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AUGUST 6, 1989
On the warm, sunny Sunday morning of August 6, 1989, I and a number of my colleagues of the 1st Raider Battalion, the famed Edson’s Raiders, stood on the grounds of the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia, not to train for war as we had done forty-seven years prior, but to remember our departed brethren and our Raider legacy. We had returned to where it all began for the Raiders in order to dedicate a memorial as part of the Quantico National Cemetery.
I am more than a little proud of the fact that the idea for the memorial had been first floated by me six years earlier during the funeral of Ben Howland, who had been something of a legend in the Raiders. A tenured professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia after the war, Ben had become both a teacher and mentor to my son Eric, who was studying at the university’s School of Architecture.
At the reception following Ben’s death, several Raiders commented that Ben had not been buried at Arlington, but rather was interred at the Quantico cemetery, which, we noted, incorporated some of the very ground we had trained on in 1942. Would it not be appropriate, I mused, if a memorial to the Raiders would be erected on the site?
Coincidentally that summer, Eric had an internship as a student landscape architect with the Veterans’ Administration’s National Cemetery Service. The Quantico National Cemetery had just recently been opened and was being viewed as a “replacement” cemetery for Arlington. In his capacity as a landscape architect, Eric embraced the idea of the memorial, which we envisioned as being placed alongside a memorial path through the woods.
The idea took wing and over the following year, a memorial committee was formed. Eric donated his time to work on concepts and ideas that were presented at the annual Raider Reunion in February 1984. Since our reunions were held at Quantico, we walked the memorial trail. Getting the needed approvals proved somewhat frustrating, with government bureaucracy being notoriously slow. Plus we had to raise funds, although after all this time, I no longer recall how much we needed. Finally, it all came together.
Eric’s plan called for the creation of a small parklike setting shaded by towering oak trees and partially enclosed by a low stone wall. A path weaves through a series of low granite boulders emerging from the ground, each representing one of the islands where we Raiders fought and bled, principally Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Makin, New Georgia, and Bougainville. The design included a bench that overlooked the cemetery and our former training grounds. The ground-cover vegetation assumes the role of the Pacific Ocean, lapping around the granite “islands.” A large boulder near the bench holds a bronze tablet that briefly outlines the Raiders’ history and our stand on Bloody Ridge.
A number of invited guests attended the dedication, including the sons of our late commander, Austin and Robert Edson. Dedicatory remarks were made by General Alfred M. Gray, the Marine Corps Commandant, and the memorial marker itself was unveiled by the widows of Lew Walt and Ben Howland.
As Taps was blown to conclude the ceremony, I paused to reflect on the pride each of us Raiders felt that day; pride in our commander, in our unit, and in ourselves.
The Raiders were formed on February 16, 1942, and existed until February 1, 1944, fifteen days shy of two years. More than eight thousand men served in what eventually became four Raider battalions. Of that number, 892 never returned home.
Yet over that short period of time, we carved a legend for ourselves on far-flung battlefields like Hill 281 on Tulagi, Tasimboko, the God-awful Bloody Ridge, and along the Matanikau River on Guadalcanal, and in the jungles around Enogai and Bairoko on New Georgia.
I was a member of the 1st Raider Battalion, serving under Colonel Merritt A. Edson. By being a member of that magnificent organization, I was among the very first Americans to take the war to our enemies as we landed on Tulagi, an hour before the Guadalcanal fight began. As part of Edson’s reconnaissance patrol, I scouted the barren hilltop that would become known as Bloody Ridge, and stood with him atop that blood-soaked ridge as thousands of Japanese tried to sweep us aside in two desperate nights of hand-to-hand fighting. I was with the Raiders in the fierce fighting amid the stinking jungles on New Georgia, and remained a member of the unit until its disbanding.
Counting myself among those who served in this valiant battalion of the finest men in the United States Marine Corps is perhaps the proudest achievement of my life.
These are my remembrances, which I hope will serve as a legacy to the brave Marines who fought beside me and shared my hardships, preserved for my grandsons and for future generations of my fellow Raiders.
Marlin “Whitey” Groft
In my twenty-plus years of being a journalist, I have had the distinct honor of interviewing combat veterans from every American war of the twentieth century, from World War I through Iraq. In each instance, I have found their valor, courage, and willingness to put themselves in harm’s way for their nation to be inspiring. In a few cases, most particularly Major Richard D. Winters and Sergeant Forrest Guth, both with the famed “Band of Brothers,” they became friends.
The same can be said for Marlin F. “Whitey” Groft.
I met Marlin in 2009 when I was looking for a veteran on whom to write a newspaper story to run on Veterans Day. I knew Whitey had been a Marine during the war, and that he had served on Guadalcanal. I did not know until I began the interview that he had been a member of one of the Marine Corps’s most famous World War II fighting organizations, Edson’s Raiders.
As a historian who specializes in the Second World War, I certainly knew who Merritt Austin Edson and what were sometimes referred to as his “do-or-die men” were and what they had done. I had studied the Battle of Guadalcanal intensely and also read many of the fine accounts written about the Raiders, including Edson’s Raiders by the eminent military historian Joseph H. Alexander, who is, so far as I know, no relation. So as Whitey spoke about Bloody Ridge during our interview, I could follow the action in my head.
Of all the Pacific battles, to me the Guadalcanal campaign is the quintessential struggle. Not just because lessons the American commanders learned during this first land offensive were put to use in later invasions, but because it was the only land battle after America went over to the offensive that America came seriously close to losing. It was hastily planned, poorly executed, abysmally supplied and supported, and at one point, the Marine ground commander, Major General Alexander Vandegrift, was authorized by his superiors to surrender his forces if necessary. And of all the many individual battles on Guadalcanal, the Raiders’ valiant two-day stand against an overwhelming number of Japanese soldiers on what is called both Edson’s Ridge and Bloody Ridge was the most important fight of the entire campaign. Had the Japanese taken the ridge, they’d have plunged straight through the Marine defensive perimeter, taken Henderson airfield, split the American forces in half, and, quite likely, forced the surviving Marines into the jungle to fight as a disorganized guerilla force, or to simply starve to death, because there would be no American Dunkirk from a U.S. Navy still reeling after Pearl Harbor.
Edson’s recognizing the strategic value of the ridge and knowing the consequences of its loss, plus his dogged defense against odds of three or even four to one, and the ability and courage of his men to stand and smash wave after wave of enemy attackers, combined to make Bloody Ridge one of the most crucial battles in American military history.
Yet, ironically, the Marines Corps high command never wanted the Raiders. Indeed, the Raiders were the bastard child foisted off on the Marines by Colonel James Roosevelt through his father, the President of the United States. Young Roosevelt was a devotee of Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson, who studied the tactics of the Red Chinese forces fighting the Japanese in China. An eccentric man who had a habit of rubbing people the wrong way, a trait that lost him popularity with his superiors, Carlson devised a raider concept to strike at the enemy behind his lines, where he least expected it. Edson, too, was working on a similar concept, and the two men would become bitter rivals.
What President Franklin D. Roosevelt liked most about the raider idea, and why he ordered it initiated, was that America’s military had suffered a string of humiliating defeats starting with Pearl Harbor, and the morale of the troops, not to mention the folks on the home front, needed some type of victory. The smashing American victory at the Battle of Midway had been a start, but more—much more—was needed. The idea behind the Raiders was to launch sizeable attacks behind enemy lines, taking the war to the enemy and letting him know that America was down but not out. This, Roosevelt believed, was imperative. The Marine high command, however, did not feel the need for some type of elite fighting force, considering as they did that all Marines were elite. To them, the Raiders were redundant and resulted in nothing more than a serious drain from the regular ranks of some of the Corps’s best fighting men.
Whitey Groft was there. He lived what I had simply read about. He was personally interviewed by Edson for the Raiders (and was initially turned down), and he had several personal stories about his own interactions with the famed commander.
As we spoke that day in 2009, he showed me a fifty-seven-page memoir he had entitled “Under the Southern Cross and Beyond,” which covered his time with the Raiders, as well as his eventual reassignment to the 29th and, later, the 22nd Marines on Okinawa, and in China, guarding a vital airfield against Communist Chinese forces after the war ended.
After the newspaper story ran on November 11, I kept in touch with Marlin. He had mentioned to me that he’d always wanted to convert his short memoir into a book, and in 2012 we began to convert that wish into reality. Using his memoir as a starting point, plus adding many hours of interviews with Marlin, as well as phone calls to his friend and machine gun squad leader, Bill Waltrip, and to former Raider Robert Youngdeer, as well as consulting various historical sources to flesh out the action on Tulagi, Guadalcanal, and New Georgia, Marlin and I have combined to create an intimate look at one of American’s most dynamic fighting units, by a man who was a part of it from start to finish.
I wish to thank my editors at Berkley for their help in allowing us to tell this story. A big thank-you goes to Holly Bowers Toth for information and photos of her uncle, Kenneth E. Bowers, Whitey’s best friend who died on Tulagi. Thanks also to Bob Gilbert of the Kenneth E. Bowers VFW post in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, for putting me in touch with the Bowers family.
My heartfelt thanks also goes to my wife, Barbara, who sacrificed our family time while I worked on this project.
Lastly, my personal thank-you to Marlin Groft and all the other Raiders for doing their part to halt the Japanese aggression in the Pacific, and to all the men and women who served in World War II, in whatever capacity they were called on to provide, for doing their part in preserving freedom across the globe.
The midday sun shone down brightly on the city of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, its beams sparkling off the windshields, chrome bumpers, and grillwork of the cars that cruised along Cumberland Street. A number of the city’s 27,206 inhabitants, some bundled in winter coats despite the warming rays bathing the city, leisurely strolled the sidewalks on this quiet Sunday. Church was out, but from somewhere across town came the low, mournful bong-bong of a steeple bell.
It was December 7, 1941, and I and a few of my buddies were sitting on the steps outside the front doors of the William Penn Restaurant and Bar, which had been opened thirteen years earlier by its Greek owner, Constantinos “Gus” Levendis. I had been born in this city, the second youngest child of fourteen—seven boys and seven girls—born to John and Emma (Barshinger) Groft, who had spaced us out over so broad a gap in time that many of my older siblings had married and left home before I started school. One brother, Ernie, died of an illness when he was seven years old.
I had graduated from Lebanon High School in 1939, and since the country was still in the grips of the Great Depression and jobs were at a premium, I entered the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s federally run public works programs. The CCC bounced me around to different locations, mostly in Pennsylvania, although my last post was in Washington, D.C. There I lived and worked at Rock Creek Park, operating a dragline excavator to help dredge the waterway. Following my one year of service, I returned home.
My parents no longer lived in Lebanon but had moved to Lancaster County sometime after Dad’s crippling. My father had been an ironworker for the Lebanon division of Bethlehem Steel, and when I was about three years old, he had been horribly burned by molten steel, thus ending his working career. There was no workers’ compensation in those days, and he received some pitiful payout of $400 or so, if my memory serves me. Survival from that point on became a total family affair, with all of my brothers and sisters of working age and ability getting jobs and chipping in.
For myself, I had just been hired as a silk-screen printer in a textile mill, so as I sat on the steps of the hotel that Sunday, I was feeling good about my future prospects. That was when a man came out of the restaurant and asked if we had heard the news on the radio.
“What news?” I asked, squinting up at him in the bright sunlight.
“The Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor,” he replied breathlessly. “It’s war.”
War, I thought. That was one wrinkle in my future plans that I had not considered. Naturally, I was aware of the fighting in Europe and how Adolf Hitler was kicking just about everybody’s ass over there, and I knew the Japs were fighting in China. But I had not planned on anyone, least of all the Japanese, having the balls to attack us.
My first thought now was to answer the call of my country. As a boy, I had grown up with my father’s stories of his time in the Spanish-American War. He had joined the cavalry, and although the war ended before he had gotten any farther than some drab Texas Army base, he loved to tell stories about Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. Those tales danced across my imagination, and now as a new war opened, I was determined to follow in my father’s boot prints. I’d join the U.S. Army and volunteer for the cavalry. I tried to encourage my friends to sign up with me, but after a week of waiting for them to follow my lead, I grew impatient and ended up being the only one ready to jump on the enlistment bandwagon. Since my parents were living in Lancaster, I traveled there the next day and informed them of my plans. Having done that, I mounted the concrete steps leading into the General Charles P. Stahr Armory on North Queen Street to sign the papers. Inside, I strode confidently into the Army recruiter’s office. A sergeant in a green uniform, sitting behind a desk, looked up as I entered. I told him I wanted to be a cavalryman, and a thin smile creased his otherwise emotionless face.
“Cavalry is becoming obsolete, son, a remnant of a bygone era,” he told me. “We only have one active unit, and there is no way in hell you are going to be assigned to it.”
He explained how the Army was moving toward mechanized warfare, abandoning horses for tanks and half-tracks.
“The Krauts proved that point in Poland,” he told me. “Their tanks made hamburger out of the Polish cavalry.”
The vision of going into battle inside a sort of steel chariot held no appeal for me.
Crestfallen, I turned away. As I wondered what I wanted to do next, I glanced into another office. There I spotted a man standing just inside, in a snazzy blue uniform, with red piping accenting the pants and jacket, a white leather belt around his waist, and a white peaked hat on the desk. Fixated on the uniform, I entered the office and asked him what branch of the service he represented.
“I’m a United States Marine,” he replied matter-of-factly.
In truth, I didn’t know much about the Marines, having never met one, but neither did I dwell on it too long. The uniform had won me over and I found myself signing the papers.
Since I had a few days to kill before I departed for what the recruiter called boot camp, I spent the time readying myself and bidding farewell to my parents and friends. Next thing I knew, I was standing on the railroad platform at Lancaster, suitcase in hand and all alone, my parents being unable to travel. All around me were young men. A few were chatting, but most looked as lonely and bewildered as me. The eastbound train chugged into the depot, and I stepped into the Pullman car that would carry me to Philadelphia.
I was now truly on my own. Settling back in the seat, I listened to the wheels clank along the track as the train rolled east. We made periodic stops along the way, during which more young men, some with buddies, some alone, and all just as nervous as me, stepped on board. By the time we arrived in Philly, our contingent of men had grown quite large.
We were met at the cavernous 30th Street Station by several Marine NCOs, who cast disparaging looks at this crop of recruits they’d been ordered to shepherd. Their bellowing orders of “form up here” and “fall in,” laced with a few hearty “god damnit”s, echoed off the Classical Greek–style architecture until they finally got us outside and on board waiting buses for a trip to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Arriving at the base, we were herded into a large, nondescript redbrick building and told to strip down to our birthday suits for physical examinations.
I was about to embark on a most exciting ten years as a United States Marine.
During World War II (and this is still the case even to this day), men living west of the Mississippi River who enlisted or were drafted into the Marines were sent to San Diego for training. For men like me, living east of the Mississippi, our new home would be Parris Island, South Carolina, five miles south of Beaufort, the second oldest city in the state.
A Marine training base since November 1, 1915, Parris Island grew in leaps and bounds. Between 1941 and 1945, about 204,000 men would pass through its gates.
Following my physical examination and numerous inoculations that stung as if the medical orderlies were using square needles, I and the rest of the recruits boarded another train that was already teeming with men from New York City and points north. As this train rumbled south, we made stops in the cities of Dover, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, and seemingly at every small town rail whistle stop, mailbox, and fence post in between, and every time more young men crammed on board.
At around dusk, the train slowed to a halt in Yemassee, South Carolina, a tiny rail town near Parris Island. Stepping down from the Pullman, I looked around and realized there were more guys on the train than there were residents of this rinky-dink hamlet. A short walk from the station I noticed a number of large wooden shacks.
A sergeant began bellowing, “Line up! Come on, gentlemen! Get in line. You waitin’ for an invitation? Move your asses!”
We did as ordered, although hardly with the parade ground precision that would become second nature to us over the next several weeks.
Once we were in line, the sergeant snarled, “Nicely done.”
We were certain he didn’t mean it.
“This is home for the night,” the sergeant growled, jerking a thumb toward the row of shacks. “The trucks will be here in the morning to take you to the training center.”
With that, we were divided into groups of twenty-five or thirty men, and each group was assigned to a shack that, we now discovered, had been converted from a chicken coop. There I spent a sleepless night, both from apprehension about the future and from the nighttime cold that the uninsulated plank walls did little to block.
As promised, a column of drab green two-and-a-half-ton trucks arrived with the sun the following morning. Hoisting ourselves on board and settling on the benches that lined both sides of the truck bed, we felt more than a little anxious as the drivers turned over their engines. Then we were off, the deuce-and-a-halves rattling down the unpaved roadway toward that mysterious place known as Parris Island, where they made boys into men. The trucks, which we secretly believed had been given to the Marines by the Army after the shock absorbers were first removed, jolted and jarred us for close to an hour. Then, with a squeal of brakes, our convoy passed through the training center’s main gates and halted on a dirt street, lined by more wooden shacks.
“Everybody out,” the call came. “Out! Move!”
Leaping down from the truck beds, we were herded a short distance down the road and into a large, drab brick building. As we milled about in a confused mass, Marine NCOs moved through and divided us randomly into platoon-sized groups of twenty-five to thirty men, much like the night before. In batches, we were next taken to a smaller adjacent building, where we were ordered to strip off all our clothes. Then our flock of naked men—this was obviously no place for the modest—were given “chemical baths” by running a gauntlet of medical orderlies who, with sadistic glee, we suspected, hosed us down as we moved passed them. We were then ushered into a room where our hair was shaved to the skin. The next room contained men from the quartermaster corps, who handed us our day uniform, called dungarees; underwear, or skivvies; boots, known as boondockers; a pith helmet like I’d seen actors wearing in jungle movies; plus blankets, toilet gear, and a duffel bag to keep it all in. We quickly dressed and shoved everything else into our bags. We then ran out a rear door, our freshly shaved heads making us feel like plucked chickens.
A corporal formed my group into a line, paired us up, and led us to a broad field of tents perfectly erected in straight lines, with the rows separated by wide, immaculately kept company streets.
“This will be your home,” he said. “You men are now platoon 101 of the 2nd Recruit Battalion. Remember that. I’m not one for repeatin’ things.”
He then began assigning two men to each tent.
“Groft! Bowers! In here,” he barked, indicating a tent, then moved on to the next.
I and the young man the corporal referred to as Bowers entered our new quarters, and looked around. The tent had two canvas cots, one to each side, with a coal oil space heater squatting at the rear, to stave off the nighttime chill. How good that would’ve felt last night. A naked lightbulb hung from a cord attached to the tent’s ridgepole. I claimed a cot and sat down. Bowers plopped down on his. We grinned foolishly at each other.
“Not bad,” Bowers said. “More comfy than I expected.”
We introduced ourselves to each other and shook hands.
My tent mate was a good-looking kid named Kenneth Bowers. Four months short of his twenty-first birthday, Bowers told me he was born in Stockertown, Pennsylvania, but that he and his family were now living in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Like me, he came from a large family, with nine sisters and three brothers, although two sisters and a brother had died early. Then Bowers proudly showed me a photograph of his parents, Fred and Lillie.
Since Nazareth was less than seventy-five miles from Lebanon, we felt as if we had been neighbors, and we took an instant liking to each other.
It was the start of a wonderful, but tragically short, friendship.
Bright and early the next morning we were rousted from our bunks by shouts, curses, and blowing whistles. Scrambling into our dungarees, we formed up on the street in front of our tents. There we found ourselves face-to-face with the two men who, for the next ten weeks, would be for us the most influential and, at times, the most terrifying individuals on Earth: our drill instructors.
They were Sergeants Ward and Rebel, both former China Marines, a distinction they earned for having served with the 4th Marine Regiment in Shanghai, protecting American interests and citizens as the Sino-Japanese War threatened to engulf everything and everyone. These men were hard-ass Leathernecks, veterans, and we were awed by them as they stood ramrod stiff, their uniforms neatly pressed and their campaign-style hats, bearing the globe and anchor device, planted firmly on their heads as if screwed into place. Beneath the circular brim of the hats, their faces were impassive, their jaws set, their eyes glaring menacingly at us as we stood at rigid attention. It was into their capable but unsympathetic hands that the Marine Corps had placed our fate.
“Do you believe this?” Ward asked his assistant DI as he surveyed us.
“Pitiful,” Rebel replied, shaking his head pathetically. “I’ve scraped better stuff off the bottom of my shoes.”
Ward turned a hard eye on us.
“My name is Sergeant Ward,” he announced in a loud, raspy voice. “This is Sergeant Rebel. If you need to address us, that is how you do it. You don’t call us ‘sir,’ and God help the man who calls either of us ‘Sarge.’” He waved a clipboard. “Your names are on this here list, but this list don’t mean shit to us. You have no names. You have no past. You have no life outside the gates of this camp. That life you had out there is over. Forget it. And forget that special girl. Some 4-F is probably already in her pants. All you need to worry about right now is us.” He indicated the two of them. “You are skinheads. That’s it. Skinheads. The lowest form of animal life God put on this planet. You are not men, and you sure as hell ain’t Marines. As skinheads, you are now property of the United States Marine Corps, lock, stock, and asshole. And the Marine Corps gave you to us.”
Ward then laid out the day’s training program, including close-order drill, calisthenics, and physical training. We were ordered to double-time everywhere and salute any Marine we met who was not a fellow boot.
Thus began what was to be our ten-week initiation into the Marine Corps. Every morning started with bunk inspection. Each cot had to be made to regulation, the blanket tight as a drumhead, otherwise Rebel and Ward hurled the bed—mattress, cot, and all—out into the company street, and the unlucky boot had to start all over again. Needless to say, every day, fewer and fewer beds got tossed out, as we learned the Marine way to square our bunks.
The training was tough, and Ward and Rebel rode our asses relentlessly. Both men were perfect examples of what being a Marine is all about, and as I look back over those early days I know I was truly blessed. Years later, when I, too, would become a drill instructor, these men were at the forefront of my mind as I dealt with my boots.
Despite the ruggedness of the training regimen, I enjoyed my time in boot camp due in no small part to Sergeants Ward and Rebel, who guided us through those hectic weeks. But our stay at Parris Island was cut short because of the increasing numbers of new recruits who kept constantly coming through the gate. As a result, after just five weeks or so, we found our platoon on its way to Quantico to complete our last phase of training, which was the firing range.
Quantico was more important than Washington, D.C., so far as the Marine Corps was concerned. It was the Marine camp, and we were delighted to be there, although we were, technically, still boots, even if Ward and Rebel had stopped calling us skinheads.
At Quantico we were issued a piece of regulation equipment we all grew to cherish, the 1903 bolt-action Springfield rifle. Weighing in at 8.67 pounds and measuring 43.9 inches in length, this excellent weapon was manufactured by either the Remington Arms Company or the Smith-Corona Typewriter Company.
“Take care of her and treat her well, and she’ll do the same for you every time,” Sergeant Ward told us. “Even a broad can’t promise that.”
The weapon was fed by a five-round stripper clip, which consisted of five .30-caliber rounds placed in a grooved, stamped-metal strip. With the weapon’s bolt open, one end of the clip was placed in a receiver at the rear of the breech, and using a thumb, the shooter pushed the rounds down into the breech and off the clip, which was then removed either by hand or by closing the bolt, which automatically ejected it. By the breech, on the left, was also a magazine cut-off switch. When the switch was open, the weapon took a full clip. Close the switch, and the Springfield became a single-shot, bolt-action rifle.
After being issued our weapons and memorizing the serial number, we learned the various parts of the rifle, right down to the smallest screw. We were also drilled over and over on how to field strip, clean, and reassemble the piece.
And heaven help the man who dropped his rifle or referred to it as a “gun” in front of his DI.
Then we were off to the rifle range to sight in these beauties. I loved the range and did quite well, qualifying as a sharpshooter. However, the weapon I found that I liked best was the .45-caliber, 1911 model Colt automatic. Being enlisted men, we were not issued .45s, but being Marines, we learned to shoot them, along with every other weapon in the Marine arsenal, including the Browning Automatic Rifle. I was awarded the expert badge for my handling of the Colt .45 and drew high praise from my instructor.
Boot camp was drawing to a close, and soon we would do what we really came to do; that is, join the ranks and become one of those storied men known as U.S. Marines.
As the day of our graduation finally arrived, word came down that a special Marine unit called the Raiders, similar to British commandoes, was recruiting volunteers. We’d never heard of these Raiders, but we had heard talk about their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Merritt Edson, who was said to be a hard-fighting leader. Bowers and I studied the notice on the camp bulletin board, and we turned to each other as if we could read each other’s mind.
“Let’s volunteer,” Bowers said with a gleam in his eye. “We joined the Marines to fight, right?”
Bowers was correct. This is what we had signed up for in the first place, a chance to fight the Japanese. Now that opportunity was calling out to us. We submitted our names without further delay.
A few days later, Bowers and I, along with several other men, were ordered to report to A Barracks. As I recall this time seventy years later, I can again feel the excitement as I sat in that outer room inside A Barracks, awaiting my turn to see the great man. This was a colonel, for Christ’s sake, the highest-ranking officer I had ever met, let alone spoken to, and a man destined to become a legend in the Marine Corps. I cannot describe how I fought to control my nerves as my turn drew ever nearer.
“Oh God, give me the strength to stand firm through that door!” I thought to myself.
Merritt Austin “Red Mike” Edson was Vermont-born and attended the University of Vermont for two years before enlisting in the National Guard in 1916. Following a brief stint on the Mexican border, he returned to the university later in 1916, but a year after that, he quit again, to join the Marines. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant and served with the 11th Marines in France during the First World War, but saw no action.
In the 1920s he applied for flight training and earned his gold wings in 1922. Assigned to the Marine Air Station in Guam, he remained in the Mariana Islands until 1925. Assigned then to Kelly Field in Texas, Edson studied advanced aviation tactics, followed by the Company Officers’ Course at Quantico, Virginia. There he graduated with the highest grades ever attained up to that time. For some reason—physical, we heard—he gave up flying in 1927 and soon was assigned to the Philadelphia Naval Yard as an ordnance officer. That was quickly followed by an assignment to the cruiser USS Denver, where Edson found himself en route to Central America and action against Sandino bandits in Nicaragua. Between 1928 and 1929, Edson, now in command of 160 hand-picked, specially trained Marines, fought twelve sharp engagements against the bandits and earned his first Navy Cross plus a Silver Star and the Nicaraguan Medal of Merit.
In 1936 Edson enrolled in the Senior Officers’ Course at the Marine Corps School at Quantico, and a year later he was off to Shanghai as operations officer with the 4th Marines. In July of 1937, war broke out between the Japanese and the Chinese, giving Edson a unique opportunity to study the Japanese military under combat conditions. It provided our future commander with some valuable insights.
By June 1941, Edson was back at Quantico and in command of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, which, the following January, would be redesignated the 1st Special Battalion, the prelude to the 1st Marine Raider Battalion.
The idea of an elite raider force grew in the minds of two men, Edson and Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson, who had also served in China and studied guerilla tactics, mostly with Communist forces led by Mao Tse-tung. This close association with Mao would later prove something of a political and professional liability to the tall, gangly New Yorker. Carlson’s number two man was Captain James Roosevelt, son of our president. Hoping to sell the Marines on the concept, Roosevelt wrote to Marine commandant General Thomas Holcomb on a topic he called the “Development Within the Marine Corps of a Unit for Purposes Similar to the British Commandoes and the Chinese Guerillas.” But Holcomb wasn’t buying. The feeling was that the Marines, already considered an elite fighting force, did not need another elite force within their ranks. However, Holcomb did not take into account Roosevelt’s clout, as the son appealed to his father, who put pressure on the men below him, specifically Admiral Chester Nimitz, overall naval commander in the Pacific. Nimitz soon relented and ordered the formation of a command-style fighting force. Holcomb grudgingly complied, but decreed that the force be known as raiders, rather than the too-British-sounding term “commandoes,” or the Shock Battalion, as was suggested by Marine General Holland Smith.
On February 16, 1942, the 29 officers and 667 men of Edson’s 1st Special Battalion became the 1st Marine Raider Battalion, and training began. Within days, though, Edson was ordered to detach 7 officers and 190 men to “seed” a 2nd Marine Raider Battalion that would be commanded by Carlson. Bitterly, Edson transferred his entire A Company under Captain Wilbur Meyer to Carlson in San Diego, and was thoroughly outraged when the eccentric Carlson reinterviewed all of the men Edson had hand-picked, and refused to accept many of Edson’s so-called “easterners,” preferring to train men in his own fashion. This deliberate snub evolved into a festering wound between, not just the two commanders, but also the men in their two battalions, and would lead to bad feelings and more than one knockdown brawl.
The loss of an entire company was as severe blow to Edson, and created a void he quickly needed to fill, which is how Ken Bowers and I found ourselves sitting in a waiting room inside A Barracks. We had both seen Edson before. One day, during our two-week rifle qualification period, he showed up on the firing line. Lifting a Springfield to his shoulder at the five-hundred-yard mark, he pumped five rounds into the bull’s-eye as fast as he could work the bolt. We were suitably impressed.
Bowers and I fidgeted nervously as we awaited our turn to go inside and meet the great man. Would he like us? Would he accept us? And what the hell were we getting ourselves into? All of these questions, and more, sifted through our brains as we watched men walk in, and men walk out, of the inner door.
Then our turn came. I was in front of Ken, so I was ushered inside first.
The room was barren except for a desk, behind which Edson sat in a wooden, straight-backed chair. I strode crisply across the room to within three feet of the desk, stopped, and saluted.
“Private Marlin Groft,” I announced, and rattled off my serial number.
Edson returned the salute then glanced at papers on his desk. As he studied the documents, I nervously watched the top of his head, with a fire-red crop of close-clipped hair.
“At ease,” he said without looking up.
Then he turned his gaze toward me, his steely blue eyes boring into mine. I could not hold his stare. I could feel my legs getting weaker, and it occurred to me that this must be what it was like to stand before St. Peter. Later, of course, I would discover that Edson was, in fact, one rung higher.
“From what I am reading here, you seem like a good man,” Edson said. “You come from Pennsylvania Dutch country. That’s good, hearty German stock. I like that. I know a lot of good men from Pennsylvania.”
I was starting to feel encouraged.
“Your training records look good, except for swimming,” Edson said.
“It’s not my strong point,” I conceded. “I’m no Johnny Weissmuller, sir, but I passed the boot camp course.”
“You did,” Edson said. “Just. But I need more than that. We are going to be a commando-style unit, and the men may be required to swim to shore while also lugging gear and equipment. For that, I’m looking for strong swimmers. I’m sorry, son. I don’t think I can accept you. The fact that you are not a good swimmer could result in your death, as well as the death of others. But I thank you for volunteering.”
The whole time he spoke, his eyes never left mine, and I could feel those blue bolts burning through my head as he rendered his decision. Crushed, I saluted. Edson returned the salute, and I turned and left. On my way out, I could not even look at Bowers as he passed me on his way into the office. This was the first real disappointment I had ever felt over something that I had cared about in my life, and as I returned to my barracks I was convinced I would end up walking guard duty in some navy yard and never get to see a Japanese, much less fight one.
My mood was not enhanced when a beaming Ken Bowers returned to the barracks and announced that Edson had selected him. When I told him I had been rejected, he was as bitterly disappointed as I was. It had never occurred to either of us that we’d be separated.
“I’m sorry, Marlin,” he told me.
“It’s OK,” I told my friend. “I’m happy for you.”
“Maybe I’ll ask to be dropped from his unit,” Bowers said. “I’d hate for us to get separated.”
I chided him. “Don’t be an idiot. It’s what you want, so do it, and best of luck to you. We’ll stay in touch.”
I’m not sure I believed that last, as the rejection weighed on my mind, especially when Bowers got his orders to transfer to C Barracks, where the men selected for the Raiders were being billeted.
My depression lasted three days. Then, out of the blue, new orders arrived for me. As I read them, I was stunned. I was to report to C Barracks for duty with the Raiders. I felt it had to be a mistake, but I wasn’t about to question it. So I hastily shoved my belongings into my barracks bag, hoisted it up on my shoulder, and hurried toward C Barracks, one of three large buildings on Bartlett Avenue. Entering, the first person I spotted was Bowers, and we embraced in a joyful reunion.
“Thank God,” Bowers said. “I’m so glad you’re here. How’d it happen?”
“I have no idea,” I told him in hushed tones. “And for Christ’s sake, don’t ever bring it up.”
I never knew by what means I came to be accepted as a Raider, and believe you me, I never asked. Still, for the next several weeks, as we underwent Raider training, I kept waiting for the mistake to be discovered, possibly by Edson himself. I envisioned him spotting me in the ranks, then the hammer dropping, booting me out of the unit to which I desperately wanted to belong.
But for now I was here. The adventure of my life was about to begin.
Officially a member of the 1st Raider Battalion, at least for now, I and my closest buddy, Ken Bowers, found ourselves being assigned to the 2nd platoon of D Company.
Dog Company was under the command of Captain Justice “Jumpin’ Joe” Chambers, who was recruited by Edson on March 23. An exceptionally fine officer, as were all the leaders Edson hand-picked, Chambers’s claim to fame was that his mother was a relative of Valentine Hatfield, head of the Hatfield family, whose bloody, twenty-eight-year-long family feud with the McCoy family in West Virginia and Kentucky took no fewer than twenty lives.
Actually, Chambers was not our first CO. The first, Captain Henry Cain, died suddenly of a heart attack in March 1942, while on a march. Captain Ira “Jake” Irwin took over temporarily, but he was soon replaced by Chambers.
My platoon leader was 1st Lieutenant Ed Wheeler, a fine officer in his own right. Wheeler and I would develop a very good relationship, and he tried to keep me close by whenever we went into combat.
My platoon sergeant was Stanley D. “Ed” Kops, a tough old Marine from Hollywood, California. Kops, in fact, was at an age where he did not have to serve in a combat unit, but he chose to remain with Edson and the Raiders.
My squad leader was Corporal Homer “Spike” Edwards, a four-year veteran of the Marine Corps and something of a hell-raiser. How he kept his stripes I never knew.
I discovered several men, besides Bowers, in the platoon and the company as a whole, with whom I became close friends. Pfc. Richard T. “Mac” MacNeilly of Oneida, New York, was a scrounger. If you needed something, from a fountain pen to a pistol, he could probably rustle it up. Pfc. Ray Ruble hailed from New Jersey. Because he was built like a football lineman, we nicknamed him “Big Stoop.” Alexander Stewart Jr. was another New Jersey guy, hailing from Carneys Point. We would become especially close. Michael Rihaly was from the Keystone State, like me, making his home in Merrittstown. He was our platoon BAR man and I was his assistant.
And no outfit is complete without a boisterous, hard-drinking, hard-fighting Irishman. In our platoon it was Private Patrick Henry O’Shanahan, a jolly, dependable fellow and a good man to have on your side in a bar fight, which he would prove in brawls from Wellington, New Zealand, to Los Angeles.
The battalion under Edson was broken down into four rifle companies, each consisting of a captain, 4 lieutenants, 130 men, and 2 Navy medical corpsmen. Our A, B, and C companies contained three platoons each, while D Company had just two, with 2nd platoon being under Wheeler and 1st platoon under 1st Lieutenant Robert Neuffer. Charlie and Dog companies also each had an attached weapons platoon. Ours was led by Gunnery Sergeant Elwood Gebhart.
Our rifle platoons were generally divided into eight-man squads, although some had as many as thirteen. These included the squad leader, two men with Browning Automatic rifles, and five men with Springfields. One man—the best marksman in the group—was designated as a sniper, and equipped with the eleven-inch-long Weaver M8 03A3 sniper scope.
There was an E Company commanded by Captain George Herring, which served as our weapons company. It consisted of two rifle platoons, a mortar platoon, a demolition platoon, and an anti-tank section. Since we were a light striking force, dependent on speed and stealth, our weapons company had eight light machine guns, three 60mm mortars, and two Boys .50-caliber anti-tank guns.
These were the very early days of the Second World War, when America had neither the manpower nor the resources to launch full-scale assaults on Japanese-held islands. Yet in light of the string of stunning defeats the Allies had suffered at the hands of the Japanese—Pearl Harbor, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island—home front morale demanded that we take the war to the enemy and not let him rest on those early victories and solidify his defenses. That’s what the Raiders were all about, keeping the Jap off-balance by attacking him where he least expected it and where he might be most vulnerable, mainly inside his Pacific ring of conquests, where he thought himself to be secure. Some of these missions behind enemy lines might be swift in-and-out, what Edson called “stiletto”-type raids, requiring speed and surprise, while others could require conducting guerilla operations for long periods of time. Whatever the mission was, we Raiders were prepared to carry it out.
For that purpose, Edson was looking for young, physically fit Marines, preferably unmarried men, eager for action and willing to undertake hazardous duty. More than once, Edson would stand before us, holding up one of the distinctive stiletto knives we all carried, donated by a wealthy female admirer, and he’d snarl, “When we meet the Jap, he will show you no mercy, and you will show none to him. So, men. Do you have the guts to slit a Jap’s throat?”
“Yes, sir,” we shouted back lustily.
To his officers and NCOs, Edson hammered home the message that responsibility went with those bars or chevrons, and he encouraged them to make decisions under pressure. He was a believer in men showing initiative, regardless of their rank.
Of course, an extraordinary group of Marines had to be led by an extraordinary flock of officers, and Edson had a knack for selecting them.
Lieutenant Colonel Sam Griffith became Edson’s executive officer. He was thirty-five when he came to the Raiders in the second week of March 1942, after having spent five months in England studying commando techniques. A native of Lewistown, Pennsylvania, Griffith was a 1929 Annapolis graduate and had served in Nicaragua, Cuba, and China.
On the company level, A Company was led by Captain Lew Walt, or “Silent Lew” as he was sometimes known, using one of the “tribal” names we Raiders sometimes gave each other. Walt originally had been a member of the Colorado National Guard, before joining the Marines. After serving in Shanghai and Guam, he found himself stationed at Quantico, where Edson noticed him and wooed him over to the Raiders. As a sort of good luck omen, Walt’s birthday was February 16, the same birth date as the Raiders.
His executive officer was the capable 1st Lieutenant John Antonelli, who would command the company at Bloody Ridge.
Second Lieutenant Thomas F. Mullahey, who would distinguish himself as a Raider, led 2nd platoon under Walt and would also become a company commander.
Major Lloyd Nickerson, a native of Spokane, Washington, and a Marine Corps reservist, took command of Baker Company.
Charlie Company was led by a terrific guy, Major Ken Bailey. Broad-shouldered, six-foot-three, and Hollywood handsome, the Pawnee, Oklahoma, native had attended Colorado State University as a chemistry major, not to mention wrestler and captain of the football team. He later joined the Illinois National Guard and served with the 130th Infantry Regiment before joining the Marines as a 2nd lieutenant in 1935. One of his assignments in the Corps was aboard the battleship USS Pennsylvania. Bailey was thirty-one when he came to the Raiders.
Commanding Bailey’s 2nd platoon was 2nd Lieutenant Clay A. Boyd, who would distinguish himself as a Raider.
Another officer who would prove vital to Edson was his assistant, 2nd Lieutenant John Erskine. Erskine’s tribal name, “Tiger,” was misleading since he was a frail man, weighing in at 108 pounds. In fact, he had been rejected by Marine recruiters in 1941 because he failed to meet the minimum standards, being too short and too skinny and having lousy eyesight. What finally got him noticed was that he was the son of missionaries and grew up in Japan. He could read and speak the language fluently.
Our standard uniform was made of heavy cotton twill to soak up moisture from the rain and humidity of the jungles, as well as sweat, body oils, and accumulated dirt. We also wore the standard soft overseas cap, or “pisscutter,” and a short-brimmed soft hat we dubbed the “Raider cap.” Some men tucked their trousers into the tops of their low-cut, brown, rough suede boondockers, and others did not. We were given leggings but threw them away after our blistered feet, following rainy hikes, taught us that they prevented wet boots from drying. And we had our “782 gear,” the light tan web belt, ammo pouches, backpack, canteen, and other personal items that were issued via the military’s #782 Form.
Training began immediately. First, we refamiliarized ourselves with every weapon a Raider might be called upon to use, from the Colt .45 automatic to the BAR to the Boys .50-caliber anti-tank rifle, or “elephant gun.” That also meant getting to know how to kill a man with a knife, be it our stiletto, which had the nasty habit of sometimes breaking when thrown, the Marine Corps’s standard, broad-bladed KA-BAR, or the machete and bayonet.
Self-defense was taught by Colonel Anthony Biddle, a World War I veteran and expert on close combat. He left us slack-jawed and thoroughly impressed, when he surrounded himself by a circle of Raiders, all wielding unsheathed bayonets, and, bare-handed, disarmed them all. Edson, of course, frowned upon practicing with naked blades, so we trained using fencing foils and masks.
There were also lessons in the best use of camouflage and small unit combat tactics.
We were instructed to fight with what weapons and gear we could carry into battle, and not be dependent on artillery or air support. We worked eighteen hours a day, seven days a week learning about the art of combat, armed and unarmed.
Since our missions included probable landings behind Japanese lines, we spent many hours on the Potomac River training in the use of rubber boats, under the stern glare of Gunnery Sergeant Gerald B. Stackpole, an old China Marine and expert in rubber boat handling. A man of rabid discipline when it came to “his boats” and their handling, we dubbed him Admiral of the Condom Fleet. Bivouacking along the lazy, meandering Chopawamsic Creek as it made its way to the Potomac in Prince William and Stafford counties, the gunny would drill us relentlessly, both on handling the rubber boats and on their care and maintenance. We began to suspect that he worried more over his damned boats than he did about us.
Edson, knowing we might be subjected to long treks on foot, insisted on daily runs between our barracks and the camp’s main area. But it was through hiking that “Red Mike” really weeded out the boys from the men. He seemed to take sadistic joy in long marches, generally with heavy packs and full combat gear. These jaunts included compass marches in the dark of night. Rain or shine, it made no difference to the man we began calling, among ourselves of course, “Eddie the Mole,” for the way his oversized helmet sat on his undersized head, with the rim of the steel pot touching his shoulders.
Edson’s marching goal for the battalion was seven miles per hour, and we once covered twenty-five miles in five hours, and then went straight into a mock battle. One of his favorite marches was the thirty-mile trek from Quantico to the Civil War battlefield at Manassas, returning the next day. Every mother’s son of us cursed Edson as we puffed along behind him, yet we noted that, at every stop, the colonel, who was a good deal older than many of us, would walk along the line during the break, checking on our condition. Then he’d double-time back to the head of the column when it was time to move again. As we drew near our barracks on the return trip, tuckered out as we were, he’d bellow, “Double-time, march,” for the final mile.
In fact, we ran an awful lot, including five miles every day before breakfast.
Edson was not constantly at the head of the column during these marches. He’d move around, from rear to front and everywhere in between, keeping an eye on his boys. During one of these grueling hikes, a new fellow in our platoon, Pfc. Joe Connolly, snarled to the man next to him, “The guy who dreamed up this hike ought to be taken out and hung up by his balls.”
Connolly did not realize that “the guy who dreamed up this hike” was the same man he was speaking to, having never met Edson. But Edson did not reply. He just smiled.
On one late-night hike, we marched back into camp at 2 a.m., tired as hell, yet with enough spark to break loudly into song, rousing the whole damned place. Edson caught holy hell about it from his superiors the next day, but he let the remarks roll off. He knew we were developing a strong sense of spirit and unit pride, and that was all he cared about.
Edson believed in action over words, and if we performed, he rewarded us, not with speeches, but with regular leaves. Once, when he was especially proud of us, he arranged a dance and brought in four busloads of secretaries from the Pentagon. How he coaxed them into partying with a bunch of rowdy Raiders, we never learned.
Soon, however, the war demanded our presence, and orders came to pack up and ship out. But not all of us. Not at first, anyway. In late March, Edson was told to bring his battalion west, but he was to leave 9 officers and 233 men at Quantico. Sam Griffith was ordered to remain, and we men of D Company were also among those left behind. We were, understandably, disappointed, and we had no idea why this was being done. One rumor said it was lack of transport space. Others whispered that we were being deployed to the European Theater of Operations. Still other scuttlebutt said we were to be the “seeds” for a new Raider battalion. I told Bowers it was because our group were the last ones to join the Raiders, so we had more raw recruits straight from boot camp. Perhaps, I reasoned, Edson figured we needed more training. Whatever the explanation, we were left to cool our heels in Virginia.
The move began on April 1, with the Raiders boarding a train for a destination unknown to everyone except Edson and his top staff members. As the train rolled due south, speculation abounded. Most assumed the next stop was Florida, for more rubber boat training. But as the train’s direction shifted westerly, the best bet was San Diego. The cross-country trek was somewhat uncomfortable, with Marines crammed into every car. However, that discomfort was alleviated to an extent by the baggage car, which had been converted into a galley that never closed. When this first contingent of Raiders arrived at San Diego, there was no time for leaves to see the town. Instead, the men spent their time doing calisthenics and preparing their gear for shipment overseas.
On April 6, Edson’s Raiders clambered aboard the 21,000-ton attack transport USS Zeilin, named for Jacob Zeilin, a veteran of both the Mexican War and the Civil War, who became the Marines Corps’s first general in 1874. The ship hoisted anchor that same day and steamed into the Pacific Ocean bound for Samoa.
While the first echelon was gliding toward the South Pacific, we who remained at Quantico continued to practice small unit tactics, self-defense, rubber boat “yachting” on the Potomac River, and making night landings on the banks of the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay, using ten-man rubber boats launched from obsolete World War I destroyers. In one drill, we made a beach landing on a stretch of Maryland sand that the brass had dubbed “Solomon Island,” never for one second imagining that within six months we’d be landing for real in the Solomon Islands. Hell, most of us didn’t know where the Solomon Islands were, or had never even heard of the place. Nor could I foresee that I would be among the first fifty men to make that landing, the first U.S. ground offensive of the war.
Near the end of May, our orders came through at Quantico, and we boarded a west-bound train to join up with the rest of the battalion. The trip was boring except for when the train was chugging across the western prairies. There we amused ourselves by firing our rifles at jackrabbits and prairie dogs spooked by the noisy locomotive and the rattling of the steel wheels on the rails. During our short layover at San Diego we busied ourselves gathering equipment and adding a few replacements for men who had dropped out. A few days later, we climbed the gangplank of the attack transport USS Heywood, an eight-thousand-ton ship built in 1919 by Bethlehem Steel. Learning that made me think of my dad and the injuries he had suffered while employed by that same firm. Having lifted anchor, we were soon off.
How excited I was! What a thrill for a boy straight out of the rural farmlands of Lancaster County. I had never seen an ocean, much less a ship of this size. This was truly a dream come true, I told myself, giving no thought to what lay at the other end of my journey.
We sailed on across the seemingly endless Pacific, our ship rising and falling gently on the rolling waves. Then on June 27, without explanation, the Heywood’s engines quit turning and we came to a dead stop smack-dab on the equator. At first we Marines wandered about, gawking at each other and wondering what the hell was happening. Then we found out. It was time for us to pay homage to King Neptune.
The U.S. Navy has this time-honored tradition of inducting guys crossing the equator for the first time, called “Polliwogs,” into the “mysteries of the deep.” The award, if you wish to call it that, of conducting that initiation, goes to men who have already undergone it, called “Shellbacks,” who work under the guidance of King Neptune and his Royal Court. These latter include old salts portraying Davy Jones, Neptune’s first assistant; Her Highness Amphitrite; the Royal Scribe; the Royal Doctor; the Royal Dentist; the Royal Baby; and others. The cost of admittance to this seagoing society was a price none of us would ever forget.
One by one, we Polliwogs were hauled before King Neptune, a sailor done up to look like the King of the Seas, complete with crown and trident. As we were presented to Neptune, he handed out “sentences” to be carried out by the Shellbacks. Every Polliwog got the same sentence, which began with us running a gauntlet that consisted of a greased tarp spread out on the deck over a cargo net. We had to crawl along the tarp, a distance of maybe ten yards, with Shellbacks striking us all the way. And just when we thought we’d reached the end, the sailors turned a fire hose on us, the force of the water driving us back.
Next came the Royal Bath, where we were dunked in water and struck about the head, none too lightly, every time we came up for air. We also had to say “Shellback” three times rapidly as we were being dunked.
Officers or enlisted men, it made no difference where the initiation was concerned. In fact, I think they treated the Polliwog officers worse than us enlisted guys.
The worst trial we had to endure, though, was when they brought us before the Royal Baby, a big, hairy, ugly son of a bitch, who lay down on his back. Eggs were then cracked on his hairy belly, and we Polliwogs had to lick the egg off of him. It damned near gagged me.
When the ordeal finally ended, the newly initiated Shellbacks, particularly we Raiders, decided it wasn’t over until we said it was, so we laid into our tormentors. What followed was one hell of a deck fight, with flying fists and more than a few bloody noses and bruised faces, after which all was forgiven and the ship moved on. As we put the equator behind us, I vowed never to go through that again. Six months later, when we docked in New Zealand after Guadalcanal, I raced off to find the nearest tattoo artist and had a sailing ship, along with the date 6-27-42, tattooed on my right bicep.
Our first port of call was Tutuila, the largest island in American Samoa. Codenamed Strawstack, Tutuila lies 2,276 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor and 1,580 miles northeast of Auckland, New Zealand. Volcanic in origin, the island has steep ridges almost its entire twenty-one-mile length, with the highest peak being Mount Matafao at 2,141 feet.
Right in the center of the island, opening to the east, is Pago Pago (pronounced Pon-go Pon-go) Harbor, which was a scene straight out of a picture postcard. When our first echelon entered here on April 28, they did so in a driving rainstorm, with poor visibility. But we arrived in glistening sunlight on July 3, allowing us a breathtaking view of the crescent-shaped harbor’s high, green walls of lush foliage, its fringed sparkling white sandy beaches surrounding the bluest water I had seen in my life.
“Beautiful, isn’t it, Marlin?” Kenny Bowers said as we stood by the rail, taking in the sight. “I wish I could take a picture to send to my folks. I’ll bet they never imagined a place like this existed.”
“It’s like all the South Seas stories I ever heard as a boy, all come to life,” I replied.
The harbor, one of the finest in the entire Pacific, although not large enough for a fleet anchorage, began with a one-mile-wide entrance, flanked by Point Distress on the west shore and Point Breaker to the east. The harbor was two miles wide and three miles long, ending at the village on Pago Pago, set on a low, narrow isthmus, a belt of land that seemed to connect Tutuila’s mountainous northern and southern portions. The water in the harbor, which is a volcanic crater, was said to be 36 to 150 feet deep.
About ten thousand people called Tutuila home, with about one thousand living there in Pago Pago, where we dropped anchor. The natural wildlife of the island was birds and lizards. Interestingly, none of the tropical diseases we would come to dread elsewhere, such as malaria, existed here. Instead, the people were plagued by tuberculosis, parasitic infections, and elephantiasis. This last, a mosquito-borne, unpreventable disease, caused extremities, like arms and legs and scrotums, to enlarge and harden, and would result in the United States withdrawing all of its forces by the end of 1943. But not before some three thousand Marines and sailors were infected, with the only cure being transfer to a cooler climate.
Debarking from the Heywood, we were trucked to a camp near Leone on the southwestern end of Tutuila, where we had a joyful reunion with the rest of the battalion. During the weeks they had been at the camp, Edson had run their asses ragged with training and mountain climbing. We now joined in this regimen, working from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m., or even until midnight, handling rubber boats and practicing such skills as judo, stalking, bayonet and knife fighting, demolition, first aid, and communications. For this last, Edson had found that our short-range radios were all but useless in the jungle, and even the long-range TBX with its three components—the transmitter, antenna, and generator, weighing a combined 120 pounds—was prone to difficulties.
Some of our weapons weren’t much better. The Reising submachine gun, produced by Harrington and Richardson Arms Company in Worcester, Massachusetts, was shorter, lighter, more accurate, and less costly than the Thompson, but it was so adversely affected by the climate in the southwest Pacific that we began calling it the “Rusting” submachine gun. It was so undependable, in fact, that on Guadalcanal, Edson ordered all men who possessed one to throw it into the Lunga River.
Our men, myself included, liked the Browning Automatic Rifle, but it weighed a bulky seventeen pounds and had a hard recoil. Still, these did not get tossed into the Lunga, but came to serve the Raiders well in all of our actions.
Our training was tough and not without incident. One Raider died of an accidental gunshot wound and another man fell from a 150-foot cliff while we were mountain climbing.
But the rugged conditioning continued, trudging up and down what, at the time, seemed like every goddamned hill and mountain Edson could find. Every time we looked, it seemed that we were walking up a hill. Samoa was nothing but hills.
Edson loved it, even going so far as to place a wager with the local garrison commander that we could scale the island’s highest peak, Mount Matafao, undetected and capture its secret radar installation in a predawn attack. Edson won his bet.
Another part of our training involved three British commandoes whom Edson called in to give us lessons on how to silently kill a man with a knife, or with bare hands. They illustrated their skills with the help of a triangular steel knife that could penetrate a fifty-cent coin. One of them also taught us jujitsu and demonstrated the use of a short bayonet in a new fighting procedure that called for parrying, slashing, and thrusting. It was this type of specialized training that set us apart from the rest of the Marine Corps.
It was difficult and laborious work, and not every man could take it. Samoa separated a few people from the Raiders.
Amid our rigorous training schedule, Edson did allow us some time for recreation, which included boxing matches, called “smokers.” We also had plenty of good food and even beer, which our guys “requisitioned” while unloading ships in Pago Pago or Leone harbor. Our recreation also included enjoying the Samoan women, many of whom wore skirts called lava lava. To our delight, they also tended to walk around topless.
My future squad leader and close friend William “Wild Bill” Waltrip joined the Raiders on Samoa. Bill had come to Pago Pago four months earlier with the 2nd Marine Brigade, and ended up bouncing from one grimy job to another. He was on a shipboard work detail aboard Heywood shortly after we docked, when he spotted Lester “Leck” Malone, whom he had gone to school with back in Mattoon, Illinois. He called to his old friend and they had a glad reunion. Waltrip told him about being stuck doing crappy work details, and Malone told him about his assignment with the Raiders.
“They’re still looking for guys,” Malone told him. “Why not volunteer? You’ll see some action, guaranteed.”
Waltrip decided to take his friend’s advice.
“Sure. Why the hell not,” he replied.
“Hey,” Malone said. “You hungry? I’ll go grab us a couple of sandwiches from the galley and be right back.”
Waltrip said sure, and Malone hurried off as Waltrip went back to work. Malone did not return. Still, Waltrip followed Malone’s advice, volunteered for Raider duty, and was accepted. Since his previous assignment had been with the machine guns, he was placed in Easy Company.
“I was afraid I was never going to see anything,” Waltrip later told me. “I might have been left sitting in Samoa for the next ten years. They always say never volunteer, but signing up with the Raiders was the best thing that I did.”
Officially a Raider, Waltrip asked around for Malone, but no one had seen him. Two days out of Samoa, Waltrip was leaning on the ship rail watching the Heywood’s wake trail out behind the transport, when Malone walked up to him, his head bandaged. What had happened was that, after hurrying off for the sandwiches, Malone had failed to see cargo being loaded aboard the ship. He was struck on the side of the head by the boom from a crane. Coldcocked by the blow, he lay in sickbay for three days.
Our training on Samoa ended, and on July 7 we set sail for New Caledonia, a former French possession said to be sympathetic to the Axis Powers.
New Caledonia, third largest island in the South Pacific, after New Guinea and New Zealand, sits 2,360 miles from Pearl Harbor, 1,230 miles from Auckland, and, although it meant nothing to us at the time, 800 miles southeast of the Solomon Islands. Covering 8,453 square miles of ground, it is just slightly smaller than New Jersey.
Long and narrow, New Caledonia stretches for 248 miles and is 31 miles wide, with coastal plains covered mostly by coconut trees. These plains give way to two long, parallel mountain ranges that run the island’s length, with razorback ridges and rugged, heavily eroded slopes. The mountainous landscape is slashed by deep gorges and ravines. Streams and small rivers flow from the peaks and across the coastal plains before emptying into the sea.
In the early days, many in the native population were cannibals. And though the French, who claimed the island in 1853 after a survey crew had been attacked, pretty much stamped it out, we were told some isolated tribes deep in the interior might still adhere to the practice.
In the early days of World War II, the official government of the island was pro-Vichy, supporting the puppet government of France set up after the German conquest, but a large segment of the population was not. By the time our forces landed on the island in January 1942, the Vichy officials had all left, but there were still seventeen thousand French civilians scattered about, and we, perhaps unjustly, never quite trusted them.
The island had been used by the French as a penal colony and at one time housed as many as forty thousand prisoners. About one hundred were still on the island when we arrived. There were also more than eight hundred so-called indentured servants, mostly from French Indochina. They were mostly used for general labor in the island’s many mineral mines. These people lived under deplorable conditions in work camps, residing in wire cages that resembled chicken coops or rabbit warrens. Housed in these shacks or even caves, the workmen lived on one side while, across from them, were the women, who were mostly used as prostitutes to satisfy the workers. Some of my most horrific memories were of us taking truckloads of our garbage to the Nickel Mines, what today would be called a landfill, near the town of Nouméa. The trucks would first stop by the caves, and these poor bastards would descend like ants, climb aboard the trucks, and throw over the side anything they could use. It was a scene out of Dante’s Inferno, and one I carry in my mind to this day.
We disembarked from the Heywood at Nouméa, a small city of about eleven thousand people, and capital of what had been called French Oceania. After climbing aboard waiting trucks, we were carried about twenty-five miles to our new home, a newly established base near St. Louis Mission. Naturally enough, we christened the place Camp St. Louis, and it would become our principal base of operations for the duration of our campaigns in the South Pacific.
Part of the reason for our seclusion so far from Nouméa, I suspect, was to limit our contact with what we assumed were the Vichy-loving local French population. This, the brass hoped, would lessen the chances of an unpleasant incident, such as us beating the shit out of them. Another reason, of course, was for training purposes, stationing us closer to the jungle and mountains and farther from civilization.
The training, which commenced upon reaching camp, was exactly what we had come to expect: hard work and long hours. But we toughed it out, and our unit pride grew fiercer with every successful exercise. On one occasion, we were marching back into camp, tired and haggard after an especially difficult training session, when we passed a few noncombatant, rear echelon assholes.
One of them chided us. “Well, well. Here come the Wugged Waiders.”
One of our guys, a big Texan, spun toward the man, raised his Springfield, chambered a round, and aimed. Two other Raiders quickly stopped him, convinced that he intended to fire.