Little Dunkirk

In late September, 1942, a series of skirmishes and counterattacks took place on the northern coast of Guadalcanal. This fighting, later referred to as the Second Battle of the Matanikau (or, with later events in October, simply “Actions along the Matanikau”) pitted the First Marine Division against the Japanese Fourth Infantry Regiment, plus scattered units retreating from the recent battles on Bloody Ridge. The Marines believed they faced only 400 disorganized and demoralized enemy; through aggressive action they would “mop up” the Matanikau region to secure and expand their western perimeter. As they quickly discovered, the Japanese were stronger and far better organized than anticipated – and few units realized this better than the First Battalion, Seventh Marines.

Lewis
Lewis “Chesty” Puller on Guadalcanal, September 1942.

The leader of this battalion was Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Puller. A notable figure in the Old Corps, “Chesty” Puller was regarded as “a marine’s Marine,” the archetypal hard-charger. He was finally finding an outlet for his legendary aggressiveness, having languished with his regiment in the defense of Samoa while the First and Fifth Marines took the fight to the Japanese. Now, Chesty was making up for lost time. On September 23, 1/7 left the Henderson Field perimeter for a combat patrol that would take them across the Matanikau at a point far upriver; they would follow the river back to the coast, eliminating any Japanese in their path, and meet up with the First Raider Battalion at the village of Kokumbona to establish a permanent patrol base.[1]

The battalion was brought up short at a Japanese bivouac on September 24; a sharp firefight scattered the enemy, but cost Puller thirty-five casualties. Among the dead were 1Lt Alvin Cockrell, the promising young skipper of Company B, and PFC Richard Wehr, Puller’s personal runner; all were buried in marked graves the following morning.[2] A more pressing problem was the number of wounded; they obviously could not continue the patrol, and the heat and terrain would require nearly 100 men to carry the eighteen stretcher cases, plus more for security. General Vandegrift detailed 2/5 to support Puller; in turn, Chesty detached A/7 and B/7 to return to the perimeter with the wounded.

Early casualties: Cockrell and Wehr.

With Puller still out in the boondocks (he attached himself, plus C/7, to the continuing advance), command of the battalion passed to the executive officer. Major Otho Larkin Rogers (known, inevitably, as “Buck” Rogers) was a ten year reservist, a “mild-mannered, soft-spoken, sociable, politically-oriented Southerner” of forty-one whose civilian occupation was approving new stamps issued by the Federal government.[3] He was the perfect foil for Chesty, a “good gent” who handled the administration of the battalion while Puller chafed at the bit for action. Rogers was well liked and a fatherly figure to his young Marines – however, he had no more combat experience than the greenest teenage private in the battalion.[4]

It took the diminished battalion until evening on September 26 to reach the perimeter. They received no word from Colonel Puller, but 1/7 had plenty to handle on their own. “We were dug in by the airport and all night long,” recalled Sergeant Joseph Goble of the night of September 26. “Japs were yelling at us. We slept with fixed bayonets. Someone moved out of his foxhole near me, and a frightened Marine promptly ran a bayonet through him. Two Marines were bayonetted that night by other Marines. One died immediately, and the other died on a hospital ship.”[5]

Sunday September 27 saw a larger turnout than usual for morning religious services, a natural reaction from men who had just experienced their first serious brush with death. Major Rogers’ presence at the service was a given. In addition to his personal convictions, group worship clearly reminded him of more pleasant times in civilian life; he always turned up in a clean, starched uniform – his Sunday best, even in the muddy jungles of Guadalcanal.

A service on Guadalcanal. Although taken at Christmastime, the setup on September 27, 1942 was likely similar; the sentiment was the same.

The reverie was interrupted at 1000 hours. A messenger informed Rogers that the situation at the Matanikau was “critical,” that the unit scheduled to ford the river and take Kokumbona had been shot up and stymied with heavy casualties. There was no way to attack frontally, but Colonel Edson of the Raiders had a plan to envelop the Japanese. This would require troops to board landing craft, sail around the enemy positions at Point Cruz, and make a landing in the enemy’s rear. They would attack east, back towards the Matanikau, trapping the defenders against the riverbank. Time was critical; Edson wanted to be across the river by dark. Buck Rogers had planned for a quiet Sunday. Instead, he found himself reporting to division headquarters, to take charge of an independent amphibious assault-the execution of which would have tested the abilities of the most experienced combat commander. “It was a hastily contrived plan, the largest mounted by the Marines to date,” notes historian Eric Hammel. “The result of a chance encounter, it was not a carefully plotted concept.”[6]

“When the sun rose the next morning [September 27] it was hot and steamy. But we felt good because we could rest and wash our clothes in the Lunga River,” remembered Sergeant Goble. “[Then Major] Rogers came by with the orders for us to get ready to shove off again.”[7] Within minutes of the messenger’s arrival, 1/7’s bivouac was teeming with shouting NCOs. Marines scrambled to finish breakfast, gather their laundry, and arm themselves for… something. Nobody seemed quite sure what the objective was. “As usual, we had very little information as to what our mission was to be,” said PFC W. Ray Thomas, a communications man for the battalion.[8] Captains Charles W. Kelly, Tom Cross, and Zach D. Cox got the men moving to the beach while Rogers was at headquarters. They knew only that they were to land in two waves at 1300 hours; for reasons of security or inexperience, Rogers did not share the details of the plan with his officers.[9]

Soon, the men were mustered on the beach near Kukum. Companies A and B, plus a few crew-serviced weapons from Company D and a handful of communications specialists listened as Buck Rogers (who had not had time to change from his Sunday services uniform) gave a short speech. They were, he said, “the the finest body of fighting men in the world,” and in the action ahead he hoped “every man gets the Navy Cross.”[10] Then, the 398 Marines boarded their Higgins boats and puttered away from shore.

A
A “Higgins Boat” of the type used to transport 1/7. Private Ed Poppendick (D/7) describes these boats as the ramped model (see below).

It was “Tojo Time” at Henderson Field; the daily air raid from Rabaul arrived like clockwork every day at noon. 1/7 saw the bombers roaring overhead but the pilots paid no attention to the little fleet, focusing their efforts on the airfield. The seaplane tender USS Ballard, assigned to provide fire support for Rogers’ landing, took evasive action anyway, drawing away from her assigned station. Several bombs hit the near the division CP, disrupting communications to the front lines.[11] It was the first flaw in the day’s plan. As the Higgins boats turned to head for the beach, the men in the boats worried about the landing—their first in combat. Captains Kelly and Cox wondered about the plan, hoping Major Rogers would give more instruction after landing. Some men may have wondered why the battalion was landing without any radiomen; others that the mortar gunners carried so little extra ammunition.

The boats roared up and deposited the men in two waves, on schedule and as planned, on an open beach about 2,000 yards west of the Matanikau. Captain Cox’s Company B was first ashore, and spread out into a skirmish line as they were trained to do. Major Rogers’ headquarters element followed right behind, as did the crew serviced weapons. Private Ed Poppendick, a heavy machine gunner, admitted “I didn’t do so great on the landing. I stepped off the boat and sank like a stone. The other guys were stepping over me, and then someone pulled me up by my pack straps. I almost drowned.”

Landing from a Higgins boat, Guadalcanal. Although Poppendick mentions using a ramp, it is likely that not all available craft had this modification. Climbing over the sides - especially when under fire - was a daunting task. USMC photo, appearing in This Is Guadalcanal: The Original Combat Photography William S. Butler, L. D. Keeney
Landing from a Higgins boat, Guadalcanal. Although Poppendick mentions using a ramp, it is likely that not all available craft had this modification. Climbing over the sides – especially when under fire – was daunting.
USMC photo, appearing in This Is Guadalcanal: The Original Combat Photography by William S. Butler, L. D. Keeney.

As he took his bearings Rogers exclaimed, half to himself, “Lord! We’ve landed in the wrong place! We landed too soon!”[12] For the time, this error did not seem to matter. “We disembarked and started inland,” said Ray Thomas, “surprised that there was little or no resistance.”[13] Sergeant Goble, who was on the right flank of Baker Company’s skirmish line, saw signs of Japanese activity almost at once.

We had moved about sixty yards, when I tripped over what I thought was a vine, but it turned out to be a green phone wire. We then came into a Japanese camp made of lean-tos from coconut fronds with bedding all around. I saw only one Jap and he jumped out of the bush where he was hiding and ran. I yelled for Tommy Thompson, on my right to shoot him. Tommy was so excited that he could not get off a shot with his BAR, and the Jap got away. We knew that there had been a lot of Japs in the camp a few minutes earlier, even though we had not been shot at while we were making our landing.[14]

The question now facing 1/7 was plain: where were all the Japanese? “As we made our way inland, we encountered some sporadic bursts of machine gun fire,” continues PFC Thomas.

I’m sure all of us kept thinking we are going to meet heavy resistance soon. I recall crossing one clearing of about 40 yards where we would normally be very vulnerable to enemy fire—but the entire body passed the clearing without incident. We soon started to climb a hill. I remember vividly passing a horse corral, where we saw two dead Jap soldiers inside. We continued until we reached the crest of the hill. We could observe very well from there, but saw nothing unusual.[15]

W. Ray Thomas, HQ/1/24. Photo from peleliu1944.org
W. Ray Thomas, HQ/1/24.
Photo from peleliu1944.org

Rogers, acutely aware that he was leading Marines into combat for the first time, and that behind enemy lines, felt that caution was needed. The major ordered a halt at the summit of the hill (Hill 84 on Marine maps), and the men fanned out to take defensive positions. The open terrain provided an excellent view of the river that was their objective, and the landing beach, some 400 yards to the rear. Joe Gobel, was ordered to dig in at the very western edge of the ridge. “We soon began getting both Jap mortar fire and machine gun fire,” he recalled. “We were in tall grass and they did little damage at that time.”[16]

Company B cast hopeful eyes back the way they came, where Captain Tom Cross’ Company A was supposed to be following in support. Horrified, they saw large column of Japanese troops bearing down on them. “They told me the Jap strength here was no more than two or three hundred,” exclaimed Rogers.[17] He sent word for all officers and non-coms to converge on the CP to plan the next move.

The Japanese had anticipated the landing and withdrawn to pre-planned positions. Instead of the scattered survivors of Bloody Ridge, 1/7 was facing the fresh Fourth Regiment. It was their bivouac the Marines had passed through, it was their troops who were moving to encircle the Marines, and it was one of their mortarmen who, spotting several Americans converging on a man carrying an officer’s binoculars, dropped a shell squarely in their midst.

“I was running toward [Major Rogers] when a shell landed near his feet—it blew him in half,” said Sergeant Goble. “Captain Cox standing nearby had one of his arms mangled pretty badly. Sergeant John Bennett and I were blown backwards, but not injured.”[18] The sky fell in on Company B. “All hell broke loose, mortar and artillery fire seemed to be coming from everywhere,” said PFC Thomas.

We all instinctively hit the deck. While on the deck next to Sergeant John Riordan, I remember saying I needed a drink and raised myself up to get my canteen out. At that moment another shell exploded nearby. A fragment of shrapnel cut the canteen on Riordan’s hip completely in half and imbedded itself in the ground where I would have been lying—had I not raised up to take a drink from my own canteen! I told Riordan I was going to get the hell out of there and we both moved down the hill a few feet.[19]

Lieutenant Zach D. Cox.

Zach D. Cox, CO of B/1/7, as a lieutenant.
Cox nearly lost an arm in the blast that killed Major Otho Rogers.

With Rogers dead and Cox incapacitated, the junior officers of the company were left in charge. Nobody had briefed them on their objectives, and they had no idea what to do. “I heard one say we should dig in for the night and I was glad they didn’t put that plan into effect,” continued Thomas. “I really believed that if we tried to dig in we had better dig deep because we’d be there forever.”[20] Fortunately, at around this time Company A broke through the closing Japanese noose. “Unflappable” Captain Charlie Kelly took over the situation and established a defensive perimeter.[21]

USMC-M-Guadalcanal-43The envelopment of 1/7.

Private Poppendick’s heavy machine gun was trailing Company A.

After we had gotten in about twenty five or thirty yards, the kid next to me looked at our platoon sergeant, Bucky [Rufus A.] Stowers, and said, “I think the Raiders are in back of us.” Then the Japs came in; we had no idea they were coming in behind us to attack. All of a sudden my squad was fighting down at the bottom of the hill while the rest of the guys had made it to the top to dig in. I heard gunfire and the platoon sergeant, Stowers… [had his gun] shot right out of his hand. He was right there, a couple of feet away from me, when it happened. I don’t know where the hell he went after that. The next thing I knew, this kid right next to me, the number four kid, was shot in the head. His name was [Private Harold G.] Dick, he was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn. I could have touched him; he was that close to me when he got shot…. The number one and number two men were both shot; one was [PFC Elmer] Anderson and the other [PFC Vincent] Adigi, I think they were called. The corporal in charge, Chiles… had his head blown off. Somebody said he got hit with an exploding shell, like a dum-dum bullet or something. And then the other kid was shot, he was from Ohio, Steubenville. He got shot maybe two or three times. I don’t know if he was killed or not…. The guys in my squad all got shot so quickly; we didn’t even have the guns set up or anything. Seven guys in the squad, and I was the only one left…. I just hugged the ground, figuring my turn was next, so I decided to play dead and stayed that way.

Machine gunner Ed Poppendick, D/1/7. Photo from usni.org
Machine gunner Ed Poppendick, D/1/7.
Photo from usni.org

Before his abortive trip to the command post, Sergeant Goble had contemplated what he would do if surrounded. He thought he’d have a better chance of survival if he struck out towards Mount Austin with a buddy or two; there seemed to be less Japanese in that direction. Now, he was wondering if he would have even that slim chance.

I went back to my foxhole and found [Sergeant Charles] Lentine hit in the chest by shrapnel. The Japs were starting to push up the hill on the ocean side and on the river side, and it appeared that several hundred Japs were coming towards us. Machine gun and rifle fire were literally mowing down the tall grass over us. We had to stay.

We hit back with 60mm mortars and rifle grenades, along with machine gun and rifle fire. PFC John Giles of D Company was holding the Japs back on the east end of the ridge – this was to our right and facing the ocean—using a World War 1 water-cooled machine gun.[22]

Master Gunnery Sergeant Roy Fowel, a legendary mortarman, was among those trapped on the hill. He had only a single 81mm mortar to command, and that with only fifty rounds of ammunition. Captain Kelly put Fowel in complete control of the mortar’s fire; Fowel responded magnificently, calling in rounds at ranges so short that the mortar had to be fired with its tube nearly vertical, with a Marine using his feet to hold the weapon steady. Still, there was little to do except hunker down and hope for the best. Kelly could not even call for help—the attack had not brought a single radioman along.[23] Communications back at the perimeter had been so badly disrupted that nobody knew the location of the stranded companies. Totally encircled, the Marines fought back as best they could.

Japanese air activity had ended for the day, and now American planes were buzzing off from Henderson Field on their daily sweeps and scouting missions. 1st Lieutenant Dale Leslie, a dive-bomber pilot from VMSB-231, was assigned to a late afternoon patrol. Neither he nor his gunner, PFC Reed Ramsey, noticed anything unusual until the return leg of their journey brought them over Hill 84. Motion below caught Leslie’s eye, and then something else that he couldn’t quite believe. Swinging low over the hilltop, he saw four white letters on the ground.” The Seventh Marines had not been on Guadalcanal long enough to learn the importance of dyeing their white skivvy shirts, and today that inexperience saved them; desperate men stripped off their undershirts to spell “H E L P.”

Ramsey transmitted the news back to Henderson Field, and the word worked its way down to Chesty Puller himself. Puller knew exactly which unit was in danger, and in typical fashion, exploded into rage-fueled action. “You’re not going to throw these men away!” he snarled at Colonel Edson, and stomped off to the beach, signaled a nearby boat, and in short order had virtually commandeered the destroyer USS Monssen for a personal rescue mission.[24]

DD-436-Monssen

“Someone noticed a destroyer off the coastline flashing light signals in Morse Code,” remembers PFC Thomas. Fortunately, although there were no radiomen present, the Marines had brought a communications expert in the person of Sergeant Danny Raysbrook. “Raysbrook could read the code and we were told to signal and give yardage so the ship could lay down a barrage to keep the enemy busy as we made our way back to the beach,” continues Thomas. “Sgt. Raysbrook was signaling to the ship with semaphore flags.”[25] When Raysbrook flagged “Engaged. Cannot return,” Puller fired back with “Fight your way. Only hope.”[26] The Monssen’s gunners opened fire. “I looked out on the bay and saw a four-stacker destroyer belching smoke and heading towards us,” remarked Joe Goble. “Then I saw fire from the destroyer’s 5-inch guns and I hit the ground fast! The destroyer fired salvo after salvo, hitting the coconut grove below us. We all cheered! Trees were falling, Japs were screaming.”[27] As Sergeant Raysbrook semaphored corrections, the officers began passing word to prepare to withdraw.

The Japanese, so close to wiping out the trapped Marines, redoubled their efforts. This fighting withdrawal was the toughest fighting of the day, as the Marines tried to make their way back down the hill and through the shattered, enemy-infested coconut grove to the beach. There was no time to gather the dead, but Marines risked their lives to bring out the wounded. Private Jack Ellenberger helped carry a stricken Marine down the hill; somebody slipped and the entire party tumbled to the bottom of the ridge.[28] Other Marines had similar difficulties.

As we started to make our way down the hill, I heard someone call my name.

I followed the sound and he asked, “Is that you Tommy?” I answered his call and told him everything would be all right. I looked at his face and didn’t recognize him. I looked at the tag that had been put on by a corpsman. When I looked at the tag I recognized the name as a man who had been with us for a few months. His face was so twisted and distorted from pain and the severity of his wounds that I was unable to recognize him immediately. All he said to me at first was, “Don’t leave me.” I assured him that would not happen.[29]

A heroic rear guard stand helped stave off the charging Japanese. Sergeant Goble “was ordered to bring down the rear guard with my platoon…. I remember setting up the defense, and letting men move through us to the beach. As I watched the men pass through our defense line I felt my heel sting. Looking down at it, I observed that half my shoe heel had been shot away. Finally, all the Marines had passed through us, except for John Giles on the machine gun to our right.”[30]

Private Ed Poppendick was still lying flat beside the body of his friend, Harold Dick. Anderson and Agiri were toted away by corpsmen (both would rejoin the company in a few days), as was the nameless boy from Steubenville, Ohio. [The identity of “Corporal Childs” is unknown; Poppendick may be referring to Johnny Giles, mentioned elsewhere in this narrative.] Suddenly, he heard a familiar voice calling him – his platoon leader, 2Lt. Richard P. Richards. “Do you think you can make it back here?” shouted Richards. “I’ll try it!” replied Poppendick, and “I tossed the ammunition this way, the spare parts that way, grabbed my rifle and throom, I must have looked like Jesse Owens running. I hit that log and went over and all I could hear was a machine gun going, the leaves coming down, and Lieutenant Richards shouting ‘Oh boy, this is it!’ After I recovered for a while, Lieutenant Richards told me, ‘Okay, from now on you’re my runner.’ I didn’t think being a runner was any worse than being a gunner. The thing is that you were scared all the time anyway.” The naval shelling “came in a pattern that created a corridor we could use to get to the beach.”

A clearing near the beach was the final obstacle to overcome; PFC Thomas wrote that “The clearing we passed on the way up was the most dangerous to cross safely. Two or three Marines would position themselves on each side of the clearing and lay down a rifle cross-fire, enabling others to cross. By changing places as each group made it across we were able to reach the beach while still carrying our wounded.”[31] As Lieutenant Regan Fuller’s platoon of Company A neared this clearing, with the Japanese were hot on their heels, one man stopped and turned around. Platoon Sergeant Anthony Malanowski called to Fuller, “Take Doc [Lt. Lawrence] Schuster and the wounded on down! I’ll handle the rear and be with you in a few minutes.” One of Malanowski’s buddies, Platoon Sergeant Stan McLeod, saw him settle in behind a coconut log. “You okay, Ski?” asked McLeod. “Yes, Mac, you go on down,” said Malanowski as he loaded an abandoned BAR. “I’ll just be a few minutes.” As Company A reached the beach, they heard the deep staccato of “Ski’s” BAR stop abruptly.

anthonymalanowski2

Anthony Malanowski

It took forty-five minutes for Captain Kelly’s men to cross the few hundred yards to the beach. “We were laying low in the water because we thought the Japs would come back and kill us,” recalled Ed Poppendick. “Eventually the Japs started firing with a large gun. What a noise it made; it scared the hell out of you.” Even more terrifying was the sight of the rescuing landing craft speeding away from the beach. Japanese machine guns had found the range, and the boat crews refused to come any closer. Captain Tom Cross, wounded in the wrist, ran into the surf; he would swim to the boats and bring them in himself if he had to. Overhead, Lieutenant Leslie made repeated passes over the boats, firing his machine gun into the trees. The Japanese pressed closer; the Marines clung to the beach, stories of the ill-fated Goettge Patrol flashing through the minds of many. It took thirty more minutes for the boats to drum up the courage to return.[32]

The wounded were evacuated first. True to his word, W. Ray Thomas had safeguarded his buddy all the way to the beach; now it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. “Once again I asked a couple more men to help me. We carried him several yards out into the water to the nearest Higgins boat. Looking inside I saw the bottom of the boat was already filled with badly wounded Marines. With no more room inside the boat, we put my buddy on the boat’s edge in as comfortable a position as possible. I climbed up and held him on as we made our way back to where we could get medical attention.”[33] Also scrambling aboard was Sergeant Goble; he had rescued “Buck” Rogers’ valuable binoculars.[34]

“Most of our guys stayed with the injured, carrying them out as far as they could without drowning,” said Ed Poppendick. “We were up to our necks with the wounded, trying to hold them up and get them into the boats. When we were ordered, ‘You go,’ they’d take every third or fourth guy into the landing craft. When it was your turn, you went; until then you laid in the water facing the jungle. Finally, my turn came, and I waded out to get into the boat. One of the sailors in it remarked to me, ‘I never saw so many beat up guys as you.'”

“Douglas A. Munro Covers the Withdrawal of the 7th Marines at Guadalcanal.”
by Bernard D’Andrea

One by one, the loaded boats backed away and turned to make the run back to Kukum. The final craft, commanded by Signalman First Class Douglas Munro of the U. S. Coast Guard, was placed as a cover for the last retreating Marines. Munro, the leader of the Higgins boat group, was determined to save as many men as possible. “Munro and I carried a Lewis machine gun from one boat to another as we sent boats to the restricted beach,” recalled fellow Coast Guardsman Ray Evans. “As we passed the end of the point, we saw another LCT loaded with Marines stranded on the beach and unable to back off. Murno directed the LCT with us to go in, pass a towline and get them off, which it did…. I saw a line of waterspouts coming across the water where the LCT had been grounded and realized it was machine gun fire.”[35] Munro, who was busily shooting up the beach, did not hear his friend’s shouted warning, and a bullet caught him in the back of the skull. His last words, as the boat pulled away, were “Did they get off?”[36]

Douglas Munro.
Douglas Munro

Monroe’s boat almost didn’t make it. The steering failed, and the boat roared through three full circles as the crew (several of whom were wounded themselves) struggled to correct the problem. One lone Marine, whose name has not survived, owed his life to this accident. He “burst out of the trees by the beach and ran through the surf, screaming for the boat to wait for him. Breathless and fearful, the man lurched through the waves, his hands extended in front of him. As he grabbed the plywood gunwale, he was lifted aboard, and the boat picked up speed to join the pack headed for Kukum.”[37] He was the luckiest man in the Battalion; no American left ashore survived.

Nor did all of those who made it to the boats. Jack Ellenberger’s charge, Private Albert Hoffman, had been struck down by the mortar blast that killed Major Rogers. He survived all afternoon with a gut full of shrapnel. Now, safe at last, Hoffman asked for a cigarette. His first drag was his last breath; Ellenberger watched in horror as the smoke rose from the holes in Hoffman’s abdomen.[38] PFC Thomas held onto his buddy for the “long 10-12 miles” back to Kukum and medical attention. “After getting help with my buddy I was holding him and I said, “Well, buddy, we made it, you’re going to be alright now.” There was no answer. He had died in my arms. His name was Joe Kuzma.”[39]

Joseph Kuzma, who died of wounds just a few miles from safety. Photo courtesy of his nephew, John Kuzma.
Joseph Kuzma, who died of wounds just a few miles from safety. Photo courtesy of his nephew, John Kuzma.

The Seventh Marines’ “Little Dunkirk” was over. The final butcher’s bill stood at 23 wounded, and 24 known or presumed to be dead, for an abortive operation that lasted less than twelve hours. The division’s assistant operations officer, Lt. Col. Merrill Twining, summarized it as “a sound and sensible reconnaissance operation” that devolved into “an improvised, complex, jury-rigged attack for which we had made no preparations.” For the Japanese, it was “the first good news to come from Guadalcanal.”[40] They reported finding thirty-two Marine bodies, one water-cooled machine gun (with the body of Corporal Giles), one BAR (with the body of Platoon Sergeant Malanowski), fifteen rifles, and fifteen boxes of ammunition.[41]

“Map 104,” the standard American reference during the Guadalcanal campaign, overlaid with a sketch from the final report of the operation. Note location of Japanese forces west of the Matanikau, and that the Marines were evacuated from a different beach than their landing site.

A handful of decorations were given out following the disaster; a distressing number were posthumous. Douglas Munro’s family received his Medal of Honor; Platoon Sergeant Malanowski and Sergeant Robert Raysbrook were both nominated for the award, but received Navy Crosses instead (Malanowski’s was posthumous).[42] Lt. Colonel Puller (one of the most decorated men in Marine Corps history) was awarded the Bronze Star for his fire support work aboard the USS Monssen. Lieutenant Dale Leslie, the pilot who spotted the call for help, also received a Navy Cross but had to wait a while to wear it; he was shot down over Guadalcanal the following day and spent five weeks struggling back to friendly lines. His gunner, PFC Reed Ramsey, went down with the plane.

The Seventh Marines would come to call the Matanikau attack “the Dead Man’s Patrol.” When the ground was eventually retaken, a handful of bodies were recovered; John Giles, for example, was found beside his empty machine gun. Sixteen of the dead were never found. Investigations of the area in 1944 revealed a handful of skeletons in various states of decomposition; none were complete and no positive identifications could be made. (For further reading on these cases, please see The Point Cruz Unknowns.) Most of “Buck” Rogers’ men are still on patrol, somewhere on Guadalcanal.

Headquarters
Major Otho L. Rogers
PFC Joseph J. Kuzma

Company A
Platoon Sergeant Anthony P. Malanowski, Jr.
Sergeant Charles A. Lentine
PFC Charles H. Burgess, Jr.
PFC Julius W. Copple
PFC Ralph Harless
PFC Robert A. Kline
PFC Joseph B. Raleigh
PFC Kenneth J. Quist
PFC Lloyd E. Ward
Private Michael J. Beddla
Private Gerald M. Butland
Private Walter J. Lazaroe
Private Clarence C. Miller, Jr.

Company B
Private Walter C. Burris
Private Paul J. Johnson
Private Carl H. Meyer 

Company D
Sergeant Leland N. Durr
Corporal John H. Giles, Jr.
PFC Larry J. Schuler
Private Harold G. Dick

 PFC Barney S. Mikus was also killed on September 27, 1942.
Mikus was last known to be serving with Company C, and was likely killed while attempting to cross the Matanikau.
He may be the 23rd fatality recorded by 1/7 for this date.
The “boy from Steubenville” mentioned by Ed Poppendick, whose identity is unknown, may be the 24th and final death.

Notes

[1] Lieutenant Colonel Frank O. Hough, Major Verle E. Ludwig, and Henry I. Shaw, Jr., History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, Volume I: Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal (Historical Branch, G-3 Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps), 314-315.

[2] “After searching the area we found thirteen dead Marines, one of them being Captain Cockrell…. We buried all thirteen on the ridge, placing a canteen and a dog tag into each grave. Marine Corps history records only seven dead, but I helped to bury thirteen men.” Sgt. Joseph Goble (B/1/7), memoir submitted to The Lower Deck: Newsletter of the Warships & Marine Corps Museum, September 2002. As Goble notes, the monograph by Hough et. al. lists seven dead. This author has accounted for ten: 1Lt. Alvin Cockrell; Corporals John E. Edwinson, Jr. and Manuel J. Pimentel; PFCs Morris E. CanadyErwin S. KingJames R. Walters and Richard Wehr; Privates Randolph R. EdwardsJoseph P. Karnaghon, and Charmning W. Rowe. None were recovered after the battle.

[3] Eric Hammel, Guadalcanal: Starvation Island (Pacifica, CA: Pacifica Military History, 1987), 279.

[4] W. Ray Thomas (HQ-1-7) recalls that “Major Rogers was in command of approximately 400 of us left in reserve” during Chesty’s expedition to the Matanikau. W. Ray Thomas, A Journey Back In Time.

[5] Joseph Goble, The Lower Deck memoir.

[6] Hammel, 278.

[7] Goble.

[8] Thomas.

[9] Jon T. Hoffman, Chesty: The Story of Lieutenant General Lewis B. Puller, USMC (Random House, 2001), 163-164.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Hammel, 279.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Thomas.

[14] Goble.

[15] Thomas.

[16] Goble.

[17] Richard Wheeler, A Special Valor: The US Marines and the Pacific War (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2006), 86.

[18] Goble.

[19] Thomas.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Hammel, 281.

[22] Goble.

[23] Hammel, 282.

[24] Hoffman, 185. Several histories claim alternately that this ship was the USS Ballard, the original fire support vessel for the mission. In researching for his definitive biography of Puller, Hoffman states “Marine records routinely cited Ballard as the ship assisting throughout the Matanikau operation of September 26–27. However, it definitely was Monssen that fired in support of Puller on the 26th and again late in the afternoon of the 27th. Monssen’s logs also show a shore bombardment mission “in support of Marine operations on Matanikau River” at 1245 on the 27th, followed by antiaircraft fire against Japanese planes at 1353. In all probability, division had [originally] arranged for support from Monssen, not Ballard, but in the absence of conclusive proof, I have followed the previously accepted version of events surrounding the landing of 1/7.”(ibid., 581-582.) Interestingly, the deck log of the Ballard (AVD-10) makes no mention of any action on September 27; she evidently weighed anchor for Espiritu Santo on this date. Monssen (DD-436) was commended by Puller, but did not long survive to enjoy her plaudits; she was sunk on November 13, 1942, losing 60% of her crew.

[25] Thomas.

[26] Wheeler, 87.

[27] Goble.

[28] Hammel, 282.

[29] Thomas.

[30] Goble. “The Raider Battalion went in the next day and found Giles. He had died beside his gun with only four rounds of ammo left. John was never mentioned in any books or records as a hero – only killed in action. To my thinking, he should have gotten the Medal of Honor.”

[31] Thomas.

[32] Hammel, 283-284.

[33] Thomas.

[34] Goble.

[35] Stanley Coleman Jersey, Hell’s Islands: The Untold Story of Guadalcanal (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007), 244.

[36] Douglas Monroe was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for his actions this day; he remains the only Coast Guardsman to be so decorated.

[37] Hammel, 285.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Thomas.

[40] Joseph H. Alexander, Edson’s Raiders: The 1st Marine Raider Battalion in World War II (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010), 209.

[41] Jersey, 244.

[42] Raysbrook passed away on August 24, 2014.

Author’s Note: Quotations from Ed Poppendick were added in a revision of this post. All are sourced from:

Michael Green and James D. Brown, War Stories of the Infantry: Americans in Combat, 1918 to Today (Zenith Press, 2009) 42-45.

19 thoughts on “Little Dunkirk

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s