for the Landing
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 werent 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.
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.
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 hed 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.
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.
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 Mendanas
early contact. On a subsequent trip back to the Solomons in 1595,
Mendana died of Malaria.
1900 through World War II, the British ruled the Solomons as protectorate
though they werent 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
all Bob remembers of the transport ship is that they slept in
bunks and were always crowded. Everybody was always in everybody
elses way, not a huge problem for Bob though because he
was short and didnt 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. Wed get across the equator, and
we became a trusty shellback. They
gave you a paper that said youd went across the equator
from a lowly pollywog to a trusty shellback.
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. Id
look over there, and thats all I could do. I couldnt
even say hello.
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.
knew we were going to war thats about all we knew.
They didnt 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 someones 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.
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:
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)
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)
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.
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 thats all you could hear on the
whole ship, quiet as it was.
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
Twining, Gen. Merrill B. No Bended Knee. Presidio Press,1996:
(2) McMillan, George. The Old Breed. Washington: Infantry
Journal Press, 1949, page 22.
(3) McMillan, 23.