Four Months On The Front Line

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I returned to the bivouac area and found all hands digging desperately, determined to reach the bowels of the earth, it seemed, in case a fresh bombardment should come that night. And come that night it did. A few minutes past midnight the jaws of hell reopened, and the same cacophony of multicolored explosives screamed, roared, and whistled overhead hour after hour. They were from the battleships Kongo and Haruna , whose outsize guns had been built in violation of all the naval treaties signed by the great powers during the twenties and thirties. Several projectiles scored direct hits on the ammunition dump. It blew up, throwing out great balls of orange fire, and from it came the Chinese-firecracker sound of a million detonations.

The electrifying word that we were leaving seemed to come from heaven.

In the gray, rainy dawn men slumped numbly in their foxholes. Nothing stirred. The ammunition-dump fire raged out of control. But as I walked among the platoons of C Company, I sensed, through scattered wisecracks and remnants of the old cocky swagger, that the men still had an indomitable will to live and that the future could still belong to us. Now it rested with the Japanese. Our orders (and those of the other two companies held in reserve) were to move instantly against any counterattack that might come after the naval shelling had lifted. Colonel Cresswell had added this ominous phrase at his briefing:”… and if that doesn’t work, all bets are off.” These words echoed in my mind as we underwent our third successive night of horror. But by that third day the moment of truth had come and gone for the enemy. Henderson Field could have been theirs had they administered the coup de grâce . They failed to do so.

C Company rejoined the battalion. We moved up from the shattered coconut grove along the beach to relieve a unit on the Lunga River sector of the front line. The Lunga, a swiftly flowing stream between jungled banks, bisected the area now fully enclosed by our defense perimeter. It was dusk by the time we got there. My opposite number waved toward the scattered foxholes behind his barbed wire, shook hands, and said, “It’s your little red wagon now.” Great! Nothing quite compares with putting an infantry outfit into position after nightfall near an unseen enemy.

My predecessor’s command post was a shallow dugout only six feet behind the line of foxholes. When Colonel Cresswell saw it the next morning, he said firmly: “Steve, you don’t belong here. The men may like it, but you should be back where you can command. I know you meant well, but we can buy all the courage we need for fifty bucks a month.”

Life along the Lunga River soon became much the same as it had been along the Hu. The position was improved daily. The barbed wire crept deeper into the forest and across the bare ridge; we established four-man outposts, on twohour shifts, fifty yards in front of each company’s line. We were astonished by the arrival of four war dogs, trained, it was said, to warn of an approaching enemy. But they detested outpost duty even more than the men did and lay cowering, noses between paws, through the long nights. Morale was improved by the availability of better food. Before each evening meal an officer at the head of the chow line made sure that every man swallowed an Atabrine pill to hold in check the malarial symptoms we all had. We began to develop yellowish complexions, which we called an Atabrine tan.

New orders came. The regiment detached C Company once again and sent it to augment the 2d Battalion’s right flank near the Matanikau. So once again, as a sopping tropical dusk descended, I found myself putting the men into a strange and unfamiliar sector of the line. Dawn showed us that we were in yet another sloppy stretch of foxholes behind thin strands of wire. At noon the next day the 2d Battalion’s second-in-command came forward to inspect and ordered the line pushed forward. The area immediately in front of the wire was infested with booby traps left by the previous unit, with no diagram to show where they were. When I pointed out to the major that tangling with these concealed trip wires could cost lives, he stared at me stonily. “That’s an order,” he said, and departed. I pondered this dilemma and sent a runner to battalion headquarters with a written request for more barbed wire to comply with orders. My hopes were fulfilled; neither the wire nor anyone from HQ ever appeared.

Some lives were thus saved, but chaos struck shortly thereafter; a short round from one of our 60-mm mortars burst almost at the feet of Lt. Bob Fowler and myself. The concussion flattened us both. Lying there on the ridge, I noticed blood from a wound in my right shoulder. Luckily for me it was neither deep nor in a vital spot; the corpsman had only to dress it each day with sulfa powder and a fresh bandage. Understandably enough, no Purple Hearts are awarded for wounds inflicted by our own weapons. How would the citation read?