SOLOMON ISLANDS: Part III
Gavutu, Tanambogo, Guadalcanal
October 1942 - January 1943
f course this easy, relatively safe, sometimes fun duty couldn't last forever . . . There was a bloody war going
on out there across the channel. The widely scattered 2nd Marine Division was slowly being gathered for
a reunion on Guadalcanal. Some units came from Samoa, some from New Zealand and our units on Tulagi, Gavutu, Tanambogo and, not least, SingSong.
Near the end of October, an Army unit moved in to garrison Tulagi. The 2nd Infantry Regiment with H and I Batteries moved by Higgins boats and a Yippee, or YP, patrol boat across the channel to Guadalcanal. The "SingSong Four" went to Gavutu with the rest of G Battery to garrison that island. We were to remain there until relieved by the army. This was the first time all G Battery was together since D-Day, August 7th.
A Jap destroyer shelled the YP boat carrying I Battery as it started across the channel. We had a ringside view of the action from our observation post on Gavutu. We felt that we had lost many of our buddies, but only four men died during the attack. One of the casualties was Johnny Keifer from Livingston, MT, who was in the group which left Butte with me in January. Three Navy PT boats chased the destroyer away and the Yippee returned to Tulagi. Two days later, they accomplished a safe, uneventful crossing. This meant that except for G Battery, 3rd Battalion of the 10th Regiment, the 2nd Marine Division was finally intact on Guadalcanal.
I was beginning to get paranoid. It seemed as if our little instrument section was forever straggling behind the Battery, the Battalion, the Regiment, the Division. We felt like rejected orphans....always running to catch up to our outfit but always arriving just after they had left. The ashes of their campfires were always warm so we knew that we were not too far behind.
We manned Tanambogo and Gavutu. These two small islands are between Tulagi and Florida and are connected by a narrow concrete causeway. This channel was the haven for all the battered ships being clobbered by the Japanese navy. I can remember one big cruiser, the Minneapolis, coming in almost awash with most of her bow shot away. She was patched up with coconut logs and tarps, then towed away a few days later. I don't know where they hauled her, but she came back to serve with much distinction in later battles.
*** *** ***
The instrument section served the same surveillance function here as we did on SingSong. Our tents were
near the causeway and we had to climb a steep trail to get to the observation post. We knew that there were
still Japs hiding out on the island so these trips back and forth to the post in the middle of the night were
We were always glad to spot a ship pulling into the channel. If we were lucky, they would drop anchor too
soon and it would drag along the bottom, snagging and breaking the underwater telephone lines. When this
happened, radiomen had to man the observation post and we'd get to revel in a full night's sleep. Our
vacation would only last for a couple of days before new lines were laid but we welcomed the respite from
night watches. We kept hoping that we'd run out of wire.
I have an enduring respect and admiration for the swabbies of the PT boat squadron stationed on Gavutu.
Night after night we could hear them going forth to do battle with the Jap fleet. They had no armor or other
protection, their only defense was speed.
The food situation was unique. We had an abundance of supplies captured from the Japs. Cases of lobster
and shrimp, and huge bags of wormy rice. I eventually got to dislike canned lobster as much as I despised
Vienna sausages and Kadoga figs. I'm still not too fond of rice. Natives from Florida paddled up each day
with their canoes loaded with bananas, plantains, pineapples, limes, papayas, mangoes and some other
unidentifiable items. We didn't have much to trade, but at first they didn't demand much. We could buy a
whole canoe load of fruit for one skivvie drawer or a pair of socks. Unfortunately, they were fast learners.
Their prices steadily rose and soon we had to stop trading. We were willing to trade away our underwear,
gas-masks, dress shoes, Kiwi polish, and moldy dress greens ----amazingly we still had our sea bags with us
and they contained everything that we possessed---, but we were combat-wise enough to hang onto our
blankets and ponchos.
In those first days, when fruit was so cheap, we decided to try our hands at wine making. We filled an old
wooden tub with crushed bananas, pineapples and limes. We expected this mixture to ferment and produce
an alcoholic delight. It just rotted and generated a green scum containing the carcasses of mice and bugs. We
had to throw out the mess. Then we pressured a private from Arkansas into being our "brew-master". We
assumed that anyone born near the Ozarks had the ability to make moonshine. He suggested that the
pineapples and limes contained too much acid. We tried again. For the new batch, we used bananas, papayas
and raisins, which we liberated from the mess tent. We sacrificed a couple of mosquito nets to make a bug
proof cover. After a few days we tasted our vintage. It was dreadful but we pretended to enjoy it. I had
become friendly with a PT boat crew so I offered them a share in our distillery for a supply of "torpedo
juice" to jazz up our recipe. I don't know what the propellent in the torpedoes was, but it did contain
alcohol. We all enjoyed a couple of late night buzzes but we weren't able to make it a habit.
*** *** ***
Gavutu had an abundance of land
crabs. These were big repulsive looking, but harmless creatures that crawled into our tents at night. When
you woke up to find a claw-wielding monster sitting on your chest, the first reaction was to either shoot it or
club it to death. We soon learned either choice was a bad mistake. A live land crab looks scary as hell, but a
dead land crab smells like hell. The stench lingers forever. It became a common sight to see a distraught
Marine cooing gently as he used palm fronds to herd a flock of crabs away from his area. We became
accustomed to them and arrived at an uneasy standoff.
*** *** ***
I must have an affinity for weird buglers. (Remember Corporal Stang and the "Golden Showers"?) Our
battery bugler was also our barber. He was a mild little guy named Kolibaba. It was my misfortune to be
sitting under his scissors when he freaked out. He ran out of the tent, screaming, shouting curses to God,
America, and the Marine Corps. He proclaimed himself a secret agent of King George and insisted that he
had infiltrated the Marine Corps to protect the interests of the Crown. He wielded his scissors wildly but was
subdued without anyone getting hurt. I never saw him again after this incident and I presume he was sent
back to the states.
*** *** ***
In late November or early December, the 1st Division on Guadalcanal was relieved. I can't remember if they
went to Australia or to Auckland, New Zealand. Unfortunately, for us, their replacement was the balance of
the 2nd Division that came from its scattered camps in Samoa and New Zealand. The 8th Regiment arrived
at Guadalcanal in early November and the 6th Regiment arrived from New Zealand in December. We were
praying that we would stay attached to the 1st Division and board the transports and leave with them. This
time my luck deserted me. We were detached from the 1st Division and reattached to the 2nd. This meant
that we got to stay with our division... supposedly fresh, eager troops. Our battalion did earn two battle stars
for the Solomons' Campaign. One star for the assault landing and one for the campaign and occupation.
In mid November, while we were still manning our observation post on Gavutu, the Japs sent a task force
into the "slot" and began shelling both sides of the channel. We only had a small naval force to intercept
them and we got pretty badly shot up. The Juneau sank and the San Francisco received major damage. The
heavy cruiser "Helena" distinguished itself during the battle and I felt personal pride when I heard of her
exploits. The Helena is named for Montana's capital city and all Montanans feel a special interest in
A few days after this battle we made the perilous journey across the channel in our battered Higgins boats,
without any Jap interference, and landed on Guadalcanal at a coconut plantation near the Tenaru River. Our
bivouac was about a half mile from Henderson Field.
It was hard to believe that Tulagi and Guadalcanal are only twenty miles apart. It was easy to figure out
why the officials of the Lever Company set up their headquarters on Tulagi. The big island felt hotter and
swarmed with mosquitoes. There is a narrow strip of coconut plantations on the coast; the rest of the island
is steep mountains, covered with dense jungle. We camped in a level area between two sluggish, muddy
rivers. The island stank and I never got used to the smell. I felt that the stench reached into my bones. It
took months in New Zealand with cool weather, cold milk, fresh fruit, and friendly civilians before I felt
clean and human again.
Every night , a lone bomber from Rabaul, or some other Jap base nearby, made a run over Henderson Field
and dropped a few bombs. Since our position was near the field, we got clobbered with the near misses. We
dubbed the nightly visitor Washing Machine Charlie. I guess that high droning sound reminded
someone of his mother's Maytag. Charlie usually managed to dump a couple of bombs on the field, but we
could always patch up the damage and keep a runway operating. Charlie's real damage was psychological.
He kept us on edge as we jumped into foxholes two or three times every night. After a week or so, we just
ignored him. We'd wake up to that high, scary, drone and decide to take our chances in our tents.
G Battery became the artillery support for an Army regiment that was assaulting Mt. Austin. Sam Dallas and
I were attached to one of the infantry companies of the 164th Army Regiment as forward observers. I
developed love and respect for those "dog-faces". Marines like to feel superior, but those doggies had as
much determination and guts as we did. Sam and I had a built-in advantage since we had been in the islands
for over four months and were regarded with respect as grizzled veterans. I know that we capitalized on this
and told outrageous stories of our heroic deeds.
I have hazy memories of that long, slow hike up to a ridge overlooking a Japanese strong point. The
advance up the slope was painful and the column was stopped whenever a Jap sniper fired. When there was
a concentration of enemy troops ahead, the lieutenant would ask us to call for artillery fire. This was scary
for me... I hadn't been trained for this kind of warfare. Our field exercises back in California taught us how
to register our guns on targets that we could see... to direct artillery fire up, down, left, right, and observe
the impacts. In Guadalcanal's dense jungle, none of this applied. Our guns were registered on a checkpoint
far in advance of our position so we could call fire back toward us in increments of fifty yards. It is spooky
when you see and feel artillery shells exploding in the trees only a few yards away and know that you are
responsible. Anyway, our shells were ineffective. They were fused to explode at the first resistance which
meant that they blasted all the tree tops but didn't do much damage to the snipers and troops below. Among
my memories of bad things is the smell of burnt powder and shredded vegetation.
We finally reached the ridge and dug in. At night we could hear the Japs shouting, "Maline, you die!" They
had snipers placed on their side of the slope so it was instant suicide to stick your head up to take a peek. We
had two army radiomen assigned to us to send our commands back to the gun batteries. Sam and I used
their TBX as a screen when we had to make a firing adjustment. I guess we hoped that Japs would hit the
radio and put it out of commission. We reasoned that if that happened, we'd be declared unnecessary
personnel and sent back down the mountain. This ploy didn't succeed, but after three hairy, scary nights on
the ridge Sam and I were relieved by a couple of Army observers and ordered to report back to G
We started back down the trail accompanied by two stretcher bearers carrying a wounded soldier. We were
almost out of the jungle when snipers opened up on us. Sam was hit and rolled down a steep bank into a
little stream. The stretcher bearers ran off the trail with their burden but they weren't able to save the soldier.
I jumped behind a fallen log and found myself alongside a decaying Jap corpse.
This was my peak of terror and horror. It should have been my worst wartime experience. Possibly it was. I
was lying alongside a stinking mass of putrefaction and too afraid to move. I thought Sam was dead. I could
see that the wounded soldier had been killed and I assumed the other two soldiers were dead too. Then my
mind went on automatic pilot. I remained aware of what was happening, but I felt a cool detachment. It
seemed to be merely an interested observer.
This ability to tune out fear and panic and still do my job served me well throughout the Tarawa, Saipan, Guam
and Iwo Jima landings. Every time I was in a dangerous, stressful situation, I was able to switch into
automatic drive and function without panic. I came to be regarded as a fearless warrior, and I was willing to
accept the label. Eventually even I came to believe that I was the super, splendid, ideal Marine that my peers
perceived me to be. But I had a secret. I knew that no matter how terrible the situation might be, I'd emerge
unscathed. It was some other guy that looked just like me that was exposed to all those dangers. I'd still be
OK when the show ended and the credits rolled by on the movie screen. This even earned me a field
commission on Iwo Jima. In part, my letter of recommendation read, "... uncommon coolness and
effectiveness under stressful combat conditions...."
Eventually an army patrol came down the trail and cleared out the four snipers that had us pinned down. The
two soldiers were unhurt. Sam was hit in the side but he could walk, so we stuck with the patrol until we
made it out of the jungle. Sam was bandaged and sent out to a hospital ship and I never saw him again. I
hope he recovered and made it back to Arkansas.
Soon after arriving back at G Battery, I was sent with Andy to set up a forward observation post at the top
of a rocky ridge. We dug in just below the crest. The Japs were dug in on the reverse slope. Our job was to
send fire commands back to the gun positions and try to blast the Nips out of their positions. This was a
pretty tricky exercise! By their very nature, howitzers are more like mortars than cannons. High velocity
artillery and naval guns pack a terrible punch but they have a flat trajectory. We could elevate the muzzles of
our 75's so that the shells would climb high, then fall back to earth in a steep dive. This enabled us to hit
targets sheltered behind a mountain... but there's a trade-off. This high trajectory shooting is much less
accurate. The gun muzzles had to be elevated enough so that the shells would clear the top of the ridge, then
raised further and further to make the shells fall back toward us, creeping up the reverse slope. This required
careful observations on our part and scrupulous accuracy by our gunners at the battery. Even with identical
settings, artillery rounds never hit the same place. Many variables cause this: air temperature, humidity,
barometric pressure, powder temperature, temperature of the gun barrel, and just a mere fraction of weight
difference of the projectiles.
This didn't cause much of a problem for us during the day. We could observe where the shells were landing
and make adjustments. Darkness brought on the excitement... when the gun conducted "harassing fire"...
intermittent firing to keep the enemy awake and uneasy. This ploy may not have worked on the Japs, but it
sure kept me in a turmoil. As the air and powder temperatures cooled, the range would gradually shorten up
and the shells were whizzing by over our heads closer and closer. We were tormenting more Japs that way,
but I didn't appreciate the possibility that our own battery might blast us off the mountain. It never happened,
of course, but there were times when I felt I could reach up and caress a projectile as it whispered over our
*** *** ***
By the first of January, the 8th and 6th Regiments of the 2nd Marine Division had arrived from Samoa and
New Zealand; the 2nd Division was together for the first time since the war began. Unfortunately for us, the
2nd Division was considered to be fresh and battle ready. Our little detached force was just as dirty,
diseased, and battle-weary as the now relieved 1st, but since we made up only a small percentage of the
division, we kind of got lost in the shuffle. We were reattached to our division which was now part of a new
organization: CAMDIV: Combined Army Marine Division.
Six men from our instrument section were sent out to establish an observation post near where the Jap lines
were supposed to be. The communications section ran a telephone line up to our position and we were left
there with a pyramidal tent and a week's provisions. We set up at the edge of a long clearing in the jungle.
All we could see was tall grass, trees, and a series of long, low hills about a mile away. There were no
identifiable topographical features in the target area for the howitzers to register on so some lame brain at
FDC came up with a great solution -- send a patrol out there into no-man's land and plant a flag to serve as a
register point. Of course, we got the honor to play heroes and were assigned that scary mission. Four of us
reluctantly and cautiously sneaked around the edges of the clearing until we reached the far edge, tied some
banners to a few trees, and slipped back to our post as fast as we could. We didn't know if the region
contained hundreds of enemy or no Japs. As it turned out, there were only a few snipers left in the area and
we didn't encounter any of them. At the time, I thought this was a pretty dumb thing to do. Forty-eight years
later, I still think it was a stupid order.
By now, the outcome of the campaign wasn't in doubt. We had control of most of the northern coast of the
island, we seemed to have control of the air, and we weren't being shelled by the Jap navy anymore. But
there were a hell of a lot of Japs left. There was much bloody, mopping-up to do. I hated the Japs... but I had
to respect them too. They were fighting with as much dedication and conviction as we were. They absolutely
refused to surrender and we never were able to capture many prisoners.
Other than that silly, scary hike into the enemy boondocks, our life at the outpost was rather monotonous.
When we could barely tolerate our sour smell, we would hike down to the river for a bath. One man stood
guard with a rifle while we sloshed around in the muddy water. We didn't have any soap so we probably
smelled just as bad after our bath as we did before, but we felt cleaner.
The rest of the battery was camped near the beach and enjoying light duty. The Scuttlebutt News Factory reported that our battery was soon to be evacuated from any combat areas... but we hapless six instrument men were still stuck out there on the front line. Our mess sergeant made heroic efforts to supply us. I wish I could remember his name. He is one of my heroes. Once a week, he'd send a jeep up to us with hot chow. I can't remember what all the menu were... usually a sloppy mess of beans and Vienna sausage, but it was warm, and warmly welcomed. He always included several cans of peaches and pears.... and thankfully, no
Mostly, we were bored. We had nothing to read except the Marine Corps Manual, we played endless poker games. None of us had any money so we played "jawbone". Wins and losses were carefully recorded so we could settle up on some future payday. These games took over our lives. I was not a good poker player. At one time, I was over $200. in the hole and in despair. I knew I should quit before I lost everything that I had riding on the books. Then I had a run of good luck. Without really knowing what the hell was going on, I started winning. When the jawbone tally showed that I was even with the board, I quit playing. I have never played poker for money since.
We were finally relieved and sent back to rejoin our outfit at the beach. Since these troops had been sitting around in the shattered coconut plantation for several weeks doing sporadic guard duty while we six tattered,hairy heroes had been supposedly enduring hell on the front lines, we were greeted as returning heroes.
The Solomons Campaign was winding down. Someone in authority must have finally realized that there were some tired, sick troops who had made the initial landing in August still being shuffled around from one outfit to another. After the war, the Leatherneck Magazine featured an article about the Old 3rd and dubbed it "The Forgotten Battalion" because we continued to be shifted from one combat group to another, and always left behind when the division or brigade was relieved.
Near the end of January, we were finally loaded aboard a transport. Hopes were high. We were elated. Scuttlebutt was rampant. Certainly we were going to be returned to the States. Henry Ford was going to give a new Ford to every Marine who made the initial landing.
I don't recall any particular elation when the announcement was made that the Solomon Islands were declared "secure". None of us was sorry to see those islands drop below the horizon. I guess we mostly felt "So what"? We had lost a hell of a lot of buddies to gain control of an obscure, stinking jungle and we were happy to be sailing away. The transport was pure luxury. Decent food, fresh water showers, and we were headed for home! (We thought.) Life suddenly seemed a hell of a lot brighter.