On August 7, 1942, eleven thousand US Marines landed on Tulagi and Guadalcanal Islands in the South Pacific. It was the first major Allied offensive against Japanese forces; the first time in history that a combined air, land, and sea assault had ever been attempted; and, after six months of vicious fighting, a crushing defeat for the Empire of Japan and a major turning point in the Pacific War.
Volunteer combat correspondent Richard Tregaskis was one of only two journalists on hand to witness the invasion of Guadalcanal. He risked life and limb to give American readers a soldier’s experience of the war in the Pacific, from the suffocating heat and humidity to the unique terror of fighting in tall, razor-sharp grass and in crocodile-infested jungle streams against a concealed enemy. In understated yet graceful prose, Tregaskis details the first two months of the campaign and describes the courage and camaraderie of young marines who prepared for battle knowing that one in four of them wouldn’t make it home.
An instant bestseller when it was first published in 1943 and the basis for a popular film of the same name, Guadalcanal Diary set the standard for World War II reportage. Hailed by the New York Times as “one of the literary events of its time,” it is a masterpiece of war journalism whose influence can be found in classic works such as John Hersey’s Hiroshima, Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Richard Tregaskis including rare images from the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming.
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By Richard Tregaskis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1943 Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved.
SUNDAY, JULY 26, 1942
This morning, it being Sunday, there were services on the port promenade. Benches had been arranged on the deck, facing a canvas backdrop on which a Red Cross flag was pinned. Father Francis W. Kelly of Philadelphia, a genial smiling fellow with a faculty for plain talk, gave the sermon. It was his second for the day. He had just finished the "first shift," which was for Catholics. This one was for Protestants.
It was pleasant to stand and sing on the rolling deck with the blue panel of the moving sea, on our left, to watch. There we could see two others of our fleet of transports rolling over the long swells, nosing into white surf.
The sermon dealt with duty, and was obviously pointed toward our coming landing somewhere in Japanese-held territory. Father Kelly, who had been a preacher in a Pennsylvania mining town and had a direct, simple way of speaking which was about right for the crowd of variously uniformed sailors and marines standing before him, pounded home the point.
After the services, ironically, many of the men turned to the essential job of loading machine-gun belts. Walking around the deck in the bright morning sun, I had to step around lads sitting on the former shuffleboard court, using a gadget which belted the cartridges automatically. All you had to do was feed them in.
The lads seemed quite happy at the job. One of them kept time with the clink of the belter. "One, two, three, another Jap for me," he said.
Others tried other ideas. One was reminded of the song "Chattanooga Choo Choo," by the sound of the leader. He hummed a few bars of the tune.
Another boy said, "Honorable bullet take honorable Jap honorable death. So solly."
"I've got a Jap's name written on each bullet," offered another. "There's three generals among 'em."
"Which one's for Tojo?" asked a buddy, offering to play straight man. "Oh, Hell, the first one's got his name on it," was the answer.
This conversation, while it did not hit any stratosphere of wit, indicated one thing anyhow: that the lads here at least were relaxed and in high spirits. Probably the facts of full stomachs and clear hot sunlight, with a pleasant breeze, contributed somewhat to the psychology of the situation.
I thought I might as well do a round-up on the morale situation aboard the ship, and so wandered through her splendid innards and turned all the promenades. In the luxurious, modern after lounge, preserved much as it had been in the recent days when the ship was a passenger-freight liner, I found things quiet; one officer was reading an Ellery Queen novel as he sat on a modernistic couch job done in red leather and chrome. A red-headed tank commander sat at one of the skinny black-topped tables where recently cocktails had been served to civilian passengers traveling between North and South America. He was writing an entry in his diary.
The black-and-cream dance floor, a shiny affair of congoleum, was Vacant.
In the barroom at one edge of the salon, one of the leather-upholstered booths was filled with officers idly passing the time of day, content and happy, like the men, with full stomachs and pleasant weather.
The bar itself, a semi-circular slab of light wood, was vacant, with nobody to buy or sell the cigarettes, shaving cream, and "porgy bait" — naval, marine slang for candy — which sparsely occupied the shelves where once a gleaming array of bottles must have stood.
There was soft music, coming from the salon's speaker system. That, and the modern comfort and beauty of the place, brought the thought that this is a pleasant ship on which to travel to war, a sort of streamlined approach to an old adventure, even if there is no liquor behind the bar.
Leaving the pleasant lounge room to go out into the equally pleasant sunshine, I rounded another promenade and found at one corner of it a group of marines, most of them squatting on the deck, gathered around a blackboard.
A sergeant was holding forth as instructor, pointing to one after another of the interesting chalk symbols he had marked on the board. It was a course in map-reading. The sergeant pointed to a chalk representation of a wagon, with a horseshoe alongside.
"What would you say it was?" he asked one of the men.
"It's a horse-drawn vehicle," said the marine.
"That's right," said the sergeant.
I went from there to the forward deck of the ship. Here, it seemed, most of the troops had congregated. They crowded all available standing and sitting space. They were occupied, on this day of rest, principally with "shooting the breeze." Some were leisurely turning over a hand of cards or two. A few worked among the complexity of steel cables, derricks and hatches, busy with routine jobs.
I climbed down a narrow ladder into the mouldy semi-darkness, relieved only by bilious yellow lights, of the No. 2 hold. Here I first found myself in a wide room, the center of which was entirely filled with machinery, wooden boxes and canvas duffle bags.
Around the edge of the room were four-level bunks of iron piping, with helmets, packs and other gear dangling in clusters.
But the place was deserted, except for two or three marines busy sweeping the deck and swabbing the floor of the dank shower room. The rest of the inhabitants were obviously engaged with duties and pleasures in other parts of the ship.
Most of the other holds, similarly, were occupied more by machinery and idle equipment than by people. Much more pleasant on topside. In one hold I found quite a few marines sleeping on their standee bunks, while in the center of the room, two marines in stocking feet chased each other over piles of black ammunition boxes. They were given some encouragement by the few men around the edges who happened to be awake, sitting on boxes or duffle bags.
I went back up on deck, satisfied that this was a peaceful, lazy day of rest almost everywhere on the ship. Everyone seemed relaxed, despite the fact that probably, today or tomorrow, we will know where we are headed, where, possibly, we may die or be wounded on a Japanese beachhead.
But the pleasing state of relaxation, this Sunday, is understandable. We have been so long wondering where we are to go that we have long since exhausted all possible guesses. One figures one might as well amuse himself while waiting to find out.
In the lounge again, I spotted Maj. Cornelius P. Van Ness, the graying, earnest planning officer of this group of troops, unfolding a message which had just been given to him by a young naval lieutenant.
"Something to do with our destination?" I asked.
He smiled. "No," he said, "but I wish it were. I'd like to know too." Even the colonel, said the major, doesn't yet know where we are headed.
After lunch, I had gone back to the stateroom to further digestion with a little bunk duty, and was passing the time of day with two of my roommates, Red Cross Worker Albert Campbell and Father Kelly, when the fourth roommate, Dr. Garrison, rushed in puffing with excitement (Dr. John Garrison, a Los Angeles dentist, was a Navy medical officer).
"A lot of ships just came up," he said, plunking his portly bulk onto his bed. "A whole navy. Better go look at 'em."
So we ambled out on deck to see the horizon spotted with ships, in a huge semicircle around us. There were transports and freight ships, cruisers, destroyers, and the long, high, box-like shapes of aircraft carriers perched on the rim of the ocean.
Talking along the promenade suddenly became louder and more enthusiastic. Officers, sailors, marines were busy counting up totals, trying to identify the different types of ships. Charlie, our slow-speaking, colored room-boy, as usual, had the latest dope. He shuffled up to us and gave us a detailed account of the ships present. Among them he listed the "Pepsicola" and the "Luscious."
Identification, at that distance, was difficult, but one thing was certain. We had made a rendezvous with the other and main part of our task forces. We were conscious of the fact that this was one of the largest and strongest groups of war vessels ever gathered, certainly the largest and strongest of this war to date. The thought that we were going into our adventure with weight and power behind us was cheering. And our adventure-to-come seemed nearer than ever, as the new group of ships and ours merged and we became one huge force.
That night, there were movies in the comfortable, swanky, ultramodern wardroom, where officers dined. It was a light thing called Our Wife with Melvyn Douglas and Ruth Hussey. The colonel, amiable, polite John M. Arthur of Union, N.C. — called "Doggy" because of his fondness for the natty in clothes and grooming — sat next to me. Between reels I suggested to the colonel that it was amazing that his people could relax and enjoy themselves like this, when they were heading for the unpleasant reality of danger, bloodshed, etc. He said, yes, he thought so, too.
MONDAY, JULY 27
This morning there was much ado in the map-plastered office which the colonel has set up at the edge of the after lounge. A boat had come from one of the other ships, bringing dispatches — and the much-sought secret, it was whispered about, of our destination.
I got a look through the circular glass windows of the doors to the colonel's office, but there was too much activity to interrupt. The colonel and his staff were bending over the table, which was laden with maps, overlays of tissue, etc. There was an abundance of dispatches piled on the metal desk in one corner of the room. It looked as if the news might soon be out.
After lunch, Dr. French Moore, a naval medical commander from San Francisco, told me that I was invited to come to the colonel's cabin before dinner for a spot of tea. I surmised that at this impromptu function I would hear the news as to where we might be heading.
That was the case. Maj. Van Ness, Dr. Moore and Col. Fellers (Lieut. Col. William S. Fellers of Atlanta, Ga.) were present as the colonel drew his blackout blinds, switched on the light over his desk and set up to pour.
When we had our beverage in hand, he said to me, "Well, it looks as if we're not going to have as much excitement as we first thought."
His group of troops, the colonel explained, are not going to take part in the assault on Japanese-held territory. Only one group will be near the scene of action, he said, and that will be a support force. The remainder of his troops, said the colonel, are to go on a mission which is much less dramatic and will not involve contact with the enemy.
"Anyhow, it will be fine training for us, and I'm just as glad that it happened that way," he said. But I could see that it was a disappointment to him to forgo the excitement he had planned.
He shifted quickly to another subject. "So, if you want to be in the forefront when the landing takes place," he said, "it might be wiser for you to shift to another ship."
I had come out here for action. I agreed, and after dinner, in our blacked-out cabin, packed my bags. It took some resolution to do the job, for in the evening I had learned that the forces I would join are going to attack the Japanese strongholds on Guadalcanal and Tulagi, in the Solomon Islands.
TUESDAY, JULY 28
I was ready to leave this morning, but got word that I will not be able to transfer to another ship until tomorrow. Then the colonel and his staff will go to the flagship to confer with the ruling voices of this operation, and I will go along to make arrangements.
WEDNESDAY, JULY 29
The flagship was practically insane with activity, clogged with marine officers anxious to get their orders and settle their plans. But I managed to get the consent of Admiral Turner, commanding the landing operation, to move to another transport. The ship is one of the two which are to carry the assault troops landing on Guadalcanal — the marine outfit which is to land first, and seize the beach-head.
It was a shock to come close to my new ship. She was an ancient, angular horror, with a black, dirty hull and patches of rust on her flanks. When I climbed the rope ladder up her high freeboard and set foot on the deck, I could see that not all the Americans heading for the Solomons were traveling on the latest of ships. I had certainly come from the best and newest to one of the oldest and most decrepit.
The deck was black with slime and grit — for, as I was to discover later in the day, the ship had no modern apparatus for pumping water. The marines cramming the deck were just as dirty.
Inside the dingy foyer, I found interior decoration of the completely undecorative style of the early twenties. There were bare round metal pillars painted white, and squarish wooden steps. A few pieces of lop-sided, dirty furniture were scattered about.
I went down one level and came to the cabin of Col. LeRoy P. Hunt of Berkeley, Cal., commanding officer of the assault troops. Col. Hunt's small room contained an iron bed, a couple of broken-down chairs and a desk. But at least, the floor was clean. That was a relief.
I talked to the colonel about the ship and his troops. "Things are dirty here," he said. "There isn't enough water for cleaning up now.
"My men are pretty unkempt, too, for the same reason. They look like gypsies. But," he added, "I think they'll fight. They've got it here." He tapped his chest in the region of the heart.
The colonel, a good-looking man of middle age, tall and well built, was quite serious about the job that lay ahead for him. "It's going to be tough going on the beach," he said. "Somebody's going to get hurt."
Tonight I could see why he felt that way. An Australian plantation manager, who had supervised production of a copra "cocoanut" farm on Guadalcanal and knew the lay of the land, came aboard, and in the steaming-hot ward-room he gave a little talk on the terrain which the marines faced in landing on Guadalcanal and seizing a beach-head.
After crossing the beach, he said, the invaders would have to penetrate a field of grass four to six feet high, which would afford good cover for any Japanese defenders. Then there would be a river to cross.
The Australian pointed to a map, to the line marked "Ilu River." "The river is about twenty feet wide, the banks are five to six feet high and steep, and the bottom is silty," he said. "It's going to be nasty to cross."
It was evident from the map that the river will have to be crossed, for it runs parallel to the shore, and lies directly behind the beach where the landing will be made.
This, however, was not the only difficult part of the terrain which our assault troops must penetrate — "penetryte," said the Australian. Beyond the river lie old abandoned irrigation ditches, which can be used as entrenchments by the Japs. These ditches are covered with thick, tall grass and cannot be seen except at very close range, he said.
The Australian had finished. The marine officers were not pleased with the terrain which they will have to take. But instead of complaining, they turned to a discussion of methods to cross the river, to "penetryte the drayns," as the Australian said.
There was certainly a need of air conditioning or a fan or two in the ward-room. I found my clothes were soaking wet from top to toe. And a quick look about told me all the others had suffered similarly. I left the room and came to my stateroom, a small cubicle with old-fashioned upper and lower bunks of dark-stained wood. There was a bathroom, shared with the adjoining stateroom. The floor was black and gritty with dirt. I pressed the water lever in the basin. There was no water. A neighbor told me the grim fact of the matter. "The water's only on for about ten minutes at a time, about three times a day," he said. "And the times it's on are a mystery that only the Navy and God know about." I went to bed dirty.
THURSDAY, JULY 30
My roommate, I discovered this morning, is a short, stocky, bull-necked man named Capt. William Hawkins. He hails from Bridgeport, Conn., used to be a schoolteacher, and worries about a balding head. He is an amusing talker, speaks fast and well.
This morning, planes flew over us for hours. They were stubby Grumman fighters with distinctive square wing tips. The carriers must be in fairly close by this time.
There was firing practice, too. From the cruisers which lay in the distance, there were yellow flashes of gunfire. We heard the dull pom, pom, pom of their guns, the distant whoomp of anti-aircraft shells bursting, and saw the black bursts against the sky.
Excerpted from Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis. Copyright © 1943 Random House, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction by Mark Bowden,
I Approach July 26–August 6,
II Landing August 7–August 8,
III Contact August 9–August 13,
IV Expedition to Matanikau August 14–August 20,
V Tenaru Front August 21–August 22,
VI Bombardment August 23–September 6,
VII Battle of the Ridge September 7–September 24,
VIII Bomber to Bougainville September 25–September 26,
Postscript by the Editors of International News Service,
Afterword by Moana Tregaskis,
A Biography of Richard Tregaskis,
What People are Saying About This
A superb example of war reporting at its best.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
As tough as they come
I first read this, at the suggesting of my mother, when I was 15 years old. Do the math.
I’m a veteran but missed viet nam. In my mos I met a lot of combat vets with similar tales. Kill anything that moves was a common theme for survival. Marines have earned their reputation as the most fearless leaders and fighters on earth, for good reason! We all can thank the bravery of the greatest generation!
I really think this is an inspirational book, and very impowering.