Four Months On The Front Line

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July 1942. Winter in Wellington, New Zealand, brought long, slanting sheets of rain that drenched the U.S. Navy transports looming huge and dark along the city’s docks. The men of the 1st Marine Division labored around the clock to combat-load the ships. The artillery, tanks, and communications gear were distributed among all the vessels so that if one or more were sunk by enemy fire, no vital component would be irretrievably lost.

I was twenty-three years old, the captain of C Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division. We had sailed from San Francisco in bright summer sunshine the month before, and now we were halfway around the world in a strange port down under. The New Zealanders’ gratitude at our arrival was obvious; they were keenly aware of the inexorable Japanese advance toward their homeland. Our coming was made specially poignant by the absence of their own young men, who were fighting with the Commonwealth forces in the Middle East. But close and menacing as were the Japanese victories in southeastern Asia, to us Americans they seemed as remote as Rommel’s campaign in North Africa or the Russian defense of Stalingrad.

Suddenly word came that we were moving out—on a practice landing maneuver, 1 thought. We assured our new Kiwi friends that we would be back in no longer than two weeks. In late July we cleared the last headland of New Zealand and within a week were anchored off the palm-fringed Fiji Islands. But there were no practice landings. Instead, we waited while the warships assembled and then we sailed westward.

Only our deep inexperience of war kept us from realizing our predicament.

A few days later the troop officers aboard our transport, the George F. Elliot , were summoned to the wardroom and told we were going into action: our mission was to capture an airstrip that the Japanese were completing on an island named Guadalcanal. I thought: “Just like the Marine Corps! It hasn’t even got the name of the island right.” I was something of a geography buff and could not believe we were heading for an island of which I had never heard. When the place was identified as one of the British Solomon Islands, my mind reverted to the postage-stamp collection of my boyhood. One stamp showed tattooed cannibals in canoes and thatched huts; that brought it home. In a few days we would be landing on this improbable, far-off strand, and landing under fire for the first time in our lives.

Long before dawn on August 7 we were awakened by the continuous roar of the naval bombardment as our ships pounded the enemy positions with high explosives. At first light we stood along the rail and looked out across the calm, violet water. There lay the island, dark and impassively sinister, shrouded in an early morning haze pinpricked by bright orange flashes of shell fire from our ships.

The signal came to go over the side, down the long broad nets, and into the waiting Higgins boats below. The small, thirty-man motor craft circled in swarms, then swept in long, even waves toward Red Beach, our target.

Heavy blasts of orange and yellow smoky flame—our covering fire—burst among the palm trees close to the shoreline. The firing stopped as the landing craft touched the soft coral sand, and we jumped into waist-deep water to splash ashore. Instead of the lethal barrage of mortar and machine-gun fire that was to greet our subsequent landings, this time there was no response at all from the enemy. The silence was eerie and foreboding. Lt. Col. Lenard Cresswell, commanding the 1st Battalion, shouted to me: “Steve, get your people off the beach! Move inland two hundred yards.” We fanned out in combat line and found ourselves in a field of kunai grass, taller than a person and holding the intense tropical heat. Moving through such a field is hard, sweaty, and dangerous work; you never know who or what may be approaching.

Morning had passed, and the afternoon wore on. No orders came until just before nightfall, when we were told to move on again. We followed the company to our right, leaving the high grass and pushing through the jungle single file. Darkness came swiftly, and I thought this was an extraordinary way to be going anywhere, toward a possible enemy position, in the dead of night. When the command came to halt, the men flopped down on either side of the trail. Shortly thereafter, as we lay together in the blackness, came our first experience of pure terror. Without warning, a cacophony of small arms fire enveloped us. A Japanese ambush? But the shots were coming at point-blank range. Too close! We were firing at each other! I don’t know how I made my voice heard above the din, but the platoon leaders and noncoms took up the cry, “Cease fire!” Shaken and exhausted, we lay silent until the dawn, which disclosed one man dead and one wounded—the first installment of the price we were to pay.

At daylight we emerged from the jungle and formed a skirmish line at the edge of yet another field of kunai. As we moved through it, we saw the tops of steel helmets and heard the click of rifle bolts, coupled with cries of “Who goes there?” Approaching warily, we discovered the presence to be that of D Company; minutes, possibly seconds, had kept us from repeating, in broad daylight, last night’s tragedy.