Originally published to the blog as Actions Along the Matanikau: 1942, 1970, 2013 on 11 October, 2014.
Updates to the ongoing recovery efforts will be reported on this page.

Except for scholars of the battle, October 9, 1942 is not a particularly noteworthy day in the history of Guadalcanal. American presence on the island, while not exactly secure, was at least not as tenuous as it had been. The Cactus Air Force was developing a daily routine, and Japanese raids came in like clockwork. The battles of the Tenaru, Savo Island, and Edson’s Ridge were in the past; Battleship Sunday, the attack on Henderson Field, the Matanikau Offensive and the Long Patrol had not yet occurred. The main activities on October 9 were the arrival of the First Battalion, Second Marines from garrison duty on Tulagi, and the successful conclusion of a flanking attack along the far bank of the Matanikau River that removed a thorn in the side of the Marine perimeter. Both of these actions resulted in men killed, wounded, and missing.

The remains of at least twenty-five Marines lost on this date were declared non-recoverable after the war.* This, sadly, is not terribly unusual. What is interesting about October 9, 1942 is how many of the men who went “missing” that day have been recovered.

Unfortunately, for the company that suffered most, nothing can be done—their men were lost at sea in a tragic accident. These are the fourteen Marines of Company B, Second Marines. Their initiation to combat on August 7 had been fierce—after landing unopposed on Florida Island that morning, they assaulted Tanambogo that evening against resistance so sharp that only one-third of their men reached the shore; a five-hour battle resulted in a fighting withdrawal. The following two months were spent in garrison duty on Tulagi in stultifying boredom. On October 9, they received word to board a small fleet of Higgins boats to make a battalion-strength landing on Guadalcanal. The boats would be towed by YP craft for the trip to Guadalcanal. Unfortunately, the Higgins boats were tied in a chain to each YP, which put a great deal of strain on the first boat in line. One such boat, containing Lieutenant Floyd Parks’ Second Platoon, was violently pulled apart in the middle of Sealark Channel, dumping the entire unit into the ocean. Loaded as they were for a combat landing, many Marines were pulled under by the weight of their equipment. Parks, along with thirteen of his men, were drowned. No bodies were recovered, and given the nature of their loss there can be no reasonable hope for recovery; these 14 men join the dozens of Marines and hundreds of sailors lost in shipwrecks off Guadalcanal.

The remaining eleven men belonged to the Seventh Marines. On this date, their regiment was involved in the culminating fight of a two-day operation aimed at wiping out Japanese defenses on the west bank of the Matanikau River. Attempts to broaden the Marine-held Lunga Perimeter past the Matanikau had been stymied by tough resistance; 1/7 had already made two attempts, one by land and the failed “Little Dunkirk” expedition by sea. The new plan (the October Offensive, or Third Action Along The Matanikau) grew out of lessons learned in the failed attacks, and involved a march through the jungle to a single log bridge that spanned the river. After crossing, the Seventh Marines and the “Whaling Group” of scouts and snipers would attack towards the ocean, rolling up the Japanese right flank while the First Raider Battalion and the Fifth Marines kept up the pressure on the riverbank. The plan worked; most of the Japanese defenders were killed and the survivors scattered in disorder.

Naturally, the Marines took casualties as well and followed the standard operating procedure of burying their dead in the field. The official practices were laid out in the 1941 Technical Manual 10-630, but this tome was not high on the reading list for Marines in the field. Instead, the dead were buried as quickly, grouped together when possible, and a marker erected on the spot. Whenever possible, the coordinates were noted to make eventual retrieval easier. Such was the case with most of the burials conducted by the Seventh Marines on October 9, 1942.

Casualties reported by 7th Marine Regiment, October 9, 1942
Names with an asterisk were declared “non-recoverable” after the war. 

Company B

*PFC MORRISSEY, Harry C. 9, killed in action by enemy fire at about noon; GO #20 does not apply; char. Exc; 9, remains temp interred in the field.
PFC RUST, William A. 9, killed in action by enemy fire at about noon; GO #20 does not apply; char. Exc; 10, remains interred in 1st Mar Div Cemetery, Row #26, Grave #5.

Company C

*PFC DRAKE, Francis E. 9, killed in action by enemy fire at about noon, west of the MATANIKAU RIVER, GUADALCANAL, B. S. I.; remains interred in Grave #3, LUNGA AREA, vicinity MATANIKAU RIVER, GUADALCANAL, B. S. I. Map 104. (69.9-199.5)
PFC MARTINCHAK, Andrew 9, killed in action by enemy fire at about noon at GUADALCANAL, BRITISH SOLOMON ISLANDS, west of the MATANIKAU RIVER; 10, remains interred in 1stMarDiv Cemetery, Row #46, Grave #7.
PFC NOVAK, Leonard T. 9, killed in action by enemy fire at about noon at GUADALCANAL, BRITISH SOLOMON ISLANDS, west of the MATANIKAU RIVER; 10, remains interred in 1stMarDiv Cemetery, Row #26, Grave #6.

Company D

*Pvt. BERNES, Albert LeR. 9, killed in action by enemy fire, GO #20 does not apply; char. Exc; 9, remains interred in the field at approximate map reference: map 104, Lunga area, north coast Guadalcanal, grave #2 (69.9-199.5)

 

Company E

Cpl. LANGLEY, Edwin M. 9, killed in action; char Exc; GO#20 does not apply. Buried (69.75-200-15) Map 104, Lunga Area, North Coast, Guadalcanal.
*Cpl. SUGGS, John F. 9, killed in action; char Very Good; GO#20 does not apply. Buried (69.75-200-15) Map 104, Lunga Area, North Coast, Guadalcanal.
*PFC HUNTER, Godfrey E. Jr. 9, killed in action; char Exc; GO#20 does not apply. Killed in action in an area about 2000 yards south of Point Cruz and about 1000 yards west of the Matanikau River, Guadalcanal. Buried in the Field.
PFC JENKINS, Alba W. 9, killed in action; char Exc; GO#20 does not apply. Killed in action in an area about 100 yards west of the Matanikau River, Guadalcanal. Buried in the Field.
*PFC JOHNS, David W. 9, killed in action; char Exc; GO#20 does not apply. Killed in action in an area about 2000 yards south of Point Cruz and about 1000 yards west of the Matanikau River, Guadalcanal. Buried in the Field.
PFC MULLINS, Rollen 9, killed in action; char Exc; GO#20 does not apply. Killed in action in an area about 2000 yards south of Point Cruz and about 1000 yards west of the Matanikau River, Guadalcanal. Buried in the Field.
*Pvt. GAGNON, Paul E. 9, killed in action; char Exc; GO#20 does not apply. Buried (69.75-200-15) Map 104, Lunga Area, North Coast, Guadalcanal.
*Pvt. JOHNSTON, Eugene 9, killed in action; char Exc; GO#20 does not apply. Killed in action in an area about 2000 yards south of Point Cruz and about 1000 yards west of the Matanikau River, Guadalcanal. Buried in the Field.

Company F

*PFC EBERLE, Robert O. 9, killed in action at Cactus, GO 20 does not apply; char Exc; 9, buried in the field at (69.7-200.4), Map #104, North Coast, Guadalcanal, B. S. I.
*PFC STRICKLAND, Hugh G. 9, killed in action at Cactus, GO 20 does not apply; char Exc; 9, buried in the field at (69.75-200.4), Map #104, North Coast, Guadalcanal, B. S. I.

 

Company G

*Sgt. CUSACK, William J. 9, killed in action; char Exc; GO#20 does not apply; remains interred at (70.4-200.2) Map #104, Lunga Area, North Coast Guadalcanal, British Solomon Islands.
PFC LAWSON, James M. Jr 9, killed in action; char Exc; GO#20 does not apply; remains interred at (69.9-200.2) Map #104, Lunga Area, North Coast Guadalcanal, British Solomon Islands.
PFC LOUDER, John W. 9, killed in action; char Exc; GO#20 does not apply; remains interred in 1stMarDiv Cemetery, CACTUS area, Row #26, Grave #8
PFC MC GETTRICK, Gerald J. 9, killed in action; char Exc; GO#20 does not apply; remains interred at (69.9-200.2) Map #104, Lunga Area, North Coast Guadalcanal, British Solomon Islands.

It is interesting to note the slight differences in notation across the different companies. Each had a different clerk responsible for typing up the muster roll, and while most contain the same basic information, the individual style of each clerk can in some instances make recovery efforts difficult.

While looking at these individual records, a few patterns come to light

Several Marines may have died en route to the perimeter, or of wounds later in the day.
According to the “Division Commander’s Final Report on Guadalcanal Operation,” the orders for October 9 were “to continue the attack as planned until the envelopment was complete but to undertake no further movement to the west. The maneuvering force [Whaling Group and 7th Marines] to withdraw on order in successive echelons along the coast after envelopment was completed.”[1] This order was adhered to and “accomplished smoothly and according to plan, 5th Marines covering the movement of Whaling Group, 2d Bn 7th Marines and 1st Bn 7th Marines, in the order named. The entire enveloping force was east of the river and en route to Lunga Point by 1400.”[2] Thus, the entire attack on October 9, 1942, lasted from dawn until two o’clock in the afternoon at latest, when Puller’s 1/7 returned to the perimeter. As the only notation of time comes from 1/7, who notes its casualties were suffered “about noon,” it can be assumed that the climax of the action occurred around then, leaving less than two hours for the collection, identification, and burial of the dead. Those who lived long enough to regain the perimeter were all buried the following day, in sequential graves in one row of the cemetery:

PFC Rust Row #26, Grave #5. Punchbowl Cemetery, 1948
PFC Novak Row #26, Grave #6. St. Michael’s Cemetery, 1949
PFC Martinchak Row #46, Grave #7 [note: 46 is a typo in the original roll] Gettysburg Cemetery, date unknown
PFC Louder Row #26, Grave #8 Rose Hill Cemetery, date unknown

In relating the story of the day’s action, Sergeant Joe Goble (B/1/7) reveals the fate of three men from his battalion, one of whom is William Rust.

We were ordered to cross a narrow valley waist-high in jungle grass. Part of us had gotten across when two machine guns opened up, killing two of our men. We took the ridge but continued to receive heavy mortar fire. Some of my men were hit, but not badly enough to keep them from fighting…. I planned to dig in for the night. Someone yelled for me. I went up the line of men and found Corporal Rust hit in the stomach. He was sitting there rocking back and forth. I grasped him under both arms and began dragging him off the ridge. Then, suddenly I was lying on my back with Corporal Rust on top of me. I had been shot in the leg by a sniper…. I don’t remember much about getting out. We arrived at the beach where several boats were waiting for the wounded. Each boat was loaded full, and I was placed beside several dead bodies. I pulled the blanket back off the one nearest me and found it was Corporal Rust.[3]

So William Rust, at least, died while being evacuated; it may not have been long after (note that he is also listed as “killed in action about noon”) but he was not killed outright; if he had been, he would have received a field burial. Of the two men Goble reports hit by a machine gun, one is almost certainly Harry Morrssey; the other might have been Albert Bernes of Company D.[4] Marines went to great lengths to help their wounded buddies; PFC Francis Drake lost his life trying to carry a wounded man to safety behind the ridge where he was killed. This meant that all available resources would have to be dedicated to carrying out the wounded men; 1/7 alone had twenty-five men in need of medical care.[5] Unfortunate as a field burial was, in the case of those killed on October 9, there was simply no other option. The wounded were returned by boat; the able-bodied had to march, which had its own dangers.

All graves locations were marked.

The KIAs from 1/7 – Morrissey, Bernes, and Drake—are noted as being buried in graves 1, 2, and 3 in the Lunga Area, making something of a miniature cemetery in the field. Map coordinates were later taken for this area, but it was clearly assumed that this would be enough information to locate and identify the bodies in future. The precise coordinates were noted in their individual service record books, as was a carefully drawn sketch of the (As will be seen, this was not the only precaution taken.)

Companies F and G took the precaution of noting the grid coordinates on their muster rolls. Fox Company’s dead, Eberle and Strickland, were not killed in the attack itself, but on the way back to the Lunga perimeter. Of this journey, Philip J. Magnan writes,

Returning was no picnic. A marine had to be alert for occasional artillery fire and the ever-present possibility of enemy rifle shots coming up from the jungles beneath the ridge trails. There were also “grasscutterss,” bombs that exploded upon contact, sending shock waves straight out along the ground, flattening the high, coarse kunai grass. A concussion could kill a man too slow to dive into his foxhole as easily as a slug through the heart. On the way back, F Company’s Privates first class Robert Eberle and Hugh Strickland were killed. Corporal Edward Killiany was wounded by shrapnel.[6]

The two slain Marines were buried, if not together then close nearby, along the trail.[7] A similar fate may have befallen PFCs Lawson and McGettrick of Company G, also buried close together. Sergeant Cusick was less fortunate; his lone grave disappeared.

In Company E, only three graves are pinpointed: Langley, Suggs, and Johnston. All three show the same grid coordinates, yet of those three only Langley was located after the war. Despite the vague directions, PFC Jenkins’ grave, separate from the others (and closer to the Matanikau, suggesting that he was killed as the attack commenced) was located, as was PFC Mullens, buried in same area as Hunter, Johns, and Johnston.

Why pinpoint only a few graves? It is probable that the precise locations were entered in the record books, as they were for Drake, Morrissey, and Bernes. Any graves registration team heading out to investigate the burials would be armed with a list of those to look for; it’s possible that a single notation was thought necessary—a team would start at that location, and presumably find a common grave.

This system did work some cases, but was by no means ideal. Of our October 9 examples, only five were found in the years following the battle. Identification documents exist for James Lawson, found in an “isolated grave” and later repatriated. However, the Graves Registration service had yet to perfect their craft, and many more went undiscovered or unidentified.

The exact circumstances surrounding the location of Langley, Jenkins, Mullins, Lawson and McGettrick are not known, but all were accounted for by 1950.

Corporal Langley Cemetery unknown
PFC Jenkins Mobile National Cemetery
PFC Mullins Grafton National Cemetery
PFC Lawson Knoxville National Cemetery
PFC McGettrick Punchbowl Cemetery

Efforts to recover additional field burials on Guadalcanal came to an official halt in 1949. All traces of the burial sites of the eleven remaining were obliterated; Graves Registration teams tried using the grid coordinates, but the Guadalcanal jungle was notoriously difficult to penetrate and its rapacious growth reclaimed landmarks. The searches made were of varying quality; some were thorough, some perfunctory, and in at least one case a negligent team submitted a false non-recoverable report.[8] Some skeletons were recovered in the Point Cruz area, but had no identification with them. Some blame lies with the combat units who, although meaning well, were either ignorant of the proper procedure for field burials, or were under too much duress to properly note the location of the graves. However, this does not seem to be the case with the 7th Marines.

In 1970, Mrs. Y. Timothy Kwaimani the wife of a forestry ranger on Guadalcanal made a grisly discovery—a partial human skeleton, brought to the surface by accident. In what was either a stroke of pure luck or evidence of a carefully prepared field burial, the body had with it a single dog tag bearing the name of G. E. Hunter. Records were checked for a matching name and location; meanwhile, further digging unearthed yet more remains. It turned out to be the grave of the Easy Company contingent: in addition to Godfrey E. Hunter, the earth yielded the bones of John Suggs, David Johns, Paul Gagnon, and Eugene Johnston. They had not been recovered earlier, said the Corps, because “artillery barrages and rapid jungle growth hid the grave sites, and only three of the eight were later found by the graves registration service.” Two years later, the Marines were buried in Arlington National Cemetery, in the presence of some 40 surviving relatives. The book was closed at last on the missing from E/7th Marines.

In April 2013, Michael Tokuru Junior was out doing some digging for a local kitchen on Honiara picturesque Skyline Ridge. Like Mrs. Kwaimani, he found a bone buried just beneath the surface—and, as before, a single dog tag. This one belonged to Drake, F. E. Jr. 299871. The Tokuru family took to the Internet (the senior Mr. Tokuru manages the Solomon Islands Tourism Bureau) to ask about the identity of the man who had once worn the tag. A dig revealed two more sets of remains nearby. By June, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command learned of the discovery, and in October the Solomon Times reported on the discovery. John Innes, a Guadalcanal resident whose work in researching MIA servicemen helped in the identification of Sgt. John Branic in 2006, gave an interview about the discovery. Although official identification is still pending from JPAC, Innes is confident that the remains of the other two men are those of Harry Morrissey and Albert Bernes. The formal investigation is being handled by JPAC; hopefully an official announcement of identification will follow before long.

The MIAs of October 9, 1942 are thus reduced to three. Seventy-two years after they lost their lives on Guadalcanal, the whereabouts of Sergeant William Cusack, PFC Robert Eberle, and PFC Hugh Strickland are still not known for certain. The question “why not” seems academic; on the surface there should be enough information to recover these sets of remains. After all, Map #104 is no longer a secret document.

map104

This is the map on which Guadalcanal operations depended. It was not widely available until several weeks into the campaign; previous maps were little more than sketches, and the dearth of solid information contributed in part to the ill-fated Goettge Patrol. The remains of 21 Marines of that patrol were last observed in various states of burial and dismemberment on the coast of Point Cruz. The very western extremity of Map 104 also encompassed the “Little Dunkirk” operation of 1/7, which PFC Harry Morrissey experienced and survived; he may have recognized Hill 84 from his vantage point before he was killed.

Here are the locations of the burial sites of the various groups from the 7th Marines.

map104oct9“Suggs Group” includes Suggs, Gagnon, Hunter, Johns, and Johnston, recovered in 1970.
“Drake Group” includes Drake, Morrissey, and Bernes, tentatively recovered in 2013.
“Eberle Group” includes Robert Eberle and Hugh Strickland, still MIA.

Why not rush out to the map locations and speedily recover Eberle, Strickland, and Cusack? The simple answer: it’s not so simple.

Guadalcanal has changed significantly in the last seven decades. If the veterans of the Third Matanikau were to re-visit the battlefield today, the “boondocks” through which they slogged would be unrecognizable.

honiara satellite
Image via Google Earth.

Honiara, Guadalcanal. Point Cruz is now an industrial area, and suburban housing spreading out from the Solomon Islands’ capital has overtaken the jungle.

Graves Registration teams reported tremendous changes in the landscape of Guadalcanal that obliterated known landmarks, from shellholes to entire groves of trees. And this, recall, was about five years after the fighting – long before the suburbs of Honiara sprang up. Years of construction, development, and the simple facts of nature have all contributed to the disappearance of the three American graves. And we are presuming here that the locations noted were entirely accurate. In attempting to grid Map 104, the author ran into several inconsistencies; the squares themselves are not exactly square, being 1/10th wider than they are high, and the ruled lines are not entirely straight. In contrast to the mathematically precise gunnery maps developed for later invasions at Saipan, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima, Map 104 was a “best guess” effort, traced from aerial photographs. Yet without it, the Marines would have had no intelligence about the topography of Guadalcanal – and no way to locate their dead. (They could at least be sure that Graves Registration had to use the same maps.) Despite this, even the carefully taken notes were not always sufficient. Take for example this map included with Harry Morrissey’s service record. Identical ones were drafted for Drake and Bernes.

Morrisseymap noted

This discrepancy of nearly 200 yards was way more than enough for a Graves Registration team to miss the burial site. Note, also, that these burials almost uniformly took place in open grassy areas (easy to locate) but close to the border of the jungle (a good visual reference point). Was the team looking for Bernes, Drake, and Morrissey directed to the wrong location? Or were they stymied by the encroaching jungle? We do not know; it was only chance that turned up Francis Drake’s dog tag.

And it may be luck in one of these (VERY) rough locations that delivers the remains of Eberle, Strickland, and Cusack.

EbStrickCus

 

Footnotes

It is important to note the distinction between “missing in action,” “not recovered,” and “lost at sea.” “Missing in action” means precisely that – an individual has vanished, with no eyewitnesses or physical evidence to confirm their fate. In some events – a plane crash, a massive explosion, or incident at sea – an assumption can be made, but unless hard evidence is obtained, an individual is presumed to be alive for one year and one day after they are last seen.The fourteen Marines from B/2nd Marines lost in Sealark Channel were technically declared to be “missing” at first; the nature of the accident led to a quick change to “lost at sea” before any names were submitted to the Prisoners Of War and Missing Persons Detachment at Headquarters, USMC. In the case of the eleven Marines from the 7th Marine Regiment lost on this date, all had eyewitnesses to their death, all remains were identified and buried, and all were listed as “killed in action” rather than “missing.” After the war, when their remains went unfound, their designation was changed to “not recovered.” Never technically missing, their cases still fall under the jurisdiction of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, and within the purview of this website.

[1] Major General A. A. Vandegrift, “Final Report of Guadalcanal Operation, Phase V,” (Headquarters USMC, 1 July 1943) 12.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sgt. Joseph Goble (B/1/7), memoir submitted to The Lower Deck: Newsletter of the Warships & Marine Corps Museum, September 2002.Sergeant Goble’s leg was shattered by the sniper’s bullet; his war was over.

[4] In a subsequent fight, Private Ed Poppendick (D/1/7) recalls his machine gun squad as “attached to B Company.” Splitting the personnel of a weapons company like D/7th Marines among rifle companies was SOP; Bernes was a communications man and could easily have been attached to Company B for the duration of the Matanikau expedition.

[5] Lieutenant Colonel L. B. Puller, “Summary of Operations of First Battalion, Seventh Marines, October 7-9 1942” (10 October 1942), 2.

[6] Philip J. Magnan, Letters from the Pacific Front: My Father’s Adventures from Guadalcanal to Okinawa (New York: Writer’s Advantage, 2002), 107.

[7] There is a .05 degree of difference between the listed locations; this may have been a clerical error.

[8] It was later found that the Graves Registration personnel had been drinking heavily in a native village instead of doing their fieldwork; their targets, Privates Robert Budd and Thomas Phillips, are still unrecovered.

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