" Hi Kent
"Like so many other things, I always have good intentions of doing, it's just that there always seems to be others that need quicker attention. But as Ralph Kramden in "The Honeymooners" used to say to Alice: "One of these days ..." Just your saying what you did above has made me think that perhaps I should preserve my recollections, as you put it. As the years pile on the memories get dimmer.
"My wife and I never had any children, but we do have several nieces and nephews who someday might be interested in reading about the experience. And a compilation of these letters we are in the process of exchanging, might be just the way to do it."
KC: "In an earlier message you mentioned Mt. Austen. My wife and I are intimately acquainted with Mt. Austen. One night we went out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Honiara with our best friend, Basil (an Aussie, my roommate and scuba diving instructor) and his date, a Japanese relief worker.
"The dinner was great and we decided to go to the top of Mt. Austen afterwards to get a good view of the Southern Cross. As I'm sure you can remember, the night skies in the Solomons are something to behold.
"Trine and I were following Basil and Yuko up the mountain in my old, beat-up Suzuki 2-stroke, which I bought for $500. It almost didn't make it up the mountain; the road had several steep grades, with potholes the size of bathtubs. It was slow going up to the top. But we finally made it.
"In the space of about 45 minutes, we saw five shooting stars. Absolutely beautiful sky. It began to get late, so we decided to head back down. I would lead so Basil would be behind me in case our car died. At one critical point in our descent, I had to get a head of steam up in order to make it to the top of another hill. We got going too fast and hit one of those craters. We went left into a ditch, I struggled to correct and get us back on the road. We did but went straight across into an embankment. The car rolled over at least once. Thank the good Lord we both were alright. We blamed the ghost of Pistol Pete.
"So we have a special connection to Mt. Austen. (By the way, the Matanikau Falls are even better than Tenaru Falls.)"
JM: "That should always be a strong remembrance of your early days together. Thankfully you are able to remember them from here on earth. I was never aware of either the Matanikau Falls or the Tenaru Falls. We never ventured that far up into the mountain. I do remember at one point we went well up the Matanikau to a point where the water was deeper and rushing faster. It was much harder crossing up there because the rapid water seemed to pull and undermine our boots making walking more difficult. Several of our guys lost their footing and really struggled to get back up.
"One guy nearly got washed away from us, but fortunately he managed to grab on to a downed tree limb and hang on until some of us went over and pulled him back with us. I never gave it a thought that there might be a falls farther up."
KC: "Remember the fighter airstrip west of Henderson, across the Lunga River? (I used to wash my car in the Lunga.) Well, "Fighter Two," it was called, is now a golf course! Like playing on concrete.
"I did some bush walking back behind Henderson, just west of Bloody Ridge. I tried to emulate K/3/5's movements, as they were advancing west towards the Lunga and the Matanikau. I have to tell you: that is some of the hardest walking I've ever done -- and I was walking mostly on perfectly flat plains. The heat is unbearable. The kunai grass is around 6 feet high; I had to wear a long-sleeve shirt to keep from getting sliced up because the blades will cut you and draw blood big time. The undergrowth felt like it wanted to just pull me under. After a few hours of this struggling and very slow progress, I began to understand just a little of what Uncle David and you guys went through. And the only danger I faced was from snakes or, worse, a centipede."
JM: "The text of my poem about Grassy Knoll spells out some of those obstacles. You'd better give me your snail mail address so I can send you a copy as the poem is quite long for Email. Though it may be on the envelope of the Manchester article you're mailing to me. At some point when I get around to assembling all of these letters into one tome (for posterity) I will have to include "The Grassy Knoll", but I'm not quite ready yet."
KC: "I remember stories from my childhood about Uncle Ray and Uncle David having to endure weeks of monsoon rains. Spending 24 hours a day in clothes soaked to the bone. Never changing clothes for two months at a time. Not being able to brush your teeth for weeks. About some guys learning to sleep while standing up. The harsh environment, the physical hardships alone are enough to break many people. But you guys actually had to fight in those circumstances.
"And yes, by all means, please send me "The Grassy Knoll.
For now, over and out. Kent"
"Package went out to you yesterday. Small surprise in it, along with my mailing address.
"FYI...Uncle David and Uncle Ray were two of six brothers. David and Ray were in the Marines, another was Army (stateside), and another was Navy (never saw action). FYI, here's the story of how Uncle Ray discovered that David had died...
"David, having survived Guadalcanal, shipped out with the rest of the 1st Marine Division in early 1943 (February, correct?) and went first to Brisbane, where the conditions were so bad that Vandegrift insisted that they ship out to a more hospitable place for R&R, which turned out to be Melbourne (does this square with your experience?)."
JM: "The battle for Guadalcanal was declared officially over in February 1943. The US Army formally relieved us on Dec. 9, 1942 and my unit actually left the 'Canal on the USS West Point on Dec. 15, 1942 and sailed to Brisbane. I have no idea whether the Fifth sailed with us that day or not. Although, if they went to Brisbane, then they probably did leave on the same ship as we did. My malaria-ridden mind wasn't functioning too sharply at that time and I just wasn't interested in other details. All I knew was that I was getting out of that miserable place.
"I was really feeling lousy that day. I came down with another one of my famous malaria 'out-of-it' spells that morning and I was afraid that they would keep me off the ship if I said anything. So I got with two of my best friends and told them that if necessary, to carry me onto the damned ship, but not to leave me behind. They told me later that I was on the verge of blacking out a few times but they made sure I got on board and they put me in the lowest bunk in case I had to run to the head. One vivid and lucid moment that I do recall was insisting on going over to the port side of the ship so I could look back at that miserable place as we sailed away before I blanked out and was put into my bunk.
"The camp conditions in Brisbane were very bad, but after Guadalcanal it was like the Hilton. But even worse was that the area was heavily populated with the anopheles mosquito that transmitted malaria. That was not good for us, nor the local Brisbanians, so they shipped us to a more moderate climate (Melbourne) where we could recuperate from the malaria, regain some physical stability and retrain for further combat missions in the Pacific."
KC: "Uncle Ray, who was a couple of years older, naturally tried to keep up with David, his welfare, and his movements. They corresponded through the USMC mail. I have letters they sent to one another.
"Ray knew that David had contracted malaria and had not yet fully recovered. (David had vivax malaria, "recurring" malaria, the strain that plants itself in the liver and can come back again and again over a long period of time.)"
JM: "I, like David, had the recurring malaria, and to this day they won't take my blood because they say the germ lies dormant in the bloodstream forever, and can get activated easily in a malaria zone. I continued to have severe attacks, migraine headaches, unable to eat or keep anything down - even water, so dehydration became a side problem, and total "blackouts" for 2 to 4 days, for a year or two after returning home, but the severity lessened with the passage of time. However I did have some symptoms of malaria for the next ten years. And the migraines lasted for upwards of twenty years more before they decreased in intensity."
KC: "Ray and his unit were encamped on the outskirts of Melbourne. He knew that David had left the Solomons and was headed to Melbourne but he didn't know exactly when. Anyway, Uncle Ray and some others were sitting around a campfire one night shooting the breeze when up walks a Marine in dress blues -- apparently, a rare sight under the circumstances.
"Someone asked him where he had been to be so dressed up. He said that he had drawn some type of funeral detail for some poor guy who had dropped dead while walking guard duty the night before. Someone asked what the dead guy's name was and he said "Massey." He then turned around and looked at Uncle Ray and said: "By the way, your name's Massey too, isn't it?" (Massey is my maternal grandmother's family name.)"
JM: "I remember once while we were encamped at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds when a Marine died of a heart attack while on guard duty. It was the talk of the camp when it happened even though no one was too surprised considering the horrible physical condition we were in as a result of being on Guadalcanal for so long. Can't say I remember hearing the name, but being the only one I heard of happening there, it must have been your uncle."
KC: "This is family lore about how Uncle Ray learned of Uncle David's death. David was 22 years old. He did drop dead of a massive heart attack while walking guard duty. I've read the military coroner's report and it appears that David had a pre-existing heart condition when he entered the Corps. That, and complications from the malaria, plus his weakness and malnourishment, took his life. And David, like all his brothers, was a strong farm boy, a sharecropper from Tennessee.
Anyway, thought you'd find it interesting. Until later. Kent"
"Sorry I haven't written for a while Jerry -- been quite busy, on the road, going to the Olympics in Atlanta, family reunion, brother in town for a few days ... just busy days of summer. Haven't even booted up the computer in a week or so. Thought I'd better let you know I'm still around.
"Did you get the package I sent to you? Hope so and hope you enjoyed the contents. Will get back to you soon. Kent"
"It seems as though you have a very active itinerary. Mine is also, most of the time, as I am involved in various activities, which keep me hopping. I envy your being able to go to the Olympics though. But hey, you may never get a better chance, so go for it.
"I did receive the Manchester article and the surprise item. The Manchester article was outstanding. I am very grateful to you for both. The 25-caliber bullet slug brought back a lot of memories, particularly of some of our guys who got their souvenir slugs fired directly from a Japanese rifle. Their rifle ammo, the 25 cal., was greatly reduced in power to our old WWI 30 cal. bullets. Many of the hits on fleshy body parts resulted in the slugs remaining, whereas our 30 cal. bullets tore right through and even bones didn't stop them. Some who survived felt they wouldn't have made it if a higher caliber bullet had been used.
"It's ironic to get a souvenir slug after all these years. When the Division shipped out of Melbourne before the landing at Cape Gloucester, I was having one of my worst malaria bouts and was in the hospital. A week or so later I and some others who had been in the hospital were placed on board a hospital ship. We were supposed to sail to New Caledonia and then be ferried to rejoin the Division. However, a large concentration of Japanese ships steaming southward into the general area of our travel caused an easterly detour and we headed to Bora Bora in the Society Islands, - the most beautiful place I've ever seen in this world. I can understand why the vacation posters I see advertise it as "Paradise on Earth."
We were there for only one day, and were not allowed to leave the ship which was maddening. I have seen many movies and read many books, magazines and travel brochures about beautiful South Sea Islands, and I am convinced that Bora Bora was the composite of them all. The hospital ship seemed to sidle up to the edge of an underwater shelf of land that was only about eighteen inches deep. Little native boys came running out through the shallow water, perhaps about fifty to seventy yards out from the beach, right up close to the ship. I remember standing by the ship's rail and throwing coins down to the kids and them scrambling to get them from under the water which was crystal clear and a very pale sky blue color. If I had to pick an island to be marooned on it would be Bora Bora. Hell if I had to pick an island for anything it would be Bora Bora.
"After refueling and restocking, the ship continued east, northeast and took us all the way to Long Beach Navy Yard in Calif. By this time my malaria revisited and I was again admitted as a patient at the hospital there.
"When I got my "land legs" and became ambulatory several days later (never was sure how many days I'd be 'out of it' during those attacks) I was reunited with my seabag. It had been slit open and all of my souvenir items removed - a Japanese Rising Sun flag, a 32 cal. pistol on a German luger frame, many small trinket items including currency and also a 25 cal. bullet which I had opened and emptied the powder from before replacing the slug.
"So most of my hard-won war souvenirs are in the hands of a thief who probably never got any closer to a combat zone than seeing and robbing a helpless veteran in a hospital. Of course, the Navy hospital brass issued an apology (lukewarm) and then washed their hands of it. At this stage in my Marine Corps career I was becoming quite used to the Navy's lukewarm apologies, about abandoning us to die on Guadalcanal and even about thieves.
"I did however, manage to save in a small gym bag of toilet articles that I kept with me, a small diary of Japanese origin that I kept on the 'Canal; a plexiglass cross that I carved out of a piece of the cockpit canopy of a downed Zero fighter plane; and a couple of other small items. But the diary was the most important. I still have it and the map they gave to all of us prior to the landing. So the bullet slug is much appreciated.
"Diaries were forbidden during combat operations and of course, most everyone wanted to keep one, but few had actual books in which to keep their memoirs. The first dead Japanese body I came in contact with was a downed Zero fighter pilot. His plane had been shot down and he crashed right amidst my company.
"Our Company C.O., Captain Robert J. Putnam, detailed some of us to pull him from the plane, gather any tactical information like maps, official letters, etc. and then dig a small grave, mark it and record its location. During the search, I found this small three by five-inch pocket-sized notebook, which had never been used that had an area below each date for a small notation. The C.O. released it as there was no writing in it, so I took possession and used it for a diary.
"The little info that I wrote in it would hardly have been of any value to anyone had it gotten into enemy hands as there wasn't enough room to write anything of significance. Some of the other guys kept daily notes on assorted of pieces of paper. They must have later consolidated them into a diary - or discarded them entirely, which I almost once did as it seemed so trivial.
"Well, I've rattled on long enough for this one, so I'll sign off. Thanks again Kent. Jerry"
The Questions Begin
KC: "By the way, wanted to ask you. How many men were in a 1st Marine Div. company? 200? That's what I've read and heard. And how was the company divided up, into platoons? If so, how many men were in a platoon?"
JM: "As best I can recall, (50 plus years does dim some details) a rifle platoon had four squads of eight or nine men. In an eight man squad there was a Squad Leader and an assistant, and two fire teams of three men each. In a nine-man squad the extra man was the scout. Squads would vary with availability of men, dependent on illness, injury, etc. Each company would normally have a Headquarters platoon and three rifle platoons.
"In some cases, as was ours, each company would have an additional light mortar and light machine guns platoon with three squads of each. One squad each of which would be assigned to each of the three rifle platoons. I don't recall how many men were in the mortar and machine gun squads, but I believe it was eight - squad leader and assistant and two fire teams of three men each (no scouts in the machine guns or mortars squads.) The HQ platoon had the CO, and four lieutenants who were the platoon leaders, the 1st Sergeant, one or two company clerks, a hospital corpsman and as many as four runners for delivering messages, etc. So if my arithmetic is correct, that would make our company strength at about 145. Just remembered: - each platoon had a platoon sergeant, so add 4 more, for a 149 total. I can't believe there'd be 149 man companies, so I must have forgotten someone.
"There were some companies that were called "reinforced", that had additional men, usually specialists of one degree or another, such as communications, demolitions, intelligence, and I just remembered some more rifle company bodies, considered by some to be the absolutely most important - the mess crew. Usually about 4 or 5 more total, so now the 149 changes to about 154. But the addition of specialists could probably be the type of company that you heard about that had about 200 men."
KC: "And, on the battalion and regimental level, how did
you guys get to know one another? I mean, did you interact often
with other battalions and companies? Did the regiment go through
training together? At what stage along the line of a Marine's
odyssey after basic training was he assigned to a unit?"
JM: "Most all interaction comes within a company unit. At times in combat situations the first and third platoons of a company would be on the flanks of a skirmish line and they would interact with the first and third platoons of another company. For example: - My company K on a skirmish line would have its first platoon on the left flank, second platoon in the center and the third platoon on the right flank.
"Depending on the area being covered, I company might be on our left flank and L company on the right. My battalion, (3rd) had rifle companies I, K and L (no J) and it had M company which was heavy mortars and heavy machine guns. These heavy weapons were interspersed in strategic locations and sometimes assigned to a rifle company. But by and large, most interaction was limited to one's own company.
"As for your 3rd question, - yes, we usually always trained as a regimental team. And the answer to your last question is that in almost 100 percent of cases, a basic training (boot camp) graduate is assigned to a particular unit at the completion of that training and sent on his way to wherever it may be. As you might suspect, the infantry divisions get the lion's share of graduates. Consistent with Marine Corps credo 'All Marines are infantrymen first and specialists second'.
"Naturally, when your uncles David and Ray, and I went through boot camp it was at the beginning of World War II and probably ninety-eight percent of the graduates were sent directly to the infantry. In that the First Marine Division was being formed in early 1942, that was the first one to get beefed up. I'm not sure about your Uncle Ray, but David certainly found out as I did, that the First Marine Division got priority over any assignments that the individual may have preferred."
KC: "And what about Parris Island? I'm still unclear on its role in early 1942. Uncle David didn't go through basic there but I think Uncle Ray did. I'm sure Parris Island probably couldn't take all the recruits rushing into the Corps in early 1942. What's your understanding?"
JM: "I went in the Corps on January 5, 1942 and was sent directly to Parris Island. Because of the large numbers of men being recruited on the Eastern half of the country, Parris Island was unable to handle all of them, so many of them were shipped to San Diego for boot camp. We called San Diego the home of the "Hollywood Marines" as that was where the movie moguls went when they needed some Marines for a picture. David probably went to San Diego, or perhaps another base that was equipped to train. Another casualty of the war was the length of time in boot camp.
"The normal twelve weeks was shortened to nine when I went in. Though shortened in weeks, the days were longer, frequently twelve to fourteen hours each for all seven days. Attendance at church was allowed on Sunday, but training continued right after church. But let me tell you, the shortened period did nothing to lessen the severity and gawd-awful brutality of boot camp fame. I can't begin to remember how many times I cursed out the Drill Instructors (D.I.'s)- not out loud mind you; but I likewise can't begin to remember how many times I thanked them later (in prayerful silence) when in miserably tough conditions in combat, I always knew that I'd survive and I always knew that I could depend on the guys around me.
"That tough discipline and miserable treatment prepped us for Guadalcanal. By constantly goading us into better physical condition I think it steeled our bodies to where we were able to override the debilitation of the malaria and other jungle diseases. Every Marine has a love-hate relationship with his D.I. and at some point every Marine in combat thanks that D.I. for getting him ready for the worst."
KC: "Also, when you have time, could you give me an idea
of how you were outfitted when you landed on Guadalcanal? What
were you carrying and what were you wearing? Tell me about your
rifle, too. And how does all this compare to what you were carrying,
wearing, etc. around Thanksgiving and Christmas? I mean, were
your boots rotted out? Did you still have all your standard-issue
JM: "For as long as I can remember there has been an expression, 'Raggedy-ass Marines' but if I didn't know better I would have believed it started after someone looked at us on Guadalcanal. As stated before, the Navy decided to leave us shortly after we landed and they left with more than half of our supplies,equipment and personal belongings, including our seabags that contained all of our clothing that was not on our backs or in our back-packs.
"We landed with a back-pack consisting of a bed-roll (a rubber poncho which doubled as a shelter when tied up slantwise between two trees, and a blanket rolled inside,) and a canvas pack that contained mess gear, toilet articles, socks and underwear and any personal items you could squeeze in - pictures, writing gear, smokes, etc.
"In addition, before we disembarked from the USS McCawley troop transport, they issued to all of us, one large onion, a large potato, a couple of ration-type candy bars, ration-type crackers, and 2 cans of rations, all stored in the back-pack.
"We were wearing the old WWI steel helmet. We didn't get the pot types for several weeks later when the Seventh Regiment came to the island. We wore two piece dungarees, ankle-high boots called boon-dockers, underwear & socks, and the old WWI web cartridge belt with ammo and canteen. Believe it or not, we even had the old WWI wrap-around leggings which felt like burlap, but I believe were pure wool. Naturally, none of us ever wore them in that heat in spite of the protection they would have provided against snakebites.
"Our weapons (the rifle platoons) were World War I vintage Springfield 1903 single shot, 5 round clip rifles. Fighting in the jungle with a non-automatic, bolt-action, single-shot, 30-caliber rifle was probably only about one notch higher on the intelligence scale than being issued a slingshot with a handful of rocks.
"When the Army troops started to arrive in October, we traded the '03's plus a Jap Rising Sun flag or other souvenir for the M-1's. The soldiers were reluctant, so we told them to report that their rifles had been stolen. In the meantime, with the new automatic weapons, when we were engaged in combat situations we could more than hold our own. They used the same 30-caliber ammunition that we had for the '03' rifles
"When General Vandegrift got the reports from the Army about the stolen weapons, he said 'he'd investigate.' He was still investigating when we left in December. Though dead for many years, he's probably still investigating somewhere.
"We didn't get any replacement clothing or boots until our seabags arrived sometime in September. The Seventh Marines brought them along when they rejoined the Division. What we had been wearing, if you want to call it 'wearing', were pretty tattered and torn, not to mention, rotted from constant wear on a 24 hour a day, 7 days a week basis, for sometimes weeks before we could get to a river or stream that was fairly secure.
"When that happened, we just dunked ourselves down into the water, clothes and all, and if time permitted, we'd strip and try to wash the clothes and the body as well as we could. I remember one time when we came across a nice fresh water stream - it may have been the Lunga, but I no longer recall. About a hundred of us went into the water while the others sat deployed on the stream banks and kept watch. We had been told that we could be in for fifteen minutes and when the Skipper, Captain Putnam, called for us to get out, he meant 'Pronto', so the others could go in.
"Well, we figured that in fifteen minutes we could strip down and really get a good bath while also washing our clothes (no soap of course.) Just as most of us had reached total nudity and were ducking under and out, a Jap sniper started taking pot shots at us. We of course decided to stay under for as long as we could.
"Each time we would come up we could hear a veritable full fledged war what with all of our men on the banks firing up into trees hoping to hit a sniper or two.
"The Skipper was busy himself trying to locate the sniper and didn't bother to call us out of the water. We enjoyed another fifteen to twenty minutes in that beautiful, cool, refreshing water. It was the cleanest I had been since we left San Francisco. Oh, by the way, they did get two snipers. Both had tied themselves into the trees they were in, so when they were shot they fell from their positions, but dangled by their waists from the ropes around them. A couple of the natives went up and cut them down so we could bury them.
"At the tender age of eighteen I wasn't too concerned with shaving. In fact, on several occasions when we were unable to get any shaving done, I actually tried to grow a beard, but it really was skimpy and straggly and the first chance I got, it was gone!
"Yes, the boots were pretty well rotted out, especially the laces which in a lot of cases were replaced with jungle vines (I guess they were the type that Tarzan swung on only thinner, because they were tough!) Pieces of string were also a scarce and precious commodity but there were plenty of the vines hanging from the trees, which were sort of like braided and easy to separate.
"When the Seventh Marines came in September and our seabags with them, most had an extra pair of boots inside, but a lot of the bags had gotten pretty well beaten up and many didn't have much left inside. But with the Marine spirit, we all shared as much as we could spare with the unlucky ones. But even the newer replacement pairs were in very dplorable shape by the time we left in December.
"I mean, how long can a pair of boots last when one has to wear them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? For that matter, how long can feet survive the rigors of jungle rot when boots are not removed for days at a time? At one point I had a blister on the sole of my left foot that was as wide as my foot and by about two inches from front to back. It was very uncomfortable walking with it so I naturally favored it and walked on the side of my foot.
"During one rest break I removed my boot and sock and twisted my foot up to look at the blister. The stretching of the tight skin covering the blister made it suddenly burst and shot a stream of liquid up in the air about five or six feet. But what a relief. It felt like a new foot! But then the itching would begin.
"Like the presentation of pure gold, Australia meant a new issue of just about everything when we got there. Fresh clean new uniform clothing, socks, underwear, dungarees - the works. God did that stuff feel good."
KC: "As you can probably surmise, I'm trying to get an
idea of the daily hardships you guys faced. How often did you
shave? Did you take atabrine every day? What were your rations?
(I've read that, upon Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher's premature
and, some say, cowardly withdrawal with about 60% of the Marines'
supplies, Gen. Vandegrift immediately put all hands on half rations.
True?) And did you learn to split coconuts? Learn to crack the
green ones for their cool, delicious milk? How about bananas and
mangoes did you pick your own from the trees?"
JM: "Shaving was a luxury. Though Marine Corps discipline was rigidly enforced, some beards were allowed to sprout from time to time due to the inability to get to water to shave, but not for long periods. Somewhat due to discomfort but mostly due to Marine Corps prohibition of facial hair. Soap was scarce and every last bit of suds in a bar was nursed to wash. Some pooled their last bits of soap for meltdown into one large bar, which was then divided.
"Razor blades rusted quickly with the dampness and constant humidity. Sometimes a half dozen or more guys would share one blade so there wasn't much longevity for those things. The blades were also used for crude haircuts, trimming tatters from clothing and cutting bandage material to make it last longer for wound dressings.
"We were on drastically reduced rations right from the start, a maximum of two meals a day. We did recover a large stash of rice and oats that the Japs had left behind when they departed in a hurry on the morning of August 7th and headed for the hills.
"The biggest problem was that it was infested with bugs which burrowed into the oats especially, and were difficult to detect. Sometimes they survived cooking and would surface still alive, at least partially, while eating. Not very appetizing by today's standards, but not terribly upsetting to the Marines who would just flick them out of the mess kit and go on eating.
"Because the rice and oats had to be cooked we were reduced to having it only when there were no Jap troops in the immediate vicinity. A lot of men congregating in one place and lining up to get their meal presented a tempting target for snipers and small artillery fire. Several times we lost men when the chow line was shelled, so it wasn't very often when we got those hot meals.
"Hunger dictates many diverse changes in one's habits. The much publicized and much despised 'C' rations that were issued, - canned beef stew, beans, spaghetti w/meat sauce really became our gourmet rations. We looked forward to the issuance of these canned delights. Though, as with all our other items, these rations were in short supply, and were mostly gone entirely within a few weeks of our landing there.
"There were also the hardtack crackers which fortunately came in sealed tins, because they also became bug infested after a very short duration outside of the tins; not to mention soggy and unappetizing from the moist and humid conditions.
"The least appetizing item on the menu was one atabrine tablet which was given under strict scrutiny of the medical corpsman who would insist that it be swallowed as he watched. "Doc", as all corpsmen were called, became a hated pariah in all mess lines. The supply of these tablets began to dwindle after the first week and the individual supply went from one a day, to one every other day, 3 days, etc. 'til the supply was exhausted.
"This absence of the preventive medicine has been largely credited for the susceptibility of the malaria contraction among the Marines. It was several weeks later before a new supply came in, more than enough time for the anopheles mosquito to visit just about every man on the island. The damage had been done.
"Liquid quinine was also administered occasionally and to this very day I pucker up at the thought of it. In all of this world, I doubt that there is anything more repulsive to taste than liquid quinine. Given prior to a meal it was almost a guarantee that the rations would last for all of the men as many would refuse to eat rather than accept the horrible quinine that came with the meal. Given after a meal was definitely a guarantee that your meal would not stay down, so either way you left the mess area with an empty stomach. The dosage was about one tablespoon.
"Aah, the lovely coconuts. Yes we did enjoy those. For a while. But there was a consensus with the medical personnel that these were definitely a major contributing source to dysentery. But even knowing that, we would still give in to their sweet milk and white meat.
"Some of our guys became very adept at climbing the trees and cutting them loose with machetes. One of our jeep drivers, a guy named Cohen (we jokingly nicknamed him Quinn), a long lanky guy, became an expert at scaling the trees in barefoot to cut some of the more recalcitrant fruits from the trees. The nightly bombings and shellings by the Jap planes and ships also provided an abundant supply each day.
"There were no banana or mango plants in our immediate vicinity, but at one point, my company was entrenched in the midst of a lime plantation, largely devastated by the bombs and shells. But there were enough still on the bushes so that we could enjoy the taste. (Eating a fresh lime straight off the bush today would draw my face into a great prune impression, but back then it was like eating an orange.)
"Curious mixtures of lime juice, medical alcohol, torpedo fluid and just about any kind of after shave lotion were buried underwater in the cool sand just off the beach, attached to long tethers (again, vines fashioned into ropes). Retrieval the next day produced a very cooling, but very powerful drink. We were very careful not to let the officers, corpsmen and some NCO's find them - which they sometimes did and emptied the canteens into the sand as we watched with tears in our eyes.
"Incidentally, we did manage to keep a fairly sizable stash of sake rice wine hidden for several weeks doling it out carefully and before it was all consumed. A very little bit of sake went a long way it was so powerful. A small amount of Japanese beer was also seized when we first went into the airstrip area, but it was so delicious, it was gone in no time."
KC: "How often did you sleep and how did you sleep? What did you guys do at night on the lines? Was smoking allowed at night?"
JM: "Night sleep was also a luxury that was not afforded to many of us. I became quite adept at sleeping while I was awake. As strange as it sounds it's true. I could doze off in seconds and wake just as quickly. Night sleep often proved deadly, so we avoided dropping off, keeping alert as much as we could.
"During those times when the Jap troops were reported by the natives to be a great distance away, we would do sing-alongs, and even some solos from the better singers. But a lot of the conversation centered on the girl friends back home. It seemed as though each guy got his turn to describe his girl friend and her many charms. Naturally each guy tried to better the guy before him until you would have thought they were all Betty Grable's or Dorothy Lamour's.
"During the day when things were reasonably still, that is, no air raids, no strafing fighter planes, no shellings from off shore, no long range artillery, sleep came easily, if only in fits and spurts. But sometimes even then we had to be on the alert for suicide missions of Jap stragglers who had been separated from their units and were starving and probably figured they'd either get killed or get food and be out of their misery in either event.
"If they really got lucky and were taken prisoner they'd get food and rest. We didn't take too many prisoners however, because most of the time in the first several months we just couldn't afford to give away any of our rations. So only a minute few were taken, mostly to try to get information.
"Our best source of information came from the native boys and men. Many of them would work for the Japs during the day, observing as much as they could then they would relay the information back to us through their friends and relatives. One such wonderful person was an older native named Jacob Vousa who prior to the Japanese takeover of the island, had been the equivalent of one of our chiefs of police.
"Yes, even on a remote jungle island with poverty-stricken natives, there was some crime. Nothing like we know of here in the States, but enough so that the tribal elders appointed one person to be the enforcer. What that entailed I never found out.
"Vousa made many trips behind enemy lines risking his life on each occasion, in fact once when he was caught, the Japs stabbed him dozens of times with their bayonets trying to get him to talk. When they thought he had died of the wounds, they finally stopped and left him for dead. Somehow he managed to crawl back to our lines where he was treated for his wounds and he recovered to serve us again. He helped us so much we made him an honorary Marine Corps Sergeant Major. He was one very proud native with his sergeant stripes.
"During hostility periods, (almost always at night with the Japs) sleep was done in the daytime any way or anywhere you could get it. Most of us snored when we slept and that was one thing we couldn't let happen at night as the noise carried too well and the Japs could home in on the noise and make a sudden attack. We always paired up so that if one began to nod off and start to snore or even breathe loudly the other could nudge him.
"If both dropped off and made a noise someone in another position would be on them in a flash and with a bayonet to show them what might have happened to them. They say that the young don't require as much sleep. Thank God most of us were young, because sleep was severely rationed.
"We ran out of cigarettes shortly after we got there, so smoking at night was never a problem. When there were cigarettes, we were extremely careful to light up under dense cover and take only a few puffs before extinguishing. Most of the time we just didn't smoke at night, even later when we started to get more supplies of cigarettes because we became aware of the dangers involved."
The Questions Continue
KC: "Did you run across any snakes? How about those centipedes? Did you hear any reports of anyone seeing crocodiles in the rivers? And did you ever run across coconut crabs? Hear any talk of a place called Gold Ridge? Did anyone know that the mountain range running along the spine of Guadalcanal held large deposits of alluvial gold?
JM: "My answer to your first question (re: snakes) is usually incredulous to just about everyone who asks, and I guess it is: - only once. After I've told people about the dense jungle underbrush; the shallow, slow moving, brackish streams; the deep grass and living and sleeping on the ground and only once encountering a snake, they just stare in disbelief.
"We discussed it among ourselves and concluded that our ships and planes laid down such a carpet of bombardment prior to the landings that it is doubtful ANYTHING could have survived except humans who would know how to avoid the firing. Then when we came ashore on foot, there were thousands of us, tramping or tromping on, anything that may have made it. Our perimeter was rather small for a military maneuver - about five miles long and three miles in width and the shelling and bombing of course continued after we settled in - only then the Japs were the shellers and bombers and we were the shellees.
"It was a steady diet of explosions within that small area so the snakes were either nearly all killed or they got smart and headed for quieter parts. Centipedes were the normal small ones, an inch or smaller, that were always getting into our packs and other things, but none of the big ones.
"As for crocodiles, the only one we ever saw we killed with hand grenades when he got too near to where we were trying to cross the river. I honestly don't remember whether it was the Matanikau River or Alligator Creek (which we thought was the Tenaru River - or was it the Ilu???) Bullets seemed to just bounce off his hide, so a couple of well-placed grenades blew most of his head off. We cooked the rest of him after one of our men who was a butcher in civilian life carved him into steaks. First, (and last) time I ever had alligator/crocodile steak. Very strong, but better than rice and oats.
"As for coconut crabs, I never did see one. There seemed to be a lot of the lizards that we called iguanas. They were small however, about five to seven inches long, so we never were sure about the iguana designation. They were also perfectly harmless, or at least no one was ever bitten by any of them. However, we all tried to keep some distance between them, and us except for the ones that would cuddle up close to you during the night if you were lying on the ground. It got quite chilly some nights and I guess they wanted the warmth of our bodies. They'd scurry off if you moved but in a short while they'd be back.
"One of the Australians who was part of the Coastal Watch group that relayed messages about approaching Jap aircraft or ships, told some of us of such a place as the Gold Ridge. But he said that there wasn't enough to make it worth while for all of the work it would take to get it, and that some of the natives were responsible for seeing that it was not disturbed.
"But because it was well outside of our lines and we didn't have any time for exploring anyway, no one ever even suggested looking for it. I also think that most of us were a bit skeptical of the whole story.
"We also heard stories that the southern side of the island was like a tropical paradise with beautiful beaches and even beautiful native girls. Some of the Navy guys who tied up at Kukum debunked those stories. But we always wondered - who was lying??? Were the Navy guys trying to keep us from going over the mountains once we secured the island or was the Australian trying to protect the gold secret for himself??
"We never found out as there never was any free time, and in the physical condition we were in, the only thing on our minds in December was to get the hell out of there. Even the thought of getting some of the gold or even some of the beautiful native girls wasn't enough to make me want to stay one minute longer."
KC: "What was the toughest night or day for you, Jerry?
The toughest engagement you were in? What was the worst hardship?"
JM: "There were several nights that could qualify as the toughest. The first two or three on the island as we were trying to secure the 'grassy knoll'; and when the sea in front of us was lit up with burning ships and we didn't know who was winning, but feared that an all-out invasion would take place, had to rank right up there in the "tough" category.
"The night that Col. Ichiki tried to cross the (here we go again), the Tenaru River or Alligator Creek right smack into our regiment's positions was a high scorer also.
"Our battalion, as I have mentioned, was on the left flank covering the ocean to prevent a landing behind the lines, and was not in any direct contact with the Japs. But it's the not knowing what's going on when you hear all of the shooting that gets real "tough" - or to be blunt - scary!
"Then when the fierce shooting would momentarily cease, the quiet lulls would make you even more tense. You begin to wonder if the Japs had killed all of our men and were sneaking up behind, or all around us ready to pounce at any moment. Even the click of the sand crabs made us jump. You pray awfully hard for daylight.
"In September, our company was on the flank of Bloody Ridge (known to us then only as the rocky ridges.) There were some very uncomfortable nights when enemy troops were sending seemingly non-stop wave after wave of troops into our firing zones that definitely were "tough" and scary.
"But I'd have to say that the absolute toughest night was when the ten Japanese tanks tried to cross the sandy spit across the mouth of the Matanikau, right smack into my company's lines. The noise of the tanks was bad enough, but the insane screaming of the charging Jap soldiers who came alongside and behind the tanks was mind-bending and nerve wracking. I often wondered how we survived that night. There were times that night when I wished the earth would swallow me up whole and protect me.
"As for days, except for the bombings and shellings, which was nearly all of them, most were alike. Once on a patrol across the Matanikau we got jumped by a unit of very well hidden and camouflaged fresh, newly landed Jap troops with new uniforms and equipment.
"In spite of their bravado they showed they were new and probably even more scared than we were. They outnumbered us by quite a bit, but we had been in these situations before during the eight to ten weeks we had been on the island, so we just tried to remain steady and make all our shots count. And, we had several BAR'men (Browning Automatic Rifle) who were cracker-jack shooters, so in spite of their superior numbers, physical condition and equipment, they turned and ran - those that were able to, that is.
"The toughest engagement was also the toughest night as you know from my account of the tank crossing battle. It was the closest that I came to having to use my bayonet. In those situations where it was reasonably expected that there might be hand-to-hand encounters, we were always given the order beforehand to "fix bayonets."
"In the confusion of the tanks trying to cross; the extreme noise of the artillery shells and anti-tank weapons exploding; mixed with the unintelligible screaming of the Jap soldiers trying to overrun us, there wasn't always time to stop, load in a new clip of bullets and work the rifle bolt to get a fresh round into the chamber. So the fallback response was, - the bayonet.
"Even though we had been highly trained in its use and had practiced using it in straw dummies in training sessions, you always hoped that you would never have to use it. But the inevitable happened that night when I had exhausted all of the rounds in my rifle firing into one or more of the Japs that were coming at us.
"They of course were also firing as they ran which is most likely why they weren't hitting much of anything except trees and the ground. I was all set to use the bayonet when both of the ones that were headed directly at me suddenly dropped as though their legs had been cut off.
"The BAR'man nearest me saw what was happening and he yelled for me to get down, then just blew them away with several bursts of bullets. It was the first time that I had pissed my pants since I was a little kid. I wasn't sure exactly when it had happened, but there was no mistake about it. It's a sensation with a lingering discomfort you never forget, and an embarrassment I've never mentioned before. Was I scared? Yeah, you could say that.
"I would guess the worst hardship was the lack of food, fresh water, sanitation, cleanliness, ammunition, long-range weapons, air & naval support for the first two weeks, and watching the Japs unload ships with fresh troops further up the island at Cape Esperance and not being able to do anything about it. Or maybe just being there was the worst.
"During the many years since that ugly experience I have at times thought that I might be experiencing some undue hardship, but on each occasion I'd remember how much real pain and suffering we lived through over there and suddenly the perceived hardship disappeared. All things really are, as they say, a matter of relativity."
KC: "And what did you guys say to one another during the nighttime naval battles? Surely you could hear the roar and see the flashes, eh?"
JM: "The first night as we headed inland toward the grassy knoll, we were so exhausted from the ordeal of just getting to the base of the hill we literally collapsed in our tracks the moment we were ordered to cease the march. It mattered not what was on the ground or in the air, we couldn't have mustered even a mild slap at a mosquito. Our only thought was - REST!
"The word was passed down the columns that every other man would sleep for 2 hours while the others would remain awake and alert - hah! Oh, there were some that were so nervous they couldn't have slept, even if it had been their turns. These were also the ones that opened fire at any noise, so most everyone stayed low and kept quiet.
"The second night was a sleepless night for all, Japs and Americans. Some of our units continued to move forward up the hill trying to gain an advantage. The resistance was severe and the sharp crack of rifle fire echoed all night long. The warship explosions were very vivid in the extreme darkness and it seemed that both sides paused to listen to the explosions and look at the burning sky.
"At daybreak most hostility quieted down, except for occasional brief outbreaks. But later after we had had a 'catnap' or two, we were ordered on the move again and we fought our way to the top of that knoll.
"The third night, after we had secured the knoll, we were able to rest, and as a result, only those whose turn it was to stay awake, saw the naval flashes out on the bay. The rest didn't even hear the roar of the big naval guns.
"Of course, we had no idea who was who and we naturally thought that our guys were winning. Wrong! The Japs pulled off what naval battle strategists call 'hitting the jackpot'. As they steamed southward in a long column, the allied ships 'crossed the 'T', westward to eastward and were blown out of and then down under the water. I'm sure you know about that battle. One of our worst defeats. It was the key to Japanese air and sea superiority for many weeks to come.
"Some nights, when the Japanese ships were shelling us, we might get to see the first few rounds as they were fired, but when after a short time we realized that they were being aimed at us, we got into any shelter we could. Because of the distance, we could see the large explosion-like balls of fire as they exited the long-range guns on the ships. It seemed deathly silent for a few seconds until the sound from the gunfire made its way to our ears, but we usually heard the sound nearly simultaneously with the incoming whistle of the projectile. During the quiet interval we tried to determine if the shots were aimed in our direction or at another ship. The sound would of course precede the projectile and it would be louder than if fired away toward another ship. We had to move fast for shelter if it was targeted on us.
"As for talking to each other, we mostly were quiet with our own thoughts, and prayers. It was very frightening, particularly when one or more of the big 16 inch'ers would land fairly close by. During the November 13th all night long shelling one of the big shells struck the edge of the bomb shelter I was in and nearly buried all of us.
"The shelters were made by digging a square pit, usually about eight to ten feet square and about six or seven feet deep. But there were many different sizes. Across the top would be coconut trees pushed together as tightly as possible. Some of the shelters would then put another tree on top of that first row, but in between the first layer of logs to help block the cracks between the logs. Then we'd pile all of the dirt that had been excavated from the hole on top of the logs. We'd try to wet it down a bit hoping to make a mud seal between the logs.
"We'd dig entrances parallel to one of the sides for several feet and then cut into the shelter. That helped to cut down on the noise and the light flashes. They weren't very comfortable as the ground was very damp and the air was pretty foul.
"Mostly, we'd just sit there in silence leaning up against the equally damp walls and wait it out. Now and then when the shelling would ease up, there would be the usual, "Do you think that's all?" or something like that. We found that most of the naval shellings went on for upwards of three to four hours causing more harassment than damage, but that was probably their purpose, with damage more incidental than intentional.
"These shellings frequently preceded a heavy ground engagement by the Japs. Sometimes we were more anxious when the shelling stopped than when it continued, due to the possibility of a major enemy landing. Those definitely were no-sleep nights. And we got out of the shelters as soon as possible after the shellings so as not to get trapped down there.
"But on the night of Nov.13th when a shell hit at the edge of the logs across the top, it pushed them lengthways and the ends dropped down into the pit. Some of the guys got pinned down under the logs and dirt and had to be dug out. One of the logs came down across my left shin and ripped the flesh pretty good right down to the bone, but luckily, no break."
KC: "Believe it or not Jerry, I've encountered a paucity of such information about the daily struggle to just survive on Guadalcanal. I've read personal accounts that breeze over it in no more than a couple of paragraphs. But, having lived there and walked many kilometers through its terrain, I know that
just the environment of Guadalcanal could quickly make a man's life hell. The heat, the dust, the 'mossies' (Australian for mosquitoes), the stinging sandflies, and then the torrential rain -- all these things and more make camping outdoors on Guadalcanal something less than a family vacation."
JM: "I'd have to agree that Guadalcanal would not be one of my top choices of a place to go camping. I had eighteen weeks of it in '42 and most certainly am not in any hurry to repeat it. All of those lovely elements you mentioned, heat, dust, "mossies", sandflies, torrential rain can only be addressed by adding, knee-deep mud, oppressive humidity, lizards, very cool nights and probably now, snakes and centipedes. It's enough to make a grown Marine wince.
"You've not mentioned earthquakes in any of your letters. Is it possible that there were none while you were there? In our four-plus months we experienced just one, but what a thrill! It was the only one I had ever been through before or since - and I hope it was the last. It felt like the whole island was nothing more than a large float adrift in a stormy sea.
"Though only of short duration, probably less than a minute, we did enjoy its brevity and it provided us with some very light moments afterward as follows. One of our guys who was at that moment straddled over a slit trench, a narrow, twelve to fifteen inches wide, about two feet deep and about eight to tem feet long trench which served as our outdoor sanitation facility. Everywhere we went the first order of business was to locate the slit trench, usually downwind from our positions and away from the spots where we would dig foxholes in which we "lived". There were probably hundreds of them around our occupied area.
"When the earthquake began he lost his footing and balance and fell into the trench. Needless to say he was about as popular as a skunk at a picnic and I'm sure the skunk would probably have smelled better. Not that any of us were live ads for Old Spice cologne. He did get to a stream, immersing himself, clothes and all and was accepted back into the fold.
"But yes, the environment was almost totally responsible for our highly debilitated state. The lack of proper food and water was certainly a factor as well as the constant harassment from the Japs, land and air. But the brutal steaming heat from the direct sun or rising from the always-damp jungle earth as a result of excessively high humidity, did little to allow our bodies to function normally.
"Salt tablets were taken when available, but they tended to make one thirsty and water wasn't always available. We literally gave up trying to keep the mosquitoes away or off of us. When we tried to keep our clothing buttoned up tightly with sleeves rolled down, it made the heat and humidity even worse, and the damned mosquitoes bit right through the clothing anyhow. So I even found myself watching them land on my arm and digging in, too tired and often too weak to even bother to slap at them.
"The sandflies were just as bad, if not worse. At least the mosquitoes stayed outside your clothing, - the sandflies delighted in getting inside the buttonhole gaps or in your ears, nose, mouth and eyes. I remember once saying out loud, and meant for the sandflies that seemed intent on trying to get in my mouth, "For crissakes, I' m not dead yet, get the hell outta here!" A couple of the guys near me started laughing as they said I looked so damned serious."
KC: "Did you guys look up at the stars and wonder? Gaze at the Southern Cross? See shooting stars?"
JM: "Just about every chance we got, we did. In spite of the seemingly unending misery and strife over there, we did have an occasional quiet break; - usually right after a major battle when the Japs had to fall back, lick their wounds and try to regroup.
"Thoughts of home, families and girl-friends took center stage during those moments and it was almost unanimous. We relished the peace and quiet, which didn't happen very often. Those were the times when you'd ask yourself, 'why am I here?', 'will I ever get home again?', 'I wonder what the guys (and gals) are doing right now back home?'. Right about that time is when
we'd hear the drone of "Washing Machine Charlie", the very late night Jap harassment bomber, usually all alone, who would cross over our area, drop some bombs, not in some well-thought-out pattern, just helter-skelter, designed only to harass. And we would run for the shelters. We could always hear his plane several minutes before we heard the 'whumph, whumph, thud, thud' landing of the bombs, so we had time to take cover.
"We all marveled at the Southern Cross not realizing that it would be a focal point on our division patch not too many months later. Everyone thought it was most appropriate to be on the division patch. It's not something that can be seen in the skies back home, so we were very proud of being able to show it off. I'm sure you've probably got one of the patches, but just in case you don't, I'd like you to have one. A small way of thanking you for the Jap bullet slug you sent me. I'll send it by snail mail of course.
"I must have seen some shooting stars, but I don't specifically remember any particularly significant occasion. I do remember that the skies in that part of the world seemed to have an inordinately larger number of stars than we do here in the Northern Hemisphere. And, they seemed nearer and brighter than ours. It really was a beautiful sky down there."
KC: "A few emails ago I mentioned the coconut crabs and asked if you had ever seen them. And of course, you were pretty busy then and probably wouldn't have even noticed them. Also, the fact of all the bombing and shelling probably held down their numbers. However it really is a sight.
"We experienced two great migrations during the final months of 1992: the first was coconut crabs migrating north, across the plains, towards the beach, the second was what we called "the plague of the frogs," also migrating towards the sea. Coconut crabs are ugly, almost sci-fi-looking mutations of land crabs, with huge, round shells and weird colors. They live in and around the trunks of coconut trees. They're called coconut crabs because they feed on coconuts: their claws are so large and strong that they can actually crack open a coconut to get the meat. They can easily take a few fingers or mangle a hand. But, once a year, at night, they move towards the sea.
"It is a big deal for the Solomons people because a coconut crab is a delicacy and it's free -- if you can catch one. I will forever have visions of the Solomons people all over the plains at night, carrying torches, stepping gingerly through the jungle or kunai grass, looking for coconut crabs.
"The frogs are not for eating, however. A couple of nights in January, during the start of the rainy season, literally tens upon tens of thousands of frogs also move at night, from the bush, across the plains, and towards the sea. Driving to Red Beach (as it's now known) from town those nights, I must have killed a thousand. It sounded like somebody was playing the drums on the underside of my old, battered Suzuki LJ50. Eighteen kilometers of "splat-thump-splat-thump." They were EVERYWHERE. It looked biblical in my headlights."
JM: "No we never experienced the migration or plague of coconut crabs or frogs. Perhaps because of the excessive bombardment that preceded our landing, or if such events do occur only in January, it was because our guest reservations covered only Aug. 7th to Dec. 15th of '42. I think I'm not too unhappy that I didn't get to be a part of such an auspicious occasion."
KC: "I'd like to ask a few more questions if you're up to it Jerry. Such as: What were you guys told about Guadalcanal before you landed? What were you told to expect about the environment?"
JM: "Very little on each question Kent. Not much was known about the island. Our intelligence people interviewed Aussie scouts, coast-watchers and what English and Australian businessmen they could locate. They got some poor quality aerial photos, but, as you know by the Tenaru/Ilu controversy, they didn't learn a lot.
"The crudely sketched map they gave to all of us, turned out to be a fairly accurate guide, but woefully out of scale. I think I told you in an earlier letter that I still have the copy of the map that was given to me (every man got a copy) prior to the landing. I carried it in my wallet for a long time. When I finally got settled down back home, I packed it away for safekeeping and though frayed and yellowed, it is still quite legible after 54 years.
"The intelligence people did learn about the mosquito/malaria problem and had thoughtfully packed plenty of atabrine and quinine for our stay, but the Navy liked it so much they took it with them when they abandoned us for safer waters. Our intelligence folks also were aware of the tropical environment and jungle areas, but the map didn't accurately show the locations. We went in there pretty much blindfolded as well as having one arm tied behind our backs due to a lack of food and equipment."