- Historic Sites
Four Months On The Front Line
A former Marine recalls the grim defense of Guadalcanal in 1942
October/november 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 6
On November 13 mail reached us for the first time since we had left New Zealand. There seemed to be packets of letters for everyone. Thoughts of home, of loved ones, thoughts that we had put aside under the stress of our long ordeal, came flooding back. It was difficult even to imagine what life was like back in the United States.
That night we heard once again the distant noise of tremendous gunfire out at sea. Standing on the reverse slope of the ridge, looking far out to sea, we saw what seemed like bright orange tennis balls floating lazily back and forth across the water in the inky darkness of the Slot. We realized that another decisive naval engagement was under way. The Japanese were attempting to land even more troops to the west of the Matanikau, and our ships were doing everything in their power to prevent them. Our vantage point provided no clue to the outcome, but we sensed that the Battle of Guadalcanal was building toward its climax. We discovered later that Adm. Daniel CaIlaghan had turned the tide by intercepting another Japanese fleet sent to pulverize Henderson Field.
Nevertheless, there were many enemy troops already on the island. Some units were badly mauled, others almost intact, and more kept arriving, conveyed by the resilient Bougainville Express. The Japanese had little artillery and no tanks with which to engage us, but they did have mortars of all sizes. Incoming shells from these tubes gave no advance notice; our best defense was the thick jungle canopy over us, where most of the shells exploded, hurling fragments among us. Bad as these were, they were less lethal than a direct hit.
Around the third week of November we were reunited with the 1st Battalion and took up positions along the Matanikau River. The 7th Regiment and the Army units had pushed the enemy westward, and our mission was to hold what had been won. It was just as well; by then our battalion was in no shape to launch any large-scale frontal attack. It would have been barely able to resist such an assault from the Japanese. None came. We did repel probes that occasionally threw in mortar fire before testing the barbed wire. We continued to patrol, with the same old apprehension gripping our guts. Hacking our way through the jungle, we tended to think of the enemy as wily Orientals at home in this nightmarish terrain. We forgot that they were young men from crowded cities like Tokyo and farmland like Kyushu, just as we were city boys from Boston or country lads from Georgia. Wherever they came from, they fought with unflinching tenacity. None ever surrendered; those few we took prisoner were too weak either to resist or to commit hara-kiri.
But we, too, were weakening. The adrenaline distilled by courage was running low. Our patrols slackened; we dreaded more than ever the agony of evacuating the dead and wounded on stretchers through the jungle. Since August our battalion had been on the front line for more than four months—one of the longest stretches without relief in any modern war—and the strain was showing. All we could anticipate were fresh orders to rejoin the troops attacking westward and one more struggle up the long, bare ridges that rose from the jungle floor. In the midst of this weary resignation we received the electrifying word that we were leaving the island. It was a reprieve that seemed to come not only from division HQ but from heaven.
On the morning of December 23, 1942, what was left of the 1st Battalion stood at attention on the beach at Lunga Point, staring in disbelief at a transport ship. A soft breeze caressed our faces. As a bugle sounded the call to board ship, we managed a stiff salute to our regimental commander, Col. Clifton Gates. Our great anticipation was muted by the realization that many friends were no longer with us. But for all of us, the living and the dead, the long ordeal was over. None of us was aware, as we sailed away, that we had made history, but each man bore within himself a lifetime of memories.