The Cactus Air Force: Guadalcanal Shoestring Flyers Took On Japanese Zeros – And They Won


The Battle of Guadalcanal was one of the most important battles in the Pacific theater of World War Two. Marking the furthest expansion of the Japanese Empire, it was the place where the Allies turned back the tide.

Because of the prominent role of the United States Marine Corps in the battle, they are the Allied forces most often associated with the operation. But others played a vital part in the battle, and among them were the flyers of the Cactus Air Force.

Henderson Field

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

The American invasion of Guadalcanal was a hurried business, rushed into action because the Japanese were building an airfield on the island. That airfield would give the Japanese a huge advantage in defending the island, as it would allow them to launch aerial attacks against incoming enemy ships, keeping troops from reaching the island, as well as allowing them to bomb and strafe any opposing forces that landed there.

Given its strategic importance, it was inevitable that the airfield would be one of the first targets for the Marines landing on Guadalcanal on the 7th August 1942. The airfield was captured in the first couple of days and became a key position in the fighting that filled the next few months. The Japanese repeatedly tried and failed to retake it, while the Americans used it to ferry supplies in and out when they found themselves cut off by sea.

The airfield was incomplete when the Marines arrived. Using equipment captured from the Japanese they brought it up to a sufficient standard for regular flights in and out. In the process they renamed it Henderson Field, after Major Lofton R. Henderson, a Marine Corps pilot killed during the Battle of Midway.

The Cactus Air Force

Cactus Air Force aircraft crowd Henderson Field, Guadalcanal in October, 1942
Cactus Air Force aircraft crowd Henderson Field, Guadalcanal in October 1942.

With the airfield operational, planes were moved in to provide air cover for the troops based on Guadalcanal. Their role was to deal with Japanese aircraft in the skies above the island and the surrounding straits so that supplies could be brought in and the soldiers could be protected from death from above. This ragged squadron became known as the Cactus Air Force.

Due to the circumstances of Henderson Field, the Cactus Air Force lacked even the most basic infrastructure upon which other flyers relied. With the Japanese lines so close to Henderson Field, there could be no fuel dumps or tankers. There were no repair sheds or bomb hoists. Ammunition was loaded by hand, and damaged planes were disassembled to provide spare parts. Even the airstrip was little more than dirt, turning to mud in the rain, hampering take-off and battering the aircraft.