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Oral History - Battle of Guadalcanal, 1942-1943

Excerpt from Oral History of Pharmacist's Mate First Class Louis Ortega, With the Marines at Guadalcanal.

[Source: Oral history provided courtesy of Historian, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery]

As corpsmen, did they have [you] lugging medical equipment around?

Yes, Unit 3 medical bag and [Form] 782 [field] equipment [pack, poncho, blankets, cartridge belt, helmet, pack, etc.]. This was the old pack. Today they have the knapsacks. Some of us had the old puttee [WWI-style wrap-around] leggings. Later on we got the regular [lace-up] leggings. We had the old tin hat. The Unit 3 was like a horse harness you put over your head and it had two bags full of first aid equipment. And that was it.

So there we were on the [transport USS] Fuller [AP-14].

On our way overseas with the Seventh [Marine] Regiment. Thirty days later, 10 May 1942, we pulled into a pier at Samoa and that's where they dropped us off. In the meantime, the First and Fifth Marines were being formed at New River [now Camp Lejeune, North Carolina]. They were calling in all the guards from the Navy yards, the recruiters, all the outposts, from the islands of Puerto Rico. All the veterans were in the Seventh Regiment. The Fourth Marines had all been captured in the fall of the Philippines. And of course I would get Chesty Puller [Lieutenant Colonel Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, USMC, Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment at Guadalcanal]. He thought he would be in on the first action. When they dropped us in Samoa it nearly broke his heart.

By then there was nothing between the Japs and Australia. Everything had fallen. When we got to Samoa there was nothing there. We worked day and night building defenses. When the word came that the First Marine Division had landed at Guadalcanal, I thought Chesty was going to kill himself. We were all broken-hearted. And then we started to get the bad news. We lost five cruisers in one night--Savo Island.

Toward the end of August we got the word. We were needed. We were hot to trot. On the 15th of September we landed at Lunga Beach. We went up on the [transport USS] Crescent City [AP-40]. Again, it was one of these over the side and the landing craft didn't have ramps. They went in so far and then you jumped out in to the water and everything had to be passed by hand. We went down the cargo nets into the Higgins boats [wooden 36-foot infantry landing craft]. When we got on the beach we had to take our gear off, lay it on the beach, and form a line to pass supplies.

Was there any opposition?

No. Not at that time. That night everything was pilled up on the beach. I was with a marine driver because the medical companies, the stretcher bearers were all musicians. They used musicians to help with the stretcher-bearing. I was sitting with this corporal on top of these boxes. It was my turn to be on watch--12 to 4 in the morning. So I was sitting with this corporal on top of these boxes. He said, "I wonder what the hell we're sitting on?" He pries open a box, sticks in his bayonet. "Hey, peaches!" He just passed one over to me when kaboom! I went flying on my ass. A spotlight came on from the sea and the shells started coming and the trees were falling. It was a mess. A shell cut off the top of a palm tree which fell on me. It was a Jap submarine came up and threw in a couple of shells. Then it disappeared. One guy was wounded.

Then we marched in to the bush and were assigned positions. I dug a little slit trench, put my foot in it and thought, "That's deep enough." Then put a piece of tin over it, then some palm trees. A few days went by while we were getting organized. We weren't moving anywhere. Then came the first air raid. Everyone just sat out there and watched. "Wow, look at that one over there." Suddenly shrapnel from the antiaircraft started falling. I got in to my trench. I learned two things. When you build a foxhole, build it deep. And secondly, never go alone. When you're by yourself you think and your mind starts doing all kinds of weird things. You hear the swish of a bomb which sounds like shaking tin foil. Then the ground shakes and then you wait for the next one. And the ground shakes again. By that time you really want some company. With two people in there you learn one thing. Look at that sonofabitch, he's scared as hell. And he's looking at you and saying the same thing. Oh, I'm not scared, he's scared. With someone else there, you're able to compensate for the fear but when you're alone, you sweat. You knew when an air raid was coming. Every fly, bird, every insect seemed to head for a foxhole. And sure enough, soon the bombs started falling. I don't know how the insects knew it.

There were always flies all over the place. the coconut groves had been unattended for years. The coconuts were rotting. There was a difference to the smell of the jungle. The rot, the dampness. Some places the sun never shined.

The following day there was another raid and a bomb hit close by. The edge of the crater was 3 yards from my foxhole and caved it in. I saw that and I began digging deeper. We dug it so deep that you could stand up in it and still be underground. And being Americans, we liked our comfort so we put matting around it. We put two stools inside. We put logs over it and sandbags on top of those and ponchos to make it waterproof and then poured dirt on top of that. What we had was a pillbox.

After being on the line almost a month, we pulled back to Henderson Field [airfield on Guadalcanal captured by US Marines and named for deceased Marine pilot] for some rest. It started about 11 pm on 13 October 1942. We were laying down in our pillbox. A whistling noise and then boom! "What the hell was that?" And then another one. For the next 4 hours we were bombarded by four battleships and two cruisers. Let me tell you something. You can get a dozen air raids a day but they come and they're gone. A battleship can sit there for hour after hour and throw 14-inch shells. I will never forget those four hours. The next morning when they stopped shelling, there was a haze over the whole area. Five miles of coconut groves were gone! Where the day before you had miles and miles of coconut trees, now 5 square miles were wiped clean. Every tree was gone. The airfield was destroyed.

And over on Point Cruz you could see six Japanese transport ships merrily unloading troops. The next day after they unloaded, in comes a [U.S.] transport [ship]. We hadn't seen a transport in over a month since we landed. It brought the 164th Army Infantry [Regiment] with the new Garand rifles [U.S. Rifle, caliber .30, M1]. That helped a lot later on. We had the old Springfield '03 [U.S. Rifle, caliber .30, M-1903] with the bolt action. When the next battle took place and threw the 164th into the line, the Japs would charge and waited for the five shots the '03 had. But this time the army would let them have it with two extra shots [actually three - the M1 rifle had an 8-round clip]. They hadn't seen a semi-automatic rifle because theirs were bolt actions, too. We stayed with the Springfield right up to the end of that campaign. It was when we got to Australia that we got M1s.

And, while we were at Guadalcanal we got rid of the old [World War I-style] steel helmet and brought us the pot helmets.

After the battleships worked you over, did you have any casualties to treat?

No, not in our area because though they leveled the whole area, believe it or not, none of us were hurt. When we were underground, unless it was a direct hit. Most of those shells landed on the airfield. We had three medical companies--A Company, First Marines, B Company, Fifth Marines, and C Company, Seventh Marines. And there were line company corpsmen. We saw casualties with our company in action.

What was the situation with malaria?

When you got malaria, you might have it five times. Everybody was getting it over and over again. I had it five times--twice on the island and three times in Australia. Those were reoccurance attacks. If they evacuated people who had it five times there would have been no one left in the field. By the first of December, we had more casualties--four or five thousand casualties from malaria, dengue fever, than we did from actual battle.

What did they do with you when you got it?

When the survey [replacement units] came out in December, the First and the Fifth Marines were evacuated. They sent them to Brisbane and stuck them out in a swamp loaded with mosquitoes. So they were always in the hospital. All day long in Brisbane you could hear the ambulances taking men to the hospital. Since we came in last, we stayed last. We didn't leave there until January 9th. On New years Day we moved to the beach.

Anyway, we were sent to the beach by Lunga Point and were there 7 days when we got the word that the Army was coming in and we were to be relieved. We were all exhausted. We had no clothes. All I had was my shoes, no socks, no underclothes. All I had was a pair of torn dungarees and a khaki shirt. They came ashore with Higgins boats [wooden 36-foot infantry landing craft]. We climbed over the sides into the boats. When we got to the ship we couldn't make it. We started up the cargo net and fell back into the boats. Sailors were tying ropes around us and pulling us up. I had gone to Guadalcanal weighing about 150; I left weighing about 110.

What kind of chow did they serve you at Guadalcanal?

To this day, I will not eat hotcakes because when we landed, the supply ships got sunk. All they got ashore was Spam and pancake flour and peaches. Fortunately for us, we had a guy named Sergeant Duncan who had worked at the Waldorf Astoria. He made pancakes with peaches, he made pigs in blankets with peaches and Spam. And we were having it twice a day, then it was down to once a day. We'd get a hunk of peach on top of Spam or you would roll it up, or he'd bake it, but it was always Spam, and that's all we had, Spam, Spam, Spam and peaches, and hotcakes for 5 months. There was nothing coming in. We never got a decent meal.

When we got out of there, everything started to change. We got new equipment, new weapons. For the Gloucester campaign, we were given the choice of a carbine (U.S. Carbine, caliber .30, M1] or the .45 [U.S. Pistol, caliber .45, M-1911A1].

What did you do with the malaria cases? How did you treat them?

Atabrine and plenty of fluids. And whenever they could they would put them back on the line. They had no choice. If you had it 10 times, they would finally evacuate you. There were no replacements. If you were to send everyone back with two, three, four cases of malaria, you'd have nobody left. The casualties alone from malaria, dysentery, and from battle fatigue.

So you weren't getting medical supplies in either?

Just what we had brought in with us. That was it.

Did you guys feel abandoned?

The first couple of months, yes. Until we came in on the 15th of September, the first guys who had come, hadn't seen anybody since August 7th. When they had that big sea battle of Savo Island and they lost those five cruisers, everybody [i.e., U.S. ships] hauled ass and never came back. They went ashore with a 30-day supply of food and ammunition. So they had to replace that with captured Japanese rice.

Did you actually eat any of that captured rice?

No, because the other two regiments had exhausted supplies. When we came in we shared what we had with them. Because we were able to bring stuff in even though we were only there a couple of days before they took off. We didn't see them again till October when the Army came in. Once the Army came, they came with sea bags, brand new uniforms, food, medical supplies, M1s, new helmets, everything. We said, "Look at these candy asses!" At night, we'd sneak into their camp and help ourselves because they had so much stuff! They couldn't get it off the beach fast enough.

So, the whole time you were on Guadalcanal you were patrolling.

We were in garrison and on patrol. We had sections we moved around in. Sometimes the 5th got hit pretty bad and they would be pulled back toward the airfield and the 7th would take their place. If the 7th got hit, then the first would take their place. There was the Raider Battalion. When the 2nd Marines were in Tulagi the first week when there was the heaviest fighting over there when they ran into a garrison of over 2,000 Japs and they were dug in. So that was a hard battle. Finally, they had to bring them over by Higgins boats to the island to replace some of the units. They never fought in Tulagi anymore. Everything was on the Canal after that first week.

Did you go out on patrol with these people?

Oh yes. We crossed the Matanikou [River], we crossed in the northern part of the Tenaru [River]. We went about 40 mines as far as the patrols could go. We'd find the Japs on the road dead, on the trails, but we would never catch up to them. And then we'd pull back.

How did they die? Who shot them?

Disease and hunger. They were in worse shape because they would be dropped off and then our planes would come and bomb their food supply and sink their ships. But they could go 16 miles a day with a little ball of rice. But they found out they were not supermen, that they could be defeated. And their diet caused them to explode when they died. Within a couple of hours they were bloated. And the next day, boom, they exploded. The maggots were all over them. An American boy would take two days before he'd turn purple and start bloating. We'd pick them up and wrap them in a poncho and bury them.

When did you leave Guadalcanal?

When January came we left on the [transport USS] Hays [AP-39]. The word got out that we were not going to Brisbane. [Major General Alexander] Vandegrift [Commanding General, 1st Marine Division at Guadalcanal] and [Admiral William Frederick] Halsey [,Jr., Commander South Pacific Forces and South Pacific Forces and South Pacific Area] were down there and they blew their stack. We were being assigned to [General Douglas] MacArthur's 6th Army and were going straight to Melbourne. And that was an experience I'll never forget. The ships pulled into the harbor. There were tugboats blowing their whistles. We got to the pier and there were thousands of people. They put us on a train for the 40-mile ride out to Frankston which was the other line. Then we were bused to Mount Martha which was the Australian Army camp. At every stop along the way we heard "Welcome Yank!" And they were waving their flags. It took hours to get up there because of that.

They fed us mutton and we weren't used to eating lamb. The Australians said, "If it's good enough for us, Yanks, it's good enough for you." So we ate mutton and that's where I learned to drink tea.

Let me tell you, the Australians are great fighters but they would stop fighting in the middle of a war to have tea at 10 and 4. There's a fight going on, shells are flying and they're cooking their tea.

At that time I got my promotion. I was called in. He said, "For the Battle of Matanikou, you and Smitty, and Kyle have been promoted to pharmacist's mate third, and for the Battle of Lunga, you, Kyle, Williams, and Scotty have been promoted to Pharmacist's mate second. We didn't get ribbons, we didn't get medals, but we got promotions. And that's how I made third and second. Then is when they told us we were reorganizing the whole division. "We are reorganizing the whole division. You people are tired. We're getting replacements in. We're forming a new regiment, the 17th Marine Combat Engineers. You and you and you are going to the 17th." So we left our C Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines and went to F Company, 2nd Battalion, 17th Marine Combat Engineers. A week later they told us we were being transferred to Waga Waga, New South Wales to the Royal Australian Engineering camp for training in combat engineering.

What kind of training did you receive?

We learned how to use gelignite [high explosive compound], how to build and repair bridges, and the [USN medical] corpsman went along because there was a lot of hard labor. You had to cut trees down, you had to build pontoons. We were all marines being trained by the Australian Army. Just below the camp was the AWAS camp--the Australian Women's Army Service. AWAS meant Australian Army Volunteer Service but it really meant Always Willing After Sundown. We made a big joke about that. We had a good time with the Australians.

Then I got malaria and they rushed me to the Australian field hospital. It was a recurrence of a previous attack. To treat it they gave me a 1-ounce glass of quinine daily accompanied by a big sugar ball about that big. That quinine was so bitter but in 7 days you were cured, back on the line.

We stayed up there until we got the word we were shipping out. We went back to Mt. Martha. The 1st had gone on maneuvers. The 5th had gone to New Guinea. So the 17th and the 7th Marines were put on ships and taken up to the Northern Territory of Australia. We were there a week then we went to Goodenough Island off the coast of New Guinea. We were there 3 months training and building a base.

The 1st of December '43 we got word that we were moving up to the big island of New Guinea. Now we began training with LSTs [Landing Ship Tank], no more cargo nets. On 22 December we left for Finschaven. We crossed the Bismark Sea and Christmas day we lowered the [LST] ramp right on the beach at Cape Gloucester, New Britain. Aerial reconnaissance had showed luscious green, a nice road. We figured we'd get our jeeps in there. When we landed we found a muddy road and about 10 yards after that was swamps and petrified forest. And then it started raining. It rained for almost 60 days without stopping. We were in the water, the sick bay was in the water. Our camp was in the water. We went out on patrols. It took about a week to take the airfield and then when we got there we were up on high ground. But all around that area was mud, mud, mud.

Was there a lot of opposition when you went in to the beach?

No. Because the Japs were down in Rabaul and we landed 90 miles up at the point right near Cape Gloucester airfield. In the meantime, the Army landed 60 miles on the other side and they couldn't move. They got pinned down.


6 January 2000