1940s-0064

New recruit William Lionel McGee, U.S. Navy, 1942

I remember Sunday, 7 December 1941, as if it was yesterday. I had just turned sixteen and was living with the Reverend Hawley and his family at the Vancouver Barracks in Vancouver, Washington, just east of Portland, Oregon. Rev. Hawley had been the pastor at the Malta Community Church in my hometown of Malta, Montana, and was called up to serve as a Chaplain in the U.S. Army in Vancouver. When I dropped out of high school, Rev. Hawley got me a job at the Vancouver Barracks “PX” (Post Exchange) while I trained to become a welder at the newly-opened Kaiser Vancouver Shipyards.

On this particular Sunday morning, my buddies and I were walking down Broadway Street in downtown Portland checking out the movies. All of a sudden, someone opened a store door and shouted, “The radio says the Japanese just bombed the hell out of us … somewhere called Pearl Harbor!”

My friends and I were in shock.  We forgot about the movies and hurried back to the barracks to listen to the radio. Like most Americans, we read about and listened to the ongoing debates regarding the threat of a war with Japan.  But we never expected anything to happen that close to home (sound familiar?). Now the facts of the matter were quite different.

On that frightful morning, in what turned out to be a long-planned secret attack, Japanese warplanes appeared suddenly over the unsuspecting U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor and proceeded to bomb or aerial torpedo what was then the mightiest U.S. naval force in history. The next day, President Roosevelt indelibly described 7 December 1941 as “a date which will live in infamy” and declared war on the Japanese.

Like other guys my age, I was gung-ho to join the Marines or Navy and get in the action. I checked in with both recruiting offices thinking there might be an age exception now that we were in a war.  The bottom line was at 16, there was no way I could enlist; at 17, I could enlist providing one parent signed a consent form; at 18, I was free to do as I wished.

So I waited out the next ten months, eager to turn 17, and worked as a welder on ships at the Kaiser Vancouver Shipyard.  On 30 September 1942, my seventeenth birthday, I took the underage consent form signed by my mother and proudly joined the U.S. Navy.

(Excerpted from BLUEJACKET ODYSSEY, 1942-1946: Guadalcanal to Bikini, Naval Armed Guard in the Pacific by William L. McGee, BMC Publications, 2000)

PacificExpress Adm Turner

RAdm Richard Kelly Turner, USN (left) and MGen Alexander A. Vandegrift, USMC (right) review logistics plans for Guadalcanal, July – August 1942. (Photo courtesy Naval Institute Press)

Veterans Day, November 11, 2015

On 7 August 1942, six months to the day after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the first major offensive by the United States was launched against the Japanese in the South Pacific.

The 1st Marine Division under MGen A. A. Vandegrift landed on Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands northeast of Australia. It was the beginning of a two-pronged offensive aimed at dislodging the Japanese from islands that would provide stepping stones to the eventual invasion of Japan.

It was the beginning of the bloody six month battle for Guadalcanal.

The cost and the return in lives and ships lost in the entire Guadalcanal campaign. There it was—2,500 square miles of miasmic plain, thick jungle and savage mountains in American hands, after exactly six months of toil, suffering and terror. What had it cost? What was the return? Where were we going next?

In war’s brutal scale of lives lost against lives risked, the blood-letting from 60,000 Army and Marine Corps troops committed to Guadalcanal, had not been excessive; 1,592 killed in action. Navy losses were certainly in excess of that figure, and several score fliers of all three air forces had given their lives. But the Japanese had lost about two thirds of the 36,000 men who fought on Guadalcanal—14,800 killed or missing, 9,000 dead of disease and 1,000 taken prisoner. Many thousand more soldiers went down in blasted transports or barges, and the number of Japanese sailors lost in the vicious sea battles will never be known, because such matters do not interest the Japanese.

On the material side, the tallies of combat ships lost by each side in the Guadalcanal campaign were surprisingly even.

Bill's Blog - Nov 11, 2015

(Above table compiled by Mr. W. L. Robinson. It does not include transports (AP. AK or APD) of which the Japanese had far the heavier loss, or auxiliaries such as Seminole, or patrol craft.)

Tactically—in the sense of coming to grips with the enemy—Guadalcanal was a profitable lesson book. The recommendations of Guadalcanal commanders became doctrine for Allied fighting men the world over. And it was the veteran from “the ‘Canal” who went back to man the new ship or form the cornerstone for the new regiment. On top level, mark well the names of Halsey, Turner, Vandegrift, Patch, Geiger, Collins, Lee, Kinkaid, Ainsworth, Merrill. They would be heard from again.

Strategically, as seen from Pearl Harbor or Constitution Avenue, Guadalcanal was worth every ship, plane and life that it cost. The enemy was stopped in his many-taloned reach for the antipodes. Task One in the arduous climb to Rabaul was neatly if tardily packaged and filed away.

There were more subtle implications to Guadalcanal. The lordly Samurai, with his nose rubbed in the mud and his sword rusted by the salt of Ironbottom Sound, was forced to revise his theory of invincibility. A month previously Hirohito had issued an imperial rescript stating that in the Solomon Islands “a decisive battle is being fought between Japan and America.” Radio Tokyo gave out that the Imperial forces, “after pinning down the Americans to a corner of the island,” had accomplished their mission and so departed to fight elsewhere. There was a laugh for Americans in that; but Guadalcanal never inspired much laughter.

For us who were there, or whose friends were there, Guadalcanal is not a name but an emotion, recalling desperate fights in the air, furious night naval battles, frantic work at supply or construction, savage fighting in the sodden jungle, nights broken by screaming bombs and deafening explosions of naval shells. Sometimes I dream of a great battle monument on Guadalcanal; a granite monolith on which the names of all who fell and of all ships that rest in Ironbottom Sound may be carved. At other times I feel that the jagged cone of Savo Island, forever brooding over the blood-thickened waters of the Sound, is the best monument to the men and ships who here rolled back the enemy tide.

(Excerpted from THE SOLOMONS CAMPAIGNS, 1942-1943: From Guadalcanal to Bougainville, Pacific War Turning Point by William L. McGee, Chapter 2, “The Landings, 7 – 8 August, 1942”. Excerpt also includes portions of Volumes IV and V of Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II.)

Bugles Across America was founded in 2000 by Tom Day, when Congress passed legislation stating that Veterans have a right to at least two uniformed military people to fold the flag and play Taps on a CD player. Bugles Across America was founded to take this a step further.  In recognition of the service these Veterans have provided to their country, Tom Day felt that they each deserved a live rendition of Taps played by a live bugler. To this end, the non-profit group actively seeks capable volunteers to provide this valuable service to Veterans and their families.

Bugles Across America now has over 5500 bugler volunteers located in all 50 states and growing number overseas. Since the Department of Veterans Affairs is expecting more than 1/2 million veterans to pass every year for the next 7 years, Bugles Across America is ALWAYS recruiting new volunteers. For more information, visit Bugles Across America.   (Video courtesy Associated Press)
At the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., 2005. (Note: The wheelchair was temporary due to a back problem.)

At the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., 2005. (Note: The wheelchair was temporary due to a back problem.)

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service of the United States of America.

The name Memorial Day was first used around 1882, but did not become more common until after World War II. Memorial Day was declared the official name by Federal Law in 1967.  .

On Memorial Day, the flag of the United States is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position where it remains only until noon. It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day. The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon, their memory is raised by the living who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all.

At Gettysburg National Park, the ceremonies and Memorial Day address became nationally well-known starting in 1868. In July 1913, veterans of the United States and Confederate armies gathered in Gettysburg to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the Civil War’s bloodiest and most famous battle.

(Source: usmemorialday.org and wikipedia.org)

Bill and Sandra McGee commemorated the 50th Anniversary of D-Day on the Royal Viking Sun, New York to Paris.

Bill and Sandra McGee commemorated the 50th Anniversary of D-Day on the Royal Viking Sun, New York to Paris.

Today is the 70th Anniversary of D-Day and the invasion of Normandy. It’s hard to believe, but 20 years ago this week, Sandra and I were en route to Normandy, France for the 50th Anniversary of D-Day.

In 1994, I was invited to steam over with other World War II veterans on the historic WWII Liberty ship, the S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien, which had taken part in the 6 June 1944 invasion of Normandy. She would be the only vessel to return to Normandy as part of the 50th anniversary celebration.

However, Sandra talked me into steaming over on a more luxurious ship, the Royal Viking Sun, which was offering a D-Day Anniversary Crossing from Montreal to Paris for WWII veterans.

On board, Captain Ernest Murdock and I led discussion groups about the roles played in the Landings by the U.S. Merchant Marine and Naval Armed Guard gun crews.

Many of the veterans on the cruise had stormed the beaches of Normandy on 6 June, but being from the generation who did not talk about themselves easily, these brave men were in a place where they could finally unburden themselves of some horrific memories. Sandra and I will never forget this voyage.

Author and WWII U.S. Navy Armed Guard veteran Bill McGee attending a Memorial Day Service, May 27, 2013.

Attending a Memorial Day Service, May 27, 2013.

Today I attended a Memorial Day Service in San Rafael, California and was reminded of this little-known fact: In World War II, 145,000 U.S. Navy Armed Guard served on thousands of merchant ships (freighters, tankers and troop transports), and protected and defended the ships from enemy air and submarine attacks. I served in the Naval Armed Guard and wrote about it in my memoir, Bluejacket Odyssey, 1942-1946: From Guadalcanal to Bikini, Naval Armed Guard in the Pacific. I’m always proud to wear my Naval Armed Guard ballcap and jacket–guaranteed to be a conversation starter.

“Little has been written about service in the Naval Armed Guard in which nearly 145,000 men served… William L. McGee remedies this with Bluejacket Odyssey, 1942-1946: From Guadalcanal to Bikini, Naval Armed Guard in the Pacifica book that has value for historians.” —Naval History Magazine

CoverPacificExpress, Vol III I just received the news that my latest military history, PACIFIC EXPRESS: The Critical Role of Military Logistics in World War II, has been selected for the Marine Corps Commandant’s Professional Reading List (aka the Marine Corps Reading List) and is required annual reading for all officer and enlisted Marines, whether active duty or reserve.

PACIFIC EXPRESS — the third and final volume in my series, AMPHIBIOUS OPERATIONS IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC IN WWII — is an edited collection under one cover of the best works by other historians on the importance of military logistics in World War II.

Consider this fact: During World War II, 16.1 million men and women served in the U.S. Armed Forces. However, for every one combatant in the U.S. Armed Forces, there were ten supportive personnel both overseas and on the home front. (Source: Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Record Administrator)

After two decades of researching and writing three other books about the Pacific Theater in World War II, I felt compelled to focus on the subject of logistics to honor all the men and women – military and civilian – who served in logistical support roles for the front line combat personnel. I felt these non-combatant service personnel were (and are) often overshadowed by those who served in combat.

PACIFIC EXPRESS is available from Amazon.

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