KC: "Oh, yes, one final question: what was it like immediately after you left Guadalcanal? Did you guys realize that you had won an important victory? How did the Aussies treat you, as heroes? Did fellow Marines look upon you with awe and respect? Did you guys swagger a little bit? What was it like being a veteran of the Guadalcanal campaign during the year or so after you left the island?"
JM: "What was it like immediately after we left? Ahhh! One word - heaven! I wonder if those poor creatures that escaped from Devil's Island felt as we did on leaving the 'Canal??? Certainly we shared a common plight of misery. However, I do believe they had shelter and beds at night. Then on the other hand, most of them were there for a lot more than eighteen weeks. Our physical condition, (woefully debilitated) didn't give us much room for thinking. We were just so damned beat up that even our emotions were extremely low key.
"Did we realize that we had won an important victory? Not really. Youth, and naiveté plus, "just following orders", led us not to think about it too seriously. It was more like a feeling that a very unpopular military maneuver or hangover had finally ended and that we would be going somewhere to sleep it off. It began to sink in a little more when we got to Melbourne. The reception in Brisbane was less than enthusiastic, but Melbourne went all-out. A huge crowd greeted us as we disembarked there, followed soon afterward with a big parade.
"The Aussies not only treated us as heroes, they constantly told us we were. (As an aside, I have been in email contact with several Melbournites recently as a result of a message post I made to the Melbourne PC Club, bulletin board. Each of them, at some point in their initial letters, expressed their gratitude for what we did to help their country when they needed it most. Very humbling.) They opened their homes and hearts to us. We couldn't have been treated better had we been their own.
"It was a warm and wonderful time that we spent there. Did we swagger a little bit? I don't think so. At least I don't remember feeling that way. We were all just so grateful to be off the 'Canal and away from the Japs and war, and in a place where we were made most welcome. For several months we just couldn't buy a beer in a pub, or pay for a meal in a restaurant.
"Rides on the trams and railways were free to us, as were movies and any other recreational places. They shared their rations of butter, eggs and beef with us in their homes. One girl I was dating said she was always glad to have me over for dinner because her folks served all the best things when I was there. I'm not sure if that was a compliment or not. But I graciously accepted it as one.
"At first, the Aussie authorities made sure that we had plenty of lamb and mutton - three meals a day worth! They thought that they were giving up the best for us while they struggled on beef. Someone in our higher echelons very tactfully explained that we would be glad to trade with them, and that both sides would be happier. However, this did take quite a few months to accomplish. To this day, I won't eat lamb. Just the smell of it cooking tends to make me nauseous.
"When we left there in September (I think I told you earlier that I wound up back in the States unplanned - if not, remind me. It's an interesting story.) The Division went to Goodenough Island to prepare for the Cape Gloucester invasion, but I wound up going to Long Beach Naval Hospital back in the States.
"During my brief stay in Long Beach, I went to the Hollywood canteen along with another Marine who was also in the hospital. We were invited to sit at a table with an Army Air Force captain and his wife, who turned out to be Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman. After he became president I always had the notion to write to him and tell him of the occasion, but I never did, I guess because by then he had a new wife (Nancy).
"The people on the West Coast lived up to their reputations for disinterest in anything they weren't involved in and treated us no differently than any other GI, - cool; we were home again.
"Things were different when I finally did get home. Altoona, PA is by no means a small town (at that time I believe the population was around 50,000) but it has always had a small town atmosphere. Well they rolled out the red carpet and I was the toast of the town, not only because of the victory in Guadalcanal, but because I was the very first W.W.II veteran to return from combat.
"You may recall I earlier said that a school chum of mine was also over there with the Fifth Marines (your Uncle David's unit). Well, the town still hadn't gotten over the news of his death on Guadalcanal and they treated me as the long-lost son who was home from the wars.
"I was the guest of honor in the Christmas parade ('43) as well as at several dinners, banquets, etc. I was very withdrawn back in those days, and I was definitely not a good after-dinner speaker, but they didn't seem to mind, and the city was mine. The glow of that reception stayed with me away from home for many years to come. But I still don't think that I ever swaggered. I did enjoy all the attention I got from the girls, some of whom I had always wanted to get a date with, but things were really better with that Marine uniform on.
"The local Veterans of Foreign Wars post made me a Lifetime Member with all the honors. All of the members up to that point had seen their service in World War I, but even though I was a generation younger, they treated me just exactly as what I was, - a veteran of a foreign war. That post's first such member for World War II. I've never been back to that post in my old home town since that time in late 1943. I don't even have a membership card for the VFW anymore so the current members probably wouldn't even let me in.
"I had been on a sixty day convalescence leave (a lot had been accumulated while overseas) and then I was to report to the St. Alban's Naval Hospital in Long Island, NY. But I remembered those two months at home for a long, long time and went back on weekends whenever I got a chance.
"You also asked if my fellow Marines treated us with awe and respect. I'm not sure I'd say "awe." Respect, - definitely. Just as I did when I joined the First Marine Division in New River, NC in March '42, when any of the old-timers who had been there when the Division was formed in Cuba in early 1941 were around, I treated them with great respect.
"A few of the guys that had originally said they would join with me were still around just waiting to be drafted. Where they were once just chums, they now seemed to be a little in awe and were sorry they hadn't gone with me because they still had it all in front of them, most just waiting to see if they would get drafted and wind up in the Army.
"In 1944, when I got stationed in Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington, DC, I happened to run into a sergeant that was one of my first instructors when I was fresh out of boot camp. He had been kept behind because of a medical problem when we left to go to the South Pacific. His problem had to do with his hearing so he was OK'd for non-combat duty and never did get overseas. By this time I had gotten up to the rank of Corporal (the Corps was notoriously slow on promotions) and he was a Platoon Sergeant (four stripes) but you'd have thought that I was a Master Gunnery Sergeant the way he treated me.
"He really felt good when I told him that I owed him a lot for the advice and training he had given me back in 1942. I heard later that he was given a medical discharge after the war was over. I never saw him again, but it must have been hard on him, because he loved the Corps.
"Well Kent, I guess that answers the questions you posed in the July 22 letter. You know of course, that I'll be happy to respond to any other areas of information you'd like to know about. I'm sure you'll have others in subsequent responses, so I'll sign off now. Jerry"
"Just returned to find "The Grassy Knoll" (TGK) poem in my snail mail and your last e-mail. 'TGK' is great, Jerry. It set my imagination aflame. I tried to read between the lines and sense what that series of treks and engagement was like. The pain of carrying heavy packs when the straps are digging painfully into your shoulders, the sweat, the heat, the absolutely parched thirst, the dehydration, the kunai grass (unbelievable that you guys went through that -- did you have machetes or scouts who cleared the way?), the irritation, the tension, the relentless assault of insects, and the smell of fear, etc. etc. -- all these things set the scene and provided the backdrop against which you were expected to fight and win.) You express yourself well in verse -- you should continue." Kent
JM: "Thanks Kent.
"No we didn't have many machetes for cutting the kunai grass, or anything for that matter, as they were in very scarce supply at first. Most remained on the ships that weren't completely unloaded and left the island. The lead columns on the trek to the grassy knoll were the ones that took the brunt, but that's not to say that those of us behind the leaders had any picnic. The only equipment item we had for such an occasion was our bayonet. Those trusty and handy, sharp-pointed, sharp-sided items that were issued to be weapons, but were used for things like opening ration cans, cutting vines to use as string, splitting coconuts, cutting tatters from clothes, and even cleaning ones fingernails.
"The bayonets were the instant and only replacement for the machete for cutting the sharp grass down enough to get through. But no matter how much we all whacked at the grass it somehow fought back with its sharp blades tearing clothing and flesh. A few times since, a paper cut has reminded me of those treks through the infamous kunai grass.
"Kent, one thing you haven't mentioned were the huge, about an inch long, red ants that delighted in biting our ankles and any other exposed fleshy parts. Their nests were in the ground, as are most ants, but with 'hills' of earth above ground that sometimes became quite large. When you would accidentally step on one of the "hills" they sort of crumbled beneath your weight and much like a disturbed hornet's nest, the occupants came out helter-skelter and were ready to avenge their homesteads.
"We quickly learned to tuck the pant legs down inside our socks and knock them off as they climbed upwards. Our trousers were of pre-zipper vintage (I'll bet that's one bit of trivia that isn't usually discussed) and there were openings between the buttons where an enterprising ant would try to venture. So we tried to keep them from getting too far up our legs."
KC: "Before I forget it, you mentioned in an earlier e-mail that you were in touch with someone in Melbourne. When I was in Australia, I wanted to get to Melbourne - Ballarat, specifically,
to look up some very special people: the Aussie girlfriends of Uncle Ray and Uncle David and their families. I have letters from these ladies and their mothers to David and Ray's mother,
"I was often told when I was growing up how extraordinarily kind and warm these families were to David and Ray during the war, how they took them in as their own sons and looked after them. If you know of anyone in Melbourne who has an abiding interest in W.W.II, I'd like to contact them and perhaps get some advice on how I could possibly locate these ladies. I want to thank them on behalf of my family."
JM: "Yes I have been in touch with several members of the Melbourne PC Club, most all of whom wrote at least one Email and then backed off after an exchange or two. But one chap named Joe Hennessey has been most friendly and helpful. We have exchanged upwards of twenty or more emails. Joe was a teenager when we were there and in fact lived not too far from the Melbourne Cricket Grounds, which was our home away from home.
"If you'd like, I can give you Joe's email address. I don't remember how I first contacted them, but it probably was through the "Feedback" on the home page for the Melbourne PC Club which advertises itself as one of the largest in the world with over 10,000 members. In my "feedback" I identified myself as having been there as a US Marine in W.W.II after being on Guadalcanal and said I would like to correspond with anyone who had an interest and/or knowledge of those days.
"As I said, there were quite a few, but only Joe has continued. He has also sent me a recent postcard of the old Cricket Grounds and got the grounds secretary/librarian to send me a pamphlet on the history of the Melbourne Cricket Club, the parent organization for the Grounds. There were a few pages in it dedicated to our occupancy of the Grounds.
"All of the PC Club members that did write emails seemed most interested in thanking me for what we had done to help them in their time of great need. Their comments were quite humbling and very much appreciated. So I guess you could start with Joe and maybe he could post a message on the MelbPC bulletin board regarding the info you seek if he has no first hand knowledge.
"But he is familiar with Ballarat. In fact, if my memory serves me right, he told me in an early email exchange that he had relatives either who were still living there or who had at one time lived there. When he was younger his family would travel to Ballarat a few times each year for visits and get-togethers with that part of the "clan." He also stated that over the years he got to know a lot of other people in Ballarat so it's not outside the realm of possibility that he might be acquainted with the ladies about whom you will be inquiring. I'll check some of my old emails with Joe to verify that it was Ballarat he was talking about, but I'm almost certain it was.
"There is always the possibility that if Joe himself isn't able to make contact with the ladies that someone else among the 10,000 members of the Melbourne PC Club will know of them. Melbourne is a very large city with many smaller towns surrounding it much like many of the big cities here in the U. S. Locally, Boston is not too dissimilar being surrounded by many smaller towns on three sides and the Atlantic ocean on the fourth while Melbourne differs only by having the South Pacific Ocean on its fourth side.
"I vaguely remember going to Ballarat on one occasion. For the life of me I can no longer remember the specifics of the trip, it was of a military nature and not pleasure I can assure you. There were only three of us, a sergeant who insisted on driving all the way, a major who sat in the back and me. We drove there in an open Jeep. It was a hot, windy and very dusty ride.
"When we arrived in Ballarat, the major went somewhere to conduct his business while the sergeant and I went to the nearest pub to 'wet our whistles' on some of that beautiful, warm Aussie beer. Never did see much of the place as about an hour later we headed back to Melbourne, the major's business concluded."
KC: "Awhile back you wrote about my being on the go a lot and what I did for a living. My profession is corporate marketing - public relations, etc. For ten years, I was with the world's
largest PR firm.
"I left Los Angeles in 1992, after a year of planning and saving, to move to Guadalcanal to ... I guess the most accurate way of putting it would be to say, 'talk to ghosts' as I retraced my uncle's steps on Guadalcanal.
"I resumed my career with that firm in 1993 in the Bangkok office. I've been a private consultant since returning from Asia in early 1994 to take care of my mother who is dying of cancer. But I'm looking to get back into the corporate game and was just in NYC for a few days of interviewing."
JM: "I'm terribly sorry about your mother. I hope she
is reasonably comfortable. From your words, the prognosis doesn't
sound encouraging, but there's always hope."
KC: "Interestingly, while I was in New York, I made a courtesy call on the Solomon Islands Ambassador to the U.S. and to the U.N. Delightful and bright man. Understands and respects the unique and emotional connection to the U.S., particularly your generation of Marines. I caught up on a lot of news from the Solomons.
"I've thought to ask you before and now I've finally remembered to: Have you read Studs Terkel's "The Good War?" If not, I highly recommend it. It is simply oral recollections of a broad variety of people who lived through W.W.II. Fascinating and moving stories.
JM: "I will check that one out. Right now I'm immersed in Robert Ballard's, "The Lost Ships of Guadalcanal". It's about all of the "ghost fleet" in Iron Bottom Sound. (While we were there it was called Iron Bottom Bay.) It's a great accounting of the naval battles of that time, with many outstanding photos of the ships, before and after their new residence on the bottom. A close friend of my wife had a brother who was lost on the destroyer USS Monssen. She was quite impressed with the book."
KC: "That whole concept of a "Good War" is important. Today's generation hasn't a clue as to what the world was like then, much less what you guys went through. Leads to another point...
"Before I left the States for the Solomons, I spent a week in D.C at the Marine Corps Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yard going through combat/unit reports from Guadalcanal. One of the assistants there told me about a project currently underway that somebody at the center was involved with: an oral history of the Pacific campaign.
"All this means of course is finding the right veterans, gaining their trust and carefully interviewing them (a la Stud Terkel's approach) with a tape recorder running. The task would be to get them to open up and let it all hang out. Have you heard anything in your circles about this? If it was well done, I would pay a high price to be the first one to read the transcripts. Who better to explain "what it was like" than veterans themselves?
JM: "No, I haven't, but I would also be interested in reading (some of) the transcripts. And as I hope I have done here, the words of the ones who 'did' it are far more revealing of the truth of the matter than what is relayed to us on a 'second-hand' basis."
KC: "This is important. History must be preserved. In James Michener's first novel, he made an excellent observation: that in 50 years time, children would look back on W.W.II the way he looked back at the Civil War as a child. All the veterans, the Riveting Rosies, etc. would be long gone. Of course, we have film and audio records of W.W.II that bring the experiences to life, something missing from the Civil War.
JM: "Thankfully, there are at least photos and film of W.W.II. A few years ago, one of my fellow New Hampshireites, Ken Burns, did a wonderful job on his Civil War photos presentation for Public Broadcasting Service TV. Fortunately, for succeeding generations, much of W.W.II has been put on film, including video."
KC: "When we have children, I will make damn sure that they learn about the world in this century, particularly about W.W.II and our family's legacy.
"Gotta run - heading up to Tennessee today to visit Mom. By the way, I would be honored to receive the 1st Division patch. You're very kind to offer. Until later... kcc.
Kent Cooper's Turn
KC: "Jerry, what you have shared with me thus far is absolutely priceless. It is exactly the kind of day-to-day regular-guy information I've coveted for a long time. It is indeed priceless.
"Incidentally, I've been meaning to tell you I know the story of Jacob Vouza quite well. He is a national hero to the Solomon Islanders. As a matter of fact, during the 50th anniversary celebrations in 1992, a national memorial to Vouza was unveiled in a moving ceremony. The memorial is west of Point Cruz. A life-size sculpture of Vouza stands in front of the national prison. It is just across the road from the beach. The ceremony was one of the last of the weeklong anniversary commemorations. I'll never forget it, if for no other reason than it was remarkable to see people passing out from heat exhaustion.
"Every allied combatant nation had an honor guard or parade unit there, including the 1st Marine Div. The "scout" nations (Fiji, Vanuatu, Gilbert Islands, etc.) also sent large numbers of veteran scouts from the campaign there. I would estimate about 3,000-5,000 people crammed into the area right in front of the memorial and blocked off the road. Chairs were set up for the veterans and dignitaries. Vouza's grandson was there, carrying what was allegedly the U.S. flag Vouza was carrying during part of the battle in which he was bayoneted by the Japs and left for dead. The honor guard/parade units were all standing at rigid attention during the entire ceremony, throughout all the speeches and solemn wreath-layings, which took well over an hour. The heat was just unbearable. It had to be more than 100 degrees. Still, stifling air. No breeze at all.
"When the ceremony finally and mercifully ended, almost literally at the second when all the men in uniform began to relax, everyone was startled (I was terrified and ducked) when an Australian Air Force FB-111 swooshed like lightning just over the treetops covering the ceremony.
"When we were leaving, I remarked about the march of technology since the Pacific campaign. I wondered to the other guys I had hooked up with, what the Pacific campaign would have been like if we had had just ONE FB-111. The entire Pacific war would have been over (at least the naval part of it) in a few days.
"One thing every 'Canal history buff noted about the 50th anniversary celebrations: COMCINCPAC did not even send a representative. Virtually every major unit from every Allied nation that contributed to winning Guadalcanal was represented the entire week, yet the one arguably most important player (other than the Marines of course) in the struggle for Guadalcanal wasn't represented. Of course, the Guadalcanal campaign represents the worst defeat in U.S. naval history so maybe they just chose to not remember."
JM: "I really wish I could have been there. And your comments on COMCINCPAC are right on the money. The defeat must be embarrassing enough, but the black eye and yellow sash painted by Ghormley and Fletcher will never be lived down. Thank God for men like Vandegrift and Halsey."
KC: "Thanks for reliving this stuff for me. Don't know if it's good for you to do this or painful. I guess it depends on each man, doesn't it?"
JM: "I am quite amazed about my reactions to this. Even my wife has told me that in the 51+ years we've been married she hasn't seen or heard a fraction of what I have unfolded in my letters to you. It has been a long period of self denial and refusal to remember, but once the lid got off the can when reporters started asking about the 50th anniversary of W.W.II events, it seems a leash had been removed and I now feel like talking about it.
"Something you said a few emails back sort of touched on it. You said that I should write these things down, because I was an eyewitness to history, and it does matter to others about what happened over there. I thought a lot about that and though we have no children, I remembered how the students at the junior high school reacted to the poems I read to them, The Grassy Knoll in particular, and it just loosened me up. So you can take a lot of credit for removing that leash and especially knowing how and what questions to ask. Talking with most reporters is akin to taking a shower with your clothes on. It's get in and get out as fast as possible. The most prevalent (and insipid) question from them is, "What was it like over there?"
"Your questions were pointed and pertinent and they generated responses that had been kept under a blanket of silence for over 50 years. They flashed me back 54 years and got my memory juices flowing. So it is you that should be thanked.
KC: "I remember Uncle Ray, who was my hero when I was a boy. Lived next door to me. His son Tony is like my brother; we are both "only" children, no brothers or sisters. Uncle Ray was huge, about 6'5", around 250. He was a policeman. A man's man. And a man of very few words. "Yes, sir" and "no, sir" kind of guy. Tony and I held him in the highest esteem. I think I wrote to you earlier that he was in the 1st Tank Battalion of the 1st Marine Div. and went through the Cape Gloucester and Peleliu campaigns.
"When we were kids and learned through reading and through movies a little of what W.W.II Pacific combat was like. We read about Cape Gloucester and Peleliu so we knew that Uncle Ray had been through some trying times."
"And I learned through my grandmother, Uncle Ray's sister, that Uncle Ray had talked about the bad stuff right after he came home from the war. How his best friend who was walking right next to him was shot in the neck, killed by a sniper's bullet. How he helped carry a fatally wounded Indian member of his unit, a guy known as "Chief" from a hot zone, only to have him die in his arms, covered in blood.
"So we would sit at his feet and pepper him with the innocent-yet-macabre questions that naturally preoccupy many little boys ... Did you kill anybody? Did you see any dead bodies? Were you shot at? See any brains? Etc., etc., etc."
JM: "My company, K-3-1, made both of those campaigns also.
Cape Gloucester was not too bad, but Peleliu took a terrible toll
with more than 85 percent casualties. More than 20 of them had
been very close friends, most of them since boot camp. Sometimes
I feel some guilt that I was not there with them, but often thank
God that I was not.
"The C.O. of K-3-1 during those campaigns was a man named George Hunt. He had been a writer and assistant editor for a popular magazine before and after going in the Marines, and when that campaign was over he wrote a book titled, "Coral Comes High". I had the good fortune to meet him at one of the First Marine Division Association reunions in a later year and I was extremely impressed with the man.
"I've had questions like those from the students at the junior high school a few months ago. The students surprised me with the adult nature of their questions; such as: "Were you homesick?", "Does your malaria still bother you?", and this one nearly floored me, - "What did your mother say when you came back home?" Pretty heavy stuff!"
KC: "Uncle Ray's response to such questions was always the same -- he would only relate the lighter side of the war and his experience. He would tell us stories about getting into fights with swabbies and other funny anecdotes. Every now and then he would bring out an old, battered steel bucket he kept hidden somewhere, which contained all his wartime souvenirs. He had a Japanese Lt.'s cap, a piece of a Zero, personal papers from some dead Jap's body, Australian money, etc."
JM: "The loss of my souvenirs has always dogged me. Was I wrong to take them in the first place, or would they have haunted me more in later years? And what of the thief that stole them from my seabag while I lay hospitalized? Did he represent them as being his own? Were there ever any regrets? I'll never know the answers to those questions."
KC: "But he would never, ever tell us about the bad stuff. The stuff we wanted to know about. Years later, I was home from college one weekend. I was visiting with Uncle Ray alone in the den of his home. It was late and we were about to hit the hay. But we were talking about all kinds of stuff. I felt him opening up a little more than usual, though by no means was he loquacious. I asked him: "Uncle Ray, you know, when Tony and I were kids, we used to sit and ask you about all the bad stuff you went through in W.W.II. But you never told us anything. And I know now what you went through. Why didn't you tell us?"
"He answered in a supremely classic and typically Uncle Ray kind of way. He paused, thought about the question for a moment, and then answered slowly and methodically: 'Well, Kent, there are just some things that a man needs to put out of his mind'."
JM: "I can definitely relate to that. I did it for over 50 years. Even at our Division reunions, it was almost unbelievable that Guadalcanal was never mentioned. Some of the later campaigns were discussed by those who had been through them, not ever Guadalcanal. Oh, there were a lot of discussions about incidents that happened on the 'Canal, but mostly humorous stuff about one of the guys, but never about any of the tense times. I guess it was the campaign that stole our battle virginity; beat up our bodies unmercifully; and did a lasting number on our psyches. It was almost as if it had never happened.
"I haven't been to a reunion in many years now, and I wonder if that attitude still prevails. There's another Guadalcanal vet on the 'Net that I have exchanged emails with who says the reunion this year, (Aug. 7th, naturally) is in New Orleans. I think I'll ask him about it."
KC: "Of course, I had to respect Uncle Ray's feelings on this. And the whole point of me telling you this, Jerry, is that I want you to know how much I appreciate you remembering your experience for my behalf. Many thanks. Kent"
Decided to start a fresh "chain" between us so we don't have to keep sending the growing mass back and forth when we reply to one another. I've several things to share with you in response to your latest emails.
"First, did you go on to Peleliu with your unit? I know the Fifth Marines did, including Uncle David's unit (but he had already died). If you did, then you have a whole 'nother universe of human experience to share about that campaign, which, I'm told, was much worse in many ways than Guadalcanal."
"By now you should have gotten the mail about my not getting back to my unit when I left Australia. In a lot of ways I really regretted leaving my old company, but getting to go home instead of Peleliu was, in retrospect, probably a lifesaver.
"I lost a lot of good friends there. At the Division reunions, the survivors that made it through both campaigns all said that Guadalcanal, while not as intense as the Peleliu campaign, was worse in terms of the length of the campaign and the long-range damage to the mind and body. Given a choice, they'd have taken Peleliu over the 'Canal, only because it was so much shorter. They obviously had made it back, but the scars of seeing so many of their comrades go down will always haunt them. There may be many who would dispute that, but it was what I heard from ones I knew who'd been to both.
"Incidentally, K-3-1 and K-3-5 both got badly hit on Peleliu. Do you remember what I had told you about K company being in the center of a skirmish line with I and L companies on either side? Sometimes being in the middle isn't good."
Souvenirs and Snakes
KC: "Finally, one point about souvenirs. Uncle Ray had in his possession several letters and documents in Japanese. He kept them in that bucket. One was clearly a letter from a child, as it was decorated with crayon drawings of stick-people, balloons and flowers -- looked like something straight from kindergarten. I took a photocopy of this and the other documents with me to the Solomons.
"I had occasion to meet and visit with a couple of Japanese journalists there and they gave me a quick translation. One of the letters was from the recipient's brother. The decorated one was from his daughter. This simply confirmed what I already knew. And, to be quite honest Jerry, it broke my heart. I thought: whatever would inspire a man to reach down and take such things from a dead body, as I presume Uncle Ray did?
"Of course, I'm well aware of the brisk trade in war souvenirs at the time and the natural, human desire for some type of memento from the lines, if only to prove to one's self later that "yes, I was actually there." I don't blame Uncle Ray or anyone else for taking such souvenirs: without question, I would have done the same thing, had I been a WWII Marine. But, all I can tell you is this: it made me sick to look at that letter from that little girl to her father, whom she would never see again."
JM: "It doesn't seem as though he kept it as a souvenir, per se. It may have affected him deeply and keeping the letter may have been a reminder to him about the realities of war. You have to consider the times. Just as today it is politically incorrect to refer to the Japanese as Japs, back then it was the only way.
"I left Prodigy online service because in one my emails to the son of a navy man whose father had been killed in one of the naval battles at Guadalcanal, I used the word Japs a few times. My God, you'd have thought I was giving military intelligence secrets or the like. Prodigy refused to forward the email unless I changed the wording. I, of course refused, saying that my letter was pertinent to the climate at that time and I even sent the ivory-tower 'suits' copies of newspaper and magazine articles that used the word over and over again. They huffed and sniffed and refused to print my email. I told them to immediately end my membership in Prodigy. They have tried several times since to get me to return, but I just trash anything they send to me. I also ended my credit relationship with Sears as Prodigy was a subsidiary of theirs and I have never since purchased anything from IBM another of their corporate sponsors.
"I was really irritated because it was probably some young punk who hadn't been in a military uniform since his sailor-suit days of pre-school who was telling me, a war veteran who put my life on the line so he could enjoy the fruits of his job, that I was being insensitive! I would have loved to get right into that creep's face just once. But as I was saying, it may seem bad to have done those things by today's standards, but back then, it was a normal thing to do.
"All bodies had to be searched (if possible) to detect any information that could be used to help us determine their unit, their mission, the strength of their unit, any terrain maps that would help us later when we went into the areas they were in, codes, and what they knew about us. Believe me, nobody enjoyed doing it and nobody ever volunteered to do it.
"It was automatic that after the brass checked everything, if it was declared unworthy of keeping, it went back to the guys who found it. I got my small diary like that as well as a medal worn by a pilot and a small name stamp. We also got weapons, flags, ammo, and other equipment items that way.
"So don't feel bad Kent. It was a widely accepted practice, and it was done for good reasons. Obviously not all of what was found was of military importance, but it was part of the package of items and rather than just dispose of it, most of the men just kept it.
"One strange anomaly of this routine was that I never once saw any Marine keep any clothing or boots, even though some of us were in desperate need, particularly boots.
"It wasn't just because they were smaller in stature and foot size, it was just too damned personal. I have a small foot equal to a lot of the Japs, and I needed better boots after six or eight weeks, but I just couldn't bring myself to even try them on for fit. Their boots were not of very good quality. Also, they were usually very bloodied, inside and out. 'Nuff said on that."
KC: "Well Jerry, gotta run for now. I just got off the phone with the Solomon Islands Olympic team here in Atlanta -- we're having them over this weekend for a custom feast of our own!"
JM: "Please pass my regards on to them. Some of them could probably be offspring of some of the natives that helped us on Guadalcanal by keeping tabs on the Japs. Their fathers, uncles, etc. risked their lives so that ours could be spared. Some of them actually gave their lives.
"A lot of Marines never did realize just how much those natives helped us by providing information about enemy movements and troop concentration sizes. They helped us stave off a lot of what would have been surprise and disastrous attacks. Remind me sometime to tell you about a project I had with my local Rotary club regarding the Solomon Islanders. In the meantime, I'll be finishing off the questions you asked in a recent email within the next day or two."
KC: "Jerry -- Just wanted to fire off a couple of thoughts before I forget about them. I'm heading out of town for a few days. And Atlanta is all-abuzz this morning about the pipe bomb down in Centennial Park. (By the way, I was down in that exact spot late Thursday night. Weird.)
"The small lizards you mentioned - -I think you're referring to gekkoes, cute little, whitish salamander type animals that infest every home on Guadalcanal. They are indeed harmless and they bark frequently (although not at night, thank goodness). We loved them because they do one thing every person in the Solomons is thankful for... they eat mosquitoes!"
"Yes, now I remember the name gekko. It's what the native boys called them, only not quite as clear. I can't remember how they said it but we finally deciphered the gekko intent and they would smile and nod when we said it. But then, they smiled and nodded no matter what we said. I never heard them bark or make any noise for that matter (The gekko's not the natives.)
"Maybe instead of sleeping near us to keep warm themselves, they found it was a good place where mosquitoes gathered - near us, thus a good food source. Never thought of it that way. I do remember on occasion when I would wake up and find one on my chest just sprawled there staring at me with a funny little bobbing of the head it was more than a little disconcerting. Matter of fact, the first time it scared the hell out of me."
KC: "And about the snakes - there are only two or three venomous snakes in the Solomons, the Guppy snake and the Woodford's snakes being the most notable. But they are usually relatively small, unaggressive and found only deep in the bush. Up in the Shortlands, on the border with Papua New Guinea where I spent about a month, there are tree pythons that will bite but they're too small to pose a threat to human life."
JM: "The one I saw must have been a guppy. It fits the description and indeed it was deep in the bush where it was seen. At any rate, it seemed more scared of me than I of it - or so I thought at the time. Sure glad there were no big tree pythons because most of our daytime sleep hours was spent sitting up against the base of a tree. By sitting/sleeping at the base of the tree we risked the danger of falling coconuts which hit with the force of a brick, but that risk was preferable to sharing the tree with a python.
"I can't remember if I mentioned that we noticed wild boars on a few occasions and was successful in trapping one by chasing it to a pit we dug which we then used to roast it. Someone was assigned to watch it at all times. If the smoke began to get heavy we would fan it briskly to thin it out so as not to be sending a signal as to where we were camped. At night we made sure that the area immediately overhead was full of tree branches, ponchos and anything that would block the light from the underground fire.
"In these days of infra-red, heat sensing aircraft radars, we wouldn't stand a chance. But back then it was easy enough to camouflage. After a couple of days, it became the first real meat we'd had in quite a while - and absolutely delicious. We put all the remains back in the pit and buried everything with the dirt that had been dug out. Someday someone will find those bones and think it was a human."
KC: "I only saw one snake my entire time in the Solomons
-- although I was terrified of running across one whenever I went
bushwalking. Some German friends and I were diving on an old Japanese
transport (one of Tanaka's, found grounded on November 15, 1942
and not the one from which I recovered the ammo.)
"Trine and one of the German wives and her daughter were waiting in the coconut grove on the beach. When we got out after our dive, the little girl ran to her mother and pointed back towards my car - -it was a small, brown snake about 4-8 inches long. Totally unremarkable but it may have been a Guppy, I later learned.
"Of course, there are sea snakes, which are supposedly the most poisonous in the world. We saw one - again, right after a dive - swimming right around our legs in the coral. I was standing in about four feet of water and put my head in the water to watch it. It was the most beautiful snake I'd ever seen. Absolutely mesmerizing full of color and magically graceful as it swam around."
JM: "Must have been an interesting experience, but then just being in that water was an experience, - so clear and warm. We weren't allowed to go in for most of the first few months, but when our fortunes began to turn and the Japs fled for Cape Esperence and other points west, we were allowed in small groups to go in for very short breaks.
"It was extremely refreshing and very hard to leave. Always said I'd like to go back just to go for a nice, long, leisurely swim. Our Hampton Beach here at home is always very cold and it numbs the ankles after a few minutes. In late September and very early October when the Gulfstream passes near the coastline, the water warms up into the sixties and low seventies and it becomes tolerable, but it will never compare with the South Pacific."
KC: "Sea snakes in the Solomons are very, very docile. In fact, the Solomon boys pick them up and play with them. The only time they're dangerous is when they're mating.
"Oh, yes -- my most frightful near-encounter with a snake was up in the Shortlands on the island of Ballalae. The chief who was my host had told me, when I was foolishly inquiring about taking a canoe trip over to Bougainville, that that island was home to a species of venomous snake that was known for being VERY aggressive. This chief (and, later, others) told me that this species actually chased people if it heard someone approaching. Of course, most snakes avoid people. He also told me that some people had claimed to have seen one on the island of Ballalae, where I had a daylong bushwalk planned.
"The island of Ballalae was home to a Japanese airfield and POW camp during the war. (By the way, the Shortlands were Tanaka's base during the Guadalcanal campaign - in fact, I stayed on the island where he stayed, Faisi #2. I have in our living room now a few Japanese beer and sake bottles I brought back from Faisi.) It is now the farthest-most airstrip for the Solomons Airlines.
"Allied POWs from Singapore were forced to build this landing strip. It remains just a tiny, grass landing strip - all the Japs' version of marsden matting is long gone. Anyway, in the jungle, there are about 15-20 Japanese airplanes that were bombed out of service. Included are anywhere from 5-8 Betty bombers. The rest are Zeroes. And there are several floatplane wrecks in the waters around Ballalae.
"I went in search of several of these planes one day with some Solomon boys. We found many of them remarkably well preserved. As we were crawling around inside the fuselage of one, I noticed something white just next to my head. I looked over and it was the recently shed skin of a BIG snake, about 5 feet long, with a diameter of at least 4 inches. That made me get the hell out of there as fast as I could.