Home News Local News Veteran recounts U.S. invasion of Guadalcanal
Veteran recounts U.S. invasion of Guadalcanal
By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
Sixty years ago today, Baker City real estate broker Ned Steele was a self-admitted greenhorn 19-year-old Marine who'd enlisted two days after Pearl Harbor and had only basic training and three practice amphibious landings under his belt.
He'd shipped out to New Zealand, supposedly to train for six months before landing on one of the strategic South Pacific Islands to fight the Japanese.
But Guadalcanal's proximity to Australia and New Guinea and the island's intact airstrip made it an attractive base of operation for war planners on both sides. So Steele and the rest of the Marine Corps' First Division received their orders soon after they'd arrived in New Zealand that they'd be shipping out for the island not in six months, but rather in a matter of days.
"We weren't prepared at all," Steele says, recounting a story he has only recently been able to tell his own family. "We were kids who were as green as grass."
Today marks the 60th anniversary of the landing of the 9,000 Marines on Guadalcanal, soldiers who fought under the most miserable conditions imaginable until they were relieved shortly before Christmas almost five months worth of an early World War II battle that may have turned the tide of the war in the Pacific Theater.
According to the Baker County Veterans Office, one other county resident who also fought in the battle survives. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Face first onto Guadalcanal
Steele likes to joke that he may not have been the first Marine to set his foot on Guadalcanal but he was no doubt the first to set his head on the island.
While leaping from the landing boat, Steele caught his foot and smacked his head hard on the beach.
The young Marine quickly cleared the cobwebs and said he was surprised that nobody was returning the Americans' fire. Curiously, the Marines encountered no opposition as they took the beach and began to unload their equipment.
They made their way to the airstrip, which they found almost operational, just as B-17 aerial photography had indicated. Two days after the men had landed, the carrier fleet abruptly left Steele and 9,000 others on Guadalcanal and the naval battle that followed the departure prevented American ships from returning to relieve the Marines until late December.
The fleet's departure was so sudden that the Marines had time to offload just 30 percent of their ammunition, two rolls of barbed wire and 10 percent of their food and medical supplies.
None of their seabags made it off the transport ship, Steele said and he and his fellow soldiers spent four months in the clothes on their backs, bathing just once in four months and going for weeks at a time without even taking their boots off.
Toward the end of their time on Guadalcanal, in fact, shoes became a luxury; most Marines either fought barefoot or wore a plank attached to each foot with a length of rope as a makeshift sandal.
Since they'd been left with so little to eat, the Marines set out to find what the Japanese soldiers had left behind when they'd abandoned the airstrip and retreated to the mountains.
What they found was a warehouse stocked with three items: occupational currency that the Japanese planned to issue throughout the Pacific Islands, black bicycles, and "what you might call food," Steele says bags of rice, dried fish, kelp and seaweed dehydrated and bagged together. Just add water for a full, if not tasty, meal.
"It was the nastiest stuff I ever tasted," he said. "We considered the weevils inside a source of protein. But it sustained me for six weeks."
A few of the enlisted men also found four bottles of sake and agreed to drink two and present two to their officers.
"It was white, thick, sweet-smelling, and pretty stout," Steele recalls. "It was wrapped in a sheath of rice paper. We took three or four gulps and promptly gave back our dinners to Mother Earth.
Then somebody who knew a little Japanese read the label.
"It's not sake, you idiots!" he said. "It's bug spray!"
Like castaways, left behind
The Japanese used a nearby base and their aircraft carriers to launch air raids against the Marines stuck on Guadalcanal, who had no anti-aircraft weapons to return the fire. After about three weeks, Steele and his comrades came to an inescapable conclusion about the U.S. command: "They weren't coming back for us at least anytime soon."
"They'd found a division of volunteer Marines that was green as hell, who nobody would miss," Steele says. "One night we got to talking, and we realized we were all going to die anyway, so we might as well hold them off as long as we could. It dawned on us that there were no resources to rescue us.
"That realization made us a more effective unit. The fact that we would die for our country seemed to satisfy our thoughts. That was our transition from being made to realize our fate and actually facing it."
Almost no prisoners of war were taken during the long battle, during which an estimated 30,000 Japanese soldiers were killed or died of their injuries or disease (against 1,600 Americans killed and 4,300 wounded).
"The Japanese set the tone for barbarism, and they committed lots of atrocities," he said.
"I hate to say it, but some Marines did, too," Steele added, saying that the body of the first Marine he saw dead on Guadalcanal had been desecrated almost beyond belief.
While his division may have been inexperienced, it was a Japanese miscalculation that ultimately lost them the battle for Guadalcanal and halted that country's incursion into the Pacific, Steele said.
"Not only did they underestimate our numbers, but they underestimated our will to fight," he said. "They thought we were fat, rich, spoiled American boys. I think their thinking actually saved our lives."
Guadalcanal is an island 120 miles long by 70 miles wide. In late 1942, Americans occupied just three square miles of it but a crucial three miles it was, since it included the airstrip.
The Japanese chose to attack mostly at night, Steele said, blowing whistles and horns and screaming as they came.
"They tried to frighten us, and they did, but not to death," he said. "During our 150 days there, there wasn't a 24-hour period when we weren't bombed, shelled, snipered or harassed."
An example of the harassment, he said, was the lone Japanese pilot some Marines nicknamed Louie the Louse and others called Washing Machine Charlie. A Japanese pilot was assigned to fly all night overhead with the sole purpose of keeping the Americans awake and irritated.
Rescued at last
The Navy rescued the Marines after they'd won their own battle of Guadalcanal, on Dec. 22, 1942. Steele was taken to sick bay, where he slept for three days.
He awoke Christmas morning to make a disturbing discovery: his big toe sported a graves registration tag tied to it. The medical personnel thought he'd died of the high fever brought on by malaria, a disease Steele caught seven times on Guadalcanal alone.
"They thought they were going to put me in the ground," he says.
The average Marine who served on Guadalcanal lost 42 pounds; Steele dropped 47, from 220 to 173 by the time he landed in Melbourne, Australia to recuperate.
"We'd fought like animals, and by the time we got there, we still looked like animals, but those people took us in, just like the Navy did," Steele says. "In fact, without the Navy, we'd all still be on Guadalcanal."
Steele has never returned to Guadalcanal. He almost went back during the 50th anniversary observance, but says he's glad he didn't.
"I've never been to a reunion, and now there's not many of us left," he said. "It was America's first offensive in the war, and it was the first wartime amphibious landing in U.S. history.
"But I don't consider it an honor to come out of there alive. That honor is reserved for those who didn't make it out. Those people are the real heroes."