First Sergeant Steven Alexander Custer

Corporal Steven A. Custer, date unknown. Photo uploaded to by Kevin Custer.

Steven Alexander Custer
Campwood, TX
Wife, Mrs. Steven Custer
January 29, 1905
October 6, 1921
August 13, 1942
Guadalcanal HQ Company, 1st Marine Division Intelligence Chief First Sergeant KIA
Killed in ambush of Goettge Patrol
Purple Heart
First Sergeant
Scattered on Guadalcanal
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial

Birth and Early Life:

Steven Custer was born on January 29, 1905 in Edwards, Texas. His parents, William and Annie, moved their five children (of which Steven was fourth) to Portland shortly after he was born; William’s untimely death in 1911 and the birth of Opal Custer five months later led the family to return to Texas, where most married (or remarried) and began their separate lives.

Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Sixteen-year-old Steven Custer decided to enlist in the Marine Corps on October 6, 1921 – he joined in San Diego,  giving his name as Alexander S. Custer. (1) After completing his training at MCRD San Diego, he was sent to Denver, Colorado as a mail guard.

Service Prior to 1941:
Custer was only in Denver until January 1922; he transferred back to California and joined Guard Company #1 at Mare Island before settling at Puget Sound Navy Yard in March. As a junior Marine, Private Custer was on mess duty for most of his time in Washington before joining the Marine detachment of the USS Arizona on June 20.

Discipline aboard the battleship was strict. For the crime of being AOL for two hours and twenty-five minutes on July 3, Custer was docked four liberties; for “leaving his post without being properly relieved” on October 3, he was fined $6.00 – a significant portion of his monthly pay. When the Marine detachment shot the rifle range for record in December, Custer was one of several who “failed to qualify.” With his seagoing career off to a rocky start, Custer was relegated to the ship’s laundry; this did little to improve his performance and in May 1923 he went AOL twice – the first offense alone resulted in 4 days of brig time and a $12 fine.

This last brush with authority got Private Custer straightened out momentarily. He excelled at the next round of qualifications, earning a passing mark in swimming and shooting well enough to rate Expert by Army standards and Marksman by the Navy. Any good will earned by this performance was immediately dispelled in August as he went AOL yet again for a matter of hours; he was again docked several liberties. Somehow, Custer managed a promotion to corporal in June 1924. He was spending a lot of time on the rifle range at Camp Lawton and was transferred off the Arizona in July.

After reenlisting on October 6, 1924, Corporal Custer took a brief furlough, then returned to duty with Guard Company #1 at Mare Island. The former “brig rat” was now an NCO trusted with escorting prisoners across state lines to the infamous Naval Prison on the island. In July 1925, Custer left the boundaries of the United States for the first time on board the USAT Thomas; he disembarked in Guam and became the post’s mail and motorcycle orderly. He served in a clerical post until leaving Guam that December.

January 1926 found Custer in Cavite, Philippine Islands, where he finally attained the difficult rating of Expert Rifleman in the Marine Corps. He was on duty as an instructor at the Maquinaya Rifle Range and the Naval Prison for his first six months in country – and in June he changed his name back to Steven A. Custer.

Corporal Custer sailed for China in September 1926 and served with the American Embassy in Peking as a clerk for the communications and Commander’s offices until August, 1928. He then joined the 84th Company, 6th Marines in Tientsin. The regiment was bound for the United States; they stopped in Guam en route and somehow Corporal Custer missed the boat. Having effectively marooned himself on Guam, Custer was attached to the headquarters detachment and was reduced down to Private First Class. He was compelled to cool his heels in the Marianas until December, when the USS Chaumont was available to transport him back to the States.

Having blown his chance with the 6th Marines, Custer was assigned to base detachments in California and Louisiana, where he worked as a clerk. By reenlisting in the winter of 1929, Custer not only regained the second stripe of a corporal, but earned the third stripe of a sergeant – with his slip-up on Guam forgiven, he was rated with Character: Excellent. After spending the year 1930 on detached duty in Dallas, Custer was busted down to Private (for unknown reasons) and shipped over to Parris Island, where he became a clerk for the infamous recruit depot. He gained his sergeant’s rating back, lost it again, and traveled to Haiti with the First Marine Brigade as clerk to the brigade adjutant.

Custer was in Haiti and Cuba for several months; in April 1932 he was detached to compete with the Marine Corps Rifle & Pistol Team at Quantico and served as muster roll clerk to the Electoral Mission Detachment before returning to Port-au-Prince.

For the next several years, Custer traveled from post to post, serving as company, detachment, or base clerk from Parris Island to Company, E, Fifth Marines, rarely staying in the same place for more than a few months. His colorful disciplinary record continued, with the most elaborate offense occurring on July 11, 1937.

Charges were later dismissed; although transferred, Custer did not lose any rank or experience any further repercussions.

At the time of his twentieth year in the Marines, Steven Custer was a sergeant on recruiting duty in Oklahoma City.

Wartime Service:
The attack on Pearl Harbor led to Custer’s promotion to Staff Sergeant and assignment to  Headquarters, First Marine Division as a senior NCO in the intelligence section. He reached the rank of First Sergeant that spring while training for the country’s first offensive operation in the Solomon Islands. He landed on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942, and fought with the intelligence section during the first hectic days of the campaign.

August 12 saw a commotion at the division’s headquarters. A Japanese warrant officer had been captured, and told the Americans that there were dozens of his comrades nearby – implying that they wanted to surrender. The division’s senior intelligence officer, Colonel Frank Goettge, decided on a patrol to capture the garrison, and detailed First Sergeant Custer to draw up the details.

Custer’s plan called for a heavily armed force to set out on a reconnaissance patrol to investigate the enemy claim. They would land by boat shortly after nightfall, set up a bivouac, and in the morning begin sweeping back towards the Marine perimeter. Any Japanese who wanted to surrender would be accommodated; those who did not could be fought off by the patrol, which would also take notes and observe the enemy disposition on Point Cruz. It was hoped that the Marines would be able to move into the strategically important promontory without too much trouble.

The original plan was solid, but Custer was only a first sergeant. Colonel Goettge decided to lead the patrol himself, and replaced several of Custer’s original riflemen with intelligence specialists and translators – all good fighters, but without the expertise to engage in sustained combat. In addition, the patrol would travel light, bringing only enough ammunition for a quick excursion. These changes caused Custer’s timetable to shift back a full twelve hours. Not wanting to take any more chances, Custer found a length of rope and fashioned a leash for the Japanese warrant officer, tugging him roughly along like a dog.

The delay in departure meant that the boat had no hope of reaching Custer’s planned landing zone; with that, the last vestiges of his careful plan were thrown out the window. Ignoring the protests of the prisoner, the Marines landed after some difficulty. Custer dropped the leash, leaving his prisoner under the guard of Platoon Sergeant Denzil Caltrider, and followed Colonel Goettge and Captain Wilfred Ringer into the dark treeline, hoping to find a suitable bivouac area. Seconds later, shots rang out. Goettge was killed instantly, and a bullet tore into Custer’s arm, seriously wounding him. He fell across his leader’s body, and was dragged back to the beach by Captain Ringer. (2)

Date Of Loss:
“Gruff and ready” First Sergeant Custer died on the beach during the early morning hours of August 13, 1942. His remains were never officially recovered, though one Marine vividly recalled viewing the site of the massacre several days later:

When we went after the patrol the next day we found only severed heads, boots still with legs in them. Jim [James McEnery] writes: “I was with a K Company observing patrol. We were to get some instruments out of a crashed Wildcat airplane. We were crossing the Matanikau River and came across bodies and mutilated body parts. I saw a head roll down to the water and a little wave pushed it up again. This kept repeating. There was also a leg from the knee down with a legging and brand new boondocker boots. A First Sergeant’s shirt, with his torso still inside. No head or arms. I asked the Lieutenant why we didn’t bury the body parts and he said we were not to touch them.” (3)

Next Of Kin:
Wife, Mrs. Steven Custer

Status Of Remains:
Buried on Guadalcanal

Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.
(1) The reasons for Custer’s name change are unknown, nor are the reasons for his decision to switch back after several years of service. At least one other account claims his middle name was “Armstrong” and Lieutenant Thayer Soule, of division intelligence, noted that Custer was “a distant relative of the legendary general [George Armstrong Custer].” Their relationsip is not known.
(2) As with many members of the Goettge patrol, the moment of Custer’s death is not exactly known. Some accounts claim that he was killed in the same burst that hit Goettge, however an eyewitness account by survivor Sergeant Charles “Monk” Arndt claims that, “Sergeant Custer, near me, got hit in the arm and gave his pistol to me. After a while the firing stopped and we tried to dig into the sand….” Guadalcanal Legacy, 50th Anniversary.  Turner Publishing, page 37.
(3) Thurman I. Miller,  Coal Bloom. pg 79. Miller was a member of K-3-5, and mentioned a later patrol from Company L that also found the remains; again, the order was not to disturb them.

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