January 22, 1999
Had a chance the other day to see that new movie, "The Thin Red Line." I've been eagerly awaiting its arrival at a theater in this vicinity because it deals with the American military's first face-to-face encounter with the, Japanese in World War II. The fierce battle was for possession of Guadalcanal, an obscure part of the Solomon Islands, northeast of Australia. I count it among my blessings that I did not take part in that battle -- it occurred before I became a soldier in the Army of the United States -- but two of my brothers-in-law fought the enemy there and each brought home a lifelong bout with malaria along with nightmarish memories of combat that they preferred not to discuss. It was a miserable place to be.
In August of 1945, in the waning days of World War II and three years after that epic engagement, I was on Guadalcanal. It was a safe time to be there, although a few Japanese troops were rumored to be still holed up in the jungle. The war had long since passed by that place. Even so, a handful of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine forces remained to keep them secure. The U.S. was on the brink of defeating the Japanese in the Pacific area; the European Axis of Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy already had capitulated to the Allies. I was on Guadalcanal as a staff writer for the Mid-Pacific edition of the Army newspaper, The Stars and Stripes. Sketch artist Earl Wolf and I were given an assignment to tour scenes of some of the heroic battles in the South Pacific -- Guam, Wake and Guadalcanal among them -- and to dispatch reports on conditions there to our home office in Honolulu. Earl and I landed at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal and were starting to send articles back to Hawaii when the war took a surprising twist: America introduced the atomic age by dropping two A-bombs on Japan, thereby ending the war.
It was a time of rejoicing for men and women in the military and for their families back home. Celebrations were hard to come by on the forlorn, foul-smelling island of Guadalcanal. Rusting hulks of Navy landing vessels were still visible just offshore. Units stationed there had thatched roof buildings and waged a losing battle against mosquitoes, other insects, tropic heat and sheer boredom. For the most part they were lonely and felt abandoned, even though they were happy to be far from the perils of combat.
When it became obvious very fast that the A-bomb meant the war would soon end, the Army provided extra rations of beer to help the troops celebrate. Guadalcanal had no PX (post exchange) where cold drinks of any kind were sold, so the men drank warm beer and Cokes. It was the custom there. They had forgotten all about the pleasure of something cold to drink. In their state of jubilation, they didn't care.
But back to "The Thin Red Line." I do not recommend that you see it unless you have some special reason to do so. It is three hours long. The battle scenes are ghastly and disturbingly realistic. The language is unrelentingly profane. When I saw it, several people left the theater before the movie ended. It is depressing in the graphic telling of young American men, most of them in their teens, locked in mortal combat with a cunning and almost invisible enemy. It is a believable story about a desperate time in our country's history. But it won't send you home with a feel-good, happy ending. See it at your own risk.