Preparing for the Landing

 

In the summer of 1942, Bob Worthington and the newest members of the First Marine Division, those who had enlisted after Pearl Harbor, traveled by troop train from New River, North Carolina to San Francisco, California, where they awaited further orders. During the cross-country train ride, the shades were always pulled down, and the Marines weren’t even allowed to light cigarettes for fear of disclosing their movements. Bob and his comrades in San Francisco made up the youngest members of the soon to be legendary First Marine Division. Most were barely seventeen years of age. The older half of the division, with an average age nearer to twenty, had already been stationed in Wellington, New Zealand at a hastily constructed base. They had left the United States on transport ships directly from New River on May 19, 1942.

Despite the oncoming New Zealand winter, which tends to be cool and damp, these young men were in awe of Wellington. Most had never been outside the United States. Though situated in the southern Pacific, Wellington looks more Mediterranean. Located on a splendid harbor and surrounded by mountains, it must have seemed exotic and wonderful to those men and certainly a far cry from the isolation of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where some of them had done their previous overseas training. Bob Worthington never had a chance to enjoy Wellington though, since all liberty was cancelled as of June 30, 1942, twelve days before he arrived.

Major General A. A. Vandegrift assumed command of the First Marines on March 23, 1942. Originally, Vandegrift took over with the idea of getting the First Division combat ready by January 1, 1943. He believed he’d have the rest of 1942 to train his men in New Zealand. But time never was on his side. Vandegrift got the word on June 26, 1942 that the division was to be ready for D-Day on August 1st. They were to attack and defend the southern Solomon Islands — Tulagi and adjacent positions including Guadalcanal and the Florida Islands, located several thousand miles to the north of New Zealand in the vast southwestern Pacific.

The decision to attack the Solomons came from Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet. President Roosevelt had approved the move a few months earlier. The newly formed Joint Chiefs of Staff also gave the go-ahead, with the stipulation that Admiral Nimitz and the Navy would have the responsibility for the battle plans, not General MacArthur, who favored a more direct attack on the stronger Japanese positions farther up the line on the island of Rabaul. Orchestrating the battle plans, directly under Nimitz, were Vice Admiral R.L. Ghormley and Rear Admiral Richard Kelly Turner, commander of Task Force 62, which included the men of the First Marine Division, the soldiers who made the initial assault on Guadalcanal. Turner was an aviator with no previous amphibious experience, a fact that would play itself out with grave consequences from the Marines’ perspective later on that summer.

***

Guadalcanal, perhaps the best known of the Solomon Islands, was settled thousands of years ago by several different indigenous peoples of the Pacific region including the Polynesians and Melanesians. Strangers usually meant trouble for the local people, and cannibalism was common there well into the twentieth century. The first documented contact between Europeans and the islanders resulted in their westernized name "Isles of Solomon," dubbed so by Spanish explorer Don Alvaro de Mendana in 1568 when he was shown alluvial gold mines on the islands. Mendana imagined those islands to be the site of the Biblical King Solomons mines. Spanish surnames of many smaller islands in the chain also reflect Mendana’s early contact. On a subsequent trip back to the Solomons in 1595, Mendana died of Malaria.

From 1900 through World War II, the British ruled the Solomons as protectorate though they weren’t much protection from the Japanese, who landed on the islands just a few months prior to the Marines, ousting the British and securing Tulagi on May 3, 1942. The Japanese soon began construction on an airfield on Guadalcanal in July. The proximity of the Solomons to Australia and New Zealand left little doubt as to the strategic importance of those islands in the Pacific war, not to mention the value of that airstrip.

Interestingly, in the last decade or so, the Solomon Islands have been promoted as an exotic vacation destination, promising unspoiled South Seas adventure, except for the mosquitoes, malaria, and occasional episodes of ethnic or political unrest between different factions on the islands. There are hundreds of wrecks from World War II scattered in the pristine waters of the islands that call to modern divers perhaps oblivious to the karma of the islands. Both Japanese and American veterans have also returned over the years, but I seriously doubt any would ever consider a vacation on Guadalcanal.

***

Back in June of 1942, Vandegrift and his officers had a lot to do before the legendary battles of the Solomon Islands were ever to take place. Allowing for traveling time and other factors necessary to get approximately 20,000 soldiers to their objective, Vandegrift had less than a month to complete their training, unload and organize the supplies, and draw the logistics together. By June 26, 1942 only one combat team had arrived at Wellington. Most of the division was still scattered to the four winds

To complicate the situation, the only information available to the top command regarding the layout of the Solomons was a Navy hydrographic chart dating back to 1910. The campaign was originally code-named Operation Cactus as Guadalcanal was thought to be a desert island. Later that July the specifics were drawn up for what became Operation Watchtower, subsequently and informally dubbed "Operation Shoestring." The Division intelligence officer, Lt. Colonel Goettge, went to Australia that summer seeking out men who had worked in the coconut plantations in the Solomons, and some were even commissioned as petty officers in the Australian Navy to go along with the division to provide essential intelligence information. Eventually, rudimentary maps were drawn and reproduced. The Army had supposedly taken aerial photographs of the islands, but for one reason or another they never reached the Marines.

The best first hand intelligence was gathered when Lt. Col. Merrill B. Twining and Maj. William B. McKean flew over Guadalcanal on July 17, 1942 in an Army B-17. They came away with invaluable photographs of the islands, and they learned "that the beaches on Tulagi were extremely difficult for a large amphibious landing, while those on Guadalcanal were ideal". (1) Twining, McKean and their crew barely got away as they were pursued by Japanese Rufes, Zeros on floats, that were stationed at Tulagi. The first shots of the Guadalcanal campaign were fired during their brief engagement with the Japanese pilots, and Twining claims in his memoirs that his crew shot down two zeros.

In the end, Vandegrift was able to negotiate another week, pushing back D-Day to August 7, 1942. Throughout torrential rains typical of a New Zealand winter, supplies of every description were loaded and unloaded as various transport ships came into port, often with the contents falling out of water logged cardboard boxes along the docks. The readying of the troops and constant inventorying, unloading and reloading of supplies must have looked like chaos to any casual observer. Bob was part of the second echelon and didnt arrive in New Zealand until July 11, 1942 — only eleven days before the troops left for the Solomons. He arrived, as usual, at the height of the chaos.

About all Bob remembers of the transport ship is that they slept in bunks and were always crowded. Everybody was always in everybody else’s way, not a huge problem for Bob though because he was short and didn’t take up much space. Tight spots never bothered him. He was also quite fortunate to be among the second wave. Some of the men aboard the U.S.S. Ericsson, who had left in May, became so ill due to spoiled food they lost as much as sixteen pounds from vomiting and diarrhea on the trip over from New River to Wellington. Keeping weight on these lean, muscular individuals would become extremely important as the summer wore on and combat became a reality. Bob recalled strange details from the trip — odd bits of information that only make sense to those who were there. We’d get across the equator, and we became a trusty shellback. They gave you a paper that said you’d went across the equator — from a lowly pollywog to a trusty shellback.

Even though his entire family lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, Bob never before spoke to anyone before shipping out. The Marines were told they would face court martial if they told anyone where they were going. Its not that they even knew precisely where they were going, but in those early days of the war paranoia ran high, as did the legitimate threat of espionage — that very same sentiment that soon led to internment camps for Japanese Americans in Southern California. The day before departing, Bob walked to within a few hundred yards of his aunts house on Polk Street in San Francisco, the house where he stayed when he visited his cousins in the city. He just stared at it as if it were no longer a part of any life he had ever known. He could only watch from a distance like a stranger. I’d look over there, and that’s all I could do. I couldn’t even say hello.

***

After the entire division left New Zealand for good on July 22, 1942, their first stop was Koro Island in the Fijis — where they were to get some final practice at amphibious landings. They stayed there from July 28 to 31; but the coral reefs surrounding the Fijis made the practice of landings impossible. Less than one-third of the Marines even got off the ships. The men were forced to wait it out. They were stuck in the hold of the ship. All they could do was sweat.

We knew we were going to war — that’s about all we knew. They didn’t tell us where we were going. To alleviate the boredom, we were taught to kill with our hands. One way I vividly remember is to shove one finger through someone’s eyeball right into the brain. I also remember being told never to use any of these methods back in the States if we ever made it home.

The Marines learned of their exact destination in the precious hours prior to the assault. Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King summed up the objectives of the mission in his journal:

From the outset of the war it had been evident that the protection of our lines of communication to Australia and New Zealand represented a must. With the advance of the Japanese in that direction, it was therefore necessary to plan and execute operations which would stop them. Early in 1942, the Japanese had overrun the island of Tulagi. In July, the enemy landed troops and laborers on Guadalcanal Island and began the construction of an airfield. As the operation of land based planes from that point would immediately imperil our control of the New Hebrides and New Caledonia areas, the necessity of ejecting them from those positions became increasingly apparent. (2)

Phrases like to protect "lines of communication" and "execute operations" while "ejecting the enemy" couldnt have really meant much to the Marines stuck like slaves in the hold of ship, sweating, confused and wondering if they would ever return home. Such official sounding terms, describing a mission that held their very lives in the balance, couldnt begin to explain the sacrifices they were about to make. The total number of Marines involved in the operation was 18,146 enlisted men and 956 officers. (3)

On the night of August 6, 1942 as the transport ships made their way toward the Solomon Islands, they had the good fortune of a thick cloud cover, a marine layer, enabling them to reach their destination without catching the attention of the Japanese fighter planes all over the area. Bob remembers little other than a few fragments, bits and pieces of information stored deep in the recesses of a 17 year-olds memory.

When we left New Zealand, everybody was making noise and hollering like hell and raising hell. Then it got quieter and quieter and quieter, and we realized we were going to war in the first offensive against the Japanese. Pretty soon all you could hear was sharpening knives and men loading their belts for their machine guns, click, click, click, click — that’s all you could hear on the whole ship, quiet as it was.

Even in the last hours before the landing, Bob never talked much about his life. He had chosen not to tell his fellow Marines any of his stories. He thought they would not believe him. And he was right.

 

(1) Twining, Gen. Merrill B. No Bended Knee. Presidio Press,1996: page 37.
(2) McMillan, George. The Old Breed. Washington: Infantry Journal Press, 1949, page 22.
(3) McMillan, 23.

   
 

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