By Kirkus Reviews
As America’s World War II generation passes into history, one of the last living veterans of the pivotal campaigns of the Pacific front offers a frank and searing combat memoir. In HELL IN THE PACIFIC: A Marine Rifleman’s Journey from Guadalcanal to Peleliu (Simon & Schuster; June 5, 2012; $27.00), ninety-two-year-old Marine Jim McEnery teams up with acclaimed military historian Bill Sloan to present a visceral, inspiring, and at times heart-wrenching account of horror and heroism on the front lines.
Made famous by the HBO miniseries The Pacific, McEnery’s rifle company, the legendary K/3/5 of the First Marine Division, fought in some of the war’s most ferocious battles, including the invasion of Guadalcanal—the first offensive U.S. ground action against the Japanese and the turning point of the Pacific war. In his brutally candid narrative, McEnery also recounts the heartbreaking travesties of Cape Gloucester, a lesser-known battle where 1,300 Marines were killed or wounded in action, and Peleliu, regarded by many historians as the bloodiest and perhaps most nightmarish battle in the entire Pacific war.
McEnery vividly describes what it was like to engage in hand-to-hand fighting; what he thought of the fanatical enemy soldiers; what it meant to witness the violent deaths of close friends just a few feet away; and how he came to terms with what he did and saw during his years in combat. In addition, McEnery shares his honest assessments of some of the Pacific war’s most fabled heroes, including Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller and Colonel “Red Mike” Edson of Edson’s Raiders, as well as the controversial General Douglas “Dugout Doug” MacArthur, whom he blames for thousands of needless casualties.
Guadalcanal: the battle that changed the course of the Pacific war
As part of the first wave of the Guadalcanal invasion—the first amphibious assault by U.S. forces since the Spanish-American War—McEnery and his comrades expected to come under heavy fire at any second. Instead, it was totally quiet as they reached the beaches. But that soon changed. Japanese forces managed to destroy or drive off most of the U.S. naval and air support, leaving the Marines isolated and with barely enough supplies to survive. In four months of brutal fighting, often under constant bombardment, they sought to secure the island’s vital airport and overcome tens of thousands of Japanese troops. As a squad leader and later as a reconnaissance sergeant, McEnery took part in and saw much of the front-line action.
Marine casualties (621 killed and 1,517 wounded vs. more than 30,000 Japanese dead) were remarkably low for a campaign that lasted so long, saw so much hard fighting, and changed the whole complexion of the Pacific war. “But the reasons for that were simple,” McEnery writes. “We’d held our ground in well-entrenched defensive positions against troops that threw themselves against us in human-wave attacks.” The eventual restoration of American naval and air superiority was also essential to the U.S. victory at Guadalcanal. One of McEnery’s closest friends, Remi Balduck, was killed while singlehandedly repelling a frontal attack from the enemy. For his heroic actions, he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and also had a Navy ship named in his honor.
Even at the end of the Guadalcanal campaign, McEnery observes, not many people recognized its full importance. But the truth became more obvious as time went by. The Americans had gained a major airbase and staging area deep in the heart of formerly Japanese territory. The Japanese navy went into hiding and didn’t come out again for almost two years. Because of huge losses in material and manpower, Japan’s military machine was so weakened that it was never able to mount a major offensive action again. When things had looked their darkest, McEnery and his comrades showed the world that the Japanese could be defeated.
Cape Gloucester: red mud, red blood, green hell
From the momentous victory on Guadalcanal, K/3/5 moved on to Cape Gloucester—one of the wettest, hottest, and most inhospitable places on Earth. In chilling detail, McEnery focuses on the bloody battle at Suicide Creek, where his best buddy, Sergeant Lou Gargano, a young husband and father, took command of the platoon after the commanding officer was hit. With McEnery’s help, Gargano led a counterattack against the Japanese, but was killed two days later by a round from a U.S. howitzer that missed its intended target. “Lou’s death hit me harder than any of the other buddies I lost in the Pacific,” McEnery writes. Nevertheless, he took Gargano’s place as platoon guide, the highest-ranking job for an NCO in the platoon, and vowed to try to live up to his late friend’s example.
Peleliu: uniquely horrible and “totally pointless”
There were bigger, costlier, and better-known land battles than Peleliu during the Pacific war, such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa. “But Peleliu was uniquely horrible,” McEnery says. “In terms of savage fighting, agonizing battlefield conditions, impossible terrain and logistics, physical misery, and psychological heartbreak, it was in a class by itself. It was thirty days of the meanest, around-the-clock slaughter that desperate men can inflict on each other when the last traces of humanity have been wrung out of them and all that’s left behind is the blind urge to kill.”
On Peleliu, McEnery again saw many good friends killed in action at close range, including Corporal John Teskevich, a gung-ho Marine with whom McEnery had served since Guadalcanal. Shortly before Teskevich’s death, he and McEnery had looked up at the stars and talked of going home. Both had been in combat for twenty-eight straight months, far more than military rules allowed, because their division had so few experienced NCOs. Two days before the battle ended in an American victory, K/3/5’s commanding officer, Captain Andy Haldane, was killed by a sniper’s bullet to the head. McEnery briefly assumed command of the company as the senior available NCO, directing artillery fire that helped speed the final defeat of the Japanese.
But the saddest, most sickening thing about Peleliu for the men who lived through it is that it never should have happened at all. Admirals William “Bull” Halsey and Chester Nimitz both argued that Peleliu was no real threat to U.S. objectives. But General MacArthur demanded that Peleliu be taken to protect his flank when Army troops invaded the Philippines, and President Roosevelt gave in. McEnery writes, “For me – and every other living survivor of Peleliu – it hurts to know the truth. But as we know now, from a strategic standpoint, the battle was totally pointless…It hurts even worse when I think of the 1,252 members of the First Marine Division who were killed in action on Peleliu and the other 5,274 Marines who left their blood there.”
“I want the memory of those tragic times and terrible places to live forever.”
McEnery concludes: “I don’t want Americans of the twenty-first century to forget what happened at Guadalcanal or Cape Gloucester or Peleliu. I want the memory of those tragic times and terrible places to live forever. Thinking back on them sometimes causes me actual physical pain. But I truly believe that keeping the memory of them alive for future generations is the only way to make sure they never happen again.”
McEnery’s memory of these hellish battles is nothing short of phenomenal—he graphically describes the fighting, and conveys his own candid opinions about the overall conduct of the Pacific war. When asked whether he regrets any of the things he did in the heat of combat, he says, “My answer is a simple ‘No.’ It was kill or be killed out there, and I did what I had to do to protect my own life and the lives of the Marines around me.
”Seventy-three years after I enlisted in the Marines, I’m still convinced it was the best damn thing I ever did.”
In the tradition of Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, William Manchester’s Goodbye, Darkness, and E. B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed, HELL IN THE PACIFIC is a gripping and invaluable contribution to the record of courageous soldiers fighting together to turn the tide of war.
About the Author
Born in 1919, Jim McEnery was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and enlisted in the Marines in 1940. He trained at Parris Island, South Carolina, and Quantico, Virginia, where he joined the First Marine Division’s famed K/3/5 rifle company before shipping out to the Pacific after the United States entered World War II. Over the course of twenty-eight months, he fought in three major campaigns – Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, and Peleliu. He ended his Marine Corps career as a drill instructor at Parris Island, drawing on his vast experience to teach new recruits the skills they needed to survive in such battles as Okinawa and Iwo Jima. After leaving the Marines, he moved to New Jersey and worked at Rutgers University until his retirement. He remains in close touch with his surviving Pacific comrades and feels a strong kinship with all the men who ever saw combat with the K/3/5, including Marines currently serving in Afghanistan. He and his wife of sixty-five years, Gertie, now live in Ocala, Florida.
Called “a master of . . . the combat narrative” by the Dallas Morning News, Bill Sloan is a widely respected military historian and the author of more than a dozen acclaimed books, including Undefeated: America’s Heroic Fight for Bataan and Corregidor; The Darkest Summer: Pusan and Inchon 1950 – The Battles That Saved South Korea – and the Marines – From Extinction; The Ultimate Battle: Okinawa 1945 – the Last Epic Struggle of World War II; and Brotherhood of Heroes: The Marines at Peleliu, 1944 – The Bloodiest Battle of the Pacific War. A former investigative reporter and feature writer for the Dallas Times Herald, where he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, he lives in Dallas, Texas.
About the Book
Title: HELL IN THE PACIFIC: A Marine Rifleman’s Journey from Guadalcanal to Peleliu
Author: Jim McEnery with Bill Sloan
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: June 5, 2012
e-Book ISBN-13: 9781451659153
The book is available for purchase at www.SimonAndSchuster.com.