Sunday, August 21, 2016

Today in History

The Battle of Tenaru

Today in 1942, the 1st Marine Regiment repulsed a major Japanese land attack in Tenaru, Guadalcanal in the first victory on land against Japan in World War II. It was the first of three major Japanese land offensives in Guadalcanal and a major morale boost to our troops. It was proof, finally, that the Japanese were beatable.

We talked about the Pacific War, and Medal of Honor Recipient John Basilone, in a recent post about Escape from Davao, so today I thought I'd talk about another Guadalcanal hero. The Battle of Tenaru is featured briefly but as a major plot point in the 1945 movie Pride of the Marines. The movie is a bio-pic of Philly native Al Schmid. It's based on the book Al Schmid, Marine by Roger Butterfield, sadly now out of print.

The movie starts with Al (played by John Garfield), a regular Philadelphia steel-worker, who enjoys his independence. His friends set him up with Ruth (Eleanor Hartley) who he falls for after she enjoys a hunting trip with him. But the war interrupts, and Al gets shipped to Guadalcanal, where he performs truly heroically.

The real story is awe-inspiring. Pvt. Schmid was the assistant gunner in a three man crew under Cpl. LeRoy Diamond, with Pfc. Johnny Rivers as gunner. They crewed a water-cooled 30 caliber M19171A Browning heavy machine gun. When the Japanese attacked that night, their goal was to cross the Ilu River in order to retake Henderson Air Strip. Cpl Diamond's crew was entrenched on the west bank of the river, directly in their path. Pfc. Rivers was killed early in the assault and Schmid took over firing and reloading under Cpl. Diamond's direction, who had been wounded in the arm. The Browning's water jacket was hit and Schmid kept firing despite it getting red-hot, using short bursts to prevent jamming. A Japanese grenade hit their position, wounding Schmid in the arm and face and blinding him. Now blind, Schmid resumed firing the Browning guided by Diamond's voice.

When the battle ended, 200 dead Japanese soldiers were in front of the Browning's position. For their extraordinary actions. Schmid, Diamond, and Rivers were awarded the Navy Cross.

The movie shows the battle action briefly but effectively, with extreme technical accuracy. It then focuses on Al's return home, struggling with his disability. He doesn't want Ruth to know he's almost completely blind and tries to break up with her. This part of the movie has been described as gut-wrenching and the denouement as truly inspiring.

One of the overlooked gems of Hollywood's vintage films, if you ever happen across this movie, be sure to watch it.

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