Written by a Correspondent Who Was There
By Jeff Salter
Having a life-long interest in military history – and especially about World War Two – I’ve read countless books and many hundreds of articles. Though I cannot adequately explain specifically WHY, most of the full-length books I’ve read have centered on the European Theater… and most of those about the battles on Germany’s Western Front. Other than scores of articles, I don’t believe I’ve read any book about China-Burma-India (CBI Theater), very few books about the North Africa campaigns… and hardly any books about land actions in the Pacific Theater.
Well, that final subject has now been broached as I’ve recently completed Guadalcanal Diary, by war correspondent Richard Tregaskis [1916-1973].
Unlike many books about a significant battle in a massive war, this one was totally fresh — taken directly from Tregaskis’s notes while he covered nearly every aspect of the first several weeks of that months-long battle, and published on Jan. 1, 1943, actually several long weeks before that infamous island had finally been completely secured. [Guadalcanal had significant strategic importance, both by its location in the Solomon Islands near primary shipping lanes and its nearly complete air strip — Henderson Field. So it was NOT going to be given up easily by the Japanese Army and Navy.]
This action – primarily by the U.S. Marines, with considerable support by the Navy and later reinforcements by the Army – began a mere eight months after the Pearl Harbor attack… and was considered the first major offensive of the Pacific Theater.
As with so many of the later island-hopping battles of the South Pacific, the Allies had precious little “intelligence” about what type and how many enemy they faced. And like many other islands, this one was continually re-manned and re-supplied by the enemy during the months of the campaign.
There were many blunders on both sides of this battle. Chiefly, the Americans assumed too soon they’d secured the island and sent the carrier Enterprise out to sea. That left the remaining American ships vulnerable to the Japanese counter-attack and also left the Marines stranded on the island without supplies, reinforcement or naval guns.
It isn’t my purpose – and this isn’t the place – to explain the entire battle for Guadalcanal. Suffice it to say, the Americans counted 7100 dead, some 7800 wounded, 4 captured… plus the loss of 29 ships and 615 aircraft. Japanese losses were greater in every category, especially in their tally of 19,200 dead [some sources estimate closer to 30,000 Japanese dead].
I cover all that only to say that this book’s coverage – ending as it does early in the battle, before the tide turned briefly back to the Japanese – tells only a small part of the story and makes the Guadalcanal campaign appear to have been rather short and relatively sweet. When, in reality, it was long and bitter and costly.
In other words, one should not read this book and think they understand the battle for Guadalcanal. For good balance, one should also read the famous novel by James Jones — The Thin Red Line. And also pick up a good, complete non-fiction account of this campaign, such as Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account by Richard B. Frank… or Midnight in the Pacific by Joseph Wheelan.
Make no mistake — Tregaskis has my admiration. As an un-armed correspondent, he faced many of the same perils as the Marines he followed into harm’s way. And he did indeed venture into danger… voluntarily accompanying the troops into enemy territory and to other nearby islands. This was no correspondent who sat in the Press Tent and waited until some junior officer returned from a patrol to find out what happened. Tregaskis was in the trenches, on the beaches, in the boats, etc. He had many near-misses by snipers, artillery, and mortars. He was certainly a lot braver than I would have been. My beef is that his book ends when things were still looking somewhat rosy for the American forces on that island. And that’s a strange place to halt the story on Guadalcanal.
Have you read any interesting non-fiction books which are excellent as far as they go, but seem to tell an incomplete story?
[JLS # 417]