SOLOMON ISLANDS: Part II
TULAGI, SONGONANGONG, GAVUTU, TANAMBOGO,
October 1942 - January 1943
oth my landings in the Solomons coincided with major naval engagements. This time, the shoot-out was called The Battle of Cape Esperance . Our Navy clobbered the Japs at Midway in June but they still had control of the South Pacific and could shell Guadalcanal whenever they chose. On October 11, 1942, the day our transport arrived from the Hebrides, a small naval task force of U.S. and Australian ships moved into the channel and challenged them. Again, the sky lit up with brilliant explosions. This time I didn't make blithe assumptions about what was happening. The "rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air" didn't guarantee that we were winning. I was pragmatic enough by now to realize that even if we were clobbering Jap ships, our swabbies were dying out there in that dark channel too. The Jap forces finally broke contact and steamed away. We called the battle a win since they blinked first.
The nervous troops were kept aboard the transport in case we'd have to hightail it out of the area again if the Japs won. Since the Jap ships were forced to, or decided to, pull out of the channel, we had to crawl down those damn landing nets into the bobbing Higgins boats. We finally waded ashore through the surf at a cluttered beach on the northeast side of Tulagi.
Our old G-Battery buddies welcomed us back although they tried to impress us with pitiful tales of how
horribly they had suffered on Tulagi while we were off on our pleasure cruise. We retaliated with
exaggerated accounts of our agonizing ordeals in the New Hebrides. I guess it was a stand-off.
We anticipated soft duty. The howitzers were in position. The island was thoroughly surveyed so there
wasn't much for the instrument section to do. I was dismayed when assigned, with Andy, Sam Dallas, and Red White, to an outpost as a "Coastwatcher"... to observe and report enemy activity. This didn't turn out to be the catastrophe that I expected.
We landed on a tiny, deserted island with cases of C-Rations, radios, an aiming circle, and a small rubber boat. On the map, this little green wart was identified as Songonangong... We called it SingSong. It was about a mile south of Tulagi and far enough out in the channel to have a line-of-sight sweep from Savo Island on the west to the eastern end of Guadalcanal, twenty miles away.
The battalion had three of these listening posts... on Florida, Gavutu, and ours, on SingSong. An instrument operator was always on duty to take azimuth readings on any Jap ship entering the channel. We used TBXs for radio connection with the fire direction center (FDC) which was set up on Tulagi. FDC had the three outpost positions plotted on their maps and used our reported azimuth readings to calculate the distance, bearing and speed of the enemy ships. Of course, this information would have been useful if we had any weapons capable of hitting them, but our little 75mm French pack-howitzers couldn't even come close.
When there was no activity in the channel, our aiming circle was always pointed toward Savo Island. The Japs invariably travelled from west to east and we could spot them when the sneaked out from behind Savo. Mostly, they shelled Guadalcanal, but occasionally lobbed a few shells at Tulagi.
Naval shelling is the most devastating and terrifying thing I've ever had to endure. It's much worse than bombing or mortar fire. I think it's partly the noise --- the shrill scream of the shells as they head toward you, over you, and around you. Though I knew that the incoming mail was not aimed at SingSong, the terror was overwhelming and I'm glad the Jap fleet didn't bother to waste too many shells on our side of Sealark Channel, later dubbed Iron Bottom Sound because so many ships were sunk there.
Our duty as coastwatchers was a welcome escape from rules, regulations, and the military pecking order. We were on our own. Our only obligation was to maintain scheduled two-hour contact with the FDC. It felt strange (and great!) not to have some corporal or sergeant telling us what to do and how to do it.
We stood six-hour watches. One of us always had to be awake, alert and scanning the channel. Daytime was no problem, since we all naturally congregated around the OP. The breeze up there made it a bit cooler and blew away the mosquitoes. Our post occupied a rocky promontory about twenty feet above the sea. We sat up there, shooting at the sharks cruising below us. Sometimes we'd drop hand grenades on them. This was a foolish waste of ammo, but we needed some outlet for our fears and frustrations. We feared and hated the sharks as much as we did the Japs.
We heard occasional static-filled broadcasts over the unreliable radio system. We liked "Tokyo Rose". The music was good and her propaganda patter amused us but she overdid her routine. I didn't have a girlfriend back home so I was immune to her taunts about how all the females in America were having a great time shacking up with slackers and draft-dodgers. Her pitch was supposed to make us so homesick that we would lay down our rifles and surrender. We just enjoyed the music and laughed at her corny nonsense. We were selective about what we swallowed and what we rejected. Since we lived on scuttlebutt, we gave credence to any rumors that gave us hope. We knew that our sources were untrustworthy but we desperately wanted to believe.
"President Roosevelt has promised that all Marines will be home by Christmas."
"The number one song on the Hit Parade is "I've Got a Pal on Guadalcanal"
And then a rumor that we were reluctant to accept but which we had reason to believe:
"The Secretary of the Navy salutes the Marines and their gallant assault
in the Solomons. Their attack has slowed the Japanese advance and disrupted
their timetable. Though we may lose the Solomons, their sacrifice
will not have been in vain."
It sounded to us as if we were being abandoned and written off as martyrs.
*** *** ***
We had a ringside seat for frequent shelling runs by the Jap Navy... unchallenged except for a squadron of PT boats stationed at Gavutu. These were very lopsided battles. The PT's were armed with machine guns and a couple of torpedoes. The enemy cruisers were bristling with six and eight-inch guns and they always travelled surrounded by their destroyer escorts.
The Solomon Islands were a British protectorate before and during the war; Lever Bros., a big British soapmaker owned most of the plantations. Their white big-shots and overseers preferred to live on
Tulagi and SingSong because of the horrid stench of Guadalcanal.
SingSong is shaped like a lopsided diamond, about a mile long and half as wide. One point has a small sand beach where we washed our clothes and took salty baths, always keeping a keen lookout for cruising sharks. The island gradually slopes up to the widest area where the Lever Brothers overseer had his house. From here, the land narrows to a point with a sheer drop into the channel.
The abandoned overseer's house was a pile of rubble but the laundry shack was still intact so we spread our blankets in there and made it our new home. The shed had a tin roof with a gutter system emptying into a cistern. Inside were two huge copper kettles built over a brick firebox. Since there were rain squalls almost every afternoon we always had plenty of water. The chicken house was undamaged but the poultry was long gone. There were a few wild hens running loose but we never managed to snag one, although we spent hours stalking them. We had great plans for a chicken dinner to change the menu from Vienna Sausages and dehydrated potatoes.
A big boar was running loose around the island. He often terrified us when he crashed out of the bushes on those dark nights as we walked up to man the aiming circle. Since we weren't having any luck securing a chicken for the pot, we decided to go for roast pork.
Andy was a farmer from North Branch, Minnesota, and he knew all about butchering hogs. We built a fire under the copper vats and when the water was boiling, we went hog herding. The boar was huge so we wanted to kill it as close to the laundry shed as possible. There were only two of us available for the hunt. Red was on observation duty and Andy was tending the boiling water, so Sam and I were the designated hunters. That hog was really spooked and we didn't have much success in maneuvering him. We shot him a lot farther from the laundry shed than we had planned. Andy slit the pig's throat and gutted it out. While he was hacking it into quarters with a machete, Sam and I buried the entrails. Then we strong-armed each piece up the trail and into the boiling water. We all had turns rustling and chopping wood, tending the fire, scraping off hair, and cutting the meat into manageable pieces. We would have bitterly bitched if we had been ordered to work this hard by some NCO. Our anticipation of a delicious roast pork dinner made all the sweat worthwhile.
In that climate the meat had to be eaten immediately so we wrapped all but a few chops and a roast in t-shirts and I rowed over to Tulagi to deliver this great treat to our gun battery. We were instant heroes for our contribution to the battery larder; the mess sergeant rewarded us with several precious cans of peaches, plums, tomatoes, and a bag of raisins to take back. He even arranged to have a little rubber boat towed back to SingSong by a Higgins boat.
We fried the chops on a sheet of galvanized tin. The meat tasted metallic and was tough and stringy but we ate every scrap. The roast was boiled in a cut-off water can along with canned tomatoes and dehydrated spuds. Since we had no salt, we boiled it in sea water. The whole mixture turned into grey mush and tasted vile but we ate it all.
*** *** ***
Exciting things always seemed to happen at our little outpost when I had observation duty. One painful
incident was my own fault. We stood watches alone. This time I had a midnight to 6:00 AM watch. About an hour after I took over the duty a Jap ship rounded Savo and started shelling Guadalcanal. Clumsy with excitement, I knocked over the aiming circle. In the dark there was no way to reorient it along the baseline to resume making accurate observations. I hollered for help but couldn't wake up any of my companions. If a sleeping beauty could have been roused, he could have held a flashlight or a match over our aiming stake and I could have registered the aiming circle again. After every salvo, the other two posts reported readings to FDC and I'd timidly report "lost". Finally some officer at FDC came on and bellowed: "what the hell do you mean lost? Are you blind? I can see those flashes from here." I got a real ass-chewing when I confessed what had happened. I was afraid that I'd be relieved of the "good" duty on SingSong and be sent back to Tulagi to move ammunition around. I guess no one got too uptight about the incident since FDC could still plot the Japs with the two readings they were getting. That is why there were three observation posts in the first place. Anyway, we didn't have any guns that could come within miles of hitting the target. From this time on, we all had to move our sacks up to the point near the observation post so that we could hear cries for help. Before this we had slept in the relative comfort of the laundry shed that had a roof and a
floor. I wasn't too popular for a few days as we all tried to get accustomed to sleeping on the rock
Another moonlit night while on duty I got an excited call from the post on Florida with the terrifying news that a Jap submarine was landing on the north side of SingSong. This time I was successful in awakening my buddies. We grabbed our rifles, all the hand grenades we could carry and proceeded as quietly as we could to the north, resigned to our ultimate doom but determined to sell our lives as expensively as possible. To our great relief, the "Jap submarine" turned out to be a big coconut log that had floated across Sealark Channel and had washed ashore on our little beach. Right now this is amusing, but we were four very frightened Marines at the time. We had a heated exchange with our counterparts on Florida and accused them of hallucinating after drinking too much fermented coconut juice.