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The United States Marines call it “The Canal”

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The United States Marines call it “The Canal”

If someone decided to re-write the Marine Corps Hymn today, it would probably read like this:  

“From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of “The Canal”.

“The Canal” is what Marines, since those early days of World War II, call Guadalcanal.  It refers to a bloody, costly battle fought over a fair-sized tropical island in the South Pacific, an island big enough to have an airfield, called Henderson Field, mountains, and swamps, and beaches bordered by almost impenetrable jungle. 

The Imperial Japanese Army possessed Guadalcanal, lock, stock, and barrel.  It was in a strategic location, sitting squarely across the ocean path to Australia, in a position to block supply ships that carried the life blood of the Allies to that island continent.

Right after Pearl Harbor, efforts were made by Allied naval forces to work together.  American, British, Dutch, and Australian ships, under the command of Dutch Admiral Karel Von Doorman, set forth to meet the vastly superior Japanese fleet.  The ABDA forces, as it was known, had little in common with each other.  Doorman signaled, “Follow Me,” and they followed, cruisers and destroyers were destroyed and went to the bottom in a place called Ironbottom Bay.

The U. S. Navy became stronger, and moved into the waters of the Solomon Islands.  Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher brought his cruisers and his destroyers in close to the islands of Florida, Tulagi, and Guadalcanal.  Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner commanded the amphibious forces, as he would throughout the other invasions in the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean, and the Marines were landed.  

But they were landed armed with the old Springfield bolt-action rifles, and with ten days of ammunition.  Air attacks sent Fletcher’s ships and Turner’s cargo carriers out of the area, and the Marines fought with what they had.

The Marines conquered the Lunga Point airfield, renaming it Henderson Field.  They fought through the swamps and the fetid waters of the Tenaru River and other sluggish streams that harbored reptiles, poisonous snakes, and mosquitoes that put them out of action with malaria and other tropical diseases. But they fought on against an enemy that was long acknowledged to be the best jungle fighters, until the Marines arrived.

Admiral Nimitz was speaking of the troops on “The Canal” when he said, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.  Once, for a couple of days, three Marines manning machine guns held off three thousand Japanese soldiers that charged, time after time, their positions, positions that were crucial to the defense of American troops. One of these was Gunnery Sergeant “Manilla John” Basilone.  He got the nickname for his boxing exploits while in the U. S. Army and stationed in the Philippines. The gunners fought, running low on ammunition, and Basilone ran back and forth, bringing ammo belts draped over his shoulders.  When they were relieved Gunny Basilone had earned the Medal of Honor and a place in the pantheon of heroes of his country.

One night in February U. S. troops massed for a great drive, a drive that was intended to push the enemy into the ocean, but daylight revealed that the Japanese had been quietly evacuated, and the island of Guadalcanal, “The Canal”, was in Allied hands.

And what of Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, the hero of “The Canal,” the man who performed superhuman feats, who led his men to victory?

On a small spit of an island, with a volcano named Suribachi towering over it, John Basilone landed with his Marines, and, under withering gunfire from Japanese soldiers entrenched in the rocks, Manilla John lost his life, his red blood spilled on the black sands of Iwo Jima. He received the Navy Cross for valor.

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