'Green Hell' Battle Recalled in 'Guadalcanal: 75 Years Later'

A casualty from the fighting at Guadalcanal is transferred from a makeshift stretcher before being taken through jungle and down river to a field hospital. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)
A casualty from the fighting at Guadalcanal is transferred from a makeshift stretcher before being taken through jungle and down river to a field hospital. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

The Japanese Imperial Navy had blocked or sunk the supply ships, and that meant the U.S. Marines and soldiers battling ashore in the "green hell "of Guadalcanal were on their own.

"After 2-3 weeks, we had no food," Marine cook and Staff Sgt. Joseph Lane, Jr., wrote in his unpublished memoir of the six-month fight for the Pacific island in the Solomon chain that was finally secured 75 years ago on Feb. 9, 1943.

The food shortages would continue sporadically. The troops had to rely on coconuts from the groves that dotted the island and rotten rice left behind by the Japanese troops driven from the area that came to be known as Henderson Field.

"Our food consisted of a lot of Japanese rice, full of ants and worms," Lane wrote. "I would not recommend a diet of coconuts. From experience, it is a very good laxative."

In addition, "conditions were hot. Lots of rain," on top of Guadalcanal "being the mosquito capital of the world," Lane said. "We had no netting or protection from them; at night you would literally be covered by them."

"Three out of four contracted malaria, including myself. Dysentery became a major medical problem, caused mostly by large flies from dead bodies," Lane said.

His accounts were part of the Library of Congress' remarkable collection of transcripts and oral histories from veterans of wars past and present.

For the 75th anniversary of Guadalcanal, the Library's Veterans History Project has launched a new "Experiencing War" website feature titled, "Guadalcanal: 75 Years Later," to recognize the end of the campaign in which the U.S. lost 7,100 troops, 29 ships and 615 aircraft.

Congress authorized the Veterans History Project in 2000 to collect and make accessible the first-hand remembrances of America's war veterans from World War I through the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, "so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war."

The oral histories tell of the horrors of combat and the struggle to cope with its aftermath, but they also tell of friends met along the way, and sometimes lost, and of the scenes they witnessed that transcended the conflict and stayed lodged in the memory bank.

One of the realities from Guadalcanal for Marine Theodore Cummings, of F Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, was that it took a barroom brawl for him to learn that his brother, Edwin, was still alive -- and, obviously, still fighting.

Each brother thought the other was dead -- Theodore in the fighting on the island and Edwin, a sailor, aboard the New Orleans-class heavy cruiser Vincennes, which was one of four cruisers sunk by the Japanese in the night Battle of Savo Island off Guadalcanal in August 1942.

Cummings watched the naval battle from ashore: "We looked over our right shoulders to the west through the rain squalls and saw the greatest firework display that one has ever seen. Ships blowing up. Searchlights on. The flash of guns' fire on the ocean."

"And we saw it all. I mean, we saw it from 15 miles away, 10 miles. You'd see this huge, just satanic kind of fire on the ocean. And we thought that the U.S. Navy, of course, was kicking their ass. And we did not know until about September 10 or so" what had happened.

Somebody had just come back from division headquarters with the word -- "you know we lost that sea battle. We lost four cruisers."

Theodore Cummings thought his brother had gone down with the Vincennes in what was to become known as "Ironbottom Sound." He only learned much later that Edwin had been "picked up in the water." He was wounded but would survive.

Edwin had been sent back to Australia and was on the submarine tender Fulton, which was tied up in Brisbane. In December 1942, Theodore Cummings' unit was pulled out of Guadalcanal and sent to Australia where they bedded down "in a wet, stinking, hot camp there just west of Brisbane."

"And I'll be damned. A corpsman came back from having liberty in Brisbane and said that there'd been a fight in a pub where he was, and he found a guy. One guy's name was Cummings. His first name was Edwin. I'll be g--damned. It was my brother. Can you imagine? The -- the humanity of war. The humanity."

Some things stay with a veteran forever -- a line from a song, a last look at the old hometown from the window of a train, the unsubtle and high-decibel words of a drill sergeant that turned a civilian into a soldier.

For Theodore Cummings, it was a can of peaches. They had been on the island of Tulagi and the Navy was now taking them to Guadalcanal. They knew it was going to be bad.

"I can remember getting aboard this old cut-down destroyer. A sailor came to me with a can of peaches. Can you imagine that? A sailor gave me a can of peaches. He opened it up for me. And he gave me a toothbrush and a comb and I think some toothpaste. And a can of peaches," Cummings said.

On Tulagi, "we only had a day's rations when we went ashore there. So we lived on coconuts and stolen Japanese rice -- I mean recovered Japanese rice. Gave me those peaches. Big can of peaches. And that syrup. It was champagne. Beautiful, that guy was."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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