A young marine comes of age on 31/2 square miles of island jungle in the Pacific.
I know where I was a month ago, a year ago, or a decade ago, but I do know precisely where I was sixty-five years ago last August 8. On that date I was one of the mostly young and boisterous marines from the 2nd Marine Division who spilled from Higgins boats onto the hostile shores of Tulagi in the Solomon Islands.
It was my first experience in combat—as was true of the rest of my unit, Fox Company, and virtually everyone else there—and I was really frightened as we approached the shore. The U.S. Navy had laid down a fierce barrage prior to our landing, and I was almost giddy with apprehension as I saw the tops of tall coconut palm trees sheared off and strewn about as if by a gigantic hand.
As we vaulted over the sides of the Higgins boats, noncoms and officers were shouting, “Move out, damn it! Go now, Go! Go! Holy Jesus, you stupid shitheads! Spread out!” I ran and dodged, and ran faster when I saw a bloody dead marine lying twisted on his side. Just then I heard enemy machine gun bullets zipping past my legs. My first thought was really a silly one: “Hey, those crazy bastards are really trying to kill me!” I was grateful when somebody flung a hand grenade and the deep whomp silenced that machine gun.
After a hectic hour or so, our sector had been cleared, and we were able to rest and swig down warm water from our canteens. All around us, the palms swayed heavily and noisily in a stiff breeze. Clouds were gathering and growing darker. As the cigarette addicts among us hungrily pulled smoke deep into their lungs, somebody said, “Hey, has anybody noticed the size of these f…g mosquitoes? Christ, they’re the size of midget hummingbirds!” We laughed, but our relaxation was cut short when we were ordered to the eastern tip of the island. There we dug large foxholes in the deep sand, posted sentinels, and continued boasting about the initial battle. With much braggadocio we expressed hope the few Japanese remaining would counterattack so we could “kick their yellow asses.”
Despite the bluster, I was one fearful nineteen-year-old kid. Just the day before, August 7, 1942, the 1st Marine Division had invaded the neighboring island of Guadalcanal. It was the first large, sustained American offensive against the Japanese. About twenty miles directly to our south, Guadalcanal measured some 2,069 square miles. Tulagi, in contrast, was only about 31/2 square miles in all: high bluffs with a coastal fringe of jungle. But because it had one of the best natural anchorages in the South Seas, it became—along with the big event in Guadalcanal—the main theater of operations in the Solomons for slowing the Japanese advance in the south Pacific.
After checking my rifle and grenade supply, I finally managed to fall asleep—and slept deeply until the sound of tremendous naval gunfire awakened me around midnight. A battle had erupted in the waters northwest of Tulagi, near tiny Savo. The booming of unrelenting gunfire and explosions rolled across the sea while flares burst high into the air.
Of course we didn’t know what was really going on, and all the racket made us anxious. We asked each other who was winning this naval battle—the Americans or the Japanese. We later learned that the damned Japanese were the victors. A Japanese cruiser force had come down “the Slot” from the northern Solomons and caught a U.S. Navy task force by surprise. Enemy ships sunk three American cruisers: Astoria, Quincy, and Vincennes, along with the Australian cruiser Canberra. The cruiser Chicago was badly damaged.
As the night quieted once more, a fantastic rain began. I had never seen such a downpour. Heavy, blinding sheets fell, quickly filling our foxholes. I couldn’t believe how cold this tropical rain was. I could hardly stop shivering and shuddering. All that shaking would actually warm my body, but only for a few minutes, and then the whole damned procedure would start again. The deluge continued as thunder seemed to roll endlessly through the black clouds, while almost continuous lightning sliced the sky into a giant jigsaw puzzle. We were utterly miserable as we shook and complained and cursed. When a pinkish gray dawn finally broke several hours later, we stood about looking at the bedraggled and forlorn sight we were—and burst out in cackles of laughter.
Calm returned for a day or two. And then we awoke one morning and were shocked to discover that Sealark Channel, the area of ocean between Guadalcanal and Tulagi, was nearly devoid of ships. The navy, after losing the four cruisers during the battle of Savo Island, had decided to pull out and head for the safety of the New Hebrides, about 550 miles to the south, because its transports had been left without protection.
But those transports had contained food and other vital supplies that we marines on Tulagi and Guadalcanal desperately needed. Some had already been unloaded but not nearly enough. We spent the next few days speculating and grumbling about this turn of events. Did the navy move those transports out because it feared the Japanese were planning a mass troop invasion to take back Tulagi and Guadalcanal? How much food and medical supplies did we actually have? And what about those precious cigarettes?
We were still pondering our predicament when we were told to pack up because we were moving to an area near the opposite end of the island called Chinese Village. Merchants had migrated there years earlier and set up a few ramshackle shops to serve the natives but had long since departed. We encountered only a few Japanese stragglers on the way there and quickly disposed of them, then set up a perimeter in the jungle near the village.
Several hours after we had settled in, the sound of two quick gunshots startled us. What we found was a severe blow to our morale. During the night one of our men, a likable, strapping youth we called “the Minnesota kid,” had left his position, apparently to urinate. The skittish marine standing guard duty heard movement in the darkness, panicked, and fired, instantly killing the Minnesotan. This was our first experience with a friendly fire death, and unfortunately it would not be the last.
In the morning we were told we would be returning to the eastern tip of the island because of rumors of a Japanese naval landing. As we left, I saw the marine who had killed the Minnesota kid sitting against a tree on the side of the trail, with his helmet off. His hair was damp and he appeared haggard. As I walked by he didn’t look up.
I felt sorry for him for the jumble of emotions he must have been enduring. A few days later he was transferred to another unit, standard procedure in case a friend of the Minnesotan wanted to exact revenge.
Back at our previous positions we quickly dug new foxholes and fortifications. Digging in the loose sand just a few yards from the ocean was easy, and soon I had a “standup” foxhole that went up to my shoulders. I cut a shelf inside it to hold my two grenades.
I had played football and softball in high school and can modestly say I had a good arm. As the days wore on I practiced throwing grenades by tossing grenade-size coconuts I’d collected. I hurled them into the ocean, pretending certain spots were incoming Japanese invasion craft. My platoon leader heard about my practicing, and he brought me four more grenades. It was standard practice for each infantryman to be issued two grenades, so I guess he thought I was a worthwhile risk— although he did laughingly admonish me, “If you waste any of these valuable grenades, I’ll have your ass!”
As fears of a Japanese invasion grew, a .50-caliber machine gun crew would set up every night on the beach a few yards to my right. They ribbed me, saying things like, “Watch where the hell you’ll be throwing those grenades, kid. We don’t want to be fighting you and the Japanese both!”
Late one night Japanese warships shelled Tulagi for about thirty minutes. The armament on the beach wasn’t heavy enough to retaliate. Fear became a constant companion as we scrunched down deep in our foxholes. Shrapnel sang its deadly song over our heads, and I saw one enormous piece burning red-hot in a palm tree a few yards away. The next morning we heard that two marines had been killed and seven wounded. But damage was slight to installations and fortifications.
A few nights later we were awakened by the sound of what we called our mail boat chugging toward the harbor. It was really a small patrol vessel that plied the waters between Tulagi and Guadalcanal, carrying mail, supplies, and personnel. Suddenly we saw the long finger of the searchlight of a Japanese warship, probably a destroyer, pick up the small boat. The destroyer fired its guns and our mail boat simply exploded, sending fiery debris skyward. To our horror we heard a voice crying out from the flaming wreckage: “Help me, oh God, somebody please, please help me!” But the boat was several hundred yards away; there was nothing we could do. The pitiful cry for help continued for a few minutes and then slowly faded. Even now in my waking moments, I sometimes still hear that pleading voice.
A few days later I was among a group of twenty men selected to invade a tiny island a few hundred yards off Tulagi. There had been reports that some runaway Japanese had been spotted there. We boarded a Higgins boat, and although there was no real beach, we landed safely and tumbled out into neck-deep water. I slipped and came up coughing and spitting water. A buddy quipped, “For crissakes, Nick, if you’re going to be a fish, you gonna hafta grows gills!” We laughed but quickly grew serious as we spotted a thatched hut at the top of a rise.
Approaching cautiously, we watched as a marine crawled close and tossed in a hand grenade. After the explosion several of us carefully entered the smoky dwelling, finding it empty. Then we started to patrol along the water’s edge. I suddenly heard the deep, twenty-round burping of the Browning automatic rifle carried by the marine in the lead. I was third in line, and as I fearfully made my way forward I was shaken to see the recipients of that deafening fire. Three mangled, tangled bodies of very young Japanese soldiers lay inside a cave about four feet deep. Two severed and bloody fingers were at the side of one body. The strong, sickening smell of fresh blood wafted toward us.
We learned later that the Japanese youths had thrown away the bolts to their rifles sometime before the encounter. This was standard procedure for the Japanese, to prevent any captured weapons from being used by the enemy. Over the years, I’ve frequently thought about the deaths of these youngsters. They weren’t a threat to us because they’d disabled their rifles—though we couldn’t have known that when we encountered them. Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman, lo those many years go, wisely observed that war is hell. It sure the hell is.
Supplies were slowly coming in, including those valuable cigarettes, but we were still short of food. Early on, we found cans of strange Japanese vegetables, some looking like seaweed. Given how hungry we were, the strange fare didn’t taste bad. We also discovered bags of buggy Japanese rice. At first we meticulously picked out the insects, but that was tedious, so we gave up, figuring at least the bugs provided some extra protein.
We also made another find inside a shack: Japanese porno magazines. We lined up to look at the black-and-white drawings, laughing and stamping our feet in derision as we pointed at the crude artistry. Somebody said, “Hey, look at these horny people making little soldiers for the emperor. Well, screw them!” We guffawed and slapped each other on the back. It was good to laugh heartily after so many days of tension.
The scuttlebutt from Guadalcanal was becoming grim. When the 1st Marine Division originally landed there, it had met only slight resistance. But as the weeks wore on, the Japanese were able to land sizable numbers of troops, and frequent, ferocious battles were now taking place. The marines there were also often under Japanese naval fire and constant harassment from Japanese bombers flying out of Rabaul in New Britain. Many times we could see the enemy bombers through our binoculars, sweeping in over Guadalcanal and dropping their deadly eggs.
Along with building fortifications and repetitively checking and cleaning our already spotless weapons, we would quietly discuss the plight of our fellow marines on Guadalcanal. Many times we asked each other how long would it be before we would go over to the big show, as we called it. Despite the precarious situation there, we were eager and filled with marine confidence.
One afternoon our company commander called us together. He seemed pumped up as he puffed on a cigar. We wondered where he got it. “Listen up, guys. We’ve been picked for a special mission. Two natives came in last night after paddling their canoe for hours. They told us a Japanese bomber crashed on their island a few days ago. Four crewmen apparently survived.”
The captain hesitated, puffed furiously on the cigar, and then continued: “We figure the island is about thirty miles away to the north. We trust the natives, but you never know. It could be a very dangerous mission with that f…g Jap navy patrolling out there. And those four airmen could be a real problem if they’re armed. So I’m asking for volunteers. We’ll leave in the morning. No one will think less of you if you don’t want to go.”
I shot my hand up, as did many around me, and he selected the first thirty or so of us who volunteered. We were given special rations and extra grenades and set about cleaning our weapons and discussing the situation until nightfall. Would we meet resistance from those Japanese airmen? And would we meet up with one of the many Japanese warships in the area? We kept up a front of bravado, but each of us was sobered.
Early in the morning we boarded two Higgins boats and headed out at high speed. It was an exceptionally beautiful and calm day with the waters a deep blue-green. One of the two Fuzzy Wuzzies, as we called the Melanesian natives, was in our boat. He spoke broken English and had an almost-constant smile on his round brown face.
After we had traveled for about an hour, a marine shouted, “Hey, what’s that, a warship?” He pointed frantically toward the horizon, and we could see a shape that looked like a vessel. Our boat slowed down so we could determine what exactly the mysterious shape was. If it turned out to be a Japanese warship, it could be a fast destroyer. And that would mean serious trouble, as we probably couldn’t outrun it. A noncom pulled out a pair of binoculars, studied the shape for a few minutes, and then said with heavy sarcasm tingeing his voice, “Shit, guys, it’s only an island!” Some of us took off our helmets and wiped our faces in exaggerations of relief. A marine said to no one in particular,“Jeez, I wasn’t scared, were you?” Somebody jokingly replied, “Who, me, hell no! But I did poop my pants!”
Several hours later, the native in our boat became animated and began speaking eagerly to the coxswain. We suspected we were getting close to our destination. Soon a large island lined with monstrous palm trees came into view. Everybody automatically checked their weapons, and the Higgins boat suddenly slammed onto the beach. The other boat landed nearby. We scrambled overboard, not knowing what to expect. A village with crude huts was just a few yards away. Many smiling natives ran toward us. Children were among them, screaming in their excitement, “Candy, mister, candy!” We had no candy and we gently pushed them away, alert to any Japanese in the area.
Then a gray-haired native, an apparent elder, ran up to us and with much emotion pointed to the village, exclaiming,“Jappies, Jappies!”We rushed to the village and found three ragged-looking Japanese airmen sitting listlessly on the ground, offering no resistance whatsoever. We pushed them toward the boat, and I saw that the face of one of them was extremely swollen on one side. It turned out he had a broken eardrum, which he’d apparently suffered when his bomber came down in the jungle several hundred yards inland.
Then we heard a shot coming from the beach. We rushed over, pulling the prisoners along. There we learned that the fourth Japanese airman had escaped and, with a knife between his teeth and wearing only underpants, had started to swim toward a nearby island. A marine from Texas, who had long boasted that he was a terrific duck hunter, had coolly lined up the airman in his rifle sights and fired. The shot caught the airman in the back of the head, and he quickly sank. As we reached the beach, the Texan was accepting congratulations while he nervously puffed on a cigarette. He drawled, “Like shooting those fish in that barrel.”
We were preparing to depart by then, and I noticed that one of the captives was remarkably young, perhaps no more than seventeen or eighteen. He probably was a machine gunner, as he appeared much too young to be a pilot, bombardier, or navigator. The boy kept bowing and smiling as I gave him a Lucky Strike cigarette and lit it for him. I was almost embarrassed by his excessive deference. Pushing him into the boat, I sat next to him and was amused by how quickly fell asleep.
The trip back to Tulagi was uneventful, and we turned the prisoners over to the military police. They later were taken to a POW camp on Guadalcanal. Over the years I have often thought about that young Japanese prisoner. Did he make it back home? Surrender was considered cowardly in Japanese culture. Was he shunned and ignored? Or did his people finally accept him, and did he later tell his grandchildren about his war experiences, as I told my own grandson?
A few days after our return, we took a break from reinforcing our positions and began playing draw poker for cigarettes, using a blanket for a table. I was ahead by half a pack when, without warning, a Japanese Zero fighter flashed low over Tulagi. The plane’s canopy was open, and I could see the pilot’s face as he swooped by. He wore big goggles, and I foolishly thought he might wave at us. But he was scowling.
He strafed several supply ships in the harbor and pulled up to come over our positions. We did what we had been taught on the rifle range in boot camp: snatching up our five-shot, bolt-action Springfields, we fired rapidly at the plane in the hope of bringing it down. We had been told that a lucky bullet could find the pilot or hit a vital spot on the plane. It happened so fast that each of us was able to get off only a shot or two. I’d like to report that we got really lucky and brought the Zero down. No such outcome. But we talked about it for days and boasted about who came closest to hitting that damned Zero.
Finally the day that we were anticipating arrived. On a rainy morning the captain summoned the company with a big grin on his sunburned face.“Well, as you may have guessed, we’ll be leaving for Guadalcanal in two days,” he told us. “It seems like the Japs just don’t want to give up. Maybe we can help persuade them to go back to Japan.” Cheering ourselves hoarse, we threw our helmets into the air and pounded each other’s backs. We couldn’t wait to get to the big show.
There was a brisk breeze on the hot morning we departed for Guadalcanal. A few miles out, I looked back on the dark, lush island of Tulagi and realized it was there where I grew up as a marine. I had seen dead marines and slain Japanese soldiers, and those awful scenes were seared into my memory. It was on that exotic island that we teased each other about losing our girlish laughter and our baby fat. Although I was still only nineteen, I felt that I was now a man and certainly a marine.
Then I looked ahead toward the huge and somewhat mountainous Guadalcanal and wondered what destiny had in store. Was it going to be anything like Tulagi, or would the fighting be incomparable? I soon found out, but that’s another story.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.