It’s a reflex action. I kick the grenade without thinking. My brain shouts out in panic, but it’s too late. The grenade feels heavy against the toe of my boot. l see that the pin is missing. I can hear the sound it makes as it rolls on the dry dirt of the hillside. I imagine shrapnel fanning out in an arc and stitching its way across my waist.
It stops. It does not explode.
I hear the blood-rush of my adrenaline. I am drained by the aftershock of my own stupidity.
I wane to blame it on sunbaked stupor; the heat of the August equator sun has bleached all the blue from a cloudless sky. But there is something else at work: I have kicked a hand grenade on Edson’s Ridge—Bloody Ridge, in Marine Corps lore: the pivotal battle of the Pacific campaign of World War II—because, for one moment, my lust for my father’s war had blotted out my reason.
“Through two nights, all hell broke loose,” one of his lieutenants told me about the Ridge. “And after that thing was over, some kid who had been through all of that, he said, ‘Oh—here’s a grenade, I’m going to move it so nobody kicks it accidentally.’ With that, we all screamed at him, and it went off and killed him. He survived two days of hell, and he tried to do a good thing, and he died.”
It occurs to me that, while the odds are long, the hand grenade at my feet could very well have been thrown by my father, the 26-year-old captain and commander of G Company, Second Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, First Marine Division (G-2-5). He lost thirty men on this ridge.
But mostly I can’t help thinking about the symmetry of it all, had the thing gone off: to die on Edson’s Ridge, on Guadalcanal, where, fifty-one years ago, my father would pray every night that he, and not another of his young charges, would be killed in battle the next day.
His prayers went unanswered. He survived Guadalcanal, and then New Britain, and then Peleliu, and came home in 1944 to take over the family business, manufacturing paper bags in a gray factory next to the railroad tracks in Long Island City. He married the woman who would become my mother and moved to Westchester County, and died in 1960, at the age of 44, when I was 7, so I never had much of a chance to ask him about his war.
But it was always there. I could hold it to my face. My father’s war was tucked into the trunk that sat in the darkest corner of the cellar: a Japanese flag, stained with Rorschach blotches of blood, the red circle still bright, the field of white crowded with the Japanese characters that identified the man whose blood graced it.
As a child, I spent a lot of time with the flag, running it through my hands, marveling at the liquid feel of the silk, at how different it was from the rest of my father’s memorabilia: the .30-caliber Japanese machine gun, the Japanese hand grenade, the rifles—all of them so inconceivably heavy and redolent of good grease and iron that I knew they carried the real weight of war.
He’d shoot the rifles at the Farm, which is where he kept his real prize: the bomb carrier, a military truck painted green with an interior of cracked leather and straw stuffing. Its bed was outfitted with a hoist to lift ordnance. In the winter, when the roads were impassable, he’d park the family station wagon out near the highway, leave us huddled in the cocoon of the heated Chrysler, disappear into the darkness on foot and return to ferry us in to the Farm aboard the bomb carrier.
I don’t know why it was called the Farm. Its only crops were goldenrod and pine trees, one thousand acres of them, in the Berkshire Mountains of southwestern Massachusetts. He’d bought it right after the war, a tract that seemed the size of Siberia, anchored by a Spartan and sagging farmhouse equipped with neither plumbing nor electricity. It was his counter-balance to society Westchester.
I know he needed one. A Life magazine story from 1957 about suburban cocktail parties featured a picture of my parents in a Cheevered living room. My mother looks happy. My father doesn’t. He didn’t like the parties. “Have a good time,” he’d tell her. “Have someone take you. I’m going to the Farm that weekend.”
We kept the portrait of my father in uniform, painted just after the war, with ribbons on his chest, a handsome and serious man, but for the most part, we were not a good family for keeping track of things after he died.
He loved the Farm. It had his two favorite things in life—wilderness and snakes. He’d spend every weekend, every vacation, out in that forest alone, cutting down the dead pines with a yellow chain saw and planting new ones. He was very good at being alone. I knew him by the whine of that chain saw.
At the end of the day, he’d come out of the woods, a milk snake coiled around his wrist, and sit on the porch, gazing down at the lake. I’d sit in front of him, my legs dangling over the edge of the porch, over the dark space where the porcupines lived, and listen to the laughter of the ice in his glass of bourbon. I don’t remember him saying much.
Sometimes he’d shoot the rifles. The barrel of the machine gun had been filled with lead, but the rifles worked. One was a Japanese infantry rifle; I remember stroking its wooden stock. The bullets for all of them were huge. I was never allowed to shoot any of the rifles, but I would watch him—the blue flame leaping from the barrel, the concussion shocking the winter air, the sound louder than anything I’d ever heard, echoing again and again and again as it bounced off the hills and the snow. The empty kerosene cans would fly up into the air and land a few yards away, and the holes in them were jagged and tortured.
Shortly after my father’s death, my mother asked the police to come and take away the rifles, and they did. The medals went into a safe-deposit box. The Japanese flag disappeared. My mother sold the Farm to the Girl Scouts. We kept the portrait of my father in uniform, painted just after the war, with ribbons on his chest, a handsome and serious man, but for the most part, we were not a good family for keeping track of things after he died. No one felt the overwhelming need to be reminded of his absence once he was gone, so possessions scattered. Our family moved out of Bronxville and veered off onto a completely different track.
Several decades later, after I’d married and had two children, I hung the portrait in our living room, so that my son would know his grandfather as a marine. I don’t know if that’s what my father would have wanted, but in a short forty-four years on earth, I reasoned, a man does not leave too many marks, and I was certain that his had not been made as the president of the Custom Made Paper Bag company. The family crest he’d designed didn’t feature a paper bag. It featured a coiled rattlesnake, two autumn leaves, the Marine Corps symbol, the words “Semper Fidelis” and the shoulder patch of the First Marine Division. The patch was issued after the Guadalcanal campaign. It shows a red numeral 1 on a field of blue, and five white stars signifying the Southern Cross, the constellation at which the marines would gaze as they waited in their foxholes for the bombs, or the bayonet.
By the summer of 1942, Japanese forces controlled nearly one seventh of the globe, but the military felt no need to commit American ground forces to the war in the Pacific—until a reconnaissance plane, flying over the Japanese-held Solomon Islands, noticed an airfield near completion on an island called Guadalcanal, several hundred miles north of Australia. A month later, the First Marine Division stormed the island, took the airfield and engaged a Japanese force that would outnumber them by 3-to-1.
Six months later, in February ’43, after the loss of nearly 20,000 lives in the ground fighting alone, half a hundred warships and a thousand airplanes, the surviving Japanese were evacuated and the most important battle of the Pacific War was over.
The natives of the Solomon Islands called it, simply, “the Big Death.” James Michener compared it to Valley Forge and Shiloh. Herman Wouk wrote of Guadalcanal, “It was, and remains, ‘That fucking island.’”
“Over the millennia of war,” William Manchester wrote in Goodbye, Darkness, “certain crack troops must be set apart, elite units which demonstrated gallantry in the face of overwhelming odds. There were the Greeks and Persians at Thermopylae, Xenophon’s Ten Thousand, the Bowmen of Agincourt, the Spanish Tercios, the French Foreign Legion at Camerone, the Old Contemptibles of 1914, the Brigade of Guards at Dunkirk.
“And there was the olio of leatherneck units who fought on the Canal under the name of the First Marine Division.” Most of the books share one thing—the refrain that is now legend, which quotes the veteran of the Canal as he reports to the afterlife:
And when he gets to Heaven/To St. Peter he will tell:
“One more marine reporting, sir—I’ve served my time in hell.”
Not long ago, my mother found a letter my father had written from Guadalcanal to his brother in November 1942, with a fountain pen on thick paper: “Of course, war is hell, just like they say. Nothing to be alarmed about, I guess, but over the period of time since we landed, I’ve had four officers put out of action by bullets and shrapnel, and one evacuated because of ‘war hysteria.’”
Until then, I hadn’t fully understood a basic tenet of combat: For an officer, the statistic that matters is not the number of enemy killed but the number of his men whose death he causes. Before my father landed on Guadalcanal, he had 150 men. When G Company left the island four months later, approximately sixty were left to walk off under their own power.
“He prayed that he’d get it, that he’d be killed, instead of so many beautiful young lieutenants,” my mother told me. “These beautiful young men … he said it was so horrible to call and say ‘I need two more lieutenants.’”
I did consider how odd it would be for a man who has pointed a .45 at another man in the middle of a jungle 9,000 miles away to come back to civilization and sit at a desk in a room full of machines that manufacture paper bags.
In fact, she said, he never told her much about the war. Not when he was awake. But he’d shout orders to his men in his sleep.
My father kept one gun at our house in Westchester. It was his service revolver, the .45. He kept it in a drawer in a filing cabinet in his office over the garage. Sometimes, my mother would find him hefting the gun. I don’t know if it was loaded. But I figure if he’d managed to bring back ammunition for a Japanese infantry rifle, he probably hadn’t had much trouble getting rounds for an American officer’s combat pistol.
It’s not unusual for soldiers to bring souvenirs home, although it is illegal to bring home the ammunition for them. Perhaps it’s not unusual for veteran officers, years later, to idle away slow moments with the service revolver they’d used in battle. I don’t know if, in the moments he’d take out the .45 or the infantry rifles, he was, in his head, back on Guadalcanal.
I did consider how odd it would be for a man who has pointed a .45 at another man in the middle of a jungle 9,000 miles away to come back to civilization and sit at a desk in a room full of machines that manufacture paper bags. And I was certain that a knife-and-bayonet war in a jungle against a fanatic foe did things to a man.
Once, my mother said, my father told her he’d been cut off from his patrol in the jungle and had met a lone Japanese soldier. He looked the man in the eye, hoping the other man would see his plea: We can just both keep walking. But the Japanese soldier, steeled in a different combat ethic, pulled his knife, and my father had to pull his, and killed him. I figured that explained the blood on the flag. But I don’t really know.
Years ago, I came across a half-dozen boxes of color slides of the family in the Fifties—at the Farm, in Bronxville, on vacation. Hundreds and hundreds of them, all meticulously catalogued and captioned. He wasn’t smiling in a single one.
It was supposed to live in history, Guadalcanal. It hasn’t. For my generation, the jungle war was Vietnam. World War II was George C. Scott as Patton, and two atomic bombs. Guadalcanal is late-night movies starring people like William Bendix.
Not too many months ago, my own son passed the age of 7 years and 8 months, and I realized that he had had a father longer than I had, which meant that, in a sense, I was now expendable. And that if I were to die knowing nothing about the battle, the truth and horror and beauty of Guadalcanal would have been lost to two generations: mine and my son’s. All my son knew was the portrait. He didn’t know what the portrait meant.
Then, neither did I.
I sent for my father’s service records, which said he had fought in several battles, including Edson’s Ridge, the Matanikau River and Point Cruz. The file contained his field evaluations, including the report written by his superior officer on Guadalcanal, Lieutenant Colonel Lew Walt. Walt would go on to command the entire marine force in Vietnam.
“This officer is outstanding as a leader, especially in combat, and is admired by all persons serving under or over him for his ability as a leader,” wrote Walt. “He is fearless, cool and efficient during moments of great stress. As a company commander on Guadalcanal he displayed the highest degree of combat efficiency.”
I retrieved his medals from the safe-deposit box: the Silver Star and the Bronze Star. In one of the medal boxes was the blue felt shoulder patch.
I pored over books for mention of his name. There was nothing in John Hersey’s Into the Valley, or in Richard Frank’s Guadalcanal. There was one mention in Eric Hammel’s Guadalcanal: Starvation Island.
My mother could remember the name of only one person with whom he’d fought: Captain Harry Connor, his classmate at Dartmouth, class of ’38. I tracked Connor down, but he had passed away.
I went to Washington, D.C., to the United States Marine Corps Historical Center. In the archives behind the library, I found a man named George MacGillivray, himself a Guadalcanal vet, who told me that he had a box of letters from several marines who’d written Eric Hammel to help in the research for his book. MacGillivray disappeared and came back with a cardboard box. He said he could find only one file of letters from anyone in my father’s battalion. MacGillivray pulled the file out of the box.
“Did your father know a Harry Connor?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
I reached into the file, pulled out an envelope, took a letter from it. My father’s name jumped off the page.
“If you read Into the Valley carefully,” Connor had written, “you would get the impression that H Company was leading the attack toward the Matanikau. It never happened like this; both Tom Richmond and I had our companies out front.”
Harry’s letters mentioned my father several times. They included maps. And dates. And names. Even excerpts from his combat diary. I wasn’t sure why I was going, and less certain about what I’d find, but the letters told me I had to go to Guadalcanal.
I told Harry Connor’s widow I was going and that I was going to write about it, and asked her permission to use her husband’s letters. She said that Harry would have been honored.
Then she said, “Lift a toast to my Harry when you’re over there.”
I told her I would.
Two nights after my father landed, he was almost killed by the marines under the command of the famed Merritt Edson, the commander of the elite Raider Battalion.
“Tom and I were spending the night real close together in a foxhole,” Eddie Bryan told me. Eddie Bryan had been one of my father’s lieutenants. I’d found his name in one of Connor’s Letters. “He had his pack on. It rained like hell that night. Edson’s outfit was behind us on the high ground. And they got trigger-happy. Tom and I were really exposed. They were shooting like all get-out. Tom and I crawled out of there into a big ditch. The next day, Tom wakes up and goes into his pack to get his food, and the pack is riddled with bullets. The rations were shot up.”
My own arrival is less dramatic. Forty-two hours after leaving New York, by way of Fiji and Vanuatu, I land at the airfield that started it all. An immigration officer of the Solomon Islands, seeing that I have identified myself as a journalist, confiscates my passport and return ticket and tells me to report to immigration headquarters in downtown Honiara, the city that has grown up around the spot where the Matanikau flows north into the ocean.
I ask him why I can’t settle things at the airport. He tells me I am welcome to get back on the plane and leave immediately. I agree to go downtown.
I am drinking a beer on the spot where, fifty-one years before, my father captured the Japanese machine gun.
They are exotic, wildly beautiful people, the Melanesians. Their features belong to the ancestral pulls of a different earth than mine. But in a cinder-block office in the government compound downtown, these particular Melanesians do not appear to be happy. A grim man smoking a cigarette, surrounded by several grim assistants, asks me in Pidgin English what it is I am doing on Guadalcanal. I show him a photograph of my father on the island, and his letter, his war records. The man’s staff begins to crowd around us. Bristly expressions loosen into huge smiles.
“First Marine Division?” says one. I nod. They smile and nod back.
“I don’t think there will be a problem,” says the man with the cigarette.
Just down the road from the government offices sits the Solomon Kitano Mendana, one of three hotels in the capital city. I retire to the patio, with its view, across a small bay, of the spit of land where the port of Honiara is located—the site that gave the battle of Point Cruz its name. In that battle, my father’s battalion killed 200 Japanese, including a full colonel and 17 other officers, and captured 9 field guns and 34 machine guns.
“Ended up in close range grenade and pistol battle,” Harry Connor’s diary reads. “No prisoners.”
In fact, according to one of the books I read, the battle took place just west of the point. So that I am drinking a beer on the spot where, fifty-one years before, my father captured the Japanese machine gun.
The hotel’s amenities include two bars and a private-function room called the Coastwatchers’ Lounge, named for the Australians who watched the horizon for attacking Japanese ships and planes. “[Dedicated] to the memory of the brave band of men who operated behind the lines as intelligence gatherers during the Second World War,” reads the hotel’s promotional literature—a nice sentiment, but unusual, considering that the Kitano Hotel is owned and operated by the Kitano Construction Corporation, founded by Tsuguto Kitano in 1946 and now one of Japan’s largest building concerns. The irony is heightened immensely when I enter the U.S. embassy and see the lobby stacked with boxes of files, a lawn mower and a spare tire.
The Americans are leaving.
“Your father was here when the flag went up, and you’re here as the flag comes down,” Allen Bishop observes in his empty office. The acting charge d’affaires, himself a veteran eight and a half years in the Corps, explains in somewhat subdued fashion that the embassy is closing at the end of the week, the victim of budget cuts mandated by the Bush administration: The president who had campaigned on his war record had authorized the closing of the embassy on the island where the marines had won the Pacific War.
“I hope we can reestablish the embassy,” Bishop tells me. “They’re a very pro-American people.”
In its fifteenth year of independence from the United Kingdom, the Solomon Islands is, by some accounts, the poorest nation in the entire South Pacific Forum—Vanuatu, Tonga, the Republic of Kiribati, all of them trying to attract outside investment and repel the rape of their remaining natural resources by larger neighbors.
As Bishop and I talk, the electricity suddenly goes off, all over the city. A phone rings in another office. Bishop hurries to answer it. Three days before the closing, he is hoping it’s a reprieve from Washington.
It isn’t. It is a fax he has requested, a map of the island, pointing out various war memorials and sites to visit. He hands it to me and invites me to attend the final lowering of the flag, on Friday.
At Beach Red, the original landing site, a 75-mm. cannon is a plaything for the children who roam the shore. Farther east, at Tetere Beach, several amphibious landing tractors sit in the sand. Banyan trees sprout right through the floor plates, their roots dripping down to wrap the steel.
Near Kakambona village, a Japanese landing barge is home to dozens of skittering green crabs. At all of these sites, the decaying machinery of war, planted incongruously in the fecund jungle, makes for a striking tableau, even an eerie one. But the remains are inanimate; the war in them is rusted under. It’s not until I visit the Vilu Village War Museum that I find the battle still alive. Amid a clutter of wrecked tanks and fighter planes, Selwyn Ramoibeu, the museum’s curator and watchman, tells me that his own father fought with the marines at the Matanikau River. Our fathers, I say, may have fought together. Selwyn directs me up the road, where I find Barnabas Ramoibeu, wearing a skirt and carrying a Bible. His teeth are black from chewing betel nut. Tattooed onto his left shoulder are a marine sergeant’s stripes.
“The marines tattooed,” Barnabas tells me. “I shoot Japanese. My country asks me to fight. I say, ‘I can do that.’”
That evening, I reread the passage about a dead marine in Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow, the memoir of a First Division veteran of Guadalcanal: “His body bore dozens of bayonet wounds….In his mouth they had stuffed flesh they had cut from his arm. His buddies said he had had a tattoo there—the Marine emblem. The Japs cut it off and stuffed it in his mouth.”
One morning, on a sidewalk, I am greeted by a hallucination: an elderly man—a white man—wearing white shorts, white knee-socks, a white shirt and a hat out of whose band curls a long emu feather. The only color in his ensemble is furnished by his green-and-orange-striped regimental belt and the scarlet capillaries lacing his regimental visage.
I assume he is someone I should talk to. I tell him I’m American. I ask him what he thinks of the embassy’s closing.
“You have to keep the flag flying!” he tells me in official tones. “You’re not pulling out of the Solomon Islands—you’re pulling out of Guadalcanal!”
I have happened upon the island’s most tangible living link to the time and place I’m pursuing. Bill Guinan tells me he is the prison adviser to the government of the Solomon Islands. He was the governor of Wandsworth Prison, in London, when the queen dispatched him to the Solomons eight years ago to quell a series of prison riots.
But Bill Guinan is no warden; that’s just a job. He is a soldier. He fought the Japanese in India for the 54th Regiment and finished in 1945, standing guard over Emperor Hirohito in Tokyo. Guinan remembers pitched battles in India. He remembers killing Japanese. He remembers how many he killed. But his respect for his enemy, he tells me, never diminished.
As Guinan talks, a Benson & Hedges bums down between the second and third fingers of his left hand. The tip of his emu feather is dangerously close to the glowing ash; he does not notice.
“Guadalcanal must never be forgotten,” he says. But he is no longer talking to me; he is talking aloud, to himself. “They’ve bloody well forgotten it. But it must never be forgotten.”
Five days after my arrival, the flag comes down.
The ceremony is brief. Allen Bishop invites the attendees to finish the beer in the embassy refrigerator.
One beer loosens Bishop’s demeanor. But he’s still not smiling. He says that Bill Guinan paid a surprise visit that afternoon. Carrying a Japanese helmet he’d just bought off a collector.
“To humiliate me,” Bishop says. “He said to me, ‘The people here don’t see you as closing the embassy. They see you as running away.’
“And in a way, I can see their point.”
At the mouth of the Matanikau River, the water curls around a large sandspit and empties into the ocean. On the riverbanks sits the city’s only slum, a settlement of out-islanders. The spit is covered in litter and filth, pieces of plastic and rotting fruit. Children play on the sand and splash in the surf. A few dozen yards offshore, the turret of a Japanese tank juts out of the water. The children pay it no mind.
When the marines first landed on Guadalcanal, the Japanese were caught by surprise and fled to the west, to the other side of the Matanikau. Two weeks after the landing, the Japanese still had not shown themselves, and a headstrong marine colonel named Frank Goettge, itching for a fight, took twenty-six men in a boat, circled into the bay and landed on the other side of the river. The men were summarily slaughtered by rifle and machine-gun fire; the horrifying news that came back with the two survivors was that they’d seen the glint of the Japanese swords as Frank Goettge’s patrol was beheaded.
“I remember the first time we crossed the Matanikau, we saw their bodies,” John Babashanian, a first lieutenant, told me. “All we could see was their feet sticking out of the sand and the water rolling by.”
The Matanikau became the unofficial demarcation line for the battle of Guadalcanal—a finger of water a couple of dozen yards across, winding its way north to the ocean, where the sandspit sticks out from the east bank, several yards wide, and diverts the river’s flow. The 2-5 was constantly engaged on the banks of the Matanikau.
“26 Sept: Heavy fire from emplaced Jap machine guns and mortar,” Harry Connor wrote in a letter. “G Company attempted to gain west bank. Unsuccessful. G Co. sitting targets.”
“We lost a lot of men,” Don Peppard, another of my father’s lieutenants, told me about the action that day. “You could see them dropping. We couldn’t get across. Tom was in the middle of everything. He wasn’t one of the company commanders who sat back in the command post. He was up there personally looking out for his platoons.”
“I was up on the high ground, placing the mortars,” Eddie Bryan told me, “and your dad was out on the sandspit. He had a hell of a time. He was pinned down, caught out on that sandspit.”
That’s all Eddie recalls; as he turned away to set up a mortar, a Japanese bullet hit him in the right side of his neck and exited just beneath his left ear. It was the last he saw of Guadalcanal.
“I remember walking to that battle with your dad,” Sam Bair told me. Bair was an enlisted man, my father’s runner on Guadalcanal. “I was limping because I had the jungle rot on my feet. I was carrying a Springfield, he had the .45. He said, ‘Give me your rifle and shell belt, I’ll carry them, you take the .45.’ ”
Over the telephone, all of the men I spoke to about Guadalcanal—heroes and brig dwellers, lieutenants and PFCs—had an astounding and unexpected enthusiasm, not only for my father but for the rightness of what they had done. They had fought a good war, for all of the right reasons, and they had fought it well. Bish Doherty, John Babashanian, J.B. Doyle, Eddie Bryan—with each successive man, and each successive tale, the authenticity mounted, and I knew it to be true: Not only had my father been the good soldier I’d always hoped he’d been, but he was more—more, I knew as I toured the battlefields of Guadalcanal, than I could ever be.
As the river winds inland from the sandspit, it narrows, gets lost in the valley wrapped in jungle. The hills are too full of shadows here. It could have come from anywhere, the enemy fire. In the middle of the river, a woman does her laundry; children play on the rocks.
A half-mile south, in a dusty village called Chinatown, sits the Mataniko Saloon and Bar, the darkest bar I’ve ever been in. Its windows are barred. Its floors are concrete. Its walls are riveted steel plates, stained with what appears to be expectorations of betel nut. On each side of the room is a cement picnic table. In the middle of the room, enclosed in his own room, behind more bars, sits a man. He is next to a large cooler. When I walk in, the beery conversation wanes to silence. The man in the cage stares at me a long time. Then he sells me a can of Victoria beer.
At one of the tables sit three men, under whose table sits a pyramid of perhaps a hundred empty beer cans, very possibly more. At the other table sit three older men, all quite drunk. They ask me to join them. I do. One of them asks what I am doing there. I tell him that my father had fought here. Out back. Out behind the bar. In that water.
“First Marine Division?” says one of them.
I do not raise a toast to Harry Connor here.
As I walk out of the door, one of the men at my table turns to the other table.
“First Marine Division,” he says.
At the bottom of a valley of eight-foot-high grass surrounded by steep hills on three sides, a mile off the road, I find an American tank. A huge hole is tom from the armor in its back; a shell had knocked the tread off the wheels, and it was finished.
“JEZEBEL” is written on the tank’s turret. Both front hatches are open, frozen where they’d been flung, and the armor around them is scarred by bullets. The turret’s top hatch is gone; the inside of the turret bears the marks of a thousand bullets.
It was a massacre.
The only sound in the valley is the call of the mynah bird. Its cry spans an octave. It does not sound like a bird at all. It sounds like a man imitating a bird. My eyes comb the hillsides. I see nothing but sun and grass. The sweat is rolling off my nose and blotting the ink in my notebook.
I walk out of the jungle quickly.
Selwyn Ramoibeu has left a painstakingly written note at my hotel: His friend Peter Alu will take me up the mountain at the western end of the island to see the wreckage of an American airplane if I meet them at dawn.
I don’t like crashed planes. But I have never seen a B-1 7 and I have never climbed a jungle mountain, and I never will again.
The sun is just over the horizon when, at the foot of the mountain, Peter pulls a knife and two machetes from his bag and hands one to Selwyn. Peter leads, Selwyn follows me. I am wearing heavy boots—Selwyn has advised me to watch for snakes—but my guides are barefoot and leap up the slope with easy agility as it winds upward. At one point, Peter stops and turns and bends down to hoist me up to a ledge, and I see the dog tags hanging from his neck.
The jungle is thick and dark; the canopy of trees blots the sun. The vines grab at my feet, and spiderwebs snag my face; the spiders sit huddled in the webs, their bodies huge and vibrant with reds and yellows. I am forever clawing at the filaments.
At times, I can’t see ten feet in either direction for the vines and the trees and the brush. The jungle is fragrant with the duel between decay and life. My clothes are soaked through, and I feel muscles I never knew I had.
It takes three hours to reach the crest and another thirty minutes to slide down into the crater on our backs, grabbing roots and vines, and then, suddenly, the wreckage is everywhere. Preserved beneath the jungle’s canopy, the aluminum and steel are in remarkable condition; the plane could have crashed last week.
A section of the fuselage has come to rest pointing straight up, vertically, held up by trees, the most unnatural position an airplane could ever assume. Farther down the hill, there’s part of the nose, a word stenciled on it: “ESTHER.”
Selwyn finds the cockpit radio. The dial is turned to “INTER.” He asks me what it means. I tell him that the B-1 7 was a very big plane, with a crew of ten, and that as the aircraft fell, the pilot’s last words were to his crew.
“You are the second white man to see this,” Peter says. The first, he says, came to take away skeletons.
I find an unexploded .50-caliber shell jammed into a cavity in a tree, about a foot off the ground. It could not have landed there by chance. Selwyn wonders how it got in the tree. Perhaps, I say, a crewman crawled away from the wreck, knowing that the Japanese would find it first, but wanted to leave a clue as to the direction he’d gone just in case an American patrol came through.
Ten yards farther away in the same direction, Peter starts digging through the mulch on the jungle floor.
“What is this?” he asks and hands over a square piece of metal.
“It’s a belt buckle,” I say. “Don’t dig there anymore.”
When we return to the bottom of the mountain, I open the trunk of my car and pull out three beers. I slump to the ground and lean my back against one wheel of the rental. I raise a toast to Harry Connor.
Edson’s Ridge is a centipede-shaped knoll a half-mile south of the airfield, at the end of a long, furrowed path, poised above a river delta and a blanket of jungle. The Japanese had come up out of the jungle and, for two days, pushed the Raider Battalion back toward the airfield, until just this hill separated the Japanese from the American airplanes.
Merritt Edson and his Raiders, say all of the books, held the ridge. It is the stuff of marine legend. Colonel Merritt Edson was awarded the Medal of Honor for it. For holding Bloody Ridge.
The books also say that on the second day, at 4 A.M., G Company of the 2-5 was called to back up Edson.
“We lost a lot of folks moving up—the Japs were lobbing mortars into the ridge,” Sam Bair told me. “We lost quite a few people getting up on the darned thing. We weren’t used to moving around in the dark. Usually in the dark, we were buried in our holes till the doggoned sun came up.
“G didn’t get the credit it was due in history,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for us moving up in the middle of the night … we would have lost that ridge. G did a whole lot more than they were given credit for.”
Bair’s memories of the Ridge end with the explosion of a Japanese grenade.
“The two guys in front of me got killed,” he said. I got shrapnel in the legs. It blew me down into the high grass. I just stayed there and got up in the morning, crawled right up out of there. I remember during the night, there was a guy who was wounded in the butt. He kept hollering for the corpsman; every time he cried out, the Japs would run up and stick a bayonet in him. If he’d kept his mouth shut he’d have been all right.”
After they took the ridge, the 2-5 dug into foxholes for several days.
“Two boys cracked completely,” reads Harry Connor’s diary.
The Marine Corps wanted to give my father a full ceremonial burial at Arlington Cemetery, with a twenty-one-gun salute. My mother declined. She said she didn’t want to watch all that shooting.
On the top of the ridge, a single obelisk bears a plaque praising Edson’s valor. It makes no mention of the G-2-5.
I leave the car and start to walk down the ridge, through the grass toward the lower fields, where the Japanese staged their assaults. It is like trying to walk upstream in whitewater rapids. It takes a minute to move five yards. The grass is as thick as vines.
Then, several yards off the road, I come across a section of the field that has been scorched by a recent fire, the grass burned away to expose the earth littered with the detritus of Bloody Ridge.
My hand grenade lies near a misfired .50-caliber shell, the shell’s edges twisted and jagged. I drop it into my pocket. Everywhere, scattered on the bald hillside, is the unmistakable stuff of hand-to-hand combat. The shock-absorber spring of a Japanese artillery piece. Yards of barbed wire. A rusted water can. An American drinking cup. The top half of a Japanese infantry boot. The boot had been blown apart at the foot.
I turn away, lest I see the other half. It is time to go home.
Just before I enter the airport, I fish in my bag for the .50-caliber shell, feel its edges and hold it to my face. I pick up the scent of cordite. Or maybe it’s just corrosion. I heft the shell. Then I toss it back into the jungle, where it belongs.
I bring my son several seashells and a wooden carving of an eagle, and money from the Solomons, with its national crest—a shark, a turtle, a fish, a warrior’s shield. I show him photographs of wreckage, of native children, of the spider I pulled out from under my shirt. He is fascinated by the stories of the spiders most of all. The spiders, then the tanks and planes and guns.
These days, at our house, if we see a spider, or a bird, he says “Is it as big as the ones on Guadalcanal?” If he sees a movie about a war, he asks about the island. When he plays with his soldiers, I don’t know if he’s on Guadalcanal in his head.
But I do know that now my son knows about Guadalcanal. And in that, I now know at least partly why I went.
On December 16, 1960, my father was scheduled to return in the evening from a business trip to St. Louis. But he finished up early in order to make it home in time for a Scout meeting and caught an earlier flight. Late that morning, in a blizzard over Brooklyn, his plane, a United DC-8, collided in midair with a TWA Super-Constellation. One hundred and thirty-three people died. The only survivor of the impact, a boy who fell several thousand feet into a snowdrift, died the following afternoon. On the evening news there were pictures of wrapped Christmas presents that had fallen from the sky.
The Marine Corps wanted to give my father a full ceremonial burial at Arlington Cemetery, with a twenty-one-gun salute. My mother declined. She said she didn’t want to watch all that shooting.
The air disaster was the worst in history, and for years after, whenever a plane crashed, the newspapers would include it in stories about other air tragedies. Gradually, it slipped down the list, and now, when there’s a disaster, my father’s crash usually doesn’t even make the papers.
“I remember reading about it in The Old Breed News,” Sam Bair told me.
“I clipped it out. I still have it. You think I would have saved that clipping if I didn’t think a lot of your father? We all did. Your father was a great man. We would have followed him to the gates of hell.”
As far as I can tell, they did.
[Photo Credit: LIFE]