TIL THE LAST BUGLE CALL
by Eric Hammell
Copyright © 2013 by Eric Hammel
Haleta Village, Florida Island
August 7, 1942
They sent eight LCP(L) and (R)s to pick up Company B. It took only twenty minutes to clear out of Haleta and assemble where the company had come ashore. The troops had gone in light and portable, so getting out quickly was not a problem. But then there was a delay.
The little flotilla was just getting ready to retract from the beach when a lone destroyer appeared on the horizon directly opposite Haleta. She was coming on at top speed.
There was a tingle of fear and uncertainty—Jap destroyer?—until the warship signaled by lantern that Captain Ahern was to come aboard to speak by radio with someone on the regimental staff.
As Ahern’s LCP(R) carried him to rendezvous with the destroyer, the other landing craft remained with their bows run on the beach. Beset by the troops for a quick read on what might be going on, the Navy boat crewmen replied that they had no idea. They were a mixed batch from several ships and had spent a grueling day ferrying troops and goods, mainly to Tulagi. As far as any of them, including one officer, an ensign, knew, the Raiders on Tulagi and the tiny 377-man 1st Parachute Battalion, which had assaulted Gavutu Island at noon, were heavily engaged but holding their own and gaining ground.
In very little time, Ahern returned to the beach and convened a quick officer and staff noncommissioned officer call. Rosen was too junior to attend. He sweated out the news with the rest of the junior enlisted men.
The officers-and-staff meeting broke up in under five minutes. With Platoon Sergeant Cross at his back, Lieutenant Kimball returned to 1st Platoon and Rosen’s machine gunners aboard the LCP(L).
“The paratroops are having a bad time on Gavutu. They hold about half the island—which is tiny—but they’re stalled. They need us to attack and secure the next island over, Tanambogo. We’re going to touch down on Gavutu, where the officers will be briefed by the paratroop commander. That’ll give us a chance to eyeball our objective. Then we retract, form up, and make an immediate assault on Tanambogo. That’s supposed to help the paratroops break loose.
“I’ll pass around a map when we’re on our way, so you can all see. Nobody has any idea how many Japs are on Tanambogo, but it’s a seaplane base, so maybe a lot of them are aircraft mechanics . . . noncombatants.
“It’ll take about ninety minutes to get there. The Navy is going to use the time to bomb and shell the place, right down to when we make our assault. Figure we land about two hours from now. That’s about eighteen hundred. It doesn’t leave much time to secure the place before dark, so we have to be extra aggressive when we meet the enemy.”
Kimball motioned for Cross, the right guide, the squad leaders, and Rosen to gather around him. When every ounce of their attention was focused on him, the lieutenant looked at each man, right in the eye. “It’s going to be difficult. I didn’t train with you and our men have never been in a fight. But we’re Marines. We know how to make war. We can do this.
“Let’s get going.”
The 1st Platoon was first off the beach.
After departing Haleta, two landing craft loaded with the battalion headquarters troops, Captain Ridgely, and the Australian guide pulled off to port to make a faster direct run to join the battalion main body at a spot on Florida overlooking western Tulagi. That left six overloaded landing craft for a company headquarters nominally composed of two officers and twenty-seven men; a company weapons platoon composed of a platoon headquarters (one officer and three men), a mortar section of two 60mm mortars (eleven men), and a machine gun section composed of two light machine gun squads (thirteen men); three rifle platoons, each composed of a platoon headquarters (one officer and six men), an automatic rifle squad (eight men), and three rifle squads (nine men each). Company B also had one medium machine gun platoon from Company D attached; it was composed of two sections of two guns each (one officer and forty-seven men, mostly ammunition carriers). Not counting the injured Private Burrfoot and a two-man fire watch left aboard ship to guard the company area against theft, the reinforced company that set out for Gavutu and Tanambogo numbered two hundred twenty-eight officers, Marine enlisted, and Navy hospital corpsmen.
As soon as the boats retracted and turned toward the objective, Company B had a clear view of Tulagi, where the 1st Raider Battalion and a 1st Marine Division infantry battalion were waging a battle royal. Carrier planes kept up intense pressure, arriving on station; joining up in a long race-track pattern off the long, narrow island; peeling off to deliver bombs and bullets from over the Japanese-held southeastern end of the island, then making a beeline for the carriers, which were cruising off southern Guadalcanal—beyond the range of Japanese bombers based at Rabaul, the nearest Japanese air base, some six hundred miles to the northwest. All the while, U.S. Navy destroyers and cruisers brutally pummeled any shore targets they could locate on their own or with help from naval gunfire spotter teams attached to Marine units ashore.
A great acrid pall of battle smoke had settled over the entire area. It had drifted as far as the eye could see, out over the distant waves and across vast tracts of Florida’s dense, untamed rain forest. The sounds of battle reached out to the virgin infantrymen of Company B as the landing craft passed battle-torn Tulagi, where fellow Marines who had awakened just like them this day had already lost or might still lose the lottery of death.
August 7, 1942
Company B arrived on the northeastern tip of Gavutu, which was only modestly screened by heavy smoke from Japanese gunfire originating on Tanambogo to the north and Gavutu’s stubbornly defended lone hill to the south. The bulk of the reinforced company remained aboard the LCPs, but all the officers, the first sergeant, and the company gunnery sergeant hopped out to join the parachute commander and his sergeant major behind a concrete pier that had been nearly upended by naval gunfire or aerial bombs in the hours before the 1st Parachute Battalion’s noon assault. A busy open-air battalion aid station filled with at least a few dozen wounded Marines was only yards away, in the lee of the same concrete pier, and an LCP(R) filled with recumbent bandaged men was just retracting from the beach.
The troops who could see the meeting watched without hearing over intense gunfire as Captain Ahern and the others sighted along the parachute officer’s extended arm, which pointed toward Tanambogo’s only hill, on the western side of the island. More, mostly emphatic, gesticulations were noted, but their meaning was lost on the troops.
At the center of the conversation, 2nd Lieutenant Bill Wyden, Company B’s spirited 2nd Platoon commander, made an early bid to lead the way to a pier at the head of the inlet in northern Tanambogo that was judged to be the quickest access to what all hoped would be the undefended northern side of Tanambogo Hill. Kimball attempted to pull rank, but Ahern chided him for having done so earlier, and winning, for the Florida landing.
As the confab was breaking up, Lieutenant Wyden asked the parachutists how many Japanese they thought might be holding Tanambogo. The battalion commander said that, aviation personnel aside, there were “only a few snipers.” The sergeant major looked askance, but only Kimball picked up on the man’s facial expression.
The battalion commander was eager to get back to breaking the stalemate on Gavutu, so he gave Ahern rather brusque leave to carry on. As the major turned his attention back to his own myriad problems, Ahern dropped to one knee and spread out his map of Tanambogo. He ordered Wyden’s 2nd Platoon to lead with a light machine gun attached. The reinforced platoon was to form up on line and attack directly toward Tanambogo Hill by the shortest route. Next would be an LCP carrying the company forward command group and a section composed of two attached Company D .30-caliber water-cooled medium machine guns. Ahern ordered the medium machine gun platoon leader to set both guns up on the pier and suppress Japanese fire, especially automatic weapons fire, from the high ground. Third was Kimball’s 1st Platoon with Rosen’s light machine gun attached. It was to leapfrog through or pass around Wyden’s 2nd Platoon if and when Wyden was halted by enemy fire. Fourth was the LCP carrying 2nd Lieutenant Fred Fair’s 3rd Platoon, designated the company reserve. It would be used as and when Captain Ahern decided. The fifth LCP was to bring in the administrative portion of the company command group and the 60mm mortars. And finally, in the sixth LCP were two more medium machine guns. The second pair of medium machine guns and the light mortars were to deploy on or by the pier as soon as they landed in order to provide covering and suppressive fires for riflemen racing to the base of the hill.
As soon as they could, the two lead infantry platoons, including both light machine guns, were to leapfrog behind a moving curtain of 60mm mortar fire, straight up the hill’s northern face, containing and overwhelming caves and defensive emplacements as they were encountered. The whole point of the attack was to overwhelm machine guns and snipers on Tanambogo Hill that were firing into the rear of the parachute battalion as it attacked the northern face of Gavutu Hill. No one knew how Japanese troops deployed in caves were going to be definitively overwhelmed when the only explosives available to Company B were hand grenades. No TNT had been issued.
All hands wondered how they could do all that—or anything—before darkness fell.
The company officers and senior staff noncoms returned to the LCPs to rearrange the boat assignments and brief the troops. All that was completed in minutes, and then the boat crews ran up the rpms and backed away from the upended concrete pier. The LCPs, whose ensign and coxswains had been tersely briefed as a group by Captain Ahern, were going to loop around tiny Gaomi Islet in order to mask the approach along Tanambogo’s eastern shore.
It was already fully dark by the time the last LCP felt its way past Gaomi. Unseen by men aboard all the other boats, the LCP(R) carrying the Lieutenant Fair’s 3rd Platoon turned too soon and snagged the tip of a coral outcropping, which ripped a long gash in the bottom. All hands swiftly abandoned the craft via the bow ramp or over the sides and waded across the coral to Gaomi, where they had nothing to do except wait to be rescued.
August 7, 1942
The farther the LCPs sailed from Gavutu, the greater the interval between them became. All six coxswains and the ensign commanding the flotilla were worried stiff about colliding with the LCP ahead, but it was also easy to follow the white, luminescent engine turbulence of the boat ahead from a moderate distance. The shelling of Tanambogo was underway. Fourteen 5-inch guns aboard a light antiaircraft cruiser and eight 5-inch guns aboard two destroyers helped mark the objective with bright bursts as the 5-inch shells detonated on the island, but the multiple bright flashes didn’t help anyone’s night vision. As a bonus, a flight of nine U.S. Navy carrier dive-bombers that had been cutting large circles in the sky alongside Tulagi for several hours used a break made for them in the naval gunfire mission to drop their 500-pound bombs on Tanambogo Hill when they were ordered back to their ship for the night.
The shelling began to peter out somewhat as Lieutenant Wyden’s lead LCP(L) completed the curve around Gaomi and straightened out on course toward the wooden pier designated by the parachute battalion commander. The Marines didn’t know it, but the light cruiser was tracking the LCPs by means of its thoroughly modern surface-search radar, among the best such equipment in the invasion fleet. Unfortunately, there was no means except signal lantern to communicate with the LCPs. The cruiser’s bridge signalman tried, but the Marines were studiously avoiding eye contact with the warship’s muzzle flashes, so no news reached Captain Ahern that the fourth LCP in line had simply stopped at the far end of Gaomi.
The naval gunfire was abruptly squelched as Wyden’s LCP(L) came within fifty yards of the pier.
The LCP(R) bearing the first section of medium machine guns and the Company B forward command group was about a hundred yards behind Wyden, just straightening out for the final lap as Wyden’s LCP(L) slammed into the pier, dead on. Kimball’s platoon was another hundred yards back, still curving toward shore. Behind Kimball was the 60mm mortar section and the company rear command group—mostly clerks and runners along for the ride but all amply trained as riflemen nonetheless. Last up was the second medium machine gun section.
Lieutenant Wyden took a page from Kimball’s book: the light machine gunner—and two sailors, each manning a ring-mounted light machine gun in the bow—sprayed the pier for a few seconds. The LCP’s bow slammed into the pier even though the propeller was in full reverse, and Wyden charged straight off the prow, waving his .45 and bellowing, “Follow me,” the traditional battle cry of Marine troop leaders.
As Wyden’s feet touched the pier, Japanese machine guns on the hill sprayed the lead LCP(L) with sheets of fire. The over-eager platoon leader—on his first time out after weathering two solid years of unremitting physical training and mental conditioning designed to make him an aggressive killer—never turned to see who was with him—he assumed that everyone was—but the entire platoon had become entangled on the floorboards as, to a man, they ducked and sprawled on the deck to evade the bullets from on high.
At the same moment the Japanese opened fire, a lone 5-inch shell, inexplicably fired by one of the destroyers, detonated squarely on a hitherto unperceived fuel dump lying just yards from the grounded lead LCP(L). In another few seconds, the second LCP surged into the firelight and slammed head-on into the pier. The unabashed machine gunners and assistant gunners, partly thankful for the light, set up their two water-cooled .30-caliber machine guns on the pier decking, and took the best cover they could find behind the pier. As soon as the machine gun squad leaders reported their guns ready to fire, the section chief raised his .45-caliber pistol and carefully fired a white tracer round at a spot on Tanambogo Hill that appeared to be the source of red Japanese tracer rounds from above. (All the officers, senior noncoms, and machine gun and automatic rifle squad leaders were similarly armed and trained to direct fire.)
As soon as the section chief fired his first marker round, both medium machine guns opened fire on the heights before the 2nd Platoon had completely disentangled itself from the mob on their LCP(L)’s floorboards. Indeed, five or six machine gun ammo carriers had unslung their Springfield M1903 bolt-action .30-caliber rifles before a single 2nd Platoon rifleman could do the same.
As the roar of the two American machine guns suffused the air, Lieutenant Wyden discovered that he was alone, leading a mad-dog assault that included just him. He instantly zigged toward a shadow that fairly screamed “shell crater” and dove in head-first.
When Wyden peeked over the rim of the crater, he understood that he was not going to get much help. The overwhelming majority of tracer rounds flying back and forth between the heights and the pier was flowing downward. He was trying to perceive a safe and graceful exit when a tiny lull in the gunfire revealed that someone or something was approaching the crater from the south.
Maybe it was a Marine, maybe it was a Jap. Wyden pulled back the slide on his .45 and took aim in the direction of the sound, which had been overwhelmed by the resumption of gunfire. Completely at sea and feeling trapped in a dime-novel punch line, Wyden screamed, “Who goes there?”
A silent shadow stepped forward into the wavering light. Wyden perceived the mushroom-shaped helmet and the outline of a sword bayonet above the shadow’s left shoulder.
“Jap!” he bellowed to absolutely no one. And with that he squeezed off one tracer round that took the stocky enemy rifleman dead center in the sternum with such force that it lifted the man off the ground and tipped him over backwards. Wyden was gone before the Japanese rifleman’s shoulders slammed into the ground, hotfooting it across the fire-lit interval between shell crater and pier. The scene that Wyden first encountered at the pier was grim.
The burning gasoline doomed the landing. Every Japanese gun that could be brought to bear was fired, and serious casualties were inflicted. The entire crew of the 2nd Platoon’s now-empty LCP(L), four sailors and the ensign in command, was felled and the boat slowly drifted away from the beach until a Marine leaped aboard from the pier, took the helm, and backed away into full darkness before turning back to idle off the pier. The lead medium machine gun section had managed to set up on the pier, but plunging fire from Tanambogo Hill struck several ammo carriers before they or the Company B forward CP group could exit the second LCP.
There was no opening for Rosen’s gunner or the LCP(L) crew gunners to spray the beach alongside the pier—too many risks of hitting fellow Americans—but the 1st Platoon’s arrival on Tanambogo was otherwise a replay of the morning’s landing on Florida. Kimball raised his .45 in a sweeping forward gesture, yelled “Follow me,” and sprang off the LCP(L)’s prow as the craft slid to a smooth stop alongside the pier. In one polished motion, Rosen, his gunner, assistant gunner, and ammo carriers followed with the gun-and-ammo load shared from long practice.
And then it all changed. A line of tracer from somewhere overhead drilled the coxswain and another crewman before passing through the crowd of Marines clambering to bolt to the pier. In as much time as it takes to breathe in, six 1st Platoon Marines were shot dead and nine had been wounded, including the platoon medical corpsmen.
Caught on the knife edge between gallantry and panic, about half of the able-bodied riflemen deserted their comrades to find cover while the other half turned to in order to help get at least the wounded ashore before the LCP(L) drifted away to who knew where.
Kimball, Rosen, the gunner, and the assistant gunner never looked back, did not doubt that the rest of 1st Platoon was on their heels.
The two boats in the rear of the column—which were carrying company CP troops, the 60mm mortar section, and the second medium machine gun section—attempted to touch down, but they were both sent packing before more than a handful of CP troops could leap to the pier. Both coxswains were all for running as far away as they could as fast as they could, but Marine noncoms in both boats gave the sailors the choice of being shot now or hung later. A truce placed both boats beyond the edge of light from the flaming fuel dump, ready to help by landing more troops or evacuating Marines from shore.
Elements of the 2d Platoon—two dozen men, give or take—had overcome the shock of a terrifying first contact with the enemy but had not moved inland when an equally terrifying contact was made with six-foot, three-inch Platoon Sergeant Mike Cross, of 1st Platoon, who bullied many of them from behind the cover of the pier and sent all who would obey on to the beach with brief, comprehensive instructions to “establish a fucking base of fire” and “kill some fucking Japs.” The lower the rank, the greater the obedience.
As soon as the cowed troops had dashed forward, Cross was shot through the fleshy part of his left thigh. He sincerely desired to drop on his belly and crawl away, but, outwardly calm, he kneeled on the pier decking, raised a Springfield rifle he had picked up from the deck of his LCP, and calmly and swiftly squeezed off five well-aimed shots at the muzzle flash of a machine gun on the heights whose gunner gave himself away by firing long bursts. There was no way to tell for sure, but Cross silently credited himself with at least temporarily silencing the machine gun. With that, he pulled himself to his feet, drew his .45, and limped forward to find some more rifle ammunition.
Only thirty Marines advanced from the pier to the beach, a mixed bag of 1st and 2nd platoon riflemen with one officer—Kimball—and one light machine gun—Rosen’s. Kimball left the troops to two sergeants and a corporal who had made it forward while he raised his head repeatedly in a series of quick peeks to work out the tactical situation. He had not arrived at a useful conclusion before three Japanese riflemen on the heights drove his head down with a volley of near misses. All around him, the Marines who had come this far forward were gamely attempting to suppress the incoming fire.
Rosen had turned the light machine gun over to the gunner when he came forward with two fresh ammo cans, each containing two hundred rounds of linked ball cartridge interspersed with tracer. As squad leader, it was technically Rosen’s duty to mark targets for the gunner by firing .45-caliber tracer rounds at those targets. This he did for a few moments, until he was similarly marked by several red tracer rounds that brought on plunging machine gun fire from above.
As soon as Captain Ahern had stepped ashore from the second LCP and looked around for just a brief moment, he snapped an order for the company first sergeant to get the injured back aboard the boats and, when that was done, to begin sending the able-bodied out too. The captain knew a lost cause when he was part of one.
When Ahern turned to confirm that the first sergeant was taking action, he noted that the slack-jawed older man was slumped down against the LCP(R)’s engine housing, eyes glued to the deck. The senior noncom had joined Company B just as the regiment was leaving San Diego, long enough now for Ahern to understand that he was a booze-addled placeholder with no significant compensating qualities. Rather than take valuable time to make a scene, Ahern turned to Gunnery Sergeant Paul Stetson, a through-and-through professional who, as usual, was at the skipper’s elbow, ready to assert authority, offer advice, or second a plan. “See to it, Gunny,” he ordered before moving inland with never an impulse to look back.
The gunny, who seemed as broad in the shoulders as he was tall (six feet), had to kick some asses—literally—to form a casualty evacuation party, but this Silver Star-decorated veteran of late fighting in France and the Sandino uprising in Nicaragua was an immensely persuasive fellow. He even held his .45 on a coxswain who professed the powerful desire to be elsewhere. As soon as that sailor’s LCP(R) was full of wounded Marines and the 1st Platoon corpsman—who worked on the others despite his own painful leg wounds—the gunny waved his .45 at the coxswain, yelled “Get going now, you little fuck,” and went on about the business of saving all the living. The only uninjured evacuee aboard the departing LCP(R) was the cashiered company first sergeant, who would never be given an opportunity to redeem himself before he was, as Marines put it, “surveyed” out of the Corps less than two years before he would have rated a pension. First combat is usually the time of such changes in a combat unit’s command structure. Combat reveals everything a man is made of, good and bad, and makes no exceptions for time served.
The company executive officer, who had waded ashore after leaping on his own from the withdrawing next-to-rear LCP, joined forces with the medium machine gun platoon commander to oversee the withdrawal of the first of the uninjured living to leave Tanambogo, including most of the medium machine gun ammo carriers. The first LCP they filled to brimming with walking wounded and uninjured men was crewed by just one Marine, so they commandeered a crewmen from another LCP and sent the first one on its way. Then, with drawn .45s showing menacingly in their hands, the two Marine officers suggested that the next LCP crew wait around long enough to carry away a full load of injured and uninjured evacuees.
Both lieutenants and Gunny Stetson knew they would have to cram all the Americans still on Tanambogo into just two remaining LCPs. They had to get the rest of the recumbent wounded away as well as all the many walking wounded and able-bodied men around the pier, and still take care to keep open space for the Marines battling away with Japanese on the hill, once they inevitably withdrew to the pier.
While the two officers and Gunny Stetson worried about the evacuation, Lieutenant Wyden recovered sufficiently from his earlier ordeal to act as sparkplug for the troops around the pier, many of whom had recuperated from their shock-inducing first contact with the enemy and now persisted in firing on Japanese positions on the hill.
Within minutes of going to work, the Company B exec was seriously wounded in the abdomen and crotch and immediately evacuated in the third LCP, which he had just cleared to sail.
After leaving the company’s withdrawal in good hands, Ahern dodged forward to join Kimball at the forwardmost point of the Company B pocket. Everything that Kimball reported was consonant with what Ahern had seen in what amounted to his own first-ever contact with the enemy. He was a good enough officer and leader to realize that his insight was no better than Kimball’s, or anyone’s except that of Gunny Stetson.
The trick now was to thin out the beach defenses in such a way as to get everyone safely off Tanambogo before the Japanese realized how vulnerable the last to go would be. When news arrived by runner that the fourth—and last—LCP was ready to take Marines aboard, it was plain to see that there was not sufficient room for everyone to sail away; the recumbent wounded took up way more room than seated and standing passengers.
Using a runner whose nickname was Speedy, Ahern communicated with the medium machine gun platoon leader, whose geometry skills were just sufficient to tote up how much space remained for the defenders. When Speedy parroted the lieutenant’s grim news to Ahern, the CO realized there would be no room for fifteen or sixteen Marines.
Speedy returned to the machine gun platoon leader with Ahern’s final message: “I’m sending back enough men to fill the remaining LCP. Get everyone out, including yourself. I’ll lead the covering force back along the eastern beach and cross to Gavutu via the causeway,” referring to the low, narrow, three-hundred-yard-long palm-log-and-crushed-coral structure that joined the islands.
When Ahern’s message had been delivered, Speedy turned to rejoin the CO, but the machine gun officer held him back, rather forcibly, and ordered him aboard the last LCP. Then he handled the last group from the beach and stayed his own departure until he was certain he would be the last man to board.
Rosen’s entire light machine gun squad was directly ordered by Kimball to clear out ahead of the last group of riflemen to leave for the beach, but all of them refused to leave. Indeed, Rosen volunteered to man the machine gun alone until everyone else cleared out.
“Get going, Corporal,” Ahern ordered. The captain felt himself fading from rough handling and was not, in any case, a man enamored of even heart-felt but quixotic gestures.
A silent, uncharacteristically sullen Rosen responded by firing his last .45-caliber tracer round to mark a machine gun on the heights.
“You heard the order, Corporal,” Kimball interjected. “Get going.”
Nothing. Rosen whispered corrections into the gunner’s left ear.
“Listen up, Corporal,” Ahern began, “I’m going to be the last to leave. If you stay, I stay. Do you hate me enough to get me killed?”
Rosen knew the game, knew he had lost. Without a word, he helped his team pack up and break down the loads. “What’s the plan, sir?”
In a tone loud enough for all hands to hear, the captain laid it out: “Clear out to the left and head for the beach. Do not stop for anything. When you reach the water, turn right and head south. Try to blend in, but don’t slow down. These guys are going to try to find us as soon as they realize we’ve pulled out.
“Now let’s get the hell out of here. Go!”
As Gunny Stetson silently emerged from the darkness to join up beside the skipper, the riflemen farthest to the left took off first, and the defensive line unspooled behind them, with Rosen’s machine gun squad in the middle. Three officers—Ahern, Kimball, and Wyden (who had simply shown up)—stubbornly hung back until certain they were last to leave.
It was about three hundred yards to the Tanambogo end of the causeway, then three hundred yards to Gavutu and the parachute battalion enclave. The fastest they could hotfoot it was on the beach, but they would be easy targets for enemy soldiers who spotted them as dark patches moving against the white of the surf line. On the other hand, traveling through the shell-pummeled built-up areas of eastern Tanambogo would take much longer, provide more time for the Japanese to locate them. Moreover, Mike Cross, Kimball’s wounded platoon sergeant, finally had to admit that he was about to crap out and doubted he could walk another fifty yards, much less six hundred.
As the refugees automatically slowed their pace along the beach to accommodate the wounded noncom, Rosen spoke up. “I think I saw a boat by the pier. Permission to look, sir?”
Kimball spoke up first: “I’ll join you. Lead on, Corporal.”
They only had to jog thirty paces along the beach. Rosen was right, a rowboat had been pulled up on the packed sand by the pier, and it had not been smashed to kindling. A quick look revealed that it was seaworthy and came equipped with a pair of good oars.
The two returned to the waiting group. A minute later, after they had asserted their right to evacuate Platoon Sergeant Cross—twisted logic, good only in extreme situations requiring snap decisions and initiative—Kimball and Rosen went their way with the wounded noncom hobbling between them, his arms stretched across their shoulders.
There was little to no surf, which made rowing easy. Kimball had been a rower on the Navy team and had kept up his skill set and timing since graduating Annapolis in 1937. Rosen had been a skinny kid, but joining the high school gym team had bulked him up and given him so much confidence and inner joy that he had worked out every day he had the time to spare since his graduation from Parris Island. As it turned out, they were the best men for the job they had selected themselves to complete.
It took only a short time and a few pointers from Kimball before they found their rhythm and just the right level of teamwork. Then, with increasing confidence, they rowed only fifty yards, paralleling the beach about twenty yards out—so they could navigate—when several things happened, all together. First, a Japanese rifleman on the beach sent a bullet their way. Second, they discovered through their reflex to respond, that they had no bullets left for the .45s they still carried. Third, they also discovered that of course Platoon Sergeant Cross was armed, dangerous, and ready to resist. Fourth, a squall had reached them from the north, rendering them invisible. Fifth, the bombardment of northern Tanambogo resumed (because the three warships hovering beyond Gaomi learned from the medium machine gun platoon leader, who made a beeline for the nearest destroyer as soon as his LCP(L) left Tanambogo, that northern Tanambogo was clear of friendly troops).
The rainfall was so concentrated that Kimball and Rosen were nearly driven to the bottom of the rowboat, and the wounded passenger had to bail for all their lives with his helmet. But the torrent masked them from view from Tanambogo, so all three thanked God in their separate ways and clumsily rowed or bailed for all they were worth.
The rowers brought the rowboat safely through the squall, found the white packed-coral causeway in weak moonlight, and arrived on Gavutu’s safest shore at 2200 hours, August 7—just after Captain Ahern tramped up at the head of the walking evacuees following a grueling and nerve-racking but completely bloodless escape. They joined two LCP loads of Company B and Company D men who had opted to return to Gavutu. There they all settled down for a nap or a night’s sleep, whatever, while several of their number were treated for wounds at the parachute battalion aid station.