Amtraks Across America: the Myths of the Pacific War in New Orleans

This is the fifth part in a series about Amtrak travels during summer 2022.

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Alligator Creek on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, where the Battle of the Tenaru was fought on August 20-21, 1942, in the first offensive U.S. engagement of World War II. At the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, the battle of Guadalcanal gets a shoutout, but as Walt Whitman might have said: “The real war will never get in the display cabinets.” Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

Against my better judgement, I went to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which many friends, knowing my interest in the Pacific and European wars, had encouraged me to visit.

I had been before, when it was just the D-Day Museum, but since that time the accumulation of all those $30 entrance fees has allowed the museum to acquire the rest of the war and enlarge “the campus” to include all sorts of exhibition halls, including one that has the Solomon (as in the Solomon Islands) Theater.

I reminded myself of all the time I have spent visiting World War II battle sites (earlier this year I biked with my friend Cole Harrop to Pointe du Hoc and along the Normandy beaches), and forked over the money for an admission ticket, although I opted out of paying up for the additional Arsenal of Democracy Tour.

The National World War II Museum

As brought to you by the museum curators, World War II was a noble crusade, fought to liberate oppressed nations across the globe, in which the weapon of choice was the Hershey chocolate bar that GIs handed out to small children along the invasion routes.

The museum’s opening exhibit is a rail car of a simulated troop train—although no one was passing around bootlegged bottles of jungle juice—and from there we were steered upstairs and across modernist walkways to the halls of Pearl Harbor, Pacific islands, North Africa, D-Day, and the good and just atomic bombs.

I made the appointed rounds, in the company of enthusiastic school children, with the words of the writer Paul Fussell ringing in my ears. In his book Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War, he writes:

Now, fifty years later, there has been so much talk about “The Good War,” the Justified War, the Necessary War, and the like, that the young and innocent could get the impression that it was really not such a bad thing after all. It’s thus necessary to observe that it was a war and nothing else, and thus stupid and sadistic.

I spent the most time in the Guadalcanal exhibition room—glass cabinets arranged around a Hollywood stage set of gloomy jungle—as my father served there as a Marine Corps company commander.

He survived four months on the front lines through a combination of physical courage—he could think clearly and act decisively even in the din of battle—and an irreverent sense of humor that allowed him and the men under his command to endure the withering conditions and endless battles on Guadalcanal.

In the First World War, Winston Churchill liked to say to his subordinates: “Laugh a little, and teach your men to laugh—great good humour under fire. War is a game that is played with a smile.” By which he meant: it was the only tool that might ensure survival in a time in hell.

I don’t think my father ever heard the Churchill quote, but I think he would have agreed, as I am sure his life-affirming humor helped the men in his command survive many dark moments on Guadalcanal (which for the D-Day Marines lasted without relief for four months in a fetid jungle).

Privatizing American History

Aside from the display cases in New Orleans, I have been twice to Guadalcanal and the Solomons Islands (the chain is northeast of Australia). The last time I was there—in 2018—I walked, borrowed a bicycle, and hired a car to get around the battle sites, which spread across the northern shore of the island.

It was on those rounds that I discovered that America’s hold on its World War II gains, at least in Solomons, is a fleeting notion, an idea that has been emphasized more recently in the newspapers through reports that China is seeking a military alliance and bases there. (The islands previously were in Australia’s sphere of influence.)

Already in 2018 I could see Chinese factories built around Honiara (Guadalcanal’s capital), and after I left the island I read that a Chinese investor had bought the land adjacent to the Tenaru River (the first American counteroffensive in World War II) and had plans to fence off and industrialize what otherwise should be a corner of a foreign field that is for ever American.

The Battle of the Tenaru

The so-called Battle of the Tenaru (the river that flowed into Alligator Creek was actually the Ilu, but early USMC mapmakers were confused) was the first American offensive in World War II. In Victory Fever on Guadalcanal: Japan’s First Land Defeat of World War II, historian William H. Bartsch writes:

While the Battle of the Tenaru was a relatively small action, “it was much more important than the mere numbers of men engaged would indicate,” as Richard Frank has emphasized. “It set the terms of fighting for the rest of the war.”

At that confluence of the river and sea the First Marine Regiment, including my father’s C Company, enveloped and annihilated what was called the Ichiki Regiment, which had landed to the east and had high expectations of wiping out the Marines who had taken Henderson Field, an airstrip.

In the fighting, which took place on August 20-21, 1942, the Ichiki Detachment made numerous headlong attacks through the night into the American lines along the far riverbank (see the picture above), but the Marines managed to hold on and inflict horrific casualties on the Japanese.

Early the next morning, the 1st Battalion, First Marine Regiment enveloped the attacking Ichiki lines, which turned to face a new group of Americans, my father among them. He later wrote in American Heritage magazine, in an article entitled “Four Months on the Front Lines”:

The Japanese rear guard in the coconut grove realized that they were encircled and turned to face us. We leapfrogged our two light machine guns along the beach, raking them with crossfire; the riflemen moved up in short spurts. Both sides built up firing lines. Casualties mounted as their snipers, hidden in the tops of palm trees, picked off our men. We were seventy yards from the Japanese line, and the intense exchange of fire was costing us too much. Something drastic was called for. I gave the order to fix bayonets, and the lieutenants followed suit. We rushed the Japanese position, and the enemy soldiers, seeing us coming, fixed their own bayonets, leaped up, and charged straight at us.

A vicious struggle followed. No quarter was asked or given as Marines and Japanese fought face-to-face in the swirling gunsmoke, lunging, stabbing, and smashing with bayonets and rifle butts. Horrible cries rose above the general tumult as cold steel tore through flesh and entrails and men died in agony.

In his history (which my father did not live to read), William Bartsch writes:

A force of predominantly very young men—teenagers for the most part—whose training had been shortened at Parris Island and aborted in New Zealand and who had never faced combat before proved a match for the highly trained and indoctrinated Japanese soldier in fighting capability and acts of bravery often involving hand-to-hand combat, in which the Japanese regarded themselves as the masters.

In particular, the stellar performance of C Company, as led by its young commander, showed that Marines could best the Japanese in the bayonet charges their adversaries glorified….With their overwhelming victory at the Battle of the Tenaru, the Marines wrote finis to the “victory fever” of the Japanese Army….

Sadly, such hallowed ground will soon become part of a Chinese logging plant.

Looking for the Good War

In the New Orleans World War II museum, what’s in the Guadalcanal display is not “flesh and entrails” but a jaunty stage set with a jungle theme, like scenery left over from a production of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.

Perhaps as an antidote to its own agitation propaganda, in the museum bookstore I found a copy of Elizabeth D. Samet’s Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness, which makes the point that in sanitizing the reality of the Second World War, the United States has allowed itself to launch similar crusades against evil around the world, with disastrous results. A professor of English at West Point, Samet writes:

This, too, is a legacy of World War II, specifically of a misapprehension about the meaning of American violence in the world. It leads us repeatedly to imagine that the use of force can accomplish miraculous political ends even when we have the examples of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan to tell us otherwise.

Maybe because he saw war at its worst, my father never bought into the Hollywood romance of Americans-at-arms in World War II and despaired that it became the metaphor that launched more than a thousand ships in splendid little wars around the world. But I can imagine him nodding in approval over Samet’s words:

The so-called greatness of the Greatest Generation is a fiction, a sentimental fiction, suffused with nostalgia and with a need to return to some finest hour. In a nation once billed as the great nation of futurity, there’s a particular irony in dwelling so stubbornly in the past.

Gifu (“Go Fuck Yourself…”) Ridge

Before leaving the island on my last visit to Guadalcanal, I decided to visit Gifu Ridge, which is above Mt. Austin. It was near there that the battle of Guadalcanal ended in February 1943, although the Marines, my father among them, left the island in late December 1942. (My father would quip: “We never go anywhere near Mt. Austin. It was further away than the moon.”)

I wanted to see the marker on Hill 27 and look down on Honiara from Gifu Ridge (to the attacking Americans, the word Gifu meant: “Go Fuck Yourself”), but as my car approached the hilltop it was stopped at a makeshift roadblock, manned by two men in jungle fatigues, both of whom had menacing qualities. One had a long Frankenstein scar on his neck.

In particular, they didn’t like my driver, who came from the nearby island of Malaita, and was from a different tribe than those Solomon Islanders at the barrier. From me they suggested that I come into their guard house and pay them an “admission fee”—all so that I could visit several American war monuments ahead on the dirt road. Think of a freelance toll on a Gettysburg park road.

Instead, I said in a soft voice to my driver (with whom I had spent a long day and very much liked): “I don’t think we need these guys,” and then to the wannabe toll collectors: “Unfortunately, we don’t have time today to visit these memorials.” The pronunciation of Gifu also came to mind.

Gingerly, my driver turned around our car, and we headed down the hill— distancing ourselves from yet another interest group that had managed to turn American sacrifice in World War II into a profit center.

Next: Lee Harvey Oswald’s New Orleans. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.