Jack B. Somers

Jack Somers in his high school ROTC uniform, 1941.
Jack Benjamin Somers
Company B
First Battalion
8th Marines
10357 Washington Boulevard
Culver City
Mother, Mrs. Alice Somers
December 1, 1921
June 27, 1941
November 24, 1942
Solomon Islands
Killed In Action
PFC Jack Somers fought in the battle of Guadalcanal as a member of Company B, First Battalion, 8th Marines.

On 24 November 1942, a patrol of which he was a member ran into strong Japanese positions on the slopes of Hill 83. After making three attempts to knock out a machine gun, Somers was killed in action. His remains were buried near the spot where he fell.

Silver Star, Purple Heart
Private First Class
“Buried in the field”
Manila American Cemetery
Somers (in his ROTC uniform) at Alexander Hamilton High School, 1941.

Jack Benjamin Somers was born in Los Angeles on the first day of December, 1922. His childhood was spent among the trappings of Tinseltown, as both of his parents worked in the film industry. Jack Timely “Shorty” Somers wrangled Western-themed props and wardrobe at “Inceville,” and even chauffeured the legendary studio head Thomas Ince before Ince’s untimely death in 1924. Alice Rasmussen Somers worked in front of the cameras as one of Mack Sennett’s famous “Bathing Beauties.” When Jack was ten, he gained a baby brother, Robert “Bobby” Somers. Bobby was smitten with showbiz from an early age, and started appearing in MGM musicals and Our Gang shorts.[1]

Jack, however, was more interested in military brass than the silver screen. He might have peppered his father with questions about life in uniform – Shorty’s driving expertise was earned in France during the Great War – and at school, he cared more for athletics than dramatics.[2] He rose through the ranks of ROTC at Alexander Hamilton High School, and graduated in 1941 as a first lieutenant. With the ink barely dry on his diploma, Jack enlisted in the Marine Corps on 27 June 1941.

Inspection of ROTC cadets at Alexander Hamilton High School, 1941. The officer at right is thought to be Somers.

After completing boot camp at MCRD San Diego, Somers was assigned to Company B, First Battalion, 8th Marines, a rifle unit stationed at Camp Elliott. He was still in southern California when Pearl Harbor was bombed, an event that sent panicky waves up and down the west coast. The 8th was rapidly assembled and hustled out to man hasty beach defenses, in case the Japanese were just over the horizon. Somers, who had recently qualified as an automatic rifleman, probably lugged a heavy BAR hither and yon as confused orders sent detachments of the 8th Marines from post to post. “We were only too aware that we had a very long coastline to protect and that our forces at hand were inadequate for the job,” noted then-Corporal Dean Ladd of B/1/8. “Orders were issued sending us here, there, and back again. Nobody knew what was going on.”[3]

When the threat of immediate invasion passed, the 2nd Marine Brigade (of which the 8th Marines were a part) made rapid preparations for overseas deployment. Jack Somers shipped out aboard the liner SS Lurline on 6 January 1942, and by 20 January was stretching his legs on the island of Tutuila, American Samoa. There, fears of invasion had by no means diminished – in fact they increased, as rumors swirled about a shelling by Japanese submarines just before the 8th Marines arrived. Over the next few days, Somers helped construct hasty defensive positions along the harbor south of Pago Pago, and listened intently to discussions of the defense plan – which boiled down to simply holding out as long as possible in the event of a Japanese landing.

The hasty defenses grew more and more elaborate and sophisticated as time went on. “We waited. And waited. And waited. And the Japanese never came,” explained Dean Ladd. “The days passed, and the weeks lengthened into months. The war went on elsewhere, badly.”[4] Only the news of victory at Midway, received over the radio in June 1942, broke the mood – which shifted from trepidation to outright boredom. Training and conditioning hikes remained the order of the day. Activity began to pick up in August, with news of the American landings in the Solomon Islands. The 8th Marines handed over their defense positions to Samoan Marine units, and started training for offensive combat.

On 25 October 1942, the 8th Marines boarded transports and departed from Pago Pago. They anticipated heading to New Zealand, Australia, or some new theater of the war – however, to their chagrin, they quickly learned that their destination was Guadalcanal.

Operations log of 1/8th Marines.

PFC Somers – he’d earned the promotion earlier in the spring, while on Samoa – disembarked at Guadalcanal on 4 November 1942. He likely wore a flat-brimmed 1917-style helmet, similar to the one his father wore in France, and carried his BAR slung neatly over his shoulder. His first impressions of the island aren’t known, but other members of his company remarked on the appearance of the battle-hardened veterans who had been fighting for nearly three months. He heard his first hostile machine gun fire and endured his first bombing raid within hours of landing, and the next morning was straining through the jungle on his first combat patrol. He even survived a night time “intramural” where his company and another Marine unit opened fire on each other. It was an altogether disorienting, exhausting, and somewhat humbling experience.

Gradually, B/1/8 grew more acclimatized to the island, and on 18 November participated in an operation west of the Matanikau River – decidedly Japanese territory. Somers’ platoon, under Marine Gunner Otto Lund, tripped a Japanese ambush and had to withdraw, leaving two Marines dead on the field. The following day, the company advanced as far as Point Cruz before running into a strong Japanese force. In the withdrawal that followed, a few members of Somers’ platoon were trapped behind enemy lines and endured a frightening night before being rescued the next day. The young PFC from Culver City survived each of these engagements unscathed – although one of the casualties was his own squad leader. With that man incapacitated, Somers took command of the squad.

Aerial photograph of the area occupied by the 8th Marines at the close of 23 November 1942. Patrols were sent out from this position.

After a few days in reserve – during which time 1/8 performed security patrols and buried those dead they’d managed to recover in the Division cemetery – the battalion re-crossed the Matanikau river to support an Army attack. Movement was made difficult by near-vertical ridges interspersed with jungle-choked gullies. The 23 November assault stalled when Japanese emplacements on the ridges opened fire on the advancing soldiers, and after a tough fight all units withdrew to their starting positions. “Machine gun nests are taking a terrific toll of our assault [companies]” noted the battalion’s operation log.

The situation was no better the next morning. “The same problem confronts us,” continued the log, “and we are ordered to hold the front line and start patrols. The result of which is not in our favor due to enemy snipers.” This “aggressive combat patrolling” developed into a series of small unit battles as Marine platoons ran into well-emplaced Japanese defenses. Gunner Lund’s platoon encountered one such position on the steep slopes of a rise known as Hill 83: a dug-in machine gun position on a “strategic knoll” that held up first Somers’ squad, then the rest of the platoon.

Frustrated and angry, Jack Somers grabbed a pocketful of grenades and started working his way up the knoll. Once in range, he pitched the missiles into the fortification, stunning but not killing the Japanese defenders. He tried a second attack, with the same result. Now out of grenades, he hustled back down the hill to collect more. Unfortunately, the Japanese wised up to Somers’ tactics, and on his third attempt they shot him down. His actions on 24 November would earn Somers a posthumous Silver Star:

The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Silver Star (Posthumously) to Private First Class Jack Benjamin Somers (MCSN: 313893), United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity as Acting Squad Leader of Company B, First Battalion, Eighth Marines (Reinforced), in action against enemy Japanese forces on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, 24 November 1942. Boldly taking the initiative when several attempts by his squad and platoon to dislodge an enemy machine gun located on a strategic knoll had been repulsed, Private First Class Somers worked his way up the knoll despite the merciless fury of Japanese gunfire and then, attacking single-handed, hurled deadly hand grenades into the deeply entrenched gun position. Undaunted by the stubborn defense of the hostile emplacement after he had waged two furious assaults, he returned under fire to the base of the knoll and replenished his supply of grenades for a renewed attack. Although killed by enemy fire during this third effort to silence the Japanese weapon and thereby enable his squad to secure its objective, Private First Class Somers had rendered valiant service in the face of unrelenting opposition, and his cool courage, unfaltering determination and devotion to duty throughout were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Many years after the war, Herschel Wilsky sat down to reminisce about the war. As “Skee” Wilsky, the “one man army” of B/1/8th Marines, he was known as a proficient hunter of what his buddies once called “Hakudoto quail.”[5] Now in his sixties, Wilsky turned to sketching his memories of combat. One of the events he recalled took place on “McCoy Reynold’s Ridge” – evidently the company’s nickname for Hill 83. He drew the steep ridge, the footpath through the ravine, and the location of the machine gun that ambushed the platoon from the rear. He remembered where they set up marker panels to guide friendly dive bombers. He sketched where he saw a dead Japanese soldier, the last place he saw his dead buddy Private James R. Hutchens of Tennessee – “can’t recover him” – and where PFC Jack Somers lay, “shot between the eyes.” Tellingly, Wilsky sketched himself lying prone next to Somers. In another flash of memory, he drew a grave partway down the hill, and labeled it “Somers’ Grave.”

Illustration by Herschel “Ski” Wilsky, B/1/8, printed in Dean Ladd’s memoir Faithful Warriors.

This sketch by Guadalcanal veteran Herschel Wilsky shows the ravine in which B/1/8 found themselves on 24 November 1942.
Note in particular scene (2) – Somers, killed right beside the artist, and scene (5) – a depiction of his grave just below the crest of the ridge.

According to battalion muster rolls, Somers was indeed buried in the field on 24 November 1942. Unfortunately, the area would be fought over again and again before the battle concluded, and when search teams went looking for the site, no trace of the grave or marker remained. To this day, PFC Jack Somers has not been accounted for.

Excerpt from the muster roll of B/1/8th Marines, November 1942.

[1] Bobby Somers would go on to a long career in Hollywood, particularly as a professional stunt man.
[2] Jack T. Somers served overseas from 1917 to 1919, first with the 453rd Truck Company and later Motor Transport Company 693. He left the service with the rank of corporal.
[3] Dean Ladd and Steve Weingartner, Faithful Warriors: A Combat Marine Remembers the Pacific War (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2009), 5.
[4] Ibid., 6-7.
[5] Barney Ross and George K. Shaffer, “Barney Ross On Guadalcanal,” Installment 3, King Features Syndicate, March 1943. Printed in The Akron Beacon-Journal (Akron, OH) 9 March 1943, 22.

One Reply to “Jack B. Somers”

  1. Jack Benjamin Somers was the brother of my father Bobby David Somers and Hollywood stuntman,
    Alice was our grandmother, my sister Joyce and I thought we would never get that
    photo of our Uncle in his ROTC uniform, That picture of Jack was lost when our grandmother died.

    Jack’s father Jack T. “shorty” Somers worked for Thomas Ince Studios after serving in the armed
    forces as a Corporal in the US Army, He worked in props & wardrobe and eventually became
    Thomas Ince driver. Jack’s mother Alice was a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty.

    They had two sons Jack and Bobby, It’s unfortunate that our father died of cancer before passing
    down some family history of our Uncle Jack Somers.

    Here’s a small bio of Jack’s brother Bobby Somers

    We can’t Thank You enough for giving our family the missing pieces to our history.

    Our Sincere Appreciation

    David and Joyce Somers

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