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June 20, 2000

More reflections on a 1945 visit to Guadalcanal in the Southwest Pacific Ocean Area, where the U.S. first flexed its offensive muscle in World War II...

Earl Wolf, a talented sketch artist, and I were sent to Guadalcanal in the summer of 1945 as the first stop on a tour for The Stars & Stripes, the Army newspaper that was printed in Honolulu and distributed to all American military personnel in the POA (Pacific Ocean Area), then commanded by Lt. Gen. Robert C. Richardson. My objective was to write stories about the morale of GIs who were garrisoned on islands where bitter battles had been fought earlier in World War II. Earl did charcoal sketches to illustrate the articles I wrote. We chose Guadalcanal as our first stop because of its historical significance and also because it had to be the dreariest place on earth to be stationed.

We found the guys based there to be typical of GIs everywhere - mostly, they improvised their own entertainment. Yes, the island did receive first-run movies regularly. These were shown in outdoor "theaters" while soldiers in cut-off fatigue pants and olive drab undershirts watched. And occasionally a USO troupe would land there, but most of the big-name performers chose to visit more heavily populated islands. So, the Guadalcanal contingent played cards, listened to records in the dayroom, read their mail, wrote letters, and dreamed about going home when the war was over.

I was told that once each month, the troops were issued a case of warm beer. Because of the tropic heat, which never seemed to end, the only refrigeration on the island was in the mess hall kitchen, where meat and other perishables were stored. Cold beer and soft drinks were unknown. Many of the GIs didn't drink beer, or never developed a liking for warm beer, so they used it as barter for cigarettes and other things.

One of the real entertainment highlights was a daily show on the "Mosquito Network," an Armed Forces Radio Show that originated on the island of New Caledonia, not too far from Guadalcanal. The host and disc jockey on that show was an irreverent GI by the name of Jack Paar, who at that time was practically unknown to the American civilian population. Mr. Paar, who went on to a wildly successful career as one of the first hosts of NBC's Tonight Show, played popular music and did his monologues that were tailored to his audience of enlisted men. He razzed commissioned officers mercilessly, despite stern warnings occasionally from some stuffed shirt upper echelon commanders.

Guadalcanal to me looked like a solid, impenetrable jungle, where conventional land warfare would be impossible. In addition to the dense underbrush, the land played host to poisonous snakes, disease-carrying mosquitoes and other highly undesirable insects. It also provided the Japanese enemy with ample hiding places for snipers, traps and other weapons. Hundreds of young Americans died on that squalid piece of real estate, but your heart also had to ache for the lonely support troops stationed there long after the battle had passed them by. More on this next time.