State of the Site Update

A couple of site updates to ring in the new year.

First and most importantly: the number of unaccounted-for Marines has just decreased by five.

I have a regular (at times, seemingly tireless) commenter who goes by “TF.” I don’t know their real name or their connection to the MIA community, but it obviously runs very deep because it seems that every time a news story breaks, TF knows about it and wastes no time in letting me know. It’s thanks to TF that I can share this great news, too, so TF – wherever you are – salut and thanks!

The five now coming home are from Betio, and all were discovered by History Flight. With one exception, all were killed on the first day of the battle. Most notable among these is Second Lieutenant Ernest A. “Matty” Matthews.

Matthews was born in 1908 – old for a Marine – and prior to joining the service was a reporter for the Dallas Morning News. He enlisted in 1942 and almost immediately was assigned to the intelligence section of the Second Marine Division, seeing his first combat in the tail end of the Guadalcanal campaign. In addition to being an expert rifleman, Matthews was a skilled photographer, even learning to handle a motion camera through a training program coordinated with 20th Century Fox. Matthews earned his field commission in August of 1943, and was well known to the small cadre of correspondents, cameramen, and PR professionals assigned to the division – including Norm Hatch and Robert Sherrod.

Matthews, on left, aboard the USS Biddle en route to Tarawa. (His companion, "Falwell," is a bit of a puzzle as that surname does not appear on muster rolls of the period.) Photograph by Norm Hatch. [Source]
Matthews, on left, aboard the USS Biddle en route to Tarawa. (His companion, “Falwell,” is a bit of a puzzle as that surname does not appear on muster rolls of the period.) Photograph by Norm Hatch. [Source]
One of Matty’s close friends was the well known combat correspondent Jim Lucas. “He was one of the most popular men in our outfit,” said Lucas, himself a seasoned veteran of Guadalcanal. The two lieutenants swapped addresses and letters home on the eve of the invasion, and “joked about the fun they’d have handing them back when it was over.”

As correspondents, Matthews and Lucas were not high on the priority list to land on Betio; as the attack developed and November 20 wore on into bloody uncertainty, they were probably quite glad to be missing the “scoop” of being first on the beach. Loaded as they were with cameras, film, and typewriters, they would have had little chance on the beach – nevertheless, Lucas wrote that their boat tried three times to gain the shore. At around midnight, they finally reached the pier, swearing at “the brilliant moon…. We were perfect targets.”

When we reached the dock snipers in the wrecked ship opened up, but they were firing over our heads. We climbed on the dock and more snipers fired. We hit the deck. We moved down the dock ten feet. Japs on the beach began throwing mortars our way. We hit the deck again. Minutes later, a second mortar hit directly beneath us. I felt the blast and was sprayed with salt water. Someone yelled, “Get to the other side! The next one will be right on!”… Crouched, we sprinted down the pier, silhouetted against the coral. Snipers opened up, and six men fell screaming in agony. We lay like logs.

A sniper or a shell caught Matty on the pier. Lucas later recalled that “a 40mm shell” exploded under their feet, blowing him and Matty into the air. Matthews’ casualty card records his cause of death as a “gunshot wound, abdomen.” It may have been a combination of the two, but regardless, the reporter from Dallas would never write home again. His name would appear in the newspapers, both in Lucas’ account and as a credit for the Oscar-winning documentary With The Marines at Tarawa.

There’s an interesting coda to Lt. Matthews’ story. In 1946, Time magazine published a feature about the process of returning American servicemen from their temporary burial sites overseas. The practice was a matter of some debate at the time, with a portion of the population believing that a fallen fighter should stay on the battlefield, surrounded by his buddies. Time chose to quote “the only war widow who has yet visited her husband’s grave in a Pacific battlefield.” Mrs. Virginia Matthews was a Red Cross worker whose Pacific sojourn led her to Betio.

I wish that all the other families who have loved ones there could share the experience. . . . These men earned the right to lie there. In some places native plants have started to come back and this results in a gorgeous flood of purple morning-glories — it reminds me of a little old cemetery in the U.S. which is mellow and not closely pruned. I can’t think of a righter place for my husband to lie.

Had Mrs. Matthews known that she was visiting only a memorial grave, and not her husband’s actual remains, she might have had a different opinion.

The remaining Marines were all enlisted men, three from the Second Battalion, 8th Marines, and one from the Special Weapons Group, 2nd Defense Battalion. Gunnery Sergeant Sidney Cook, PFC James Whitehurst, and Corporal Walter Critchley were all killed shortly after landing on Betio in the early part of the fighting. PFC Larry Roberts lost his life to rifle fire on November 25, just minutes after his comrade PFC Ben H. Gore died from grenade wounds. (Gore was accounted for and buried late in 2016.)

GySgt. Cook (E/2/8), PFC Whitehurst (E/2/8), Cpl. Critchley (F/2/8) and PFC Roberts (2nd Defense Bn.)
IDPF photographs courtesy of an anonymous source.

As of yet, no burial information has been announced for any of the five, but details will be reported here when they’re available. (Unless TF beats me to it, which is pretty likely.) Check the Accounted For page for updates.

 

Less important to the big picture but extremely satisfying nonetheless: Names and Faces is complete after seven months of work. This is a major revision both in terms of information available and ease of reading; if you remember the old version (and I rather hope you don’t, although a few still show up in Google indexing) they were an absolute mess. I’m quite pleased with how this turned out, and hope it’ll be a useful tool for researchers and family members. Eventually, all the names will link out to individual pages instead of repetitive posts, but that’s going to have to wait a little bit. (For more on why, skip down two paragraphs.)

To avoid the aforementioned repetition, the storytelling aspect of this site is going to revolve more around incidents than individuals. For example: if you scroll back in the posts on this page, you’ll eventually come across a series concerning a platoon that suffered a fatal accident aboard a barge being towed across Sealark Channel. They quickly get repetitive, telling the same story of the event over and over, with only the Marine’s personal details being different. Makes everyone sound too similar, and why tell one story multiple times with lots of repetition when you can tell it one time with greater detail? So, to that end, there is the Last Days page. I’ve divided the cause of every casualty into individual (or group) events, in hopes that will be a more compelling form of storytelling. Check out 1941 for an idea of how they’ll be divided. Personal histories up to the cause of a Marine’s death or disappearance will go under Names and Faces, the war stories will go under Last Days. And presumably I’ll remember to cross link everything correctly. This too is going to have to wait a little bit. (For more on why, skip to the next paragraph.)

If it gets a little quiet around here – quieter than usual, that is; even though I don’t post regularly, I’m making tweaks and edits almost every day – there’s a good reason, and that reason is that I’ve been asked to write a book. Yes. This, as you can imagine, is a very exciting prospect. I’ve been working on the research part of it for several months, and should be delivering a draft by the end of the year (unless you’re the publisher reading this in which case I *will* be delivering a draft by the end of the year, no worries). It’s focused on the peculiar battle that is Guadalcanal and how Marine and Army casualty collection operated (or in some cases failed to operate) when it came to caring for the dead. Although the battle has been well dissected in works by historians far more talented than I, it’s rare to hear about the ones who were left on the field – some of them were household names for their exploits – and this book will hopefully tell some of their stories and maybe lead to additional recovery efforts.

That about covers it from here. I have been meaning to share some of the photos I took from two more repatriation ceremonies (for George Traver and Wilbur Mattern) and hope to get those up soon. At both events I was fortunate enough to meet family members of the returning hero, and every conversation with them reminds me why we do what we do: it’s not so much for the dead as for the living.

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