UNDER FIRE ON TULAGI AND GUADALCANAL.
There was unusual quiet aboard ship the night before our landing on Tulagi, which had an excellent harbor. We had heard that the 1st Marine Division had met little resistance during its invasion of Guadalcanal, some 25 miles from Tulagi.
Finally a pinkish dawn arrived and we went over the side of the troopship and down the swaying cargo nets into Higgins boats (LCVPs, or landing craft, vehicle, personnel). The navy had laid down a fierce barrage of ship-to-shore artillery prior to our storming the beach, and I was almost giddy with apprehension as I saw the tops of tall coconut palms sheared off and strewn about like camouflage. We vaulted from the landing crafts into shallow water as non-coms and officers were yelling above enemy gunfire, "Go, go, go! Spread out! Spread out, you stupid sh--heads!" I fearfully sprinted ahead and ran faster when I saw a bloody dead Marine who was lying twisted on his side in the surf. Another Marine lay lifeless on the beach, his blood staining the sand. When I reached shore I heard enemy machine-gun bullets slashing through the air past my legs. My first thought was a silly one: "Hey, those crazy bastards are trying to kill me!" I was most grateful when somebody tossed a hand grenade and the deep whomp silenced that damn machine gun.
After a hectic hour or so, our sector was cleared and we were able to rest and swig warm water from our canteens. Then we were ordered to the eastern tip of the island, where we dug deep foxholes and boasted about the initial battle. With much braggadocio we expressed hope that the few remaining Japanese would counterattack so we could "kick their yellow asses."
Enemy Fire--and Friendly Fire
After several days of intense fighting, the island was relatively secure except for a handful of die-hard Japanese still holding out. Then our company, Company F or Fox Company, moved up the island to protect an area called Chinese Village. Merchants had migrated there from China years earlier and set up a few ramshackle buildings, but had long since departed.
We settled down for the night in our quickly dug foxholes. Toward dawn we were awakened and shaken by two quick shots. A few yards away a Marine in his foxhole yelled to me, "Hey, Nick, what the hell was that?" "Jeez, I don't know, but keep your head down," I said groggily as I grabbed for the comforting feel of my rifle. My other hand darted to my upper pocket to make sure my grenade was still there.
What had happened turned out to be a severe blow to our morale. One of our company, a likeable blond strapping youth from Minnesota by the name of Olmsted had left his foxhole, apparently to urinate. A Marine who was one of several men standing guard around the perimeter heard the movement in the dark, panicked, and fired, instantly killing Olmsted.
The next morning we were glum and shaken from the night's traumatic event. As we left the area, the Marine who had killed the Minnesota Kid was sitting silently against a tree. He stared at the ground and refused to look up at us as we filed by. His helmet was off and his hair was damp and he wore a forlorn look. I didn't know him very well but I felt sorry for him. How do you live with that? I thought. A jumble of emotions must have been swirling through his mind. A few days later he was transferred to another unit. This was standard practice in case a friend of Olmsted would try to seek revenge.
One night we heard what we called "our mail boat" chugging toward our harbor. It was a small patrol vessel that frequently plied the waters between Tulagi and Guadalcanal, carrying mail, personnel, and supplies. Suddenly we saw the long finger of a bright searchlight from a Japanese warship, probably a destroyer, pick up the helpless mail boat. The destroyer leisurely fired its guns and the mail boat simply exploded, sending fiery debris horizontally and skyward.
To our horror, we heard a voice crying out from near the flaming wreckage, "Help, oh God, somebody please help me!" But the fast-sinking boat was too far out and there was nothing we could do. The weakened cry for help continued for a few minutes. Then there was an eerie silence except for the hushed breaking of the gentle waves and the occasional mournful cry of a seabird.
I vividly recall another night when two Japanese warships shelled Tulagi for about 30 minutes. We scrunched down deep into our foxholes and I was wishing I could crawl into my helmet. Jeez but I was scared as the heavy shrapnel sang a deadly song over our heads. In the morning we learned that two Marines had been killed and seven wounded.
A few days later I was among a group of about 15 selected to invade a tiny island just a hundred yards or so off Tulagi. A few runaway Japanese had been spotted there. We piled into a Higgins boat and hit the beach a few minutes later. A patrol was formed to go around the island, skirting the water's edge. We moved out cautiously. Suddenly came the deep, 20-round burping of a Browning Automatic Rifle (portable .30-06-caliber light machine gun dubbed BAR), which was carried by the Marine who was leading. I was third in line, and as I made my way forward, I was shaken to see the recipients of that incredibly loud fire. Inside a cave about four feet deep were the mangled bodies of three Japanese soldiers. Gore and guts had been splattered on the sides of the cave and the strong smell of blood wafted toward us.
We completed the circling of the island and then swept across it without further incident. Ironically, we learned later that the Japanese who were killed had apparently thrown away the bolts to their rifles prior to the encounter. This was standard procedure for the Japanese, to prevent any captured weapon from being used by the enemy.
Supplies were slowly arriving on Tulagi, but we were still short of food. Early on we had discovered cans of strange Japanese vegetables, some likely seaweed. But the strange fare didn't taste bad, given how hungry we were. Also found were bags of buggy Japanese rice. At first we carefully picked out the numerous insects. But it was tedious, so we gave up, saying "what the hell," joking that the bugs would give us extra protein.
We made another surprise find inside a shack: Japanese porno magazines! Giggling and shoving we lined up to peek at the black-and-white drawings. We laughed and stamped our feet in derision at the crude artistry. Somebody said, "Hey, will you look at the horny people making little soldiers for the emperor. Well, screw them!" We guffawed and slapped each other on the back. It was good to laugh heartily after so many days of tension.
Onward to Guadalcanal
News FROM Guadalcanal, meanwhile, was becoming grim. The Japanese were landing sizeable forces and frequent, ferocious battles were occurring. In addition the Marines were harassed by Japanese naval fire and bombers. Then at last, in October 1942, we got word from our company commander that we would be leaving for Guadalcanal to beef up the battered 1st Marine Division. Cheering ourselves hoarse, we tossed our helmets into the air and pounded one another's back. We couldn't wait to get to the "big show."
A brisk breeze was blowing the next morning, October 29, as we left on Higgins boats for Guadalcanal. I looked back at the lush, dark island of Tulagi and realized that it was there that I had grown up. I had seen dead Marines and slain Japanese, and those awful scenes were seared into my memory. And although I was still only 19, I felt that now I was a man and certainly a Marine.
As we approached the shore we saw many coconut palms strung along the beach, while the rest of the foreboding island looked dark with super-abundant foliage. Black, rain-laden clouds dangled over the ominous-looking mountains to the south. We piled out of the Higgins boats, and there were eager natives who greeted us with, "You got a ciggie, friend, ciggie?" We passed out the few cigarettes we could spare. I noticed one cheerful middle-age native with an enormously swollen leg, which a corpsman later told me was probably the result of the tropical disease elephantiasis.
Finally we moved inland a few hundred yards and bivouacked after digging the ever-necessary foxholes. I noticed that the surf sound faded, but what became really noticeable was the soft sound of palm branches being rubbed together by the almost constant trade winds.
THOSE FOXHOLES CAME IN HANDY that night as the Japanese navy bombarded the beach area. It was just terrifying as the seemingly unending shells screamed in and exploded at nearby Henderson Field (a Japanese-built airfield captured and renamed by US Marines) and among the palm trees we were under. We lost three Marines that night, including a pleasant kid named Gueydan from our company, who was from the Missouri Ozarks and had a delightful accent. He was probably 20 or 21.
The next several days were rife with scuttlebutt about an upcoming operation. Extra ammunition, water, and food were brought in by trucks, which we unloaded like stevedores. Then came the word that our outfit, Fox Company, would be in support of several units of the 1st Marine Division in an offensive along the coast (starting November 1, with the overall goal of capturing Kokumbona on the western third of Guadalcanal's northern coast, where the Japanese 17th Army had its headquarters).
A Hailstorm of Bombs
We STARTED OUT THROUGH a large coconut plantation. The objective was to sweep the enemy away from near a river called the Matanikau. Our company was moving slowly forward (heading west) despite occasional sniper fire and the thunderous thunk, thunk, thunk of enemy mortar shells falling in the area. The tension was almost unbearable and we made sure we were "spread out," which was a Marine commandment. Every nerve in my body seemed strained as I crept forward.
Suddenly enemy artillery shells came slamming in. Somebody yelled "37s!" (37mm artillery projectiles). You could hear them being fired and almost immediately, it seemed, you'd hear the terrifying whomp of the damn shell hitting close by. Scary. Most scary.
I was near a very good friend, Stanley Glowacz from Nebraska. He was effervescent and extremely articulate, with a finely tuned sense of humor and a smile that was easily provoked. He flashed a pixie grin when I once told him that I admired his fluent bullsh---. (Glowacz was later killed during the brutal battle for Tarawa.) We dove for cover under an immense log that was propped up by another tree just off the trail. Squadrons of mosquitoes buzzed my face and stinging ants covered my hands. I swiped at them as best I could while trying to burrow like a badger into the stinking, decaying vegetation.
Rather morbidly, I thought about the $10,000 life insurance policy I had taken out. I had recently written my older sister Mary that if something happened to me, she should tell my parents to buy a late-model Buick (my favorite car then) and to use the rest of the money to pay off their mortgage.
I shuddered. I sweated. I cursed. I cringed. I prayed in a bar gaining mode, "Please, please save me, God. I'll do good and go to church and be a better person. Honest, I will!" Then a shell howled in and struck nearby. A panicked cry rang out: "Corpsman, somebody's been hit! Corpsman, hurry!" A 37mm shell had landed between the outstretched legs of a prone Marine and had virtually torn him in two.
About five minutes later the shelling had begun to ease when Glowacz shouted, "Holy sh--, Nick! Look to the left. Holy sh--! Look!" I turned my head and was simply stunned. Two Marine generals were casually strolling down the narrow trail wearing neat khaki uniforms. The taller officer wore a one-star insignia and the other, two stars. Both carried swagger sticks and side-arms. The shorter general, astonishingly, was smoking a big black cigar with smoke curling around his head. And there were snipers in the area!
To say that I, one scared 19-year-old kid, was impressed by the calm presence of those generals would not do justice to their audacity. The pair just sauntered along, leisurely as can be, with big smiles on their leathered faces as though they were just leaving the country club back home. The tallest one kept repeating in a moderate and reassuring voice, "All right, boys. It's time to move out. Let's go now. It's time to move out." The generals never shouted. They never implored. They didn't curse or even raise their voices. The tall one just said quietly over and " over, "Time to move out, boys."
The enemy shelling had virtually stopped when a non-com bellowed something like, "OK, you friggin' pansies. Let's move, damn it! Double time, double time!" But it was the incredible example of bravery under fire of those taciturn generals that ignited the courage we needed. Along with others, I leaped up and advanced, dodging and throwing myself on the ground and repeating the process. We cleaned out several Japanese positions and even found an abandoned 37mm artillery piece. Some Marines stopped and gleefully urinated on the hated weapon.
I came upon the body of a Japanese officer under a palm tree. The side of his head had been ripped off. I hurriedly searched his pack and found a tiny Japanese flag. But the real find was a small black box that contained a pair of intricately carved ivory chop sticks. I quickly stuffed the "spoils of war" into my own pack.
Mosquitoes amid the Mayhem
The DRIVE SOON ENDED WHEN we determined that the Japanese had retreated. Our company was pulled back to protect the eastern approaches of our invaluable stronghold at Henderson Field. Thankfully it was a relatively quiet front and we were able to relax and catch up on our mail. The chow was almost good but, as usual, never in abundance, and the nicotine addicts among us, including me, eagerly grabbed the cigarettes being passed out.
WE ALSO THOROUGHLY HASHED OVER the remarkable incident of those courageous generals who inspired us and whom we never saw again. In that particular fog of battle, we never did find out who they were. Were they from our 2nd Marine Division or from the 1st Marine Division? General staff members, or visiting dignitaries, or what? (I found out later that they most likely were Major General Alexander Vandegrift, the commander of the 1st Marine Division, and his assistant commander, Brigadier General William H. Rupertus.)
After a few days we were moved to an active sector. It rained almost every day now. The mud tugged at our boots with a soft sucking sound. Adding to our misery was the ever-present multitude of small insects that would haunt your ears, invade your nose, and crawl down the neck of your ever-damp dungarees. And especially bothersome were those damn huge mosquitoes. At times they seemed the size of hummingbirds. Once I watched with fascination as a big mosquito perched on my bare arm, . neatly drilled its proboscis into my skin, leisurely took its fill, and floated off with my blood. I said something silly like, "Dinner's on me, pal."
Our company began patrols, which were uneventful until one morning we were ambushed. We were crossing a jungled ridge when enemy gunfire raked us. Casualties were numerous, including a machine gunner who was killed trying to set up his weapon. There was much confusion.
One Marine, "Pop" Suttles from Arkansas, crawled up a rise and was looking down in a half-crouched position. I was just below him and heard a dull thud, and Suttles fell with a bullet in his chest. I yelled for a corpsman, who yelled back, "Bring him down!" Suttles was moaning as I and another Marine pulled him off the ridge. He kept moaning and died in a few minutes. Then I crawled up the ridge and hurriedly threw a grenade into the valley. It boomed and I heard excited Japanese voices. Maybe I got lucky, I thought.
We picked up our dead and wounded and fought our way out of danger back to our safe sector.
Caption: Above: Fighting in the Solomon Islands of the South Pacific, on Tulagi and Guadalcanal, was the 2nd Marine Division's baptism of fire. In tribute, the division patch bore the region's Southern Cross constellation. Opposite: Nick Cariello's own initiation into island combat and its savagery came on Tulagi. Here, naval guns soften Tulagi and Tanambogo for the marines' assault on August 7, 1942.
Caption: Landing craft circle around, preparing to rush marines to the beaches of Tulagi on August 7, 1942. Cariello made his landing from a Higgins boat--an LCVP (landing craft, vehicle, personnel). NATIONAL ARCHIVES
Caption: Top: On Tulagi and Guadalcanal Cariello encountered the enemy, Japanese like these captives on Guadalcanal (who insisted on combing their hair for the photo). Above: Like these marines, Cariello's Fox Company arrived on Guadalcanal via Higgins boats, on October 29, 1942. On the damp, buggy island, Cariello helped drive Japanese forces out of positions near the northwestern coast and near the Matanikau River.
Caption: Under severe fire during the Matanikau River operation, Cariello was hugging the jungle floor and praying when two generals came walking along, calmly urging the marines forward. They were Major General Alexander Vandegrift (above), 1st Marine Division commander, and Brigadier General William Rupertus (top), his assistant. US MARINE CORPS