With superhuman physical effort by US marines and local labour, Honiara airport was, in just one week, ready to land fighter aircraft and light bombers. Also about that time four of the naval destroyer-transports that had fled returned to Honiara with badly needed supplies.
Beresford, Andy and Doug, the island's three coast-watchers, remained the only 'old white inhabitants'. Each had emerged from his 'hide', while engineers rebuilt the town's radio mast, to organise natives in help to the marines in their several tasks on the island.
Tulagi, meanwhile, had continued to suffer daily bombing raids.
Why the Nips hadn't taken advantage of the unprotected troops restoring the Guadalcanal airport was only known by Lady Luck. Yet in only two more days after the essential supplies had been received, 'Henderson Field' as the Yanks named it was declared 'Operational'.
Another two days later, six Japanese destroyers landed on a remote beach in the island's south, landing a thousand troops. Dougie not only reported it but had native runners running up and down behind the Japanese lines, reporting on where they were setting up camps. Native runners were also used in the north, delivering upgraded transmitter/receivers. With the airport now operational, an advanced radio mast had been installed, and the new walkie-talkies had stronger signals.
On 12 August, marines attacked the Japanese troops. Jungle fighting, however, required its own peculiar 'nous', and the marines who had arrived had yet to be 'blooded'. They had received only a week's basic training in Fiji but had never faced 'guerrilla'-type assailants. They were wiped out to a man.
A week later, not only had another small fleet of supply vessels returned to Honiara, but thirty-one marine fighters and bombers arrived from the USA.
As Japanese air raids strengthened, not only was some protection available from the land-based aircraft, but casualty cases could be evacuated to hospital in Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides. And on 20 August, three destroyers arrived with a hundred and twenty tons of badly needed rations; a fourth had been sunk en-route.
Two days later, a shipment of nineteen Wildcat fighters and twelve Dauntless dive-bombers arrived. Things were starting to look up.
In the jungle war, Guadalcanal witnessed its first major land battle by the Tenaru River. Outnumbering the Japanese ten to one was a major advantage, and whilst the marines suffered badly, the entire Japanese unit was wiped out.
"Yet it is not a time for rejoicing," they were told. "The Japanese will find our Henderson Field too much of a threat to their advance on Port Moresby and Australia. They also know our shortage of carriers means we depend on that airport for both air defence and air attack--and everywhere are targets. So it is their prime target here."
All also knew how tenuous was the Allied hold on Guadalcanal in total.
On 24 August, day one of what was to be another resounding naval battle, Marine Wildcat fighters hastened into the air when Beresford reported 'something like' thirty enemy planes heading east over The Slot. A tremendously tight air battle was fought over the eastern end of the island, resulting in disaster for the enemy. It lost twenty-one fighters for the loss of three Wildcats.
What the Wildcat pilots were able to confirm was coast-watch reports of a major Japanese fleet assembling off Guadalcanal's eastern point. Here was a sixty-mile-wide channel to the San Cristobal Island, most easterly of the Solomons. The channel separated The Slot from the Coral Sea.
Allied ships had for days been racing for Guadalcanal, expecting a fully-fledged Japanese invasion to retake it. Japanese strength was counted by PBY surveillance craft at fifty-five vessels--three aircraft carriers, three battleships, thirteen heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, a seaplane carrier and thirty-one destroyers. Its escort was an auxiliary cruiser with troops, a hundred land-based aircraft in support above, and an estimated ten submarines below.
It was a tremendous force.
The Allies had three carriers now repaired, Enterprise, Saratoga and Wasp; the battleship North Carolina; five heavy cruisers, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Portland, San Francisco and Salt Lake City; two new anti-aircraft light cruisers, Atlanta and San Juan, and eighteen destroyers. Henderson Field was providing twenty-three fighters and thirty-nine PBYs. Thirty B17s arrived from Espiritu Santo. Three picket lines of submarines completed the force.
A major flaw in the Allied plan was that their ships, already outnumbered two to one, were on a rostered refuelling system, whilst the Japanese fleet was supported by tankers refuelling them at sea. When the battle broke out, the carrier Wasp, three cruisers and seven destroyers were in Honiara either in the throes of refuelling or cued up for their turn. All missed the battle.
Action began with a massive air-battle disastrously costly to both sides in terms of planes lost. The Japanese light carrier Ryujo was sunk and Enterprise so critically damaged that she limped off into the Coral Sea. She left her fighters and bombers to operate from Henderson Field.
The ensuing battle became, essentially, a giant air fight to disable aircraft carriers and to bomb Henderson Field. The US lost twenty more aircraft and the Japanese seventy. North Carolina took damage, as did three Japanese vessels.
Japanese destroyers however, bombarded Guadalcanal Island throughout the night.
Next morning, B17s arrived back from Espiritu Santo to sink a destroyer.
The third great Pacific naval battle of the war was a tacit victory for the Allies. The Japanese, with their air-strength so devastated despite vastly outnumbering its opposition, retired without landing any of the invasion troops it had brought or rendering Henderson Field inoperable. Both sides, however, were left licking deep wounds.
Beresford sat one day in the 'Dog on the Tuckerbox', the very bar where he and Andy had watched the Japanese invasion, drinking with several marines and pilots--all off duty.
Beresford, Andy and Doug were no longer permitted leave at the same time. The three coast-watchers were on watch twenty-four hours a day in their particular 'hides'. Now only one watcher at a time could be absent from his post for a half day off each week. And they travelled to and fro on their 'free' time, and these days it wasn't all by foot as they now had 'motor-scooters'. No longer was there need to keep tracks to their 'hides' secret, for all knew that any day from now there would be a major battle for the island--one that could change the course of the war.
"If the bloody Japs win this island," a PBY pilot expounded, "they've got Australia. And without Australia, the US has lost the Pacific. And that includes Hawaii and every opportunity to ever get close enough to attack Japan. Alaska is already under attack. Canada would be their next target, and the entire USA is then within range of their bombers. So this very island simply has to be taken off the Japs while we've got this airport open. I reckon the next fleet we see coming will be either the Japs with a million troops or our lads with a million troops. It's going to be first here wins the war--that's how I see it. I reckon that's what the Japs thought they were doing here last week."
A first lieutenant marine buddy looked around to see who might be listening, for all in the group were junior officers. "I agree, Mike. My captain's under instruction to issue no leave passes, and he hints that more troops are on the way in big numbers."
Beresford couldn't lose the feeling that nobody expected today's situation would be the same tomorrow. Imminent change was in the air, and everybody seemed to sense it.
He made his farewells, finished his beer, picked up his satchel stuffed with bread, cheese and pickled onions.
A good old English ploughman's lunch is just the shot when a man can't get hot food.