Hell in the Pacific: A Marine Rifleman's Journey from Guadalcanal to Peleliuby Jim McEnery, Bill Sloan (With)
In the tradition of E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed, this is a Marine rifleman’s extraordinarily vivid, brutally candid memoir of what it was like on the front lines of World War II in the Pacific.
In what may be the last memoir to be published by a living veteran of the pivotal invasion of Guadalcanal, which occurred almost seventy/b>/i>
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In the tradition of E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed, this is a Marine rifleman’s extraordinarily vivid, brutally candid memoir of what it was like on the front lines of World War II in the Pacific.
In what may be the last memoir to be published by a living veteran of the pivotal invasion of Guadalcanal, which occurred almost seventy years ago, Marine Jim McEnery has teamed up with author Bill Sloan, “a master of…the combat narrative” (The Dallas Morning News) to create an unforgettably immersive chronicle of horror and heroism.
Made famous by the HBO miniseries The Pacific, McEnery’s rifle company—the legendry K/3/5 of the First Marine Division—fought in some of the most ferocious battles of the Pacific. In arresting detail, the author takes us back to Guadalcanal, where the Americans turned the tide of war against the Japanese; Cape Gloucester, where 1,300 Marines were killed or wounded; and to bloody Peleliu, where McEnery assumed command of the company and helped speed the final defeat of the Japanese garrison. From his evocative recollections of hand-to-hand fighting and the loss of buddies in hellish fighting to his frank portraits of legends like Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller and General Douglas MacArthur, McEnery’s gritty narrative is as valuable for its insights on a war increasingly lost to memory as it is terrifying and engrossing—a masterwork that no reader of military history can afford to pass up.
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A NICE DAY FOR A BOAT RIDE
IT WAS ABOUT 8:30 AM, August 7, 1942, when I got my first good look at the island where we were going. To me, it seemed pretty much like every other island I’d seen in the Pacific during the two months I’d been there: white sand beaches framed by clusters of dark green palm trees, with dense jungle undergrowth just behind and blue-green hills rising up in the distance.
But this island was different, and every one of us knew it. This one was supposed to be crawling with Japs, all of them itching to blow us to hell.
We were bound for a section of shoreline designated as Beach Red. We didn’t care much for that name. It made us think of blood—our blood.
Until our officers and senior NCOs started drumming how dangerous this place was into our heads, the name of the island hadn’t meant a damned thing to me or any of the other guys in my platoon. I doubted if anybody back in the States had ever even heard of it.
Just for the record, it was called Guadalcanal.
The brass had warned everybody to expect the worst. They said some of us who were climbing down the cargo nets on the side of the troopship and trying to keep from stepping on each other’s hands as we boarded our Higgins boats were going to get killed today. The letter we’d received from Colonel LeRoy P. Hunt, our regimental commander, had tried to be reassuring, but it didn’t quite make it.
“God bless all of you,” it said at the end, “and to hell with the Japs.”
The troops respected Colonel Hunt. As a young lieutenant in France in 1918, he’d earned both a Navy Cross and a Distinguished Service Cross for heroism under fire. He knew what hard fighting was all about, and he was telling us this fight was going to be as hard as they came.
We were the men of the First Marine Division, but except for Hunt and a few other holdovers from World War I, we were all as green as gourds. Almost none of us had ever fired a shot in anger, and the grim warnings we’d been hearing the past few days made us jumpy.
The word spread through the ranks like some kind of epidemic. “Somebody’s gonna get hurt! Somebody’s gonna get hurt!”
Actually, though, if so many of us hadn’t been so nervous and on edge, it would’ve been a pretty nice day for a boat ride. The sky was pale blue with some big, puffy clouds that looked like gobs of whipped cream. And as our Higgins boat headed for shore—less than a mile away now—there was hardly a ripple in the sea around us.
But even this early in the morning, the air was already uncomfortably warm and steamy. Our dungaree uniforms stuck to us like glue, and most of us were dripping with sweat by the time we made it down the nets. By afternoon, it was sure to be hot as blazes.
Like the rest of the fifty guys in my boat, I was tense and excited, and my pulse was going pretty fast. But I wasn’t really scared. I don’t scare easy. Never have. I don’t know why; I just don’t. I probably should’ve been scared but just didn’t have enough sense to be, and I sure as hell didn’t blame anybody that was.
While most of the others in the boat stayed huddled down behind the gunwales in case the Nips opened up on us, I kept my eyes on the island, watching it get closer and closer. Maybe I wanted to seem more confident than I really was to help encourage the rest of the men, especially the young ones in my squad.
I call them men—and they got to be men in a hurry if they lived long enough—but most of them were really still just boys that day. I was almost twenty-three, and that was four or five years older than most of the kids in my squad. I’d been promoted to corporal a few months ago and appointed a squad leader a little later on. So I felt like it was part of my job to, you know, set a good example and try to reassure these younger guys.
Spread out around us were a half-dozen other Higgins boats, carrying the 300-plus first-wave troops of the First and Third Battalions of the Fifth Marine Regiment. The guys in my boat were all from K Company, Third Battalion, Fifth—better known as K/3/5. We were assigned to anchor the left flank of our line once we got ashore.
Following in our wake were boats carrying another 300 or more men from two battalions of the First Marine Regiment. This meant that, in all, the whole first wave of Marine assault troops assigned to land on Guadalcanal’s Beach Red was only 600 or 700 guys. This didn’t seem like very many, considering this was America’s first offensive ground action of World War II in the Pacific.
Of course, this first wave was only a small part of our full invasion force. Within the next couple of hours, all 5,000 men in the three waves of the First and Third Battalions, Fifth Marines, and First, Second, and Third Battalions, First Marines, would be ashore.
Our division commander, General Alexander A. Vandegrift, figured at least 5,000 Japs were waiting for us on shore. That may sound like a fairly even matchup, but it really wasn’t. We could expect the Jap defenders to be well dug in while we’d be out in the open, if you see what I mean.
(I should stop right now and explain something to you. Any time I say “First Marines” or “Fifth Marines” or “Seventh Marines” and so forth, I’m talking about regiments. In this case, infantry regiments with about 3,000 riflemen apiece. If I’m talking about a Marine Corps division, I always use the full name, like “First Marine Division.” It’s kind of confusing, and I want to clear it up now so you don’t get the First Marines, a regiment, mixed up with the First Marine Division.)
THE FIRST ASSIGNMENT for us in the First and Third Battalions, Fifth Marines—known as Combat Group A—was to secure a beachhead 2,000 yards long and 600 yards deep along the north coast of Guadalcanal.
When we finished landing, all three battalions of the First Marines—Combat Group B—would pass through the Fifth Marines’ position and advance a couple of miles west toward a piece of high ground called the Grassy Knoll. Then they were to set up three separate circular defensive perimeters on either side of the Tenaru River and on the east bank of another stream called Alligator Creek.
If we were lucky, this was all supposed to happen on the first day. If we weren’t lucky, nobody knew what would happen. Even at best, our defenses would be widely scattered and thinly stretched.
Meanwhile, other elements of the division had already landed earlier that morning on the small island of Tulagi about twenty miles north of Guadalcanal. The Second Battalion, Fifth, and the First Marine Raider Battalion ran into a major firefight on Tulagi right away. About 120 Marines were killed or wounded there before the island was secured, and about 350 Jap defenders were killed. Only three Japs lived to surrender.
Other Marines were hitting the twin islands of Gavutu and Tanambogo and the larger island of Florida just across Sealark Channel from Beach Red. As it turned out, there weren’t any Jap defenders at all on Florida, but there were plenty to go around on the other islands. The First Marine Parachute Battalion landed from boats on Gavutu and got in one helluva scrap. One in five of their guys were being killed or wounded in the battle that morning, but at the same time the Japs were losing 516 killed on the two islands.
It was a good thing for us on Guadalcanal that we didn’t hear any of these casualty figures until later on. If we’d known what was happening on those other islands, we’d have really been spooked.
The total strength of all First Marine Division units in the Guadalcanal amphibious operation was 956 officers and 18,146 enlisted men. But at least half of them were rear-echelon support and supply troops. Most of the front-line combat troops were in infantry companies like K/3/5.
Backing up our landings was a huge convoy of Navy ships. They called it Task Force 62, and it included seventy-five ships in all—transports, destroyers, and cruisers—and it was protected by four U.S. carriers with full complements of combat aircraft.
Since dawn, the cruisers and destroyers had been pounding the shores of the target islands with their heavy guns. I’d heard them blasting away when I went above decks just as the sun was coming up.
Flocks of carrier-based F4F Wildcat fighters and Douglas Dauntless dive-bombers also made bombing runs over the beaches and adjacent jungle to “soften up” the Jap defenses. Unfortunately, though, there weren’t any Jap defenses there. I doubt if all that wasted firepower killed or wounded—or even scared—a single enemy soldier. But none of us knew that going in.
BASED ON WHAT we’d been told, we expected to come under heavy fire from Jap mortars, machine guns, and artillery at any second. But instead it was totally quiet. Unnaturally quiet. Quiet as a tomb, you might say.
We were only a few hundred yards from shore now, and some of my platoon mates were staring toward the approaching beach with grim expressions and glassy eyes. Others were bowing their heads and moving their lips in silent prayer.
For a second, I had a mental picture of my mother and sister, and I remembered the last letters I’d gotten from them. I figured other guys were thinking about their families, too, and wondering if they’d ever see them again. It made me glad I didn’t have a wife and kids back home, or even a steady girlfriend, to grieve for me if anything happened.
On either side of the bow of the boat, a pair of Marines with Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs) manned two forward gun ports, but they had nothing to shoot at. Not yet, anyway.
I shifted my eyes from the island to glance at PFC William Murray, a pint-sized kid of eighteen who served as a scout in my platoon. He was crouching next to me and fidgeting with one of the two hand grenades that each rifleman had hooked to his belt. Then, just as I turned toward him, I saw a look of total terror flash across his face.
“My God!” he blurted. “I think I dislodged the pin.”
Without even thinking, I lunged forward in time to grab the grenade and push the pin back into place.
“What the hell you trying to do?” I said. “You want to blow up the whole damn boat?” If the grenade had gone off, it would’ve done exactly that. I didn’t know it at the time, but accidents with dislodged grenade pins would kill and maim a lot of Marines before the war was over.
Murray was white-faced and shaking, even after I secured the grenade. “I don’t want this thing on my belt anymore,” he said. “I’m scared of it. I’m gonna throw it over the side.”
“No, you’re not,” I told him. “Hand it to me. I’ll give you one of mine to replace it.”
“Just calm down and give it here,” I said. “It’ll be okay. That one grenade might save your life this morning.”
After Murray and I swapped grenades, everything got deathly silent again. The only sound you could hear was the sea gently lapping at the sides of the boat and the low rumble of its engine. It was as if every guy there was expecting all hell to break loose any second. It was more than Sergeant Norman “Dutch” Schantunbach, one of K/3/5’s squad leaders, could take.
“Knock it off, you guys!” he said. “You ain’t dead yet, for Chrissake, so look lively! Let’s make some noise. Let’s sing a song.”
“I don’t know no songs,” somebody mumbled.
“Well, hell, I do,” said Schantunbach, one of the company’s most dedicated beer drinkers. “How about ‘Roll Out the Barrel’?”
A Marine next to Schantunbach shrugged. “Okay, hit it,” he said.
Seconds later, a couple of dozen off-key male voices echoed across the water: I almost laughed. It sounded bad enough to scare off any Jap within five miles.
Roll out the barrel,We’ll have a barrel of fun!Roll out the barrel,We’ve got the blues on the run!
AT EXACTLY 9:06 AM, without further incident or a single shot being fired in our direction, our Higgins boat bumped against the beach, and we started scrambling over the gunwales and jumping to the ground. Later on, our landing craft would have ramps in front that dropped down so you could run straight onto the beach, but at Guadalcanal, we did it the hard way. The wet way.
Besides those two grenades everybody carried, each of us waded ashore with just one “unit of fire” for our bolt-action 1903 Springfield rifles. It had been six years since the new semiautomatic Garand M-1s were introduced, but hardly any outfits in the Pacific had the M-1s yet. Our government in Washington had decided to send all the best weapons and equipment to the European Theater of Operations first. That’s how we ended up fighting with obsolete forty-year-old stuff in the Pacific. We’d even been using those British-style World War I helmets until they issued us some new replacements a few weeks before we headed for Guadalcanal.
By the way, in typical combat conditions, that “unit of fire” I was talking about equals just one average day’s worth of ammunition. In other words, it ain’t much.
So you tried not to wonder what would happen if a bunch of Japs came charging out of the jungle and we got in a firefight that lasted half a day. Only it wouldn’t. It couldn’t. With what little firepower we had, we’d be lucky if it lasted half an hour.
If we’d run into any hornet’s nests like the ones on Gavutu and Tulagi, we’d have been out of ammo, out of luck, and maybe out of blood, too.
We didn’t even have any food. I went ashore without a pack or rations of any kind, and most of the guys in my platoon were in the same shape. Besides my rifle, I had a canteen with a quart of water in it, the two grenades on my belt, my bayonet, and that one unit of fire.
I didn’t even have a trenching tool to dig with. All I had was a pair of wire cutters that some joker thought we’d need to cut barbed wire. Of course, there wasn’t any barbed wire, but there was an awful lot of dirt to dig.
The Navy was supposed to be sending the rest of our supplies in by boat. That’s all we knew. When and where was anybody’s guess. So was how we were going to retrieve them once they got there.
“Get off the beach and into the trees as quick as you can!” yelled Lieutenant Arthur “Scoop” Adams, our platoon leader. “Dig in, form a skirmish line, and hold your ground against whatever comes!”
Oh sure! I thought. Fat chance! But I took a firm grip on my ’03 Springfield, waved my squad forward, and ran for the trees like I was told. So did everybody else. That’s what Marines do.
It was August 7, 1942—eight months to the day since the Japs had pulled their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and crippled our Pacific Fleet. That “stab in the back,” as the newspapers called it, made the American people madder than hell. They were aching to strike back, but I think it also made them feel more scared and helpless than anything that had ever happened before.
Back in April, we’d started making the Nip bastards pay for what they’d done when our Army pilots gave them a wake-up call by bombing Tokyo. Then, in June, our Navy and Marine fliers had kicked their butts and sunk their carriers in the Battle of Midway.
Now we were finally ready to get after the Japs on the ground—if we could find the so-and-sos. By landing on Guadalcanal, the First Marine Division was carrying out the first amphibious assault by U.S. forces since the Spanish-American War. But so far, this invasion was no big deal. Hell, a Girl Scout troop could’ve made the landing we’d just made!
If there were any Japanese soldiers on the island, they were totally silent—and invisible.
The beach where we landed was very narrow. A fringe of coconut palms started maybe fifteen or twenty yards from the water’s edge, and within another ten yards or so, we were facing a wall of brushy jungle undergrowth.
Our first objective was a low ridge that rose up about a hundred yards inland. We had to hack our way to it through the bushes, but once we got there, it gave us a natural line of defense with a good view of the beach.
We started digging foxholes as fast as we could while some of the guys took cover in the trees and brush and kept their eyes on the jungle and their rifles at the ready. Other guys hacked at the under-growth with bayonets and machetes, but it took a lot of hacking to make even a small dent in the stuff. I borrowed a shovel from one of the guys keeping watch. We saw nothing, and the only sounds we heard were our own grunts and heavy breathing from all that digging.
We knew from our maps that Guadalcanal was a pretty damn big island—roughly ninety miles long from east to west and thirty miles wide from north to south. It lies near the southwest end of the Solomon Islands chain, and it had been a British possession until the Japs decided to invade it in the spring of 1942. As it turned out, that was one of the worst mistakes they made in the war. But when we decided to go in and take it back, that came awful close to being just as big a mistake.
According to our intelligence, which wasn’t exactly famous for its accuracy, the only fortified or inhabited areas of Guadalcanal were along a strip of the north-central coastline. That was where the unfinished Jap airfield that was our first main objective was located.
There were some small native settlements scattered over the rest of the island, but it was mostly an uninhabited wilderness of impenetrable jungles and rugged mountains. As far as we knew, the nearest enemy troops could be anywhere on it. They might be a two-day hike away, or they might be hiding just a few yards into the undergrowth. It didn’t make you feel very secure to think about it.
We paused now and then to look at each other, shake our heads, and ask a question that none of us could answer:
“Where the hell are the Japs?”
WE DIDN’T GET a bite to eat that first day on Guadalcanal. That was the bad news. If the Japs had been close enough, they could’ve heard guys’ stomachs growling like banshees up and down the line. By late afternoon, we were even running low on water because of the heat.
We’d been served the traditional “warrior’s meal” of steak and eggs for breakfast that morning aboard ship. But that had been the middle of the night—about 2 AM—and by sundown that evening it was nothing but a distant memory.
The only casualty in the Fifth Marines that day was when some hungry private tried to stab a hole in a coconut with his bayonet to get at the meat and milk inside and cut his hand.
I guess that was the good news.
There was a really bad shortage of food on Guadalcanal, and for reasons I’ll explain later, it lasted long after that first day. We didn’t know it then, but K/3/5 would be fighting on Guadalcanal for over four months, and we stayed hungry most of the time.
A well-known author named Eric Hammel wrote a book about the Guadalcanal campaign more than forty years after the battle. He called it Guadalcanal: Starvation Island. As far as I’m concerned, he hit the nail right on the head.
Except for millions of coconuts on thousands of coconut trees, the only edible things I ever saw growing on the island were some stunted pineapples and a tree full of limes. Once in a while I saw a Marine with a stalk of bananas, but I never knew where they came from, and I never actually saw any bananas growing on trees.
We never got lunch the whole time we were there, and our breakfasts were mostly black coffee and nothing else. Our only real meal was at night, and we wouldn’t have had that during those first few weeks if we hadn’t found several tons of rice the Japs had stored near the airfield and left behind.
About 12:30 PM that first day—right in the middle of our “lunchless hour”—we saw our first Jap air raid. Their planes flew right over our positions. There were thirty or forty of them, and they were less than a hundred feet off the ground. But they didn’t even slow down or take a second look at us. They were after our ships out in the Sealark Channel.
We stopped digging in long enough to watch the fireworks. We’d been trained to hit the deck when enemy planes showed up, but I could see hundreds of Marines up and down the beach just standing there gawking at the planes like they were watching a damn ball game. You’d have thought they were in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium, for Pete’s sake. If any of those Jap Zeros had decided to make a few strafing runs along the shoreline, it could’ve been one helluva slaughter.
Fortunately, the Nip pilots ignored us completely. They didn’t even do much damage to our ships in that first raid. Not a single one of our ships was sunk in that raid, and only one destroyer was damaged. But, of course, from our vantage point we couldn’t see anything that was going on in the channel. All we saw was the Jap planes flying over.
The biggest problem for us, though, wouldn’t come clear until later. It was that the raid kept a lot of our supplies from getting ashore where we could get to them. Many of the supply ships quit unloading and got under way. They didn’t want to be stationary targets for the Jap bombers, and this interrupted the whole process.
There were tons of stuff already piled up along the beach, but we didn’t know where it was or what it was or which part was ours. Even if we had, we didn’t have enough manpower to go out and haul it in—not when we needed to work on our defenses at the same time.
That night, I talked with Lieutenant Adams and a few of the other NCOs about what we were going to do the next day. We still didn’t have any chow, so we exercised our jaws by talking.
“Where do we go from here?” I asked the lieutenant. “Are we just gonna sit tight and wait for the Nips to come at us or what?”
He shrugged. “Just set up your line and make sure it’s solid for tonight. Then we’ll talk again in the morning. Captain Patterson’s probably waiting to hear from battalion, and battalion’s waiting to hear from Colonel Hunt at regiment. Nobody expected the Japs to pull a disappearing act like this. We’ll probably send out some patrols tomorrow, but my guess is we won’t do much till after the First Marines take the airfield.”
The division’s first major objective was to grab the airfield that the Japs had been building—but hadn’t had time to finish—near the north coast of Guadalcanal. We didn’t know it at the time, but that always turned out to be the First Marine Division’s first objective on every Jap-held island we hit.
Those Jap airfields worried General “Dugout Doug” MacArthur a lot. He couldn’t rest easy at his fancy headquarters in Australia until we converted them to American airfields.
“So should I plan on taking a patrol out tomorrow?” I asked.
“Just sit tight, Mac, and tell your guys to stay on their toes,” the lieutenant said. “If I hear anything, I’ll let you know.”
I want to make it clear right now that Lieutenant Adams was a terrific officer and an all-around good guy. He wasn’t the kind of officer to hide out in a command post forty or fifty yards to the rear. He stayed right up there on the front line with the rest of us and even did some of the digging.
He’d picked up that “Scoop” nickname—which became his code name, too—because he’d studied journalism in college and wanted to be a newspaper reporter. There was a good reason that all our officers had code names. If the troops had called them by their rank or used the word “sir” in conversation during combat, it would’ve been like pasting a big bull’s-eye on their backs if the Japs overheard.
Anyway, I’ve never known an officer who was closer to his men than Lieutenant Adams. He was from a small town named Beacon in upstate New York, and he wasn’t a big guy. Only about five-ten and 165 pounds. But there was something athletic about the way he moved, and he was always on the alert. When he walked, he had a habit of glancing over his shoulder to see what was behind him. There was no way in hell you were going to sneak up on him.
I’d admired him ever since I first met him back at New River in North Carolina. Even after he chewed me out good—and rightfully so—for coming back early from a patrol, I still admired him. And I’m not exaggerating when I say I would’ve followed him anywhere.
So when he told me just to sit tight, I took him at his word.
I GUESS WE SHOULD’VE been thankful the Japs stayed out of our way for a while. If they’d attacked in force that first night, we’d have been in a real pickle with that one precious unit of fire.
K/3/5 and the rest of the Third Battalion, Fifth Marines were strung out along the beach with our backs to Sealark Channel. Our lines ran east to west for about 1,000 yards, then south through a coconut grove and some rugged woods for another 100 yards or so. Then they followed an open ridge that went on farther east. The division headquarters was about 800 yards west of the west end of our line and about 500 yards inland from the sea.
To our right, on the east side of the airfield, we had the First Marines dug in along the Lunga River. There was no way we could fill the long gap between our lines and the perimeters where the First had their three battalions drawn up in circle-the-wagons style, like in the Old West.
I’d estimate it was four or five miles from where our lines ended to where the First’s perimeters were set up, and we didn’t have nearly enough troops to cover that much distance. When our ships took off that first day to get away from the Jap planes, it didn’t help that they took a bunch of Marines with them who were badly needed ashore. We didn’t have enough troops to man our defenses adequately, much less pitch in and try to unload and distribute supplies.
From where I sat, that left us uncomfortably close to being up shit creek without a paddle.
I SHARED A FOXHOLE that night with PFC Bill Landrum, an assistant squad leader from Tallahassee, Florida. He was a good Marine who’d been in the Corps a little longer than I had. But even under normal circumstances, he was a quiet guy who never seemed to have much to say. That night, he was quieter than usual.
I was, too. I guess both of us were thinking about people and things that were far, far away. I told him I’d take the first watch and for him to try to get some sleep. Pretty soon, he was snoring, and I was alone, staring into the darkness in front of me.
The longer I stared, the more I started seeing things. Phantom things that weren’t really there. And I could tell that other guys up and down the line were doing the same thing.
Now and then, I’d hear some trigger-happy Marine fire a round or two from his ’03 at something he thought he saw moving in the brush, and when one guy opened up, others around him tended to follow suit. This wasn’t very wise use of our limited ammo supply, but the jitters that caused it were understandable. Several times, I barely kept myself from joining in, but I managed to hold my fire.
My mind was pretty much blank for a while. Then I started thinking about my mother and sister back home in Brooklyn. I could never forget how tough a life my mom had led when I was a kid. In a way, it had been as tough as the lives of any of the Marines around me.
Ever since I’d joined the Corps, I’d been sending almost half of my monthly paycheck home to Mom. It had cramped me a little to do it, especially when I was still stateside and getting weekend liberties. But since shipping out for the Pacific in May of ’42, I hadn’t had much need for money—not nearly as much as Mom and my sister, Lillian. (Actually, my mother’s name was Lillian, too, but to me she was always just Mom.)
For as long as I can remember, my mother always had to struggle financially. She worked long hours and cut every corner she could, but it seemed like there was never enough money to go around. That was one of the things that started me thinking about joining the service.
I’d thought about it for several years, and when I was sixteen, I asked Mom to let me join the Navy. At the time, she said “nothing doing” and refused to sign the papers. But four years later, she agreed to sign for me if I was still determined to enlist. By then, I guess she knew it was only a few weeks till my twenty-first birthday, anyway. Then I’d be old enough to enlist without her permission. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it, but I probably would have joined anyway.
That first night on Guadalcanal was one of those times when you start mulling over stuff like that and piecing parts of your past together. Then the next thing you know, you’re asking yourself how you ended up in such a dangerous, uncomfortable, foodless hellhole in the first place.
After a while, my thoughts drifted to Charlie Smith, my best friend as a kid back in Brooklyn. Charlie and I had joined the Marines together on the same day, and I started wondering where he might be right now. We wanted to stay together in the same outfit, but we’d gotten separated after boot camp, and Charlie had moved around a lot since then.
The last I’d heard, he was somewhere in the South Pacific with the Second Marines. By now, I thought he might’ve been on American Samoa. A bunch of Marines had been sent there because the brass thought it might be the Japs’ next target.
The actual truth, though, was that Charlie was on one of those islands just across Sealark Channel from where I was sitting on Guadalcanal at that very moment. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time.
When we were in our teens, Charlie and I talked for months about joining the Army. Finally, after Mom gave in and agreed to sign for me, we got up enough nerve to take a bus and then a train to the recruiting station on Broadway in downtown Manhattan. I never knew why, but the Army recruiting office was closed that day. So we went up to the Navy Building at 90 Church Street, where a middle-aged Marine sergeant in dress blues talked us into joining the Corps.
Looking back on it, it must’ve been fate.
The recruiting posters never showed any Marines in sweaty green dungarees with mud up to their ears. They were always dressed to the nines in those snazzy dress blues. Charlie and I could picture ourselves strutting down Broadway in those knocked-out uniforms. That convinced us on the spot that we wanted to be Marines.
When we walked out of the recruiting depot, a bunch of young guys started yelling at us from across the street. I guess they could tell what we’d just done by the looks on our faces.
“You’ll be sorr-eee!” they said. “You’ll be sorr-eee!”
I had plenty of reasons to remember that on my first night at Guadalcanal.
I didn’t have the foggiest idea what was going to happen next. None of us did. By this time tomorrow, we might all be dead. Or we might still be in this same exact spot, wishing for more water and ammo and something to eat.
All I knew for sure was that I was squatting in a foxhole listening to Bill Landrum snore. I’d never had enough money to buy myself a set of dress blues, and I doubted if I ever would. Unless they were bayonet-proof and bulletproof, they wouldn’t have done me much good where I was right now. I’d have traded them in a minute for some C rations and another unit of fire.
I squeezed my ’03 Springfield with both hands and went on staring into the darkness. And like a lot of other guys around me were probably doing at that exact moment, I kept hearing the same stupid question repeating itself in my head like a stuck record:
Okay, so how the hell DID I end up in this godforsaken place, anyway?
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Meet the Author
Jim McEnery, born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, enlisted in the Marines in 1940 and fought in three major campaigns in the Pacific. Ninety-two, he now lives in Ocala, Florida.
Bill Sloan is the acclaimed author of more than a dozen books, including Brotherhood of Heroes and The Ultimate Battle. He lives in Dallas, Texas.
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