Private First Class Thomas S. Pilleri


Thomas S. Pilleri
14 Second Street, Boston, MA
Mother, Mrs. Angela Pilleri
January 9, 1942
September 14, 1942
(declared: September 17, 1942)
Guadalcanal K/3/1 PFC KIA
Last seen at outpost at Overland Trail, night of September 13-14, 1942.
Silver Star, Purple Heart
Private First Class
Unknown; lost on Guadalcanal
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial

Birth and Early Life:
Thomas Pilleri was born in Massachusetts around the year 1925. He grew up in Cambridge where he attended the Rindge Technical School; after graduating in 1940, he went to work with his brother Patsy at a local candy store.

Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Tom enlisted in the Marine Corps on January 9, 1942. After training at Parris Island, he was assigned to Company K, 3rd Battalion, First Marines at Camp Lejeune.

Wartime Service:
Within six months of enlisting, Pilleri was a Private First Class on his way to the South Pacific. His company, commanded by Captain Robert Putnam, were among the first American troops to land on the island of Guadalcanal in August, 1942. They endured stifling humidity, disease, and rough lessons in combat at the hands of the Japanese. As September began, Company K was placed in a defensive position not far from Henderson Field. After eleven days, writes author William H. Bartsch:

K Company’s men had been living under harsh conditions in their foxholes along the line. Quinine and atabrine were not available for their malaria attacks, flies and mosquitoes harassed them, and incessant rains filled their foxholes. But it was the food situation that most aggravated them. As one Marine wrote in his diary, “We’re still eating Jap food, and it’s full of worms – we’re almost starved,” while another recorded in his diary, “I’m so damn weak I can hardly do anything.” (1)

The Americans knew the Japanese wanted their airfield back – it was, after all, the only reason for either side to be on Guadalcanal in the first place. Thus far, the Imperial troops had succeeded only in losing hundreds of their best troops (most dramatically in the slaughter of the Ichiki Detachment along the Ilu River), but the survivors had plenty of fight left in them. Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi orchestrated an attack that would strike the American line in several places at once: his main body would sweep over a ridge overlooking the airfield, while smaller battalions attacked to the east and west. The eastern attack was to be led by Major Eiji Mizuno and the ad-hoc Kuma battalion – approximately 550 men.

On the night of September 12, the Marines of 3/1 could hear a serious firefight to the west. Kawaguchi’s main body was attacking their objective – which would soon become known as Bloody Ridge (or Edson’s Ridge, for the commander of the Marine Raider battalion defending it.) Though they spent the night on alert, no attack materialized – the Kuma battalion, delayed by rough marching through the jungle, had been unable to locate the American line to carry out its attack.

Of all the companies in the battalion, Company K was in the worst position. It anchored the right flank of the line – to the left were two other rifle companies, so thinly spread that they formed only a single defensive line, and to the right “was no defense at all – a yawning opening of about 300 yards through which an enemy could move westward, albeit through thick jungle, to the foothills and ridges just south of Henderson Field.” (2) To prepare, the company carefully emplaced machine guns and heavy mortars, sent out a listening post, and hoped for the best.

Date Of Loss:
PFC Pilleri’s final adventure began on the morning of September 13. As the enlisted men prepared chow and rubbed sleep out of their eyes, Lieutenant Joseph Terzi (commander of the company’s weapons platoon) approached Captain Putnam with a plan. The logical line of approach for the enemy was a feature called the Overland Trail – a perfect spot for an advance post. “Let me take some men out there tonight, and if there are any Japs, we’ll blast hell out of them,” Terzi promised. Captain Putnam gave his assent.

Tom Pilleri volunteered for the dangerous mission. That evening he, Lieutenant Terzi, and four other men slipped through the barbed wire and made their way to the site of their listening post. (3)

This map, featured in Richard B. Frank's "Guadalcanal," shows the approximate location of Pilleri's outpost relative to other units involved in the Battle of the Ridge.
This map, featured in Richard B. Frank’s “Guadalcanal,” shows the approximate location of Pilleri’s outpost relative to other units involved in the Battle of the Ridge.

“On the night of the 13th-14th, at about 10:15, I heard shooting,” wrote combat correspondent Richard Tregaskis in his book Guadalcanal Diary.

At 10:30 Capt. Putnam… called to say that one of his listening posts had been jumped. He said that a man came into his CP, and as he arrived he said, “They got ’em all,” and fainted. (4)

The man was Corporal Charles Laurence, one of the outpost volunteers. It came to light that the outpost had indeed spotted the Japanese vanguard, and opened fire on them shortly before 10:00. The Japanese had responded with grenades, and then a bayonet charge which scattered the Marines. Lt. Terzi and three of the enlisted men ran for the banks of the nearby Tenaru River, while Laurence had made it back to the main line. He had been wounded, and couldn’t say what had happened to the fifth enlisted Marine. (5) Soon, Company K was fighting for its life against the Kuma battalion. Like their comrades in the Raiders and Paramarines on Edson’s Ridge, they knew that giving up meant losing the airfield – and so they held.

The next morning, the survivors of the listening post volunteers began to trickle in. Lt. Terzi and PFC McDermott, both wounded by shrapnel, had spent a terrifying night surrounded by enemy soldiers on the attack before returning to friendly lines to report on enemy positions. Over the next two days – during which the company was in contact with the enemy – Corporal Jabo and PFC Mixter returned, both sporting ugly wounds. There was no sign of Tom Pilleri. (6)

At a field hospital several days later, Leo McDermott pulled out a little notebook where he was keeping an illicit diary. “Six of us ran into a company of Japs,” he wrote.

Pilleri, Mixter, Laurence, Jabo, Joe Terzi and myself. Heard ’em coming and shot hell out of some of ’em. They tossed about 20 or 30 grenades at us and we withdrew to the Ilu River. We stayed [in] the river under an overhanging bank while the Japs beat along both banks shooting and screaming. We stayed in the river about three hours, and damn near froze to death. Then we climbed up the bank and stayed there ’til dawn….

The night was the worst I’ve ever spent, and it’s only a miracle that I am here writing this today…. Mixter and Jabo came back about four days later. Laurence had made it back to our lines the night the fire-fight started. The Lieutenant and I came back the morning after. Pilleri didn’t come back at all. We’re leaving Tom on this island. He died there that night. But we didn’t find out till four days later. Tom was a good friend and a swell guy! (7)

Thomas Pilleri was declared dead on September 17, 1942. He was awarded a posthumous Silver Star for his actions on the night he was last seen.

Private First Class Pilleri was manning a machine gun for the all-volunteer, forward element listening post when a Japanese Battalion initiated a full scale assault to overrun the Marine control of Henderson Field. In the ensuing heavy fire fight, Private First Class Pilleri heroically remained at his station to cover the ordered withdrawal to the unit perimeter. Due to the lethal fire he provided against the enveloping enemy the other members of the post were able to withdraw, the Japanese surge was checked and the defensive positions were altered to maximum readiness. Private First Class Pilleri’s actions ultimately cost him his life, but helped saved the lives of other members of his unit and also helped the 11th Marines to repulse the Japanese attack. By his initiative courageous actions and complete dedication to duty, Private first Class Pilleri reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

Next Of Kin:
Mother, Mrs. Angela B. Pilleri

Status Of Remains:

Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.
(1) William H. Bartsch, “Crucial Battle Ignored,” Marine Corps Gazette, Quantico (September 1997), 82.
(2) Bartsch.
(3) Ibid. Along with Terzi and Pilleri, the patrol was made up of Corporal Charles Laurence, Corporal Steve Jabo, PFC Leo McDermott, and PFC Orland Mixter. The enlisted men borrowed Thompson submachine guns for additional firepower.
(4) Tregaskis, Richard. Guadalcanal Diary. Random House, 1943. pg 240.
(5) Bartsch.
(6) Ibid. Lt. Tarzi’s information, while solid, proved to be more dangerous than helpful as three American tanks were destroyed while hunting down the machine gun he spotted.
(7) Leo McDermott, quoted in Abady, Jason. Battle At The Overland Trail. pg 52-53

The fates of the other patrol members are as follows:

Lieutenant Joseph Terzi: Terzi was awarded the Silver Star for his participation in the listening post; his citation reads in part: “Having established an outlying listening post on the night of September 13, Second Lieutenant Terzi volunteered to remain with five of his men to open fire and withdraw to a more advantageous position giving his only weapon to a man whose machine gun had jammed. When again surrounded by a large enemy force and evacuation became necessary he instructed each man how to reach the front lines with the result that four of his men came through safely and much valuable information was obtained and used.” Terzi was later promoted to Captain and led K/3/1 into action on Cape Gloucester, where he died on December 26, 1943. He was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross.
Corporal Charles Laurence: Recovered quickly from his wounds; promoted to sergeant in October 1942. Left Company K in January 1943, and spent the remainder of the war with various artillery units. Discharged at the end of the war as a gunnery sergeant. Died July, 1972.
Corporal Stephen Jabo: “Jabo was short and stocky and had a deep tan. He could have been mistaken for a Jap. The scuttlebutt has it that Jabo gave himself up to I or L Co. which was on patrol. They didn’t believe he was a Marine (he named practically every officer in the battalion) and they made him walk point for the rest of the patrol ’til they got back to our lines.” Transferred to the Fourth Marine Division in 1943, he participated in the fighting at Roi-Namur, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima before being discharged as a platoon sergeant after six years of service.
PFC Leo McDermott: Rose to the rank of sergeant with K/3/1 before being transferred to the United States in late 1944 to serve out the war in a well-deserved safe billet as an MP. Died in May, 1999.
PFC Orland Alpha Mixter: “Mixter hid out under a river bank for four days and he said he ate bugs and grubs to survive.” Promoted to corporal not long after the outpost incident, Mixter was transferred to the 4th Marine Division in 1943. He became a sergeant and squad leader in Company A, 25th Marines and fought in the invasion of the Marshall Islands. Sergeant Mixter was killed on June 15, 1944, while making the landing on Saipan. He is buried in Zion Cemetery, Wauseon, Ohio.

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