First in, Last Out
On August 12, 1942, five days after the 19,000-strong 1st Marine Division had landed unopposed on Guadalcanal in the British Solomon Islands, the first American ground offensive of the war, Sergeant Jim McEnery came upon the aftermath of a slaughter of US Marines who had walked blindly into an ambush. Not satisfied with mere killing, the Japanese had hacked the Americans to pieces. Random body parts littered the river bank. “The first thing I saw,” recalled Sergeant Jim McEnery, “was the severed head of a marine… the head was. Moving back and forth in the water and looked like it was alive. Then I realised it was just bobbing in the small waves lapping at the shore.”
For most of these Americans, this was their first taste of war. “Why would anyone do this?” a bewildered 17-year-old asked. “Wasn’t killing them enough?”
Another sergeant, Thurman Miller, wrote: “That day on the Matanikau,” wrote Sergeant Thurman Miller, “we beheld all the horrors of war, all the degrees of degradation to which the human race could descend. We were hardened by much training, and our reflexes were sudden, our minds alert, but now our killing potential was amplified. A second ingredient, hatred, had been added. What kind of warfare was this?”
They were all members of K Company, 3/5 Marines, better known by their nickname ‘Devil Dogs’ (supposedly given to them by their awed German opponents after the vicious Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918). They were among the first units in and the last out. As Allied forces edged ever closer to Japan, they fought at Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu and Okinawa. They were preparing to invade the Japanese mainland when the atom bomb brought the war to a sudden and unexpected close.
Some were pre-war regulars, but most of the Devil Dogs had volunteered or were drafted after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. They were a cross-section of American society, and included New England college boys, dirt-poor hicks from West Virginia, and confidence tricksters from New York City. Their only commonality was suffering. “Up there, on the line, with nothing between us and the enemy but space (and precious little of that),” wrote one veteran, “we’d forged a bond that time would never erase. We were brothers. I left with a sense of loss and sadness, but K/3/5 will always be a part of me.”
K Company’s first campaign was Operation Watchtower, the attempt to recapture the island of Guadalcanal as a means of protecting Australia and New Zealand, and beginning the roll-back of recent Japanese advances in the Pacific. With minimal preparation and inadequate intelligence, the vanguard of the 1st Marine Division landed on the north coast of Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942. K Company was in the first wave, hurrying up the beach towards the jungle’s edge. Among them was 23-year-old Sergeant Thurman Miller, 22, one of 16 siblings born into grinding poverty in Otsego, West Virginia. “There we waited,” recalled Miller, “for incoming fire that never came. There were no bullets, no sound except the men behind us as we ran toward the jungle. We had caught the enemy off guard.”
The main objective was to capture an airfield the Japanese were in the process of constructing a few miles to the west. This was achieved bloodlessly a day later after Japanese naval construction troops had withdrawn further west. But a disastrous naval defeat during the night of 8/9 August – when four US Navy heavy cruisers were sunk in the Sealark Channel (henceforth known as Iron Bottom Sound) – meant the withdrawal of all supply ships, leaving the Marines to fend for themselves.
As well as battling the harsh tropical climate, inadequate supplies, and chronic malaria and dysentery, the Marines had to contend with an enemy that refused to surrender and did not take prisoners.
During their time on Guadalcanal, K Company took part in a number of desperate actions to defend the airfield. By early November, however, they were ready to take the offensive across the nearby Matanikau River. Killed during a successful bayonet attack on an enemy strong point, Corporal Weldon DeLong of K Company was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross, the highest gallantry award a Marine could be given after the Medal of Honor. His body was found by Sergeant Jim McEnery, 22, a “scrappy kind of kid” who never “dodged a challenge or ducked a fight” from an Irish blue-collar neighbourhood in South Brooklyn, New York. “He was lying in a puddle of blood,” wrote McEnery, “with his eyes wide open and his pistol still in his hand. The bullet had gone straight through his heart. He was as dead as a man could get.”
The officer leading the attack was the commander of I Company, Captain Erskine Wells. Also awarded the Navy Cross, Wells’ valour that day was in stark contrast to the behaviour of K Company’s skipper, Captain Lawrence Patterson, who refused to venture further forward than his command post. Patterson was sacked soon after, but it was not until the arrival of Captain Andy Haldane, after the Guadalcanal campaign, that K Company got the skipper it deserved.
By the time the Devil Dogs left Guadalcanal on 9 December, after a brutal four-month campaign, they were a rag-tag bunch, “dressed in green dungarees or dirty khaki, often with limbs protruding from shirts chopped back to the shoulders, trousers clipped at the knees, or sleeves and pant legs that ended in fringes of tatters”. But they and the rest of the 1st Marine Division had broken the back of the enemy’s resistance. When the Japanese finally withdrew, two months later, they left behind the corpses of 30,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen. Total American fatalities were 7,100, including 1,769 Marines.
Guadalcanal, concluded Japanese commander Major General Kawaguchi, was the “graveyard of the Japanese army”. For US Army Chief of Staff General Marshall, it marked the “turning point in the Pacific” thanks to “the resolute defence of these Marines and the desperate gallantry of our naval task forces”.
There was now a pause of almost a year as the Devil Dogs got some R & R at Melbourne in Australia, replenished their numbers and prepared for their next campaign on the 370-mile long island of New Britain in the Bismarck Archipelago. Led since the previous spring by the inspirational Captain Andrew “Ack-Ack” Haldane – a football star at Bowdoin University who had earned his spurs as a machine-gunner on Guadalcanal – K Company landed at Cape Gloucester, on the western tip of New Britain, on New Year’s Day, 1944. It was given the task of advancing through a hot and humid ‘rain forest’ – where some trees rose 200 feet and vines were as thick as a man’s arm – to capture Aogiri Ridge, a “jungle rise hidden by dense foliage”. All along the crest of the ridge, and sprinkled over its steep face, the Japanese had constructed “an elaborate network of camouflaged bunkers and machine gun emplacements”.
K Company attacked on 8 and 9 January, eventually reaching a point just below the crest of the ridge where they dug in. To protect this position, a 37mm anti-tank gun was manhandled up the slope by volunteers who included the 30-year-old battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel “Silent Lew” Walt, and Private First Class R. V. Burgin of the Mortar Section. Burgin, a 20-year-old farmboy from Jewett, Texas, who had joined K Company as a replacement in Australia, remembered: “We took turns, five or six of us at a time, wrestling that rascal up the hill in the mid. I pushed part of the way, slipping and sliding, vines snatching at my boots. As a reward they let me fire it.”
That night the Japanese launched no few than five “Banzai” attacks to recapture the ridge. One was stopped just yards from the anti-tank gun; another reached the Company Command Post where Captain Andy Haldane, the much-admired company commander, saved a sergeant by shooting two Japanese with his carbine. During the fifth and final charge, Walt called down defensive artillery fire almost on to K Company’s position, wiping out the Japanese assault but also killing some of his own men. As dawn broke, glassy eyed and exhausted Marines moved forward to secure the whole ridge – later dubbed “Walt’s Ridge” – mopping up pockets of resistance as they went.
The capture of the ridge was one of the great feats of the Pacific War. Awarded the Navy Cross for his part in the battle, Walt acknowledged the role played by K Company. “There has never been,” he wrote, “a better group of fighters.” This was confirmed by the award of an unusually high number of gallantry medals to K Company men, including a Silver Star for Captain Haldane. But the victory came at a high cost. Among the fatalities were all three rifle platoon commanders. One of them, Bill Reckus, was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross
The battle tore the heart out of K Company. It had landed with six officers and 190 men. Ten days later, thanks to illness and battle casualties, it was down to just two officers and eighty-eight men.
Evacuated from New Britain in early May, the Devil Dogs were shipped to Pavuvu in the Russell Islands, ‘a wasteland of oozy mud littered with millions of coconuts and besieged by armes of rats and land crabs”. There they were joined by 20-year-old replacement Eugene B. Sledge from Mobile, Alabama, who would go on to write With the Old Breed, arguably the finest memoir of the Pacific War.
Sledge received his baptism of fire in September 1944 on Peleliu, in the Palau Islands, a campaign described by one Devil Dog as “thirty days of the meanest, around-the-clock slaughter that desperate men can inflict on each other”.
One night a soldier started yelling hysterically. Worried he would reveal their position, his comrades tried to comfort him, then gave him morphine, then punched him. Nothing worked. Finally, they hit him a little too hard with a shovel and killed him. Sledge wrote of the “agony and distress etched on the strong faces” of the men who “had done what any of us would have had to do under the circumstances”.
Wary of the Japanese practice of resisting even when wounded, the Devil Dogs rarely took prisoners. Some collected the enemy’s gold teeth. A lieutenant enjoyed urinating in the mouths of Japanese corpses. One marine proudly showed off a cherished souvenir – the desiccated hand of a Japanese soldier, hacked off and carefully dried in the sun. “The war,” wrote Sledge, “had gotten to my friend; he had lost (briefly, I hoped) all his sensitivity. He was a twentieth-century savage now, mild mannered though he still was. I shuddered to think that I might do the same thing if the war went on and on.”
Yet at other times they were capable of great acts of kindness. One marine cradled the head of his comrade as he slowly died. Another made a bracelet of shells for his mother. “I hope,” he wrote to her, “because those dainty little shells came from such a dreadful place, that you won’t fail to see their beauty and know [that] they show you were in my mind continuously.”
Towards the end of their deployment on Peleliu, the Devil Dogs lost their hugely popular company commander, Andy Haldane, when he was shot by a Japanese sniper as he led a small patrol to an Observation Post. Sledge was ‘stunned and sickened’ by the news. He wrote later:
Captain Andy Haldane wasn’t an idol. He was human. But he commanded our destinies under the most trying conditions with the utmost compassion. We knew he could never be replaced. He was the finest Marine officer I ever knew. The loss of many close friends grieved me deeply… But to all of us the loss of our company commander at Peleliu was like losing a parent we depended upon for security – not our physical security, because we knew that was a commodity beyond our reach in combat, but our mental security
In late October, with the task force commander having declared an end to ‘assault’ operations on the island, the Devil Dogs returned to Pavuvu to prepare for their next assignment. Before leaving, the surviving two officers and 83 men of K Company – out of an original complement of 235, a casualty rate of 64 per cent – assembled for a picture on the beach. It is one of the most famous and poignant of the Pacific War.
The Devil Dogs’ final campaign – though they did not know it at the time – was to capture the 70-mile long island of Okinawa, the most southerly of Japan’s prefectures, in the spring of 1945. Having invaded on 1 April, it took the US Tenth Army almost three months to subdue the 100,000 Japanese defenders who had turned “several jagged lines of ridges and rocky escarpments” in the centre of the island into “formidable nests of interlocking pillboxes and firing positions”. All were “connected by a network of caves and passageways inside the hills” that allowed the defenders to move safely to the point of attack.
It was a meatgrinder of a battle and the low point for K Company came in late May 1945 when they relieved another unit on Half Moon Hill. “It was,” wrote Gene Sledge, “the most ghastly corner of hell I had ever witnessed. As far as I could see, an area that previously had been a low grassy valley with a picturesque stream meandering through it was a muddy, repulsive, open sore on the land. The place was choked with the putrefaction of death, decay, and destruction… Men struggled and fought and bled in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool.”
Slated to take part in Operation Downfall, the invasion of the Japanese home islands – a campaign that some feared would cost a million American casualties – the surviving Devil Dogs were hugely relieved to hear that the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had prompted the Japanese to surrender unconditionally on 15 August 1945.
President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop the bombs still divides opinion today. But the men of K Company were in no doubt that it was the right thing to do. “Some people say,” wrote R. V. Burgin, “it was awful us using it. But if they think that was awful, I don’t think people have a damn clue what would have happened if we’d hit Japan… We would have killed millions of Japanese, and there’s no telling how many of us would have been wounded or killed, going in.”
More than 90 members of K Company were killed during the war, and hundreds suffered wounds and psychological trauma. Was their sacrifice worth it? They thought so. “There is no such thing as ‘the glory of war’”, wrote one. “There is only the ‘horror of war’ to the men who fight. Unfortunately, until heaven prevails, somebody has got to be ready to defend our country or we’ll lose it.”
It is a sentiment that resonates today with many Ukrainians – men and women – who are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend their homeland. Like the Devil Dogs, they are determined not just to fight the enemy to a standstill, but to defeat them and show Putin’s government the error of its ways.
Saul David is an award-winning historian and the author of Devil Dogs: King Company, From Guadalcanal to the Shores of Japan, now out in paperback.