Two men with stars braved sniper fire on Guadalcanal, inspiring a couple of frightened young Marines.
Occasionally during combat an incident occurs that one can recall with absolute clarity even decades later. For this Marine, that incident stems from the afternoon of November 1, 1942. Even now, it will sometimes float across my mind as I slip into sleep.
On that afternoon, our company— Fox Company, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division—was engaged in a drive on Guadalcanal along with other units. Forever moist and disease-ridden, Guadalcanal could have a prime address in one of the lower circles of Dante’s Inferno. We were making our way through a large coconut plantation along the Pacific shore in support of the 1st Marine Division, which had borne the brunt of early fighting on that Japanese-infested island. Our objective was to sweep the enemy away from an area near a river called the Matanikau. We were moving rapidly forward despite occasional sniper fire and Japanese mortar rounds crashing in the vicinity.
We hated snipers with a special vengeance. Their task is not just to kill but to create psychological chaos. They had us gritting our teeth and involuntarily ducking at the slightest sound or movement. We could recognize enemy sniper fire because of its peculiar high-pitched cracking sound, unlike the deeper boom of our rifles.
We moved forward ever so cautiously and made sure we were spread out. The tension was almost unbearable, and every nerve in my body seemed strained. Suddenly, enemy artillery rounds came slamming in. Somebody yelled, “37s! 37s!” Sure, we were Marines, but we had a deathly fear of those damned 37mm guns. You would hear them being fired and— almost immediately, it seemed—you’d hear the terrifying “WHOMP!” of the shell hitting nearby. Scary, most scary.
I was with a good friend named Stanley Glowacz, from Nebraska. Glowacz was a good-looking, outgoing kid about my age, with wavy blond hair and a quicksilver smile. We dove for cover under an immense log, which was propped up by another tree just off the trail. Squadrons of mosquitoes buzzed my face and stinging ants covered my hands. I swiped them off as best I could. I tried to burrow like a badger into the stinking, decaying vegetation. My three-pound helmet felt like it weighed a least a half a ton.
Rather morbidly, I thought about the $10,000 government life insurance policy I had taken out. I had recently written my sister that if something happened to me she should tell my parents to buy a late-model Buick, my favorite car, and use the rest of the insurance to help pay off the mortgage.
I shuddered. I sweated. I cursed. I cringed. I prayed: “Please save me, God. I’ll be a better person. I truly will!”
The moist heat was pressing down on me like a thick blanket, and sweat dripped down from my head and face into the top of my combat fatigues. The more I perspired, the more thirsty insects I attracted. Now my heart was banging away at an extremely high rate. The taste of fear flooded my mouth, so bone-dry that I couldn’t even spit. Then a shell screamed in and hit nearby. A 37mm shell had struck between the outstretched legs of a prone Marine and had virtually torn him in two.
After about 10 minutes, the shelling began to taper off when Glowacz, a few yards away, suddenly said: “Holy shit, Nick! Look to the left! Holy shit! Look!”
I turned my head, and was simply stunned.
Two Marine generals were casually strolling down the narrow trail wearing neat khaki uniforms. The tallest officer wore a one-star insignia, while the other wore two stars. They both carried swagger sticks and side arms. The shorter general, astonishingly, was smoking a big black cigar, with smoke curling around his head. And there were snipers in the vicinity!
To say that I, one scared 20-year-old kid, was impressed by the calm presence of those generals would not do justice to their audacity. The pair just walked along, leisurely as can be, with big smiles on their leathered faces as though they were just leaving the country club back home. The tallest one kept repeating in a moderate and calm voice: “All right, boys. It’s time to move out. Let’s go now. Time to move out, boys.”
The generals never shouted. They didn’t implore. They didn’t curse or even raise their voices. The tall one just said, over and over, “Time to move out, boys.”
The enemy shelling had virtually ceased when our squad leader, a big guy from Minnesota named Randy Johnson, bellowed something like: “OK, you friggin’ pansies! Let’s move, damn it! Double time, double time!” But it was the incredible example of bravery under fire of those taciturn generals that ignited the courage we needed. Along with the others, I leaped up and advanced, dodging and throwing myself to the ground and repeating the process. We cleaned out several Japanese strongholds and even found an abandoned 37mm artillery piece. Some Marines stopped and gleefully urinated on the hated weapon.
It was nearing dark now, and Glowacz and I teamed up and hurriedly scooped out a large foxhole to hold us both. The long night was nightmarish, with several Japanese occasionally yelling in imperfect English from perhaps 75 feet away: “You die, you Marine dogs! We come for you, damn Yankee dogs!”
We alternated keeping watch, grateful for the yellowish quarter-moon that helped illuminate the area somewhat. Neither of us could sleep. Large critters, probably land crabs, scuttled about in the thick underbrush, chilling our blood. The multitude of chirping and whirring insects made it difficult to filter out sounds that could be made by a creeping enemy.
The night dragged on in a miniature eternity. I confessed to Glowacz that I was scared, really scared. “You scared?” I whispered. “This might be it, guy, this might be it!” he replied in a quavering voice. And then, in what could have been a gesture of finality, we shook hands. We heard sporadic rifle fire on both sides and sensed, rather than saw, other nearby members of our company. It was comforting to know there were friends near us.
Dawn finally broke in a humid haze over the jungle. Despite their previous bravado, the Japanese hadn’t attacked. Their main force had retreated during the night. The campaign ended a day later. Then we heard the sobering news that more Japanese soldiers were landing from ships near the Matanikau shore. Our company was pulled back to help defend the eastern approaches of our invaluable stronghold at Henderson airfield. Thankfully, it was a relatively quiet front and we were able to relax and catch up on our mail. The chow we were fed was almost good, and the nicotine addicts among us eagerly grabbed cartons of cigarettes.
We also thoroughly hashed over the remarkable incident of the generals, whom we never saw again. In that particular fog of battle, we were never able to find out who they were. Were they from our 2nd Marine Division or the 1st Marines? General staff members or visiting dignitaries, or what? It was a puzzle we never solved.
The experience took place some 64 years ago. I am nearing my mid-80s and still can close my eyes and visualize those courageous officers and recall how their cool demeanor and savoir-faire on that frightening battlefield had gently shamed and steadied kids such as myself. Gentlemen, I don’t know if you are dead or alive. But I salute you and thank you, kind sirs.
Editor’s note: We sent Nick Cariello’s story to Charles Neimeyer, director of the history division at the U.S. Marine Corps headquarters in Quantico, Va. According to Neimeyer, “It appears that the two generals in question most likely were Maj. Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, and his assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. William H. Rupertus.” Cariello was “elated” to be able to place names with his memory. “I prowled Google and I was saddened but really not surprised to hear that both had died,” the author adds; “Vandegrift in 1973 and Rupertus in 1945.”
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.