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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

John Sweeney's B Company held the center of the line, the vortex of the battle for Bloody Ridge during the main attack on the nights of September 13 and 14. He was the third B Company commander in twenty-four hours.

As we were pulling back, Edson came up to me and said, "Monville is being evacuated, and you're now the B Company commander." I had no officers -- they were all gone. But the NCOs [noncommissioned officers] were all strong. At the time I was too tired to realize the situation I was handed, but as the sun was going down, I realized more and more what was given to me.

As darkness fell, Edson came back again with his binoculars and was looking down the ridge. I remember he said to me, "John, this is it. We are the only ones between the Japs and the airfield. You must hold this position." And he walked away with Burak [Edson's runner] trailing behind. It brought it all home.

One of the things that bothered me was leaving the 1st Platoon down where they were going to be the first hit. They knew it also.

Shortly after darkness fell, this platoon and Haines' platoon were hit by the full weight of the Japanese attack. They just ran through the position. In the dark, those that survived were pulling back to the ridge, firing, throwing grenades.

They were twenty yards or thirty yards away down the ridge and also fortunately firing over our heads. At that time, there were several banzai charges up on the ridge preceded by flares. The flares gave them direction, and some had smoke. Some thought it was gas. I think it was the Marines themselves hollering, "Gas!" I heard this in the distance. It contributed to some temporary panic because we didn't have any gas masks then. It became individual and unit small-arms fire.

About that time, I got a call from Edson on my SCR [radio] that Maddox handed to me, and he said, "What is your situation down there?" Before I could answer, a voice broke in: "My position is excellent, sir." Apparently they had gotten the C Company SCR and were on the channel. It was the Japanese -- of course, the hair goes up! Right after he said it, I caught my breath and realized what had been said, and I'm sure Edson did, and I said, "Cancel that last information, here's my situation." I gave them in vague terms because they were listening.

They were moving into position in the ravine in my rear and also to the front, and at the point he acknowledged the information and then came back with, "Can you take over spotting for artillery?" I gave him the affirmative because we were quite prepared. That was what we needed. When I said "Yes," I handed it to Maddox, who had been in mortars and artillery in his career, and said, "I can handle it." I gave it to him, and he relayed it to [Thomas] Watson [11th Marines forward artillery observer], who was a corporal up on the ridge with Edson. For us it was most effective. He began firing 200 or 300 yards in front of us and fired across until he brought it down. I think it was about 100 to 150 yards in front of us. I remember him saying, "That's right, now walk it back and forth across the front." That's what they did. They fired, fired, fired, fired barrages, and that I think broke up the people in front of us that we were almost eyeball to eyeball with.

After this interruption on the radio, Edson himself apparently got Burak to come down on the nose of the big ridge across from where I was and hollered, "John Wolf! This is Burak. Do you hear me?" I called back, "Affirmative, affirmative, John Wolf." Then the next call came through the cup of his hands. "Red Mike says it's okay to withdraw!" Believe me, that was a welcome message to get. After that, I told Maddox to move back from the paratroopers on the left of the message and then get at the pass where the road cuts in the ridge and stop our people there to regroup. Then I told him we'd pull the withdrawal in about five minutes after he departed.

Shortly after that, we got some probes in close. In the meantime, artillery fire that was going on was close. I think it broke up the major who was commanding the battalion. The artillery fire caught them on the ridge and on each side. I think it killed him.

My group was now around sixty or so people. We had some people who disappeared, and that's something that I think needs to be said. We had stragglers. The 1st Parachute Battalion had stragglers -- not stragglers in the sense they were lagging behind but a few men that were leading a charge to the rear. That's where Edson [Bailey] and, I hope, myself, and NCOs were able to quell any panic in the sense that once one or two start, then pretty soon you get others following. I had a brief flare-up of that. We quelled it by shouting, challenging, cursing. "Act like Marines! You call yourself Raiders? Get back there!" What we ended up with was reorganizing them on the reverse slope. This was during the process of some of the messages that were going on. I had one lad who reported earlier. I never met him before he reported to Maddox. He was replacing a runner, a messenger. He was a young fellow, and where he came from I don't know. He was ordered up from the battalion to report to us. Shortly after dark, Maddox came over to me and says, "The new runner doesn't have a rifle." "What'd he do with it?" "Threw it away." "What!?" I went back, grabbed the kid, and his whole body was as stiff as that piece of metal, rigid, trembling. He was scared shitless. As a runner, as a Marine, as a fighter, he was worthless.

This was the height of the battle. We moved back on that cut [on the ridge], and "Horse Collar" [Jim Smith] was ordered by Edson to bring up what he could of the headquarters people. My eyes widened when I saw him and said, "Deploy your company over here." Smith responded, "We're not a company -- just seven men." I said, "Oh, shit!"

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

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