Monday, February 08, 2010

Landmarks,or, 'this is the way it is'


The calendar in the man cave tells me tomorrow is the anniversary of the Japanese evacuation of Guadalcanal island in 1943. Or what was left of them: the 'canal was a harsh education for both sides. By the time they left, the Japanese were eating grass and each other. They called it 'Starvation Island'. The Americans were just a bit better off.....

When I was young, I read a book from my local library: Guadalcanal Diary, by Richard Tregaskis. It covers just a few weeks, August to September, 1942. It was published in 1943, so it's tone prob has to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. Even so, it is still in print, and still read by the military. That book is one of the "Landmark Books" series, published by Random House in the 'fifties and 'sixties; Bennet Cerf was the series editor. The authors he chose (or dragooned into it) wrote some cracking non-fiction, perfect to capture the imagination of young history buffs. C.S. Forester on the Barbary pirates, Sterling North on Abe Lincoln, and John Gunther on Alexander the Great, to name a few. These books showed me what good writing was, and that history, contrary to some of my classmates opinions, was not boring stuff. Later on, the series was expanded to 'World Landmarks', with books on Genghis Khan, etc. They are still available; I see they are big amongst homeschoolers. An entry on a website which sells the books tells us The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt "dips briefly into some evolutionary babbling but recovers nicely". O, homeschooling is another screed altogether....

My employer bought, back when we could buy books, Richard B. Frank's Guadalcanal:The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle. It is an 800 pp doorstop, though it reads quickly and is very well written. I read it years ago."Definitive" is not a hyperbolic adjective. Frank includes everyone, from the brass out on the ships to Marine riflemen ( The US Army did not get there until later in the campaign.) on the line. I took two impressions from those 800 pages. The Japanese were not the sole enemy: the landscape was also deadly. Guadalcanal is not Bali Hai. It was a fetid hellhole, full of tropical diseases our medicos had never heard of, even with the experience in the Philippines back in the '90s and Panama in the 'oughts. Shoot, there were salt water crocs which would eat the unwary. Then there was the American attitude which never fails to get us in trouble. "These Japs might be big stuff in their co-prosperity sphere, we can handle these monkeys, no problem." The Marines had horrible casualty rates. Combat casualties were just the beginning. Malaria, fevers, and other tropical maladies felled a disproportionate number; the doctors might as well have been shaking rattles and uttering incantations, they had few clues to what was going on. A cut could be fatal. Marines went insane out there in the jungle. The Corps had grabbed Marines where they could, even bringing in surviving "China Marines", who had had servants. The majority, wherever they came from, were strangers to adverse conditions. Some who survived the 'canal were shipped back stateside, re-habbed, and formed the cadres to instruct new 'boots' on life in the jungle. They scared the bejesus outta those kids who were to fight across the Pacific, and guess what? There were more statistically 'normal' psychological casualty rates, not the spike seen early on. Why? Because they were told this is the way it is; they went in expecting it to be bad.
And it was.

2 comments:

Barrett Bonden said...

Hey, yet another link. I read Guadalcanal Diary as a callow youth: I think the author's surname has an s in front of the k. I always felt that the Pacific island hopping was the most demanding and terrifying version of infantry work. The enemy were bad enough but all those other threats. Later, when I should have been repairing radio kit back in Singapore, I was idling my life away at a military hospital up in the Cameron Highlands in Malaya, trying to get rid of athlete's foot, and I was brought up to date on jungle warfare. Brown Jobs (our flattering RAF name for those in the army) were being brought in with fevers nobody knew anything about and these poor sods lay in beds and sweated all the way through the mattress. The one thing that gave me the heebie-jeebies was to hear about their armament. The standard issue Lee Enfields were of no use and the barrels were shortened and much of the woodwork cut away. However the fact that what you would call the scouts were equipped with shot-guns gave me some idea of how hair-raising a patrol could be. Mind you I'm not sure these improvised roadside bombs in Afghanistan aren't an even more terrifying threat. Old age can, in some respects, be a comfort.

Relucent Reader said...

You are correct, BB; thank you for the comments and spelling correction.
Infections like athlete's foot can take on a life of their own in the tropics.
The tradition of scouts carrying shotguns lasted up through Vietnam. Unfortunately, some things never change.
No problem here with jungle miasma (until summer, anyways); we have had 26" of snow so far this winter,with a good whack as recently as last weekend. Church services get cancelled, and students will attend school until the 4th of July at this rate. Again, it all what one is used to.....