5 Tulagi

The First and Second Battalions of our Regiment had been on Tulagi as beach defense ever since landing there on D-day and securing the island. Having been there that long they had ample time to develop what we thought to be rather luxurious living quarters of shacks, tents, and other shelters. They were being sent to the Canal, while we were to take over their duties. As we numbered less than half as many men, we could be quite selective in our choices of shelter. K Company was assigned the area farthest from the harbor. The first squad of the first platoon was given the most remote part, which was fine with us. There were four or five of us in a six-man tent. No one was stationed past us, and it was about a hundred yards in the other direction to a comfortable shack housing another four or five fellows who were our closest neighbors. This would be our home for the next three months. A small beach was just in front of our tent, and we went swimming almost every day. Of special interest was a giant clam almost five feet long that lived in our swimming hole. All in all, it was not a bad life after what we had been through.

Figure 31. 1st Platoon, K Company, 3rd Batallion, 2nd Marines, on Tulagi in January, 1943. There were 42 of us in the platoon when we landed 5 months ago. Len fifth from left, back row.

We were assigned working parties on most days, the more common being retrieving 55-gallon drums of gasoline from Tulagi harbor. Supplies were coming more frequently now and Guadalcanal had no harbor. Additionally, the Canal would be subject to three or four bombings a day and was more dangerous. Supply ships would enter Tulagi harbor under cover of darkness and dump their load of gasoline which was destined for the airplanes at Henderson Field as well as for the PT (motor torpedo) boats. The base for the PT boats was hidden under large trees at the far end of Tulagi harbor nearest Florida Island. The supply ships could unload rapidly that way and try to get as far away as possible before sunrise since any ship caught in daylight was liable to be sunk. We would swim out into the harbor, grab a gasoline drum, and holding the drum with both hands we would kick our feet to propel ourselves to the small dock. This was rather tiring work, especially as our physical condition still left a lot to be desired, although we were improving under the current higher standard of living.

One day while rolling the drums up onto the dock, Jake, our old friend of Tarzan-playing and Japanese-frightening fame, decided morale was seriously in need of a boost. He came up to me and said, "I'm going to call you a name. This will make you mad and you will hit me and I'll go end over end off the dock and into the harbor. That will make everybody laugh." I agreed, and we played our little charade.

Jake yelled the name loudly and got everyone's attention. I struck him and he hit the water hard, going clear to the bottom. As usual, Jake had not looked very far ahead and his bare feet landed right on top of a sea urchin. A sea urchin is a marine animal that looks more like a plant. They were about the size of a person's fist and covered with long, sharp spines, which would enter the flesh and break off as they are very brittle. Deep spines cannot be pulled out; they must be cut out. We carried Jake to sick bay where he and the surgeon became quite well acquainted. I lost track of Jake during the war. I hope he survived, but if the Japanese didn't get him I'm afraid one of his jokes may have.

Meanwhile, back to the procedure with the gasoline drums. It would take quite awhile to retrieve the drums and then we would load them onto the old YP boat, also kept hidden at the far end of the harbor, and take them over to the Canal after dark. The YP boat could come closer ashore than the supply ship. We would then roll the drums overboard while other Marines stationed on Guadalcanal would move them ashore onto the beach. While this procedure took about the whole Company on the Tulagi end, only a few of us were needed aboard the YP boat for the night crossing.

I made the night crossing three or four times. Usually the crossings were without incidence, but on one occasion it got pretty exciting. It was the night of November 12th and we were about halfway across en route to Guadalcanal when I could feel the boat increase to top speed, turning back to Tulagi as it did so. A sailor came rushing by and I asked him what was up. He said they had just received a radio message that said the Japanese fleet was heading south and the U.S. fleet was traveling north. They were due to meet right about here, right about now. He had not more than said those words when both fleets opened fire with us right between them, and shells were roaring overhead going in both directions.

Of all the ships out there, our little boat was absolutely at the bottom of the list of targets, which I kept telling myself. On the other hand, we were a wooden-hulled boat armed with only a machine gun. Even though traveling at top speed, we were only going about ten miles an hour. Every inch of our deck was covered with drums of high octane aviation fuel, except for where I was sitting on the fantail. My seat was a rack of highly explosive depth charges used to fight submarines. Although we didn't amount to anything, I was afraid someone would pop off a small round at us just for the fun of it. Top speed also meant sparks were flying out of our stack, which illuminated us quite nicely, though it was not necessary as both fleets were firing starshells overhead which lit up the night sky. It was an hour before we entered Tulagi harbor and I knew we had made it.

This was the first time our Navy returned in force since leaving us over three months earlier. Both sides retired before daybreak, but both fleets returned again for the next two nights in the same location. Our losses were very heavy, especially since our Navy was still trying to recover from Pearl Harbor and the defeat they had the night after our landing. At least Japanese losses were also very heavy this time. These were the famous battles of Savo Island and the origin of the term, "Iron Bottom Sound," for that portion of Sealark Channel. To this day, this location has the highest number of sunken warships resting on the sea bottom than does any other place in the world.

Our little PT boats, which had been the only Navy assault ships in the area until this time, went out all three days after the night battles and retrieved survivors and the bodies of those who did not survive. I was on burial detail for three days at the cemetery on Tulagi which was rapidly expanding. On both the second and third nights of the battles, I sat on the small beach in front of our tent and watched. We could see all the gunfire, and every now and then a ship exploding, but we could never tell whose ships were being hit.

Figure 32. Iron Bottom Sound as viewed from Cape Esperance, with Savo Island in the background.

On the third morning the destroyer Aaron Ward came into the dock. It had been hit and the refrigeration unit was knocked out, so perishable stores were going to be unloaded. I was in the working party. Just before we went aboard, the crew got the unit repaired so the ship prepared to pull out immediately. Before leaving, however, the quartermaster opened the ship's stores and individual sailors bought cartons of cigarettes and boxes of candy bars with money out of their own pockets, came to the rail and dumped them over into our welcoming arms. We had seen neither for a long time and I just hope those sailors realized how much we appreciated this gesture.

There is a sad ending to this story. Less than five months later, on April 7, 1943, the Aaron Ward was escorting LCT's (landing craft, tanks) to Tulagi when the ship was attacked and sunk by Japanese Val dive bombers. She rests in 70 meters (230 feet) of water less than one mile off Tinete Point, in the Tulagi-Gavutu area. Some of her crew are still with her. A future president of the United States, Lt. John F. Kennedy, was in one of the LCT's and a witness to this action. Also sunk at the same time was the USS Kanawha and the HMNZS Moa.

Today the Aaron Ward is a goal of experienced scuba divers, such as Glen Mitchell of New Zealand, who told me the destroyer is still an awesome presence as she rests upright on the bottom with her guns still trained skyward.

We were still getting very few supplies in the way of food, but fortune was to smile on us. The Army was due to relieve us eventually, and in the meantime they started shipping in food supplies so they would be prepared. Several food dumps were established. The mistake was in placing a Marine guard on each one. We would go to each dump in turn and ask the guard what he had. He knew exactly and would bypass rations that were not so tasty and point out canned fruit, which was always first choice. We would each take a case and head home. I know the Army didn't starve when they got there, but they did have to eat a bit austere. There was not a man in the whole unit who had not lost at least thirty pounds, but now we started putting on some weight.

A decision had been made to set up a seaplane base on Florida Island. I use that term rather facetiously as there were only two planes available. One was an SOE5, called a duck, which was a plane with a single float and carried on cruisers. This was a biplane which traveled very slowly. Its ship had been sunk while it was aloft so the pilot had landed at Tulagi. It wouldn't last ten seconds if spotted by a Japanese fighter plane. The other aircraft was a twin engine PBY patrol bomber. This type plane had been called obsolete years before war broke out but turned into a real work horse in the early days of the war. Fifteen men from our Company were detached to the native village of Halavo to establish a camp and provide security. This place had been picked because of the remote location and the hope that the planes would not be spotted there.

In early December we went to Halavo by Higgins boat. This was my first experience with the natives, a black race called Melanesian. There were no other Marines on Florida Island but we weren't sure about the Japanese, so the first thing we did upon arriving was to form two three-man patrols, one going along the beach in each direction, while the remainder set up camp. I was in one patrol, and after about three miles we came to a large fresh water river. We couldn't remember the last time we had a bath in fresh water as there were no streams on Tulagi, so we turned upstream perhaps a mile to get away from the brackish sea water. We came to a beautiful location. There was a large pool with bougainvillea blooming and orchids hanging from the trees. It looked like a set from a Hollywood movie. A large eucalyptus tree had fallen over and the roots provided a great spot to dive from. We drew straws to see who would stand guard while the other two went swimming. One of the other fellows lost, so he climbed up on top of the roots of the eucalyptus tree and sat cross-legged with his rifle across his lap while the other winner and I stripped and dived in.

We were having a wonderful time when the guard called softly to tell us that someone was coming. We immediately started swimming toward shore and our rifles when the visitors appeared walking down the trail. They were two teen-aged native girls wearing only a skirt. They were talking and giggling like young girls everywhere, and upon reaching the pool off came the skirts and in they went. Our guard was still sitting on the tree roots with his mouth hanging rather open. The other two of us were trying to cover up under water. This was 1942 and in our society such things just didn't happen. To the girls this was completely normal, and after a refreshing dip they retrieved their skirts and continued on their way. We had a comfortable camp in Halavo. I was especially impressed with the source of drinking water. A huge boulder was by the trail at the village edge and from a hole in the boulder ran a continuous stream of water. Under the hole a large basin had been carved into the stone, which permitted the water to be easily dipped up. It was cool and very tasty, especially after much of the stuff we had been drinking.

We each hired a houseboy to do all of the manual work for us and paid them five cents a day for their services. My houseboy was named John. As he was the son of the chief he was called John number one, to distinguish him from all the other "Johns," as all of the males shared a very limited number of Christian names. He was saving his money to buy a wife. He had a high priced one picked out and she was going to cost him the equivalent of thirty dollars.

Living among these natives was very interesting. They had been cannibals as recently as thirty years earlier, and it was believed some in the more remote areas might still be practicing this custom.

Our PBY arrived and started flying morning and afternoon patrols. Normally, the plane carried two machine gunners, but since there was a shortage of personnel the pilot asked us for volunteers. We all volunteered as this sounded like a lot of fun. The day for my turn came and I was to fly in the afternoon; however, the plane never returned from the morning patrol. We later found out the pilot had landed at Guadalcanal, and for some unknown reason had crashed into the side of a transport ship, killing or injuring all aboard the plane.

Years later, Joyce and I were taking a fall foliage tour in New England and met a New Zealand man about our age. At dinner one evening he mentioned that he had served in the Pacific area as a radioman-gunner aboard a two-seated floatplane. I asked him where he was stationed and he replied that no one had ever heard of the place. When queried further he said, "Halavo, Florida Island." My reply was, "Know it well." He had arrived just after I left so we had never met, but this was still a real coincidence as it had to be the very smallest allied base ever established in the Pacific Theater of War.

Figure 33. Tulagi Harbor as seen today.

Shortly before Christmas the members of our outpost were rotated and I returned to Tulagi. On Christmas Day we had a real treat. We had a Company mess hall of sorts, but nobody used it because we were doing okay off the Army chow we were appropriating. On Christmas the Company cook found the ingredients to make doughnuts, and that was our holiday dinner, coffee and doughnuts. Everyone was present for that treat and the cook basked in his moment of glory. Believe it or not, that was the first actually cooked food I had since arriving in the Solomons.

The rest of my time on Tulagi was quite uneventful. On January 30, 1943, the President Adams steamed into the harbor with the long-awaited Army troops and we went aboard this same ship that had brought us here six months, and a lifetime, earlier. Of all the troops that arrived here on D-day, our regiment was the only one still remaining in the Solomon Islands. On the next day we sailed, bound for New Zealand. The Second Marine Regiment did receive the Presidential Unit Citation from President Roosevelt, and we were authorized to wear that ribbon on our uniform. The whole Solomon Islands Campaign had been quite an experience to an 18-year-old Marine.

The cost in manpower of capturing Guadalcanal and the surrounding islands was expensive to all the branches of allied military personnel. Total casualties were 7,100 men. This includes 420 in the air; 1,769 on the ground, and an additional 4,911 at sea. The losses for Japan were even more severe, and totaled at least 30,343 men.

Upon our return to the Solomons, Joyce and I hired a boat on Guadalcanal to take us to Tulagi as there is no scheduled transport. This island, once the capital of the Solomons and the home of the Governor, is now an almost deserted back-water port.

Although still one of the best anchorages in the entire South Pacific, only one small inter-island copra schooner was tied up at the dock. The operations manager of the harbor, Juvence Selevale, greeted us warmly. He was a native, born on Savo Island, and was very appreciative of what the Marines had done. He later corresponded with us.

Figure 34. Len shows Joyce a tunnel leading to an air raid shelter he used during the war.

There was little left that I could show Joyce. The small Chinese business area was long gone, as likewise was the PT base where John F. Kennedy assumed command of PT-109 shortly after I had left for New Zealand. I did show her an air raid shelter I had used many times during the war as it is still located in a road-cut near the dock. I also had a chance to try out my rusty Pidgin English on two young girls who were living aboard the copra schooner. I would have enjoyed showing Joyce the most unique store I had ever seen. It was a rather large, ramshackle, wooden building that occupied an entire islet in the harbor. It was just a couple of feet above water, reachable only by boat. Regrettably, it was no longer there.

One of the most interesting things about having my story on the web is receiving e-mail from those who have read it. Sixty-three years after the events described in this, and the previous two chapters, I received such an e-mail from Dodson Smith, of Winston Salem, North Carolina. He had joined Hq-3-2 in New Zealand in July 1942, and had also served as company radio operator for K-3-2 after I had left. He subsequently fought at Tarawa, Saipan, and Okinawa, having missed Tinian because of wounds. He was in possession of a copy of the official report of Colonel Roy G. Hunt, the commanding officer of the Third Batallion, Second Marines, during the Solomon Islands campaign. The report is titled:


The report had been acquired from Herbert R. "Bud" Brown, company clerk of Hq-3-2 during the last half of the war. Brown brought it home upon his discharge. When he passed away his widow sent the report to Dodson, who then sent it on to me. Needless to say, I greatly appreciated it and have referred to it frequently.

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