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From the Archives: Veterans met in 1992 to mark 50th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal

In 1992 Guadalcanal veterans who gathered in the Solomon Islands to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the initial American attack on Guadalcanal in World War II were joined by Union-Tribune staff writer Matt Miller.

The Battle of Guadalcanal is considered a pivotal campaign of the Pacific war. The 80th anniversary this year is an opportunity to recognize the service and sacrifice of those who fought there.

From The San Diego Union-Tribune, Friday, August 7, 1992:

Aging vets reinvade historic Guadalcanal

Their ordeal began just 50 years ago

By Matt Miller, Staff Writer

A line in Australian coast watcher Martin Clemens’ diary for Aug. 7, 1942, reads, “Oh! What a day!”

On that day, Clemens saw many of the almost 19,000 U.S. Marines from 82 ships jump out of crude landing craft and struggle ashore on this lush island of coconuts and swamps in a distant corner of the South Pacific.

They would soon make history.

“It may have been 6,000 miles away from San Francisco, but it was our Battle of Britain,” said Kenneth Walsh, who received a Medal of Honor for his skills as a fighter pilot during the yearlong Guadalcanal campaign.

“For us, it was the turning point of the war,” said Walsh, who is retired and living in Santa Ana.

Fifty years later, hundreds of the veterans of one of the most decisive campaigns of World War II have returned to the site of modern military legend. For all but a few, it’s the first visit since the war.

This morning, about 500 Allied veterans dedicated a memorial to the more than 7,000 Americans, Australians and New Zealanders who died during the land and sea campaign. The series of four large granite slabs and a granite obelisk sit on a ridge known as Skyline, overlooking the bay where the Americans landed.

“Fifty years ago, I said I never wanted to see this damn place no more,” said Herbert Doughty of Clovis, Calif. But being back, he added, is “a great experience.”

The veterans are here to meet old friends, swap stories and reflect. “The emotional baggage for individuals (who died) here is never far from your memory,” said Ashley Fisher, now retired in Covington, Tenn., who was only 16 when he first landed here. “I want to say: ‘Here I am. I’ve done good. I’ve kept the faith.’ ”

Despite the intense tropical sun, some veterans wore their uniforms; many more sported their medals. A few brought wives and families.

“We fought back and forth across this thing a half-dozen times,” said Thomas Carlin as he surveyed the ridge. A Ketchikan, Alaska, resident, he had just turned 16 when he landed at Guadalcanal 50 years ago.

The memorial dedication was part of a two-day celebration in Honiara, the sleepy capital of the Solomon Islands. It includes a visit by the U.S. landing ship tank Racine, Camp Pendleton Marines and San Diego-based sailors.

For the Solomons, it is one of the biggest events of the young country’s history. Today is a national holiday. The memorial was broadcast live on radio.

“They’ll be talking about this for years,” said Phil Whatley, an Australian who operates a diving boat here.

Islander Jackson Koria sat toward the back of the memorial site, wearing a dark coat and all his medals. The former coast watcher, who monitored Japanese movements during the war, said he’s very happy that the Americans have finally returned: “If no Americans, no Honiara.”

For the Americans who have returned, it’s a time mostly to remember how it was a half-century ago.

“See what a handsome Marine looks like,” said Fisher as he showed another veteran an old photo.

“You were taller then,” said Stanley Larsen, a retired Army general.

“No,” replied Fisher, “but a lot thinner.”

Each veteran has plenty of stories to share.

Don Moss looked at the calm, clear waters off Honiara early this morning and remembered the night he sailed into Guadalcanal waters aboard the Liberty Ship George F. Elliott. The ship was sunk later.

“As far as the eye could see, there were the flat tops of all these ships,” said Moss, who lives in Ridgefield, Conn. Moss, now a nationally known artist for Sports Illustrated, designed part of the memorial. But 50 years ago he was just a 22-year-old Marine corporal about to go into action for the first time.

Moss doesn’t remember being scared. But he recalls how surprised he was when the Marines stormed ashore almost unopposed. “When we landed we didn’t know what to to expect, but we thought there’d be a firefight,” he said.

Japanese forces had gone to Guadalcanal in June to build an airfield. It was part of a strategy by Japanese forces to advance across the Pacific with an island perimeter of air bases.

By landing when they did, the Americans caught the Japanese by surprise. Moss spent that first night more bothered by ants than by bullets.

But the first hours were the calm before a storm. There would be heavy fighting off and on for almost six months. Moss would see friends killed next to him. “If you were lucky you got out,” he said. “If not ….”

By capturing and holding Guadalcanal, the Americans prevented Japan from isolating Australia and New Zealand. The U.S. campaign also shattered thoughts of Japanese invincibility.

Guadalcanal, invaded two months after the American naval victory off Midway Island, “was really the first time the Japanese tasted defeat on land,” said Maj. Gen. Charles Wilhelm, who now commands the 1st Marine Division from Camp Pendleton.

Guadalcanal was the first in a succession of islands, including Iwo Jima and Okinawa, that the Marines would hop all the way to the doorstep of Japan before the atomic bomb ended the Pacific war in 1945.

While figures are sketchy, at least 30,000 Japanese died in and around Guadalcanal.

But for the Americans as well, Guadalcanal had dark moments. Richard Frank, in his book “Guadalcanal,” called the Aug. 9 naval battle off Guadalcanal “the most humiliating defeat suffered by the U.S. Navy in World War II.”

Some 1,000 U.S. sailors died and six allied ships were sunk when surprised by a Japanese strike force. Frank says that only the fact that Adm. Gunichi Mikawa didn’t destroy defenseless American transport ships prevented the U.S. landing at Guadalcanal from becoming a terrible defeat. The U.S. Navy lost 24 ships and 5,000 sailors during the campaign.

Joe Mueller, a Los Angeles police officer and amateur historian who is in the Solomon Islands for the sixth time, called Guadalcanal a watershed. “Most things done here were done for the very first time,” he said, adding it was “one of the few battles of World War II that was three-dimensional.”

For some veterans, it has been a way to exorcise old pain. Stewart Moredock was on the cruiser Atlanta when it was sunk by Japanese ships in November 1942. He was severely injured and taken to the airfield on Guadalcanal, only to come under bombardment by Japanese planes.

Moredock, a retired mathematics professor at Sacramento State University, said he couldn’t even talk about the experience until five years ago.

“Things were buried for so long,” he said.

Now, he’s come to Guadalcanal to help National Geographic, which is exploring the ships sunk near Guadalcanal in a channel that became known as Iron Bottom Sound. The exploration will become part of a two-hour television special to be broadcast next year.

“It’s a real emotional time,” said Moredock, who earlier in the week met a Japanese sailor who had been injured at the same time on one of the opposing vessels. “It comes on unexpectedly and gets overpowering.”

For Clemens, it’s a triumphal return. The Australian, in a blue bush jacket and a white straw hat, has spent the last five years trying to help raise money for the memorial. He beamed as he said hello to many of the veterans.

“Fifty years ago yesterday I was the most miserable of men,” he said.

File source

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