Sergeant Leland Norton Durr


Leland Norton Durr
Pittsfield, IL
Mother, Mrs. Fern Durr
April 13, 1934
September 27, 1942
Guadalcanal D/1/7 Sergeant KIA
Purple Heart
Pittsfield West Cemetery, Pittsfield, IL
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.

Birth and Early Life:
Leland Durr was born in Illinois, around the year 1915. He was raised on the family farm in Pittsfield by his parents, Robert and Fern, and grew up with two younger sisters, Marjorie and Virginia.

Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Durr entered the Marine Corps from Chicago, Illinois on April 16, 1934. After completing his training at Parris Island, he was sent back north to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for duty with the Marine barracks at the navy yard.

Service Prior to World War II:
Private Durr spent his first months at Portsmouth on mess duty, a tiring job often given to the newest Marines at any post. He was relieved and placed on ordinary guard duty by December, nothing out of the ordinary occurred until July, 1935, when he was made orderly to the barracks commandant, Colonel Chandler Campbell. Campbell, an imposing officer with 35 years in the Corps and a record stretching back to Haiti and the Great War, expected excellence from his staff – while on duty, Private Durr was the picture of discipline, but while at leisure he could be found palling around with his two friends, PFC Charles Foutz and Private Rudyard Diamond.

Durr probably learned more from Foutz than from his commanding officer. Approaching his tenth year in the Corps, with scores of stories of exploits from Louisiana to Rhode Island and even the far-off base at Pearl Harbor, Charley Foutz was an immediate hero to the two young Marines. Duty in China was his next goal, and with the finesse of the seasoned infantryman, he managed to secure it in the spring of 1936.

Charley Foutz has shipped over for Asiatics. He has promised to show the ropes to both Durr and Diamond who have been bitten by the Asiatic Bug. Durr and Diamond have quite an itinerary planned. It is hoped the money holds out. (1)

Much to their delight, Durr and Diamond were soon following Foutz away from the barracks at New Hampshire, and off to parts unknown. All three boarded the venerable USS Chaumont in October, 1936, and set sail for the mysterious east.

Two months later, the Chaumont arrived in the Philippines. The excitement of reaching a foreign land was tempered somewhat by the dissolution of the intrepid threesome – PFC Foutz was ordered ashore to take a post at the Cavite Navy Yard. Durr and Diamond continued on, eventually arriving in China, where they were posted to Company F, Second Battalion, 4th Marines. The two spent the next seven months serving together; Private Durr was transferred to the regiment’s  service company in July, 1937, and became a clerk for the company headquarters.

Although the transfer meant leaving his old friend, it proved to be a good move for Leland Durr’s career. In December, 1937 he was promoted to Private First Class, and on the same day was appointed as an orderly to the company’s commanding officer. The following April, as he reached the end of his first four-year hitch, Durr joined the regiment’s Headquarters company, becoming an orderly to the regiment’s commander, Colonel Charles F. B. Price. While at the regiment’s headquarters, Durr rubbed shoulders with future Marine Corps luminaries like Lt. Colonel William Rupertus and Major Merritt Edson. In October 1938, he accepted the job of assistant manager of the regimental club.

This was the duty Durr had dreamed of – enough to keep busy, and enough free time to enjoy the prestige (and paycheck) that came with being an American serviceman in Shanghai. Perhaps he spared a thought for his old friends Foutz and Diamond, but running the regimental club took up most of his time. (2) Durr was promoted to corporal in February, 1940, as the threat of confrontation with Japan grew stronger. In May, he finally surrendered his post to return to the United States and impress young recruits with tales of his own.

After alighting in California, Corporal Durr made his way east across the United States, traveling from Mare Island to Parris Island, where he served a turn as a recruit instructor before venturing to Cuba. There, at Guantanamo Bay in January 1941, he joined Company D, First Battalion, 7th Marines. Leland Durr had to re-qualify on the rifle range shortly after joining; he stood on the firing line with a swarthy PFC known as “Manila John,” although his dog tags read John Basilone. Both men received the rating of “Marksman” and the right to wear a badge denoting their ability.

The 7th Marines returned to the United States later in 1941, and Durr received a promotion to sergeant. He was on duty at New River, North Carolina when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Wartime Service:
Sergeant Durr was probably acting as a squad leader during the regiments final, harried months of training in North Carolina; they then spent several months performing garrison duty in American Samoa. He finally saw action on September 18, 1942, when his regiment arrived on Guadalcanal – a Japanese fleet shelled their bivouac, causing some casualties and much confusion among the untried troops. Although Durr had eight years in the Corps, he had seen no more combat than the greenest private.

Unfortunately, Sergeant Durr’s exact duties with D/1/7 were not recorded on his battalion’s muster rolls. His company specialized in heavy weapons, fielding three platoons of water-cooled Browning M1917 machine guns (a total of twelve weapons), and one platoon of four heavy 81mm mortars. Such weapons were not easily portable; as battalion commander Lt. Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller was a hard-charger who believed in aggressive action, many members of Company D were left to guard the main perimeter while the faster-moving rifle companies made their combat patrols.

It is likely that Durr spent most of his first week on Guadalcanal in the comparative safety of the main Marine line. He watched the rifle companies, along with a platoon of his company’s machine guns, depart for a longer patrol towards the Matanikau River on September 23, and saw them return bearing two dozen stretcher cases on September 25. The Marines had taken a bloody nose from the Japanese along the Matanikau, and Puller had ordered most of them to return to base to await further orders. One platoon from Company D mourned the loss of the company’s first fatality, Private Randolph Edwards.

The following day passed quietly, with little word from Puller who was still out in the jungle with Company C.

Date Of Loss:
On Sunday, September 27, 1942, the Marines of Company D were preparing their morning chow. Those so inclined attended church services, noting temporary battalion commander Major Otho Rogers in a neatly-pressed set of khakis which he reserved for such solemn occasions. A runner appeared and spoke quietly to Rogers, who rose to his feet and made for his command post. Many correctly surmised that something was afoot; as junior officers began to converge at the CP, the more astute enlisted Marines began gathering their gear.

Companies A and B – the rifle companies – were soon abuzz with activity; they were being committed to a combat patrol. Orders for Company D were more restrained – one mortar team, and a handful of machine gun squads were told to saddle up. (3) Sergeant Leland Durr was among them.

The Marines piled into Higgins boats and took a short voyage around Point Cruz, landing behind enemy lines. As they moved up to the crest of Hill 84, about 500 yards inland, the Japanese sprang an ambush with their own mortars and machine guns. The Americans were pinned down, cut off from the beach, and surrounded.

In the chaos, the weapons platoon men fought desperately. MGySgt Roy Fowel dropped 81mm mortar rounds within 200 yards of friendly lines; his one mortar had to be braced almost vertically by a Marine lying on his back. A machine gun crewed by Sergeant Roy Surles and Private Johnny Giles fought off wave after wave of enemy counterattacks until dangerously low on ammunition – Giles refused to leave his position, and was found dead the next day, with only four rounds of ammunition remaining. It took hours to extract the battalion, and only the intervention of Puller, who commandeered a destroyer, turned the tide. Surviving Marines scrambled back aboard their boats to return, shocked and furious, to the bivouac they had left that morning – leaving 24 of their men dead on the field.

Sergeant Leland Durr was one of those killed and left behind in the fiasco on Hill 84. His remains, if recovered, have never been identified.

For more on this action, see Little Dunkirk.

Next Of Kin:
Mother, Mrs. Fern Durr

Status Of Remains:

Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.

(1) Cardin, Jeffrey. “Portsmouth Potshots.” Leatherneck Magazine, June 1936, page 15.
(2) Foutz eventually reached China, serving with Company D of the 4th Marines, and returning stateside in May, 1939. He would serve through World War 2 as a sergeant, grizzled but safe stateside. Diamond didn’t take to foreign service like his friends, and returned to the United States in mid 1938. His enlistment ran out in 1938; after two years in the Marine Corps Reserve, he joined the Navy and served honorably through the war.
(3) The exact commitment of D Company to this patrol is unclear. Most sources mention a single 81mm mortar with 50 rounds of ammunition and controlled by the platoon commander, Master Gunnery Sergeant Roy Fowels. At least some machine gunners went along as well – in Guadalcanal, historian Eric Hammel mentions Sgt. Roy Surles and Pvt. John Giles by name – but evidently not all, as Hugh Ambrose notes in The Pacific that “most of Dog Company, including John [Basilone’s] machine-gun section, stayed behind.” At present, it isn’t known if Sergeant Durr was with the mortars or the machine guns.

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