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Guadalcanal: The U.S. Marines' Ultimate Nightmare

Guadalcanal: The U.S. Marines' Ultimate Nightmare

Marine combat veterans relive the dangerous and deadly work in some of the war’s toughest fighting.

On August 6, 1942, the men of Maj. Gen. Alexander Vandegrift’s U.S. 1st Marine Division watched from the railings as their troopship, the USS George F. Elliott, steamed into the waters north of Guadalcanal in the South Pacific’s Solomon Islands. They had come to seize the island’s semi-completed airfield at Lunga Point from the Japanese before it became operational. With Guadalcanal’s airfield, the Japanese could bomb the shipping lanes to Australia and choke the continent, putting Australia at risk for Japanese invasion.

Among the thousands of troops nervous with anticipation about the battle to come were four Marines from H Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment––Jim Young, Sid Phillips, Roy Gerlach, and Art Pendleton––dressed in their steel helmets and green cotton-twill uniform (the Marines’ familiar, mottled-green camouflage uniforms had not yet been issued). This is their story.

“This was the real deal.”

Jim Young: “We were awakened around three in the morning on August 7, 1942, the day we were to fight the Japs. Breakfast was at 5:00 am. The food was steak and eggs. After eating, which was hard to do, we went up on deck to watch the bombardment of Guadalcanal. It was unbelievable, and the noise was horrendous! Most of us were scared and bewildered. We couldn’t even hear each other without yelling.

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“We received orders to go below and get everything ready to disembark. The sea was rough and dangerous. Due to the waves, boats were dropping six to 10 feet, just as men were ready to get in them. Or if the boat didn’t drop, it came roaring up. A man was crushed between the landing craft and the side of the ship. Lots of guys were hurt that way.

“One of the men from my gun crew, a Marine Pfc., had made it into the landing craft and had his hand on the craft’s rail when our wiremen stated to lower metal coils of communication wire from the ship. A line broke and the heavy coil of wire hit his arm and snapped it. They hoisted him back aboard.

“It was go time. The engines on the landing craft were all roaring at full throttle. We were on our way in and everyone was nervous.”

Sid Phillips: “There was a flag flying on the stern of every landing craft. I looked over the side at the flags, and my friend Carl Ransom was doing the same thing. You could see a whole line of them. It looked like they reached to the end of the world. I got a lump in my throat. Ransom did, too. As he wiped his eyes, he said, ‘That salt spray makes your eyes water, don’t it?’

“We had never had that happen before, never in training, and I never saw it [a U.S. flag on every landing craft] happen again after that. They were too good a target. A big old red, white, and blue thing like that shouts, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’ Our Colonel Cates [Clifton B. Cates, CO of the 1st Marine Regiment] was a very patriotic Marine. If there was an order given to fly a flag on every landing craft, I’m sure Cates gave that order.

“I noticed that morning how everybody’s cartridge belt was full and bulging. You could see the shiny brass cartridges here and there in the belt. You had two clips of five rounds in each of those pockets. When we had made practice landings in the Fiji Islands, they never issued any live ammunition. We made the landings with empty, flat, cartridge belts. They didn’t want some idiot firing his rifle into someone. Things were different now. This was the real deal.

“When we came ashore at Guadalcanal, we were in that landing craft where the front end would drop down…. We had the front ramp because otherwise we couldn’t get that mortar out of the boat. We were expecting a life-and-death struggle with hand-to-hand combat on the beach. When the ramp went down, we found our guys on the beach laughing at us and opening coconuts. We came out of the landing craft ready to fight and they just laughed. They had done the same thing a few minutes before. There were no Japs in our vicinity at all.”

Roy Gerlach: “I didn’t go in on the first wave. I was a mortar man assigned to the mortar platoon, but I spent a lot of time as a cook. In the Marine Corps, you were assigned to the job you were supposed to do, and then if you could do something else, you did that, too. Whenever there was action, I was on the mortars. But if they needed a cook, well, I did that, too….

“I don’t remember much about coming in to the beach. There were no Japs there. They’d all taken off to the hills. Right away we found all these coconuts. They fell out of the trees. We took our bayonets, bored holes in the coconuts, and drank the milk. But it made the guys sick. Too much fresh milk, I guess.”

“The heat was so oppressive.”

Sid Phillips: “All the first day we struggled through the jungle to reach a hill called the Grassy Knoll, a mile inland. We had no good maps for Guadalcanal at all. They had some maps drawn up by some Australian people who had been on Guadalcanal. These crude maps were named by the Australians. They even had the names mixed up for the Tenaru and Ilu Rivers.

“So the game plan was to go to the Grassy Knoll and get the high ground. The thing that stands out so clear in my memory was the heat, the incredible heat in the jungle, with no breeze. And we had just come from winter in New Zealand, so it was a severe climate change. We just griped and bitched. In that jungle, it’s so hot, and you’re carrying a 60-pound pack when you come ashore. Extra ammunition, packs of food for four days, a change of clothing. You drop your bedding and keep going. The heat was so oppressive.

“We were issued one canteen then. We’d been taught water discipline. You were only supposed to take small sips of water and roll the water around in your mouth before you swallowed. You were never supposed to guzzle water. Everybody nearly died of thirst that first day. We ate crackers, cans of hash—there was no water in the food; it just dried you out more and made you more thirsty. At the end of the first day, we were exhausted, halfway up the Grassy Knoll. They told us to lie down where we were, dig a foxhole, shut up, and go to sleep. So we did.”

Jim Young: “When morning came, we were ordered back to the beach to set up defenses in an effort to repel any Jap attempt to land. One of our lieutenants was bitten in the face by a scorpion during the night. He had swollen up so much that he was completely blind and had to be led by the hand on the long march back to the beach.

“As we approached the beach, about 10 Japanese torpedo bombers skimmed the water and headed for the convoy. They were so low we could see the faces of the pilots and the big red meatballs on their wings. They did not care about us on the beach. They went straight for the convoy of ships. One plane headed directly for our ship, the Elliott. It crashed into the water first and bounced up and slammed into the ship.”

Roy Gerlach: “We didn’t have no galley for the first three or four weeks because our cooking equipment sunk with the Elliott. I wasn’t on the ship then, but I saw it all. Most of the troops were on shore by then. But the unloading of the ship wasn’t done yet. There was one shipman I knew on the Elliott. He always used to say, ‘I’m gonna be here when you go, and I’ll be here when you get back.’ He wasn’t.”

Sid Phillips: “People ask me when we first contacted the enemy. We were strafed by enemy planes almost immediately on Guadalcanal. You dig a foxhole and try to dig it as deep as you can, just try to bury yourself with the earth. The strafing never ended on Guadalcanal. They were always coming in, bombarding us. We considered that contact with the enemy.”

Jim Young: “The Jap Zeros would come swooping over us. I could actually see the pilots, the faces in those airplanes. You could see them turn their heads and look down at you. Sometimes they were grinning.”

“The Savo sea battle was like watching a summer storm from a beach.”

Sid Phillips: “The day after we landed, we captured the airfield. When I first saw the airfield, I was surprised that there weren’t many buildings except for this pagoda-looking thing. That served as the tower. The runway wasn’t very visible unless you were up in the air. There were no wrecked Japanese planes. The place was empty. We went over there and looked at the pagoda. We were some of the first Americans to walk into that building.