June 16, 2000
Guadalcanal is a fairly small volcanic island in the Southwest Pacific. It's the main island in the Solomon group, not very large (slightly smaller than Maryland) but in 1942, shortly after the U.S. became a participant in World War II, it was very familiar to all Americans. The very name of the island conjured up visions of what the war in the Pacific was going to be like. Guadalcanal was the site of a bloody battleground, the first major land engagement undertaken by invading U.S. Army and Marine Corps troops against the entrenched Japanese Imperial army. The story of that particular historic struggle was well told in the novel, "The Thin Red Line," which was made into a major movie last year. Americans eventually won control of the island after a terrible cost in human lives, but the lessons learned there helped pave the way for future American invasions of Japanese-held islands throughout the Pacific. Some say it also helped make possible the successful D-Day landings on the coast of France in 1944. For some, the name Guadalcanal became synonymous with horrific jungle combat, malaria, and the absolute worst in modern warfare up to that time.
Well, you get the idea. It was a hell hole for the American troops who were called upon to challenge the Japanese. The Americans faced a battle-wise foe that had already mastered the techniques of jungle warfare. Many of our boys were felled by malaria and became battle casualties without firing a shot. The invasion landings were made in August 1942, eight months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Eventually the Americans wrested control of the steamy jungle island but the last Japanese warrior was not expelled until the following February.
I visited Guadalcanal in the summer of 1945, more than two years after the cessation of hostilities there. I was a feature writer for the Army newspaper, The Stars & Stripes, and my orders were to tour locations of the war's early battles and report on the current conditions there. Guadalcanal was the first stop. Traveling with me was one of our staff artists, Sgt. Earl Wolf, of Shaker Heights, Ohio, suburban Cleveland. Earl did illustrations for the stories that I transmitted back to our publications base in Honolulu. We landed in an Army Air Corps cargo plane on Henderson Field, one of the critical objectives when the Americans and Japanese were battling for control of Guadalcanal. It was a military airfield with metal mesh runways on a field carved out of the jungle wilderness.
Although the hardware of warfare still littered the beaches and shallow waters offshore, most of the troops then stationed on the green island were from service companies, providing supplies and other support for Americans in forward areas where the war still raged. They were seriously concerned that not only had the war passed them by, but they had a fear that they were virtually forgotten as far as military planners were concerned and they worried about spending the rest of the war, and beyond, on that blood-soaked, stinking island.
Today, Guadalcanal is back in the news because of the serious threat of an imminent civil war aimed at toppling a democratically elected government. Neighbors in nearby Australia and New Zealand are trying to restore calm and prevent a major political struggle in the hostile Solomon Islands group, where Guadalcanal is the main island. More about these recollections later.