THE PACIFIC BATTLEGROUND
AND THE WORLD WAR II MARINE

 

 

A common site on Marine–occupied islands in the Pacific; a sign with distances to various places, in this case Tokyo, & San Francisco. 1944 USMC Photo

Sand, brutal heat, clinging humidity, every sort of insect; Marines encountered all these, and much more, in the Pacific campaigns of World War II. Before the war, Americans got their impressions of the Pacific islands from the Bob Hope & Bing Crosby Road pictures, or from the pages of the National Geographic. Most people imagined balmy tropical breezes, swaying palm trees, and beautiful sandy beaches. The reality of life in the Pacific was altogether different for Marines at war.

In addition to a tough and determined enemy, Marines had to fight against Mother Nature. Across thousands of miles of ocean, they encountered an incredible variety of terrain and climate. From the tropical rain forests of the Solomon Islands to the hellish volcanic wasteland of Iwo Jima, the Pacific battleground itself was a formidable foe. Marines learned to cope with blistering heat, drenching monsoon rains, and landscapes as rugged as any on earth.

In some parts of the Pacific, thick tropical jungles covered the land that Marines fought across. In the South Pacific, Marines quickly learned that the postcard-like views hid mud, rotting vegetation, sluggish jungle streams, and an ever-present hoard of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. World War II Marine and noted historian William Manchester recorded the experience of seeing the jungle for the first time in his book Goodbye Darkness:

"We were seeing, most of us for the first time, real jungle...It was a vision of beauty, but of evil beauty. Except for the occasional patches of shoulder-high kunai grass, the blades of which could lay a man's hand open as quickly as a scalpel, the tropical forest swathed the island. From the APA's deck it looked solid enough to walk on. In reality the ground--if you could find it--lay a hundred feet below the cloying beauty of the treetops...Here the green fastness was broken only by streams veining the forest, flowing northward to the sea."
 

3rd Division Marines on Bougainville slog through calf-deep, liquid mud of the Numa-Numa Trail, November 1943. USMC Photo


When Marines first landed on Guadalcanal on August 7th, 1942, many were struck by how serene the island appeared from the decks of their troopships. The mist lush green, mist covered hills looked like pictures in a travelogue. But on landing, they discovered a landscape so alien; it may as well have been on the moon. Some Marines quipped that the moon would have been preferable to the 'canal, since in outer space, at least the nights were cool. In his book Touched by Fire, author and historian Eric Bergerud captured the essence of war as experienced by those who endured it in the South Pacific:

"The one thing that all battlefields shared was isolation. All were small worlds. The men had to depend on each other's skill and courage. They also had to depend on their comrades for the company, the talk, and the humor required to stay sane in a savage environment. But in the South Pacific, it was not just the death and injury coming from the war that made the environment savage. Always there was the jungle, and the jungle killed. It was infantry war at its most basic."    

Ghost Trail, a charcoal and pastel sketch by Kerr Eby depicting a Marine patrol on Bougainville, 1944. US Navy Combat Art Collection

As Marines moved up the ladder in the Solomons, they encountered one tropical hellhole after another. Each island presented its own challenges to men trying to fight and survive in combat. Temperatures hovered above 100 degrees in the afternoon and the high humidity made it impossible to drink enough water. Fungal infections took hold and personal hygiene went out the window in the front lines. During monsoon season, uniforms and leather simply rotted off Marines' bodies.

At Cape Gloucester on New Britain's western tip, the 1st Marine Division landed in one of the most primitive landscapes on earth. In one notable incident in January 1944, falling trees killed several Marines in the division during a heavy windstorm. Under the thick jungle canopy, daytime became dusk and the nights were as dark as a closet. Marines quickly learned to button up in their fighting holes after dusk. Anyone foolish or brave enough to wander above ground after nightfall risked being shot by a sentry.

In the Central Pacific, Marines fought on islands large and small. Here they encountered soft sand, jagged coral, and oddly enough, shortages of drinking water. Blistering heat and high humidity were ever-present enemies. The 2nd Marine Division assaulted Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands during November 1943. On an island of only one square mile, 8,000 Marines and 4,000 Japanese defenders were locked in mortal combat for three days. It was a charnel house of dust, noise and smoke. In Follow Me! The Story of the Second Marine Division in World War II war correspondent Richard W. Johnston captured the scene on Tarawa:

"By dawn of November 22—D plus 2—the stench of Betio had become almost unbearable. Bodies of Japanese and Marines alike—for there had been no time or place to bury friend or foe—swelled and burst under the broiler. The yellow intestines of Japs who had died by harakiri rose from their torn bellies in sickening loops and garlands. The smell was inescapable. It was everywhere, and it was not the kind of smell one gets accustomed to. It suffused the Marines' hair, their clothing, and seemed to adhere to their bodies. They smelled it for weeks after the battle, and like all pungent odors, it evoked instant and nightmarish memories."

2nd Marine Division infantrymen haul supplies ashore on Tarawa, November 1943. USMC Photo


In 1944 the island hopping campaign brought American forces into the Marshall and Mariana groups. Marines fought against bitter resistance on Roi-Namur, Saipan, Tinian, Guam, and on other islands. Each of these locales presented unique challenges, but they were uniformly hot and humid with steep, jungle-clad hills. Now Marines not only had to cope with the tropical wilderness, but also fighting in towns. Robert Leckie recorded the following pre-invasion briefing in his book Strong Men Armed -The United States Marines Against Japan:

"Saipan did not look appealing, and it sounded specially repugnant to those men of the 4th Division who listened to their battalion surgeon explain some of the island's other defects.

"In the surf," he said with solemn relish, "beware of sharks, barracuda, sea snakes, anemones, razor-sharp coral, polluted waters, poison fish and giant clams that shut on a man like a bear trap." "Ashore," he went on with rising enthusiasm, "There is leprosy, typhus, filiarisis, yaws, typhoid, dengue fever, dysentery, saber grass, hordes of flies, snakes and giant lizards." He paused, winded, but rushed on: "Eat nothing growing on the island, don't drink its waters, and don't approach its inhabitants." He stopped, smiled benignly and inquired, "Any questions?"

A private's hand shot up.

"Yes?"

"Sir, the private asked, "Why'n hell don't we let the Japs keep the island?""

The island of Peleliu, assaulted in September 1944, presented a special kind of hell to the Marines who fought there. On this equatorial hell scape, they clawed forward across sun-blasted coral ridges that were denuded of vegetation. Yard by yard, the infantry fought against a completely hidden enemy bent on death. Commanders expected this campaign to last for three days. Instead, it stretched for over two months and burned out an entire Marine division in the process. Eugene B. Sledge survived the battle as an 18-year old mortar man. In his classic work With the Old Breed he described leaving Peleliu after 45 days of grinding combat:

"Even at a distance Peleliu was ugly with the jagged ridges and shattered trees. Haney came up beside me and leaned on the rail. He looked gloomily at the island and puffed a cigarette.

"Well, Haney, what did you think of Peleliu?" I asked. I really was curious what a veteran with a combat record that included some of the big battles on the Western Front during World War I thought of the first battle in which I had participated. I had nothing in my experience to make a comparison with Peleliu.

Instead of the usual old salt comment--something like, "You think that was bad, you oughta been in the Old Corps,"--Haney answered with an unexpected, "Boy, that was terrible! I ain't never seen nothin' like it. I'm ready to go back to the states. I've had enough after that."

A 1st Marine Division litter team moving under fire on Peleliu-September 1944. Their dungarees are soaked with sweat in the brutal heat and their faces show the strain of combat. USMC Photo

As the Marines moved nearer to the Japanese home islands, they encountered islands such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Here they found a more temperate climate than in the South Pacific. These rugged volcanic islands were well prepared killing grounds where Marines fought in some of the most severe combat in U.S. history. On Iwo Jima, Marines faced some of the most desolate real estate on earth. With no sources of fresh water, the island was a smoking pile of volcanic slag left over from the eruption of the extinct volcano, Mount Suribachi. The enemy defenders had mined and reinforced the island itself into a gigantic fortress and many Marines who fought there would never see a live Japanese soldier. Recalling his memories of Iwo Jima, wartime Marine Bernard Yaffe wrote in his memoir Fragments of War:

"[W]ith Iwo, beyond the intermingled sights and sounds, there is an omnipresent chill on my mind and body. The landscape is draped in ever-darkening shades of gray, some bordering on black, and all sounds are muffled except a persistent, not-so-distant thunder. I can almost see the bleak tone of the wind at Iwo. I can still hear the searing thuds of gray on blackened volcanic ash followed by streaks, then floods, of crimson from body parts, detached fragments of arms, legs, and faces."

An infantryman's view of Mount Suribachi from the Iwo Jima beach head—19 February 1945. still image from USMC combat camera film

In the final major campaign of the war, Marines on Okinawa fought in combat so grinding and endless, it was more like the First World War than the Second. Under incessant rain and enemy artillery fire, they struggled through bottomless mud and death. Maggots, flies and roaches infested the land and each day was a struggle just to survive. Okinawa was the largest landmass that Marines fought on during the war, and the enemy took full advantage of every fold in the ground, every suitable structure, to cause maximum casualties to American forces. William Manchester served in the Sixth Marine Division on Okinawa and in Goodbye Darkness recorded his memories of the pre-assault briefing en route to Okinawa:

"Aboard ship, sergeants were told to pass along the usual instructions: watch out for snipers, don't shout names (a Jap would shout the same name again a minute later and drill the poor jerk who stuck his head up), maintain fire discipline when the enemy screams to draw fire and thus spot automatic weapons, and if you face a banzai charge, stay loose: don't fire till you see their buckteeth. There was the usual crap about malaria, dengue, filariasis, typhus, leprosy, dysentery, and jungle rot, and what were described as the world's two most deadly snakes, the habu and the kufau. We were issued elaborately printed scrip, as though we would have anything to spend it on. Noncoms were also assembled for a weather briefing. The annual rainfall, we were told, was 120 inches. I'm not sure I wrote that down. I tried to check later, but those pages in my diary were blurred beyond recognition by countless cloudbursts. I can't tell you how much rain there actually was, but 120 inches wasn't even close."

In the daily battle for survival, tropical diseases could be as dangerous as the Japanese. Malaria, dengue fever, rampant fungal infections, and dysentery sucked the energy and life from thousands of victims. Also, flies, sand crabs, and bloodthirsty insects of every sort were a part of life on the Pacific battlefields. Corpsmen worked under primitive conditions to care for their Marines. The fight against disease and sickness was just as critical as the battles themselves. In Skeeter Beaters, the oral history of malaria control units, PhM3/c Robert Michel, a Navy Corpsman attached to the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal, remembered the battle against fungal infections on Guadalcanal:

"The jungle rot was a lot like athlete's foot, only much worse. It was a deterioration of the tissue of the feet caused by constant moisture. Literally, some mornings when you put your shoes on, they were as wet as when you took them off the night before. The Marines up the line never took their shoes off and I am quite sure they never even had a change of socks."

A Friend in Need by Kerr Eby. In this charcoal sketch, a Navy Corpsman treats one of his Marines for jungle rot in a rudimentary frontline aid station. Ringworm, a fungal infection, spread like wild fire in the humid tropics and caused untold suffering to Marines afflicted with it. The standard treatment for all types of fungal infections was copious application of Frazer's Solution. US Navy Medical Art Collection

There were such shortages of infantrymen in some campaigns due to illness that units had to keep sick Marines on the front lines long after they were physically exhausted. Fungal infections like those described above and prickly heat rashes, sapped the strength of even the strongest men. The basic demands of combat took a heavy toll even on fresh troops, and Marines who had been in combat for days or weeks often suffered from from dysentery due to poor sanitation on the battlefield. In the novel Battle Cry, wartime Marine Leon Uris described the struggle of a Marine on sentry duty at night:

"L. Q. Jones crouched down in the middle of a bush and took a time check. One hour to go. His head nodded; he snapped his eyes open. Stay with it...only an hour and you can go to sleep...only an hour. Jesus, my side aches...can't get my eyes open...don't sleep...dammit! Snap out of it.

Wish I'd stop sweating and shaking. Must be cold from the wet. Fifty-eight minutes more. Don't sit...stay on your knees, that's right. You can't sleep on your knees...if you doze, you'll fall over and wake up. Wish my guts would stop jumping. Crapped nine times tonight. Musta got the crud.

His rifle dropped to the ground, his eyes popped open again. Can't sleep, dammit, can't...Japs all over...can't let these guys get jumped...got to guard...got to guard. His breath became heavy and jerky and his eyes swollen from mosquito bites. He shook his head hard to clear it. His clothing was a mass of soggy sweat."

Say, Ahhh, by Kerr Eby. In this charcoal sketch, a Navy Corpsman checks a Marine's throat at a frontline aid station. Such routine carse was critical to sustaining the fighting strength of troops in the harsh climate of the Pacific islands. US Navy Medical Art Collection

Among the very worst of the many diseases that lurked in the shadows were malaria and dengue fever. Spread by the bite of infected mosquitoes, both diseases caused high fevers. Dengue, called "bonebreak fever" also brought on severe joint pain, migraine-like headaches and muscle pain. Malaria, in addition to high fever, also caused teeth-rattling chills, anemia, and swelling of the spleen. Both illnesses caused untold misery among Marines in endemic areas. There was (and still is) no prophylaxis for dengue fever. But troops in areas where malaria was present took Atabrine to help prevent infection. A synthetic form of the anti-malarial Quinine, Atabrine caused the skin to take on a yellowish cast. Called "the Atabrine tan," this made prophylaxis unpopular among Marines and rumors spread that Atabrine caused sterility. Leon Uris wrote of Marines afflicted with malaria:

"Their faces would be sweaty and torture-wracked and they'd roll and groan to wipe out the nightmare. Then came the pain in the gut and they'd start shaking like a dog crapping. They wasted away quick. It was nasty to see and I hated to stand by and not be able to help them. I could only give them quinine and let them lay there, trembling and moaning about home and things like that, till the fever broke. Then they'd awake with sheet-like faces and black circles under their eyes, too weak to stand up with the goddam bells from the quinine blasting in their heads."

In the Pacific, American servicemen were infected with tropical maladies that in many cases lingered long after the war. For example, those infected with malaria sometimes suffered from recurring attacks for years. The Veterans Administration, by necessity, became the leader in treating these diseases. Even into the 21st century, Pacific war veterans are still afflicted with reminders of their wartime service. Among the last hangers-on from the Pacific, the lowly toenail fungus has proven the hardiest survivor from those long-ago days. Thousands of men picked up this ailment in the moist and fetid conditions in the tropics, and it is among the conditions most resistant to lasting cure.

Nowadays, people often wonder how human beings survived in the climactic conditions of the Pacific islands. The Marines on these battlefields encountered an environment completely alien to most Americans. Their war against an implacable enemy was complicated many times over by the land itself. That they survived and accomplished their missions time and again (often at the price of their own health) was a testament to their will power and fortitude. In the end, they did their jobs, not for fame or glory, but for each other and because that is what Marines do.

Gently Does It, by Kerr Eby. During the fight for Bougainville, Marines and Corpsmen carefully move a casualty down a mud-slick jungle trail. Casualty evacuation was an exhausting and dangerous labor for stretcher teams and Corpsman. US Navy Medical Art Collection

 

 

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