Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"Hell In the Pacific" by Jim McEnery (2012)

I  used to live in Baltimore, across the street from an ex-Marine who had actually seen the hell that defined the Battle for Guadalcanal in World War Two. He was in his late 60’s at the time, and even visited my son’s 5th grade class with some captured enemy souvenirs from the battle. His stories were almost unbelievable in their nature; but they were true. I wrote about him last December; it was a little piece about his courtship of his wife, and their eventual marriage after the war. I have never forgotten him; he was one of those guys you never do; being, as he was, a living link to one of the most unforgettable battles in our war against the Japanese, waged across the Pacific Ocean for over 3 and a half years, beginning with the attack by the Japanese on our naval Station at Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii.
So, when I saw this book by Jim McEnery, who is from Brooklyn, New York, at the library last week, I had to pick it up. Mr. McEnery is in his 90’s now, but his memories of what he went through on that island, so many years ago, are still sharp and vivid; as only the recollections of someone who has actually seen what he is writing about can be.

There aren’t too many World War Two Veterans left anymore to provide the firsthand accounts of that war. But, fortunately for us, Jim McEnery, a Marine who enlisted before Pearl Habor, is still alive and kicking, living in Ocala, Florida. Not bad for a guy with only an 8th grade education. He is one of the last survivors of the Battle for Guadalcanal. And the story he tells of that battle are exactly the same as the ones I heard from Mr. Watts so many years ago.
As a member of Rifle Company K/3/5; or K Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marines; he landed on the island August 7, 1942, a little less than a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and only 4 months after our first victory in the pacific at Midway. That battle was a struggle between naval forces from both sides; the Battle for Guadalcanal would be the first real test of resolve on the part of the United States to repel the advancing forces of the Japanese Empire. This would be the first island invasion of the war in which the steel bayonets of our Marines clashed with those of the Japanese Imperial Army .

For the first month the Marines of K/3/5 would hack and hike their way across the island. They were tasked with holding the line at the canal, which was really just a tributary of the larger creek which ran through the island. It was, however, the line in the sand which protected the American Base at Henderson Field from being overrun by the Japanese. The Bottom of Iron Bottom Sound, in which our Navy suffered severe losses, would set the stage for the withdrawal of the Navy’s supply ships, leaving the Marines stranded with little or no supplies.
Mr. McEnery is unstinted in his praise for his fellow Marines, who came from all parts of the country, some the sons of immigrants. Cultural differences and customs were cast aside in the heat of battle. All Marines were Americans, fighting to stave off Japanese domination of the Pacific. He is also equally unstinted in his criticism of General “Dugout” MacArthur, who commanded his troops from a safe haven in Australia, emerging only a few times for photo ops in safe areas which had been won by the men who did the real fighting. MacArthur was not one of those. His opinion was that “the Marines got all the glory of the last war, and they’re not getting any from this one.” This attitude which was the main reason that the Marines are not listed on the Presidential Citation given to the Army and Navy for the battle fought mainly by the Marines, and that omission still stings the author today, a full seven decades later.
Mr. McEnery is also very critical of President Roosevelt’s policy of saving the European theater first, sending all the latest supplies and weapons to England, rather than the Pacific. In Roosevelt’s defense it must be realized that Germany was working, with Russia, to develop the world’s first rockets, the V-2, and also the atomic bomb. Had they been successful in those endeavors; and they were perilously close to those goals; both the war in the Pacific, as well as the war in Europe would have been lost.
Surprisingly, Mr. McEnery lets the Navy off rather lightly for their desertion, citing; correctly; that they had no air cover from the Army Air Corps. This lack of air cover left our own ships vulnerable to attack by air from the Japanese. When those ships were forced to leave the area, they left the Marines without the materials they needed to win the battle, and the war itself.

This is a wonderfully candid book by a kid from Brooklyn who was right on the scene of one of the worst island invasions of the war. The Battle for Guadalcanal set the tone for the island hopping which lay ahead as the marines made landing after landing on the route to Japan. And all along that route, it was guys like Mr. McEnery, and his comrades, that paved the way to victory in the Pacific.

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