Conversations with My Father: Guadalcanal
J. R. Garrett, Cpl., I Bat., 3rd Bn., 11th Reg.

Were you ever afraid during those days on Guadalcanal?

The Japanese pre-fabbed a 3 foot by 6 foot board arrangement framed with two by twos and planks on the top which we could lay on top of the ground or in our holes and make a bed. They also had a sand bag that was woven grass bags of some kind or other and we'd cut them open and spread them on top and use them for padding on top of these boards which we used for beds. The boards really helped...we made good use of whatever the Japanese left behind. We had all of these 3 x 6s put together about as big as our tent covers. So we had a wooden floor under our tent. When somebody would walk across the floor in those boondockers, with those steel plated heels, sound like a horse walking across a wooden deck.

One day we go back to the battery, me and several of my people from my section, went back to pick up whatever ammunition was left behind. I said "Harry, lets make one last bucket of coffee". So we lit a fire, and put the proper amount of water in there and the coffee was going was like 4 o'clock in the afternoon, somewhere in that neighborhood...and we heard a creaking noise (sound fx). It was a noise I didn't identify and in combat one of the scariest things a man can do is holler "uh oh". Sombody says "uh oh", and you're saying "what is it, what is it, what is it!" And I'm listening to that weird noise and somebody says "uh oh" and takes off just running and those hard steel heels are just hitting that deck "bloom, bloom, bloom" and we were on the edge of a clear field - we were back in the trees next to the airstrip; so we all just follow...we all run like crazy. Run out into the opening and here comes a tree just tumbling down (sound fx) right on our tent (laughs). The tree had been cut enough with naval shelling - shrapnel - that it was ready to fall, and when the wind hit it right it just come right on over. When we heard one of our group running...they just stampeded, and I went with them. But some of us didn't know why we were running, and I'm not sure the guy who was running did. But that was frightening; that puts your heart up know somebody's out there shooting, that's a different kind of fear - that's called fright.

Did anybody ever get hurt loading those big guns?

The only incident I remember where somebody got hurt loading a Howitzer was Lex MacAllily from Geneva, who was loading a 75 Howitzer and got his thumb caught in the breech and cut it off. It was hanging by a piece of skin and they took him to the hospital and sewed it back on. He's still got the thumb but its not much use. He had enough skin left there to save it, but I don't know how much use he gets out of it.

What about the Cactus Air Force...what kind of planes did they fly?

The Cactus Air Force flew F4Fs, Douglas Dauntlas Dive Bombers, Grumman Torpedo Bombers - SBDs I think they call them. We had two or three Army P39s and a half dozen or so P38s...thats the one that got Admiral Yamamoto. Not many folks knew we were reading the Jap's mail. Our General Vandegriff moved up to commander of the Marine Corps after Guadalcanal. Naval commander Ghormley was replaced by Halsey under Vandegriff. He was asked to form another Marine Division but he didn't think he could find enough "good men". You know the difference between Marines and all the others? Attitude. By the way, the Cactus Air Force was made up of planes we inherited from the carrier Wasp which was sunk at the Coral Sea...they couldn't land on water you know (laughs).

All of the Cactus Air Force guys slept right behind us you know in the war. And during shellings and things you know we had large bunkers eight or nine men could lay down in side by side and it was covered over by logs and sand bags and things like that. Of course, I don't think they would of held up to a direct hit or anything. Those guys would come out and would get in our fox holes with us during naval shellings and night bombing raids. And there's something about combat thats mysterious in the sense can be laying in a fox hole and go into uncontrollable shaking or shivering and its contagious. It'll just go right down the line. And if, say you're the one that started it - or I'm the one that started it - you'll hear somebody say "Garrett you bastard"...and I'm shaking like hell and everybody else is shaking like hell too...its a quivering sort of state; I guess its nervous tension.

There was a lot of bombing and artillery fire wasn't there...

We would have three waves of bombers, seven in the first wave, eight in the next, 30 in the next wave...I wished I had kept more of the numbers. In my diary I say we were firing all day and all night...and on the Matanikou push we were firing on and off constantly for two weeks. Might have lasted a month. The rumor was that I Battery left the forward echelons for their excellence. We left early...most of the other people came later and we went to Brisbane, least thats the way I remember it.

You saw a lot of the naval action that took place didn't you...

I saw the Battle for Iron Bottom Bay when we lost five cruisers (names the ships). I nearly had a beach side view. But I remember us in a coconut grove and we were in a convoy and we weren't settled. It was raining like the dickens and I got under the truck because it was raining so bad. When you watch a naval gun battle eight miles away, you see tremendous flashes in the gloom. When you see continuous flashes like lightning, what that is is 16 inch guns. We didn't realise it at the time but that was our ships getting blown to hell. But we thought we were winning the battle, and every time a ship would go down we'd start cheering "'Ray, 'Ray" that's the good guys...and they were kicking our butts every time. We finally found out by word of mouth I guess. We were lucky to get any news at all, and when we did it would be something like "Gen. Douglas MacArthur announces from his headquarters in New Guinea that his forces on Guadalcanal..." You know we had radios from out of wrecked fighter planes...we hooked them up to truck batteries. We would listen to dogfights on the radio, "watch that son of a bitch, he's coming your way! He's coming your way...bloom bloom bloom, Talley Ho!" That was their victory cry. I think that might have been common in all the forces; it came from the old fox hunt.

I also remember in November we had 30 or 40 or 50 ships sitting in the harbor there. We were on barren hills on that drive, there was no point so to speak, there was no shade and our battery position was in a valley...there were 30 or 40 foot grass covered dunes which you could get on and pretty much have a panoramic view of the whole bay. I remember seeing a big air raid come in and black anti-aircraft fire was coming crazy from all the ships in the harbor, all kind of puffs of smoke hit the sky. In fact there were 16 torpedo bombers come over about 50 feet high, and I don't think they hit a thing, they were all being shot down, and I think one or two got past the fleet. Our planes were after them too. And way out there somewhere we saw the last one go down...all of them were shot down. These were big two motor bombers. Japanese bombers burn real good...thats in my book. That's a pretty dangerous job...those torpedo bombers.

How many guns are in a battery?

Each battery had four Howitzers, four gun crews and a machine gun to protect the guns...and that was my section: machine guns and ammo. I had to keep the guns supplied. My boys had to ...they'd called for ammunition during a mission and we had to deliver ammunition. Anybody got short of ammunition they'd holler "Garrett!" (laughs). We had one ton trucks...early I was a driver, a Private, a Pfc., it took me eight months to make Private and eighteen months to make Corporal at Camp LeJeune. I was a corporal and acting section chief throughout the whole Guadalcanal of the largest sections in the battery. I had twenty-one or twenty-two guys working for me. We used ten or twelve or fifteen trucks and jeeps. Take those jeeps and tie a 75 Howitzer behind the jeep and carry a gun crew on it...a lot of times the gun crew would have to get off the jeep to help cross a stream; you'd have to break the gun down and carry it across piece by piece. I imagine those Howitzers weighed a couple of thousand pounds. It would take three or four men to carry the barrell and the main block and so on.

Did you have any special privileges as a Sergeant?

As acting Sergeant I had Sergeant priviliges. As section chief I should have been a Sergeant, but for some reason advancement in the Marines was slow. Just before we left Camp LeJeune they were going around asking us if we wanted to apply for officer's school, but a lot of us tough guys said "Hell no, I don't want to be an officer". I think in those days the Marine Corps would have been a good life. In my day the service was fun...but we didn't realize we were having fun. You know we were all kids, we all wished we were home, we all missed our girl friends...but the people who stayed in, as a general rule, fared well.

What was it food and all?

It was a wonderful was a terrible experience: the brotherhood, the adventure. We didn't realize it then but it was like Boy Scouts. We slept in tents or in holes in the ground (laughs) we'd get up and they'd holler "food's ready, come and get your chow", 'course they never had to holler too loud. We never was totally without, but food was scarce...and the menu was very lean. We'd have sheep tongue for breakfast, sheep tongue for supper...we only ate two meals a day. One time it was cold or pickled or something like that, next it would be warm and with rice. You know in the four months or so I was on Guadalcanal, I think I only had one half slice of bread. The only bread which was on the island was at the field hospital. And every now and then they would have some kind of ration bread, and we got a couple of loaves of bread for the whole battery. We would eat Japanese rice...had bugs in it; we took it away from them, they did without (laughs). Hey, we found some five gallon tins of whale fat that was rolled up in seaweed...looked like banana leaves or something. They said it was quite a delicacy, but it was just pure fat. And maybe some of the guys went for it.

By the way, we had a tent there that was supposed to be full of Japanese beer or Saki. I took a truck one day with two or three of my people...and I went down there and there was a Marine sentry walking around with a rifle in his hands and he said "Wait til I get on the other side, then duck under and get some". So he went on around and we zipped under this tent and grabbed three or four or five cases of whatever and away we went. And we get out there somewhere and we run across a guy named Frank Kruse. Frank was the guy that shot down a Japanese plane with a 50 caliber machine gun from one of the dunes...he also was killed I think on that same dune - a bomb dropped on him. But old Kruse was a Marine private when I first met him with 12 or 15 years service. He'd been kicked out of the Marine Corps on a bad conduct discharge, and re-instated back into the service. Anyway, Frank had a whole bunch of hash marks and one Pfc stripe (laughs). So old Frank says "Garrett, what you got... what you got over there..." and I say "Hey Frank, we got a bunch of Japanese beer." He had some Japanese liquor or Saki or something; we didn't know what we had. And he said "Hey, I'll give you a bottle of this for a case of that...". I said "Hell no Frank, you think I'm crazy?" Anyway we went on to the battery and you know these bottles were all written in Japanese; they were brown bottles, looked like beer bottles. Turned out to be vinegar. I wonder if its possible it might have been wine that went bad? I have never thought of that, but I sure wish I had taken Frank Kruse up on his offer (laughs).

There are several mentions of "going to the river..." in your Marine Diary...

We always went to the river to bathe - the Lunga River - it was only knee deep...fresh running water. We'd go in there and strip off. There was a big old tree, it was laying down in the river. We would wash our clothes in there and all, lay them on a limb while we swam. And one time I come back in to the battery and a bomb had fell into I Battery. Five of our guys were hit, but none were killed and they all returned to duty. But every now and then we'd see a dead Jap floating in the river. That's the river we fished with hand grenades.

War is a terrible thing. I feel like its the highest adventure a man can have if he survives. A friend of mine, Morrison, made Sergeant. They put him on forward observer after I left the battery. And he got hit. He said "they gave me Sergeant stripes because I got wounded". Morrison was a Private in my battery. Recently, he sent me some pictures of himself in camouflage fatigues...painted face. He said he'd been playing that combat crap, shooting paintballs you know? He said "I'm trying to get that combat high we use to get...but this doesn't quite do it!" In paintball, if you get hit by a paintball you're dead; but not really...not really.