Four Months On The Front Line

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Where were our planes? The engineer battalion had completed the airstrip, using captured Japanese construction equipment, on which the engineers had taken the trouble to paint “USMC.” At last, on August 20, a varying roar of motors told us that Navy Hellcat fighters and Douglas SBD dive bombers had arrived, ready, willing, and able to do aerial combat on our behalf.

Around midnight on that red-letter day came sounds of continuous rifle fire and the heavy thump of mortar. These grew louder, not dying away as had so often been the case when some trigger-happy mistake “spooked the wire.” In the small hours of the morning the company commanders were summoned to battalion headquarters; there we were informed by Colonel Cresswell that the 2d Battalion, 1st Marines, which was dug in along the Ilu sandspit, was under heavy assault. We of the 1st Battalion were to make a counterattack. After crossing the headwaters at daybreak, we swung in a large left wheel through that same field of kunai grass where, two weeks before, we had had our near miss with D Company. We moved forward to the edge of the kunai in full battle formation, A Company on the left, C Company on the right. A sharp spatter of machine-gun fire greeted A Company as it stepped out into a grove of coconuts. The trap was set; now we would spring it. C Company moved forward fast, keeping its left flank tied tightly to the right of the embattled A Company and its right moving securely along the shore.

The Japanese rear guard in the coconut grove realized that they were encircled and turned to face us. We leapfrogged our two light machine guns along the beach, raking them with crossfire; the riflemen moved up in short spurts. Both sides built up firing lines. Casualties mounted as their snipers, hidden in the tops of palm trees, picked off our men. We were seventy yards from the Japanese line, and the intense exchange of fire was costing us too much. Something drastic was called for. I gave the order to fix bayonets, and the lieutenants followed suit. We rushed the Japanese position, and the enemy soldiers, seeing us coming, fixed their own bayonets, leaped up, and charged straight at us.

A vicious struggle followed. No quarter was asked or given as Marines and Japanese fought face-to-face in the swirling gunsmoke, lunging, stabbing, and smashing with bayonets and rifle butts. Horrible cries rose above the general tumult as cold steel tore through flesh and entrails and men died in agony.

Suddenly it was all over. The Japanese lay dead or wounded; we stood among the bodies. One of the enemy, who had pretended to be dead, suddenly moved and lobbed a hand grenade between CpI. Paul d’Errico and me. We hit the deck together as the grenade exploded. Miraculously we were unhurt by the blast; we rushed at him, and as d’Errico covered him with his rifle, I placed my .45 automatic pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. 1 rolled the man onto his back and took a wallet and some papers from his blood-soaked tunic pocket. Inside the wallet was a snapshot of his wife and two children smiling before a lacquered screen. The papers (delivered to regimental intelligence) showed that he was my opposite number, commanding the rear guard. His samurai sword lay beside him (a sword I have to this day). Meanwhile, others in the company saw to it that no one else among the wounded would be able to do what this man had done.

As we, exhausted, held our position among the dead, reports came to me about our own casualties. My second-incommand, Lt. Perry Perrine, had been killed as he worked to build up the firing line just before the bayonet charge. Lt. Mike Ahearn, commanding the third platoon, had been shot through the shoulder by a sniper. The rest of the wounded were being brought together near a small toolshed by the stretcher-bearers. I knelt beside one young Marine, shot through the lungs and dying in the arms of a corpsman. His final word— Mother —brought home to me yet again how very young all these soldiers were. Most were in their teens. One private first class, Carlton Eban, was nicknamed Pop because he was twenty-four.

The Battle of the Tenaru River—so called because the names of the Uu and Tenaru rivers were transposed on early maps—was over. We were later told we had faced the reinforced Ichiki Battalion—twelve hundred specially chosen troops, each man at least six feet tall, veterans of Malaya and Singapore. They had thrown their full strength against us and died to a man.