Since we were located only a couple of miles southeast of Henderson
Field, I expected that we might have several more visitors, but we had
only one more: Lieutenant Colonel "Chesty" Puller, commanding
officer of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. Puller, an old friend of
Carlson, arrived at the base one afternoon with jeep and driver to visit
him. Inasmuch as he came aboard at the Company "B" sector, I
had the pleasure of welcoming him and escorting him to Carlson’s
command post, where he invited me to sit down and stay with them.
While Carlson chain-smoked cigarettes and Puller puffed on his pipe,
they exchanged views on the Guadalcanal campaign, looking for all the
world like Chinese warlords, planning their next foray. They also talked
about campaigning in Nicaragua and Haiti, service in China, and many
other things, all of which was extremely interesting, but two points
they made about the Guadalcanal campaign struck me as being particularly
important: first, our Navy was now strong enough in the Guadalcanal area
to prevent the landing of Japanese reinforcements; and, second, the
backbone of the Japanese resistance on Guadalcanal had been broken.
After Puller had departed, Carlson commented that he was a brave Marine,
already famous and, unless he were killed or disabled before the war’s
end, would become even more so.
On November 25, Company "A." now commanded by Captain
Albert Von K. "Bert" Gary, arrived from Espiritu Santo, where
they had been providing security for our rear base. For the first time,
the 2d Marine Raider Battalion would be operating in the field as a
tactical entity. In preparation for our next operation, Carlson
intensified the reconnaissance he had begun on the twenty-fourth to get
a feel for the terrain and to locate trails used by the Japanese.
On the twenty-fifth, a squad patrol from Company "B"
discovered a cache of about 100 weapons in an old Japanese bivouac area
about two miles south of Henderson Field and about the same distance due
west of our base. The patrol brought back as many of the weapons as it
could but had to leave most of them, and on the following day all of
Company "B" went to retrieve the rest.
When we arrived at the arms cache, most of us rushed to gawk at the
weapons, like a flock of tourists. The rifles were in stacks of four, as
if a company had halted, dressed ranks, stacked arms, and fallen out to
take a break from which it never returned. As we crowded together around
the neatly stacked rifles, talking, laughing at the peculiar ways of the
Japanese, and completely oblivious to our surroundings, the sudden sharp
crack of an Arisaka from surprisingly nearby brought everyone back to
earth, literally, as we instantly hit the deck.
Hugging the ground for dear life, we carefully scanned the
surrounding jungle, searching for the concealed sniper and all the while
expecting to hear more shots. As I lay on the ground. straining to see
into the jungle, I first felt embarrassment at my predicament, then
anger at my gross carelessness. For the first time ever on a patrol, I
had failed to post proper security, and now the entire company probably
would pay for my stupidity. However, after a couple of minutes with no
more shots being fired, I got to my feet and quickly sent a fire-team
patrol in the direction from which the shot had come. Then I posted
proper security, as I should have done when we first arrived, all the
while thinking. "the Lord does indeed look after drunks and
fools." ranking myself as the biggest of the latter.
Only after the fire team had returned with a negative report and I
was completely satisfied that we were reasonably secure from another
surprise, did I send the remainder of the company on a methodical search
of the bivouac area. We found no more rifles but discovered several
hundred rounds of small arms ammunition and a pistol box containing
seven pistols. Having promised Doctor MacCracken that he could have the
next Japanese pistol we captured, I invited him to take his pick of
those in the box.
When we returned to base. Almost every man carried a Japanese rifle,
which was left with the battalion armorer as we hiked past the battalion
supply point. These weapons, along with several others previously
captured, made an impressive looking collection—enough to provide a
rifle for each of our natives. Less than a month ago, when the natives
first joined us, only a few of the scouts had rifles; now the guides and
carriers also would be armed.
Major Mather was a little leery of our largess, because none of the
newly armed natives had ever before used a weapon more complicated than
a bow and arrows. Therefore, before they were permitted to have
ammunition, be insisted that Sergeant Major Vouza hold school for them,
emphasizing safety above all else. Mather’s admonishment to Vouza was,
"No safe, no have!" repeated with appropriate gestures several
times for emphasis. Vouza’s men were very proud of their new weapons
and didn’t want to give them up; accordingly, they took the
instruction very seriously. Actually they became more safety-conscious
than were the Raiders.
By end-of-day on the twenty-sixth, our intensive patrolling had
provided Carlson with enough information on the major trails located
within several miles of our base to permit him to formulate an operation
plan, essentially the same as that followed at Binu. Using the Tenaru
River as a baseline, we would fan out patrols and explore the trails
leading west toward the Lunga. Once the main trail was located, all
units would concentrate to seek out and destroy enemy bases located on
Implementation of this plan required that we move our base once
again, and on the twenty-seventh the battalion base was moved four miles
farther up the Tenaru River. At the same time, two auxiliary patrol
bases of two companies each were established on either side of the
battalion base, two miles upstream and downstream, respectively.
Companies "B" and "D" occupied the downstream base,
"A" and "F" the upstream base, and "C" and
"F’ were with Carlson at the battalion base.
On the twenty-eighth, I was directed to lead Companies "B"
and "D" on a patrol along what was thought to be the main
Japanese east-west trail, across the Lunga to the eastern slopes of
Mount Austen. This trail was the best defined that we had thus far seen:
wider, well-beaten, and with Japanese footprints leading in both
directions. After patrolling less than a mile to the west, we found
alongside the trail the bodies of two Japanese who appeared to have died
just recently. Examination of the corpses revealed no gunshot wounds or
other overt cause of death, but their packs were stuffed with leaves
that, according to Jemine, were poisonous.
Lingering on a strange trail is a risky business that gives the enemy
opportunity to set up an ambush, hence we spent only a few minutes in
our examination of the bodies before moving on. The evidence, however,
that the Japanese had resorted to living (or in this case dying) off the
land was significant as a strong indication that we were winning the sea
battle and had the Imperial Japanese Army on the ropes—at least on
After a couple of miles, we came to a mountain stream which I thought
to be the upper region of the Lunga River, but Jemine insisted it was
not, calling it "Andu." Although we had complete confidence in
our guides’ knowledge of the coastal area and the foothills, it was
quite a different story in the mountains. My map, such as it was, didn’t
show a river between the west fork of the Tenaru (Bicho) and the Lunga,
and since neither of our guides had lived in the highlands, although
Jemine claimed to have been here twice, I wanted to be sure they knew
what they were talking about.
As I was questioning Jemine to make certain that this, indeed, was
not the Lunga, he suddenly lost his temper (for the first time since he
had joined us) and showed it by throwing a handful of dirt onto the
ground rather forcefully. Gunny Cone correctly observed that I had irked
him by questioning his knowledge, and after giving him a few minutes to
cool off, I assured Jemine that he was right, patting him on the back
all the while. Acknowledging my tacit apology with a slight smile and a
barely discernible shrug of his shoulders, he went on about his
business, and nothing further was said about the incident. However, I
noted that when we reached the next, much larger stream, he had a wide,
I-told-you-so grin on his face as he proclaimed: "Here Lunga."
Since my orders were to cross the Lunga and camp on or near the
east-west trail for the night, I took my company on across and left
"D" on the trail on the east bank. Across the river, the trail
cork-screwed up the precipitous slopes of Mombula—also known as Mount
Austen, Mambo, and probably by a fourth or even a fifth name. It was an
exceedingly difficult climb, and we took almost an hour to reach a spot
about two-thirds of the way to the crest where there was enough level
space on which to bivouac for the night.
As Platoon Sergeant McNussen’s 2nd Platoon (McNussen had been given
command after Does was evacuated) was occupying the northern sector of
our defensive perimeter, one of his men spotted a Japanese with a rifle
on the rocky nose of a ridge across a deep ravine and dropped him with a
single shot. Although the spot where the rifleman fell was only 200
line-of-sight yards away, we made no attempt to reach the body. It would
have taken a fire team two hours to lower itself into the ravine and
then scale the steep cliff on the other side. Since it would have been
hard dark before the team could have made it back, I decided to hold
fast where we were for the night.
Knowing that we were approaching the area where the Japanese were
believed to have their greatest strength, I felt that they might try to
give us a rough time after dark. They surely would investigate the area
where the lone rifleman was shot and probably would bring reinforcements
during the night. Nevertheless, with the deep ravine protecting our
northern front, a single mountain trail coming into our position from
the west, and Company "D" below us on the river, we felt
I completed my usual tour of the company position about half an hour
before dark and returned to my command post, satisfied with the layout
and confident that we could defend it for a day or so against a force of
almost any size the Japanese were capable of bringing against us.
However, as I was shucking off my pack, that feeling of satisfaction
suddenly left me. I heard strange noises coming from the Company "D’
area down below on the river—noises unlike any battle noises I ever
before had heard. Cone and Lawson thought they were hand grenades
exploding in dense jungle; Sergeant Potter thought they were knee mortar
rounds exploding in mud; and I didn’t know what to think. As the
noises continued, I waited for Company "D" to radio us a
situation report and possibly a request for assistance. When no radio
message was forthcoming, we tried unsuccessfully to call them on the
walkie-talkie. Although we probably could have reached them with our
stronger, hand-generator-powered radio, the TBX, it would have taken too
long to set up, and the only immediately satisfying solution was to go
back down the mountain and see for myself
Gunny Cone, Sergeant Lawson, Corporal Needham (he and several others
recently had been promoted), and I saddled up and started the
treacherous trip back down the trail to the river. Only a few minutes
earlier we had been so exhausted that we felt we just couldn’t take
another step. Now, we were on the trail again, and I thought to myself:
"What a wonderful creation man is. His mind can tell him one minute
that he can’t take another step and almost in the very same minute
tell him he can move on again." Since our group was small and we
were aided by gravity, the trip down the trail took only one-third as
long as the trip up, and we arrived at the Company area just before
As we approached their camp, I had mixed emotions about what I saw,
being at first angry and then pleased. Aside from the men in the
security outposts, the entire company, which was less than half the size
of Company "B," seemed to be having a picnic. Small groups
were gathered around campfires, cooking what seemed to be fish, and
everyone was laughing and living it up as if Dionysus had cast a spell
over them. My first inclination was to raise holy hell, but they were so
unabashedly happy, I just couldn’t bring myself to be a party pooper.
Captain Griffith assured me that he had posted proper security, as I
had already seen, and there was no cause for concern. He explained that
the strange noises we had heard came from the underwater explosions of
hand grenades used to kill the fish. Joe invited us to join them, and
each of us ate a fish and drank a cup of tea before heading back up
Mombula in the pitch-darkness. We were totally exhausted when we reached
camp and, had we not eaten the fish, probably would never have made it.
On the following day, November 29, we sent out small patrols in
several directions. However, aside from learning that the Japanese
soldier had been buried near the spot where he was shot and that there
were fresh footprints on the east-west trail, about all we got from this
effort was the reassurance that the entire Imperial Japanese Army hadn’t
moved into our area overnight.
Standing operating procedure while on patrol required us to report to
the battalion base by radio every two hours during daylight and at any
time we had contact with the enemy. Thus far, however, we had been
unable to communicate with the battalion station, and I was beginning to
be concerned. Furthermore, since our patrol group had been ordered to
patrol a specific area only for two days, I was worried about the
possibility of an air strike or an unobserved artillery mission hitting
my company, if we lingered in the area for a third day. Since the TBX
radio was a three-man load and could only be operated while halted, I
guessed that the interruption of communication was because of the
battalion command post being on the move.
Further complicating TBX communications, when we could get through,
was the requirement that all voice transmissions be by Navajo
code-talkers, and it took them forever and a day to send even a short
message. This was, however, preferable to radiotelegraphy, which more
often than not took more time than voice radio communications in Navajo.
Following several unsuccessful attempts to raise the battalion, we
finally made contact at 0800 on the thirtieth and began to transmit. My
message was short and simple: "Position juncture Lunga-Mambo. Enemy
KIA one. Request instructions."
After our best code-talker had been on the microphone several
minutes, however, I became concerned and asked what he had said so far.
His reply was. "B Company." meaning that he had only managed
to identify his station and had not begun to send the message. At that
rate we would have been there until Christmas, so I decided to delete
all of my message except "Request instructions." After several
more minutes, we finally received orders to rejoin the battalion on the
east-west trail east of the Lunga.
We policed our bivouac areas, saddled up, and headed back down the
trail in the direction from which we had come two days before. A few
hundred yards east of the Lunga, two Raiders from the battalion
headquarters section met us and guided us onto a trail leading to the
south and southwest. After more than two hours of hiking over some
mighty rough terrain, our progress was halted by a bluff so high and
steep we had to use ropes to scale it to reach the trail leading into
the Lunga gorge. Fortunately four more Raiders from battalion
headquarters were at the top of the bluff to assist us.
One by one, my Raiders began pulling themselves up, as the men
already on the bluff began pulling up the machine guns, radios, and
similar heavy items separately. After an hour, only half of Company
"B" had reached the top of the bluff, and none of
"D." Suddenly, however, rifles and automatic weapons began
firing down in the valley beyond the ridge, and this accelerated
movement up the bluff considerably. Quickly, several Raiders tied their
toggle ropes together, and in short order we were climbing the bluff six
at a time. Within the next hour, both companies and their heavy
equipment had reached the crest of the ridge.
Continuing down the trail to the next junction, we met Captain Jim
Davis, the battalion operations officer, who told us "The Old
Man" wanted us to stay where we were until he sent for us. It had
rained fairly hard all during our climb up the bluff but now it began to
come down in torrents—so hard, in fact, that we could barely hear the
fire fight going on in the valley a scant 200 yards below us. After 30
minutes of waiting in the pouring rain, getting chilled to the bone, I
walked down the trail a few yards and talked with Davis, who brought me
up to date on operations by the rest of the battalion over the past two
On the twenty-eighth, the south-west patrol group of Companies
"A" and "F," headed by Captain Schwerin, had located
an artillery position on the narrow watershed between the Lunga and the
Tenaru (west fork or Bicho). Although there was no gun on the position,
patrols had found a quantity of 75mm ammunition cached nearby and
a well-beaten trail leading toward the Lunga and the southern slopes of
Mombula. Based on this information, Carlson decided that this
southernmost trail was the one we sought and on the twenty-ninth moved
the battalion to the point where the trail started over the watershed to
On the thirtieth, just after we had been ordered to return, the
battalion had crossed the watershed and into the Lunga valley, using
ropes to scale the bluff just as we had. On the west side of the ridge
they discovered a field telephone line that led from the artillery
position and followed it along the trail down a narrow ravine to the
south bank of the Lunga and a large bivouac area. Here they had found a
75mm mountain gun, un-doubtedly one of those artillery pieces
known to the Marines at the airfield as "Pistol Pete," and a
37mm anti-tank gun.
Moving westward through the bivouac, the Raiders soon came to a
second, smaller bivouac, in which they flushed and killed five Japanese.
From here several trails led to the west, and Carlson ordered Bill
Schwerin, whose company was the advance guard, to send out patrols to
search the area. These patrols apparently were the source of the firing
we had been hearing for the past hour or so, and judging from the noise
they were making, they had flushed a sizeable flock of the Emperor’s
Captain Davis and I were only a few yards from the first bivouac area
where the artillery pieces had been discovered, and we went over to look
at them. Both were in excellent condition and obviously well maintained.
As we stood looking at one of the best-known weapons on Guadalcanal, I
could not help but wonder at and admire the herculean effort it must
have taken to move it and its smaller companion from the coast, through
some of the most rugged terrain on Guadalcanal to a firing position
within range of Henderson Field. It seemed impossible that it could have
survived as long as it did; nevertheless, there it sat, with no crew and
now more than 200 yards downhill from its supply of ammunition, as if
caught in the middle of a displacement.
After about 45 minutes the firing became sporadic, then ceased
altogether, and we were ordered to move on down to the area of the
engagement. Most of the fighting had taken place in the third of the
Japanese bivouac areas, where Corporal John Yancey and his squad, of
Company "F," had surprised a large group of Japanese seeking
cover from the pouring rain under makeshift shelters.
Yancey and his squad, down to six men as a result of the ravages of
disease, had advanced several hundred feet through the first and second
bivouac areas and into the center of a third, when suddenly they found
themselves looking at 90-100 men under shelters, with their rifles and
machine guns neatly stacked about trees in the center of the bivouac.
Surprise was mutual, but the Raiders recovered first and opened up with
a hail of fire from their automatic and semi-automatic weapons.
Most of the enemy were killed in their shelters, and the few who
managed to reach their weapons were disposed of before they could cause
any harm. The survivors scattered, attempting to reach the cover of the
brush on top of the ridge, but Yancey and his men relentlessly pursued
them up and down the rocky slope, shouting "Hi Raider" to
identify themselves to their comrades. When the assault was finally
called off because of approaching darkness, Yancey and his men had
accounted for most of the 75 Japanese killed that day. Besides the men,
the bivouac area contained a considerable quantity of rifles, machine
guns, light mortars, ammunition, medical supplies, and food. This was a
grave loss for forces cut off from their source of supply.
The night was hard dark, the rain was cold, and everybody was
miserable. Having heard so much about how hot and humid it was on
Guadalcanal and experienced the stifling days along the coastal plain,
not a soul would have dreamed that it would be so cold up in the
mountains. We had already lost several men to malaria, jaundice, and
jungle rot, and now I expected that by morning, pneumonia might easily
take several more from our ranks.
Sergeant John Wesley Potter, a hearty, non-complaining soul, wanted
more than anything else in the world to build a fire, and
notwithstanding the routine requirement for complete blackout, I decided
that the situation was exceptional and gave him permission to do so.
"Besides," I thought, "everything is so wet, he probably
won’t be able even to get a fire started."
However, I had underestimated the ingenuity and determination of my
men, and after 30 minutes of chopping, whacking, fumbling, cursing, and
kicking, Potter and Corporal Orin Croft finally managed to get a feeble
blaze going. Soon, as they fed the tiny flames with twigs and dry wood
from the undersides of fallen trees, their fire blazed higher and
higher. Everybody now began to help, with each man bringing an armload
of wet limbs, or the like, to throw on the fire, and soon two or three
Raiders were teaming up to bring in large logs. When the fire had grown
to about six feet in diameter, and flames were leaping up 12 or more
feet, I had to caution them to hold it down. By then, however, it was
big enough to warm each man and dry out his clothes, blanket, shelter
half, and poncho so he could get a few hours’ sleep.
At 0600 on December 1, the rain stopped, and the sun broke through
openings in the jungle canopy in bright streaks. The first day of
December was a day of rest for most of us; that is, another day of
cleaning, resupply, and issuing rations. Since we had advanced too far
into the mountains for our native supply train to replenish us from the
beach, our supplies were to be dropped in to us by a cargo plane from
Henderson Field. We had tried this once before without great success,
even though we had built a big bonfire, laid out our air-ground panels
in the middle of the river, and even sent one of our men back to ride in
the aircraft. Now we were located on more easily recognizable terrain—a
relatively large jungle clearing on a wide, sandy elbow turn in the
river—and hoped for more success.
The plane made several trips and several passes on each trip. The
first drops were by parachute, but strong winds blew them so far away
that we could not reach the cargo. After this technique failed, the
plane flew as low and slowly as possible, and the 100-pound bags of
rice, raisins, tea, and fatback, were kicked out of the door in
free-fall. About three quarters of the food was salvaged, with the rest
failing into the river or too deep in the bush to be recovered. Each
company took a turn at retrieving the rations, posting security and
cautioning the men not to wander too far astray while chasing the cargo
drops. Unfortunately Private Glenn L. Mitchell of Company "A"
strayed too far from the security and was killed by a sniper.
On November 30, Carlson had received orders to return to the
perimeter; however, in light of the developments on that day, he
requested and was granted a postponement. On the morning of December 2,
he again fanned out patrols, holding but one company at the base for
security and to mop up the remnants of the force that Corporal Yancey’s
squad had mauled. My mission was to patrol up the Lunga River to the
point where it makes a 90-degree turn to the east to determine where the
trail crossed the river and what direction it took from there. For this
patrol, I selected Sergeant Lawson’s 1st Platoon, reinforced it with a
section of two machine guns, and we headed upstream.
Only a short distance from base, our route took us into the river
gorge whose shoulders rose higher and higher as we moved upstream,
finally reaching up to 100 yards on each side. The gorge constrained the
river into many S-turns, forcing us to cross seven times on the way up.
At the fifth crossing, the water was quite deep, and the shortest man in
the patrol could not make it unassisted. Since we would be returning
over this same trail and needed security for our rear, we left him and
another man as our rear guard and continued on upstream.
After making the seventh crossing, we suddenly came upon a group of
10 Japanese sitting around a small fire on a large sandspit that jutted
out into the river. They were jabbering away, oblivious to their
surroundings and with no security whatsoever, and we were able to
position four riflemen, three automatic riflemen, and two machine guns
on line within 50 yards of them without being seen. On my signal, all of
the weapons opened fire as one, and, except for one man who stood up and
took several steps before falling, the Japanese soldiers died where they
After a minute or so, I ordered the men to cease firing, and Lawson
and I went in to examine the dead. They were a pitiful sight: emaciated
beyond words, pale and sickly looking; one had a crutch, and another had
a crude homemade splint on his leg. Their uniforms were in rags, and
although each had a rifle, not one had a full clip of ammunition. That
notwithstanding, had they pooled their cartridges and placed a single
marksman at the top of the gorge, he could have picked off every man in
our patrol. On the other hand, perhaps none of them any longer had the
physical strength to scale the steep walls of the gorge.
Continuing on our way, we soon came to a point where the gorge began
to open up and ahead could see a long, straight stretch of more than
1,000 yards, where the river flowed almost due east. At about the
midpoint of this stretch, we came upon what we took to be the main
Japanese trail, the object of our search. Here the trail came down off
the ridge to the south, crossed the Lungs, skirted the western slopes of
Mombula Mountain, and continued on to the northwest, toward the
headwaters of the Matanikau River. We continued on to the west another 500
yards or so to where the Lunga makes its 90-degree turn to the east,
then headed back the way we had come.
Although two other Raider patrols had set out from base an hour
before we did on routes paralleling ours to the right and left, we were
not in position to support one another. It would have been impractical
for them to make their way along the edge of our gorge, because the
dense jungle made even slow movement extremely difficult and fast
movement impossible. Likewise, we could not have aided them from 1,000
feet below on the floor of the gorge. Consequently, knowing there was no
security on our flanks and that any Japanese in the area would have been
alerted by our firing, we did not linger on the way back and made the
downstream trip in far less time than the upstream.
Actually, the return trip could have been completed in half the time,
with Japanese weapons and all, were it not for having to set up our
radio to make our report. Although recognizing the vital necessity for
communications with battalion, I often wondered if adherence to a rigid
schedule was wise. The hand-cranked generator that powered the radio
made a loud, whining noise that could be heard for several hundred yards
in the quiet of the mountains. Often, however, it was impractical to
place security out to the range of the noise, which invited surprise
attack. Nevertheless, in spite of all the things I imagined might happen
to us on the return trip, none did, and we reached base without
When the other patrols that had gone out that morning returned to
base, we learned that ours was the only one to encounter any Japanese.
One patrol, however, had discovered a second artillery position to the
south of the first and found the barrel of a 75mm mountain gun. A
second patrol had crossed the Lunga and scaled the precipitous south
slope of Mombula. On the top, at the hub of a web of ridges, they found
a well-constructed, unoccupied Japanese position. Reports from the other
patrols were all negative. About an hour before dark, Colonel Carlson
held a meeting with his staff and company commanders to brief us on the
next day’s operations. He began the session with the announcement that
he had received specific instructions from division to terminate the
patrol immediately and begin the return to the perimeter on December 3.
In compliance with these instructions, he proposed to divide the
battalion into two task forces, each of which would return by a
One force, consisting of smaller Companies "C,"
"D," and "E" and headed by Captain Washburn, would
return by the Tenaru River trail to the site of our first base on the
lower Tenaru. Since neither of these companies any longer had a doctor,
Carlson directed Doctor Robinson, the battalion surgeon, to consult with
Doctors Stigler and MacCracken and decide among themselves which of the
three should go. After several minutes of fruitless verbal jousting, the
three decided to let fate decide and toss coins, the odd man going back.
The coins were tossed, and the lot fell to Doctor Stigler who, after no
little grumbling about rotten luck and the like, resigned himself to his
fate. What he didn’t know was that the other two doctors had cheated.
They had agreed beforehand each to toss a head, thereby ensuring that
eventually Doctor Stigler would be the odd man.
The second force, consisting of the battalion command group and
Companies "A," "B," and "F" and headed by
Carlson himself, would cross Mombula Mountain, follow the Japanese trail
to the northwest, and enter the perimeter near the Matanikau River,
thereby completing a complete circuit of the perimeter.
Early on the morning of December 3, the two groups set out in
opposite directions, and on the fourth Captain Washburn’s group
reached its destination on the lower Tenaru without incident. Carlson’s
group, with Captain Bert Gary’s Company "A" in the lead and
followed by Companies "B" and "F," crossed the Lunga
and by 0800 had reached Mombula and started the long, muddy, extremely
difficult climb up the precipitous slope to the top. At about noon, the
leading fire team reached the crest, advanced a few yards toward the
still unoccupied enemy position, and deployed to provide security while
the remainder of Company "A" closed and the rest of the
battalion completed the climb.
Within 15 minutes after Company "A" reached the crest of
Mombula, a Japanese combat patrol was spotted to our right, moving
parallel to us but in the opposite direction and several feet below us.
Captain Gary had the advantage of the high ground and prior knowledge of
the enemy; however, as he waited for the range to close before springing
his trap, the leading Japanese sensed that something was amiss and
dashed into the bush. As the rest of the patrol quickly followed their
lead and began to deploy, Gary’s men opened fire with automatic
weapons and dropped three with the first burst. Flushing out those who
had gained the bush, however, was a difficult job that required the
better part of two hours.
The enemy patrol was armed with rifles, automatic rifles, machine
guns, and mortars, the latter managing to get off only a single,
ineffective salvo. The other weapons, however, did a good job of keeping
our attention. To avoid the heavy firepower to his front, Captain Gary
attempted a double envelopment of the enemy position and sent a squad
around each flank. The enemy, however, countered this with his own
envelopment and soon threatened to outflank our flankers. At this point,
Carlson upped the ante and sent a platoon around each flank to eliminate
the infiltrators, encircle the position, and destroy the enemy in place,
which it eventually succeeded in doing.
In the final phase of the operation, Lieutenant Jack Miller, a
pleasant, clean-cut, handsome, young Marine, led his 2nd platoon against
the enemy soldiers who had worked their way into a brush-choked draw in
the center of our line. Miller and his men plunged into the draw and
pursued the Japanese through the brush, shooting it out with them at
close quarters. During the pursuit, Lieutenant Miller, Gunnery Sergeant
Victor "Transport" Magahakian, and two other Raiders were
seriously wounded. The enemy dead numbered 25.
Ironically, Lieutenant Miller was wounded by an American-made
Thompson submachine gun, undoubtedly captured elsewhere—the
Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, Guadalcanal, or even Makin, where we had
lost two dozen or more Tommy guns. The very thought that this particular
weapon might have been one of those we lost on Makin was eerie,
suggesting the inexorability of man’s fate. Jack Miller had been
slated to take the 2nd Platoon of Company "A" to Makin, but
just before we left he broke an arm and, much to his disappointment, had
to be left behind. Now less than four months later he was wounded by a
weapon that we might have lost on Makin.
By the time Gunny Cone, Corporal Needham, and I caught up with
Colonel Carlson, the shooting was over, except for an occasional shot.
Carlson, Cone, and 1 hiked down the hill to the Japanese who had been
killed in our initial burst of fire to examine them for identification,
documents, and the like. To our surprise, we found that each had been
carrying a large chunk of beef, which possibly explains their fatal
slowness to react when Bert Gary’s men opened fire. They obviously
were returning from a foraging party, one of those unpleasant chores
that befall military units that lose control of the sea and hence the
supply lines over which their sustenance flows. As I stood over one of
the thought- to-be dead Japanese, I suddenly saw his eyes flicker open
and just as quickly close, almost like the shutter of a high-speed
camera. I stooped down to feel his pulse and found a strong, regular
beat coming through. Then, as I raised up and started over to tell
Carlson, the "dead" soldier jumped up, threw his bag of steaks
at me and grabbed for his rifle.
This sudden commotion immediately caught the attention of Carlson and
Cone and evoked from Carlson a rare expletive. Before this,
"Damn!" was about the strongest word I had ever heard Carlson
speak; now he belted out, loud and strong: "Shoot the
I whirled about just in time to duck the bag of steaks and, almost in
the same motion, brought up my shotgun and squeezed the trigger just as
he was bringing his rifle to bear on me. This time there was no easing
up on the trigger "in the nick of time," and the impact of the
buckshot spun him about and dropped him with his head resting a few
inches from my boots, his face up, and his eyes open and focused on me.
As I watched, the last faint afterglow of life faded and disappeared
from his eyes, and his eyelids slowly closed.
When I searched him, I found among his papers pictures of what I took
to be his wife and children, and as I looked at the photographs of the
young mother and her babies, a feeling of deep sadness suddenly engulfed
me. For the very first time, I saw my "enemy " not as a
ravening beast but as another human being, and I felt sorry for him and
his loved ones, but not for his country; not for the political system
that brought him to this end. My feelings then probably were much the
same as those Thomas Hardy aimed to convey in the concluding stanza of
"The Man He Killed:"
Yes; quaint and curious war is! You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat, if met where any bar is, Or help to half-a-crown.
That night on Mombula Mountain, Company "A"’ occupied the
northern sector of our defensive perimeter, Company "F’ the
western, and my Company "B" the eastern and southern sectors.
In less than 30 minutes, all of the companies had occupied their
positions and were ready for the night. After my usual tour of the
company area, I returned to my command group and found Sam Cone brewing
tea. Sam was still determined to stop my snoring, and now he said that
he was fixing tea strong enough to take the enamel right off my teeth
and make sure there would be no sleeping and snoring during our last
night behind the lines. As I had many times before, I said again,
"Sam it will never work."
After eating a D-ration chocolate bar and drinking a cup of Sam’s
tea, I lay down and fell soundly asleep before it even got dark. By
nightfall, I must have been snoring pretty loudly because Sam woke me
up; however, I just rolled over and went back to sleep. At about
midnight, after Sam had awakened me for the third time, the tea finally
took hold of my nervous system, and I didn’t sleep another wink the
rest of the night. I did, however, learn that I was not the only one in
Company "B" who snored. Loud snoring could be heard from all
over the company area, and there was a lot of loud talking in the
battalion command group area. I felt sure that Carlson must be sound
asleep too, otherwise he would have made them knock it off. I hoped that
we were not being too careless on our last night in the hills.
The next morning, December 4, Company "B" took the
lead and moving purposefully past the Company "A" outpost,
headed down the trail with Corporal Orin Croft’s squad leading. On the
point was Corporal Albert L. Hermiston’s fire team with Private, first
class, Richard C. Farrar, and Private Stuyvesant Van Buren. When the
point was about 100 yards down the trail, on a stretch that was as
straight as an arrow—a perfect spot for an ambush—Hermiston suddenly
gave the signal to hit the deck, and simultaneously a Japanese machine
gun opened fire. Hermiston and Farrar were killed instantly, but Van
Buren was able to jump off the trail into a deep gully and make his way
to within hand grenade range of the machine gun before he too was shot
and seriously wounded.
Croft’s second fire team (Private, first class, Cyrill A. Matelski
and Privates Benjamin F. Carson and Keith H. Turner) initially took
cover to the right of the trail, then Matelski led his Raiders a few
yards down the slope and started back up in an attempt to envelop the
position. Ben Carson recalls that as they were moving back up the slope,
"we all three saw someone in a G.I. helmet. Matelski hollered, ‘Ahoy
Raider," [but] it was a Jap in the American helmet and that
son-of-a-bitch dropped Matelski with a shot right between the
My Raiders had taken cover on both sides of the trail, which here ran
along the topographical crest of the ridge. I took cover on the right
side where I had been standing, waiting for the 2nd Platoon to move past
so I could fall in behind them. Now, as I hugged the ground and tried
simultaneously to locate the machine gun and avoid being shot by it, I
suddenly heard Corporal Croft calling to Sergeant Potter who was just a
few feet from me.
Croft, who had been about 50 yards behind Hermiston’s fire team
when it was hit, had borrowed the BAR and five magazines of ammunition
from his third fire team and moved forward. Keeping a large tree between
himself and the machine gun, he crawled to within 50 or so feet of the
position and called to Potter for support. When Potter answered, Croft
told him that he had located the general area of the machine gun and
asked him to shake the bush just over his head by the trail to get the
Japanese gunner’s attention.
Potter shook the bush, and the gunner fired a burst right through it,
just above his hand. Croft yelled for Potter to shake it again, and this
time the shots came through the bush somewhat lower, almost striking his
hand. At this, Potter accused Croft of ducking every time the machine
gun fired and told him he’d never get it unless he kept his head up so
he could see. Croft asked Potter to shake the bush one more time, and
Potter complied, grumbling all the while about how Croft was going to
make an amputee of him while ducking behind the ridge himself. On the
third shake, however, Croft got a good fix on the position and killed
the Japanese gunner as soon as he opened fire.
In the meantime, Carlson sent Lieutenant Jacobson of Company
"F" and his platoon to the left down a steep. brush-choked
ravine, and I sent Sergeant Lawson around to the right with his platoon.
There was scattered firing for the next 30 minutes as the two platoons
beat the bashes for surviving Japanese, then all was quiet. This
skirmish cost us three dead and one seriously wounded, while seven of
the enemy were killed.
When we went to examine the Japanese machine gunner, we were
some-what amazed at what we saw. Although apparently hit early on in the
right wrist and hand, he had switched hands and died with his left hand
firmly gripping the stock of his weapon and his left index finger on the
trigger. But after thinking about it, I don’t know why we should have
been amazed. Our machine gunners would have done the same, for such
seems to be the nature of good gunners.
Since Company "B" had to bury its dead, Company
"F" passed through us to take the lead, followed by Company
"A," then the seriously wounded. As Van Buren was carried by
on a stretcher, he looked up at me and asked, "Captain, how am I
doing now?" He was referring to the incident at Camp Catlin when he
and some buddies had helped themselves to a trolleybus and driven it to
Honolulu. At that time, I had promised him a promotion if he behaved
himself for the next three months. Not only had he behaved himself, he
had performed in an exceptionally professional manner. Now in response
to his question, I told him, "hold onto your stretcher. It’s all
down hill from here." When I last saw him, he had a big smile on
Lieutenant Miller, that pleasant young man from Dallas, and his men
who were wounded the day before, didn’t look well at all, particularly
Lieutenant Miller. The previous night had been long and difficult for
them, and now this two-hour delay caused by enemy action wasn’t
helping at all. Doctors Robinson and MacCracken both were concerned
about them, but especially about Lieutenant Miller, whose condition
appeared to be worsening by the minute.
After we had been on the trail for about an hour, Doctor Robinson
halted the litter bearers while he and Doctor MacCracken checked on each
of the wounded. I halted my company, posted security, and prepared to
stay with them as long as necessary. Since Carlson was the only one who
ordinarily would halt the battalion column, I passed the word down the
column that we had stopped to permit the doctors to tend to the wounded.
By the time the leading elements finally got the word and held up, some
20 minutes later, Lieutenant Miller had died. Word of his death was
passed down the column, and soon Carlson hiked back up the trail, took
his Bible and a flag from his pack, and held a burial service for Jack.
We buried him by the trail about halfway down the north slope of Mombula
Mountain, within sight of the division perimeter—the Promised Land, as