Shortly after the invasion of the Solomon Islands on August 7, 1942, US Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Dexter established Naval Operating Base (NOB) cactus at Lunga Point with a working crew of Navy sailors and Coast Guardsmen from the transports and APDs. According to plans for the Local Naval Defense Force a total of twelve tank lighters [LCM(2)], twenty T-boats [LCP(L)] with two depth charges each, and thirty TR boats [LCV] with five officers and 236 enlisted men were sent ashore before the transports sailed. Some additional men and boats were unavoidably left in the area, bringing the total to 288 men. The base’s personnel consisted of the Naval Local Defense Force, Boat Repair, and the Harbor Signal Stations on Guadalcanal, Gavutu and Tulagi. . In a week Dexter weeded out about half of those that really did not want to work leaving a preponderance of Coast Guardsmen.
When the Japanese put pressure on the Marines, Coast Guardsmen dug their own machine gun nests in defensive spots. Others joined artillery men manning guns, and still others pitched in with the infantry, joining in the fighting with rifles and sub-machine guns. Dexter added to the defenses with a captured Japanese anti-aircraft gun.
Ray Evans, a Coast Guard Signalman assigned the to the CACTUS Navy recalls the anti-submarine patrols. “Those sub patrols that went on for about ten days or so, no subs or activity was ever noticed till the last night, when it was my turn to be aboard. I had one Navy radioman, Brown, in my signal crew and I was the only Coast Guard signalman that could read Morse code by radio, thus he and I had to alternate out in the boat. This night, along about one or two in the morning a mini-sub suddenly surfaced close aboard and turned its light on us. It immediately doused the light and started to submerge. I hollered at my coxswain to run toward the sub in the direction it was pointed and we would loose the depth charges, Instead he turned away and gunned us full speed the other way. What a disappointment, our only chance to get a sub by LCP gone forever.”
In addition to anti-submarine patrols, ferrying Marines on special missions, and runs back and forth between Guadalcanal and Tulagi, the cactus Navy rescued both American and Japanese pilots shot down in dog fights. A Japanese pilot was shot down one day, and Evans was aboard the boat that went out to recover him about three miles offshore. “On arrival, with a .45-caliber pistol pointing at him just in case, we found he was pointing his Nambu [pistol] at us,” Evans recalls, “we finally convinced him to come aboard, surrender his weapon and assured him he was not going to be killed, as his officers had drilled into them from day one. Every prisoner expected to die by a firing squad as soon as he was captured. Even the officers were convinced that was the way we treated anyone captured. Of course that didn't happen.
The Cactus Navy was kept busy ferrying men and supplies along the coast to the Marines and soldiers as well as unloading transports and working with the Coast Watchers.
On December 9, Major General Alexander M. Patch, commanding general of the
Americal Division relieved General Vandegrift. A month later, on January 10, 1943, the combined Army-Marine forces under Army General Patch mounted a multi-prong offensive against the remaining Japanese forces on the island.
The morning of February 9, when advancing American columns met in Tenaro, marked the end of organized fighting on Guadalcanal. General Patch, after the juncture of forces, sent the following message to Admiral Halsey: “Total and complete defeat of Japanese forces on Guadalcanal effected 1625 today . . . Am happy to report this kind of compliance with your orders . . . because Tokyo Express no longer has terminus on Guadalcanal.”
The cost of Guadalcanal including Australian sailors lost, amounted to 5,041 killed in action. Defeat for the Japanese was more costly. Japanese sources list approximately 15,400 killed or missing in action while 9,000 died of wounds and disease. Approximately 1,000 enemy troops were taken prisoner.
“I am proud to possess a Presidential Unit Citation bar on my old uniform awarded to the First Marine Division, Reinforced for its bravery on Guadalcanal,” says Ray Evans. “The ‘Reinforced’ refers to Navy and Coast Guard contingents as well as other marine units assigned to the island. I am proud to say I served at Guadalcanal with the First Marine Division.”
The CACTUS Air Force remains legendary in the stories are told of about Guadalcanal. But, no one remembers the CACTUS Navy.
Source: Frank, Richard B., Guadalcanal, The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle, Random House, Inc., New York, NY, 1990
History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, Volume I, page 374