begin with, were at a disadvantage from the start because their F4F Wildcat was not in the same class as the Japanese A6M Zero when it came to service ceiling, rate of climb, and maneuverability.[50] The Zero fighter was lighter, faster, and a better climber. The American pilots learned quickly not to dogfight with the Zero. Instead, if they became engaged with one, they would give it a quick, diving firing-burst and then dive away to regroup, climb, and attack again. Cactus pilots had to constantly refine their tactics and techniques, rely on teamwork in dogfights and improve their gunnery to remain effective against the Zeroes.[51]

Because of the Zero's maneuverability, American pilots quickly adapted hit and run tactics similar to those used by the American Flying Tigers in China and Burma[50] and the tactic of a two-plane mutually protecting flight section. This technique had previously been developed by the U.S. Navy fighter pilots John Thach and Edward O'Hare, and it was known as the "Thach Weave." The aircraft would remain in the same general area of one another and if Zeroes showed up, they had a better chance of engaging the aircraft on the tails of their wing men.

U.S. Marine F4F Wildcats head-out from Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, probably in August or September 1942, to intercept incoming Japanese aircraft.

One American pilot had remarked,

" One Zero against one Grumman is not an even fight, but with mutual support two Grummans are worth four or five Zeros."

Disadvantages aside, the Wildcat was not without its merits. This fighter plane was found to be well-defended compared to the lightly armored Zero, had a self-sealing fuel tank, and possessed adequate firepower with six .50 caliber M-2 Browning machine guns. U.S. Marine pilots, very skeptical since the Battle of Midway, did place a great deal of confidence in their aircraft at first.[12]

Because they could not effectively dogfight the Zeroes, Henderson Field's defenders realized that the best they could do was break up each day's raid and live to fight another day.[52] With this in mind, their primary targets became the bombers rather than the fighters, and many of the tactics introduced were largely devised by Marine Major John L. Smith. American aircraft always sought to initiate the attack at least 5,000 feet (1,500 m) above the Japanese formations, and they concentrated their attack on the trailing aircraft in the Japanese formation.[12] This gave them good angles to shoot at the exposed fuel tanks of the Japanese bombers, and it also presented a difficult gunnery problem for the bombers, since the high overhead passes of the American fighters put them into blindspots from the Japanese gunners. This tactic also caused the escorting Japanese fighters to climb and burn more of their fuel, and thus reducing the time they could spend over Guadalcanal itself.[53]

From September 3 to November 4, 1942, the Cactus Air Force claimed downing 268 Japanese planes in aerial combat, and the damage inflicted on others is estimated to be as great.


Paul Mason (left) was a coastwatcher in southern Bougainville during the Guadalcanal campaign who provided numerous advance warnings of inbound Japanese air strikes to Allied forces on Guadalcanal.

Because of the limited number of aircraft and fuel available during the early stages of the campaign the CAF was unable to maintain a standing combat air patrol over Henderson Field. Therefore, it was crucial for the CAF to receive early warnings of incoming Japanese aircraft so that its aircraft weren't caught on the ground during Japanese air attacks.[54] Members of the Australian Coastwatchers, including W. J. Read in northern and Paul Mason in southern Bougainville, Donald Kennedy on New Georgia, and Geoffrey Kuper on Santa Isabel were able to relay ahead when Japanese airplane formations were heading for the island giving the defenders on Guadalcanal time to get airborne.[55] On August 16, Lieutenant Commander Hugh A. Mackenzie of the Royal Australian Navy, the Deputy Staff Intelligence Officer for the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, set up a radio station at Henderson Field to monitor coastwatcher transmissions and relay their warnings to the CAF.[56] Admiral Bull Halsey would later say the coastwatchers, "saved Guadalcanal".

Several coastwatchers were stationed at various points around Guadalcanal, including Martin Clemens (who was also a local official for the British Solomon Islands Protectorate), Leif Schroeder, Donald Macfarlan, Ken Hay, and Ashton Rhoades. These coastwatchers, with help from native Solomon Islanders, helped rescue and return several Allied pilots during the campaign.[57]


The Cactus Air Force's dive bombers and torpedo planes sank or destroyed 17 large enemy vessels, including one Japanese battleship, one heavy cruiser (the Kinugasa), one light cruiser (the Yura), three destroyers (the Asagiri, Murakumo, and Natsugumo), and twelve transports, possibly sank three destroyers and one heavy cruiser, and heavily damaged 18 other ships, including one heavy cruiser and five light cruisers. Most notable was the battleship Hiei, which the CAF, along with aircraft from the Enterprise, and B-17s from Espiritu Santo, finished off after she had suffered serious damage from American cruisers and destroyers during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

The fifteen Marine combat squadrons that fought on Guadalcanal during this time suffered from 94 pilots killed or missing-in-action, with another 177 evacuated with wounds or with sickness (especially severe malaria). Total figures for Japanese aerial losses during the Guadalcanal campaign have never been calculated[58]

The Battle of Guadalcanal would become the defining point for Marine Corps aviation in World War II and for the next fifty years. The great lessons learned for Marine Corps aviation units were the debilitating effects of not having air superiority; the importance of the use of radar; the vulnerability of enemy transport and warship targets; and the vital importance of quickly acquiring expeditionary airfields during amphibious operations.[59]

Medal of Honor recipients

Six aviators who served in the "Cactus Air Force" received the Medal of Honor for their actions during the Battle of Guadalcanal (August 1942-February 1943):

Order of battle

All aviation units on Guadalcanal were subordinate to Commander, Aircraft, Guadalcanal (ComAirGuadal).

  • 67th Pursuit Squadron
  • 11th Bomb Group
  • VS-3
  • VF-5
  • VS-5
  • VS-71
  • VT-8

Aboard the USS Enterprise

No. 3 Squadron

Aircraft Flown

See also


  1. Murray, War to be Won, p. 169-195.
  2. Murray, War to be Won, p. 196.
  3. Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 23-31, 129, 628.
  4. Smith, Bloody Ridge, p. 5.
  5. Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 12.
  6. Murray, War to be Won, p. 199-200 and Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 5.
  7. Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 125-127.
  8. Hubler and Dechant Flying Leathernecks, p. 40-41.
  9. Hubler and De Chant (1944) p.154
  10. Sherrod History of Marine Corps Aviation in WW II, p.82.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Camp, Leatherneck Legends, p.99.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Sherrod History of Marine Corps Aviation in WW II, p.83.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 181-182.
  14. Sherrod History of Marine Corps Aviation in WW II, p.119.
  15. Camp, Leatherneck Legends, p.100.
  16. Camp, Leatherneck Legends, p.91-106.
  17. Hubler and DeChant Flying Leathernecks, p. 37 and Miller, Cactus Air Force, p. 37.
  18. Miller, Cactus Air Force, p. 17-18.
  19. De Chant, Devilbirds, p. 67.
  20. Camp Leatherneck Legends, p.96-100.
  21. Sherrod History of Marine Corps Aviation in WWII, p.92.
  22. Frank, Guadalcanal, p.410.
  23. Bergerud, Fire in the Sky, p.420
  24. Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 410.
  25. De Chant, Devilbirds, p.68.
  26. Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 42 and Miller, Cactus Air Force, p. 1 & 9.
  27. Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 42-44 and 72
  28. Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 62-72, 78-79, & 190-191, and Miller Cactus Air Force, p. 9.
  29. Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 116-119, 192.
  30. Hubler and Dechant Flying Leathernecks, p. 40, Shaw, First Offensive, p. 18, and Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 96.
  31. Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 184; Jablonski, Airwar: Outraged Skies (1971), pp. 59–60.
  32. Hubler and Dechant Flying Leathernecks, p.41-42 and Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 100.
  33. Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 102.
  34. Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, 119 and Hammel, Carrier Clash, 188–191. Most of the Japanese aircrewmen were rescued after ditching their aircraft near the Ryūjō"s screening warships.
  35. Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 172-173.
  36. Lundstrom, Guadacanal Campaign, p. 185.
  37. Camp Leatherneck Legends, p. 99.
  38. Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 181
  39. Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 189.
  40. Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 184.
  41. Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 193-201.
  42. Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 201-202.
  43. Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 202-213.
  44. Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 214-219.
  45. Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 264-265.
  46. Bergerud Fire in the Sky, p.423
  47. Sherrod History of Marine Corps Aviation in WW II, p.115.
  48. Mersky U.S. Marine Corps Aviation, p.50
  49. Frank, p. 752.
  50. 50.0 50.1 Spector Eagle Against the Sun, p.198.
  51. Dorr Marine Air, p.5-18.
  52. Frank, Guadalcanal, p.208.
  53. Frank, Guadalcanal, p.207-208.
  54. Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 186-187.
  55. Frank Guadalcanal, p.206 and Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 187.
  56. Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 185.
  57. Lundstrom, Guadalcanal Campaign, p. 86-88.
  58. Astor Semper Fi in the Sky, p.160.
  59. LtCol Alles, R.D. (1995). "Marine Tactical Aviation, Why Keep It?". 
  60. Rottman (2002): 458 - 459



  • Davis, Donald A. (2005). Lightning Strike: The Secret Mission to Kill Admiral Yamamoto and Avenge Pearl Harbor. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-30906-6. - Much of the book details the history of U.S. Army pilots on Guadalcanal.
  • De Chant, John A. (1947). Devilbirds: The Story of United States Marine Corps Aviation in World War II. Harper and Brothers Publishers. 
  • Dorr, Robert F. (2005). Marine Air - The History of the Flying Leathernecks in Words and Photos. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-425-20725-0. 
  • Ferguson, Robert Lawrence (1987). Guadalcanal: The Island of Fire, Reflections of the 347th Fighter Group. Blue Ridge Summit, PA, U.S.A.: Aero. ISBN. 
  • Frank, Richard (1990). Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-394-58875-4. 
  • Griffith, Samuel B. (1963). The Battle for Guadalcanal. Champaign, Illinois, USA: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-06891-2. 
  • Hubler, Richard G.; Dechant, John A (1944). Flying Leathernecks - The Complete Record of Marine Corps Aviation in Action 1941 - 1944.. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc. 
  • Jablonski, Edward (1971). Airwar: Outraged Skies. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday & Co. 
  • Lundstrom, John B. (2005 (New edition)). The First Team And the Guadalcanal Campaign: Naval Fighter Combat from August to November 1942. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-59114-472-8. 
  • McEniry, John Howard, Jr., (1987). A Marine Dive-Bomber Pilot at Guadalcanal. Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S.A.: University of Alabama Press. 
  • Mersky, Peter B. (1986). The Grim Reapers: Fighting Squadron Ten in WWII. Mesa, Arizona, U.S.A.: Champlin Museum Press. 
  • Mersky, Peter B. (1983). U.S. Marine Corps Aviation - 1912 to the Present. Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America. ISBN 0-933852-39-8. 
  • Miller, Thomas G. (1969). Cactus Air Force. Admiral Nimitz Foundation. ISBN 0-934841-17-9. 
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot (1958). The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942 – February 1943, vol. 5 of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-316-58305-7.  Online views of selections of the book:[1]
  • Rottman, Gordon L. (2002). U.S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle - Ground and Air Units in the Pacific War, 1939 - 1945.’’. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-31906-5. 
  • Sherrod, Robert (1952). History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II. Washington, D.C.: Combat Forces Press. 
  • Spector, Ronald H. (1985). Eagle Against the Sun - The American War With Japan. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-394-74101-3. 
  • Tagaya, Osamu (2001). Mitsubishi Type 1 Rikko 'Betty' Units of World War 2. New York: Osprey. ISBN 978-1-84176-082-7. 


Further reading

  • Deblanc, Jefferson J. (2008). The Guadalcanal Air War: Col. Jefferson Deblanc's Story. Pelican Publishing Company. ISBN 1-58980-587-9. 
  • Mrazek, Robert J. (2008). A Dawn Like Thunder: The True Story of Torpedo Squadron Eight. Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-316-02139-3. 

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