Battle of Cape Gloucester - Ill and Exhausted Marines

This video without sound, from the U.S. National Archives, depicts exhausted Marines leaving the front line at the Battle of Cape Gloucester.  Because of the nearly constant rain, the men developed fungal infections which worsened their personal hardships.  (Additional Cape Gloucester footage - from the National Archives - is linked below, at the end of this narrative.)

 The historic footage, recorded during late 1943 and early 1944, reveals just a glimpse of the toll the fighting at Cape Gloucester took on the Marines.  They also sustained high numbers of casualties (310 killed and 1083 wounded) between the 26th of December (1943) and mid-January (1944). 
Robert Leckie, one of the Marines who fought at Cape Gloucester, describes what it was like to be in that hot, steamy, rainy place:

The jungle steamed steadily and little clouds of vapor arose from our soaked clothing.  At such times we would wash our clothes in the ocean by beating them against the waves, rubbing them against the abrasive sand and, at last, wringing them out.  Then, half-dry, we would re-enter them, hoping that the heat of our bodies would complete the job before the rain returned.

... at that moment, the sky darkened and the rains fell again.  A general cry of rage and despair rose from the beach.  We sat there in disgust.  Finally the Hoosier got to his feet.

"Shoot me," he pleaded.  "Why'nt somebody be a good guy and shoot me?"  He looked despairingly at the ocean, turned steely gray again and dimpled by the raindrops ...  (Robert Leckie, Helmet for My Pillow, page 238.)

 At Cape Gloucester, the Marines had to fight more than the Japanese.  They also fought the place itself:


The puffing of my lips and eyes symbolized the mystery and poison of this terrible island.  Mysterious - perhaps I mean to say New Britain was evil, darkly and secretly evil, a malefactor and enemy of humankind, an adversary, really, dissolving, corroding, poisoning, chilling, sucking, drenching - coming at a man with its rolling mists and green mold and ceaseless downpour, tripping him with its numberless roots and vines, poisoning him with green insects and malodorous bugs and treacherous tree bark, turning the sun from his bones and cheer from his heart, dissolving him - the rain, the mold, the damp steadily plucking each cell apart like tiny hands tearing at the petals of a flower - dissolving him, I say, into a mindless, formless fluid like the sop of mud into which his feet forever fall in a monotonous slop-suck, slop-suck that is the sound of nothingness, the song of the jungle wherein everything falls apart in hollow harmony with the rain.  (Helmet for My Pillow, page 241.)

 The Marines endured weeks of horrifying existence, beyond the toll of battle itself, during which even their underwear fell apart:


Nothing could stand against it:  a letter from home had to be read and reread and memorized, for it fell apart in your pocket in less than a week; a pair of socks lasted no longer; a pack of cigarettes became sodden and worthless unless smoked that day; pocketknife blades rusted together; watches recorded the period of their own decay; rain made garbage of the food; pencils swelled and burst apart; fountain pens clogged and their points separated; rifle barrels turned blue with mold and had to be slung upside down to keep out the rain; bullets stuck together in the rifle magazines and machine gunners had to go over their belts daily, extracting and oiling and reinserting the bullets to prevent them from sticking to the cloth loops - and everything lay damp and sodden and squashy to the touch, excluding that steady musty reek that is the jungle's own, that individual odor of decay rising from vegetable life so luxuriant, growing so swiftly, that it seems to hasten to decomposition from the moment of birth.  (Helmet for My Pillow, pages 241-42.)

Some of the men - like Bob Leckie - contracted malaria.  When it was finally time to leave Cape Gloucester, the Marines hoped for a return trip to Australia - or - if not Melbourne, some other place where they could take a freshwater shower and sleep in a clean bed.  Alas, however, such wishes would not come true.  For their rest, departing Marines were sent to ... Pavuvu.
Intended as a place of respite, Pavuvu was just another stop along the road of misery for the 1st Marines.  Leckie describes what it was like to live on that island:

We marched ashore in the rain and inched up a mud-slicked slope into a coconut grove, and there sat down to contemplate our misery.  This was our new home.  Pavuvu was to be our rest area.  Here we were to make ready for our next campaign.

Instead of a machete we were given shovels and buckets.  There was no underbrush to be cleared, but there was ubiquitous mud to be conquered by quarrying uncounted tons of coral from an open cut in a hill opposite us.

We shared Pavuvu with multitudes of rats, and these, too, we set to conquering with our busy American ways.  But soon our supplies of poison ran out and the piles of little carcasses became more obnoxious in their state of stinking corruption than the live rats had been in pelting flight across our tent tops. 

When dusk set a limit to our assault upon mud or rat, a soft rustling in the palm fronds suggested a more exotic foe, for then we would see the darkly beautiful bat stretching its silent wings upon the winds of evening.

In the end, it was only the mud we conquered.  We left the rats alone, and never bothered the bats ... But we had borne all this before and we could bear it again, nor could mere bad food or leaky tents press upon the ardor of my comrades. 

It was the death of hope that bore us down.  (Helmet for My Pillow, pages 256-57.)

See, also:

Media Credits

Historical footage of Marines at Cape Gloucester, New Britain - online, courtesy U.S. National Archives.

Quoted passages from Helmet for My Pillow, by Robert Leckie.


To cite this story (For MLA citation guidance see easybib or OWL ):

"Battle of Cape Gloucester - Ill and Exhausted Marines" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Nov 22, 2019.
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