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Guadalcanal Journal: To Hell and Back
Guadalcanal August 7, 1942
“The jungle is thick as hell. The Fifth Regiment landed first and marched to the airport. We went straight through and then cut over to block the escape of the Japs. It took three days to go six miles. Japs took off, left surplus first day, which was done away with.”
“The second day was murder. All along the way were discarded packs, rifles, mess gear and everything imaginable. The second night it rained like hell and the bugs were terrific. The Second Battalion (First Regiment) had reached the Lunga River…”
“The third day we came back. The Japs had beat us in their retreat. We took up beach defense positions. We have been bombed every day by airplanes, and a submarine shells us every now and then. Our foxholes are four-foot deep. We go out on night patrols and it’s plenty rugged. We lay in the foxholes for 13 to 14 hours at a clip and keep firing at the Japs in the jungle. As yet, there is no air support. The mosquitoes are very bad at night. The ants and flies bother us continually. The planes strafed the beach today. A big naval battle ensued the second day we were here, which resulted in our ship, the Elliott, being sunk. All of our belongings were lost.”
So begins my father’s firsthand account of his grueling experience on the island of Guadalcanal.
He wrote his Guadalcanal Journal in 1942 when he was a 21-year old Marine.
But more than a half-century would go by before my brother and sisters and I got to read it. For years the brown leather Journal lay buried in a bureau drawer. The miniscule words had faded and were hard to decipher. Then, last July, not long after my father’s death, my mother found a typed transcript of the diary among his papers. My dad had never talked much about Guadalcanal when he was alive. Now we know why.
“While we were giving the one cruiser hell, the Japs landed a battalion of men on Red Beach, but we did not know about it. The next night 12 of us went on patrol and took up positions on our side of the Lunga River. About 3 a.m., hell broke loose and the Japs started to cross the stream. I want to forget all about it. My buddies being shot and blown apart…”
In fact, except for my dad’s occasional fevers, the malaria my mother said he’d contracted during “the war,” and the military uniform he wore in his wedding picture, I hardly connected him to the World War II we’d learned about in history class.
That’s all changed. One night when my dad was in his early seventies, he watched a television program about the wartime propaganda films of Frank Capra. In one scene a priest dispenses communion to young leathernecks lined up on a tropical beach. My father recognized himself immediately. He sent for the video and when it arrived, we agreed that it was him alright, despite a full head of wavy brown hair. (This footage was originally a newsreel that sent two of my mother’s friends rushing home from the theater one evening with big news: “Cassie! …We just saw Jim-Jim at the movies!”) The film clip of my handsome father in battle fatigues on a faraway beach convinced me, but it cannot compete with the power of his Journal to make the past come alive.
“They bomb every day. Our fellows went out to the airport on working party. When air raid signal sounded, they went to a ravine. One of the personnel bombs landed and killed three, seriously wounded two. It was a horrible blow to us. Cameron was one of the best men in the Corps. I was going to visit him when we got home. The way our men are getting killed, I wonder if any of us will get back.”
It was on a beautiful summer day that my father quietly passed away, at home, surrounded by a loving family. It wasn’t always so. My dad grew up in a two-story brick rowhouse in the Gray’s Ferry section of Philadelphia, a neighborhood known as “the Devil’s Pocket,” during the Depression. He lived with his great-grandmother and grandfather, who elected to raise him instead of placing him in an orphanage. When she died, his grandfather boarded him at the home of his best friend, nicknamed Coogan. As teenagers, they enjoyed romancing the girls at South Philly dances and driving to Wildwood at the Jersey shore on weekends in Coogan’s jalopy. Their youth came to a screeching halt the night they heard the electrifying broadcast of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the radio at Coogan’s house. My dad promptly quit his job in the wire factory and enlisted in the Marines.
After the war, my dad made the most of his second chance at life. He worked as a police reporter for a newspaper, wrote short stories and attended college at night. He became a radio broadcaster and had his own call-in talk show. He started a public relations and advertising firm, contributed news stories to The New York Times and anchored a weekend newscast on a local television station. Eventually, he entered the healthcare field and worked for many years as a hospital administrator. He earned his bachelor’s degree in business (Rutgers University) and his master’s degree in public administration (New York University). By the time he retired, he was a member of the prestigious American College of Healthcare Executives. When he died, he left four children, 10 grandchildren, a great granddaughter and a wife of nearly 54 years, behind.
Thanks to the Journal, we now know a little more about the man in the middle, Jim Donahue, the Marine. We know that he cared about his Marine buddies. That he suffered from dysentery and chronic eye infections, as well as malaria. That he went for days without sleep. That he ate Japanese rations and wore Japanese clothes for a month until supplies arrived. That he loved getting mail from my mother. That he hoped to be home by Christmas. That he lived with the fear of imminent death. That he, my kind, gentle, smart, cheerful, funny father, had, incredibly, killed human beings he called “The Enemy.”
Not a man was lost in the landing operation on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. The Japanese, caught completely by surprise, fled into the jungle and the hills beyond, abandoning their prized airstrip — but not for long. When the fighting finally subsided on Feb. 9, 1943, more than 1,700 Americans had been killed, nearly 5,000 wounded (most of them, Marines) in this, the longest of the World War II battles fought in the Pacific. (It was the longest, single military campaign in U.S. history.) American and Japanese forces clashed repeatedly for a period of six months in a fight to the death. My father wrote: The Japs sure mean business. The naval historian, Samuel Eliot Morison, was more eloquent when he said, “Guadalcanal is not a name but an emotion, recalling desperate fights in the air, furious night naval battles, frantic work at supply or construction, savage fighting in the sodden jungle, night broken by screaming bombs and deafening explosions of naval shells.” That state of affairs is confirmed in nearly every entry in the primary source that is my father’s Guadalcanal Journal.
“Three air raids today. They killed one and wounded three. This was our 89th bombing raid. This doesn’t count the times our planes intercepted theirs. They sure had their eye on the airport and boy, did they hit it — nine direct times! Toward dusk, enemy artillery opened up on us. We retaliated. At 1:30, two cruisers and one battleship shelled us for two hours. So far today we were hit by land, sea and air.”
“This is the first chance I had to write. For three days and nights we have been bombarded by land, sea and air. Fourteen-inch shells off a battleship kept punching our defenses. We have been hit by air three times in one hour. At night the Jap artillery gets started. Gas for the airplanes is very low. Situation is desperate. Our battalion pulled out of line to take up 5th position. Army relieved us on other line. Four transports of Jap troops unloaded. We sunk or damaged every one. We need reinforcements. The crisis is fast approaching.”
“The Jap bombers just came over but we had a 10-plane patrol that gave them hell. They dropped their bombs. We saw two bombers go down in flames. If you want action, join the Marine Corps. I didn’t believe it ’til I hit this island.”
Action is what he got at the pivotal battle of Hell’s Point (also known as the Battle of the Tenaru River), which he describes at length. In the early morning hours of August 21, nine hundred Japanese troops, the cream of the Imperial Army’s infantry, attacked Lt.Col. Al Pollock’s reinforced Second Battalion, 1st, while defending the Lunga Perimeter.
“It all started about 3 a.m. in the morning. However, we were warned about 11 o’clock to “Stand by your guns.” Each man passed on to the other all the way down the line. Was this going to be the real test? All of a sudden our listening posts reported troops moving toward us… The point was heavily fortified. I don’t mean with big guns, but we had a platoon of machine gunners there and a 37mm gun crew… The Japs still came across and we kept knocking them off. Their machine guns would throw up a barrage for them but their field of fire was limited. They finally succeeded in getting a machine gun across, which was set up right below. Len Beer threw a hand grenade, which silenced it… The 37 MM gun did plenty of damage with its canister shot. The Japs brought up their field pieces and started laying them into the line and point. Following soon our 105’s silenced them. Japs were using rifle grenades and mortars. After about two hours, reinforcements came up. They sent two light machine guns, which were mounted between Bottles’ and my position and Beer’s and Dignan’s. Within ten minutes the whole two crews were shot up, this due to the fact that they were not below the deck.”
“At this point, Sgt. Muth picked up a gun and started running down the line. He would stop, fire a few good bursts and then take off to a new position. J. moved up behind Murray, and I and he had a BAR. He shouted if there was room for him in the foxhole. There wasn’t, so we had to make room. He would be killed if he stayed on the deck. A machine gun had been mounted in an abandoned alligator and they were throwing plenty of lead our way. J. crept as close as possible and made a dive for our hole. He landed okay and Murray and I continued our fire. About five minutes later, I said to Bottles, “Why the hell don’t he fire?” Murray said slowly, “He’s dead.” I said, “Are your sure?” And he said, “Here is his blood; feel his pulse.” But we couldn’t determine whether he was alive. We couldn’t move an inch either, for the Japs were really spraying our lines. So I reached over and felt his pulse. His face was sunken and there was no pulse. The blood began to fill the hole, so we fixed a poncho so that the blood would stay on the other side. The next morning I saw that he had been hit in the head and chest. While our artillery was finding the Japs’ range, they landed three in our lines so close to us that we were covered with dirt. We thought that the next one would land square on top of us…”
When the battle for Hell’s Point ended many hours later, about 800 Japanese had been slaughtered. The Americans lost 34 men; 75 were wounded. The dishonored Japanese commander retreated to a coconut grove and committed suicide. The invincibility of the Japanese, widely believed after a string of previous victories in the Pacific, was apparently a myth. America could win; U. S. Marines at Hell’s Point had died proving it. Those gallant fighting men, my father called them, saddened that they had not lived to see the newsclippings from the states about the successful “Solomon Action.”
Over the course of the next three months, my father survived a number of close calls– standing watch, sleeping in a hillside cave, visiting his buddies’ graves…
“Again, I can thank God for letting me live. We were digging three alternate gun positions in case the Japs break through. We were not given any Condition. Suddenly, Fisher spotted 30 Jap bombers just about over us. We grabbed our helmets and ran like hell. Where we were running, I do not know, just trying to get out of reach of the bombers. It can’t be done, because no one knows where they are going to bomb. Mugno and I finally spotted a small foxhole and we dove in. Just then we heard them dropping. All the time I was repeating, “Hail, Mary.”
“Seven Jap planes bombed us today killing six and wounding 43. I was very, very close. God was with me.”
“Lt. Benson called us all together. We have tried four assaults on Japs at Kokumbona and all have failed. They are dug in and planes have to get a direct hit to kill any. Artillery is the same way. The only way to get them is with mortars, so we are doubling up. We will take 8 mortars. Every man will have a hand grenade. 2nd Bn is the spearhead and it must push and drive. The Japs have to be killed and we gotta do it. It will be a tough job. The reason given for failure of the last attempts was due to men stopping to bring their wounded buddies in. God be with us.”
Just when it is “beginning to look like we will never get off this island,” things take a turn for the better. It is early December when my dad writes:
“There is a rumor that Vandergrift said that the First Marine Division is through fighting in the Solomon’s… We will probably go back on the lines soon. Good scuttlebutt never comes true, but the bad always comes true. I have never seen it fail.”
For once, the rumors are true. According to the Journal, the Army general slated to take over the island from Vandergrift wanted to use the First Marines in another assault. Vandergrift got wind of it and had it stopped. Despite continual attacks on land, the advance of Japanese convoys by sea and dogfights daily in the sky overhead, the moving out process commences.
“We are now set up on the beach and what a layout! We moved into a good tent. The cots were there for us. We found a lot of food and equipment. We also found two bottles of beer, which we drank on the spot. Boy, did they taste good!… We are moving again today. We are scheduled to board ship in a few days. I hope we do before anything comes up… Today is Dec. 18. We are bivouaced at Mouth of Lunga River. For the first time since we hit the island, our machine gunners have not stood gun watch… What do you think happened last night? We saw a movie, and not six miles away, men were fighting for their lives. … We boarded ship today..Noorham and then we changed to President Johnson. I now write finis to Guadalcanal.”
“Finis to Guadalcanal.” I know now what these words meant to fighting men like my father. No more rats, lizards, crocodiles or mosquitoes to contend with. No more torrential rain and knee-deep mud. No more equatorial heat. No more strange diseases. No more stench. No more jungle. No more working parties. No more night patrols. No more nightmares. No more suicide bombers. No more snipers. No more shelling. No more killing. No more Japanese — for the time being. The realization that I have underestimated my father and what he lived through is sobering. He was a much stronger individual than I knew — physically, mentally and spiritually. That strength — what the Marines call “esprit,” what many call bravery — had enabled him and others to endure the darkest hours on Guadalcanal. I learned firsthand — from my father’s Journal — of their legendary sacrifices and valor.
The battle for Guadalcanal had been pretty much decided when the First Marine Division departed the island in late December. With more than a third of the men malaria-ridden and the division deemed no longer combat-effective, the weary Marines were shipped to Australia for much needed rest and rehabilitation — a reprieve. One year later, on the day after Christmas 1943, the men of the First Marine Division invaded Cape Gloucester, the “knock-out punch to the jaw,” in the Battle of New Britain. And then, Peleliu.
The final entry, an epilogue really, is like the light at the end of a long tunnel.
“We ate Christmas dinner aboard ship… A big portion of the fleet was here — about 25 destroyers, 18 cruisers, 1 aircraft carrier, 40 cargo ships, 12 tankers. Reminded me of Frisco. We are now bivouaced on Hebrides (Espiritu Sanctu). It is beautiful!”
I have a favorite photograph of my father taken the summer before his health faltered. He is the picture of contentment, sitting in his sunny backyard, surrounded by flowers and trees, listening to the birds and the Big Band sound of WPEN on the radio, a newspaper on his knee… half a world away from the cataclysm known to history as GUADALCANAL.
How perfectly peaceful it must be where he is now…
Sit back and relax. You deserve it, Dad.
By Nancy Croce Copyright © 1998-2012 Nancy Croce