On this day in 1943, Japanese troops evacuate Guadalcanal, leaving the island in Allied possession after a prolonged campaign. The American victory paved the way for other Allied wins in the Solomon Islands.
Guadalcanal is the largest of the Solomons, a group of 992 islands and atolls, 347 of which are inhabited, in the South Pacific Ocean. The Solomons, which are located northeast of Australia and have 87 indigenous languages, were discovered in 1568 by the Spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendana de Neyra (1541-95). In 1893, the British annexed Guadalcanal, along with the other central and southern Solomons. The Germans took control of the northern Solomons in 1885, but transferred these islands, except for Bougainville and Buka (which eventually went to the Australians) to the British in 1900.
The Japanese invaded the Solomons in 1942 during World War II and began building a strategic airfield on Guadalcanal. On August 7 of that year, U.S. Marines landed on the island, signaling the Allies’ first major offensive against Japanese-held positions in the Pacific. The Japanese responded quickly with sea and air attacks. A series of bloody battles ensued in the debilitating tropical heat as Marines sparred with Japanese troops on land, while in the waters surrounding Guadalcanal, the U.S. Navy fought six major engagements with the Japanese between August 24 and November 30. In mid-November 1942, the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, died together when the Japanese sunk their ship, the USS Juneau.
Both sides suffered heavy losses of men, warships and planes in the battle for Guadalcanal. An estimated 1,600 U.S. troops were killed, over 4,000 were wounded and several thousand more died from disease. The Japanese lost 24,000 soldiers. On December 31, 1942, Emperor Hirohito told Japanese troops they could withdraw from the area; the Americans secured Guadalcanal about five weeks later.
The Solomons gained their independence from Britain in 1978. In the late 1990s, fighting broke out between rival ethnic groups on Guadalcanal and continued until an Australian-led international peacekeeping mission restored order in 2003. Today, with a population of over half a million people, the Solomons are known as a scuba diver and fisherman’s paradise.