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CPL. TED ELESTON
I fell exhausted onto a white stretch of Virginia Beach, not white with sand but snow and bone-aching cold. I looked over at Platoon Sergeant Hinkle. We had been training hard at Quantico. We lived in these rubber boats, making landing after landing after landing. Day landings, night landings, cold landings, and blazing hot landings. Col. "Red Mike" Edson had taken over the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. President Roosevelt was being hounded by politicians and even Winston Churchill to form up a new unit like the British Commandos. Marine commandant Thomas Holcomb was not impressed and reminded the world that Marines were Marines and ready to fight any enemy, anywhere and at any time, better than any fighting force on earth. Under pressure from the president, the commandant brought in the legendary jungle fighter, Col. Red Mike Edson, and gave him the pick of the litter of the famous 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. He flatly refused to call Marines commandos. For a while we became the 1st Separate Battalion. Still under political pressure, the commandant himself finally named us the 1st Marine Raiders.
Red Mike knew what these new Marine Raiders were in for against the Japanese. He was making sure we were ready. Some of us thought Edson was crazy. We would force march in full combat gear faster and longer than any other outfit and then double-time just to keep up this pace of seven miles per hour. We did it all and we did it often. That's why I didn't think it was unusual that Sergeant Hinkle looked so bad at first glance on that ice-cold beach. We were all exhausted, but his ashen face and fatal stare indicated more than fatigue. The men called him Hink for short. He was fiddling with this little gold wedding band around his neck on his leather dog tag strap. Hink's beautiful new bride had died on their wedding night that summer of '41 when we took over New River, later to become Camp Lejeune. He wasn't the same after that, but there was a war to fight, and if he took a leave now he might not be able to stay with the Raiders, so he stuck it out. I rolled onto my side and tried to sound upbeat, as his low emotional state was obvious. "How ya' holdin' up, Sarge?" My words came out like smoke signals in the cold air.
Fatigue and pain stared back at me through ice blue eyes. He fingered that gold ring again and looked me square in the face.
"I'm going to get killed in this war, Eli."
The guys called me Eli. It wasn't the first time or the last time I heard a Marine voice the thought of not making it. You had to just wave it off, so that's what I tried to do. "Ahh! Don't say stuff like that, Sarge! We're going to kill these Japs and come home and have a beer."
"No," he said, appearing to stare through me and at something beyond. "I'm going to get killed in this war."
I was speechless. He was serious, and I didn't know what to say to him. Then he sort of held out the little gold ring to show me. "I want you to put this on my pinkie finger after I die." He looked straight into my soul. "Will you promise me, Eli?"
"Yeah. Okay. Sure."
The 1st Marine Raiders hit Tulagi in August 1942. It was rough. The Japs counterattacked that first night. Jap grenades rained in on us out of the pitch-black night, their fuses sparkling as they whirled in from all directions. Explosions rocked every part of the ridge we were holding; I lost my bearings from the concussion and I lost my machine gun squad. I searched around on my hands and knees for the light .30-caliber machine gun, but it was gone. It was blown away, and we didn't find it until the next day, at the bottom of the hill. I pulled this piece of shrapnel out of my right ear; it was sticking in my skull and it hurt. In spite of that I could hear my gunner moaning, wounded, but I couldn't see him. I crawled around in the brush, feeling with my hands until I felt something wet, then I touched a body. I got his arms over my shoulders and carried him on my back, up this wagon trail toward the top of the ridge where the CP was. I knew there was a corpsman there.
"Halt!" A familiar voice barked and I froze. It was Capt. Lew Walt. Of course no one knew it then, but Lew Walt would go on to play an important role in this war, and in Korea and Vietnam. "Corporal Eleston, guns! I lost my gun and the whole squad, sir!"
He pointed me up the trail. "Get your wounded up to the CP, move it!"
I took off with my gunner over my shoulder, he was bleeding all down my back. About twenty yards up that trail I saw nothing but grenades and muzzle flashes ahead. The CP was being overrun! Mortar rounds started dropping. I heard Marines yelling to get down. I slid over the side of the slope and right into a bunch of wounded Raiders, and I spent the night down on one side of the ridge huddled together with my gunner and the other wounded. Soon we heard another shootout near the CP. Word came down that the old man himself, Red Mike Edson, had charged back into that building with his .45 blazing and helped clean out the Japs when the Marines retook it.
That morning I got my gunner to a corpsman and was still in a fog when I passed all the dead Marines laid out on the trail under ponchos. They were getting them ready to boat them out to the APDs. I didn't really want to look, it wasn't just morbid curiosity, I had to force my eyes down. I had to know who they were. I lifted a poncho and there was Hink, his leather dog tag strap still around his neck and that little gold band on it glistening in the hot sun. I stood there for a long time just staring down at him, that gold band blinding me, my eyes frosted up. I just couldn't do it. I couldn't put that ring on his finger like I promised. I hurt inside over it. I hurt deep into my gut. I regret not doing that for him.
To kids today, 1928 probably sounds like a thousand years ago, but it wasn't a thousand years ago to me. It feels like early yesterday. I woke up each morning to the shudder of the cavalry going past my bedroom window. Those huge horses clopping past, their hoofs resounding off the gravel road outside. I jumped out of bed to watch from my window. Soldiers wearing brown leather cavalry boots in the stirrups of hardworking and well-trained horses. Pack animals snorting under the weight of heavy gear and weapons like a living train of blood and muscle. Sometimes they sounded almost like giant men marching down that hard white gravel road.
Dad was a soldier and I grew up in a military family that had a long military history. I guess you could say it went all the way back to the Spartans on my father's side of the family. I used to listen to the stories about my family members having to fire on the Black Watch Highland Infantry and actually killing their own cousins during the Revolutionary War. Mom's first cousin was in the 7th Cavalry and died with Custer. My grandmother, my mom's mother, was a first cousin to Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Her name was Bertha White Huff. Her maiden name, White, was changed from Whyte, one of the original early colonists. They changed from Whyte to White because of their anger toward England.
Dad was a sergeant major and fought against Pancho Villa in Mexico and then the Kaiser in World War I. Dad was badly wounded by shrapnel in France while attacking and destroying a German machine gun nest. He was also wounded by mustard gas and spent months in the VA hospital in Chillicothe, Ohio. Me and mom and my sister lived at Camp Sherman. When dad healed up, he left the army and started a chicken farm in Toledo, his lifelong dream. Mom had put her foot down and said, "No more moving!"
I have this strange, God-given ability to sense danger. I'm no psychic, I just sort of feel that something is wrong and find out later that something was wrong. One night on the chicken farm, I just shot up out of bed and knew something was real wrong. I got out of bed worried, then I started looking around. I looked out my bedroom window and started yelling for help. I guess, other than combat, that was one of the worst moments in my father's life. It was a simple fire that became a terrible fire, it destroyed the chicken farm. It killed twenty thousand chickens. Dad was utterly brokenhearted and went back in the army after that and stayed in for life.
My father had the equivalent of a university degree at the age of thirteen and expected the same out of me. My grandfather was a Greek Orthodox priest in the old country. He was extreme about education. One day my dad was late for a class and my grandfather strung him up with ropes inside a barn and beat him so badly that he was hospitalized for two weeks. Not long after that, my father's older sister left home and took my dad to America, and he never saw grandfather again until grandfather's visit in 1936. That visit was shortened because of the war. Grandfather and my dad's two brothers were killed by the communists in 1945 just after World War II ended. Few people know or care about that time in history but it was painful for many. The communists kidnapped thousands of Greek children, many taken by Tito, the leader in Yugoslavia. They put these kids in communist indoctrination schools for years, then sent them back to Greece at the end of the war in hopes of turning Greece into a communist country. If people only understood how evil communism is. It is as satanic as any false religion.
My parents taught us to read as soon as we could talk, or almost. I was the only boy and the oldest. I had four sisters eventually. At the age of seven I could read as well as many grown-ups, and getting to that Sunday paper first was important. We had no such thing as television, so the paper was a big deal for us. It was a beautiful Sunday morning when I dived into that newspaper all alone at the kitchen table. The headline was marines battling sandino. Nicaragua was the big news, and I couldn't read enough about the Marines fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. It was a jungle war, and the Marines were being led by the legendary jungle fighter Red Mike Edson. He was ahead of his time in so many ways. Edson really invented the strategy of vertical envelopment before anybody knew what it was. In Nicaragua, he put a Lewis gun on a ring mount and fixed it under an autogyro (that's like a primitive helicopter, one rotor) in 1927. The gun had these big one-hundred-round drums. He'd fly that thing over the Sandinistas and just wreak havoc and chase them right into his waiting Marines. As I read about these men called Marines, I made a decision right then and there to become one of them. At seven years old I think I understood that these men were different. They were America's Spartans. They had one job and one purpose and that was to kill any enemy of America, even if it meant sacrificing their own life.
At fifteen I quit school and ran away from home with an orphan boy that lived with us. I guess I was being a little rebellious, but I wanted to join the Marines. We ended up joining the nearest military outfit we could find. I was big, about full grown. I ended up being six-foot-three and 215 pounds, so I managed to lie my way in okay. It wasn't that long before dad tracked us down, though. He was not happy. He and mom wanted me to finish high school and go to West Point. Dad's close friend was the attorney general of Ohio, Roland B. Lee. Dad was a sergeant major at the time, so he had some pull even without Mr. Lee, but he worked out a deal with the attorney general that allowed me to be stationed in Toledo with the National Guard Machine Gun Troop 107th Cavalry Regiment. I agreed, but my heart was already set on joining the Marines. That was in 1935.
Being a student and a soldier was no easy chore. While most of my friends were working summer jobs in stores or on farms, I was learning to work with some mean horses and mean machine guns. Both could kill you if you made a mistake. I found out real quick that these animals weren't the family plow horse, by God. They were wild mustangs! They could break loose if spooked and kill other horses and the men around them. The massive packsaddle was padded leather, canvas, and steel. Gun straps and steel clamps held the heavy, water-cooled .30-caliber machine gun in place on one side of this big, wild animal. The trunnion block and tripod were strapped to the other side to balance things off.