The Canal

My first impression of guadalcanal is somewhat blurred, be-cause I began by looking in the wrong direction. The great battle was over — a source of disappointment to some, and, to me, of inexpressible joy — but we were proceeding with the combat landing drill just the same. Buckling on my chamberpot helmet that hot August morning, saddling up so my pack straps brought the padding to the exact place where the straps joined on the tops of my shoulders, I peered westward across a cobalt sea dancing with incandescent sunlight and saw a volcanic isle which looked as ominous as the hidden fire in its belly. It didn't bear the slightest resemblance to what we had been told to expect. Casually flipping my hands to my hips and sauntering to the rail, I smoothed the wrinkles out of my voice and said in my deepest, manliest, trust-the-Sarge manner: “So that's it. They gave us bad dope, as usual.” Someone touched my forearm. It was little Pip Spencer, the chick of the outfit. He said: “It's on the other side, Slim.” I had been looking at Savo Island. I turned southward, disconcerted, having lost face even before we boarded the Higgins boats — those landing craft with hinged ramps built in New Orleans by the flamboyant Andrew Jackson Higgins — and beheld a spectacle of utter splendor.

In the dazzling sunshine a breeze off the water stirred the distant fronds of coconut palms. The palm trees stood near the surf line in precise, orderly groves, as though they had been deliberately planted that way, which, we later learned, was the case; we were looking at plantations owned by Lever Brothers. (Their stockholders were following the course of the Pacific war with great interest. Later the Allies settled nearly seven million dollars in damage claims. The Japanese, of course, paid nothing.) On the far horizon lay dun-colored foothills, dominated by hazy blue seven-thousand-foot mountains. Between the palms and the foothills lay the hogback ridges and the dense green mass of the Canal. Our eyes were riveted on it. We were seeing, most of us for the first time, real jungle.

I thought of Baudelaire: fleurs du mal. It was a vision of beauty, but of evil beauty. Except for occasional patches of shoulder-high kunai grass, the blades of which could lay a man's hand open as quickly as a scalpel, the tropical forest swathed the island. From the APA's deck it looked solid enough to walk on. In reality the ground — if you could find it — lay a hundred feet below the cloying beauty of the treetops, the cathedrals of banyans, ipils, and eucalyptus. In between were thick, steamy, matted, almost impenetrable screens of cassia, liana vines, and twisted creepers, masked here and there by mangrove swamps and clumps of bamboo. It was like New Guinea, except that on Papua the troops at least had the Kokoda Trail. Here the green fastness was broken only by streams veining the forest, flowing northward into the sea. The forest seemed almost faunal: arrogant, malevolent, cruel; a great toadlike beast, squatting back, thrusting its green paws through ravines toward the shore, sulkily waiting to lunge when we were within reach, meanwhile emitting faint whiffs of foul breath, a vile stench of rotting undergrowth and stink lilies. Actually, we had been told in our briefings, there were plenty of real creatures awaiting us: serpents, crocodiles, centipedes which could crawl across the flesh leaving a trail of swollen skin, land crabs which would scuttle in the night making noises indistinguishable from those of an infiltrating Jap, scorpions, lizards, tree leeches, cockatoos that screamed like the leader of a banzai charge, wasps as long as your finger and spiders as large as your fist, and mosquitoes, mosquitoes, mosquitoes, all carriers of malaria. If wounded, you had been warned, you should avoid the sea. Sharks lurked there; they were always hungry. It was this sort of thing which had inspired some anonymous lyricist among the 19,102 Marines in the first convoy to compose the lugubrious ballad beginning, “Say a prayer for your pal on Guadalcanal.”

On the nineteen transports in the original force the Marine infantry had been subdued, and not just because of the air of foreboding gloom which spread like a dark olive stain over the entire island. Down below in the holds enlisted men had been quiet, though awake, writing letters, sharpening bayonets, blackening the sights of rifles and carbines, checking machine-gun belts to make certain they wouldn't jam in the Brownings, rummaging in packs to be sure they had C rations. They carried canteens, Kabar knives, and first-aid kits hooked to web belts; packs of cigarettes, Zippo lighters, shaving gear, skivvies, mess kits, shelter halves, ponchos, two extra bandoliers of ammunition for each man, clean socks, and, hanging from straps and web belts like ripe fruit waiting to be plucked, hand grenades. Some were literally whistling in the dark (“My momma done tole me …”) or just milling around in the companionways. There wasn't much room to mill. Around the heads people were almost wedged against each other, a few inches from sodomy. There was no place to sit. Tiered in fives, and, where the overhead was higher, in sixes, the bunks were cluttered with helmets, helmet liners, knapsacks, pick and shovel entrenching tools, and 782 gear. During the long hours of waiting, the tension and frustration became almost unbearable. There was a myth, then and throughout the war, that this had been planned, that the Marine Corps wanted us infuriated when we hit the beach. But the Corps wasn't that subtle. And the men needed no goading. Morale was sky-high, reminiscent of Siegfried Sassoon's account of British esprit the week before the Battle of the Somme in 1916: “there was harmony in our company mess, as if the certainty of a volcanic future put an end to the occasional squabblings which occurred when we were on one another's nerves. A rank animal healthiness pervaded our existence during those days of busy living and inward foreboding. … Death would be lying in wait for the troops next week, and now the flavor of life was doubly strong. … I was trying to convert the idea of death in battle into an emotional experience. Courage, I argued, is a beautiful thing, and next week's attack is what I have been waiting for since I joined the army.” If you were a green Marine fresh from civilian life, waiting to race ashore on Guadalcanal, vitality surged through you like a powerful drug, even though the idea of death held no attraction for you. Your mood was an olla podrida, a mélange of apprehension, cowardice, curiosity, and envy — soon to be discredited by events — of the safe, dry sailors who would remain on board.

The bluejackets who would come closest to your destination were the coxswains of the Higgins boats. At the signal “Land the Landing Force,” their little craft, absurdly small beside the transport, bobbed up and down as you climbed down the cargo nets hanging over the APA's side. Descent was tricky. Jap infantrymen carried 60 pounds. A Marine in an amphibious assault was a beast of burden. He shouldered, on the average, 84.3 pounds, which made him the most heavily laden foot soldier in the history of warfare. Some men carried much more: 20-pound BARs, 45-pound 81-millimeter-mortar base plates, 47-pound mortar bipods, 36-pound light machine guns, 41-pound heavy machine guns, and heavy machine-gun tripods, over 53 pounds. A man thus encumbered was expected to swing down the ropes like Tarzan. It was a dangerous business; anyone who lost his grip and fell clanking between the ship and the landing craft went straight to the bottom of Sealark Channel, and this happened to some. More frequent were misjudgments in jumping from the cargo net to the boat. The great thing was to time your leap so that you landed at the height of the boat's bob. If you miscalculated, the most skillful coxswain couldn't help you. You were walloped, possibly knocked out, possibly crippled, when you hit his deck.

Judged by later standards, the Guadalcanal landing of August 7, 1942 — America's first offensive of the war, encoded “CACTUS” — was primitive. Amphibious techniques were in their infancy. The Marine Corps lacked essential information on tide, terrain, and weather. There were no reliable maps, no LSTs, and no DUKWs, those amphibian tractors, or boats with wheels, which were then still in the experimental stage. The heyday of underwater demolition teams lay ahead. World War I weapons were standard because the Corps, though part of the navy, used army equipment and didn't get new issue until the last GI got his. One curious weapon, which we came to loathe, was a machine pistol called the Reising gun; it rusted quickly, jammed at the slightest provocation, and was quite useless in the jungle. The twin-purpose entrenching tool hadn't reached the Pacific yet. Again, men were carrying 1918 relics: even-numbered men had little picks and odd-numbered men little shovels; once ashore, they dug in together. The Higgins boats were crude prototypes, and on shore-to-shore operations they were towed by “Yippies,” or YP (yard patrol) craft, wide, smelly speed-boats which emitted deafening chug-chugs and clouds of sparks, making stealth impossible. The landing force's chief job was to complete and use the unmatted twenty-six-hundred-foot airstrip the Japanese had already started, but there were shortages of cement, valves, pipes, pumps, prefabricated steel sections for fuel storage tanks, Marsden runway matting, and earth-moving machinery. (There was one small bulldozer. Only the operator was allowed to touch it. Under a standing order, anyone else approaching it was to be shot.)

But the basic attack concept, shelling a beach and then sending in waves of infantry, had been established. Marines were grouped thirty-six men to a boat. The boats for each wave formed a ring, circling until they fanned out in a broad line and sped the wave shoreward. Aboard, you crouched beneath the gunwales, seasick, struggling to keep from vomiting. There was no Dramamine then. Most men compared the seasickness to that on a terrible roller coaster ride, Mae's Murphy bed raised to the nth degree. Coxswains in later operations learned to give their wretched human cargo smoother rides, but none improved on the precise timing that August morning at the Canal. Zero hour had been set for 9:10 A.M. At 9:09 the first wave splashed ashore toward the quiet, shell-shredded palms on Red Beach, four miles east of the Lunga River. Lacking opposition, two battalions of the Fifth Marines, my father's old regiment, swiftly established a two-thousand-yard-wide beachhead.


My own landing, much later, was typically inglorious. As our wave circled nauseously, a cloud no larger than a turd appeared in the sky. It grew. At the instant my boondocker hit the gray sand, the skies opened and ten inches of hard, driving, torrential rain began to pour down like that San Diego lioness pissing on a flat rock.

Guadalcanal is shaped like a paramecium, or a fat limp letter S on its side. Though different in dimensions, and though mostly uninhabitable, the Canal is about the size of Long Island. The right tip droops down toward New Caledonia, eight hundred miles away, then the closest Allied stronghold. The left end rises to a tip, Cape Esperance, which, on a map of New York, would put it in the vicinity of Long Island's Great Neck. North of the cape lies the volcanic isle I had mistaken for the Canal, Savo Island — White Plains on the New York map. To Savo's right are the Florida Islands, chiefly Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo — near Bridgeport, Connecticut, if the map analogy is held. The body of water between the Canal, Savo, and the Floridas may be compared to Long Island Sound. Before the fighting it was known as Sealark Channel. After more than thirty-five ferocious naval battles had been fought there, with, among others, sixty-five major warships sunk — roughly half American and half Japanese — Sealark was rechristened Ironbot-tom Sound. During my seven months on Guadalcanal the Sound and its surrounding islands became as familiar to me as an Amherst apple orchard. I especially remember one wreck. During a midnight, moonless, hull-to-hull slugging Samarra off Tassafaronga Point in which two of our fighting admirals were killed — Dan Callaghan and Norman Scott — three Jap transports were run aground. One day long afterward, I decided to board one of these hulks. It was not one of my brighter ideas. I dove through a shell hole beneath the waterline and found myself in a compartment full of water. My head hit the overhead: no air. My lungs were bursting when, by blind luck, I found the original shell hole and darted through it, bleeding from a half-dozen cuts. Then I remembered the warning about sharks. The Australian crawl was invented by a Solomon Islander, Alex Wickham, but I doubt that he could have matched my dash to shore.

The first European to sight these waters was Alvaro de Mendaña de Neyra in 1597. Looking for King Solomon's legendary islands and failing to find them, he named the archipelago “Islas de Salomón” and the Canal itself after his Spanish birthplace, Guadalcanal. It is an extraordinary fact that until our landing, the Japanese army's general staff hadn't even heard of the island; the Jap navy had been managing affairs in the Solomons, and the army-navy split was even greater in Tokyo than in Washington. But no one could really be expected to keep all of Mendaña's islas straight. There were archipelagos within archipelagos: 1,001 isles in the Russell subgroup alone, and even more in the New Georgias. Altogether, the Solomons sprawl across nine hundred miles, roughly forming two chains. The channel between these chains, leading down to the Canal, became known as the Slot. It was a natural funnel for planes and ships lunging southeastward from the great Nip bastion of Rabaul to the northwest. Even better, from the Japanese point of view, their approaching armadas coming down the Slot would be masked, for those defending our reconquest of the Canal, by Savo.

Informed that the Marines were ashore on the Canal, a senior colonel on Hirohito's general staff wondered aloud what the Americans could possibly want with “an insignificant island inhabited only by natives.” The colonel's superiors and his opposite numbers in the Japanese navy could have told him. Their men had been on the Canal for six weeks, bossing Korean laborers — “termites” was our word for the Koreans — who were building the airfield. That field was what the Americans wanted. News of its construction by the Japs, radioed to New Caledonia by Australian coastwatchers who had stayed on their islands and gone bush, meant Australia itself was on the Jap hit list. It must be remembered that at the time Dai Nippon's troops had not once tasted defeat. Victories had become a Nip narcotic. Until Guadalcanal, their only encounters with the Marine Corps had ended in defeat for us: the loss of Wake Island, the surrender of the Fourth Marines on Corregidor, and an inept submarine-borne raid on the Gilbert Islands by Carlson's Raiders (Second Raider Battalion), where nine men left behind by Carlson were beheaded. “Where,” Tokyo Rose jeered after that, “are the United States Marines hiding?” Convinced now that they were invincible, the Japanese were taking dead aim on the landing beaches nearest Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne, the population centers of the last surviving Allied power in the South Pacific. It was the threat to Australia that triggered American seizure of Guadalcanal. That audacious move was as desperate as Hitler's losing gamble that same year at Stalingrad. Its chances of success were dim at the outset. They were to grow dimmer.

The battle's architect was Admiral Ernest J. King, the U.S. chief of naval operations. The documents of that year indicate that King's fellow service chiefs could not decide whether their goal in the Solomons should be to stop the Japs there or merely to harass them. But the admiral was determined to drive them back. Unfortunately the old sundowner picked as his campaign commander Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, a poor selection because Ghormley was convinced the situation in the Solomons was hopeless. Alexander A. Vandegrift, the soft-spoken Marine Corps general who would head the hodgepodge of leatherneck units making the landing, had been told that he needn't expect a combat assignment before January 1943. Various convoys were carrying his troops — reinforced regiments from two Marine divisions and miscellaneous battalions — toward New Zealand when Vandegrift was told he must recapture Guadalcanal and its surrounding islands — “denying the area to Japan” — on August 1. That was less than a month away. Appalled, the general begged for a postponement. King moved the date back to August 7, but that, he said, would be his last concession.

One difficulty in re-creating the past is that the reader knows how it will turn out, so that events have an air of inevitability. That was not true at the time, especially in the case of the Canal. Vandegrift's men were in wretched shape. Most were suffering from dysentery; rations condemned as unfit in Panama, and returned to the United States for destruction, had inexplicably been shipped to the Marines. In Wellington, New Zealand, where their advance echelon landed, the annual rains had begun. Wellington's longshoremen chose this astonishing moment to go on strike. Drenched, sick Marines — New Zealand was in the middle of a flu epidemic — had to load their own ships in eight-hour shifts under dim lights, wrestling with soaked cardboard cartons which frequently burst open, leaving a swamp of soggy cornflakes, beans, clothing, and miscellaneous debris. Because of the strike they would have to attack with only ten days of ammunition and, in the words of a divisional order, other “items actually required to live and fight.” “All wharfees is bastards,” one Marine wrote on the wall of a dockworkers' toilet. That wasn't the Corps' last quarrel with organized labor. After Ghormley had moved his flag to Noumea, in New Caledonia, sixty American merchant ships dropped anchor there. They were carrying rations for the Marines, who by then were starving on the Canal. The crews, on the advice of their union leader, refused to sail to the Canal unless granted exorbitant pay for overtime and for service in “combat zones.” Their demands were rejected. The Marines went hungry. If the ghost of Joe Hill had appeared on the Canal, he would have been shot again.

But the chief target of the men's resentment was the navy brass. After the long battle was over, some veterans of it struck a medal showing an arm bearing admiral's stripes dropping a hot potato into the hands of a kneeling Marine. The motto was “Faciat Georgius” — “Let George do it.” There was no need to identify the admiral. It was Frank Jack Fletcher. Fletcher had let the Corps down once before, when he had been sent to relieve the beleaguered men on Wake Island and had turned back pleading lack of fuel, though his own logs prove he had plenty. (“Always fueling,” was Samuel Eliot Morison's judgment of Fletcher.) Now Ghormley singled out this dismaying man to direct America's first landing of the war. With the task force preparing to sail for the Solomons, Fletcher called a conference aboard his flagship Saratoga and asked how many days would be needed to put Vandegrift's men ashore. Told that about five days would be necessary, he said flatly that he would leave after two days “because of the danger of air attacks and because of the fuel situation … if the troops can't be landed in two days, then they should not be landed.” Vandegrift, aghast, again pleaded for more time. The admiral said that he would entertain no objections. He then closed the conference. There were those in the Marine Corps who thought that Fletcher wanted to add a fourth color to the American flag.

Yet he and Ghormley were not alone in believing that the offensive was doomed. MacArthur, usually hawkish, said the plan was “open to the gravest doubts.” Major General Millard F. Harmon, the senior army officer in Ghormley's area, reported to George Marshall after we had established our beachhead: “Can the Marines hold it? There is considerable room for doubt.” At a time when a dozen high-altitude fighter planes would have saved Marine lives, Hap Arnold, the chief of the air force, refused to send any on the grounds that they would be sacrificed in vain. Delos Emmons, who was Arnold's air general in the South Pacific, reported categorically that the island could not be held. Ghormley, all but writing the campaign off, refused to strengthen the landing there, to the point of ignoring an order from King to do so. Even Vandegrift later said he himself could have listed “a hundred reasons why this operation should fail.” Vandegrift's plight may be measured by his surprise and gratitude when Alexander Patch, commanding the American division in New Caledonia, withdrew twenty thousand pairs of shoes from his quartermaster's shelves and sent them to the Canal so Marines would no longer have to fight barefoot. It took a presidential order and a scrappy admiral — William Halsey, who replaced the timid Ghormley — before the troops began to receive real support from their rear echelon. FDR knew the risks; he had begun preparing Churchill and Stalin for the loss of the island. (He didn't know that the Marines had decided not to surrender — that rather than give the enemy “another Bataan” they were prepared to slip into the hills and fight on as guerrillas.) But Roosevelt also realized that the Canal was shaping up as one of those decisive battles, like Waterloo, Gettysburg, and Dien Bien Phu, in which both sides have resolved upon a showdown and prestige transcends strategic position. Forced to choose between New Guinea and the Canal, which were being fought simultaneously, the Japanese decided to try to hold the line in Papua and reinforce the Canal. Therefore the President wheeled his wheelchair into his White House map room, spent a half hour studying his charts of the South Pacific, and then directed his admirals and generals “to make sure that every possible weapon gets into that area to hold Guadalcanal.”

In the Islamic world there is said to be one night, called the Night of Nights, upon which the secret gates of the sky open wide and the water in the jugs tastes sweeter. Conversely, in each of our amphibious convoys, once it had reached the open sea, there came a moment of moments when the human cargo in the holds learned of its destination, whereupon the water from the scuttlebutts tasted rancid and sour. We knew we would hate the answer to our questions, but, masochistically, we speculated endlessly on our fate. On Wednesday, July 22, 1942, when the Canal-bound seventy-five-ship expeditionary force sailed from Wellington, it was floating on rumors as much as on the Tasman Sea. The fleet was said to be headed for a half-dozen destinations; this being the first anniversary of Hitler's invasion of Russia, one story had it that the troops were going to join the Red Army and fight the Germans. As the coast of New Zealand shrank and then vanished, all eyes were on the leading vessel, Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner's flagship, the U.S.S. McCawley, soon to become known to all Marines in the South Pacific as “Wacky Mac.” Then Wacky Mac hoisted the signal: the fleet was bound for Guadalcanal.

Nobody had ever heard of it. On the nineteen APAs the guys had a thousand queries for their officers. What was the target island like? Any bars? Any tail? They were told that it was part of a British Solomon Islands Protectorate. That sounded impressive; in those days the British Empire still inspired respect. But that was about all the men could be told. Turner himself knew little more. The only figures on enemy strength came from reports radioed about by coastwatchers, who, though on the spot, were hiding deep in the bush and could therefore offer only the vaguest of estimates. One of Vandegrift's colonels, desperate for intelligence, had studied seventeenth-century sailing charts and interviewed missionaries, traders, schooner captains, and Lever Brothers employees, all refugees from the Solomons. Based on what they had told him, he had drawn a rough map of the Canal's northern coast, where the airfield was being built. It proved to be unreliable, almost worthless, showing, among other things, 1,350-foot Mount Austen — which we came to know as the “Grassy Knoll” — to be two miles inland when in fact it was nearly four. Vandegrift had expected to seize it the first day. In the Canal's tropical wilderness an Indian file of husky men could cover less than four hundred yards a day even without Japanese opposition, which, in the case of Mount Austen, would mean over two weeks. Vandegrift changed his mind as soon as he saw the island. (Austen and its adjoining ridges, Gifu, Sea Horse, and Galloping Horse, would not fall until after more than four months of fighting.) Two American officers had flown over the island in a B-17. Jumped by three Zeroes, they flamed two, fled back with the third on their tail, and reported that the airstrip was almost finished and there appeared to be no obstacles on the landing beaches. Yet better sources of information were available, or should have been. It is characteristic of relations between America's armed forces at this time that MacArthur's G-2 (intelligence), having completed a detailed photo-map of the Canal nearly three weeks earlier, mailed it to Ghormley. The package was improperly addressed and lost in the Auckland post office.

The Marines' first break was the weather. On Wednesday, August 5, and Thursday, August 6, squalls and overcast skies grounded the Rabaul-based Jap pilots of long-range Kawanishes who had been flying routine air searches over the Solomons. Three Nip planes did take off from Tulagi on Thursday, but with ceilings as low as a hundred feet they were back in an hour. They reported, “Result of searches: Negative.” Thursday night the darkened American convoy glided through the strait between Savo and Cape Esperance, unseen by enemy crews manning howitzers on both sides. Friday morning coastwatcher Martin Clemens, in his remote jungle hideaway, heard the first roar of the U.S. naval bombardment. Two thousand sleeping Japanese on the north coast — Red Beach — were awakened by salvos from the U.S.S. Quincy bursting among them and demolishing forty of their warehouses. By the end of the afternoon 10,900 Marines were on the Canal and 6,025 on Tulagi, though most of their equipment was still aboard the ships. In me-fella-you-fella pidgin conversations with the natives, who had already been alienated by the Japanese, they quickly recruited guides. Fanning out professionally, the Marines dug their two- or three-man foxholes, wired themselves in for the night, and spread the password and countersign — “lollypop” and “lallygag,” because the Japs were said to have trouble pronouncing the letter l. (I never understood that. I think their problem was the letter r. They called us “Malines.”) The troops were all hyped up. Morison later wrote: “Lucky indeed for America that in this theater and at that juncture she depended not on boys drafted or cajoled into fighting but on ‘tough guys’ who had volunteered to fight and who asked for nothing better than to come to grips with the sneaking enemy who had aroused all their primitive instincts.”

The palms on the beach were bent seaward, curtseying toward Tulagi, but inland they stood tall and straight. Because the soap company needed the ground beneath them kept clear for harvesting the coconuts, the Marines had a clear run to the crushed-coral airstrip, which was swiftly taken and named Henderson Field after a Corps pilot who had died in the Battle of Midway. Repair sheds, hangars, and revetments were already finished. Obviously the enemy had expected to use the field within a week at the latest. The scoop was that the Japanese liked to fight in the dark, so Vandegrift expected a counterattack that first night. He was very vulnerable on Red Beach. Equipment had piled up alarmingly. When a Bougainville coastwatcher had radioed, “Twenty-four torpedo bombers headed yours,” sailors manhandling the crates had had to dive for shelter. Luckily the bombardiers from Rabaul were wildly inaccurate, merely inflicting minor damage on one U.S. destroyer. But the only disturbance on the Canal after darkness was from land crabs, screeching tropical birds, and a stampeding herd of wild pigs. Men whispered hopefully to one another that now, with the beachhead secure, GIs would relieve them, letting them return to the bars of Wellington. They studied the unfamiliar stars in the sky and dreamt their wistful dreams.


Red Beach, Guadalcanal, 1978

Across Ironbottom Sound the situation was very different. There the Marines were encountering their first real combat. Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo were honeycombed with caves and the leather necks were taking casualties. Hand grenades were almost useless; the enemy tossed them back. Merritt Edson's Raiders (First Raider Battalion) had forty-seven killed; the Marine Parachutists, eighty-four dead. It is a myth — inspired by the Iwo Jima flag raising — that every World War II Marine carried an American flag in his pack, but somebody on tiny Tanambogo had one of them, and for several hours the island resembled a nineteenth-century battlefield, with the Stars and Stripes snapping angrily over one end of Tanambogo and the Rising Sun over the other. After a noisy charge a Marine sergeant pulled down the Nip banner, and dynamiters sealed the caves one by one. That should have given the enemy's commanders pause — nothing like that had happened to them before — but their rear echelon was as overconfident as ours was fearful. Rabaul reassured Tokyo; the chief of the naval general staff donned his dress uniform and appeared at Hirohito's summer villa at Nikko to inform the emperor that there was no cause for worry. One banzai attack, he predicted, would drive the Marines into the sea. That Friday night four waves of crack Nip troops hit the Raider lines on Tulagi with mortars, grenades, and machine guns. A handful of attackers made it through the lines to the old British Residency but were killed back there when they were discovered hiding under the veranda. At dawn Pfc John Ahrens, an Able Company BAR man, was found covered with blood. He had been shot twice in the chest and bayoneted three times. Around him were the corpses of a Nip officer, a Nip sergeant, and thirteen Nip infantrymen. His huge company commander, Lewis W. Walt, picked up the dying youth and held him in his arms. Ahrens said, “Captain, they tried to come over me last night, but I don't think they made it.” Walt said softly, “They didn't, Johnny. They didn't.”

Five hours later Vandegrift boarded the Wacky Mac and was dealt another blow. An enemy fleet had been sighted leaving Rabaul. Fletcher was withdrawing three carriers from the Sound. Turner, who as a consequence would now lack air cover, had to weigh anchor and sail away with the transports bearing the Marines who had not yet debarked and most of the landing force's supplies — its sandbags, howitzers, coastal defense guns, most of its ammunition, and all but eighteen spools of its barbed wire. Vandegrift, deprived of his lifeline, would be left with a few days' rations, no more. He accused Fletcher of “running away,” but to no avail. Of course, he was told, the transports would soon return. That was certainly the navy's plan, but that night brought catastrophe. The armada steaming south from Rabaul was bigger and closer than had been thought, and it was commanded by one of Hirohito's most gifted admirals, Gunichi Mikawa. Leading seven cruisers and escorting vessels down the Slot, Mikawa, concealed by the cone of Savo Island, appeared undetected at 1:43 A.M. and pounced on the Allied force which had been left to hold the Sound. He had already launched his torpedoes when a U.S. destroyer sounded the alarm. The forty-minute battle which followed was one of the most crushing defeats in American history. Of five Allied cruisers, four were sunk and the fifth crippled; of the American and Australian sailors in the water, 1,023 were killed, drowned, or eaten by sharks. The return of Fletcher's task force was postponed indefinitely, perhaps forever. The troops ashore were left bare-assed. Now the “Tokyo Express,” as they called it, would come roaring down the Slot to land Jap troops on the island around the clock and shell the Marines on shore from ships beyond the range of the Americans' pitifully small mortars and guns.

Bastogne was considered an epic in the ETO. The 101st Airborne was surrounded there for eight days. But the Marines on Guadalcanal were to be isolated for over four months. There have been few such stands in history. Over the millennia of war certain crack troops must be set apart, elite units which demonstrated gallantry in the face of overwhelming odds. There were the Greeks and Persians at Thermopylae, Xenophon's Ten Thousand, the Bowmen of Agincourt, the Spanish Tercios, the French Foreign Legion at Camerone, the Old Contemptibles of 1914, the Brigade of Guards at Dunkirk. And there was the olio of leatherneck units who fought on the Canal under the name of the First Marine Division. All but abandoned by the vessels which brought them there, reduced to eating roots and weeds, kept on the line though stricken by malaria unless their temperature reached 103 degrees, dependent for food and ammo on destroyers and fliers who broke through the enemy blockade, always at great risk, they fought the best soldiers Tokyo could send against them, killed over twenty thousand of them, and won. In an author's note accompanying The Thin Red Line, his novel about the Canal, James Jones wrote that “what Guadalcanal stood for in 1942-43 was a very special thing,” that he wanted to share with his readers the “special qualities which the name Guadalcanal evoked for my generation.” James Michener compared the fighting on the island to Valley Forge and Shiloh. Morison wrote: “Guadalcanal is not a name but an emotion, recalling desperate fights in the air, furious night naval battles, frantic work at supply and construction, savage fighting in the sodden jungle, nights broken by screaming bombs and deafening explosions of naval shells.” Winston Churchill, after studying the battle, simply wrote: “Long may the tale be told in the great Republic.”

At the time, however, one wondered whether there would be anyone left to tell it. It should be added that, had it been told then, the teller's enthusiasm for Churchill's European war would have been tepid. One reason the struggles in the Pacific constantly teetered on the brink of disaster is that they were shoestring operations. At one point the United States was spending more money feeding and housing uprooted Italian civilians than on the Americans fighting the Japanese. The navy let the Marines on the Canal down because Washington was letting the navy down, devoting nearly all its resources to Eisenhower's coming invasion of North Africa. We knew that our theater was a casualty of discrimination, not because Tokyo Rose told us — though she did, again and again — but because our own government, appealing to its national constituency, which was almost entirely comprised of former Europeans and their descendants, boasted of it. The news about the Italian refugees, for example, was released by the State Department. It pleased Little Italys across the country. The Marines, MacArthur's GIs, and the bluejackets in the Pacific were less elated.

Slipping past the leering guns of the Nip cordon, American destroyers managed to meet the Canal's crying need for ammunition and, later, artillery. Food was another matter. The average leatherneck lost twenty-five pounds during the siege. Night blindness became a serious problem for the men on the line; they simply weren't getting enough vitamin A. To his Raiders, men of machismo who resembled the British commandos, Colonel “Red Mike” Edson gave a quintessential piece of Marine Corps advice. “There's plenty of chow,” he said, grinning wickedly. “The Japs have it. Take it away from them.” Red Mike's mordant wit became part of the Canal legend. So did the incident of Admiral Halsey's bully beef. When Halsey took over he changed the momentum of the battle with a few words. Visiting the Canal — something Ghormley had never done — he held up two fingers and told Vandegrift, “Give me two days. I'll have AKA's here in two days.” A war correspondent accompanying him asked if he thought the Marines could hold on. Halsey jerked his thumb toward the Japanese lines. “How long do you think they can take it?” he asked. During his day on the Canal the island was bombed by Bettys and shelled by Jap cruisers firing eight-inch guns at a range of ten thousand yards. Vandegrift was anxious to get the admiral off the Canal after dark. He was worried, not only about Halsey's safety, but also about his digestion. Vandegrift knew how appalling the chow would be. The admiral wouldn't go. He dined, as Vandegrift and his officers dined, on thin, gummy bully beef. In an obvious attempt to boost morale, he said enthusiastically: “You know, this is the best bully beef I've ever tasted. I wish the men in my galley could do as well. Let me talk to your mess sergeant.” The man appeared, trembling in the presence of so mighty an officer. Halsey raved on and on about the bully beef. Then he stopped. Vandegrift nudged the mess sergeant. “Say something to the admiral,” he whispered. Still quaking, the man stuttered: “Bul-Bullshit, Admiral. Bul-Bullshit.”

Edson's joke about taking Japanese supplies proved to be wisdom in disguise. Fleeing into the bush, the enemy had left large stocks of soy sauce, rice, tinned sliced beef, canned Japanese seaweed, crab meat, canned vegetables, and beer, and Marines enthusiastically digested it all. Cooks preparing it warmed chow on field stoves burning Japanese kerosene. The meals were eaten from Jap bowls with Jap chopsticks. After the entrees the leathernecks sucked Jap hard candy and drank sake from delicate Jap cups. The enemy's cornucopia, in those early days, seemed inexhaustible. Red Mike himself found diversion in an English translation of a “Short History of Japan”; his mess was enlivened by Nip phonograph records played on a captured Victrola. Men were issued Japanese occupation money to buy Japanese souvenirs. At Henderson Field, two large Japanese air stations, an air-compression plant for torpedoes, machine shops, and two electric-light plants proved to be invaluable. Nip girders and Nip piles were used to build bridges and piers. Everyone smoked Japanese cigarettes. The chances of mailing letters were slight, but men wrote then anyhow — on Japanese rice paper. Some calculated the number of days left in their enlistments with Japanese abaci. Heads were built of Nip lumber and shielded from flies by Jap screening. Since Fletcher had fled with all the toilet paper, and since Tokyo Rose seemed to be the only reliable source of information, Marines completed their toilet rites at the head by wiping themselves with copies of the New York Times which had somehow made it through the blockade. One issue was so used with particular relish. It reported that the Marines were tightening their grip on the Solomons as navy keeps supplies flowing in. On the strength of this dispatch, the troops were thrilled to learn, the Dow-Jones stock average had gained 4.93 points. But the most priceless news story, too precious for disposal in the head, appeared on page 25 of Time's August 24 issue. Reporting on the Battle of Savo Island, it revealed: “Japanese cruisers and destroyers tried to smash the invasion fleet. Then came what U.S. tars had long prayed for: the first real gun-to-gun test of U.S. and Japanese surface sea power. Result: a licking for the Japs.”

One Marine gunny taught a small class in Nipponese flower arrangement, using a superbly illustrated book recently published in Tokyo, and another NCO, who had liberated an ice plant which had been left in excellent condition by the departing enemy, erected two signs outside it. One read:



— J. Genung, Sgt., USMC, Mgr.

The other sign was headed today's score. On it, after each air battle overhead, he used a Japanese brush to write U.S. aircraft losses and the number of enemy planes stitched, flamed, and splashed. If you were cowering in a foxhole near Henderson, you could often hear the hot 50-caliber cases falling from the sky. After a lull, when Condition Red was lifted, someone would say: “Ain't getting any more cases; let's go up to the ice plant.” The Seabees, whom every Marine adored, had arrived, extended and finished Henderson Field two weeks after the landing, and immediately started work on a two-hundred-yard grassy fighter strip parallel to it. On August 20, the first twelve SBD (Scott Bomber Douglas) Dauntless dive-bombers flew in from the east and landed on Henderson, followed by nineteen stubby-winged Wildcats. It was, Vandegrift later recalled, “one of the most beautiful sights of my life. I was close to tears and I was not alone.” Enemy pilots led by Vs of arrowing Aichi 99s covered by Zeroes raced down from Rabaul to challenge them. The field, shelled every night, was in deplorable condition. If rain was falling it was a mire; if the day was dry the runway was obscured by clouds of dust. Maintenance crews were constantly cannibalizing downed U.S. planes; otherwise they had no spare propellers, wheels, windscreens, or tires. Also lacking were machines to belt ammunition, bomb hoists, dollies, and tankers. The pilots were dead on their feet and weakened by their grim diet of beans, rice, and hash. Nevertheless, as the weeks passed the statistics showed that our fliers were outscoring the Japs and their Zeroes, Bettys, and Zekes. The Marine airmen called themselves the “Cactus Air Force,” after the code name for the Canal operation, and their aces — Pappy Boyington and Joe Foss especially — were heroes to the infantry.

Dogfights were daylight spectacles. The nights belonged to the Japanese fliers, chiefly two of them: “Louie the Louse,” a float plane which nightly dropped two to four drifting pale green flares over the beachhead, and “Maytag Charlie” or “Washing Machine Charlie,” so named for his whining toy engine, which sounded like an airborne Yippie. You could set your watch by Charlie. Each night he dropped his 250-pound bombs, too few to threaten the Marines' defenses, but enough to keep them awake, which was the idea. Colonel Robert Pepper's 90-millimeter antiaircraft guns sought Charlie in vain. Four American night fighters up there would have done the job in a few minutes, but somehow requests for them were always pigeonholed in Noumea. So when he came, you jumped from your soggy blankets and dove into your foxhole, which held as much as six inches of water. In the hot zinging iron that fell, men said they found American nuts, bolts, and screws — scrap iron the United States had sold to Japan before Pearl Harbor. One corporal claimed he recognized Eleanor Roosevelt's false teeth. Nobody laughed. Louie and Charlie weren't funny. Nights were feared on the Canal. You watched the beautiful tropical sunsets with dread.

The salvos from Nip warships also banished sleep; so, later, did the shells from “Pistol Pete,” a 15-centimeter enemy howitzer on the Grassy Knoll. Our counterbattery fire could never find him. Every time you tried to rest there would be a shot from Pete, the flashing guns of Nip destroyers, Louie's flares, Charlie's drone, or the wail of a siren — another item liberated from the Japanese — at Henderson. When coastwatchers on New Georgia warned that enemy aircraft were overhead there, the word was passed that Condition Yellow was in effect. When they approached the Sound, it was Condition Red. These aerial pests were, and were meant to be, blows at morale. The men on the line couldn't even see the bastards. Even the guys on the beach rarely caught a glimpse of the enemy. If they did, it was usually because the Japs wanted to heighten Marine anxiety with an insolent procession of warships just beyond the reach of Pepper's old five-inch naval guns. Once a Jap move backfired, though. Two Higgins boats, on a mail run from Tulagi to the Canal, seemed doomed when a black Jap submarine, unseen by the men on the boats but clearly visible to those ashore, suddenly surfaced in the Sound behind them. Nip sailors sprang from the conning tower and manned the sub's forward gun. At that moment, to the horror of the men on the beach, blue smoke rose from a malfunction on one of our boats and the other slowed to pick up her crew. The Nips bracketed them in two shots. The men in the boats seemed as good as dead. Then, out of nowhere, a newly arrived battery of Marine 75-millimeter artillery opened fire. The sub lurched toward one side, damaged. The Japs piled into their conning tower, the black hull vanished, and the Higgins boat bearing the shaken Marines glided into its berth at Carpenter's Wharf.

At that time, when the Japanese infantrymen were attacking the Marine perimeter from all sides, our defensive arc was about four miles wide. Its eastern anchor was the juncture of the Ilu and Tenaru rivers and the sea. From there it ran down to a ridge a thousand yards south of Henderson and reached its other anchor at the mouth of the Lunga River to the west. This parabola may be roughly compared to a human face, with the Ilu at the left eye, the ridge at the nose, and the Lunga at the right eye. Generally this semicircular line clung to the high ground. Ideally it should have been an iron cordon, sandbagged and shielded by a double-apron barbed-wire fence with heavy reconnaissance patrols probing westward beyond the village of Kukum to the banks of the broad, ominous Matanikau River, about five miles from the Lunga. Later that was in fact done, but with so few Marines ashore in those first weeks, only heights could be strongly defended. There, on the jungly slopes, the men on the line would wire themselves in at night. Between them and the enemy were entrenched Marines in listening posts. The listening posts would report sounds of Jap movement. Nobody, to the best of my knowledge, volunteered to spend the night in a listening post.

But there was really no safe spot within the perimeter. Cooks, bandsmen, and runners were rushed into gaps when enemy breakthroughs seemed imminent. One night a Japanese officer brandishing a samurai sword came within a few yards of the pagodalike structure which served as Vandegrift's command post. The general, pacing the muddy wooden floor, turned, startled. “Banzai!” screamed the Jap, disemboweling a gunny. Nearby, Sergeant Major Shepherd Banta was giving one of his men unshirted hell. Banta drew his pistol, killed the Jap with one shot, and, turning back, continued his tongue-lashing. Anyone, anywhere on the beachhead, might, at any given moment, win a Purple Heart. Feverish or not, if men could walk then they were ineligible for sick bay. Every man was needed. Redheaded Sam Griffith, then Edson's executive officer and later my commanding officer, remembers: “In the South Pacific the navy was no longer scraping the bottom of the barrel. That had been done.” In any event, that was the explanation of the navy brass. Actually Fletcher had idle Wildcats in the New Hebrides. He just didn't believe in reinforcing failure. The enemy seemed to know that the embattled Marines had been all but disowned. Admiral Mikawa was assembling Jap aviation ground crews to be landed on Henderson as soon as the island had been surrendered by the Marines. Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi, leading a brigade ashore west of the Matanikau, had drawn up the instrument of capitulation for Vandegrift's signature. He had brought a dress uniform to be worn at the ceremony. Even the date had been set: September 13, 1942. The Marines didn't know the size of the forces being moved from New Guinea to the Canal, but some canisters dropped from Zeroes for enemy infantry fell within our lines. All bore the same message: “Help is coming, coming, coming.”

Meanwhile our force was shrinking, shrinking, shrinking. It is somehow unfair that only those disabled by wounds were eligible for Purple Hearts. Victims of malaria suffered just as much — some writhed through recurring attacks until the early 1950s — and there were two of them for every one who fell in battle. But if it came to that, every Marine on the island deserved a decoration just for being there. Those spared by malaria and Jap guns and bombs were afflicted with other fevers and with dysentery, virulent fungus infections, and malnutrition. The corpsmen did what they could. Marines lined up for emergency rations, salt tablets, quinine, and, starting on September 10, the malarial suppressant Atabrine. Everyone was ordered to swallow Atabrine tablets daily. Many mutinied at this; the drug left its takers sicklied o'er with a pale yellow cast, and scuttlebutt had it that it made men impotent. In the end the pills were doled out in chow lines. A corpsman popped a tablet on your tongue, then peered down your throat to be sure you had swallowed it. Still, there were those who managed to avoid it, and those who gulped it down and then worried about it. Personally I wasn't troubled by the pills. Being potent hadn't done me much good.

The typical Marine on the island ran a fever, wore stinking dungarees, loathed twilight, and wondered whether the U.S. Navy still existed. He ate moldy rations and quinine. He alternately shivered and sweated. If he was bivouacked near Henderson, he spent his mornings filling in craters left by enemy bombers the night before. If he was on his way back to the line, he struggled through shattered, stunted coconut trees, scraggy bushes, and putrescent jungle, clawing up and down slopes ankle-deep in mud, hoping he could catch a few hours of uninterrupted sleep in his foxhole. Usually he was disappointed. Even when there were no Jap bayonet charges, every evening brought fireworks. One night Nip bombers hit a Marine ammunition dump; another night Pepper spent over an hour trying to hit Charlie with AA fire; at dawn on a day which came to be known as “Dugout Sunday,” enemy six-inch guns tried to pin down Grumman pilots long enough for a fleet of bombers from Rabaul to arrive overhead unchallenged. The Jap tin cans were silenced by counterbattery fire, thanks to information about their location brought through the lines by natives, striking men who wore only the lavalava and whose frizzled hair rose eight inches above their forehead. The battle couldn't have been won without these islanders. Virtually every report from them was reliable. There were, however, exceptions.

On the first Wednesday after the landing an English-speaking Japanese seaman was captured alive. Plied with medicinal alcohol, he disclosed, apparently with reluctance, that hundreds of other Japs, starving in the bush, were ready to quit. A native guide and several termites entering the perimeter confirmed this, and a young Marine officer returning from patrol reported that a white flag was flying over an enemy camp near the Matanikau. That was good enough for Vandegrift's G-2, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Goettge. He told the general he wanted to board a Higgins boat with a patrol of his own and land beyond the Matanikau. Vandegrift agreed, though not without misgivings. Goettge picked his patrol — the prophetically named Stephen A. Custer, a sergeant, and twenty-five other intelligence men, among whom, I am glad to report, I was not.

It was a trap. Goettge, Custer, and their men left Kukum after night fell that same day. At midnight they landed somewhere west of the big river — no one knows just where, for the survivors were in deep shock. The enemy had a reception committee on hand. After a firefight which lasted less than five minutes, the patrol was overwhelmed. Three Marines escaped by swimming away from the beach and then crawling back to our lines over cruel coral. They reached our outposts at daybreak, bleeding and exhausted. Before they lost sight of the shore, they said, they had seen samurai swords flashing in the moonlight, beheading their comrades. This was the Marines' first encounter with Bushido, “the way of the warrior.” After several other examples of it, Vandegrift wrote the Marine Corps Commandant in Washington: “General, I have never heard or read of this kind of fighting. These people refuse to surrender. The wounded will wait until men come up to examine them … and blow themselves and the other fellow to death with a hand grenade.” Having been introduced to the enemy's code of total resistance, defiance to the last man, the Marines had no choice; they had to adopt it themselves. From then until the end of the war, neither side took prisoners except under freakish circumstances. It was combat without quarter: none was asked, none was given.

After the ambush of Goettge's patrol, the first major clash between the Japanese and the Americans occurred at the mouth of a stream on the other side of the perimeter. It is characteristic of our grasp of the island's geography that we called the creek the Tenaru; later we found that it was the Ilu. Most of the battle was fought on a ninety-foot sandspit where the Ilu flows into the Sound, and the first warning of what lay ahead came at midnight on August 18, when Marines ashore heard the splash and hiss of phosphorescent surf— evidence that a warship was racing past their beach, just beyond shoal water. By dawn, everyone within the perimeter had heard the scuttlebutt: the Japs were making night landings. It was true; the first thousand Nip troops had already been put ashore from destroyers. Martin Clemens told one of his natives, Jacob Vouza, to patrol the coconut groves east of the perimeter. Vouza was to become one of the battle's heroes. Before the enemy arrived on Guadalcanal, he had been the island's chief of police; his first impulse, when the Nips had come on June 29, was to arrest them, but Clemens told him to hole up and wait for the friendlier Americans. A powerfully built islander, absolutely fearless, Vouza had been quickly accepted by the Marines as one of them. They had given him an American flag (until Pearl Harbor he had never heard of either Japan or the United States) to show as his safe-conduct when he returned to their outposts from his scouting expeditions. Now, paddling his canoe toward Koli Point, he found that there were, in fact, strong new Japanese forces. Unfortunately he was caught by them on his next patrol. Finding the Stars and Stripes in his pocket, they demanded information about the Marine strong-points. He wouldn't tell them. Furious, they tied him to a tree with straw ropes, bayoneted him seven times in the chest and throat, and left him for dead. But Vouza, no ordinary man, bit through his ropes and crawled nearly three miles on his hands and knees, bleeding all the way, into our lines. He was near death when brought in, but he refused treatment until he reported all he had seen. Miraculously, navy doctors brought him back from the brink of death. Vandegrift awarded him a Silver Star and made him a sergeant major in the Marine Corps.


The Ilu sandspit, 1978

Fully alerted now, the Second Battalion of the First Marines, entrenched on the west bank of the Ilu, turned Japanese rice bags into sandbags and strengthened their line with barbed wire taken from the Lever Brothers plantation. A battalion of the Eleventh Marines arrived with 75-millimeter pack howitzers and short-barreled 105s. In the last hour of daylight they registered on the sandspit and the black, muddy east bank of the Ilu. Wildcats and Dauntless dive-bombers raked the enemy positions. From their deep foxholes the Marines checked their weapons. Some prayed. Some watched the crocodiles sliding in and out of the stream. Most, however, simply felt defiant. Their blood was up. After twelve days on this miserable island, they were about to justify their presence here. One of them yelled, “Now let the bastards come!”

They came. They were, we now know, supremely confident. Colonel Kiyono Ichiki, their leader, had already written in his diary: “21 August. Enjoyment of the fruits of victory.” After nightfall he began moving his troops through the coconut trees, toward the Ilu. It was in just such situations as this that listening posts were invaluable. In the early hours of Thursday, August 20, they reported hearing Japanese voices and “clanking noises.” They were drawn back behind our wire, and shortly before 3:00 A.M. the Nips struck. Their sickly green flares burst overhead, followed by the chatter of Nambu light machine guns, the bup-bup-bup of their heavy machine guns, and the explosion of their mortar shells among the Marine foxholes. The light from the flares disclosed a frightening horde of Japs in battle dress on the far side of the sandspit. Screaming, “Banzai!” they charged. Riflemen of the First Marines picked them off while our 37-millimeter canister shells exploded on the sandspit. The enemy's first wave faltered; then a second wave came on, and then a third. Because the wire was inadequate — thousands of spools had left with Fletcher's ships — some of the attackers got through. Three of them rushed the foxhole of a corporal firing a BAR. The BAR jammed. Shouting, “Maline, you die!” one Nip jumped into the hole. The corporal grabbed his machete and cut the Nip down; then he jumped the other two Japs and hacked them, too, to death. One Marine machine gunner was killed; his rigid finger remained locked on the trigger, scything the enemy. Blinded by a grenade, Al Schmid, another machine gunner, continued to fire, directed by his dying buddy. At daybreak nearly a thousand Jap corpses lay on the sandspit. The surviving Marines, still in combat shock, stared down at them. Most of the bodies looked alike. There is little variety in the postures of violent death. When the end comes instantaneously, the rag-doll effect is common. If there are a few moments of awareness between the wounding and the dying, muscular spasms draw up the legs and arms in the fetal position, and hands are clenched like boxers' fists. Somehow cadavers always seem smaller than life. The Nips were smaller than we were anyway; their dead looked like dwarfs.

One reason the Ilu battle had been a Marine victory was that Vandegrift had the advantage of interior lines. The enemy had to move around our perimeter, through the worst of the jungle, but our men could be moved swiftly to any threatened link in our semicircular chain. Because of this, the position was ideal for Edson's Raiders. His battalion had first fought on Tulagi. Then it moved to Savo. Now, in the aftermath of the Ilu, Red Mike shrewdly guessed that the Japanese would try the Ilu approach again. He put one company on Yippie-towed Higgins boats which were then tugged to Tasimboko, twenty miles east of the Ilu, where, as Mike suspected, the Japs were regrouping. Startled, they fled. The Raiders spiked the enemy's guns, loaded tins of crab meat on the boats, dumped rice bags into the water, and disposed of Jap rations which had to be left behind by pissing on them.

Back within the perimeter, Edson reported to Vandegrift's G-3 (operations officer), bringing with him a half-gallon of captured sake and a warning. “This is no motley of Japs,” he said in his throaty voice, predicting another major attack soon. Native scouts bore him out; thousands of enemy troops were moving inland. Mike turned to an aerial photograph of the beachhead. He put his finger on the irregular coral ridge which meandered south of Henderson. He said, “This looks like a good approach.” Back with his men, he grinned his evil grin and rasped, “Too much bombing and shelling here close to the beach. We're moving to a quiet spot.” That Saturday afternoon he and his Raiders, joined by parachutists, intelligence sections, and other miscellaneous troops, started digging in on the bluff, the last physical obstacle between the southern jungle and the airfield. Thus the stage was set for the most dramatic fight in the struggle for the island. Later it would be remembered as Bloody Ridge, Edson's Ridge, or simply the Ridge. Foxholes were dug on the spurs of this long, bare-topped height whose axis lay perpendicular to the airfield's. High, spiky, golden kunai grass feathered the slopes of the rugged hogback, leading down to heavily wooded ravines and dense jungle.

It is Saturday, September 12, 1942. Some eight hundred miles to the west, MacArthur's Australians have stopped the enemy's New Guinea offensive at Ioribaiwa, within sight of Port Moresby. In Vandegrift's pagodalike headquarters Admiral Turner, visibly embarrassed, has just handed the besieged general a message from Ghormley informing him that because the enemy is massing fleets at Rabaul and Truk, and because Ghormley is short of shipping, the U.S. Navy “can no longer support the Marines on Guadalcanal.” And south of Vandegrift and Turner, a twenty-minute walk away, Red Mike is preparing for the stand which will win him the Congressional Medal of Honor and, infinitely more important, will convince Washington that the Canal can be saved after all. It is sad to note that this tormented, highly complex man, a victim of satyriasis, will one day find death, not in battle, but by locking himself in a garage and running his motor until carbon monoxide kills him. Yet nothing can tarnish his successful struggle for the Ridge. He correctly guessed that the Nips' supreme effort would come here, he marked out the Raiders' positions on the brow of the hogback, and by sheer force of will he kept them from breaking.

Because Edson had called this “a quiet spot,” and because they had seen so much combat in the past month, most of the Raiders and their hodgepodge of reinforcements were under the impression that they had been sent here to rest. That evening, when enemy warships entered the Sound, Edson's men assumed that the Japs' mission was a routine shelling of the airfield. Instead, the ships shelled the Ridge. Then twenty-six Bettys arrived overhead to drop five-hundred-pound bombs and daisy cutters on the Raiders. “Some goddam rest area!” a corporal yelled. “Some goddam rest area!” At 9:00 P.M. Edson pulled the Marines back to the southern crest of the hogback. There were still two knolls to fall back on. If they were thrown off those they faced annihilation. He told his men: “This is it. There is only us between the airfield and the Japs. If we don't hold, we'll lose the Canal.” Within an hour battalions led by Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi moved up the east bank of the Lunga, pivoted toward the Ridge, and cut a platoon of Marines into little pockets. Japs who spoke broken English led chants of “U.S. Maline be dead tomorrow.” A Raider shouted, “Hirohito eats shit!” After a quick conference with his comrades, a Nip yelled back, “Eleanor eats shit!” Edson picked up his field telephone and told the beleaguered platoon commander to disengage. A precise voice replied: “Our situation here, Colonel Edson, is excellent. Thank you, sir.” Edson knew his men didn't talk like that. He was speaking to a Jap. He picked a corporal with a voice like a foghorn and told him to roar: “Red Mike says it's OK to pull back!” The platoon retreated to the next spur, moving closer to Henderson but keeping the Marine line intact.

Enemy flares burst overhead. Moving by their light, massed Japs with fixed bayonets swarmed up the slopes of the Ridge. “Gas attack!” they shrieked. A Raider yelled back: “I'll gas you, you cock-sucker!” Major Ken Bailey, who would also win a Congressional Medal of Honor in this action, crawled from foxhole to foxhole, distributing grenades. Raider mortars were all coughing together. All machine gunners were trained to fire in short bursts — hot barrels became warped and had to be replaced — but that night you heard no pauses between the flashes from the Brownings. The gunners cried, “Another belt, another barrel!” Palms were scorched in the barrel changing; tormented cries went up: “My fucking hand!” And during lulls you heard the sergeants bellowing: “Raiders, rally to me! Raiders, Raiders, rally to me!”

As daybreak crayoned the eastern sky red and yellow, Edson assembled his officers for a breakfast of dehydrated potatoes, cold hash, and sodden rice. He told them: “They were testing. Just testing. They'll be back. But maybe not as many of them. Or maybe more.” He smiled his smile. He said, “I want all positions improved, all wire lines paralleled, a hot meal for the men. Today dig, wire up tight, get some sleep. We'll all need it. The Nip'll be back. I want to surprise him.” His surprise was a slight withdrawal along the hogback, improving fields of fire and tightening his rewired lines. Now Japanese assault troops debouching from the bush would have to cover a hundred yards of open grass before reaching the Marines, and as they ran up the slope they would be a naked target for grazing fire from the battalion's automatic weapons. Actually, we learned after the war, Kawaguchi hadn't been testing at all. He had expected to overwhelm the Americans that first night. Later he wrote that now, “because of the devilish jungle, the brigade was scattered all over and completely beyond control. In my whole life I have never felt so helpless.” Lacking interior lines, he couldn't match Edson's move. He had to do exactly what Red Mike wanted him to do: attack over a no-man's-land, and without his best men, who had been slain in that Saturday charge.


Bloody Ridge, 1978

Now it was Sunday. The oppressive tropical night enveloped the Ridge and all through the early evening there was no sign of movement in the jungle below. At 9:00 P.M. Louie wheezed over Kukum, cut his engine, coasted over Henderson Field, and released a parachute flare. Simultaneously, over two thousand Japs charged up the slippery slopes of the Ridge. Edson's flanks were forced back until his position resembled a horseshoe. After an hour of fighting, the Japs withdrew to reform. The Raiders' mortars hadn't stopped many of the assault troops, so Edson called on heavier artillery sited near the airfield. Then, when another enemy wave appeared at midnight, the Long Toms' shells met them with blinding salvos. Edson told his FO (forward artillery observer): “Bring the fires in.” Then: “Closer.” And again: “Closer.” Terrified by the huge shell bursts, Nips tried to hide from them by jumping into Marine foxholes. Marines hurled them out. At 2:00 A.M. the enemy charged again. Now flares showed them to be within sight of the airfield. Edson stood a few feet behind the Marine line. When stunned Raiders staggered toward him, he turned them around and shoved them back, rasping, “The only thing they've got that you haven't is guts.” At 2:30, however, both sides fell back. Edson was now on the Ridge's northernmost knoll. If that was lost, all was lost. But he sent word back to Vandegrift: “We can hold.” And the general, heartened, began to feed in his precious reserve, the Second Battalion of the Fifth Marines, a company at a time. The enemy was running out of men when, at first light, P-38s from Henderson swooped in, flying just twenty feet above the ground, strafing and firing 37-millimeter shells into the Nip reserves. Kawaguchi ordered a retreat. The Japanese dead littered the Ridge, their bodies already swelling in the heat. The Ridge was saved.

In our island war the fighting never really ended until all the Japs had been wiped out. That morning the enemy was still trying to force a passage across the mouth of the Ilu, and when five American tanks tried to descend the slopes of the Ridge, all were knocked out by Jap antiaircraft guns which had remained behind for just that purpose. During the confusing night melee, individual Nips had found their way through our lines. A jeep inching back toward Henderson and carrying five wounded Marines, one of them Red Mike's operations officer, was raked by a Nambu; there were no survivors. But the outcome of the battle was unchanged, and the losers faced a terrible prospect. Kawaguchi had to lead his men, staggering under their packs, back through the dense rainforest to the headwaters of the Matanikau, into deep, humid ravines and over towering cliffs, accompanied all the way by swarms of insects. Japs had malaria, too. They had also run out of food. And no doctors or rice awaited them. They fed on roots, leaves, and grass; they tore bark from trees; they chewed their leather rifle straps, and some, delirious, raved or stumbled into the swamps to die. “The army,” a Japanese historian sadly notes, “had been used to fighting the Chinese.”

Slowly the Marine perimeter grew, until it was seven miles wide and four miles deep. Now American ships brought men and supplies every day; since the Canal lacked a harbor, dock complexes were built at Kukum and, to the west, Point Cruz. The sensible course for the Japanese would have been to throw in the towel then and evacuate the Canal. But having won so much in the early bloodless months of the war, they simply could not believe that they must forfeit this island where they had spent so many lives. So they kept withdrawing troops from Papua to strengthen the forces here. Now that Henderson had become a hive of U.S. warplanes, including F4U Corsairs, the Tokyo Express no longer dared to venture out in daylight. Jap transports lay up in New Georgia and the Shortlands between dawn and dusk, bringing in reinforcements and heavy artillery each midnight and returning to Rabaul with the wounded and sick. One week a full division was landed at Cape Esperance, accompanied by ambitious battle plans from Tokyo. On paper they were impressive, but they were too complicated for the climate and the terrain. In heavy rains the jungle was completely impassable. Regimental commanders lost battalions, battalions lost companies, companies lost platoons, platoons lost squads. Lacking Atabrine, their quinine requisitions were huge. They ran out of it. Then they began running out of everything.

Meanwhile the Seabees completed another airstrip, “Fighter Two,” at Kukum. Tulagi became a base for PT boats, including the boat that had brought MacArthur out of his Corregidor trap and PT-109, skippered by young Lieutenant (j.g.) John F. Kennedy. Carlson's Raiders arrived, spreading their gospel, then new, of “Gung Ho” (“Work together”). Carlson recommended long patrols, to be conducted, of course, by intelligence men. Ultimately his Raiders circled the entire island. The Second Marines landed, then the Eighth Marines, and then — the first affirmative action by the U.S. Army here — the Americal Division. The doggies were rich in candy bars; the Marines were rich in souvenirs. Bartering began, with so many Hershey bars or Butterfingers exchanged for a samurai sword or a Rising Sun battle flag. Later I acquired a little cache of mementos: a Jap helmet, a sword, and a meatball banner. I mailed them home in the only wooden box I could find; it was an awkward size, so I used packs of Chesterfields as ballast. The box reached my mother at the height of the home front's cigarette shortage, and she, thinking that was why I had sent it, merely acknowledged the souvenirs while enthusiastically thanking me for the Chesterfields.

Though Vandegrift eventually commanded forty thousand U.S. troops, though U.S. air power reduced the Express's flow to a trickle, and though Jap artillery was overwhelmed by our batteries of 75s, 105s, and Long Toms, the enemy clung stubbornly to the west bank of the Matanikau. Four separate battles were fought for this awful river. The most memorable fight was over a log crossing called the “Jap Bridge.” Major Bailey was killed there, and Sam Griffith was wounded in the shoulder by a Jap marksman. (As he staggered and fell, Griffith, ever the professional, shouted, “Good shot!”) Finally, on November 1, three Pioneer bridges were thrown over the river, and after that, attrition slowly sapped Japanese force and whatever morale was left. By the first week in February that was zero. In a three-night minor Dunkirk, the last eleven thousand Nips were evacuated from Cape Esperance. The long Japanese southward drive had been stopped. Between New Guinea and the Canal the myth of Jap invincibility had been gutted. And the price paid for Guadalcanal had not been excessive by standards of the Pacific war. During the six-month struggle for the island, 4,123 Americans had fallen. On Iwo Jima 25,851 Marines would be lost in less than four weeks, and the price of the eighty-two-day fight for Okinawa, the greatest bloodletting of all, would be 49,151 Americans. Vandegrift's casualty lists were less than half of MacArthur's on Papua. Papua was MacArthur's bloodiest campaign in the battles which led him back to the Philippines; after Buna, his nimble genius began to bypass enemy strongpoints, leaving them to wither on the vine. The real ordeal on the Canal had been psychological and malarial; when the army relieved the Marines, 95 percent of the original landing force was hors de combat, mostly by fever.

After the battle, Guadalcanal became a staging area for other troops. By then the island's name had entered the mists of legend. The New York Times called the Canal “one of the decisive struggles of the war in the Pacific,” and after the battle Hanson Baldwin, the paper's military analyst, wrote jubilantly: “The future is ours to make.” One of Hirohito's ablest strategists, Captain Toshikazu Ohmae, concluded that the situation had become “very serious.” Guadalcanal met the standards, set by Winston Churchill, for great battles which, “won or lost, change the entire course of events, create new standards of values, new moods, new atmospheres in armies and in nations.” President Roosevelt, citing the First Marine Division, said that its men “not only held their important strategic positions despite determined and repeated Japanese naval, air, and land attacks,” but also drove the Japanese “from the proximity of the airfield” and “inflicted great losses on them.” FDR concluded: “The courage and determination displayed in these operations were of an inspiring order.”

But Southey may have been right: all famous victories may be meaningless. One difficulty is that, in looking back through the lens of time, we are constantly revising the definitions of proper nouns, both history's and our own, giving more weight to this battle, less weight to that. We balkanize the past, too; my recollections of the Canal are as fragmented and jumbled as the jungle I toiled through. And if you were hit in the skull, like me, you are never going to get the shattered pieces of remembrance just right. In addition, I have repressed what war memories I do have for so long that I have no way of knowing how distorted they are now. That, of course, is why I have come back to the islands.

It is the early evening of November 19, 1978, and I am hiking from Henderson Field to the Ridge, wearing khakis and my old Raider cap and carrying a flashlight, my notebook, and a small pick. I pause at a large sign:



Behind the sign is a barbed-wire fence — better barbwire than the Marine Corps had then — but part of it is flattened by twisted, rusting old Marsden matting, easily stepped over. A slope of three-foot-high kunai grass, caressed just now by the rough hand of a rising wind, leads me to the ultimate knob on the Ridge. There a simple bronze plaque marks the site of Red Mike's command post. Running through my mind is the tune of “Remember Pearl Harbor,” but the words are the words we sang then:

We'll remember Colonel Edson, how he led us to the fight,

We'll remember Major Bailey, how he fought with all his might …

Overhead the sky is a gunmetal gray. A light rain is falling. The Ridge curves southward like an incomplete question mark. Beyond it, the blue-green heights of the Grassy Knoll are shadowed by patches of fog, while on each side of me, the Ridge's slopes lead down to the rainforest where the Japanese massed for their attacks. Tropical trees there stand at least 150 feet tall. Smaller bushes lurk around them, like shrunken whores in doorways.

We'll remember the sergeants, 'cause they always led the way,

And we'll remember Pua Pua, when we're back in the U.S.A. …

I spit on my hands and swing the pick, once more mutilating this little acre of God. Presently I have hacked out a foxhole. It is shallow but snug; a fallen log bars the wind, the hip hollows fit, and the prospects for a comfortable night are a distinct improvement over those in the last hole I gouged out on this island, on a similar ridge three miles west of here. I had never spaded earth so easily. In a few minutes I had a deep, wide shelter, large enough for me and my gear with room to spare. I fell asleep feeling smug, sublimely unaware of catastrophe ahead. The reason the earth had been so soft was that I had been burrowing into the natural drainage line of the slope. At 3:00 A.M. a deluge awakened me, and I nearly drowned. In fact, I almost lost my weapon. Now, over a third of a century later, I avoid gullies. A man my age must be cautious, and I have decided to spend the night on the Ridge, listening once more to the sounds of the rainforest.

We'll remember the Raiders, how we marched into the fray,

Yes, we'll remember Pua Pua, when we're back in the U.S.A.

Mosquitoes appear. This time I am protected from diseases by hypodermic shots, and once I have smeared Cutter ointment on my skin the bugs withdraw. The rain stops, then the sun vanishes behind an archipelago of crimson clouds, leaving the hogback to darkness and to me. There is a stillness without echo. The night is soft, the stars slightly misty. But then, almost abruptly, the Ridge becomes a noisy place. Sound travels far here; I can hear the cries of children in a distant village, though I cannot tell from which direction they come. A dog yelps. Nearby, crickets and tree frogs chirp, and the medleys of birds grow and grow louder. They run up and down the scale, jabbering a double-quick cadence.

And then it starts to happen. Quietly, stealthily, imperceptibly, terror begins to creep across my mind so that, poring over my notebook by flashlight, I am taken quite unawares. New sounds, just now penetrating my consciousness, are impossible to identify. Down below, where the Japs formed for their assaults up the slopes, something is going huk-huk-huk. Something else is whickering, like the braying of a gigantic donkey. Most disconcerting is a kind of cosmic gasping. Its breath goes hhhhhhh hhhhhhh hhhhhhh and then hhhhh hhhhh hhhhh, and it is coming up after me.

Raiders, rally to me!

A nearby twig snaps. Common sense tells me it can only be a land crab, a lizard, or a wild rabbit, but my whole body goes rigid. The panting is coming closer. I want to flee, but my muscles won't respond. The thing is down there in the kunai grass, temporarily muffled by a rock. The gasping has stopped, to be replaced by a snuffling, a squeal, and sucking sounds. Now it is thumping to one side and then the other, trying to smell me out, whining impatiently.

Raiders, Raiders! Rally to me!

In that instant the thing catches my scent and I catch its scent. The malevolent panting has begun again, hhh hhh hhh hhh hhh, and it reeks of sweat, cordite, urine, and old leather. Then it arrives, clawing at the edge of my foxhole. I cannot look up. I can feel it hanging over me. My eyes are squeezed shut when a flash of light, bright enough to reach my pupils through my eyelids, pinks them. My lids flip open. There is nothing there. And there is no sound. Then the birds resume their crying, the dog barks, the children shout. Nothing has happened. Doubtless I am the victim of a nightmare. Yet my khakis are soaked with perspiration.

I am past shame, grateful for deliverance, but baffled by what to do. Returning to Henderson in the dark is out of the question. So, I think, is sleep. But I am wrong about that. I am fifty-six years old, this has been a strenuous day, and I have just had a strange shock. I roll over on my back and study the Southern Cross, its stars partly obscured by tattered clouds. I drop off. This time my dream is familiar. It is of the old party and the Sergeant. There is a difference, however. When the old man arrives he finds that the Sergeant has been there some time — his boondockers have plowed the mud — and he ignores his visitor's presence. He has the half-pathetic, half-comical look of a concentration camp victim, bereft of dignity. Atabrine has turned his skin yellower than a Jap's. His uniform is just hanging on his emaciated frame, and it is stained with what, at a closer look, turns out to be blood. He is in a towering rage, though clearly not at the old man; he doesn't even glance in that direction. Glaring elsewhere, he shakes his fist at the darkness in pitiful fury and swears savagely. At first he appears to be angry with himself. Then the truth becomes clear. I know his problem. He is furious at Lefty Zepp, the first of the Raggedy Ass Marines to die.

Of course I was pissed off. Zepp had been inexcusably insubordinate. I had ordered him to avoid high ground and especially to stay away from Easy Company. Forgiveness is very hard when someone you love gets killed doing what he has been expressly told not to do. Everybody in the line companies knew Zepp had been at Harvard. They all resented his sleepy, amused, almost insolent eyes, and the way he looked at you when he had scored a point: as though you had just said something disgusting, or had what was then called B.O. But Easy Company's Topkick was among those who had been suckered by Zepp's swagger stick, binoculars, hand-made boondockers, and fancy pistol. Back at New River the Top had been flimflammed into saluting him, and when he found out Lefty was only a Pfc, he was furious. That wasn't my problem, and at the time it didn't seem to be much of a problem for Zepp. But in combat dislikes can be mortal. Easy Company wasn't going to look out for Zepp's ass. And in his distinctive outfit he was sniper bait anyhow. Our officers wore no insignia of rank. They knew enemy marksmen would be looking for our leaders. If a Pfc could dupe a First Soldier, he could certainly gull the Japs and draw fire. I made this point a hundred times with Zepp, but he either promised to leave the Abercrombie and Fitch gear behind when he went on the line, and then forgot to do it, or he gave me a tortuous legal argument about an enlisted man's right to private property. It was what you would expect from a Harvard man.

Later I wondered whether Easy Company knew that Lefty was a Jew. I don't think so. He didn't look Jewish, or what we thought looked Jewish. His black hair was thick and curly, but he had kept his boot-camp crew cut; it just looked like a tight cap. His eyes were slanted, his lips were thin, and his cheekbones were high, almost oriental. He was also wiry and well muscled. The race question had been raised point-blank in the section — by Bubba — and Lefty had flatly denied being Jewish. He said he was Armenian. He told Izzy Levy the truth but swore him to secrecy. Izzy didn't relay it to me until over thirty years later, when we ran into each other in Chicago. I was surprised. I had thought deception beneath Zepp. Except for his adolescent voice he emanated an invulnerable aura of self-confidence. His movements were always economical and precise; I was sure he would be an impressive physician. And his mind was first-rate. Neither Barney nor I ever beat him in chess, not once. He had joined the Marines on impulse after seeing John Payne, Randolph Scott, and Maureen O'Hara in To the Shores of Tripoli, a gung-ho movie that conned a lot of guys into boot camp. He wrote his father every day, and every day he got a letter back, despite the fact that doctors on the home front, with most of the younger physicians in uniform, were carrying enormous practices.

To civilians, men in combat dress look as alike as weeds in a patch, but a botanist can sort out the weeds, and a sergeant, if he is any good, should be able to sort out his people. This is something training cannot teach. It must be intuitive. The best NCOs are sensitive to the peculiarities in each rifleman's character, how he will react under pressure, what can be expected of him and what can't. To my surprise, I had found that I could do it. I could even make a fair guess about the special skills of men in other outfits — from the crouching walk of a machine gunner, for example, or the crablike movements of a mortarman. In the jungle I also learned that my timidity was actually an asset. Because of the beatings I had taken as a boy, I had become a master of evasion. And I was seldom startled. If I was about to be cornered, if danger was close, I knew it before anyone else. Most wounded infantrymen experience a lull, a dead instant between the time they are hit and the moment the shattered nerves and torn muscles catch up and start shrieking, but with me it was the other way around. I was like the White Queen in Through the Looking-Glass, who began to feel pain before she was hurt. And because I was young and frightened and had youthful reflexes, I responded instantly to those flickers of warning. It was a sense I cannot define, a kind of pusillanimity on a subliminal level.

My instincts told me that Lefty Zepp was a poor insurance risk, and that the open ground below Yaetake was to be avoided at all costs, particularly by him. I had made that clear. He had stared moodily over my head. We had often argued about courage. I told him that short of turning my back on the Japs and showing a clean pair of heels, which would merely make me a more conspicuous target — in combat he who fights and runs away may not live to fight another day — my actions would be governed solely by determination to survive the war. He said he wanted to live through it, too, but he wouldn't mind coming home with a Silver Star or even a Navy Cross. I quoted someone to the effect that a man wouldn't sell his life to you, but he will give it to you for a piece of colored ribbon. The whole panoply of military glory, I argued (and still argue), is a monstrous deception. I felt (and still feel) that one of the most effective ways to end war would be to strip the military of its anachronistic ribbons, uniforms, and titles. Ban medals, I said; put infantrymen in blue denim, make generals “superintendents,” colonels “supervisors,” and sergeants “foremen.” Then, I said, the martial drive would slacken everywhere. Lefty was beguiled but unconvinced. I could see that he still wanted to greet his father as a certified military hero. So I ordered him to lie low at Yaetake, avoiding, above all, Easy Company's sector. And the son of a bitch double-crossed me.

The rest of us were huddled around a situation map in the ravine below our main line of resistance, trying to match the map's coordinates with a new batch of aerial photographs for a group of officers. The diversion was welcome. For over four hours we had been toiling like convicts in a Georgia chain gang, straining to haul heavy mortars and 37-millimeter guns up an almost perpendicular slope of shale and scree and small rocks, all unstable and treacherous. The few patches of earth were muddy and slippery: more dangerous, really, than the stones. At one point Horse Goltz — his full name was Horst von der Goltz, and I've never met an unlikelier Prussian — had clumsily skidded above me, and his bayonet scabbard had opened a nasty gash on my cheek. Now I was up to my stacking swivel with officers waving glossy pictures at me and demanding that I tell them what this lump and that line meant. Dusty Rhodes was my most skillful interpreter of aerial photographs, and I had just begun to wonder where he was when I heard a thin, breaking, unmistakable shriek from above: “Corpsman!” The word was voided into the hush. Rip looked at me. His face was fisted. He breathed: “Lefty!” Then Dusty came scuttling down wide-eyed. I asked shakily, “What's the word?” He said, “Lefty's hurt bad, they said a sniper.”

At that time wounds, not to mention deaths, were still a novelty for us, and we didn't know what to do. In fact there was nothing we could have done. We stood around, hands on hips, avoiding each other's gaze and peering up to where, we knew, Easy Company held the line. They handed Lefty down, their hands held high to pass him overhead, but we heard him before we could see him. I had read an article about how the wounded never cry. It was a lie. Zepp was sobbing. Whatever his wound, I couldn't believe it was mortal. If it was, I thought, there would be no point in moving him. I didn't know then that our line had just pulled back to the reverse slope, that it was move him or leave him, and there was no choice there, because the Marine Corps always recovers its dead and dying, not for their sakes but to hearten the living.

The sobbing stopped, and then we saw him. The back of his blouse, splotched with great batwings of sweat, looked normal, but his legs were spread as wide as the hoist allowed, and his groin was one vast bloodstain, crimson bubbles forming and breaking on his thighs. Then I saw the loose lolling of the head, and I knew. As he came closer I saw that his features were untouched. The lips were parted, almost swollen; the neck heavy. His eyes looked astonished: how could they do this to a Harvard man? I felt a surge of pain, grief, shock, loss. My wrath came later, when Barney found out that Lefty had been standing in full view of the enemy, studying the Jap lines through his binoculars. But there was no rage at the time. I thought of four things all at once: he was nineteen years old, he would never sing “Fair Harvard” again, I would have to write his father, and I didn't have his father's address. But just then I couldn't move. I thought: Dulce nec decorum est pro patria mori. If anyone had hummed the “Marines' Hymn” then I would have pistoled him.

Two mortarmen laid Lefty's body under a grubby little tree apart from the map conference, which, to my amazement, was still going on. Then, as naturally as though we had planned it, we went over one by one to say goodbye. Pip was wiping his eyes on his cruddy sleeve. Knocko Craddock looked like a movie drunk, his every movement exaggerated, the arm-waving, falling-away motions of a man pretending to be plastered. Barney had a heartbreak look, his face in shadow. The rest followed, all in or near tears. If Samuel Eliot Morison had seen us then, he certainly wouldn't have thought of us as “tough guys” who “asked for nothing better than to come to grips with the sneaking enemy who had aroused all their primitive instincts.”

I was last. I didn't know what to do, so I walked over and knelt on one knee. Lefty's skin, normally olive, looked like ivory. I remembered the words of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer: “Oh God, how alone the dead are left!” though I thought how lonely the survivors were, too. Eventually, I realized, a chaplain would arrive, but Zepp had had no religion, or had renounced the one into which he had been born. The best I could do was a few lines from A. E. Housman's “To an Athlete Dying Young”:

To-day, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

Townsman of a stiller town. …

And round that early-laurelled head

Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead …

I couldn't remember the rest of it. I leaned over and kissed him full on the lips. Then I looked down at his gory crotch. In some obscene, unspeakable, vicarious but identifiable way, I felt that I had lost my virginity after all.

Descending the Ridge now in 1978, I maneuver my rented four-wheel-drive Toyota eastward on the island's one road — it was dirt in 1942, is paved now, but is as bumpy as ever — and park beside the Tenaru. Walking along the stream's bank, I catch a sudden glimpse of Jacob Vouza, who, thanks to Queen Elizabeth II, will soon become Sir Jacob Vouza. He sees me coming, and we trot awkwardly toward each other, two old warriors spavined in every joint. We embrace; he leads me to his village, and I wait outside while he changes clothes in his thatched hut — he insists he must don his uniform for the occasion. Overhead a flag ascends a flagpole. It is the same flag which he carried as his safe-conduct thirty-six years ago and which nearly cost him his life. If it is floating over the village, Vouza is home. When the British returned to the Solomons after the war, this custom annoyed them, but no one dared tell the old hero to replace the Stars and Stripes with the Union Jack. Sir Jacob was, and remains, the most popular man on the island.

Our reunion is no stroke of fate. An old-boy network still operates in the islands, mostly comprised of Australians, and Martin Clemens, now retired and living in Melbourne, has sent word to other former coastwatchers and senior islanders that I will be coming. Vouza is in his late eighties, and I decide it would be unwise to ask him to accompany me during my entire tour of the Canal. Instead, another native, Jackson Koria, will accompany me. Like Vouza, Koria worked for the Japanese as a laborer during the fighting and relayed information to Vandegrift's G-2.

It is difficult to describe the adoration these men feel for the United States. Several months earlier, when the Solomon Islands archipelago became the one hundred fiftieth member of the United Nations, with its own flag (bright blue, green, and yellow), motto (“To lead is to serve”), and national anthem (“God Bless the Solomon Islands”), the British ceremoniously handed the reins of authority to the prime minister of an elected legislature. A British band played “God Save the Queen.” There was a ripple of polite applause. Then a native band played their new anthem. The applause was louder. Finally a band of American bluejackets swung into view playing the “Marines' Hymn.” Every Solomon Islander was on his feet, roaring approval.

Vouza emerges from his hut. He wears a skirt instead of trousers; otherwise he is attired in the dress uniform of a Marine Corps sergeant major. His Silver Star is pinned to his blouse. He carries an engraved sword presented to him by the Marine Corps. As I photograph him, he asks me where I keep my dress blues. It is an embarrassing question; how can I tell him that long ago I discarded my blues, my khakis, and my greens — that my faded Raider cap is the only piece of uniform I kept? I change the subject. Elsewhere


Sergeant Major Jacob Vouza, 1978

I have been told that there is now a strong Japanese presence in the islands, and that one Japanese, a Captain Honda, is particularly enterprising. I ask Vouza about all this. He stiffens; the Nips are here, all right, but he never speaks to them. So I change the subject again, suggesting that we revisit the mouth of the Ilu. That pleases him. After lunching on cool, delicious chunks of papaya, we stroll along the river's bank, watching cattle and children bathe. Surprisingly, one of the children is wearing a pair of tabi, those World War II Jap sneakers which separated the big toe from the others, like the thumb in a mitten. It is incredible that they should still be in use; my boondockers didn't make it past the fifteenth year. I start to ask Vouza about them, then remember that the Japs are still a touchy subject with him. We arrive at the sandspit where so many men died and stand in silence. I think of Private Schmid, fighting on though blinded. I also think of Vouza and what he did that terrible night. Beside me he is erect, at attention. I compliment him on his military bearing and promise to remember him to his friends in the States. He says, “Tell them I love them all. Me old man now, and me no look good no more. But me never forget.” I say, “You no old man, Vouza. You healthy, strong. You live long time.” He relaxes and smiles.

In the Toyota, Koria and I cross a new, 150-foot bridge across the Lunga and another, longer span across the Matanikau. In 1942 it took two months for nineteen thousand Marines, with Chesty Puller cracking the whip, to reach the far bank of the Matanikau. Today it is a ten-minute ride from the airfield, now called Henderson International Airport. The bridge is one-way because, you are told, the Marines only went in one direction — forward. This harmless fiction is succeeded by surprises on all sides. A Catholic cathedral stands on one bank, a Chinatown on the other, and, in the place of Kukum's Fighter Two airstrip, a nine-hole golf course. That is only the beginning. The end is the town of Honiara. No Guadalcanal veteran will recognize the name. Honiara rose after the war, and takes its name from the native naho ni ara, meaning “facing the east and southeast wind.” It occupies the site of Point Cruz, a complex of concrete docks we built to replace a coconut plantation. (More money for the soap company.) The town is now the capital for the Solomon nation's fifty thousand citizens. In it are two air-conditioned hotels, one of them owned by Chinese; there is another Chinatown in the capital; and the Chinese restaurant Lantern serves the best food on the island.

But it is the Nipponese who are most conspicuous. Young Japanese who hadn't even been born when the battle raged here come on economic missions, examining the Solomons' rich mineral deposits, testing its palm oil, netting its skipjack tuna, bargaining for the Canal's rice, sugarcane, cattle, papaya, and pineapple, and asking penetrating questions about the threats of natives on Malaita, one of the richer islands, to secede from the federation. Older Japanese arrive each year to pray at small shrines for the souls of their husbands and brothers who died in the fighting. Executives from huge Nipponese conglomerates sit around tables in the hotels, drinking cold Kirin beer and studying maps of the islands. They make me feel uncomfortable. But then, so does the sign reading “Jackets and Neckties,” the menus printed in Japanese as well as English, the taxi stand, and the well-stocked bar. Heavy with survivor's guilt, I tell the waiter: “You catchum me one fella Scotch on rocks.”

The following morning I call on Captain H. Honda in his office at the Taiko Fisheries Company. He is younger than I am, and looks younger still, a short, slender, but sinewy man with neatly parted black hair and eyes like green marbles. But he was old enough to volunteer for the kamikaze corps in 1945. He was turned down, and I, hoping to find common ground, congratulate him on his failure to pass the kamikaze examination. It doesn't work. His smile is so thin that he stops just short of baring his teeth. And to my surprise, after all these years I find my own hackles rising. The sad truth is that there can never be peace between men like this man and men like me; an invisible wall will forever separate us. To make the interview as short as possible, I confine myself to one bland question, asking whether he thinks that the new Solomons nation can become economically independent. He shakes his head. Papua, yes; the Fijis, yes; the Solomons, no. The problem, he says, is oriental imperialism. Bougainville, the richest of the islands, has been annexed by the Papuans. But the Papuans are victims, too; West Irian, the western half of their island, has been seized by the Indonesians. These issues have never been raised in the United Nations. Imperialism, it seems, is a crime in the UN only when the imperialists are white.

Returning to my hotel, I pass the local movie theater, a converted Quonset hut — the current flick is “It Happened One Night” — and meet Bill Bennett, an old coastwatcher wearing a First Raider Battalion T-shirt. Bennett and another Australian at the bar don't share Honda's pessimism, though they warn me not to be fooled by Honiara's fashion shops and the current island craze for Adidas footwear. Outside the city, Guadalcanal is still primitive. Although there is electricity here in the town, elsewhere, save for a few generators, light is provided by kerosene lamps. To be sure, the Seventh-Day Adventists have built a high school, Planned Parenthood has established a lively chapter, and the local hospital — still called Hospital No. 9, as it was in 1942, for sentimental reasons — is first class. But the government is weak and few islanders are interested in, or even aware of, their independence. “Oh, yes,” says Bill's friend. “I forgot to mention that before leaving the British built a mental hospital.” I say, “We could have used it.”

My tour of the island convinces me that the Canal is still essentially pristine. On Red Beach I find the remains of a floating pier and two amphibian tractors, overgrown by vines and covered with nearly four decades of rust. Otherwise the fine-grained gray beach and the stately palms are much as they were on August 7, 1942. At Henderson Field the black skeleton of the old control tower is untouched. Cassia grows in a half-track near the airstrip. Since the field is now surfaced with concrete, natives have liberated strips of Marsden matting and use them for fences. To the west are the Japanese shrines — they are the same, I shall find, on all the islands: six feet high, four sided, with Japanese characters on all sides. I also discover several U.S. Army markers, but almost none erected by the Marine Corps. Here and there one comes across the fuselage of a downed World War II plane; invariably the interiors reek of urine. Near the Kokumbona River I trace the contours of old trenches and foxholes wrinkling the ground, though my own elude me. Except on the Ridge and the Ilu sandspit, all other landmarks of the past, including the Jap Bridge, have been reclaimed by the jungle. This is even true at Hell's Point, a stockpile of unexploded ammunition still marked out-of-bounds for anyone straying near it. There are overgrown Hell's Points all over the Pacific; they are the war's chief legacy to natives. I point to the warning sign, nearly obscured by vines, and tell Koria that this is a barren wasteland, that is will always be dangerous. He nods grimly and replies, “Mi save gut”: he understands it well.

After the Allied victories on Papua and Guadalcanal, Japan's great 1942 offensive spluttered and died. In Tokyo Hirohito's generals and admirals assured him that they could hold the empire they had won. Until now American strategists in Washington had tacitly agreed; their plans for the Pacific war had been defensive; they had wanted only to hold Australia and Hawaii until the war in Europe had been won. But MacArthur, Halsey, and Nimitz were aggressive commanders. They had shown what their troops could do. In the southwest Pacific they were determined to seize, or at least neutralize, Rabaul. MacArthur could then skip along New Guinea's northern coast, moving closer to his cherished goal, the recapture of the Philippine Islands. And the U.S. Navy could open another offensive in the central Pacific. The split command worried the Joint Chiefs, and to this day historians wonder whether it was wise. MacArthur wasn't interested in the central Pacific, while Admiral King was convinced that Japan could be defeated without an American reconquest of the Philippines.

Actually the two drives became mutually supporting, each of them protecting the other's flank. Nimitz, King's theater commander, diverted enemy sea power which would otherwise have pounced on MacArthur from the east, while MacArthur's air force took out enemy planes which could have driven the Marines from their island beachheads. Their strategies differed — MacArthur's was to move land-based bombers forward in successive bounds to achieve local air superiority, while Nimitz's was predicated on carrier air power shielding amphibious landings on key isles, which then became stepping-stones through the enemy's defensive perimeters — but that was because they were dealing with different landscapes and seascapes. For a man in his sixties, MacArthur was extraordinarily receptive to new military concepts. Not only could he adopt the amphibious techniques developed by the Marine Corps; he went one step further by waging what Churchill later called “triphibious warfare”— the coordination of land, sea, and air forces. At West Point the general had been taught army doctrine: rivers are barriers. At Annapolis, midshipmen are told that bodies of water are highways. MacArthur combined the two brilliantly.

His GIs never liked him, of course. He was too egotistical, they thought, and too unappreciative of them. He was that and more — perhaps the most exasperating general ever to wear a uniform. But his genius quickened the war, foiled the enemy, and executed movements beyond the imagination of the less gifted soldiers who scorned him.

Perhaps his two most famous battles were fought at Hollandia, now the Indonesian capital of Djajapura, and the island of Biak, between New Guinea and the Philippines. You can reach Djajapura's Senatai Airport on a weekly Air Niugini flight from Port Moresby; daily DC-9 flights leave Senatai for Biak. Hollandia, as those who served there know, has one of the world's finest natural harbors. Wartime warehouses and Quonset huts can still be found along the water, but most of the city's buildings date from the 1950s. Between Senatai and Cendrawasih University and the northwestern edge of the bay a large cement memorial marks the site of MacArthur's headquarters. Senatai is one of the Pacific's few international airports, but shipping in the harbor is scarce, and the government does not encourage visitors. Except for missionaries and an occasional businessman or tourist, one rarely sees a white face. The population is roughly half Indonesian and half Irianese. The fashionable suburb on Angkasa Hill offers a superb view of the harbor, and the governor's new office building (Gubernuran) is handsome. Otherwise, Hollandia is a disappointment. The city itself is built around a market and a central plaza. You find a couple of movie theaters there and a shocking stench of fish, garbage, and dog excrement.

Biak is more interesting. It, too, has its forlorn sights, notably railroad tracks which emerge from the bush, cross a crumbling dock, and vanish into the sea, but wartime memorabilia are easy to find. You arrive at Mokmer Airfield, the only one of MacArthur's huge runways there which still exists. Across from the field stands the old Bachelor Officers' Quarters, now a hotel run by the Merpati Nusantara Airways. And north of there you can explore what the natives call the “Japanese Caves” area — a complex of natural caverns in which Colonel Naoyuki Kuzumi holed up with his men for their last stand in June of 1944. When they refused to surrender, GIs dynamited the roof of the main cave. The roof collapsed, killing the defenders, and you can peer down at the debris of defeat: canteens, ammunition boxes, bits of uniforms, rifles, and the rusting skeletons of Jap vehicles.

Biak was a key battle, because Kuzumi had made the most murderous discovery of the war. Until then the Japs had defended each island at the beach. When the beach was lost, the island was lost; surviving Nips formed for a banzai charge, dying for the emperor at the muzzles of our guns while few, if any, Americans were lost. After Biak the enemy withdrew to deep caverns. Rooting them out became a bloody business which reached its ultimate horrors in the last months of the war. You think of the lives which would have been lost in an invasion of Japan's home islands — a staggering number of American lives but millions more of Japanese — and you thank God for the atomic bomb.

Back on Guadalcanal, I leave on an early morning call. Bob Milne, a local pilot, has invited me to fly up the Slot tomorrow in his little twin-engine, orange-and-white Queenair DC-3. In 1943, when MacArthur slowly approached the Philippines, we were inching up the ladder of the Solomons. Today we can fly to Bougainville and back in a day, but over a year passed between the Bloody Ridge battle and the Third Marine Division's landing at Bougainville's Empress Augusta Bay. In between we had driven the enemy from the islands of Pavuvu, Rendova, New Georgia, Vella Lavella, Kolombangara, Choiseul, Mono, and Shortland. This was Halsey's job. He was one of the few admirals who could work in tandem with MacArthur; between them they isolated the great Jap stronghold at Rabaul, where over 100,000 of Hirohito's infantrymen, who asked only to die for their emperor, were bypassed and left to bitterness and frustration. After the conquest of the Slot the Pacific war was divided into its two great theaters, MacArthur's and Nimitz's.

At daybreak Bob races us across Henderson's concrete and we soar over the Matanikau, Honiara, and Cape Esperance. Presently Santa Isabel looms to starboard and then New Georgia to port. Peering down from my copilot's seat I see the islands on either side of the Slot as huge, green, hairy mushrooms dominated by volcanic mountains, of which 8,028—foot Pobomanashi is the highest. Here and there a clump of thatched roofs marks the site of a village, but these are few; in this part of the world there are more islands than people. As we lose altitude in the shining morning air, Bob points at crocodiles dozing in the sun and then toward Lolo, the largest lagoon in the world, over sixty-eight miles long. Rising once more, we pass over an enormous coconut plantation and then over more familiar terrain: hummocks of ascending hills with valleys, alternately jungle and kunai grass. On the dim horizon I spot Bougainville, that large, mountainous island of spectacular volcanoes and trackless rainforests where bulldozers can, and did, sink in the green porridge of swampland without leaving a trace.

Nothing historic is happening here now. The islands haven't changed since a million men altered the course of the war in countless local engagements. Bob points down at the remains of one of them, a shadow beneath the water which, he tells me, is the sunken hull of John F. Kennedy's PT-109. Once these skies belonged to Pappy Boyington. Now we refuel at a base Boyington used, Munda, on New Georgia, bulldozed and surfaced by Seabees long ago and now a carpet of weed-splotched coral. At Kieta, our turnabout field — this is on Bougainville, under the Papuan flag — I stretch my legs and drink 7-Up in a tiny tin-roofed terminal building which the Australians erected in 1970. It is modest, even shabby: linoleum on the floor, a figured-calico-covered table, broken wicker chairs. Like most airports in this part of the world it is usually crowded, mostly with natives there to see friends off or welcome them back. Some of them stare at me. One tells me in pidgin that Caucasians are rare here — so rare in the hills inland that when one of them appears the native girls open their thighs for him out of gratitude for the comic relief.

Elsewhere, in the Palaus and Marianas, ecology is shaping up as a public issue. Not in the Solomons; one doubts that it can ever be raised here. The jungle, allied with the climate, seems too strong ever to be threatened by man. The war was a major assault on the rainforests. It is scarcely remembered now. Nature holds all the cards. People can live on the forest's fringes, but only at its sufferance. In a sense the fighting in this theater was a struggle between man and the primeval forest. The forest won; man withdrew, defeated by the masses of green and the diseases lurking there. That awesome power still lies in wait, ready to shatter anyone who defies it. If you want to live in the jungle you must treat it with great respect and keep your distance. Maugham saw that, Gauguin saw it, and so did Robert Louis Stevenson. Even I, cosseted now by all the achievements of modern technology, know that this trip, like my last one here, will alter me in ways I cannot now know. Yet you cannot resent nature. It is too enormous. Besides, it didn't ask you to come. You are here because the Japanese brought you the first time and left wounds which cannot heal without this second trip. You can, of course, resent the Japanese. I did. I still do.

Our trip back to the Canal is hurried. Landings after dark are forbidden in the islands; there are no runway lights, no navigational aids to guide fliers, only the bush and the glaucous, phosphorescent sea waiting to swallow you below. Bob puts us down neatly in a thickening twilight, and a friend drives me over the Matanikau to Honiara. The hotel pool is lighted, and several middle-aged Japanese men are leaping in and out of it, enlivening their horseplay with jubilant shouts. As I pick up my key the clerk genially suggests that I join them. A dip would be refreshing, but I shake my head. I need rest. Tomorrow I fly to an island whose very name evokes terror. It is Tarawa.

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