Thursday, May 1, 2008


Quite rashly, having just started one blog, I have now decided to start a second. There is a catalyst, but in fact, I think the idea for this has been percolating for a long time. Tonight , I saw a preview for a show about a dogfight over Guadalcanal. I realized that, like so many places on the globe, I had little idea where it actually was. In the spirit of correcting my own vague sense of geography, as well as so many things, I decided that I would find out a bit more about it.

Guadalcanal: my uninformed guess. I knew it had something to do with World War II, but I had never bothered to find out more. I realized tonight that I had somehow conflated the Panama Canal and Guam (subject of a future post) as my mental reference point for the region, though as I thought about it more logically, I knew that it must have been a site in the Pacific Campaign of World War II .

No doubt should have watched the show about the dogfight, but here's what I learned:

Guadalcanal is not a canal, as one might reasonably suppose, but an island. Now this is interesting--it was named by the Spaniards who "discovered it" for a town back home in the province of Sevilla in Andalucia, Spain. The home town did not have a canal either. the word is a loose transliteration of an Arabic phrase, Wad-al-Khanat, which meant, and, I suppose, still means "Valley of the Stalls" after the refreshment stalls set up there, in the hometown, during Muslim rule. So an island colonized by the Spanish is named after a town colonized by the Muslims. And no canals figure into any of it at all.

Our consciousness of it as place of any consequence, comes from the Pacific campaign. It is jungly island among the Solomons (how did they become the Solomons?) that contains their capital, called Honiara. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese apparently saw the Solomons, as well as other Pacific islands, as a place where they could effectively stop communication between Australia and New Zealand on one side, and the U.S on the other. They attempted to build an airfield here. In the jungle. Can you imagine? Well, you probably can.

The Allies got wind of this. The first amphibious landing of the war happened right here. The battle that followed was for the high stakes of Pacific supremacy, but the Allies won it, and eventually drove the Japanese into the sea. Renamed the airfield "Henderson Field" after an aviator killed at the Battle of Midway. However, this didn't stop the Japanese from pressing the island very heavily, and as result, the shipping lanes between Guadalcanal and two adjoining islands became known as Ironbottom Sound, becaause so many ships from both sides were sunk there. I found it rather poignant to learn that before the war, this was known as "Sealark Sound". Happier times.


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