It’s a terrifying patrol, psychologically: Single file through torrential-rain jungle, holding your M-1 dating back to the previous war because the Department of the Navy , in the marines’ first Pacific battle, had yet to provide the First Division on Guadalacanal with a modern rifle. Spiderwebs – and huge spiders — snagging your face, snakes underfoot. Now a shot rings out from above, from the impenetrable jungle cover, and the man two yards in front of you, maybe the buddy you were singing with as he played the guitar the night before back in camp, drops like a stone, dead, shot right through the heart.
The rest of the platoon shoots up at the tree cover, blindly, but no sniper plummets, because the shooter had strapped himself in up there for that very reason, knowing that the marines, even if they’ve killed him, wouldn’t know it, and would keep wasting ammunition.
The file then stops shooting, and starts moving again.
When my father landed on Guadalcanal, commander of G company, 2d battalion, 5th Regiment, First Marine Division, he had 151 men. When they left 4 months later, 60 were able to walk off under their own power.
“He prayed that he’d get it, that he’d be killed, instead of so many young beautiful young lieutenants,” my mother told me. “He said it was so horrible to call and say, `I need two more lieutenants.'”
When he got home, one of 89 men to win two Silver Stars in the entire war, and moved to Yonkers, then Bronxville, from where he’d commute to Long Island City to run the family’s struggling paper-bag manufacturing company out of one floor of an old factory just off the 7 train, he never spoke to his kids of his war.
But his men did, fifty years later, at a convention in Vegas. “You’re Tom Richmond’s son? Get a drink, and sit down,” said the men of G-2-5 who’d lived, usually at about 10 in the morning, when the bar opened. They’d sit there most of the day, not saying a whole lot, never getting drunk, trying to convince themselves that their guilt at having lived, half a century later, was okay, when their friends of half a century ago never made it off an island no one had ever heard of.
“Your father had a horseshoe up his ass,” one said to me. “He was the luckiest sonofobitch. He’d start walking toward the fire, and look back, and say, `Come on,’ and we’d say, `What the hell are you doing, captain?’ Other officers didn’t go out there first. He always did. Never took a bullet, did he?”
No, I said, he never did.
“There was a banquet at the Waldorf once,” another told me. “They had him seated up at one of the front tables. The rest of us were in some other room. He said he wouldn’t sit up front unless we could sit with him. The next thing you know, we’re all up at one of the front tables.”
“Your father never got any of the credit he deserved because he was so quiet,” a third told me. “That always burned my butt. He was never truly recognized for his accomplishments. I’ve told anyone who listened about them, too. Ever since.”
In one of his letters home, my father, who graduated from Dartmouth with a D average, which made med school unlikely, makes a reference to how Guadalcanal’s streams reminded him of Kipling’s “Great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo Rover.” When I went over there, the Matanikau was brown where it ran into the sea. For two days in late 1942 it was red. There was a sandspit at the mouth. According to one of the guys in Vegas, my father was pinned out on a sandbar, protected by the sand, as he tried to cross. He made it back. A few made it across, to never be seen again.
“You couldn’t have gotten a thousand men across that river,” the man told me. “But your father’s company held that spit.” Another man, whose mouth was slightly askew, told me that he himself had made it to the opposite bank (“the river was alive with fire”) only to get shot in the jaw, and shoulder. Other marines waded across and pulled him back.
Near the end of the war, now a major – the youngest major in the First Marine Division (10,000 men), my father returned to try and find their bodies, but didn’t. This could not have surprised him; within days of arriving on the island, the marines would find their missing comrades roped to trees, dead, pieces of skin flayed and stuffed into their mouths. Subsequent marine retaliations have not received a great deal of notice through the years. Why go there?
But the diary of my father’s best friend, Harry Connor, has a passage that reads, after a long battle in which several marines companies killed 239 Japanese, “Ended up in close range grenade and pistol battle. No prisoners.”
Sometimes, after the company was back in camp, he would he then go back out, on his own, this Dartmouth guy, and lie in wait in the dark for a Japanese soldier to assassinate with his bayonet. The man he told that story to had asked him in a bar in Melbourne,” Where would you go on those night?” My father, well into a few beers, explained, and then said,
“You will never tell that story to anyone.” He didn’t, until he told it to me. This explained the Japanese flag covered in blood, and Japanese characters that identified the man and his family, that I found in a trunk some years later after he died.
He liked beer. He once told a comrade, “When this war is over, I’m coming back with a jeep and a barrel of beer and I’m gonna piss it all over this island.”
In another letter, he writes, “We have a little jungle music every once in a while. One of my men picked up a guitar from a Navy plane which went a-reef over in Tulagi. When we go out on a mission we leave the guitar with company property in the rear echelon. Then we settle down in a new line position or bivouac area, out comes the guitar and a songfest gets under way. The man who plays it is really talented. Good for the morale.”
You know those signs you see in people’s windows that say, “Support Our Troops?” What kind of question is that? Who in hell wouldn’t? Question the men who put them there, but the troops?
So this Memorial Day weekend I am thinking of, and thanking, those two lieutenants he had to replace, and the two after that, and the two after that, and then the next two — all through the years. And hope that tomorrow, there won’t be two more.
[Photo Credit: Jacquelyn Martin / The Associated Press]