Political correctness (?) and Fire Ants

KC: "Talk of Ballalae leads me to another query for you: what were you told, and what was the scuttlebutt, about the Japanese Army? What were you told about their insane brutality and cruelty? Did you hear of this? Did you fear them? Did you fear getting captured (well, of course you did, I presume...)? By the time you left Guadalcanal, what was your attitude towards the Japanese first as fighting men, and human beings, second?"
JM: "There may have been some degree of political correctness even back in those days, as we were mostly told that the Jap was a very tenacious fighter, as well as devious, clever and almost unobservable in the jungle. All of those things proved to be true. Though there weren't many opportunities, the Japs chose not to take any prisoners.
"When they would surprise and surround one of our patrols by ambush, we would always find all of the bodies (not necessarily in one piece) which indicated to us that they made no efforts to take prisoners. Apparently they weren't interested in gaining any info, only in eliminating us, and Hirohito had told them they would do it.
"By the time we left we began to realize that though clever in some respects, they were quite lacking in others. They seldom ever followed up or pursued the few occasions when they had done serious damage to us or had gained a strategic advantage. Pearl Harbor was an example of this rationale. Perhaps they just didn't realize and were too timid to try to find out.
"It was very difficult to make any kind of determination about them as human beings in that we had almost no contact with them except through the rifle sights. The very few prisoners that we took were taken for intelligence gathering (we had no place to incarcerate them; very little food to feed them; and our medical supplies were in very short supply)."
KC "I write these things because I have concluded that, with the possible exception of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1975-79, this century has not seen a crueler army, from top to bottom, than the Japanese Imperial Army.
"Even the Nazis, in my view, were a different army, though no better of course. After Guadalcanal, when I returned to the real world, I went back to work, this time in Bangkok. I had occasion to spend a weekend at the real "Bridge on the River Kwai," in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. This was also a site of infamous Japanese Army brutality. Tens of thousands of non-combatants, as well as more than ten thousand POWs, died at the hands of the Japanese commander there.
"But such brutality and inhuman cruelty was typical. Ballalae is a case in point. As I wrote, it was a POW camp during the war -- it wasn't liberated until after the war had ended and all the prisoners had already been murdered or had died-- but, to my knowledge, no Americans were there. Prisoners were mostly British from fallen places in SE Asia like Singapore and the Malay peninsula, Australians and New Zealanders.
"They were used as slave labor, they were tortured, many died of dysentery, and others were shot for saying that the Japanese wouldn't win. Some were so consumed with hopelessness that they deliberately ran into the path of our bombs during air raids, meant mainly to simply harass the base rather than destroy it. Others were beheaded and the remainder were executed when the airfield was finished. Ballalae was only briefly mentioned during the other war crimes tribunal held after the war in Tokyo. As I wrote, it was so typical it was relatively unremarkable."
JM: "You're absolutely correct. I heard only of Ballalae in terms of being a Jap island base. I hadn't even heard that it was a POW camp. The Tokyo war crimes tribunal was so little heard of that some wonder if it ever happened. The Nazi version was far more publicized. With McArthur in charge I'm surprised that it wasn't the most publicized. And of course, I have read about the Japanese brutality during their sweep southward in the Pacific. I have often wondered if perhaps by the time the Guadalcanal campaign began, they had just stretched themselves too much.
"Imagine the logistics of detaining hundreds of thousands of people in so many different locales stretched nearly the length of the Pacific and you begin to see some of their problems. Who knows, maybe that was the American strategy: Wait them out until they have reached their most vulnerable point in terms of supply lines and then cut them off.
"I also often wonder what would have happened had they reached Australia and New Zealand. Most of the men of those two countries were off in faraway places fighting, so the remaining population was comprised mostly of women and old and very young men - children primarily."
KC: "I've been jumping the last week. Just now getting around to responding to your e-mails.
"I will indeed contact Joe in Melbourne. It would be wonderful for me to contact those families. I'll have to dig those letters out first and get their names and last known addresses.
"Oh, yes...just remembered your question about quakes in the Solomons. We had two while I was there: one in the middle of the night, which I didn't feel, and another while I was hovering about 80 feet deep in Iron Bottom Sound diving on one of those Jap transports I told you about. We heard it of course instead of feeling it -- sounded like a huge, thunderous rumble passing through the water. Very weird.
"I lived in So. California for six years so I was fairly used to quakes when I moved to the Solomons. Our greatest fear was a quake while we were diving IN those ships -- lots of loose debris, steel and iron hanging precariously in several places. A quake while we were in some of those tight pockets would have been a disaster. We always planned ahead as to what we would do in the event of such a cataclysm. And we weren't foolish -- as much as our curiosity impelled us, we didn't take stupid chances.
"On land, several people were similarly concerned about quakes while caving. As you may know, Guadalcanal is home to many byzantine caves. I never went into these caves precisely because of the quake threat, even though I grew up as an avid caver in Tennessee. An earthquake during a caving expedition on Guadalcanal could simply mean certain death. So we simply stayed away from that.
"Anyway, will try to get back into the routine here this next week.
Thanks, Kent"...
JM: "Kent,
"Apparently the quakes aren't too frequent in the Solomons. But even one is enough for me. Being a lifetime East Coast guy, except for travels to other parts, I had never experienced a quake before the one on the 'Canal. I've been to the West Coast several times and have been lucky enough not to have had to feel one of them under my feet.
"But yes, that quake while underwater must have been quite an experience. My first thoughts would have been, - have I disturbed the spirits of the many men who went down with those ships. And of course I would have high-tailed it the hell out of there, pronto.
"But that leads to another thought, - have any divers ever reported seeing the remains of bodies on any of those ships? The flesh certainly would have decomposed over a period of time, but the skeletons probably should be fairly identifiable. Did you ever think about such an event or discovery when you were on or near the ships? Or perhaps our country took steps to recover whatever they could for proper burial purposes???
"Did you dive to ships of both countries? From underwater photos of the ships, both ours and theirs, they seem to be in amazingly good condition. Even the gear left on the upper decks seems to be, except for being barnacle encrusted, almost usable. One would think that conditions below decks would be even better as it wouldn't be subjected to any damage or erosion due to light. Food for thought.
"I did hear about the caves on the island. The Aussie Coastal Watchers used them at times to hide from the Japs and they related some of the stories of them. Apparently a lot of them were originally excavated by gold-hunters and perhaps some by the natives themselves for shelter. The Coastal Watchers weren't too keen about them but they did save some of their lives while hiding from the Japs though.
"Will get to your other email next. 'Til then.... Jerry"
KC: "Jerry --
"Want to catch up on a couple of things before I forget them...The biting fire ants -- oh, I know them all too well. Brings to mind a scene that is, in retrospect, pretty funny...
"While in the Shortland Islands, on the island called Faisi #2, I was staying in the guest house of the Shortland Islands Council of Chiefs. The Chairman of the Council, John Pita Bitiai, owned the tiny island and the guesthouse where I stayed. This island was a Jap destroyer base during the war. The island is littered with debris from the war. On the opposite end of the island, there are two downed Zeroes. I have a piece of one of them in my living room.
"I'm not certain, and John Pita couldn't tell me for sure, but Faisi may have been Tanaka's base for a while during the Guadalcanal campaign. Anyway, John Pita was a farmer -- he had several pigs, a few goats, a dog, and, several longhorn steers and cattle.
"As time went by during my days on the island, the cattle got used to me being around. They always hung around my side of the island and grazed a lot near the guesthouse. At times, they seemed to get tired of the grass and ate the sweet leaves off low-hanging branches of the trees.
"One day, I noticed this old steer trying to reach just such a branch right in front of my porch. It was just out of his reach. I decided to help him. I grabbed my machete and slowly approached him. My eyes were on him, of course. And I was ready to bolt the second I thought he didn't want me around. But he just watched me.
"I stood under the long, lush branch he had been trying to reach. I took my machete and, with a good hard stroke, tried to chop off the branch with one hit. It didn't quite cut through. But something else happened: I was soon covered with dozens of crawling, angry red fire ants that had been all over the branch. Man, they started biting as soon as they knew they were on some fresh meat. I slapped at this for about two seconds, realized the futility of this, and then just ran the 20 feet into the sea. I dived under the cool water. Anyway, I know about those evil fire ants."

JM: "Kent,
"Never knew they were called fire ants, but I can understand why. Their bite left a sting that was just like a burn. My bites would always swell up and they looked like hives. Not many of the other guys puffed up like that, but some others did. It took a few days before the itching and burning stopped. After the first time, I was very careful about where I stepped.
JM: "Hi Kent,
"In one of my emails, which was in response to your telling me that you were having the Solomon Islands Olympic team over for a "custom feast", I mentioned that I was involved in a project with my local Rotary club regarding the Solomon Islanders and I asked you to remind me to tell you about it. Well, you won't have to, as I remembered it.
"To put it in perspective; I was a member of the Hampton, NH Rotary Club. The time was early 1993, and I was casually looking through the Rotary International Directory of all clubs, worldwide. When I got to the H's, I noticed the name Honiara which meant nothing at all to me, but following Honiara was the name Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. Now that really meant something to me. My first thoughts were that I must have the wrong place. How could the Guadalcanal I knew, not only have a place called Honiara, but also, a Rotary Club?
"The Directory has listed with each club, the name of the current President and Secretary and the club's mailing address, so I decided to write to the Secretary just to satisfy my curiosity. It was a man called Mick Kranthias. The Mick sounded very Aussie. I asked him if the place where he was could possibly be the same place I had been in 1942 with the US Marines? A few weeks later he replied that, yes, it was the same place and that just the previous year (1992) there had been a 50th anniversary celebration of that battle and many of the Marines that had fought there returned for the occasion.
"He very graciously sent me a copy of the 50th anniversary commemorative program, as well as other magazines of Guadalcanal. Needless to say, I was dumbfounded. I couldn't get over seeing pictures of the 'new' Guadalcanal with its hotels, beautiful beaches and areas where we had slogged through mud and rain and dodged bullets, bombs, shells and other assorted discomforts.
"We began corresponding fairly regularly, (not like email with its speed), and he eventually told me that the mission of the Rotary there was primarily to provide assistance to the native population in the form of educational and medical relief. He also told me that they were always in short supply of normal everyday school items like pencils, tablets, chalk, erasers, etc. as well as first-aid type medical items. It was in the form of a 'Rotary club to Rotary club' request for any help we would care to provide.
"I thought it was a very worthwhile cause so I presented it to our Board of Directors as an International Service Project, for which Rotary is famous. At the time I was a member of the Board, as the Treasurer, and I also asked for $2,500 to pay for the "postage and handling" and was surprised that they were anxious to approve the request.
"My plan was to solicit all of the general area hospitals, medical supply houses, doctors, pharmacies, etc.; as well as schools, stationery stores, office suppliers, etc. I got volunteer teams from the club to visit, call or write to all of the places that carried the needed supplies; get a commitment; pick up the offered supplies; pack them in boxes and ship them to Guadalcanal. Everything was set up, organized, and ready to roll when Murphy's Law took over.
"I really believe that being of Irish ancestry, that fellow Murphy watches to see what I'm trying to do and when things are about set, he steps in and stomps on all of the well-laid plans. Well this time, he decided to create an in-house, America-only, deck-clearing, drop-everything, genuine, first-class, emergency: to wit, the devastating floods of the Midwest, in particular, the Mississippi River disaster floods during that year of 1993.
"The entire central section of our country was inundated with swollen rivers and streams which flooded about one-third of the land area of our country causing devastation and suffering seldom ever seen. A massive call for assistance was made to the country's hospitals, medical supply houses, doctors, pharmacies, schools, stationery stores, office suppliers, etc. As it should be, those suppliers heeded the call for a national emergency and ignored our requests for supplies for the Solomon Islanders. The hoped-for and expected supplies for my project fell off to a bare trickle.
"At that time there were thirty-five Rotary clubs in this district of the United States. I had hoped to collect thirty-five boxes of supplies, (educational and medical) in my club alone and to challenge the remaining thirty-four clubs in the district to provide just ONE box of supplies to send to the Honiara Rotary club for a total of sixty-nine (hopefully more) boxes of supplies. But, old 'Murph had to step in and create a flood that year, so it screwed up all of my plans.
"As it turned out, I managed to collect a total of only SEVEN boxes (whiskey carton size) filled with educational and medical supplies. The total weight of the boxes was over 200 pounds, so it wasn't a total loss.
"It took nearly six weeks to ship them by post. (I investigated other means, and I couldn't get any "gratis" shipments.) It cost the club about $1,100 in boxes, tape, labels, etc. and parcel post charges to ship the supplies to Guadalcanal.
"The thing that really frosted me was that by the time the boxes arrived there, most of the Rotarians I had originally communicated with had returned to Australia. (I guess most of the business people there are sort of "on loan" from their businesses in Australia.) I had been told that they would take pictures of the arrival and then the distribution of the supplies to the natives on the different islands. Well of course it never happened.
"I was greatly disappointed and when I couldn't produce any evidence of the arrival of the supplies, many members of my club were equally disappointed. I did get two letters confirming receipt of the supplies from two Rotarians there, but no pictures had been taken. Rotary did get the boxes, all 7 of them, and the Rotarians made distribution of them: the school supplies were passed along to three of the most needy schools in Honiara, one of them the Red Cross School for physically and mentally handicapped children. The First Aid supplies went to the local St. John Ambulance and Rural Health Clinic.
"The news media were also disappointed, because they had covered the project well and had hoped for some climactic ending pictures. The Associated Press had played it up in most of the New England papers and was hoping for a finale story. The only thing I can say is, "Thanks a lot, Murph.
"So there you have it, - the story of the famous (or perhaps infamous) Hampton Rotary Club International project to supply the Solomon Island natives with educational and medical supplies. Not exactly a big zero, but on a scale of one to ten, it would probably rate a one point one. I was greatly disappointed and yes, a little embarrassed about all of the original hoopla and the resultant phffffft! I often wonder if any of the Solomon Islanders knew of or even cared about the project.
"Did you ever hear of it? I mean of any Rotary Club supplies from USA arriving there about September 1994? I think a place called Bradfords or Barretts store was the place they were received. He, (Bradford or Barrett) was a Rotarian and the local post office was in his store.
"Of course my intense interest in the project lay in the fact that the island natives helped us go greatly - more than we realized at the time, to be aware of the presence of the Jap troops and to be ready for them, and that we never really did get a chance to properly thank them for all they did for us.
"It may have taken over 50 years to realize how much we owed them, but I just had to try to show my gratitude. Sending supplies to their grandchildren was what I hoped to accomplish, but, again, old 'Murph had to interfere. Hey, all I can say is that I tried. And if I ever get a chance to do it again, I will. I will because I truly believe that if they hadn't provided us with the information we needed about the enemy troop movements, I wouldn't be writing this today. Jerry"


Diving: The Lost Ships

KC: "Jerry, about Ballard...
"He and his crew were my sometimes drinking buddies in the Solomons in July-August, 1992. He was there filming the National Geographic special that produced the book you have. As a matter of fact, my running buddy during those early days on Guadalcanal was a photographer from Seattle, a guy named David Gaddis. If you look in your book, you'll see several photographs attributed to David. Good guy, good photographer. True adventurer."
JM: "His pictures are excellent. He seems to prefer rusted, deserted wrecks and weapons, but the beautiful, scenic backgrounds emphasize their obsolescence."
KC: "To be quite honest, Jerry, I didn't care at all for Ballard's National Geographic special. Could and should have been much more. To my way of thinking, it was simply the same story of Guadalcanal told over again. Nothing new at all, except a few moments of semi-drama when they came upon a few lost ships in Iron Bottom Sound.
"He had so many veterans there he could have talked to; he could have told the stories of the ships he was searching for so much better; he could have put the entire thing into the context of the titanic struggle for Guadalcanal that emerged during the last four months of 1942 which I'm sure you remember so well."
JM: "I have never gotten to see it. A friend one day asked me if I had seen the "story about Guadalcanal" on TV the night before and frankly, I don't watch TV much anymore. I should look at the listings though. That type of show is usually repeated many times however, so maybe I'll get to see it one of these days.
"One thing I noticed almost immediately was that in his book, he refers to a Lieutenant H. Christian Merillat, a Public Relations Officer and quotes him referring to our departure from the island in December. I have a book that was published in 1944 and written by a Herbert Laing (correct spelling) Merillat, titled simply, "The Island" and the accounts given in his book are verbatim quotes as seen in Ballard's book. He also was a Public Relations Officer on Gen. Vandegrift's staff on the island."
KC: "In short, I would have written and produced it differently. Of course, what do I know? In Ballard's defense, he was under the gun with the USN because he was using their research ship (and US tax $) to pursue the stated objective of finding several of those lost ships. He couldn't just stay there indefinitely or roam around exploring. So he was limited by his benefactors. Kent"
JM: "Yes, considering the pressures of time and money, it is understandable, but Ballard has built a reputation with oceanic types and marine biologists as being a very exact guy. I worked with those types while I was with National Marine Fisheries Service of NOAA and they too are very exacting guys (and women) and they usually double and triple check anything before they state it as fact.
"On the previous page I commented that Ballard had referred to a Lieut. H. Christian Merillat, a Public Relations Officer. I also mentioned that I have a book about Guadalcanal titled simply, "The Island" which was written by a Herbert Laing Merillat who also describes himself as a Public Relations Officer on General Vandegrift's staff on the island. Since writing that, I have also read "Guadalcanal Remembered" by Herbert C. Merillat who explains that he was also known as Herbert Laing Merillat in his earlier writings. The "Laing" was used as a tribute to his mother's family name. So that explains the puzzle."
KC: "Before I get to anything else, my wife just handed me the mail tonight. She forgot to give me your latest snail mail. Sir, I can't tell you how much I appreciate the 1st Div. patch. That means a great deal to me, to have an original. Yes, I've other, newer versions from the USMC Historical Society and I'm proud of those. And Tony has Uncle Ray's originals, of course. But to have one of the very first issued -- I mean, that's right when the patch was designed, right? Right after Guadalcanal? I mean, you guys had just earned the thing, correct?"
JM: "Hi Kent,
"Can't think of anyone I'd rather give it to. Your dedication and respect for what was done over there is deserving of something special.
"Yes that particular patch is one of the originals issued to us in Australia. The very first ones so issued. We had heard that it was one of Gen. Vandegrift's priorities and he had some of his staff working on it before we left the island. I personally was never asked, but I did hear that a lot of the outfits were questioned about it and the Southern Cross seemed almost a unanimous choice for the background.
"You'll notice that the patch is slightly worn, the reason it isn't more worn, is because as we got newer ones they seemed a lot stiffer with different types of thread than the first ones. I and several of the other guys decided to save those originals from any further wear and we replaced them with newer ones and saved the first ones.
"I don't know how true it is and I've never taken the time to do any research on it, but we were told that it was the first time in Marine Corps history that a Division identity shoulder insignia had been authorized for wear on the Marine uniform. I do know that we were all very proud wearers of that patch. We had paid a very steep price for it, many, the maximum like your uncle and my school chum from home.
"I believe they gave us about five of them at first. I somehow had managed to hang on to three of them and I'm most pleased to give one of them to you. I know it's only a small piece of cloth, and most people wouldn't understand the significance of that small piece of cloth, but I know you do which is why I wanted you to have it."
KC: "Jerry, thank you so much for parting with it for me. My wife is going to sew it onto my favorite blue-jean jacket. It means a lot to me.
"It's strange that you mention our experiences diving on those ships, Jerry, and ask about what we found, our feelings, etc. Because I've wanted to tell you about a couple of episodes and I wasn't too sure how you'd react. But since you've asked...
"The scent of death is all around those ships. They are huge, hulking monstrosities of twisted iron that have become a part of the sea, which has claimed them as its own. They are haunting and eerie. Yes, we found human bones on one -- a femur or tibia, to be precise. Every single time I dived on those wrecks, I always took the history with me -- what happened the morning they were bombed and shelled into oblivion, what happened the night before (Nov. 14, 1942) when Admiral Tanaka ordered these four, new, fast transports to intentionally beach themselves in a desperate attempt to land reinforcements and supplies to the Japs who were starving on shore. I dived in awe and respect of the sacrifice made there by hundreds of mothers' sons, the massive loss of life. I couldn't help but think of what the final hours on those ships were like. Horrible, I'm sure.
"We always dived with respect -- at least the gang I dived with did. We were always prepared to run across something startling, such as skeletal remains. But I was told that the Japanese embassy in the Solomons had tried over the years to recover all the remains from the ships and send them back to Japan for proper ceremonies, etc. (That's what they did with those two Japanese skeletons found across from the hotel when Telekom was digging a trench.
"Everyone in the Solomons knew to contact the embassy if any obviously Japanese remains were found; I personally called the charge d'affaires at the Japanese embassy and told him about the bone we found on the "Ruiniu" (that's the local Solomons name for the wreck, not the name of the ship.) Never found out what happened.
"I don't know how you feel about the Japanese these days, Jerry, and I will never judge any veteran of the W.W.II Pacific theater for his feelings towards the Japanese. Most veterans I've talked with seem pretty philosophical about the war. Uncle Ray's view was the Japs he was fighting were, at the end of the day, just men like him following orders, men who had a job to do and who, like him, wanted to go home as soon as possible. Some vets I've met, however, still harbor great animosity towards the Japanese people and I can understand that perfectly, particularly those whose personal losses were directly attributable to an act of infamy or other atrocity. The relatives and friends of those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines come to mind."
JM: "I had the good fortune to be able to go to Japan after the war. I say, good fortune, because the picture I got of the Jap soldier and his vicious, brutal behavior was nothing like the picture I got of the Japanese family while I was in Japan.
"I had been in Korea where they would steal everything that wasn't nailed down and if it was nailed down, they'd somehow get the nails out and steal them too! At night the 'slickey boys'
as they were called, would slip into and out of our barracks and rooms without any noise whatsoever. While there, they'd steal anything they could carry. We always had to leave someone with our Jeeps because otherwise they'd be gone when we got back.
"But in Japan you could leave your wallet on the bar or on a table in a restaurant, go to the rest room (benjo) and find everything intact when you returned. Very honorable people. I grew to like and respect them very much. I even met a soldier who had been on Guadalcanal and had been shipped out because he had an arm blown off.
"We met in a bar in Tokyo in 1956 or 57 where I had gone with one of my buddies who left me there while he went to get measured for a suit. This Japanese man sat down near me and very politely started casual conversation, which somehow got around to the recent war. That's when he told me he had been in the Army and had lost his arm on Guadalcanal. I was of course slightly stunned and when I told him that I also had been there, he stood quickly and snapped off a very sharp salute saying that he had great respect for how we had won over there under such terrible conditions. He even apologized for saluting me with his left hand.
"He couldn't believe we were such good fighters and particularly at night. He said that they were told that we couldn't see too well at night and that we all slept at night so it would be easy for them. He spoke fairly good English, but it was obvious that we weren't comfortable talking about the island so we just sort of dropped the subject.
"I bought him a drink and he invited me to come to his house for a meal, but I didn't have the time to take him up on it or I would have. Maybe there we would have relaxed and started to talk more, but I really don't know. I was pretty closed-minded about it and just wanted to forget all about it and he certainly seemed the same. So as you can see I harbor no grudges or animosity towards the Japanese people. That is not to say that I had any great admiration or respect for their military personnel who, in retrospect may have been under the orders of mad men and were unable to act humanely. Those latter men I called Japs, a term intentionally signaling disrespect. The people I met while in Japan were different and commanded my respect and I will always refer to them as Japanese.

Respect, Was the Common Thread

The preceding page was the last of the emails exchanged between Kent Cooper and myself relating to the battle for Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands in 1942.
A few years ago when news organizations realized that the events of World War II had reached or were about to reach their fiftieth anniversary, they sought out veterans of the early combat campaigns. In that the Pacific theater of operations was the first of a combat nature for the United States, veterans of Pearl Harbor, the Midway Island naval battle and Guadalcanal - the first major ground offensive against the Japanese, were much in demand for stories, pictures and interviews. Most local veteran's organizations such as the VFW or the American Legion were contacted for information on their members who may have been in these early engagements. In one such interview I called my experience of the battle for Guadalcanal, "my three thousand hours of living hell! Which I had intended as the title for this story 'til I heard about General MacArthur's remarks about our survival.
Never before in the history of American battles has one of its fighting units been subjected to the daily horrors of brutal combat for anywhere near as long a period of time without some form of respite or relief as were the Marines on Guadalcanal. From August 7, 1942 when we landed on its beaches until December 15, 1942, the day I went on board a transport ship and left, we experienced actual front-lines duty. Those four months, plus eight days equaled 130 days, or 3,120 consecutive hours of physical and mental misery.
There were no places on that horrible island where fatigued, diseased and physically debilitated Marines could go for hospital care, or even short rests from the rigors of the incessant combat demands. The total land space of the small hold we had on the island was all considered front line territory. Mental fatigue was a problem as serious as the physical rents to our bodies.
Sudden screams at night from a nightmare or hallucination had to be muffled quickly to not alert the enemy and provoke the possibility of the arrival of some unwanted artillery or sniper fire in our midst. The set-upon Marine would battle back with the ferocity of two men and it would take several others to subdue him until the internal 'devils' took leave of his mind.
We were confined to an area with a perimeter roughly five miles long and three miles wide at its longest and widest points; the ocean on the northern side, steep jagged mountains on the southern side and mostly mud, muck and jungle between two rivers on the east and west sides.
The island overall was about ninety miles long and about thirty-five miles wide with a large mountain spine down its length in the middle. We controlled about one half of one percent of the total island and the Japanese controlled the other ninety-nine and one half percent. Had we not been denied the use of about sixty percent of our food, supplies and equipment that departed prematurely when the ships that had transported us there from New Zealand fled from enemy bombers and heavy naval vessels we could have secured the island and departed within days of our arrival. The number of lives that might have been saved as well as the numbers of men who would not have contracted malaria and other jungle sicknesses and diseases would be impossible to determine.
Lacking the vital necessities to sustain an offensive, while the Japanese freely brought in fresh troops well supplied with food, supplies and equipment, we were forced to defend the small perimeter we occupied while under nearly constant bombing and shelling each day and night.
The absence of our U. S. naval vessels and the air support they could provide meant that the enemy had total superiority of the land, water and skies all around us.
The nearly completed airstrip within our small perimeter was our only hope of getting some air support for our mission. But the enemy bombing and shelling, as well as the lack of the proper equipment necessary for the land grading and filling, meant that the needed air support would not arrive for fourteen days from the date of our landing. We filled the holes and graded the strip mostly with our bare hands mostly during moments when we weren't engaged in some form of combat, which added to the delay.
I used the word "we" in the previous sentence because every unit of the First Marine Division had to furnish manpower at some time or other to help with airstrip construction.
This was done between torrential tropical rainfalls; blistering 100 plus degree heat coupled with humidity in like numbers; little fresh water; even less food; a fighting organization that was about as physically fit as the residents of the terminal compound in a leper colony; battles, skirmishes, bombings, shellings and general everyday sniper and harassment fire from the Japanese.
If an infantry battalion was not actively engaged in "locked-in" combat, at least one of its companies would be used to work by hand at the field. Getting that strip ready to receive our planes was a priority exceeded only by engaging in direct combat with enemy ground forces.
By the time our air support arrived, the Japanese had built their war machine into a formidable force, with fresh bodies, clothing, food, weapons, ammunition, supplies and heavy and light maneuverable, short and long range weapons. Their ships controlled the sea-lanes preventing our ships from returning.
Morale amongst our troops was at a dangerously low point and then to complicate matters, sickness in the forms of malaria, dysentery, open sores that wouldn't heal, serious weight loss and overall weakness and debilitation, spread like wildfire. The outlook for survival was poor. We didn't know it at the time, but many military commanders and high echelon civilians considered us as facing a hopeless task and doomed.
I can vividly remember a very high number of times when the feeling of hopelessness and despair was so prevalent that we would sit around deep in our own gloomy thoughts. These periods usually came just before an attack was expected, either on land, sea or air. Not many words were exchanged, just a few looks that said it all.
All of those men were like my brothers. We all cared for, looked out for and protected each other like family members do. Being in a very depressed state didn't always mean that you were worried about yourself alone. Often I would think to myself, "God, I hope John, or Elmer or Gary doesn't get hurt." I was unable to use the word "killed", it was just unthinkable.
Then afterwards when the attack was over and we cautiously looked around hoping that all would be safe and well accounted for, we would be more able to relax and be happy at the outcome. But whenever there was a serious wound or injury it hurt nearly as much as if it had been ourselves. The death of a very close buddy was like a knife in the heart. You just didn't want to believe it, even if you actually saw and knew that it was true.
For several days afterward the depression of knowing that one of the guys you sat with, talked with, smoked a cigarette with and confided your deepest secrets with would no longer be there when you woke up or came back from the head. I mean those guys were like a part of you. You had been with them twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for many, many months. And now they were gone. And it felt like a big hole was right in the middle of your heart.
But, oh my God, what a wonderful feeling when you looked around and saw everyone that mattered still there, still grinning at you with a wink and a nod, that showed their happiness at making the same discovery. Man, family doesn't get any closer than that.
But it was feelings like those that drove us to excel under the vilest of conditions. That one little extra ounce of exertion might be just the catalyst needed to overcome the diversity and allow you one more day with those friends. Women are more inclined to physically show emotions with other female friends. Men rarely ever shed a tear or hug another male friend. But wartime combat can make grown men cry over the loss of a comrade and want to hug that same guy when he's found to be safe.
The circle of life begins at home midst family, then sometimes it ends away from home, but still in midst of family, now called friends. They were as much my brothers as if we shared the same last name. I couldn't have loved them more.
There are so many memories of that island, Guadalcanal; nearly all bad, but there are some good ones too. The best memory that I have of that place is of the others that were there with me. We went there a diverse group of men, some in their forties, some in their fifties, the younger "old-timers" in their twenties and thirties who had joined the Corps before the start of World War II.
Then there were the teen-agers, such as myself who looked up to anyone who had a lower serial number or who had been a Marine before my enlistment date, even if only by a day. The Marine Corps had assigned personal serial numbers in numerical order from the date of its founding. My serial number was 343848. So anyone who had a lower number, even 343847 was senior to me.
When we departed from that island the differences had all but disappeared. We were all pretty much in the same category: older; wiser; sicker; weaker; quieter; more thoughtful; more considerate of the guy next to us and all the way down the line.
We had all become "old-timers". The teen-agers walked next to the forty and fifty-year olds and were recognized as equals. Rank, though still respected, meant nothing in terms of our personal relationships with each other. Oh, the officers and the sergeants still barked out orders, but now it was just the Marine barking, not the guy inside. He was one of us; individually we were one of him.
We had all experienced the same hardship and sickness of both mind and body. We watched helplessly as some of our comrades were taken from us either permanently or from severe injury. We were all very much aware of the high degree of possibility that none of us would make it safely off of that doomed island. We flirted with and came breathtakingly near the brink of total extinction but somehow managed to make that one last great effort to hang on and persevere.
In spite of extreme adversity we came out of it with our heads held high, our pride intact. The one common thread shared by all of us for the others was, in a word, respect. We were United States Marines!
Earlier here I alluded to a poem titled, "The Grassy Knoll", that was written about the trials and problems encountered on the first two to three days on the island. Though the actual landings were virtually unopposed, the several thousand-man contingent of Japanese soldiers that had been on the island moved inland and away from the airstrip and beaches. Despite being poorly armed, they nevertheless were able to provide some resistance to our movements and their sniper fire was deadly.
Those first three days on Guadalcanal gave us samples of what was to come. The drudgery of the terrain, jungle and open fields; the oppression of the environment with its steamy, sauna-like envelopment that made breathing a laborious endeavor; and the chicanery of the enemy as well as his tenacity and bitterness.
The misery of living according to what he, the enemy, would allow, particularly concerning personal hygiene, cleanliness, rest, as well as nourishment. And not to forget the chilling fear of death, either to ourselves or to our close friends, that was seldom out of our minds; and finally, the battle for survival. The poem in Appendix A details some of it.


Jerry McConnell


> 'Twas on August 7, back in '42

> We climbed down the nets into boats

> There was an air of sharp apprehension

> We all had a lump in our throats.

> The Captain had briefed us beforehand

> On what was to be our goal -

> A huge mound of earth near the airstrip

> Insignificantly named, "Grassy Knoll."

> With this in our hands, it was offered

> Our aircraft can land on the strip.

> But to many of those who listened,

> It would be their very last trip.

> The ocean spray lapped over the boat

> Cooling faces now sweated with fear.

> Not a word was heard from the bodies there

> Crouched low from the weight of their gear.

> A sudden thump announced our arrival

> As the boat crunched the sand on the beach

> The whine of the bullets were taking their toll

> And more men were thrown into the breach.

> Our target was seven miles distant

> Which at the moment seemed mighty remote.

> And we, who were going to be heroes

> Were donning the horns of the goat.

> The enemy had full intentions

> Of stopping us dead in our tracks.

> There was no way to go but forward

> As the ocean was right at our backs.

> The noise and the tumult were maddening

> And the wounded were screaming with pain.

> But it seemed that with each man who fell there

> Our assault inched forward in gain.

> We fought back away from the beaches

> Into jungle that steamed from the heat.

> And now our troops were determined

> That they weren't about to be beat.

> The enemy men were soon routed

> And our forces were gaining control.

> But much to our later discomfort

> They drew back to the big "Grassy Knoll."

> We plodded our way through the jungle

> Losing two steps for each one we'd gain.

> Our bodies and clothing were sweat-drenched

> As though we'd been soaked in the rain.

> The effects of the day were now showing

> That though tired, we were nervous with fear

> And some men were firing at random

> At each sound they happened to hear.

> With this each man grew more cautious

> And struggled to stay awake,

> Lest he accidentally make noises

> And get himself shot by mistake.

> The night seemed long and endless

> And we gratefully greeted the dawn.

> But the sleepless night had taken its toll

> And our bodies were tired and drawn

> We ate up the last of our rations

> Before we were forced to move on.

> We felt like a legion of doomed men -

> All our water and food were gone.

> Our parched tongues were begging for water

> And on nary a face was a smile,

> And every man among us knew

> We'd get none, for quite a while.

> Each dew drop that perched on a plant leaf

> Was greedily lapped up in thirst.

> And thirst crazed men who once were friends

> Battled to get to it first.

> Discipline fast was fading

> And tempers were getting hot.

> Battle fatigue was fast setting in

> We were a tattered and torn looking lot.

> Then a rumble spread down thru the column

> Sending chills clear down to the soul.

> The dreaded time was approaching ---

> We were nearing the big "Grassy Knoll."

> The battered and weary Marines

> With dirt, sweat and grime on their hide,

> Quickly stopped all the grousing

> And stiffened their backs with pride.

> Hunger and thirst were forgotten

> Men welded together as one.

> Orders were quickly obeyed then ---

> There was a big job to be done.

> Apprehension once more called for caution.

> We crept stealthily forward with care.

> Not a man ever failed to take cover

> Not a man would even dare.

> At last we came into a clearing

> That stretched out for several miles

> The strain of the jungle was succored

> And our faces were wreathed in smiles.

> But our joy was soon turned to sadness

> And we wished for the jungle again,

> 'Cause the heat of the sun was oppressive

> And flesh-eating ant bites brought pain.

> The canteens we carried were emptied

> As men tried to slacken their thirst.

> It looked like the heat would soon kill us

> If the ants didn't do the job first.

> The grass in the clearing was very tall

> With blades like razor-edged knives

> That cut and slashed our bodies and clothes

> And further imperiled our lives.

> Our pack straps cut deep in our shoulders

> >From the weight of the gear stowed inside.

> But with bodies now aching and retching

> We forged on, driven purely by pride.

> We had made our landing at daybreak

> Planning to arrive at our goal by noon.

> It was now fast approaching nightfall

> And we hoped for some light from the moon.

> We moved on, to get out of the clearing

> 'Ere darkness obscured our view

> And plodded on back into the jungle

> Thankful the clearing was through.

> The dense underbrush of the jungle

> Which earlier had near spelled our end,

> Embraced us with all-'round protection

> And now became a good friend.

> Our bodies and souls were so weakened

> And the strain was breaking our backs.

> When the order came to secure there

> Every man fell down in his tracks.

> The jungle so hot in the daytime

> Became freezing cold at night,

> And our weary and battered bodies

> Were shaking from cold and fright.

> A deathly silence prevailed there

> Each man was deep in his thoughts.

> When suddenly the quiet was broken

> By the crackling of rifle shots.

> The crack of a rifle then signaled

> Our scouts had discovered the foe.

> The advance was steady and cautious

> All movements were careful and slow.

> The noise of the fight was increasing

> More rifles were joining the fray.

> It was a time when men came close to God

> And to themselves, they'd silently pray.

> The full fury of war came in minutes

> The cries of the wounded increased.

> But for many a man who fell to the ground

> The toil and suff'ring had ceased.

> The enemy fire was deadly

> Crisscrossing our lines at will.

> Only one thing was on the enemy's mind

> Line 'em up, squeeze 'em off, and kill!

> It was difficult trying to move up

> The cover-less grassy slopes.

> But the withering fire of the enemy guns

> Did little to dampen our hopes.

> For we were determined to win there

> And in spite of tremendous odds

> We moved steadily onward and upward

> While shell-fire tore up the earth in clods.

> At last we were nearing the summit

> Return fire was beginning to thin.

> The tide was completely reversed now

> And we knew we were going to win.

> The last handful of stragglers were captured

> And the air was at last serene.

> It was then we were able to survey

> The bloody and grisly scene.

> The dead and the wounded were littered

> Most everywhere you could see.

> There was sadness in spite of victory

> For dead friends --- and enemy.

> It's hell when you stop to consider

> The price that was dearly paid

> For this lousy chunk of God's green earth

> That on a lonely island laid.

> Many a man paid the maximum price

> He forfeited his life for the toll.

> And all he got forevermore

> Was a plot on the big "Grassy Knoll."

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