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You can draw an outline of my life with maps. Maps showing the hidden paths to the best blueberry patches on Cape Cod. Maps of the downtown streets in my hometown, West Chester, in beautiful Chester County, Pennsylvania. Maps of Noxontown Pond and Silver Lake in Middletown, Delaware, where I went to boarding school. Maps of those terrible rutted roads in the hollows of eastern Kentucky; it was there, straight out of college, that I badgered proprietors of village general stores to buy just one more case of Vicks VapoRub.
Reading maps is easy, once you learn how to do it. I had no idea, though, just how handy this map-reading ability would turn out to be. It paid off in dramatic and unexpected ways for those four and a half months in 1942 that I was on Guadalcanal with McKelvy and the First Marines. We drew maps as we went along, and for much of the time we weren't sure exactly where we were. McKelvy was amazingly consistent in his inability to read the simplest map. He was in one of the Corps' lesser-known proud traditions; he was an original, a character, and an eccentric. He was also bibulous. We had liberated the Japanese sake and beer supply at the outset of the campaign, and McKelvy squirreled a large amount of it away, drinking his way through his private stock the whole time we were there.
I knew about people like Bill McKelvy, too, for I had grown up with some of them. My Uncle Joe Price, a Quaker, sort of—he spoke in "thees" and "thous" anyway—could match McKelvy, the Marine, eccentricity for eccentricity, any day.
The Japanese, we had been told, thought Americans were soft and self-indulgent, and as such would be no match for their tough, experienced, highly disciplined soldiers. I'm sure they didn't all think that way, but we thought they all did, and that's what counts. In the early stages of the World War II, Americans worried about standing up to these fierce little warriors.
But I suspect we were tougher than we, or anyone else, knew, even those among us who had grown up in houses with silver doorknobs, gone away to boarding schools, and attended elite Ivy League colleges such as Princeton.
We had gangs when I was a boy in sleepy little West Chester, twenty-five miles west of Philadelphia, with its strong Quaker traditions (no movies, ever, on Sundays). One of my cousins, Alec Hemphill, led the dreaded East End gang. Both sides had guns. They had twenty Daisy and Benjamin air rifles and even a single-shot .22 to our gang's miserable collection of six Daisys and Benjamins. We called ourselves, without much imagination, "the Club," and we thought we were safe in our own tunnel system, essentially a trench covered over with several sheets of galvanized iron. At one point it was seven feet deep, and we had a buried hose through which we could talk with our allies out on the street.
Alec and his henchmen never penetrated the trench, but they did something a lot worse. Alec's younger brother, Dallett, told us day after day that the East End gang was coming after us, but, like the French and the Maginot Line, we thought we were safe in our trench. One day, though, Alec struck, ignoring our trench (just as the Germans ignored the Maginot Line), and he and his East Enders simply tore up the whole area, breaking windows in the house and an arc-light streetlamp at the corner. We were so appalled we fled in mass confusion.
"BANDITS RAID WHYTE HOME," a headline the next day in the West Chester Daily Local News said. "PROMINENT ATTORNEY'S SON RING LEADER."
The "prominent attorney's son" was, of course, my cousin Alec Hemphill. Alec was something of a character himself. A year or two after leading the East End gang's attack, he went to my school, St. Andrew's, in Delaware. He was no student, and performed so poorly that his only chance of getting into the University of Pennsylvania was to pass a special course in English composition. I helped in his preparation, and it was an interesting challenge. Out of nowhere he would draw on some hidden literary wellspring, often involving the coining of words never heard before. His favorite phrase was "mistuous innuendo." What did it mean? "It means," he would say, "what I mean it to mean." It's hard to stay mad at someone who writes, and thinks, like that. To the amazement of his instructors, his friends, and myself, Alec passed the special course. His English teacher at St. Andrew's, scenting a scandal, accused me of prepping Alec too well. But, in his own stubborn way, Alec loved literature, and he passed on his own merits. "Mistuous innuendo" indeed. A few months later, he was elected president of his freshman class at Penn. Long after that, he was elected, and reelected again and again, as Philadelphia's city controller.
All of us—East Enders included—enjoyed growing up in West Chester. It's the seat of Chester County, with its beautiful Brandywine Valley. We roamed everywhere, town and country, and it was so easy to do. The country began exactly where the town ended. It was laid out in a row-house pattern created by a man named Cumming, one of William Penn's surveyors. The neighborhoods are continuous and nicely dovetailed. As a consequence, West Chester is a very walkable town. You can walk from the edge of town to the center in fifteen minutes or less. That doesn't mean most West Chester people walk very much. They don't. But they could if they wanted to.
When I was a boy, I spent much of my time in and around my Grandmother Whyte's house; it had been the summer home of her father, Joshua Hartshorne, a wealthy Baltimore merchant. He was in trade, the rest of the family muttered, and so he was never held in very high regard. But he must have been a sport: the doorknobs really were silver. After she died, we used the place as a sort of ghost house.
The Brandywine Valley wasn't far away, and all we had to do was climb on our bicycles and pedal to get there. It was in this valley, of course, that George Washington and his Continental army suffered one of their most frustrating defeats. There were several crossing points—places where the creek could be forded—but the local farmers, most of them Quakers with Tory sympathies, failed to alert the rebel general which of them General Howe's soldiers were preparing to cross. Washington, blinded by lack of proper intelligence, sought at one point to join his own troops, but he had lost track of exactly where they were. In any event, the British forded the creek and put the rebels to rout after a short, but spirited, action. It was an early lesson in the importance of combat intelligence—and good maps.
My Grandfather Price, a surgeon, married a devout Quaker and bought a place called "Valley Farms" in the rolling hills of Chester Valley, where they proceeded to rear nine children. It was a good family, as families go. The girls were the belles of the valley, and the boys were worthwhile except Uncle Joe. The way I remember him, he was short and squat, with a large, straight nose, intense gray eyes, and a magnificent black, bristling moustache. Immensely powerful—I think he was the strongest man I have ever known—he preferred the company of local rowdies and roughnecks to the sociable set surrounding the rest of his family. When he did show up at the parties at the farm, he was almost always drunk—and looking for a fight.
College, everyone thought, would have a softening influence. But after several hectic weeks at the University of Pennsylvania, Joe was back home. It was then that Grandfather deemed it was time to take stern measures; he told Joe that from now on he was a farmhand. To everyone's surprise, he turned out to be a good one. But being a farmhand wasn't enough for Uncle Joe. To make a little petty cash, he developed a troubling habit—selling off the farm's livestock. The straw hit the fan when it was discovered that he had secretly taken out a mortgage on his parents' farm. The family woke up one morning in 1916 to discover that Grandfather's best carriage and the horses that went with it were missing. So, of course, was Uncle Joe.
As far as we knew, Uncle Joe drifted from job to job before joining the Navy in World War I. He showed up after the war at his mother's summer home on Cape Cod. Joe's mother, my Grandmother Price, was a formidable figure. Her house was next to a pond at Wellfleet that once belonged to a sea captain named Holcombe. We spent our summers there, and it was Grandmother who first started me thinking about maps. There was a sandy slope on the far side of the pond that, in season, was overrun with wild blueberries and blackberries. She told me to pick them, and her order was my command. I became something of an expert, both on berries and on the hidden paths that led to them. I learned then to make maps. The maps were crude—they had to be—but they were the only maps we had.
And what berries they were. Sweet juicy ones. We had them with syrup and we had them on cereal. Commercial berries were never half so good.
It was at Wellfleet that I first got to know Uncle Joe. By then he was a local institution, an amazing character serving as a fine introduction to those eccentrics who make the United States Marine Corps so special. Uncle Joe would have been a fine addition to the Corps' roster of eccentrics.
I think he really was one of the nicest things about our summers in Wellfleet, even if he did have a terrible temper and even though his stories didn't always ring true. He was the family's black sheep.
After Grandmother's old house (by now, Grandfather was dead) was turned into an inn called Holiday House, Uncle Joe would hold court with the guests and tell stories. His favorite was about the great, though indecisive, battle between the British and German grand fleets at Jutland in World War I. Uncle Joe, a young ensign in the U.S. Navy, was there. At least he said he was. Not only was he there, he was actually on the same bridge with the British admiral, David Beatty. He was there when Beatty, watching his vulnerable battle cruisers burst into flame and sink, turned to his flag captain to say, "Something seems to be wrong with our bloody ships today." Uncle Joe swore he had seen it all, and he remembered especially a young British officer with red hair. Right there on the bridge. A telling detail, lending verisimilitude to all the rest of his story. Joe never elaborated any further. He wound up the story with a flourish of his hand, and suddenly departed. It was always a wonderful performance.
Uncle Joe was more than just a storyteller; he tended to collect things, often other people's things. Some folks around Wellfleet would joke they didn't dare to go away on weekends for fear Uncle Joe would burgle their houses. And, in fact, he did have a critical eye for fine old artifacts, including large portions of front porches and other considerable architectural details.
His methodology was simple. "Holly," he would say, meaning me (like my father before me, my nickname is a shortened version of our middle name, Hollingsworth), "would thee and thy little friends like to help thy Uncle Joe clean up the house?" The little friends, as often as not, were the Hemphill boys, Alec, of East Ender fame, and his brother, Dallett. The house to be cleaned up inevitably belonged to someone else.
One summer, Uncle Joe magically found enough money to buy himself a thirty-five-foot auxiliary sailboat named Ethel B. From that day on most of his time was spent caulking and painting his treasure, and sometimes even sailing it. By a variety of subtle ruses we were inveigled into such tasks as bailing out the oily water or swabbing the deck. We never suspected he might have had a self-serving motive in permitting us to help out in this way. To our envious friends, we explained that the Ethel B. was a Coast Guard cutter engaged in running down the bootleggers that swarmed the shores of Cape Cod during these Prohibition years, and that we were part of the crew. Naturally enough, with all this reflected glory, our position among the young people in Wellfleet was impregnable.
Uncle Joe had also bought a new car to go along with his sailboat. This, of course, was puzzling, for Uncle Joe had no obvious source of income. It was not until one memorable August night that the truth finally dawned.
Grandmother had decided to go to Hyannis for a couple of days to visit some friends. My friend Norbert was visiting me, and this seemed to open up the opportunity we had been waiting for—to spend a night on the North Shore of the Cape, a place so lonely everyone knew it was where the bootleggers rendezvoused. The North Shore near Wellfleet was a fascinating place, barren and desolate with a majesty of its own. The beach is about a hundred yards deep, coming to an end at the huge bluffs. The surf is so heavy that no one swims there. Every half mile or so the battered skeleton of an old schooner lies half buried under the sand, mute witness to the Cape's past.
Barren and desolate it may have been, but it was paradise for us. We alternated between sliding down the sand dunes and riding the surf on top of an empty oil barrel. We settled on the wreck of an old schooner as the place we would spend the night, started a fire, and cooked supper. Later, we walked to the top of the bluff and surveyed our desolate domain. Five miles away we could make out the lights of Wellfleet. Occasionally we could see the lights of a coastal steamer out at sea. It was the kind of night that turns teenage boys into mature philosophers, and so Norbert and I talked at some length about what was out there beyond the stars.
We were just settling down—a little scared already—when the unmistakable sound of groaning oarlocks alerted us to the fact that a dory was being beached nearby. Bootleggers! Now we were really scared. We all knew that bootleggers didn't welcome witnesses. We cleared out of the old hull and scrambled up the dunes, where we could see a light off in the distance. It blinked on and off, convincing us it was one bootlegger signaling to another. A truck pulled up on the beach, and we saw three men unloading what appeared to be cases of whiskey from the boat and putting them in the back of the truck. One of the men looked suspiciously like Uncle Joe. With barely enough light to see, we raced across the moors to Grandmother's house and the welcome sounds of Grandmother's friend, Mrs. Dalmas, playing the piano.
Two weeks later, the season over, we left for home. I wasn't sure how to handle our discovery that Uncle Joe was a bootlegger—that, of course, was the source of his mysterious income—but in the end I convinced myself that what he was doing wasn't such a bad thing after all. Bootleggers were adventurers, and so were we. Uncle Joe remained my friend.
In the fall of 1931, to everyone's surprise and consternation, Uncle Joe got married. His wife, Eulalia, as far as we could tell, had been a salesperson—sales girl then—in a dry goods store in Pittsburgh. They arrived the next summer in Wellfleet in what Uncle Joe called a "house car"—he had built it himself out of the remains of an old bus and several automobiles. The house car was such an impressive sight that the National Geographic, swearing it was an authentic piece of motor transportation history, ran a picture of it.
Grandmother Price, taking pity on the newlyweds, told Uncle Joe that he and Eulalia could live at Holiday House and take in boarders. Grandmother died soon after making that decision, and in her will she provided that Uncle Joe could use Holiday House for the rest of his life, although members of the family could come and visit if they wished.
Eulalia had a gypsy look to her—she would roam the inn's corridors at night in her long, swooping robes—and she drew to the inn an interesting collection of New York writers and German psychiatrists. Her Sunday-night suppers were famous from one end of the Cape to the other. She loved practical jokes. One of them was a sign above a guestroom toilet that read, "Please don't throw cigarette butts into the toilet. It makes them soggy and hard to light."
Years later, after most of the family had given up their Cape summers, Uncle Joe, by all accounts, began to move from eccentricity into a somewhat dangerous form of dementia. It was whispered that he had even beaten up Eulalia once or twice—knowing Eulalia, we figured this was no mean feat. It got to the point where Eulalia had the Commonwealth of Massachusetts declare him to be, in effect, a mental case. He disappeared after that, and we all thought he was dead. One summer, though, he showed up again, telling everyone he was piloting airplanes and studying celestial navigation. That was the last we knew of Uncle Joe.
I went away to St. Andrew's School—it was brand new, with no trees and the grass just beginning to take hold—when I was fourteen, in eighth grade. It was founded as an Episcopal Church academy by members of the du Pont family, and it exalted what educators called "muscular Christianity," based on English boarding-school traditions. We worked in the kitchen and scrubbed the floors and made our own beds. As eighth and ninth graders, we lived in great, drafty dormitories that would make a Marine Corps drill instructor flinch. But we learned things, especially how to write, thanks largely to a brilliant English teacher named Bill Cameron. (The school is all grown up now, rich with tradition and tall trees. A movie, Dead Poets Society, was even filmed on campus, because the school looked so much like a proper New England boarding school.)
By the time we were sixth formers, or twelfth graders, we were attending debutante dances in the ballroom at the Barclay Hotel in Philadelphia and making plans to go to college. My choice was Princeton, and by the time I was finished it was June of 1939 and the war clouds were already moving across Europe. We didn't think much about that. We worried about our careers. We talked about individualism a lot, but we didn't practice it much. My friends were joining big corporations, early examples of The Organization Man at work. I moved into the management-training program of the Vick Chemical Company.
It was a school, really—the Vick School of Applied Merchandising—and it wasn't all that different, in concept, from the Marines' Officers Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia. "The Vick curriculum was ... survival of the fittest," I wrote in The Organization Man. "The Vick school ... was frankly based on the principle of elimination. It wouldn't make any difference how wonderful all of us would be, of the 38 of us who [began the program], the rules of the game dictated that only six or seven of us would be asked to stay with Vick."
After a touch of schooling in New York, we were sent out into the field to see if the blood of the true rapacious salesman ran through the veins of any of us. I was sent to the hill country of eastern Kentucky with a car (the clutch system kept breaking down), a full supply of signs, a ladder, a stock of samples, and an order pad.
The roads were what I remember most. "Half of the time," I wrote my father in November of 1939, "they're dry stream beds—their maps fail to advise that a little rain changes them back to their original state." That's a nice point. We would encounter exactly the same phenomenon on Guadalcanal. "I ford at least three streams a day," I wrote in 1939, "and with some apprehension as the water gets deeper. You just have to be optimistic. This Thursday I ran into the worst one yet—40 miles of driving (all in first or second gear) along cliffs, over logs, rocky streams, etc. Finally, just at 6 p.m. as I was starting on the 20-mile trek back to (my hotel) in Greenup the car sputtered and dismally died. After a bad day, no sales etc., a lunch of `Vienee' sausage and soda crackers, this was about the last straw. Very fortunately a farmer passed by in his truck, and hauled me all 20 miles into Greenup. The mechanic found that the carburetor had shaken loose from the feed lines, the ignition wires had become disconnected, the choke had become stuck, the fan belt loosened, the generator jogged out of place. I was amazed the whole car hadn't fallen apart."
On a typical day, I would get up at 6:00 or 6:30 a.m. in some bleak boardinghouse or run-down hotel and after a greasy breakfast set off to staple Vicks signs on barns and telephone poles. At about 8:00 I would make my first visit to one of the local general stores, where we were supposed to talk the proprietor into purchasing a year's supply of Vicks products, all at once. Having pulled that off, we would give a vivid display of one of the many Vicks products. "Tilt your head back, Mr. Jones," we would say to the dealer. And then we would quickly shoot a whopping dropper-full of Vatronol up his nose.
I enjoyed the challenge of making sales to these tough old country-store patriarchs. "Most of them are friendly, but some of them are mean as the devil," I wrote my father. "They're really scared to death of salesmen, afraid we'll `put something over' on them. They've seen the sun rise the same way for 60 years, their wife has worn the same dress for 60 years, their store hasn't changed, and so they see no reason why a `newfangled' nose drop should sell, since they didn't sell 60 years ago."
I was a miserable salesman at first. I lied to myself about why I was doing so badly. "The local brick plant is shut down here," I wrote in my diary, "and nobody's buying anything." A wise old salesman came to see how I was doing. He got straightaway to the core of my problem. "Whyte," he said, "you are never going to sell a damn thing until you realize that the man on the other side of the counter is your enemy." That did it. In no time I was selling everything in sight and taking immense pleasure in screwing ugly metal signs advertising Vicks products into the dealers' beloved old oak paneling. My first week I had averaged 48 percent in sales to calls; by the time I caught on, I was averaging 74 percent.
"It was truly an experience," I wrote in The Organization Man, "and if we shudder to recall the things we did, we must admit that as a cram course in reality it was extraordinarily efficient."
I don't suppose the Japanese strategists ever heard about either Uncle Joe or the Vick School of Applied Merchandising. It might have changed their minds about just how naive and soft we really were.
|Introduction by James C. Bradford||xiii|
|1 Getting Ready||1|
|2 Joining Up||11|
|3 Shipping Out||21|
|4 Making a Landing||27|
|5 Meeting the Enemy||37|
|6 Fighting the Enemy||46|
|8 Our Turn||63|
|9 Winding Down||81|
|Appendix A: Hyakutake Meets the Marines||111|
|Appendix B: Pacific Fleet Chain of Command||139|
Posted May 30, 2009
This short work by a very gifted writer is part autobiography, but it also explains an important role the author played during the early fighting on the island of Guadalcanal in 1942, when he served as an intelligence offier with the US Marine Corps. Readers will be enlightened on several logistical factors (terrain features, fresh water, food, disease, ammunition, etc.) that determined the outcome; and that these factors affected both sides in the conflict. Contains several important lessons learned (and later taught) by the author that are still valid today.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.