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The Marines on Guadalcanal

JOHN SWEENEY, 1st Raider Battalion

Converted for the Web from "Into The Rising Sun: In Their Own Words, World War II's Pacific Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat" by Patrick K. O'Donnell

After an uneventful raid on Savo Island in the early morning hours of September 8, the first elements of Colonel Merritt Edson's provisional parachute and Raider battalion waded ashore at Taivu Point. They quickly pushed inland and destroyed the main Japanese supply terminus at Tasimboko, gleaning a windfall of documents revealing Japanese strength and other details of the upcoming Japanese attack. Captain John Sweeney chronicles the 1st Raiders' journey from Tulagi to Tasimboko.

I went over on the Kopara, a flimsy cargo ship loaded with aviation gas and bombs on the deck. Naturally, we wanted to get the trip over. One of the other ships bringing in Raiders was the Colhoun, and it had just debarked D Company. That's when the air raid started. As the Colhoun was trying to get out of there, it was bombed and went down in seconds. Fortunately, we didn't have any Marines on board, but tragically there were fifty sailors that went down with her. We avoided a near disaster there.

We weren't ashore more than a couple of days when we had orders to reconnoiter Savo Island because there were indications that the Japanese were on the island. We didn't find any Japs, but we found the remnants of the disaster that hit the night of the eighth -- the big naval battle off Savo Island. We lost four cruisers there and found many gravesites including the grave of one of the skippers from a cruiser, whom the natives had buried. There was wreckage of sunken ships all over. The shark activity was also very evident. Still lingering from a few days before were bodies, pieces of bodies -- that sort of thing.

After we got back, Edson got wind of a buildup near Tasimboko and sold the idea of making a raid down there. We got two destroyers and two converted tuna boats we called Yippees. The flight down to Tasimboko included sparks coming out of the tuna boat smokestacks that made the convoy kind of a ridiculous thing to be going off to war because they could so easily be seen by the Japanese.

We landed just before dawn; it was early light. We moved down the coastal trail. The first thing I ran into was a lineup of soldiers' marching packs and life preservers. We learned this later: about midnight the Tokyo Express [Japan's system providing reinforcements] landed elements of an artillery regiment that was going to be with Kawaguchi. There must have been about a thousand packs. The hair went up on the backs of our necks. No weapons, no noise, until a shot went off. We found out an anxious Marine had a round in his chamber and accidentally pulled the trigger. There was no response, no bodies, but we knew they were there someplace. I swung my platoon to the left of the trail, and we began moving down the trail to Tasimboko, not knowing what was in store for us.

There was a small stream that we came to and a little embankment on the other side. I was looking to see if I could see anything, and ten or fifteen feet ahead of me was Edson, looking around with binoculars. He motioned me forward.

We got up on a grassy area, and there was a big hulk covered with palm fronds. It was an artillery piece, 75 mm gun, with piles of shells laying around. Obviously, it belonged to the people that had just landed. Our people got all excited about it, and I remember one guy, a colorful guy who wore a wide-brimmed hat and fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, was raising hell, shouting like a cheerleader. I looked at him and said, "What the hell are you doing? Shut up! They're out there, and we don't know where they are. Shut up!" He did.

We started to move out. Just as we were about to enter the clearing, a gun, fifty yards or so into the jungle, fired. It was the brother of the gun we just found, and fired a shell that went over our heads. We heard three or four more go over. Then they began bursting in the trees just behind us. One of the men, Corporal Carney, was killed, and Corporal Maurice Pion had his left arm hanging in shreds. A corpsman came up and used a penknife to amputate his arm. They got him evacuated, and the longer part of the story is that Pion ended up as a one-armed Marine Corps recruiter.

The second gun is firing, and some of the shells went through the CP. It fired maybe five or six shots as we were ducking this -- pretty low. They were going right over our heads. We had to get the gun out of the way, so I was hollering for a machine gunner or a BAR man, but my runner [messenger] Klejnot came up. He was a good shot and cranked off two or three rounds and got two or three people around the gun. The rest took off.

So the gun was out of the way and we were moving forward and at the edge of this clearing when a machine gun opened up on the other side just opposite of where the gun was. It put off a couple of blasts, but nobody was hit. The gun was firing into one of the platoons. I was up close, right behind the scouts, and crawled up behind a large coconut tree where I thought I was safe and was thanking God. I started yelling, "Bakuo!" I picked up the word from our interpreter. On the trip overseas, I asked him for a word that would be an insult like "you bastard," "shithead," whatever. The insult translated into something like, "You son of a turtle." [laughs] That was as close to a dirty word or insult. Every time I hollered it, I got a blast, and dirt on each side of me was flicking up. Just to my right, they were getting the ricochets. But now we could see the gun and where it was firing from, and we were distracting them. So I signaled one of my men to circle. He got the message, and his squad flanked the gun, and I kept them busy in the front. It went on for a couple of minutes. Two of my men riddled the machine-gun crew, knocking it out. We were able to move on. It was the last organized opposition before we moved into Tasimboko.

At Tasimboko we found lots of supplies. Medical supplies, and strange almost fishbowls filled with fluid of some kind. As far as we could tell, it was a type of firebomb. You light it, throw it, it breaks, and there's a blast. There was a lot of food, some saki, and brown bottles of beer. The food was particularly inviting: anchovies, sardines, crab, and lots of rice. We took whatever we could and destroyed the rest. Most importantly, we found a trove of valuable documents.

We destroyed everything we couldn't take. One way of despoiling the food was to urinate on it. We peed on it. Another gun was found, and we along with the other two took the breach block off and threw them away into the ocean. One of the other companies also destroyed an antitank gun. Eventually the boats came to pick us up. Anything we didn't take we threw overboard.

I can never understand why they didn't react better. After we landed, more of our ships arrived. Maybe they thought a major landing was taking place and pulled back, but that isn't in the Japanese character. I just can't understand it. They had a perfect opportunity to overrun us just after we landed.

Copyright © 2002 by Patrick O'Donnell. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

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