Gunnery Sergeant Robert Herschel Ballew


Robert Herschel Ballew
Yemassee, SC
Mr. Harry M. McAvoy (notified)
September 27, 1908
August 12, 1925
October 8, 1942
El Chipote, Nicaragua 45th Company, 5th Marines Private
Guadalcanal F/2/7 Gunnery Sergeant KIA
Shrapnel wounds
Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal (2)
Gunnery Sergeant
Buried in the field, vicinity of Hill 83, Guadalcanal
Mount Pisgah Cemetery, Fairburn, GA
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial

Service Number: 200796

Birth and Early Life:
Robert Herschel Ballew was born in Georgia on September 27, 1908. His family was living in Atlanta in when his father, Charles Thomas Ballew, died unexpectedly in 1910. Cora Ballew was left to raise Robert and his older siblings Charles Junior, Minnie, and Ralph – when she died in 1917, the oldest of her children was just 13 years old.

With both parents gone, the family appears to have split up. At least two of the boys – Ralph and Robert – joined the military as teenagers. Ralph changed the spelling of his name to Balleaux and went into the Coast Guard in 1925, while seventeen-year-old Robert chose the Marine Corps.

Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Ballew reported for duty on August 12, 1925. As a Southern boy, he likely had some experience with a rifle before enlisting and handily passed his rifle qualification as a marksman. With boot camp behind him, Private Ballew enrolled in an extra course of instruction at Parris Island’s HQ detachment – a baking class.

Service Prior to World War 2:
Learning to bake the Marine Corps way was evidently just as arduous as any other aspect of duty; Ballew was under instruction from November 1, 1925 to February 28, 1926 – and for all that effort, was declared “unqualified” at the end of the class.

Leaving that defeat behind him, Ballew boarded the USS Henderson and sailed for Cuba, where he joined a company at the Guantanamo Bay naval station. He failed to impress his superiors there as well, being written up for “disobedience of orders” and “being dirty at inspection” within days – infractions that carried sentences of confinement on bread and water and extra police duties. The rest of the year passed mostly without incident for Private Ballew.

In January, 1927, Ballew joined the 77th Machine Gun Company, 2nd Battalion, Fifth Marines, and boarded the USS Argonne. He was bound for another nation – Nicaragua – and disembarked at Bluefields on January 11. For the next six days, he and his company “participated in establishing and enforcing a Neutral Zone for the protection of lives and interests of the United States and foreign citizens at Rama, Nicaragua” – the beginning of the second US intervention in the troubled region.

For the remainder of the year, Private Ballew traveled to various hotspots in Nicaragua, often on detached duty with one of the 5th Marines’ many companies. Although his disciplinary issues continued (he was court-martialed for some unknown offense in December) Ballew was proving himself as a fighter. From January 6-22, 1928 he participated in a special combat patrol against El Chipote – the home base of the Sandinistas – an American reaction to the battle of Las Cruces. Ballew would have completed the campaign had he not fallen ill enough to be hospitalized for the next two months. He was transferred from the 45th Company to the 17th, and spent the rest of the year in Granada and Juigalpa with the 1st Battalion.

Private Ballew returned to the United States in January, 1929. The last eight months of his enlistment were spent at the Marine Barracks in Washington, DC – that August, Ballew left the Corps with a character rating of “Very Good” thanks to his earlier indiscretions.

Late 1929 was not a good time to be changing careers in America, and by mid 1930, Ballew had decided to return to the Marines. He began his second enlistment in New Orleans on May 5, 1930, and within two months was back in Nicaragua with the Electoral Detachment, Second Marine Brigade.

Ballew spent the first six months of 1931 in New Orleans as a post fireman for the city’s naval base; the latter half at Naval Operating Base Key West, Florida. Over the course of the next eighteen months he would serve with the post service battalion at Quantico, with the 53rd Machine Gun Company in Haiti, and with the 2nd Marines in Cuba.

Someone noticed Ballew’s prowess with a rifle in early 1933, and he was detached back to Quantico as a candidate for the Marine Corps competitive rifle and pistol team. He qualified; between matches, he coached other Marines on Quantico’s .22, .30, and .45 caliber pistol ranges.

When the season ended, Private Ballew was once again ordered overseas. He would eventually alight in Shanghai, China in February 1934, and promptly got into trouble once again not 24 hours after arrival. Ballew’s history of courts martial was the main reason that, after two tours in the Corps, he was still a buck private. He was, however, gaining a great deal of credit as an old salt, and the year spent in China only added to his reputation.

Perpetual private or not, Ballew was still an excellent rifleman, and in 1935 returned to Quantico as a range coach. Finally, on October 1, 1936, he received his first stripe – after more than eleven years in the service. He went back overseas that November, and landed at Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines – completing the classic triumvirate of inter-war service for a career Marine.

Duty at Cavite agreed with Robert Ballew; he spent a good amount of time on the rifle range, and was even promoted to corporal in March, 1937. He returned to Shanghai in September, joining the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines.

Ballew served in China until March, 1939, maintaining a good disciplinary record and competing in the Asiatic division’s rifle competitions. He joined the 1st Battalion, Sixth Marines in San Diego, a unit that had more than its share of exceptional shooters, and was promoted to Sergeant by the year’s end.

For the twelve months of 1940, Ballew bounced between the 8th and 5th Marines, reenlisted for his third hitch, and received his second Good Conduct medal. In January, 1941, he joined Company F, 2nd Battalion, Seventh Marines, and made platoon sergeant.

This is COMPANY F, SECOND BATTALION, SEVENTH MARINES, making the headlines for the first time.

COMPANY F. SECOND BATTALION, SEVENTH MARINES, was organized on the first of January, 1941, at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with one platoon from Company “F,” Second Battalion, Fifth Marines.

Our officers include First Lieutenant O. M. Conoley as company commander, First Lieutenant S. W. Meredith (USMCR), Second Lieutenant T. P. E. Gougelmann, Second Lieutenant S. W. Meredith (USMCR) and Second Lieutenant R. E. Farrel (USMCR).

Senior NCOs, are first Sergeants John Herregodts, Walter G. Steil, Gunnery Sergeant Emmett W. Orr and Platoon Sergeants Robert H. Ballew, James B. Galloway and Andrew E. Craigie.

Since the company’s organization, its rolls have been increasing rapidly with Regulars from the Recruit Depot and Reserves from the Marine Barracks in Quantico, Virginia. We hope and feel that the new men will swing in and work with our company to keep it a good one.

Our newest promotions are: Sergeant Robert H. Ballew to Platoon Sergeant, Privates Raymond V. Kelley and Charles C. Karp to Private First Class. Congratulations are extended to them.

With the company considerably over-strength and every one trying to get squared away, there is little opportunity for any special activities but training still goes on.

With nothing to look forward to, for the next few weeks but maneuvers, Company “F” can’t be too enthusiastic about life. We are scheduled for about six weeks of maneuvering over on the Island of Culebra. I am pretty sure that the fellows’ only thought of getting started is mostly to hit some good liberty ports in Puerto Rico. (1)

For the remainder of 1941, Robert Ballew – most likely the saltiest Marine in the company – served as the senior NCO of Fox Company, second in authority only to the captain and whatever deity the younger Marines chose to observe. “Ballew had been in the Marines for eighteen years and, tough as boot leather, seemed destined to serve another eighteen,” remembered a recruit that joined F/2/7 shortly after the war broke out. (2)

Wartime Service:
Ballew and the 7th Marines were in New River, North Carolina on December 7, 1941; they immediately went on alert and prepared for an immediate departure, but when no orders were forthcoming returned to their training routine – with more purpose than they had before the attack. In April, the regiment departed for the Pacific, but instead of going into an offensive operations were stationed in Samoa to provide a garrison force and continue their training in an appropriately tropical environment. During this time, Ballew was promoted to Gunnery Sergeant – though in reality, he was acting company First Sergeant.

With their sister regiments striking back at the Japanese on Guadalcanal, there were many in the 7th Marines who were anxious to get into the fight. Their wish was granted in September, 1942; they shipped out from Samoa and landed on the ‘Canal on September 18, only to be subjected to a fierce shelling by the Japanese navy on their first night. The First Battalion was put into action almost immediately, while Second contented itself with combat patrols.

On October 7, 1942, Fox Company joined a push towards the Matanikau River. They would follow a smaller strike force of snipers and an attached rifle battalion (known as the “Whaling Group” after its leader) and exploit any breakthrough in a hope to flank a strong Japanese position that was preventing any crossing of the river. Such, at least, was the plan.

The first sign that something was different was the breakfast – sliced pineapples, Navy beans, chipped beef on toast, rice pudding with raisins, crackers, and coffee. (3) With the supply situation on Guadalcanal still in a shambles, this was quite the feast. Then, to the rear, the artillery of the 11th Marines opened up in bombardment. Company F moved out along the Government Trail and engaged in a running skirmish with Japanese scouts as they marched. Finally ordered to stop a few hundred yards from the Matanikau, the Marines were only too happy to strip off their gear and rest their feet.

Fox Company spent an exhausted night on the line, totally oblivious to the sounds of the Fifth Marines battling a Japanese banzai attack not far away; it was Someone Else’s War.

Date Of Loss:
At around 0600 October 8, 1942, a young PFC named Robert Magnan opened his eyes and looked blearily around.

It was still dark, but there was a hint of pink in the heavy clouds to the east… when the heavens abruptly opened and torrents of icy rain fell. The men were drenched and chilled in no time, and pity the marine whose rifle barrel was not already covered. (4)

Hungry, tired, and absolutely miserable, Fox Company huddled under their ponchos in a vain attempt to stay warm and dry. Unfortunately, the weather could not stop the war entirely, and there was work to be done. As a scout, Magnan took a small patrol out towards the Matanikau River; at around noon, they could see friendly Marines of the Whaling Group had successfully crossed to the other bank.

The Japanese were active on both sides of the river, and Fox Company soon discovered that there were worse things than being cold and wet. Three enlisted men were badly wounded in individual scraps with Imperial soldiers, and the heavy rain made it difficult to see where attacks were coming from. The Japanese threw a few shells at the 7th Marines, too, and one of them hit home.

Robert Ballew, off on an errand of his own, had traveled thousands of miles around the world for nearly two decades, only to wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He would be the first Marine from Fox Company to lose his life in the war.

Gunnery Sergeant Robert Ballew was struck by shrapnel and died in minutes…. [H]e was gone, his bright red blood splattered upon the indifferent green leaves. A number of men stood frozen at first, viewing the sprawled, lifeless body. It was the first time Magnan had seen a corpse that was not reposing peacefully in an open coffin, face heavily made up, death masked beneath cosmetics. He felt the gorge rise in his throat, and he had to turn away….
It mattered little that the 7th Marines was an elite group, the best damned outfit in the best division under the leadership of the best of the Old Breed. It didn’t mean a thing that the 7th had arrived on the Canal already tanned and acclimated to the jungle, unlike the 1st and 2nd Regiments. It was clear that they would all have to get used to death. It was not pretty, and it was not glorious. (4)

The company muster roll was much more circumspect in its report of Gunny Ballew’s death. After his name, under the heading DIED, the clerk typed “8, killed in action at Cactus; GO 20 does not apply; char Exc; 9, buried in the field.” A footnote continued: “[Buried] at (69.725 – 200.2), Map #104, Lunga Area, North Coast, Guadalcanal, B. S. I.”

When translated from the clerical shorthand, the entry informs us that Ballew was killed on Guadalcanal (codenamed: Cactus), he died as the result of enemy action and not through fault of his own, and had he been discharged he would have been rated of Excellent character. The following day, he was given a field burial at the coordinates marked on the map below.

The small X at the lower left marks Ballew’s approximate burial site. Click on the map for a larger view.

Map #104 was one of the first reasonably accurate maps produced of the combat area. Earlier in the fighting, the dismal state of cartography on Guadalcanal caused countless headaches for the Marines, and even affected the disastrous outcome of the Goettge patrol (trained cartographers were taken instead of fighting men; their deaths further delayed the making of accurate maps). Map #104 is far from perfect, but was accepted as the standard during the middle months of the Guadalcanal campaign.

Whether a graves registration team ever made it to Ballew’s burial site is unknown; map coordinates could only suggest where a Marine was buried as the jungle grew thick and fast around them. Currently, his resting place is unknown.

A satellite view of the area where Ballew was buried.

A closeup of the approximate location – now a suburb of Guadalcanal’s capital, Honiara.

ballew map screenshot

Ballew may have been buried near the bend of the road in Mbokonavera Heights. Whether he lies there today is a mystery.

Next Of Kin:
Notified, Mr. Harry M. McAvoy of Yemassee, South Carolina

Status Of Remains:

Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines
Mount Pisgah Cemetery, Fairburn, Georgia
(1) Leatherneck Magazine, April 1941.
(2) Magnan, Philip J.
Letters from the Pacific Front. pg 105.
(3) Ibid. pg 103
(4) Ibid. pg 105
(5) Ibid. pg 105-106

One thought on “Gunnery Sergeant Robert Herschel Ballew

  1. In regard to Point Cruz…correspond with Historian Steven Weingartner and Lt.Col. Dean Ladd USMC {Retired} in Ladd 2009 memorier “Fiathful Warriors” Naval Instiute Press Annapolis maryland about how it appreared

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