4 Guadalcanal

When we reached Guadalcanal we were assigned as reserve to the First Division and set up as beach defense at Lunga Point. Our position was in a large prewar coconut plantation. We still were without supplies so lived off the coconuts. We had ripe coconuts as the main meal, coconut bread (the congealed milk in old coconuts) for dessert, and drank coconut milk in lieu of water which we also did not have. We were shelled frequently by naval gunfire, but this provided us a bonus by knocking trees down so we could get at the palm cabbage. This is located in the heart of the palm fronds and is called millionaire's salad, as to cut it out destroys the tree. Of course the Japanese had already destroyed the tree so we could eat it with a clear conscience. We spent two weeks here and during that time not a thing passed my lips that had not come from a coconut tree. Miraculously, our digestive systems adapted at least partially to this fare.

We were then moved to a position deep in the jungle. Guadalcanal is a large island, ninety miles long and twenty-five miles wide. The Marines occupied only a small portion of this, having established a perimeter running from the beach, encircling Henderson Field (the airport), and then back to the beach in sort of a horseshoe-shaped formation perhaps five miles long and two miles deep.

The part of the sector assigned us was that which was located the farthest inland. One major drawback to this was the fact it was all dense jungle, no coconuts!

We dug our foxholes, but the first big chore was to clear a field of fire since visibility was only a few feet in the jungle. Our platoon was assigned an area running from the top of a small ridge, then most of the way across a little valley. Our only equipment consisted of small entrenching tools and bayonets. The first Marines to reach the Canal had requested machetes, but these were not in the Marine Corps' supply inventory. Somewhere in the States had been located a number of old cavalry sabers. These antiques had somehow found their way across the Pacific, and a few of them managed to make it all the way to us along with the infrequent supplies received. While the cavalry sabers were much appreciated, we would rather have been given the cavalry horse--we could have eaten that! As it was, about the only food we had was what we could capture from the Japanese, and that was pitifully insufficient.

We chopped away on the vegetation to clear our field of fire. It was very hot and tiring work, which brings me to Jake. I have forgotten his last name, but he was from Wisconsin and was the platoon's self-appointed comic. When morale was low, Jake felt it was his obligation to raise it. To see Jake would help you believe in the theory of evolution. He was shorter than average, with a large chest. His entire body was almost covered by thick hair. As none of us had a shave or haircut in about two months, you could only see his nose and his eyes. We were working on the side of the small ridge and had the undergrowth cleared away. Trees too large for a bayonet or saber were left standing, of course. Some of these trees were very large and jungle vines were attached to branches high in the air. We had cut these vines off near the ground and now they were just left hanging. One of the fellows got one of these vines which was as large as a rope, and swung out over the valley and back. This looked like fun and probably all of us tried a swing or two.

Figure 23. These Marines are on patrol crossing the Lunga River. Fortunately, most rivers were rather shallow, but with our feet constantly exposed to water from the ocean, rivers and seemingly constant tropical rain, our feet were very abused and suffered accordingly (Marine Corps Photo 3-11).

This was not enough for Jake and he saw a possibility to raise morale. Clutching a vine in one hand he beat upon his chest and made loud noises. It was easy to imagine you were in Africa watching one of the great apes. When he felt he had everyone's attention, Jake swung out over the valley still beating his chest. At the apogee of his swing he reached out and took another vine, transferring to it in the best Tarzan style, and commenced swinging in a second arc. In typical Jake fashion, he had not planned beyond this. Directly in his path was a large tree, probably fifty feet tall. I don't know the name of the tree, but it was completely covered with thorns. Small branches were like a rose bush, with larger thorns on larger limbs, culminating with two-inch spikes on the trunk. Jake crashed right through the smaller limbs and impaled himself on the trunk over half way up. While his Tarzan act received only minor interest, he now had everyone's undivided attention and shouts of encouragement as we watched a rather subdued and bloody Jake try to climb down the tree.

This is probably a good place to mention a couple of other episodes involving Jake. Although covering our sector of the front lines was the primary assignment, we were continually going on patrols behind the Japanese lines or making drives against the Japanese in some other sector. On one such drive we had been moving through the jungle all day during continuous heavy rain. We reached a large river and were preparing to dig in for a most uncomfortable night lying in a foxhole full of water. Morale was as low as it could get; time for Jake to do something. Standing on top of the muddy bank, Jake was probably ten feet above the water. He started hollering and waving his arms around as if losing his balance, then as soon as he saw he had his audience, Jake fell into the river. This was so obviously contrived no one thought it even mildly funny. As we were all soaked to the bone, Jake could not get any wetter anyway. He swam back to the bank and started climbing up the steep, muddy slope. About halfway up he slipped and skidded right back into the river. This was getting a little better now. As Jake got back to the bank we noticed a crocodile that had been awakened by all the noise. The crocodile started swimming toward Jake to investigate the source of all the commotion.

We happily pointed out this new development to Jake. Jake, quite concerned over this turn of events, scrambled up the bank. As he neared the top he slipped again and down he shot. This was really getting good now and everyone was gathering on top of the bank. The crocodile was coming in fast and a wild-eyed Jake was really motivated. Up the bank he came looking over his shoulder to see the crocodile also reach the bank just beneath him. A slip now would deliver Jake right into the crocodile's open mouth. One of the men calmly took his rifle by the muzzle and extended the butt toward Jake who grabbed it and was safely pulled up. Jake was strangely quiet for awhile after that.

On another occasion we were on a patrol behind the Japanese lines. We did this about twice a week, normally taking a day to infiltrate the Japanese lines and go up onto the high mountain range that runs the length of Guadalcanal like a backbone. We would spend a day there trying to spot Japanese artillery and then a third day going back through the Japanese lines, which fortunately were rather loose, then infiltrating our lines which was the scariest part of the three-day patrol as anything moving in front of our lines was always considered enemy. We took turns being the first to contact our lines so this dangerous job would be passed around. On one patrol we were walking single file on a trail near the top of the mountains about five miles out from our lines, keeping about twenty-five feet apart. Now, try to visualize Jake, who happened to be in the lead at the time. His helmet was dented, rusted, and well back on his head. All the buttons had rusted off his jacket, which hung open like a vest. The sleeves were quite tattered from his experience with the thorn tree, plus it seemed much of the jungle vegetation had thorns which tore at our bodies and clothing. The buckle had rusted off his belt, and his pants were barely held up. Actually, all of us fit this description but it was more startling on Jake with his hairy features. Rounding a curve in the trail, Jake suddenly came face to face with a Japanese soldier walking in our direction. Both men threw their rifles to their shoulders in order to fire. We always carried our rifles loaded, cocked, and with the safety on. Jake's safety had rusted tight in this position. He started making animal-like sounds and beating on the rear of the bolt with his right hand trying to free the safety. The first three or four of us behind Jake had our rifles up but were afraid to fire as Jake was directly in front of the Japanese soldier and blocked our line of fire. The Japanese soldier saw this apparition bellowing and pounding on his rifle and dropped his own rifle in disbelief and ran off the trail, going over a small drop off perhaps fifteen feet high and disappearing in the jungle. We could hear him thrashing around for a few minutes, with the sounds fading out. The whole incident had only taken a few seconds. I would have given anything to have heard that soldier describing this event to his buddies when he got back. Every platoon needed a man like Jake.

We finally began getting supplies as a few of our ships started coming through. One day a few PX supplies reached us. These were extremely limited, but we divided them so each man could get one item. These were numbered and we drew lots. I got a tube of toothpaste. I searched for a man who had gotten a toothbrush and we shared. How great it felt to brush my teeth after all those weeks!

Jim McCrory and I had become best friends by this time. One day when he had a bit of free time he had gone to Henderson Field and traded some souvenirs to a pilot for a pound can of hard candy. The pilots were always desperate for souvenirs as they had no way of obtaining them. Because of their aircraft, however, they did have frequent contact with our rear echelon bases located in the New Hebrides. Consequently they were able to get supplies the rest of us couldn't. Being as we were buddies, Jim shared this precious treasure of hard candy with me. When the can was down to where just barely the bottom was covered, another Marine happened by and saw it. He looked at it longingly and asked Jim if he would sell it to him. Jim replied, "No." The other Marine said, "I'll give you a hundred dollars for it." Remember, this was at a time when our pay had just increased to fifty dollars a month. Jim replied in disbelief, "Do you think I'm crazy?" This is how erratic one's thinking can become after starving for months.

About this time we received shelter halves. Priorities seemed a little strange at times, as food was still in short supply, but the thought of sleeping in a shelter half did seem very pleasant. A shelter half is a piece of waterproof canvas, a folding pole, and a couple of pegs. Two shelter halves could be buttoned together to form a small, two-man tent just big enough to crawl into. It was closed at one end and a couple of inches longer than your body when you laid down. It might not sound like much, but after sleeping exposed to the elements for weeks, it seemed luxurious to us.

Jim and I put ours together and erected it. It looked wonderful and I could hardly wait for night so I could try it out. I wandered over to visit another couple of fellows putting theirs together when we suddenly were attacked by mortar fire. I hit the deck, but the attack did not amount to much--only two or three rounds fired. I returned to my shelter half to find one of the shells had made a direct hit. There was nothing but a few fragments of canvas to be found. Luckily, Jim was not in it and he was okay.

Two or three weeks later I would receive another shelter half. By this time we had been moved to a different location near the airport. This was a terrible spot as we averaged over three air raids a day, plus nuisance raids at night where a single plane would drone around for hours, occasionally dropping a bomb or flare, just so we could not sleep. Although the airport was the target in all of these raids, many of the bombs would hit our bivouac area. Within an hour of erecting my second shelter half we had a bombing that left my little tent blown to bits, with pieces hanging from trees high overhead. The next day I got my third shelter half. I actually got to go to bed in this one, but a couple of hours later we had a nuisance raid again so it was back into my foxhole. The plane dropped a flare, which was a common occurrence. Normally, a parachute would allow the flare to float down gradually and thus provide illumination for a long period. This time, however, the magnesium flare tangled in the parachute, burned through the shrouds, and fell straight down. You guessed it. It hit my shelter half dead center and continued to burn itself out until all that remained of my little tent was a charred fringe. I never got another shelter half on Guadalcanal.

But enough of shelter halves. Back to our position on the front. On one occasion we were pulled off the lines to make a push north along the coast. It rained all day and progress was slow. Much of the time we actually had to cut our way through the jungle, taking turns whacking at the undergrowth as that was very tiring work in our starved condition. We would climb steep ridges, using vines to haul ourselves up, frequently slipping in the slick mud and losing precious steps.

Almost everyone had malaria. It would turn out that I was the only one in the battalion who would not get it. Dysentery was considered a normal aspect of life. Food was still very scarce and some of our forays were just to capture rice from the Japanese supplies. Everyone's health was bad and we were all extremely weak. Often men would drop by the side too exhausted to move. Standard practice in that situation was to remove the bolt from his rifle so it would prove useless if a Japanese captured it. He would then be left lying there. Hopefully, the man could catch up later and get the bolt back. As we were following a small stream through thick jungle into the hills, we were ambushed. The Japanese opened fire with rifles and machine guns and threw grenades at us. One grenade landed near several of us and the closest Marine threw his body on it as it went off. That was what we had been instructed to do in boot camp, as this could save the others near you. When we fought off the ambush, this man was still alive so he was told to go back to the lines to find medical aid as we had no corpsman with us at the time. The fellow got up and, holding his insides in with both hands, started back on about a five-mile trek through rugged terrain. We heard he made it back to the front and was going to be evacuated. I never did hear anymore about him. Sometimes men did receive medals for performing an act like this. Usually they were awarded posthumously.

We stopped for the night and I dug my foxhole, which filled with rainwater as soon as I finished. That was one of the most wretched nights of my life, lying submerged in water in a continuous downpour, using my helmet liner under my head to keep my face above water so I could breathe, and my helmet itself over my face to keep the water off. I told myself at that time that if I survived the war, and ever had occasion to feel sorry for myself, I would remember that night and realize just how lucky I presently was. Later in life there were a few instances when I thought things were going badly, but I always recalled the miserable night on Guadalcanal, which immediately put things in their proper perspective. I guess it proves that out of adversity comes good.

On the second day of the drive a machine gun squad attached to our platoon was hit. The gunner was killed and the assistant gunner was seriously wounded, leaving only the squad leader, Jack Smith, of Lockport, Louisiana, and three ammunition carriers. I was temporarily assigned to assist. The caliber .30 Browning air-cooled machine gun and tripod were normally carried by a gunner and his assistant. I was made an ammunition carrier and had to carry a rather heavy box of ammo in each hand, along with my rifle and all my other gear. When we stopped for the night we set up the gun on a ridge with a good field of fire. I would pull a watch like the others, so I told Jack I had never had any instruction on firing a machine gun. He showed me how to load, aim, the proper length of bursts, and how to clear a jam. I never listened more attentively to anyone in my life, and all of these years later I still believe I could almost quote him verbatim. Jack made quite an impression on me. I had never met him before this time, but many years since we have become good friends and e-mail each other regularly.

From our position we had a good view down to a lower ridge about half a mile away. Below us and off to the right we could see one of our companies setting up for the night. While some of them dug in, a patrol went out forward to reconnoiter. From our vantage point the patrol showed clearly as they went forward and made a circle toward the left to reenter the lines two or three hundred yards from the place where they had left. I realized the unit they were now approaching had not seen them as they went forward as a small knoll would have blocked their view. I knew what was going to happen, but could do nothing about it. Sure enough, as they came into view the second group opened fire. Several men fell before they could be identified. Unfortunately, in war mistakes like this were not uncommon.

After we returned to our lines, my career as a machine gunner was over and I reverted to my usual assignment. Every man in the squad had a certain position and I was made scout. This really didn't amount to much of anything as a scout was really just another rifleman. In our static position on the lines, however, and the frequent patrols we made behind enemy lines, scouting began to become a necessary function. A platoon had four squads of ten men. As I happened to be in the first squad that automatically made me the first scout. Ours happened to be the first platoon of K Company. That meant when we were on the move in conditions that required a scout, such as reduced visibility when traveling in the jungle, I would usually be point man in front of the entire Company.

My ultimate experience in this capacity occurred during the third battle of the Matanikau, commencing October 8th. Our battalion was selected to lead the Seventh Marine Regiment. K Company was to lead the battalion. Good old you-know-who would probably be the first in a column of about four thousand men.

It was back up north again, holding well inland from the coast. We crossed several ridges en route. Typically the ridges were barren while the valleys between were jungle. We stopped the first night on a ridge almost as far north as we would go, as on the next day we would swing right to Point Cruz and the coast. I dug in on a ridge and shortly thereafter an artillery spotter moved in beside me. He had a radio and was talking with his unit almost seven miles behind us. I heard him call for a strike at zero-two, and asked him what that meant. He answered that the artillery knew his exact position. Zero meant they should line up on him, and two meant they should impact two hundred yards in front. In came the strike with shells screaming just barely overhead. The ground buckled and jumped as they impacted. I shrank low in my foxhole.

He then picked up his microphone and called, "Zero-one." I didn't have to ask what that meant. He had more confidence in his people than I did and I just wished I had dug my hole deeper.

We pushed off early in the morning. The first portion was down an open hill toward the coast. As I started down a barren hillside, a machine gun started firing at me. I dropped to the ground, lying mostly on my back, and since the hill was very steep I could stay almost flat and propel myself rapidly downward toward the cover of the jungle below. The Japanese gunner followed me right down the hill and I could see his tracers going by not more than eighteen inches over my head the entire distance. I couldn't figure out why he didn't lower his muzzle a fraction. It was just as if he couldn't traverse the gun down any farther, yet he was able to follow me down that steep hill. Whatever the reason, his poor performance sure had no complaints from me.

Figure 24. Len and much of K Company take a break during a push behind enemy lines. This photograph was published in the February 20, 1943, edition of the Saturday Evening Post.

I entered the jungle and moved forward. Two scouts were just behind and on either side of me, then a connecting file of about six men followed them at wide intervals, just keeping each other in sight. Behind them was the main body of the Company. This was always the way we traveled so as to offer maximum protection to the main body. About a mile from the coast everything broke loose just behind me. I had unknowingly gone right through the Japanese lines!

In the thick jungle, the Japanese had permitted us three scouts and the connecting file to pass, thinking they could always deal with us later. The best target, of course, was the main body of troops so they had waited for them. We knew immediately what had happened, and also knew our best course of action was to continue forward as not only were we surrounded by enemy troops, but all of our own people were firing in our direction also. We reached the coast and found a small native village of four or five thatched huts. There were a few Japanese soldiers in this area but no large groups. We had occasional brief firefights, but nothing of any significance.

We knew we had to keep moving, and I was still leading when we came to a clearing. I didn't want to enter the open, but as I could not see any enemy I started across. About half way someone began firing at me. I dived into a convenient shell hole, but was trapped. Every time I poked my head up a bit it would draw a shot. I knew if I didn't get out of there my time was very limited. One of the fellows behind me saw the situation I was in, and circling around the clearing he located the sniper. One shot and I was free to go! My rescuer was Jim Hines. Jim was about 21 years old, older than most of us. He was from the Midwest and was one of the most reliable and responsible persons I ever met. I will be forever grateful to him. Unfortunately, he would be killed about a year later on Tarawa. The world lost a wonderful man.

It was four or five hours later when the battalion broke through and we joined up again. In the meantime, I had a chance to go look at the sniper who had me pinned down and found he was a Japanese captain wearing combat ribbons. I took the ribbons and still have them.

After a brief mopping up, the following day we took an easier way back down the coast toward our usual position on the lines. Although we had not suffered very heavy casualties, we were in such poor shape that the entire battalion was exhausted and we took our time returning. By the night of October 10th we still had not reached our position, but bivouacked on a small slope. The slope was between us and the channel, and as we were well behind our lines we did not anticipate any trouble. In the middle of the night we were awakened by heavy naval gunfire. This was not unusual, and although our ships came in occasionally, the Japanese Navy still ruled the sea and shelled us frequently. This time was different as we were being shelled by battleships.

While some aircraft carriers may have been longer, battleships were the largest and heaviest warships made. They carried the largest guns that have ever been placed on ships. The ships shelling us had main batteries of fourteen-inch rifles. Since we were on the reverse slope, I knew they could not hit us so I wasn't afraid. They did work over the other side of the little ridge, however, and the shock of each salvo was so great it would throw us clear up in the air. I laid on my stomach, placed a finger in each ear, opened my mouth wide to equalize the pressure on my lungs, and used my forearms on each side of my chest in an attempt to absorb some of the force of the ground hitting my chest. After a couple of hours of this pounding it felt like being run over by a truck. Truly, one must be on the receiving end to appreciate the brutality of a battleship barrage.

A short time after that came one of the darkest moments on Guadalcanal. The Japanese had been landing troops on Cape Esperance and their generals and admirals had been ordered to take back Guadalcanal at all cost. This was the first time in World War 2 the Japanese had not experienced victory. They realized that defeat here could ultimately lead toward losing the war.

Our platoon was on another patrol and we had stopped for the night near the top of the mountain range that runs the length of Guadalcanal. We were probably seven or eight miles behind the Japanese lines on the night of October 23rd. From our elevation we could see Henderson Field and the entire portion of Guadalcanal held by the U.S. forces. Suddenly, in the darkness we could see gunfire erupt along the entire perimeter of the front lines. At the same time, Japanese aircraft appeared overhead and Japanese ships started bombarding our positions, especially the airport. We had a bird's-eye view of everything and it was readily apparent this was a major Japanese offensive.

For once, being deep behind Japanese lines was good. There was no enemy around us and neither side was shooting our way. Although it was completely dark, the flashes of gunfire and the brilliance of explosions revealed everything clearly to us. The fighting lasted throughout the night and all the next day before dying down. The only problem was we were not sure who had won as we had no form of communication. We actually took a vote to decide whether to return to the lines or move deeper into the unexplored interior. By a slight margin the vote to return won. This we did the next day and to our great pleasure found victory had been ours.

Figure 25. Machine gunner guards Marines taking a bath in the Matanikau River. 1942. U.S. Marine Corps photograph.

Figure 26. The same river in 1988. Looks peaceful now, but watch out for crocodiles.

Although once again we had escaped injury by the enemy, no one escaped tropical ulcers. Ankles were especially susceptible to scratches from thorns in the jungle, and these would often fester and turn into ulcers. We still had no medical supplies to use on something this insignificant, so we just suffered. I had several ulcers, some of which created such large holes in my leg that I could actually see the white bone at the bottom. Flies found this fresh food very attractive and they would bite into the exposed raw flesh in a manner that was quite painful.

On one patrol behind enemy lines we surprised some Japanese troops and captured a small amount of supplies. In addition to the usual rice, which was always welcome, were some other items including a few very small tins of something that looked similar to Vaseline. As all the writing on the tins was in Japanese, I had no idea if this was a medical ointment, a rifle lubricant, or whether it was meant for a completely different purpose. As the flies were especially bothersome, I hoped this might be a medical ointment, and put it on my ulcers, completely filling the holes. The very hot and humid climate meant treatment was needed frequently as the ointment tended to drain out, but at least with the holes filled it kept the flies and other insects from the raw wounds. Eventually, after leaving the jungle environment, the ulcers healed without any other medical treatment, although I carried the scars for years. I still have absolutely no idea what was in the tins, but it did provide relief. I included this example to show the desperate measures we took when lacking almost any supplies.

As our battalion had accumulated considerable casualties since landing in the Solomons, we were pulled off the line and placed in what was deemed a safer spot near Henderson Field. This was a mistake, as daily bombing of the airport meant near misses hit us instead and our casualty rate continued to climb. We were not to remain on Guadalcanal much longer, however, and on October 30th we were moved by YP boat to Tulagi.

Figure 27. Japanese bombers score direct hit on Henderson Field hangar (Marine Corps Photo 3-13).

Figure 28. Grumman fighter landing at Henderson Field (Marine Corps photograph).

My most vivid recollection of this was a tiring march to the beach, during which many of the fellows collapsed alongside the roadway, some due to diseases, but mostly because of malnutrition. Upon reaching the beach we were astounded to see fresh troops. They were Army soldiers and they looked so fat, healthy, and clean shaven. Their uniforms were neat, clean, and had all their buttons. In contrast, we were in rags, had shaggy hair and beards, were skinny, and had eyes yellow from jaundice. As we stumbled by I could hear one pink-cheeked soldier say to his buddy, "Geez, those men are killers." Personally, I felt more like the victim.

Figure 29. "Pistol Pete". This 108 MM Japanese rifle was effectively hidden in the mountains. It was the object of most of our patrols behind Japanese lines, but we never found it. It was used to provide harassing fire on Henderson Field and vicinity.

Several years ago Joyce and I traveled to the Solomon Islands, now an independent country. We landed at the airport which is still called Henderson Field. The capital has been moved from Tulagi to the town of Honiara on Guadalcanal. We stayed in Honiara in first-class lodging, the Hotel Mendana, complete with pool, bar, restaurant, and entertainment. Honiara is located where the little native village was that we found during those nerve-wracking hours spent trapped behind the lines during the battle of Matanikau. Although now a modern little city, the Matanikau River and Point Cruz, a small headland jutting into the channel, provided landmarks so I could orient myself to my position of long ago. The location of the shell hole I was trapped in was about three blocks from the hotel. This spot now is probably the busiest intersection in town. A bank is on one corner, the post office on another, a modern supermarket on the third, and a hardware store on the fourth. The hardware store had a large display of machetes for sale. Where were they when I needed them?

One day we rented a car (a Japanese model, of course) and drove to Cape Esperance near the north end of Guadalcanal. Relics still abound in this area where the Japanese created their largest build-up of troops in the attempt to recapture the island. Along the road we stopped and visited with a local woman. She was topless such as most of the women are outside of Honiara. She was smoking her pipe and carrying a machete without which she would really have felt undressed.

We followed signs directing us off the road to the Guadalcanal Museum of war relics. The museum consists mostly of a collection of crashed airplanes, wrecked tanks, and abandoned cannon. We were greeted by the owner, Fred Kona, a native and paramount chief of Guadalcanal. When he learned I was a veteran of the campaign, he threw his arms around me and said it was people like myself for whom he had collected all the artifacts. I could see over his shoulder at a slightly startled Joyce, as this stocky, black, rugged man continued to hug me while tears streamed down his face. One would hardly know his grandfather had probably been a head hunter.

Figure 30. Paramount Chief Fred Kona and Len.

Before returning to Honiara we took photos of Savo Island across a body of water which became famous during the war as Iron Bottom Sound. The definition for this name will be explained in the next chapter.

Last Modified: 01/01/2019
One Man's View by Leonard E. Skinner (2001)