Horror and Heroism: Hampton resident recalls Guadalcanal on 60th anniversary

By JOEL F. HARRIS, Foster's Daily Democrat Staff Writer

Jerry McConnell
Former Marine Jerry McConnell of Hampton
reflects on his experiences fighting the Japanese
at Guadalcanal 60 years ago today.
(Mike Ross/Chief photographer)
Oct. 15, 1942: "Move to Matanikau River looks like more bad days ahead," reads the diary local resident Jerry McConnell kept during the four months he spent on Guadalcanal.

Sixty years after the brutal fighting began between the United States and Japan over the obscure island, McConnell recalled the horrors and heroism of it all. He has even written an online book about his ordeal.

Just 17, McConnell was among the 7,000 troops who were abandoned on the island for 20 days to defend a partially completed airfield against nearly 30,000 Japanese soldiers.

"Those days were the hardest of my life," McConnell, 78, said Tuesday. "It was a very, very bad situation."

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the day U.S. troops landed on Guadalcanal on Aug. 7, 1942 — an event being recognized by veterans across the country.

As part of the anniversary celebration, McConnell's e-book about the conflict, "Our Survival was Open to the Gravest Doubts," will be available for the first time today online.

Nestled among the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, the Japanese used Guadalcanal as a staging ground for their planned invasion of Australia and New Zealand during World War II.

"The runway had to be stopped, that had to be the number one objective," McConnell said.

The memory of the battle is still vivid in McConnell's mind. He recalls the bond among his fellow soldiers, the constant barrage of shells and gunfire, and the unsanitary conditions that saw him sharing rusty razors with other soldiers, defecating in sewage ditches, and never showering or brushing his teeth.

The food supply also ran out and the Marines were forced to capture wild boars and roast them over covered fires so the enemy could not detect the smoke and flames.

"The Japanese had left behind old rice, oats, cans of fish heads that they loved, but when you're starved, you'll eat it," McConnell said. The group of Marines landed on Guadalcanal's western side on Aug. 7 with little resistance.

Their objective was to capture a small grassy knoll overlooking the runway. The knoll, a day's trek from the drop-off point, turned out to be a small mountain covered with Japanese troops.

Once the mountain was secured, the Marines turned toward the runway, which proved to be an easier target after Japanese troops had fled and left it abandoned.

Unbeknownst to the U.S. troops, the Japanese were mounting a huge force on the opposite side of the island, which is 90 miles long and 35 miles wide.

The Japanese controlled the water around the island and the air above so they were able to shut off the Marines while bringing in their own fresh troops. "We thought we could just walk in and take it away from them," McConnell said.

"The Japanese controlled the air and the seas all around Guadalcanal, so our ships took us in there, but left us at a point where we weren't even 50 percent unloaded with our food, supplies, equipment and heavy artillery. They took off and we were just stranded there."

The U.S. troops, including McConnell — who was a member of the 1st Marine Division, K Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment — were confined to a small 5-mile by 3-mile area. The area had no shelter and no place to retire from fighting.

"The whole perimeter was considered front-line duty, there were no rest areas," McConnell said. "We had no food, the clothing was rotting off our bodies, we slept on the ground, and there were no buildings for shelter."

McConnell recalls Oct. 16 as one of the heaviest days of fighting he was involved in during the campaign. On that day, McConnell was patrolling an area near the Matanikau River at the western edge of the U.S. perimeter — the closest spot to the Japanese forces.

"The Japanese tried to send twelve tanks across the river in front of our position and there were about 2,000 troops behind and they were screaming and running," McConnell said.

"We were able to stop all of the tanks with artillery, but the troops kept coming."

Not long after McConnell's run-in with the tanks, the U.S. forces were able to push the Japanese from the island and the surrounding area.

After the battle, nearly all of the troops that landed on the island had to be treated for a variety of tropical diseases because of the horrible conditions they endured. McConnell was stricken with a severe case of malaria that confined him to a hospital boat for several weeks after the campaign.

McConnell's unit continued on to Peleiu Island, where there were heavy casualties — killing many of his friends and 78 percent of his regiment.

After the war, McConnell worked at Marine headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he met his wife.

The couple decided to move to Hampton in 1957 and have remained married for 57 years.

McConnell, who is now involved in several area organizations, has held onto two mementos from the campaign — a small diary he took from a dead Japanese soldier and wrote in and a small hand-drawn map of the assault area that was given to the troops three days before they attacked.

With nearly 1,100 World War II veterans dying a day, McConnell said this year's anniversary is particularly important. "How many days can it be before we are pretty much all gone," McConnell said. "9-11 brought the country together and that helps people remember us as veterans."