The period of intense fighting that came to be known as the Guadalcanal Campaign lasted from August 7, 1942, to February 3, 1943. It raged on land, sea, and air, costing the lives of some 31,000 Japanese and 7,100 American soldiers, sailors, aviators, and Marines. The local Solomon Islanders were caught in the middle, as were impressed Korean laborers forced into Japanese construction projects; they too suffered heavily. Sporadic fighting would occur for several months of 1943 as errant patrols ran into abandoned Japanese camps, or starving Imperial fighters raided American supply dumps for food, but for the most part “The Canal” had ceased to be a battlefield and was rapidly becoming an Allied base of operations.
The conversion of the island had begun as soon as the Americans overran Henderson Field, and continued at a startling pace. Acres of jungle were cleared and flattened, miles of roads were built, row upon row of buildings were erected. Soon, Guadalcanal boasted one of the biggest hospitals in the South Pacific, extensive training facilities to acclimatize new troops to jungle warfare, and a well-kept cemetery whose visitors were often surviving servicemen searching for the graves of friends.
Not all of Guadalcanal’s dead had been recovered after they fell, however. Graves Registration teams scoured the jungles for field burials, relying on notes and coordinates scribbled in combat, referring to notoriously inaccurate maps, and struggling through the ever-growing jungle. As military construction expanded, surveyors and bulldozers alike turned up isolated remains in various states of decomposition. Those found in 1943 stood a better chance of being identified, but those turned up in 1944 were often little more than skeletons, from whom all distinguishing physical features had been erased. Clothing and paper had long since rotted away; often a body would be found wearing only a pair of shoes. Forensic specialists were called in to identify remains such as these, though in many cases they could only make rough estimates as to age, race, and gender.
Often, the specialists were working with sets remains that had been buried in Guadalcanal’s cemetery. One such example is “Unknown X-8,” whose case was opened upon disinterment in September 1947. The remains to either side of this man were identified – Corporal Clyde R. Farrell (B/1st Marine Parachute Battalion) and Corporal John W. Heath (A/1st Marine Engineer Battalion). Both Farrell and Heath had been killed on September 14, 1942, making it likely that this man had also died on or around that date. However, X-8 had no personal effects or distinguishing marks other than a pair of Marine Corps boondockers, size 8 EE.
Unknown X-8 was returned to the United States and brought to a lab at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri for further examination. Experts there concluded that he had been in his mid-twenties (eventually narrowed to between 24 and 26 years old), standing 5’9” tall and weighing between 140 and 145 pounds. The condition of the bones themselves was noted, and the teeth were charted.
It seems likely that Unknown X-8 was one of twelve Marines killed on September 14 – either in the defense of Bloody Ridge (where Corporal Farrell died with the Paramarines) or on a patrol with 1/1st Marines. Unfortunately, there was not enough hard evidence available to make a definite conclusion, and X-8 was eventually interred in American soil as an unknown.
One area of Guadalcanal turned up a greater number of remains. Point Cruz had seen some of the heaviest fighting of the early days of the campaign, most notably in a botched attack led by Major Otho L. Rogers of 1/7th Marines. On September 27, Rogers had taken Companies A and B of the battalion, supported by a handful of heavy weapons, and circled around a Japanese position by boat, landing to their rear and attacking inland. The Japanese moved quickly and cut the Marines off from the shore; Rogers was killed by a mortar blast and his men spent the day desperately trying to keep from being overrun before they could be rescued – taken off by the very boats that had dropped them off earlier in the day. Battle conditions made it difficult enough to rescue the wounded, and the dead had to be left where they fell. The Marines took back the battlefield in October, but could only recover some of their comrades; seventeen men from the battalion – Rogers included – were listed as “missing.”
A series of gruesome discoveries in the Point Cruz area, made in 1944, gave some hope that some of the men could be recovered.
This man was found in August, 1944, at grid coordinates 70.1 – 200.0 on Map #104 (the standard Guadalcanal map). Hill 84 – the area where 1/7 was ambushed – is close nearby.
The skeletal remains were found in a gas dump and bore no distinguishing marks or personal effects. Forensics estimated a “small, well-knit young man” with narrow shoulders, estimated to be 23 or 24 years old, about 5’6” tall, and weighing 130 pounds. Even at his young age, the man was beginning to develop arthritis in his spine, and had at some point fractured his right clavicle – the healed injury was clearly visible.
This fracture would help in the identification of the remains – but in the least helpful way. X-104 was for a time believed to be Private Walter Lazaroe of A/1/7th Marines, a 22-year-old victim of the battle. A relative had visited the cemetery on Guadalcanal and located a grave marked “Lazro,” but no serviceman of that name was listed on any records. Of all the possible matches, Lazaroe was a closest fit with X-104, but with two major discrepancies – his dental chart did not quite match that of X-104, and he had no medical record of a fractured collarbone.
The investigating board declared that X-104 could not be Walter Lazaroe, and the remains were re-designated as “unidentified.”
At about the same time that X-104 was found, searchers turned up another set of remains, which would become known as X-112. He was discovered 200 yards north of Point Cruz, 500 yards from the shore, and was missing most of his head. Experts concluded that he had been in his late teens and about 5’8” tall, but could determine little else.
Strangely, two different shoes – each containing a foot – were found with X-112. One, sized 9.5 EE, were designated as X-112 A while the other, size 10 EE, appeared to be from a different individual, and became known as X-625.
In the same field grave as X-112 were found ribs, a clavicle, and a right humerus of yet another man. All that could be said of X-113 was that he was “average” – no connection could be made to the stray leg and foot bones. Still, they managed to peg the man at 22-24 years of age, at around 5’4” tall, and 130 pounds.
Not all remains recovered were American. Just 10 yards from the burial site of X-112 and X-114, searchers found another set of bones, which later proved to contain the partial remains of four individuals. In all cases, a lack of evidence prevented more than a cursory description. The uniformly small stature of these remains – three of them below the minimum for the Marines of 1942 – might suggest they are of Japanese or Solomon Islander origin. Other scattered bones, of demonstrable “Mongoloid” origin, were also found nearby. The individuals were described thusly:
114: “A rather small, probably slender youth of 18 years” about 5’6″ tall, weighing 130 pounds.
114A: “A very short but well-muscled man in early maturity” about 4’11” tall.
114B: “A short individual of early maturity with average muscularity” about 5’1″ tall, age between 27-30.
114C: “A rather short, well-muscled young man about 20-22 years of age, who probably walked toeing out” about 5’1″ tall, age between 22-23.
As the remains were decidedly not American, no further investigation took place.
A “tall, rather slender man 21 to 22 years of age” was discovered in 1945, “on a hill approximately one mile inland from Point Cruz.” Examiners felt that this was “probably the body of a man killed in that area in 1942.” The skeleton was badly fractured, and no tooth chart could be made due to the condition of the skull – a major blow to possible identification.
When the remains of “a very young man of average body build” were discovered on the same hill as X-212, officials hoped they had found Private Michael J. Beddla, of Rondout, Illinois, who had last been serving with A/1/7. However, like X-212, a dental chart could not be taken – the “very young man” was missing his skull, and only four teeth remained on his lower jaw. There was also some indication that the bones had been partially burned. The Navy Liaison Section rejected the identification, citing the lack of available dental records and a death date.
The right arm, lower left leg, and two vertebrae of a 22 to 24 year old man were found not far from X-214. Examiners could tell nothing else about this man; there was simply not enough of the skeleton remaining.
On the same hill near Point Cruz were found the skull, arm, and leg of yet another dead man. X-216 had apparently suffered a shot to the head; his few remaining ribs were cracked, and most of his vertebrae were gone. Most shockingly, the bones of his face were utterly destroyed, leaving him unidentifiable.
Without access to DNA testing, researchers faced a monumental task. Their chief resources were the physical profiles of men listed as missing, medical histories, dental charts, and eyewitness accounts. They also faced the disadvantage of working years after the war ended; investigations conducted only months later had a greater chance of success.
This extremely detailed investigation into the destruction of a half-track named Belly Button and the fates of its crew illustrates the many different avenues open to identification teams – and how difficult the task was, even then.
The final hurdle arose from the fact that the Point Cruz remains had been left behind enemy lines. In Hell’s Islands: The Untold Story of Guadalcanal, author Stanley Coleman Jersey remarks that the Japanese found “thirty-two bodies, one water-cooled machine gun, one BAR, fifteen rifles, and fifteen boxes of machine-gun ammunition.” Any personal effects on the bodies were likely taken as souvenirs – American dog tags were particularly popular – as mementoes of one of the few decisive Imperial victories on Guadalcanal. Furthermore, while neither side was known for respectful treatment of enemy dead, the Japanese tendency to mutilate their enemies was already well known (especially in the case of the Goettge patrol) which could account for the fragmented and incomplete nature of the remains. At best, the Marines went unburied; at worst, they were cut to pieces. No accounts have yet been found to conclusively prove that this happened at Hill 84, but it is a possibility that must be entertained. Advancing Marines did manage to recover several of their comrades (PFC John Giles was found at his machine gun position, with only four rounds of ammunition left), so a search was undertaken – but still, seventeen men were overlooked. Some have probably never been located.
In each of the above Point Cruz cases, medical examiners declared the remains to be “Approved Unidentifiable.” They are buried today in the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, and will remain unknown unless further research is undertaken – and as the years go by, their chances of being named grow ever smaller.