The United States Marine Corps, like the Dallas Cowboys, is one of America's Teams. There are a couple of reasons for this. The corps has a fine winning record and, beyond that, it has had a great instinct for public relations -- image-building, if you will.
One of its effective PR men in World War II was Herbert Merillat. As a young lawyer in the Treasury Department in 1942, he encountered an old friend at the bar of the University Club in Washington. His friend had been recently commissioned by the Marine Corps as a public relations officer. He suggested that Merillat might like the same kind of duty. After some negotiation, Merillat agreed and within a month found himself aboard a transport, bound for the South Pacific. He had bypassed boot camp, officer candidate school and all other forms of military training. His job was to be the historian for the First Marine Division, to act as the den mother for visiting newspaper correspondents and to produce upbeat stories for American newspapers which, in those days, were somewhat less discriminating than now in their use of news columns.
Merillat was enormously lucky. His division was the first Marine outfit committed to serious offensive action in the Pacific in the dark days of the war. It landed on Guadalcanal in August 1942 and delivered to the American people an inspiring victory in a land engagement with the forces of Japan.
As battles go, Guadalcanal was not "decisive" in any strategic sense. But it gave a great lift to the nation's psyche and produced a marvelous collection of All-American heroes--Marine air ace Joe Foss, a South Dakota farm boy; Barney Ross, a celebrated prizefighter from Chicago; Merritt "Red Mike" Edson, a middle-aged Vermonter, who led the First Marine Raider Battalion.
Americans responded enthusiastically to the exploits of these and other Marines on the "Canal" and Merillat played a big part in that, guiding correspondents to the right people and places and, on his own, grinding out copy for newspapers starved for good news from the battle zone.
"Guadalcanal Remembered" is Merillat's memoir of that campaign. It is based on the diaries he kept aboard ship and during his four months on the island. He has expanded on them to give us a short history of the battle, its prelude and its aftermath. But it is the diary entries themselves that are most enjoyable and most enlightening to those who want to know what it was like. They are a chronicle, not only of heroism and blunders, but of the mundane and petty aspects of military life in wartime, aspects that so often are overlooked and neglected in more conventional and ambitious histories.
Merillat quickly discovered the obsession in the officer corps with rank and with the "Lineal List" that determined status and perquisites on the basis of the crucial dates of commissioning and promotion:
"We junior officers heard of majors and lieutenant colonels crowded like lowly second lieutenants four or five to a shipboard cabin, who consulted the Lineal List to determine which was entitled to the choicest bunk." Even liquor rations went according to the List.
There was constant verbal and psychological conflict between men of the "Old Corps" (prewar) and the civilians who came aboard after Pearl Harbor. One of the new boys, fed up with the regulars, popped off one day: "The Old M.C. was nothing but a gun club. If you could shoot fairly straight and looked pretty in a uniform you could be a Marine. The whole outfit . . . couldn't have stormed Sparta, Georgia at the outbreak of the war."
Some of the new boys had their own problems. Two of them played fast draw with their .45s aboard ship one day; one was killed by an accidental firing. "Tonight after chow," Merillat noted in his diary, "the colonel gave officers a lecture on playing with firearms."
Once ashore and after some amateurish foulups on the beach, the Marines in the line companies performed well. The final body count was 15,000 dead Japanese with another thousand taken prisoner. The Marines suffered 2,700 casualties from enemy action; thousands more were stricken with malaria. The big American losses were sustained by the Navy, which counted more than 5,000 dead in numerous engagements with the Japanese fleet. But most of the glory went to the Marines.
There may have been some poetic justice in that. As the subordinate branch of the Navy, the Marines were forced to suffer throughout the campaign the meddling of high-ranking naval officers, especially Rear Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner. Merillat recounts Turner's obsession with fragmenting the First Division into raider battalions to be dispersed all over the island. If he had prevailed, the whole enterprise might have floundered.
There was no end to bureaucratic nonsense, as Merillat's diaries frequently remind the reader:
"I worked until 10 o'clock last night by the light of an electric flashlight in the chief of staff's tent, writing up citations for the men to be decorated today. People would be amazed at the behind-the-scenes activity in hero-making; quarrels over which cases are most deserving; seeing that all ranks and units are properly represented; dressing up weak cases to make them appear stronger; last minute switches from one class of decoration to another . . . The number of decorations is determined, not by the number of deserving cases, but by the number and types of medals the admiral totes along."
On that particular occasion, Adm. Chester Nimitz was toting the medals. He pinned on Maj. Gen. Archer A. Vandegrift a Navy Cross, which is awarded for exceptional valor in battle. The general had ably directed the operations of his division but if he had been involved in any fighting on the Canal, it is not recorded. But he led the Lineal List.