Sergeant George M. J. Berwanger


George M. J. Berwanger
Philadelphia, PA
Father, Mr. Michael Berwanger
January 7, 1917
October 7, 1935
October 8, 1942
Guadalcanal G/2/5 Sergeant KIA
Gunshot wounds
Purple Heart
“Interred at forks of Matanikau River, Guadalcanal”
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.

Birth and Early Life:
George Berwanger was born January 7, 1917. Although his parents, Michael and Magdalena, had emigrated from their native Hungary in 1906 and had a permanent residence in Philadelphia (where two of George’s older siblings were born), George himself entered the world in Panama’s Canal Zone; it would be four years before he first saw the United States. (1)

Growing up in blue-collar Philadelphia in the 1920s was far from easy, and when mother Magdalena died in 1929, Michael was left to manage the family and hold down a metalworking job. The armed forces were an attractive option – the large Philadelphia Navy Yard meant a good chance of getting pay, training, and a snappy uniform without traveling too far from home – and eighteen-year-old George Berwanger, fresh out of high school, decided to enter the Marine Corps reserve.

Enlistment and Boot Camp:
On October 7, 1935, Berwanger reported for duty at the Navy Yard’s Marine barracks. As a reservist, he was required to attend drills one day each week with Company D, Sixth Battalion in lieu of boot camp; duty at the Yard consisted mainly of standing guard. George was promoted to Private First Class on September 16, 1936; the following month, his older brother Joseph enlisted and was posted to the same company.

Service Prior to World War II:
The Berwanger brothers served together for the next several years, racing to see who could earn rank and the privilege of ordering the other around. Thanks partly to age, Joseph reached Corporal before his more experienced brother; no sooner had George caught up, then Joseph moved up to sergeant. What he lacked in stripes, George quickly made up in experience and travel, to places as exotic as Puerto Rico with C/1/5th Marines, to the more mundane Quonset Point, Rhode Island. By the end of 1941, having spent the past six years as a reserve MP, Corporal George Berwanger might have been wondering if this was all there was to life in the Marine Corps.

Wartime Service:
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Corporal Berwanger was stationed at the Quonset Point Naval Air Station. The following month he was finally promoted to sergeant; days later his entire company was disbanded and the men sent to join the First Marine Division. George Berwanger ended up in a rifle company – G/2/5thMarines.

Although a combat unit was a far cry from guarding installations in Rhode Island, Berwanger’s years of experience elevated him immediately to command of a rifle squad. He was 25 years old; most of his charges were in their late teens and had been civilians just weeks before. The sergeant doubtless had his hands full getting his men ready for an overseas deployment – as a former MP, though, he had few reservations about enforcing discipline when necessary. He may have had time for a brief visit with Joseph – now a senior NCO with the service battalion at Quantico, Virginia – before the division shipped out for the West Coast. They would face a long voyage by sea, the shortest of all stopovers in New Zealand, and a final tension-laden journey to the British Solomon Islands. Sergeant Berwanger passed the time by writing letters home, remarking on his situation with good-natured humor. (2)

George Berwanger splashed ashore at Tulagi on August 7, 1942, and was almost immediately under fire in the first major American incursion into enemy territory of the war. Forty-eight hours later, Tulagi was nominally secured and the men of Company G, Fifth Marines were genuine combat veterans. Two weeks later, after pulling garrison duty and hunting stragglers all over the small island, Berwanger’s company boarded a destroyer and sailed across a narrow channel to a larger island that had captured their imaginations since their landing – Guadalcanal.

2/5 was late to the ball. The First Marines had been ashore and fighting since August 7; 1/5 and 3/5 had joined them soon after. Although the men had done well in subduing Tulagi, 2/5 was relegated to a support position within the small perimeter surrounding Henderson Field. Daily patrols and defensive actions were the order of the day; portions of the battalion took part in the famous defense of Edson’s Ridge in mid-September, but for the most part the battalion remained in reserve.

The first crossing of the Matanikau River in late September changed all that; Company G lost twenty-five men on September 26 alone in a failed attempt to drive the Japanese out of prepared positions on the far bank.  Further advances were halted for a short time; both sides sent out patrols, but were physically and mentally weakened by the stress of the campaign – the enlisted men seemed content to stay in their positions and keep the other side from advancing.

On October 7 the Marines began to move; a five-battalion attack was made against the Japanese 4th Infantry Regiment stationed along the Matanikau. Two battalions of the 5th Marines – including Berwanger’s Company G – began driving towards the Matanikau River, forcing the Japanese defenders into a small pocket with their backs to the water. The isolated companies of the Japanese 4th Infantry Regiment put up a stubborn resistance, however, and caused a significant number of casualties. A banzai attack that night hit the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, causing mayhem and casualties, but weakened the Japanese force far more than the American one.

Date Of Loss:
Two companies – Easy and George – were detached from the 2nd Battalion at 0900 on October 8, 1942. They were to cross the river, taking advantage of a driving rainstorm, and rendezvous with 3/5 for an attack to the north, hopefully rolling up the Japanese flank. However, by 1006, the companies were calling for casualty evacuation, and by 1212 the attack had been stalled altogether. (3)

Company G had been assigned most of the heavy lifting in the flanking attack, and consequently they suffered most heavily. According to Berwanger family lore, a combat correspondent happened to be tagging along with Company G, and attached himself to Sergeant George Berwanger’s squad shortly before they tripped a Japanese ambush. Berwanger fell, shot through the stomach, and the squad quickly retreated, trying to get him to a corpsman. (4)

There was nothing anyone could do. George Berwanger died of his wounds within minutes; his remains were “interred in vicinity of the forks of Matanikau River, Guadalcanal.” The correspondent, so moved by what he had seen, recorded the entire incident in a book published after the war. He saw to it that the Berwanger family received a copy, which became a treasured family heirloom. (5)

Next Of Kin:
Father, Mr. Michael Berwanger

Leatherneck Magazine, March 1944.
Leatherneck Magazine, March 1944.

Joseph Berwanger went on to make a career out of the Marines. He received a temporary commission as a warrant officer near the end of the war, then went on to serve through 1954 before retiring as a master sergeant. He died in 1984.

Status Of Remains:
Buried on Guadalcanal

Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.
(1) Information from the Hassett-Pileggi Family Tree on Of the Berwanger children, the eldest (Eva and Katie) were born in Hungary, the middle two (Joseph and Magdeline) in Philadelphia. What the family was doing in Panama between 1917 and 1921 is not presently known; shipping passenger lists indicate that 4-year-old George, plus Joseph and the mother-daughter Magdelines all arrived in New York Harbor in September, 1921, while Michael followed in December.
(2) Sergeant Berwanger’s letters are still in his family’s possession today.
(3) Division Commander’s Final Report on Guadalcanal Operation, Phase V, Page 121.
(4) The muster roll for Company G disputes this account, saying instead that Sergeant Berwanger died from a shot to the head.
(5) Unfortunately, the name of the correspondent and the title of his work are not currently known.

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