Hell in the Pacific: A Marine Rifleman's Journey From Guadalcanal to Peleliu

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9781451659139: Hell in the Pacific: A Marine Rifleman's Journey From Guadalcanal to Peleliu

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 to create an unforgettable chronicle of heroism and horror.

 McENERY’S RIFLE COMPANY—the legendary K/3/5 of the First Marine Division, made famous by the HBO miniseries The Pacific—fought in some of the most ferocious battles of the war. In searing detail, the author takes us back to Guadalcanal, where American forces first turned the tide against the Japanese; Cape Gloucester, where 1,300 Marines were killed or wounded; and bloody Peleliu, where McEnery assumed command of the company and helped hasten the final defeat of the Japanese garrison after weeks of torturous cave-to-cave fighting.

McEnery’s story is a no-holds-barred, grunt’s-eye view of the sacrifices, suffering, and raw courage of the men in the foxholes, locked in mortal combat with an implacable enemy sworn to fight to the death. From bayonet charges and hand-to-hand combat to midnight banzai attacks and the loss of close buddies, the rifle squad leader spares no details, chronicling his odyssey from boot camp through twenty-eight months of hellish combat until his eventual return home. He has given us an unforgettable portrait of men at war.

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About 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.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:



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.”

“But—”

“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 ...

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