Starting to write this story I find myself surprised at what I'm about to do. That it's being written at all is in itself amazing. I never intended to write about my memories and recollections of the period served in combat during World War II.
It was a period of my life that had been put behind me to be forgotten. - Too ugly to be remembered. Too unimportant to anyone but myself and the others who went through it; until a stranger, two generations younger, came along and convinced me of the importance of what I had experienced and why my recollections and memories of those experiences should be shared with others, in the name of history.
In the part of this story where the email exchanges between Kent Cooper and I are quoted, our initials precede the actual quotes, e.g., 'JM:' or 'KC'. An extra line of white also separates these exchanges.
Some names have been changed to protect the actual people. I have also avoided giving the names of most persons to protect the families of those who are no longer with us. Kent Cooper's name is shown with his permission.
On December 7, 1941, World War II began. The United States had tried intensely to stay out of the turmoil that had enveloped Europe, the Middle East and the Far East.
The state of international communications back then was not nearly as sophisticated and efficient as that which we enjoy today. Radio transmissions were probably as swift as our current methods but accuracy and control of signals were not dependable. If the aircraft of that period were described as flying on a wing and a prayer, radio communiqués would certainly be dubbed as being sent with crossed fingers and silent prayers.
Newspapers usually carried stories of wartime events several days or weeks after its happening. Of course, television was still in the distant future, and radio newscasts were nearly as delinquent in reporting as the newspapers. One of the great sources of visual news was the Fox Movietone News film clips shown at local theatres between showings of the feature attraction movies. Another famous visual carrier of news events was the March of Time, which told a more detailed story of the events.
It was difficult to get public interest piqued about a particular battle or combat engagement because most people knew that what they were hearing or seeing had probably happened some time before and that it was likely not even news any longer.
Consequently, the wars and battles being waged in far off places seemed much too remote to bother most Americans. Except in high level strategic intelligence circles of the military and affected government agencies, the great majority of the American people were content to let the Germans and their European neighbors and the Japanese and the other nations of the Orient battle it out without any interference from us. That is, until the Japanese bombed the American naval fleet docked at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands.
Though not then a part of the United States, the Hawaiian Islands were under our protection and the blow dealt to our naval fleet could only be answered with a formal declaration of war. And suddenly, it was no longer just the Europeans and Orientals at war; we had joined the trial.
I had the honor and privilege of serving my country during World War II as a member of the finest military organization in the world, the United States Marine Corps. I was only seventeen years old and in my senior year in high school on December 7, 1941, when Japan decided to bomb Pearl Harbor. War was immediately declared between the two countries and thousands of young American men headed to the nearest military recruitment office to enlist in their favorite branch of the service.
In that an older brother had been in the Navy for a few years, that was where I wanted to be. Even before the war had begun, I decided to join the Navy and had actually tried, but was turned down because of a deviated nasal septum, a minor nose problem I was never aware of, but the Navy took exception and refused to accept me. The Navy recruiter knew that United States entry into the war was only a matter of time and not wanting to lose a potential recruitment told me that he was going to "consider me as a, sort of, reservist waiting for assignment."
I was later told that this was merely a 'line' that some recruiters used to hang on to possible enlistees rather than lose them to another branch of the services. I also wrote to my brother in the Navy and he told me that same thing, that I was not a reservist and under no obligation whatsoever to join the Navy. In fact, he very vigorously advised me to wait until I was drafted as I might stand a better chance of not going overseas than if I enlisted; advice I was not planning to honor.
When war was officially declared on December 8, 1941 I met with several of my school chums who had talked about the service and felt as I did, and as a group of seven we decided to enlist. My early plans to join the Navy were discarded when after much discussion and debate we unanimously chose the Marine Corps. A day or two later when we went to the recruiting station to just talk with the recruiters, we were given the full treatment about the difficulties of military life, the Marines in particular, but what a satisfying experience it would be to suddenly be converted from little acne-challenged teenagers to adult young men.
After the grand pep talk and getting us all geared up to sign up right that day, in spite of needing parental permission, we were all subjected to a partial physical examination and inquiry as to our physical well being. We were all turned down for one reason or another; an unbelievable seven out of seven.
My old nemesis, the deviated nasal septum, was still in my way. Others had, among other things, underweight, punctured eardrums, overweight and flatfeet. All of us were told to go home until after the Christmas and New Years holidays then come back in, as the recruiting stations would by that time have received new and more tolerant minimum physical standards information. Though disappointed, we were encouraged by the recruiter to hold out and become Marines, a decision we'd never regret.
The next few weeks was a period of confusion, indecision, mind-changing, pressure from friends not to go as well as families that were nearly unanimous that we were making a big mistake.
My brother who was already in the Navy was coincidentally back from a shipboard tour of duty in the Mediterranean and was given leave for Christmas. He had been in the service for a couple of years at that time and I guess he just didn't want to admit that his little brother was going to go off to war; especially with the U. S. Marine Corps!
In that my mother had to sign a release of some kind, (I was only seventeen) my brother kept prodding her to not sign the papers. My response was that I would be able to go without her signature when I turned eighteen, which was only a few months away, and I would go then anyhow. I argued that if I were to go now, I might be given a better assignment than if I waited until many, many more young men would be going into the service. I might even have a choice of what kind of an assignment I would get. A hope and a prayer that didn't turn out that way at all.
On January 5, 1942 I went alone to the Marine Corps recruiting station as one by one the others who had gone with me to the recruiting station initially had changed their minds (or perhaps it was their parents who changed their minds;) this time an unbelievable six out of six. The new physical standards now permitted us physical degenerates with deviated nasal septums to serve our country. But another problem had cast its ugly head and darkened my departure. I was a few pounds underweight. After getting over that problem by going to the nearest market and buying and consuming a large amount of bananas, and then just barely meeting the minimum weight, I was accepted and on my way to becoming a Marine!
I spent the next nine weeks in basic training "boot camp" at Parris Island, South Carolina, shortened from the normal twelve weeks due to wartime exigencies, but made up by much longer days and nights and absolutely no time off whatsoever. Boot camp in the Marine Corps is where you either become a Marine or spend the rest of your life in humiliation. After many points of pain, fear and degradation I surprised myself and my doubting Navy brother and succeeded in making it through the abominable ordeal.
On completion of that tour de force I found myself stronger, healthier, heavier and much, much smarter, if not in patent gray matter, but certainly in self-preservation, I was graduated into the newly formed infantry organization, the First Marine Division. A name that has been, and still is, synonymous with the elite of world military organizations.
For the next three months from early March 1942 until early June we were pounded and rounded into a fit and ready fighting machine. Most days began around 4:30 A.M. and ended in early evening, although several nights each week were also devoted to night maneuver training which usually extended the day until about midnight, and occasionally later. Then it was crawl back into bed only to be wakened again around 4:30 A.M. to start it all over for another day.
Growing up I had fired B-B guns and twenty-two caliber rifles on hunting trips with my next door neighbor friend and his older brothers. I had even fired a twelve-gauge shotgun, so I was not unfamiliar with weapons. We had learned the basics of rifle and pistol firing in boot camp, but here we honed those skills to a sharp edge and eye. We also learned the niceties and finesse of using Thompson submachine guns and Browning Automatic Rifles, both much faster and heavier in firepower than the standard issue Remington thirty caliber, single shot, bolt action rifle; things that would be needed later as we forged our way in the jungles of the South Pacific.
Also during these short training-intensive weeks with the long days, we were taught the fine art of man-to-man combat while using a bayonet fixed in place at the business end of our rifles. We heard the commands, "lunge, parry, thrust" hundreds of times during those days as we fended off simulated enemy bayonets and stabbed the bayonets into stoic and unsmiling straw dummies.
Our earlier school experiences in athletics helped us to pitch and lob, first unarmed, then later live, hand grenades into and on to targets with little or no visual sightings. We learned how to crawl on our bellies with full combat gear under barbed wire strung only inches above the ground as live rounds of rifle and machine gun fire zinged and whistled just barely over our heads and bodies.
Retired and recalled to active duty Marines gave us the benefit of their knowledge of jungle fighting they had experienced in Nicaragua, Haiti and other Caribbean islands. They showed us how to use our bayonets as hand weapons for hand-to-hand knife fighting when needed as a last resort. These sessions were always surprising to us as we expected these older, retired men to be a bit soft and a step or two slower in reaction. We found just the opposite to be true. They were amazingly agile and cobra quick.
By the end of May when we got orders to pack up and be ready to move out, we were lean and hard and spoiling for a good fight; something we would get sooner than expected. Earlier that month two of our regiments had gotten orders to sail off in the direction of the South Pacific. Each regiment had taken a different route of departure and a different time with different destinations. We later learned that the Fifth Marine Regiment had sailed by ship to Wellington, New Zealand and our Seventh Marine Regiment left also by ship for American Samoa. We would in due course be reunited with the Fifth, but the Seventh would be held in Samoa for nearly six weeks before it would rejoin us.
In early June the First and Eleventh Marine Regiments and other special support units which comprised the bulk of the First Marine Division, boarded a troop train that wound its tortuous way across country to San Francisco. The trip was very boring and uneventful except for one stop in Elko, Nevada where we were greeted trackside by none other than Bing Crosby one of the most famous singers of that period. He was not there to sing for us but he went to just about every Marine he could reach during our brief stay to take on provisions and water just to shake our hands and give us his best wishes. His wife Dixie Lee accompanied him on his rounds and also shook our hands.
Our next stop was San Francisco where we were finally allowed some shore liberty and of course, knowing we would soon be leaving for God knows where, we tried to make sure that all of the beer and liquor in San Francisco was consumed. My big event at that stop was during a trip across a large parking lot with one of my buddies en route to another 'watering hole', when we encountered this very lovely looking woman with an equally lovely looking young female friend.
In the process of trying to "pick up" this delectable pair, we discovered that it was none other than Harriet Hilliard, the wife of famous band leader, singer and actor, Ozzie Nelson. Her friend was just that, a friend. When she explained who she was she offered to have us come to the theatre where she and Ozzie were appearing at 8:00 P.M. that evening to see and hear their show. She told us to just ask for her and she would see that we were admitted at no charge and would be holding very good seats for us.
However, after finally making it to the 'watering hole' (I still remember the name of the place, "The Pirate's Cove", and I often wonder if it is still there) we began to do our part in making sure San Francisco was left "dry". My buddy and I were more successful at scoring with the female population and our total attention was directed toward the two companions we had corralled.
We left the Pirate's Cove and began to move on to other equally enjoyable alcohol establishments with our newfound friends and didn't realize the time until around midnight when two Shore Patrol MP's decided that we had had enough and should be on the way back to the ship. They very graciously even drove us to the ship (I believe it was to make sure we didn't get lost in another 'watering hole' or the girls' apartment on the way.)
Neither of us, and we had a lot of company, made it to our bunks and we woke up the next morning aching and sore from sleeping on the hardwood decks. Our heads were also aching and sore, but we had done more than our share towards depleting San Francisco's alcohol stores.
We finally got under way when the ship departed for an unknown (to us) destination on June 22, 1942. It was called a ship only because it could float. A sludge-carrying scow could sooner be classified as a ship. It had little resemblance to any military vessel ever seen before. More gory details about this painful and punishing trip are provided later concerning the USS Ericcson.
We did eventually find out that we were headed for New Zealand and subsequently, a tour of wartime combat for which even the Marines weren't fully prepared and hadn't expected in its sheer brutality and degradation to mind, and body.
The Marine spirit however, was never injured and that was what saw us through the campaign known as Operation Cactus - the invasion and recapture of Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, from the Japanese from August 7, 1942 until finally relieved and placed on transports departing on December 15, 1942.
Fifty-four years later in 1996, I was browsing my way around the latest phenomenon - the Internet, with my computer. In one area of the "Net" I found a message bulletin board for military inquiries where one could try to track down long-lost friends who had military connections. I posted a message inquiring as to the whereabouts of one of my best friends who had served with me on Guadalcanal while in the Marine Corps. I asked if he or anyone who might know of his whereabouts could please respond to my email address.
After a week or two had gone by and I had mostly given up on seeing anything in the way of a response, an email message was received from a young man named Kent Cooper. Kent apologized for not responding about Jocko (the nickname of the friend I was trying to locate) but because he had a great-uncle that had also served with the Marines on Guadalcanal he decided to ask me about any possible connection I may have had with his uncle.
For the next several weeks we exchanged email letters on the subject of Guadalcanal. He asked questions about the campaign there that brought back my all too putrid memories of that place. I would respond as best I could from a memory bank that was more than a half century old and not opened for many, many years. He told me of his personal visit to the island a few years prior to his writing to me and brought me up to date on current conditions including the political climate that prevailed there.
In one of his writings he made a statement that made me think twice about all on which we had corresponded. He made me realize two things, 1) That what I had experienced on Guadalcanal was historically important, and by today's standards, was on the verge of becoming ancient history; and 2) It should be written down in my words as it happened to me while I was there. He stated that I "was an eyewitness to history" and I should make every effort to preserve my recollections.
The sincerity of that exhortation struck me in a way that had never occurred to me - that someday, somewhere, someone, would be interested in reading about the World War II battle that turned the tide against the Japanese aggressor and won the war for the Allies from a first-hand account of one of the Marines who was there from Day One.
With some thought as to how it should be done, came the realization that much of it already done and residing in the numbers of emails we had sent and received in the computer's data banks. All that was needed was to assemble the pieces of correspondence from Kent's first email asking for information, to the last bit of it provided to him by me. As you'll note, the questions he asks are pointed and pertinent.
They are questions that probe into areas not thought of, or at least never asked, by reporters. They aren't the canned, usually expected questions such as the anemic, "What was it like over there?" which I have been asked by not only reporters, but also average people. Sure, it's a generic question, but it doesn't indicate any specific interest, just general, overall, blanket-type interest.
Students in grades below the high school level get point-blank, on-target interest when they ask, "How many people did you kill?" or "How did you feel the first time you had to kill someone?" Those questions show a definitive interest, albeit slightly morbid, but not unexpected from young people. You know the saying, "Out of the mouths of babes ..."
So with most of the work already done for me, save for editing, adding, deleting, dressing up the language and pulling all of the letters together, what follows here is my first-hand account of the battle for Guadalcanal, covering the period of my residency there, August 7, 1942 through December 15, 1942 and some post-combat recollections as well. Needless to say, I'll never be able to adequately thank Kent Cooper for his instigation and in-depth inquiries, which made it all possible. This May - November, multi-generation span between the inquirer and the inquiree cast a spotlight on the need for the truthful corroboration of an event of historical significance that was enacted more than a half century before. An event that had caused a great void in the mind of a young man of today; an event that had been tightly closed in the deepest recesses of the mind of an older man who was, the eyewitness.
KC: 6/30/96, (Kent Cooper's first email):
"Noticed your posting on the military bulletin board. Sorry to say I'm not responding about Jocko; just wanted to ask you which unit you served in.
"In 1992, I lived on Guadalcanal for six months retracing the steps of a great uncle who was with the 5th Marines. I lived at Red Beach, right where he landed, about 20 km east of Point Cruz. If you're up for it, I'd love to share some observations about Guadalcanal today. Would also like to ask you about your experiences there. I've studied the battle for a long time and I think it ranks up there with the great epic military struggles in history -- like Waterloo and Gettysburg.
"My hat is off to you, sir, for what you did for my country. As an American, I thank you.
Semper Fi. Kent"
"Thank you for the kind words, and yes, I agree with you, Guadalcanal was an epic battle in spite of many historians not recognizing it as such. One thing that is almost always overlooked is the fact that it was the first major Allied land offensive of World War II. Most articles I've read acknowledge that it was the turning point of the war against Japan, and even some that will state that it was the first large encounter against Japanese land forces, but I have yet to discover the historian/writer that realizes and states that it was the first major Allied land offensive of World War Two. This could be true because of a lack of interest or it may be the lack of desire to do the actual research necessary to establish this fact.
"I did a lot of research before I came up with that conclusion and it has been suggested to me by some that the North African campaign was the first, but the North African offensive movements against the Germans were not of a major scale until after August 1942 when the Guadalcanal campaign began.
"To be sure there were battles fought before August 1942 in various places, but they were mostly of the defensive nature and any offensive movements were mainly raids and skirmishes not of large scale. I have never really pursued it with anyone because whatever has or has not been said about it, at least I am aware of its uniqueness.
"The First Marine Division was formed in 1941 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; out of what had been the First Marine Brigade. After enlisting on January 5, 1942 and spending the next nine weeks at recruit training Boot Camp in Parris Island, SC, I was assigned to the First Marine Division's, First Marine Regiment, 3rd Battalion, 'K' Company.
"We were bivouacked in New River, NC, at a temporary tent camp on the site of what is now Camp Lejeune, NC. This was in March, 1942, along with the Fifth, Seventh and Eleventh Marine Regiments. Later that same month the Seventh Marines were detached from the Division and they left in early April by ship convoy from Norfolk, VA to the Pacific area.
"At the time we had no idea of why they were detached nor why they were sent alone to the Pacific. Actually we didn't even know that they were headed to the Pacific area, but we knew it was in the general direction which had been the undeviating direction of the Japanese forces. And, when they raided the other regiments for senior NCO's and officers to completely fill their ranks, we speculated that they would be going into combat against the Japanese before any of the rest of us. Time would prove the incorrectness of that assumption.
"In mid-May, 1942 the speculation again ran rampant concerning destinations when the Fifth Marines sailed out of Norfolk, down through the Panama Canal and on to New Zealand. Were they going to join the Seventh Marines to form a combat group to engage the Japanese? Or were they going their own way into a theater of combat?
"Then finally in June the First and the Eleventh Marines closed their training sites in New River and we proceeded west across country by troop train and then departed the States by ship from San Francisco on June 22 bound for New Zealand. Were we at long last to be reunited with our fellow regiments from the First Marine Division somewhere in the South Pacific and join in the battle with the hated Japs?
"Our guesses were only partially right. We did rejoin the Fifth Marines in Wellington, New Zealand. Then about three weeks later we left by another ship, this time the USS McCawley , a regular US Navy ship, to engage the enemy but it was without the Seventh Marines who had been dispatched to American Samoa and who were unable to join us for the landings on Guadalcanal because of a severe scarcity of troop transport ships. They would not, in fact, join us for more than a month after we had landed on the island.
"Our first real excursion into war started off in a manner that should have told us that life was not going to be much fun for a long time. The troop ship that carried us was named the USS John Ericcson. Most of us called it either the "floating coffin from hell" or the "diarrhetic disaster"!
"There were seven thousand of us on the dirtiest, poorest equipped, rottenest vessel, with the most vile-tasting and absolutely spoiled rotten food of any garbage or scum loaded scow that ever to put to sea.
"The food, if you could call it that, was so poor that most of the Marines chose not to eat it. During the twenty-day trip from San Francisco to Wellington, New Zealand, the only food that was edible was what we could buy from the ship's stores: candy bars, cans of Planters peanuts and bottles of Pepsi.
"After the first few days of that diet, diarrhea caused long waiting lines at the ship's heads (toilets) and almost stem to stern decks covered with vomit of expelled peanuts, candy and Pepsi. The only positive note that came of the siege of stomach and bowel problems was the constant hosing down of the decks. It was probably the cleanest that ship's decks had been in decades.
"To be fair, the ship was a contract vessel, not U.S. Navy we were told; but the crew on board dressed like sailors and were very disdainful of the Marines not to mention contemptuous because of the condition of the decks and heads. They, through their own laziness, ineptness and total lack of discipline amongst the ship's officers and crew caused the problems of poor sanitation and spoiled food supplies, but they refused to accept the resultant dirty and unkempt conditions as their responsibility.
"Nearly every Marine lost upwards of 10 to 15 pounds and was in poor physical condition during the course of the voyage to New Zealand. This and the subsequent abandonment of the Marines after landing them on Guadalcanal with less than half of their food, supplies and equipment cast a very dark cloud over the U.S. Navy in the minds of the Marines for a long time.
"The eagerness of the Marines to save sailors that swam ashore after having their ships blown out from under them during the ferocious naval battles in the bay just off the coast of Guadalcanal was enigmatic. But our debilitated physical conditions hadn't deteriorated our minds to the point where every sailor looked like those on the Ericcson or Admirals King, Fletcher or Ghormley, the navy commanders who made the decision to abandon us on Guadalcanal and hightail it for their own safety.
"These guys washing up on shore were just more of our countrymen and we did everything in our power to help them.
"The original plan was for the First, Fifth and Eleventh Marines to stay in New Zealand for several months and the Seventh to rejoin us there. The new orders to recapture Guadalcanal Island changed everything.
"The day we sailed into Wellington harbor the weather was mild and calm. The sight of that port after the living hell we had experienced on the Ericsson for the previous three weeks looked to us as the portals of heaven must look to new entrants.
"No one escaped the debilitation of the dysentery and diarrhea that was suffered on the voyage from San Francisco. Wellington, New Zealand went a long ways to make us spiritually, if not physically, repaired.
"The calm water reflected the beautiful rising hills in Wellington. But even before we had docked, word came down from higher headquarters that there would be no liberty in New Zealand. Furthermore, all hands were restricted to the ship to assist in the unloading of our equipment and supplies and then reloading that plus more equipment and supplies onto the USS McCawley and a dozen or more other ships that would be traveling with us.
"Almost simultaneously with that bad news came the first of many torrential tropical downpours that would plague us for the next two weeks. Handling thousands of tons of supplies and equipment off certain ships and on to others in driving rainstorms did little to help either our physical conditions or morale. Literally, tons of foodstuffs were ruined because of the inability to get the cardboard cartons out of the downpours. The docks were undergoing another disruption by the dock-workers and stevedores of New Zealand conducting work stoppages and walkouts during the most critical times of the project.
"Conditions couldn't have gotten any worse than they were during those dark and dreary days; yet in the coming months, there were to be many occasions when we wished for the relative serenity of the New Zealand docks, because things were so direful and seemingly hopeless.
"The First, Fifth and Eleventh Regiments reinforced with Raider battalions and other special units sailed from New Zealand less than 3 weeks after we arrived and headed for Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, a place that at that time, to my knowledge, was unknown to anyone aboard.
"Though we were happy to get away from the downpours of New Zealand, and the surly, arrogant attitude of the dock-workers we weren't at all sure about what it was we would be facing. Oh, we certainly knew that we were headed for some combat; and we were told that the Japanese soldier was a fierce, shrewd and cunning competitor. It was just something that we didn't need right at that time when we were still debilitated and run down from the exhaustive trip from San Francisco.
"We were told that the Japanese soldier liked to do his fighting at night. That he had eyes like a cat and he was just as quiet and secretive about his movements. We later found all of this to be true. But one other thing we were told that also turned out to be true was that even with our outdated (mostly World War I) equipment, we were better and smarter fighters. We also found out that the Japs seldom followed up on opportunities which arose that could have solidified their stranglehold on the entire island. They often waited too long to seize the initiative after a particularly devastating air raid or naval shelling. That weakness allowed us to regroup and be ready for their next moves.
"As we made our way to the Solomon Islands there were day-long information and training sessions about the enemy we'd soon encounter and that the long days and nights beach landing training we had received in North Carolina would be put to the test on our first contact with him.
"There had been a side trip from the run to the Solomon Islands scheduled to the Fiji Islands where we were to get in some practice landings, but the tactical information that had been furnished to our commanders failed to state that the beaches that looked so good from a distance were, in fact, laced with sharp coral which would have torn open the bottoms of the boats we were to use. Had this happened, the scheduled landing on Guadalcanal would have been delayed. So the practice runs were canceled and we resumed our course.
"Then on the morning of August 7, 1942, after several hours of air and sea bombing and shelling of the beaches, my unit the First Marine Regiment landed on Red Beach in the second wave, behind the Fifth Marines. We caught the Japs completely by surprise. In fact, in the encampments we passed through, warm bowls of rice and oats were still on their breakfast tables and small fires were plentiful where water was being heated or boiled for washing or morning tea.
"Our intelligence information had accurately estimated the strength size of the troops there to be approximately two to three thousand, with another thousand or so workers, mostly captured Korean soldiers from other battles. All of them grabbed what little they could carry and bolted off toward the hills and jungles of the island.
"Our landings were mostly uncontested by the Japs, except for an occasional sniper who would fire a few rounds from his rifle and then run to another location and try to do the same again. There were few casualties as a result of these snipings, but their presence delayed our forward movements. One lonely sniper could stall the movement of a few thousand men until he could be located and blown out of the tree he inhabited.
"My unit, the Third Battalion of the First Marines, was given the objective of capturing a large grassy knoll just to the south side of the airstrip that butted up against the mountains. The Japs had used it as a reconnaissance point to watch over the airstrip as it was being constructed. Possession of that high ground would likewise assure the safety of our forces down at the airfield after we had taken possession.
"At that point in time, we were still under the belief that our aircraft would soon be making landings on that airstrip. Little did we know that our own Navy would soon be deserting us and leaving us with less than half of our food, supplies and equipment unloaded. I'll go into more detail later about the tortuous trip to that grassy knoll.
"Did you go to Guadalcanal for the 50th anniversary celebration Kent? I would have loved to have been able to go there but I didn't even know about it until a couple of years later. I knew some of the guys in the Fifth. What was your uncle's name? I lost a friend that went there with the Fifth.
And yes, I'd be happy to exchange notes and views on this subject. Write whenever you can. Jerry"
"Thanks so much for the response. I think people who really study the entire war, who keep a macro perspective on what the Pacific was like in 1942, will almost certainly come to the same conclusion. William Manchester and Richard Frank are two authors/historians who leap to mind as examples. Don't know if you are familiar with Manchester but he is a terrific author and a Marine himself, a veteran of Tarawa and Okinawa no less. Here's what Manchester had to say about Guadalcanal in an Op-Ed piece published in The New York Times on August 7, 1992 -- the 50th anniversary: 'Bastogne was an epic in Europe: the 101st Airborne was surrounded for eight days. But the Marines on Guadalcanal were isolated for four months. By October, the typical leatherneck had a malarial fever and open, running sores (jungle rot). He wore stinking dungarees, had been reduced to eating roots and weeds and had lost 25 pounds...'
"Manchester, a noted author and emeritus professor of history at Wesleyan University who had served in the Marine Corps from 1942 to 1945, stated that even General Douglas McArthur thought 'the Marines survival was open to the gravest doubts'.
"Manchester added that 'the Army Air Corps refused to send aircraft there; the crews of merchantmen bearing food for us refused to sail there; the senior admiral in the Solomons refused to strengthen the force there. The Marines were written off - doomed.' (JM Note: In truth, many of us never expected to see home again. But we never stopped fighting. We never gave up. We were Marines.)
"He finished the article thus: '...But to me that struggle was more than a strategic victory. It was, and is, eloquent testimony to the fortitude of man. Men generally do what is expected of them; usually that is very little. On the 'Canal they were asked to do what was believed to be impossible, and the shining response of those Marines on the line is historic. I shall never forget them, nor should you.'
"My great uncle was PFC David K. Massey of Ashwood, Tennessee. Your chronology of events when he shipped out is spot on with my research. He went through the Panama Canal to New Zealand, then to Guadalcanal through Fiji. He was in the first wave at Red Beach."
"I read Manchester's "Goodbye Darkness" and was very much impressed. For him to say what he did in the Op-Ed piece in the NY Times is high praise coming from someone who went through all that he did. It is really humbling. It made me feel as though I had done something well above the normal call of duty. Yet, as I did it, I felt no special importance or great sacrifice. My country had sent me there to perform a service and that was what I had enlisted to do. I did what I felt I had to and what I was ordered to do. Even later when I realized a bit more about the significance of that particular battle, and how fortunate I was to survive what seemed like a doomsday scenario, I felt no special, nor heroic feeling.
"He so accurately described our situation that it brought back vivid memories. For nearly the entire time there we didn't have any sheltered places to sleep at night. A poncho over a foxhole dug in the ground was about the best we could manage. Finally the last week or two as more and more ships came with Army troops and supplies, there were tents erected and wooden cots furnished.
"After sleeping on or in the ground for about four months we almost had to learn how to sleep in a cot again. As for bathing, during the first 100 or so days, it was a rare luxury we could only dream about.
"There was no place where we could go for a respite from the constant action. The entire three by five mile perimeter we occupied was all front lines. The occasional sneak off to a very close-by river to jump in, clothes and all, and to wash away the grime and stench was pure heaven! Unfortunately, after an hour back out in the heat and humidity, it was back to reality and we didn't even notice how badly we reeked.
"I weighed around 150 pounds when we left San Francisco in June and what I lost on the trip to New Zealand, fifteen to twenty pounds, I never regained before we hit the 'Canal. The long grueling working conditions in New Zealand, coupled with less than desirable meals and lack of sleep probably added to the weight loss instead of the reverse.
In the months that followed, the malaria, dysentery, and jungle rot continued to hammer away at what was left of my skinny frame. I was at my lowest weight of 115 when we arrived in Australia in December 1942.
"The USS Ericcson, the rains, non-stop work with very little rest and sleep in Wellington and then finally, four plus months on Guadalcanal reduced me to little more than a shadow.
"I didn't know David, but that's not to say that our paths didn't cross at some point during that ordeal. As I mentioned before, a school chum from my hometown (Altoona, PA) was in the Fifth Marines and we visited occasionally when our units were close enough for walking. So who knows? David could have been around on those times when I visited the Fifth's area.
KC: "You asked before if I went to Guadalcanal for the 50th anniversary of the landing. Yes, I went to Guadalcanal about four years ago to the day. I landed on 5 July. And, yes,
I was there for the 50th anniversary celebrations, which lasted a week. There were all kinds of ceremonies and speeches but what I enjoyed most was meeting and talking with some of the many, many vets who came back. That was indeed special. I think we had four Medal of Honor winners there.
"Evidence of the war is everywhere, Mr. McConnell. If you go into the bush, or up into the mountains, and get out to look at something, sooner or later, some Solomon boys will appear at the edge of a clearing. They'll shyly stand back, with something in their hands. When you walk over to them, you'll see that what they have in their hands is a helmet, or a bayonet, or a pineapple grenade, or a mortar round.
"Live ordnance is everywhere and it's a really dangerous problem. As a matter of fact, up on Bougainville, where a civil war is raging, the rebels' main weaponry is homemade bombs made with the cordite from W.W.II ordnance left behind.
"I was way up in the mountains one day at a place called Gold Ridge. It's in the mountains behind (due south) of Henderson Field. Met some Solomon men out walking. Noticed one of them wearing dog tags. Asked him where he got them. Said he found them in the bush near Henderson. They were U.S. Navy, from the war. If I'd had a pen, I'd have written the guy's name down.
"The war is all around. The country's main hospital is in Honiara, the one built after Guadalcanal was in hand and known thereafter as the 'No. 9 Army General Hospital.' I had only been there a few weeks and, as the Telekom Company was digging a ditch right in the heart of Honiara, workers uncovered the remains of two Japanese soldiers buried in a shallow grave, complete with helmets, etc.
"Where was your unit during the battle? When I have time this next week, I'll try to read a little about your unit's movements.
"Until later, best regards. Kent
JM: "My unit, 'K' Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment was in the second wave to land on Beach Red. Our regiment's initial objective was a large mound of terrain behind and above the airstrip and was called simply, 'grassy knoll'. We would later learn that its official name was Mount Austen.
"We went through various degrees of hell for three days getting there, climbing and subduing the entrenched Japs and establishing a lookout point. (At the end of this story in the Appendix is a poem/story about that agonizing venture. It was a poem started on Guadalcanal in late 1942, but not completed for many, many months.)
"Those first three days spelled out a lot of the entire story of the Guadalcanal campaign. We experienced large doses of fear, anxiety, near-death thoughts and encounters, punishing damage to our bodies, extreme thirst and hunger and almost no sleep for the entire time. I won't go into the difficulties of personal hygiene such as cleanliness, and nature's demands. In my case, and I'm sure in many others, we were unable to relieve our bowel demands for the entire three days. There just were no opportunities or convenient places for such necessities. You didn't dare wander off from the main body of troops for fear of being killed or captured - or worse, mistakenly shot by one of your own men!
"There were no provisions for cleaning one's self on those occasions either. It was something that was done only when the body would not allow any alternative. I only mention it here, because over the years, in many stories, I have never seen it addressed. And yet, it was a very serious problem that had many side effects and repercussions that contributed to deteriorated performance. Little did I know at the time, that it would set a pattern of behavior and living that would become all too familiar to us in the coming months.
"After securing the 'grassy knoll', which turned out to be a fairly good sized hill, we moved downward toward the airstrip to make sure there were no enemy soldiers or workers still entrenched there. Fortunately, the Japs had moved out so quickly that there was no chance for them to take along any of their food supplies - mostly, insect-infested rice and oats. We didn't know at the time that we were looking at a large portion of our own daily subsistence for the next few weeks.
"From there we moved to several different areas including our "home" for the next few weeks, where we were assigned to beachfront positions (my battalion, - 3rd) while the other two battalions (1st & 2nd) of the First Regiment wrapped around and up the western banks of the Tenaru River.
"During the night of August 21, a Japanese regiment, two thousand strong, under the command of Colonel Ichiki tried to breach our lines along the river. The 1st & 2nd Battalions, with artillery support from a battalion of the 11th Marine Regiment, repulsed them and killed all but a few hundred of them that managed to pull back and away from our lines. Though Col. Ichiki massed several 'kamikaze' frontal assaults on our lines in a fierce determination to break through, our men held their ground and repulsed each wave thrown at them. The overconfident Colonel was faced with a loss of face and total embarrassment. Rather than go on and face his superiors, he committed hari-kiri on the morning after his failed endeavor.
"Some spectacular pictures of the dead Jap soldiers partially buried in the sand on the beach were taken by our Intelligence officers and the war correspondents that were with us that later showed up in magazines and newspapers all over the United States in subsequent weeks.
"That spot was immediately in front of my battalion's positions on the beachfront. The bodies had washed down the river in the darkness into the ocean and the tide deposited them back on the beach and partially buried them.
"During the actual engagement, my company was about 100 yards to the left rear from the fighting, in ready reserve to fill in if needed, which didn't happen. There would be many occasions in the future when we were elated that our fellow regimental battalion Marines had stood the test and held out on their own. Of course, the situation was reversed at times, when we were the ones under siege while our reserve battalion was heaving a sigh of relief and giving thanks to our stalwartness.
"But imagine our surprise in the morning to see all the dead bodies in front of us! I'll give an account of our other combat contacts in the next email.
"So best regards, and please Kent, call me Jerry."
"Okay, Jerry. I know exactly the photos you're talking about, the ones of the dead Japanese soldiers half-buried in sand. I know the spot, too. However, there's been some controversy about the Tenaru and Alligator Creek. Most people (veterans and historians) now feel that most contemporary combat references to the "Tenaru" are actually designating Alligator Creek, a few thousand yards west of the Tenaru. (As a matter of fact, the Tenaru River will always hold special meaning for me: it's where I took my wife, a Dane I met in the Solomon's, on our first date!)"
"There was also confusion when we first went in, some of the old natives said the Tenaru was actually farther east. We also heard it was a tributary of the Ilu River called Alligator Creek. Captain Herbert L. Merillat who was the Division Historian on General Vandegrift's staff, wrote a book titled simply, "The Island" and he addresses the confusion, but states that in his writing he used the names that were known to those Marines that had landed there. And, yes I can see where the Tenaru would carry special significance for you as it does for me, though God knows, worlds of difference between the two!"
KC: "Wasn't that spot at the Tenaru mouth right across from the infamous sand bar now known as 'Ichiki's Point'? That was where Col. Ichiki's unit was decimated -- that may have been the soldiers you saw the morning after (I'll have to check)."
JM: "Yes, as I described in a recent email that might
still be on its way to you, it was Col. Ichiki's troops that were
given those less than ceremonial burials and it may be known as
'Ichiki's Point' now, but back then we called it 'Hell's Point'.
"A strange thing about those bodies however, was that we were moved back inland out of sight from the beach for several days after the bodies were discovered and never did learn how they disposed of them. And to be truthful, I really never wanted to know.
"In that battle, Private Al Schmid, a machine-gunner, fought off the Japs though blinded by a grenade explosion. Another wounded Marine who was with Schmid and still had his sight, would tell Al in which direction to fire the machine gun. He accounted for a considerable number of those dead bodies all on his own. He got the Medal of Honor for his actions on that night. A movie starring John Garfield as Al Schmid, called, "Pride of the Marines", was made from that story. (JM Note: Shortly after this letter was written, I remembered that Schmid had been decorated with the Navy Cross instead of the Medal of Honor.)"
KC: "By the way, 1st Regiment -- didn't you guys capture Henderson Field? Right after you landed ... like within a few days? Wasn't your unit under the command of Lt. Col. McKelvy? And later, in October, you saw action at the Matanikau, correct? And then, Point Cruz?"
JM: "Yes old Wild Bill McKelvy was our battalion commander (3rd). Talk about your old "blood and guts" Marines, there was one. He only knew one direction to go - forward. I always wondered what he would have done if ordered to withdraw. I suspect an adult tantrum of sorts would have been witnessed, but ultimately, as a good Marine, he would have obeyed orders - but grudgingly.
"I as said earlier, we had been assigned to capture a high point south of the airstrip, named only "grassy knoll" on the crude, make-shift maps we were all given (I still have my copy after all these years) which later was identified as Mt. Austen. When we landed we set out immediately for that destination and actually secured it on the third day.
"We then went down to the airstrip and I never did know if it was planned that way or that we just happened to be the first ones to actually arrive there. There really wasn't anything to 'capture' as all of the Japs had fled to the hills and jungles. However, I should say that we did 'capture' some pretty good caches of Japanese beer as well as their rice wine, called saki.
"We also found large stores of rice and oats that would later be our main rations after the Navy ships left with more than half of our food supplies. Other less desirable food items such as snails, octopus, and fish-heads were also added to our food banks by the mess sergeants where attempts to disguise them to serve to us nearly always failed.
"And yes, we did see a lot of action at the Matanikau. The 3rd Battalion and my Company (K), was on the eastern side of the sand bar where ten tanks tried to come across in October. Thanks to our anti-tank weapons and the 11th Marines heavy artillery behind us, they were stopped like ducks in a shooting gallery. I say "thanks" because had they gotten through I'm sure I wouldn't be writing this today.
"As though the tanks weren't daunting enough as they roared and lumbered across the sand bar headed directly into our positions, swarms of Jap infantrymen came along with the tanks, - along their sides and behind them. When the tanks were stopped, the ground troops continued to come across. There was a lot of man-to-man action by both country's ground forces that night. There were so many of them coming at us and screaming bone-chilling epithets, in both English and Japanese, our five-shot ammunition clips were soon emptied and we had to rely on our bayonets. There wasn't time to reload a new clip of ammunition as their soldiers were running directly at us.
"Fortunately for me, being only a bit over five foot eight inches and down to the one-teens in weight, most of the Jap soldiers I encountered were actually smaller. In fact, I had a height advantage over many of them. Another advantage we had was that they also carried single shot rifles, which quickly ran out of ammunition as ours did. Then it became a contest of strength with the bayonets. Our larger size, and by that time in the campaign, better feedings, made us stronger and quicker. I always thought that it could also have been that we were probably scared shitless while they were ready to die for the Emperor causing careless errors.
"There were a few moments when I was certain that it would be my last night on this beloved earth. But I was bailed out in one instance by one of my nearby buddies with an automatic rifle that had a fifty round clip. This memorable forever occasion occurred when two Japs were charging at me at the same time. From somewhere behind I heard a loud scream, "Drop, Mac" which I did without delay. In less than a second I heard the rapid 'burp-burp-burp' of an automatic rifle cutting down the two Japs, one of whom landed almost on top of me. But such actions were common that night.
"We were also on the southeastern flank of 'Bloody Ridge' the night Edson's Raiders took it on the chin in September. The Raiders repulsed the first wave of Jap troops who then fell back and, lucky us, decided to try to come around through our area.
"One of our Lieutenants, Joe Terzi, First Platoon Leader, and two of his men who had been well out in front of our lines on listening posts were unable to get back and were trapped behind the advancing Japs when they hit our lines. We were pretty well dug in and after their first push failed they just retreated back to an area where Terzi and the two men were hiding. There was only one way for Terzi to go and that was farther away from our lines.
"For 2 or 3 days they had to lie low and eat berries and roots and fortunately, they were on the edge of a small stream where they could get water. Our guys were sure happy to get back to our lines after the Japs had departed, or what was left of them. And we were overjoyed at seeing them return unharmed, but very hungry.
"Earlier that evening I had been on that same listening post out in front of our lines by some twenty-five or so yards in the grass. It wasn't the tall, razor-sharp Kunai grass, just regular grass about twelve to eighteen inches tall. I was there with three other guys. Actually, we were split up in two pairs of two and separated by about twenty-five feet.
"It was nerve-wracking duty being so far away from your own troops and probably nearer to the enemy who were masters at stealth and quiet. You didn't dare talk or make any noises. We knew how far we were from our front lines, but we had no idea how close we were to their front lines. Every sniff, throat tickle, or yawn had to be muffled to prevent detection. We sat there rigidly for two full hours while bugs and flying insects feasted on our bodies - or at least, the exposed parts thereof.
"I was only too happy when we heard our relief coming up on us with the finger-snapping signal of recognition where the middle finger is pressed against the thumb and then rubbed across until it snaps down onto the palm. As quietly as could be there would be two snaps, pause, two snaps, pause and two more snaps. If the answering one snap, pause, one snap, pause, one snap wasn't forthcoming, the relief detail would return to our front lines and report that those of us out there had either been killed or taken prisoner.
"On this instance, one of us was quick to return the signal so we could get back to the relative security of our own lines moving very slowly so as not to cause a noisy rustle of the grass. But unfortunately, Lt. Terzi and the others mentioned before, were the unlucky ones who got trapped behind the Japanese advance.
"It seemed only seconds after we got back to our lines and safely in our foxholes, positioned and ready for the onslaught of Japs, that they began to hit us. Very quietly at first which made it seem a bit surreal and almost like a dream sequence. But the noise of rifle fire, grenade explosions and the screaming, and the outbound artillery fire from our heavy weapons battalion to our rear, made us realize that we were in for some heavy combat.
"The artillery fire however, made the difference. The explosions were quite often a bit closer than we would have preferred and shrapnel zinged and screeched all around us, but it was hitting the Japs dead on as they tried to penetrate our positions. As they began to fall back the artillery followed them as though it had eyes of its own. Actually, it literally did, only it was in the form of our human observers who noted the positions of the Japs and informed the artillerymen to our rear of their movements by field telephones. The earlier quiet when their attack began was quickly displaced by screams and shouts of orders from their leaders to a point of what seemed like a full scale riot. Their fallback to positions that afforded them more safety and out of range of our small arms fire was accompanied by much appreciated quiet with only the moans of the few of our men that had been wounded. We luckily survived any fatalities that night.
"And then when Lt. Terzi and his men returned it gave us more fortunate news and we seemed whole again. They had outwaited and really, outfoxed, the Japs and were able to come back to our lines. They told us that it was probably less than five minutes after we had very quietly crawled back to our lines that they heard the grass rustling to the front. The rustling got louder and it became more obvious to them that there was a large force of men moving toward our lines. Our men attempted to come back to our lines but realized that some of the Japs had already come in from the uncovered flank and were between them and our lines. They had no choice but to move off to the opposite flank away from the sound of the oncoming soldiers and away from the safety of our lines. But thankfully, they were able to come back to us later.
"The Point Cruz thing was also nearly a disaster. Our own planes, thinking we were the enemy, started to strafe us. We quickly laid out any white undershirts, shorts, handkerchief, etc. and spelled out "U S" as big as we could. They got the message, tipped their wings and went on their way. Luckily our fly-boy guys weren't good shots that day as all they did was stir up the dust and nick the hell out of the trees all around us. But we must have been quite a sight all sprawled out in a disorderly pattern, most minus all clothing, having removed our white underwear items to make the distress sign for the planes. An enemy patrol could have had a field day picking us off at their leisure."
KC: "Jerry, if so, it appears that Uncle David was right near you most of the battle."
JM: "He probably was. I know the First and the Fifth weren't usually too far apart from each other. At times even when we were in close proximity, we couldn't make contact because of enemy activity, but both units always knew the other was nearby. It was probably mental telepathy. We just knew they were there and vice versa. Field communications were used sparingly as sometimes they would squeal loudly if not operating properly, but I'm sure our officers were always in some form of contact with the units that were flanking us."
KC: "A personal note. I never knew Uncle David. But his brother, Uncle Ray, was like my father. Ray was also a Marine, in the 1st Tank Battalion (Cape Gloucester, Good Enough Island, Peleliu).
"I grew up hearing about Uncle David. When I was a kid, I used to gaze through family photo albums, look at his picture, read his letters, and read his poems.
"Uncle David wrote the poem below while on Guadalcanal. He sent it in a letter to his closest sister, my grandmother, who raised me. I grew up carrying this poem in my heart and I've had it copyrighted. It was one of the last things our family ever heard from him.
"I'll share it here with you, as you can probably relate to it. Understand: Uncle David was a sharecropper from Tennessee, with an eighth-grade education and, who, until he joined the
Marines, had never been outside the state of Tennessee.
"Somewhere in the Solomons,
Where the sun is like a curse and each day is followed by another slightly worse.
Where the brown-colored dust blows thicker than shifting
and all men dream and wish for the fairer, greener land.
Somewhere in the Solomons,
Where a woman is never seen,
Where the sky is never cloudy and the grass is never green.
Where the dingies' nightly howl robs a man of his sleep,
Where there isn't any whiskey and beer is never seen.
Somewhere in the Solomons,
Where the nights are made for love,
Where the moon is like a searchlight and the
southern cross above
sparkles like a diamond on a balmy tropic night,
it's a shameful waste of beauty when there's not a
girl in sight.
Somewhere in the Solomons,
Where the mail is always late,
Where a Christmas card in April is considered up to date,
Where we never have a payday, never have a cent,
but we never miss the money cause we'd never get it spent.
Somewhere in the Solomons,
Where the ants and lizards play,
and a thousand fresh mosquitoes replace each one you slay...
So come on, you Fifth Marines and throw out your chest,
For you have completed your mission well ahead of the rest.
So take me back to 'Frisco, let me hear the Mission bells,
For this God-forsaken island is a substitute
PFC David King Massey, USMC
November 9, 1942"
JM: "What a great poem! One would never know that the writer had only an eighth grade education, it really is very well done; and what a great coincidence (or perhaps not, there may have been lots of others) because I wrote my first poem on the 'Canal also. It was not nearly as well structured as David's, but it carried a similar message.
"I wrote a second one which detailed the horrors of the trek to Mt. Austen after we had landed at Beach Red. I titled it "The Grassy Knoll." I didn't finish it before I left and I don't recall how long it was before I did, but it and the other had remained tucked away for many, many years until a few years ago when the country became aware of the 50th anniversary of W.W.II.
"With so many reporters interviewing and local schools doing veterans programs the self-imposed gag that I had put on my memories of that place suddenly came off and it was like a burden had been lifted or a door had been opened and a fresh breeze blew through. I'll tell you more about this and the poems another time."
KC: "I just wish young kids today just had a clue about what men like you went through to keep us free. When you guys landed on August 7th, by all accounts, we were losing ground to the Japanese juggernaut coming down the Pacific towards the grand prize of Australia. You're right: Guadalcanal was the first offensive land action of the Pacific theater. It was the first time we took the initiative to them and fought back.
"Before Guadalcanal, strategic points in the Pacific fell like ripe fruit into the hands of the Japanese: the Philippines, Formosa, Wake Island, Hong Kong, Burma, Siam, SE Asia, Malaya, Singapore, New Guinea. If allowed to finish the airfield on Guadalcanal, the Japanese could strike directly at Australia.
"As a matter of fact, Australian leaders had already conceded the northeastern territory (now Queensland) defenseless in the north, they drew the line at Brisbane and resolved to defend their homeland there. MacArthur convinced them to concede nothing.
"Yes, Guadalcanal -- by any objective measure -- was the turning point in the war for the Allies. And when men like Bull Halsey and Chesty Puller replaced men like Frank Jack Fletcher and Ghormley, we started taking the war to the Japanese.
"Enough. Hope you enjoy the poem. I have a photocopy of Manchester's Op-Ed; if you want, I can fax it to you. Until later. Kent"
JM: "I'm not set up to receive faxes, but I would definitely like a copy of his article. Could you mail it to me? I would appreciate it very much. The Grassy Knoll poem is quite lengthy, but I'll mail you a copy if you'd like it. Jerry"
"Have you written all this stuff down anywhere, Jerry? You are, as they say, an eyewitness to history. You should make every effort to preserve your recollections. A hundred years from now, people will read it -- even if it's just your family -- and wonder, just as I did as I read Civil War soldiers' accounts when I was growing up. It matters, Jerry. What you and every other man
went through back then matters a great deal. I urge you to write it all down."