I have recently gained a new online friend in the person of Ms. Patricia Reynolds, who lives in Georgia, near Atlanta. Pat saw my reply to an article in a newsletter in which I offered to share the pictures my wife and I took while on a tour of several WWII Pacific war islands, which included the island of Peleliu. Her interest was personal. She said, “My Dad was in that battle with the 1st Bn, 7th Marines, B Company.” I immediately agreed to pass on every relevant picture I had of the tour as well as a copy of the video we took.
As we communicated, I learned that Pat’s Dad, Ben Reynolds, had also served with Chesty Puller, then a Lt. Colonel and Battalion Commander (and well on his way to becoming a Marine Corps legend), on Guadalcanal. She has a natural desire to be able to form a mental picture of what he experienced, and pictures of the jungle terrain brought back memories of conversations she’d had with him. She told me “Most of the stories I learned were from the 1st Marine Division conventions when he would get around his buddies and they would start talking. They usually kept to the lighter stories. I often think about those guys who, like Dad, had so many “firsts” in their lives during that time. First time on a long train ride through states they had only heard about in school. First time on a ship. First time in the islands. First time to see native ceremonies and taste their food. Their first time in battle.”
Ben had told her of the rain and the toll it took. “I grew up hearing about jungle rot, which was a fungus that almost all, if not all, of the guys contracted from having boots filled with water that rotted the socks off their feet.” Our pictures of the narrow trails through the jungle matched his descriptions, “Dad talking about how they had to look up as well as side-to-side because snipers would fasten themselves to the tops of trees. He also talked about how the men at the end of the line had to watch behind them to keep from getting picked off.”
“I can tell you that the story about Chesty having his pipe shot from his mouth is true. Dad was just a few men down the line from him when it happened on Guadalcanal while they were pinned down by a sniper. I would have to check but I believe it was two Marines killed trying to take the sniper from the top of the tree when Chesty called for a rifle for himself. As he rolled out of hiding while firing, he took the sniper but the sniper shot his pipe which was found in the middle of the path.”
Ben’s respect for Puller took on a more personal meaning on the first birthday he “celebrated” in the islands – his 19th – in what is officially called the Second Battle of the Matanikau or, by the Marines who were there, the Battle of Point Cruz. As described by Wikipedia, “The Matanikau River area included a peninsula called Point Cruz, the village of Kokubona, and a series of ridges and ravines stretching inland from the coast. Japanese forces used the area to regroup from attacks against U.S. forces on the island, to launch further attacks on the U.S. defenses that guarded the Allied airfield located at Lunga Point” – Henderson Field. The article continues “…elements of three USMC battalions under the command of …Major General Vandergrift attacked Japanese troop concentrations at several points around the Matanikau River. The Marine attacks were intended to ‘mop-up’ Japanese stragglers retreating towards the Matanikau from the recent Battle of Edson’s Ridge. They were to disrupt Japanese attempts to use the Matanikau area as a base for attacks on the Marine Lunga defenses.
As General Vandergrift explained the events in the book “Once a Marine”, “Finding the river defended in considerable strength he (Puller) marched down its east bank to the coast. Hoping to box in the force uncovered by Puller, I sent Sam Griffith’s raiders south to the upper Matanikau, there to cross and come in behind the enemy while the 2d Battalion, 5thMarines, attacked across the bar at the mouth with Puller’s battalion landing from boats on the other side of Point Cruz. The action, commanded by Merritt Edson, backfired when the raiders ran into severe opposition. Believing the raiders had crossed the river and started to fight toward the coast, Edson sent the 2nd Battalion across the bar of the Mantanikau and simultaneously pushed Puller’s battalion west for the Point Cruz landing. Both attacks ran into enemy concentrations which repulsed them with severe losses to us. When Edson radioed for air support to help the battalion that was all but surrounded at Point Cruz we hastened to comply. But now an air raid…hit us very hard and temporarily knocked out communications.” These Marines had stepped into a hornet’s nest containing most of a Japanese regiment. The following is Ben Reynolds’ account of that birthday as related to me by his daughter.
“September 27, 1942, Dad’s first of three birthdays he would spend in the South Pacific. He became 19.”
“The order came for a landing on Point Cruz, later nicknamed Little Dunkirk.” The Marines were ferried by 24 landing craft operated by Coast Guard personnel with Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro commanding the small flotilla. Major Rogers was in command and Chesty stayed behind on the other side of the island in the command center.”
“Rogers was warned by a Marine named Kaufman not to dress in full officer uniform because he would be a target for the Japanese who had been killing officers, thinking it would cause the Marines to fall apart and run. Rogers did not take his advice.”
“Rogers led the Marines to Point Cruz and had them land in the wrong place. The Marines crossed the beach, two huge logs, and made it to the top of the hill. As they looked back toward the beach they saw two large columns of Japanese Imperial Marines coming down the road. Japanese could be seen in every direction.”
“Mortar and machine guns started hitting the area where the Marines were. Then the Marine artillery started firing and shelling the area. Lt. Meadows called a halt to the shelling, stating they were telling the Japanese where the Marines were. About that time a mortar shell hit Major Rogers between his feet, blowing him to pieces. Dad was sprayed by blood and guts but no metal. Kaufman, the demolition man, was hit in his gut and died within minutes while begging someone to kill him. Warren, another Marine, got a large piece of metal in his leg.”
As explained by General Vandergrift’s book, communications were out. “The Marines took off their T-shirts and spelled ‘Help’ so the SBD pilot, Lt. Leslie, could radio for help.
The call for help galvanized Chesty Puller. “Chesty had realized the Marines, fewer than 300, had landed in the middle of a Japanese stronghold of more than 4000 enemy.” With communication knocked out, Puller quickly boarded a Navy destroyer, the USS Ballard, and steamed to Point Cruz to supply close support and direct the extraction of his battalion by the Coast Guard-manned Higgins boats that had landed them. During the action, Coast Guardsman Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro earned the only Medal of Honor in the history of the Coast Guard. “Dad always felt that Chesty deserved total credit for the rescue of the Marines that day and the official accounts back up his story of how they escaped certain death.”
“A Lieutenant called for the troops to dig in. Gunny Madden reminded him they were on coral and could not dig in and needed to get off the hill. About that time, the destroyer USS Ballard came in sight. The Radio man, Sgt. Raysbrook, stood up to signal the destroyer. George Cooper stood next to him with his BAR shooting Japanese. The ship signaled they were going to shell from the beach to the middle of the hill and the Marines should fight their way to the beach. As the Marines fought their way down (through the Japanese positions) a Marine next to Dad had his head cut off by a sword wielding Japanese officer. Dad dug his bayonet into the officer and kept going.”
Munro started sending his landing craft in to evacuate Marines off the beach under intense fire. “Some of the Coast Guardsmen were too afraid to come all the way in. One gunner got part of his face blown away and the assistant gunner took over. Marines were wading out to the boats and put some wounded on before climbing aboard. Gunny Sgt. Andy Malonowski, from A company grabbed a BAR and stayed behind to cover their escape. His silenced gun told his fate.”
It was quite a birthday for Ben and he credited Puller’s quick thinking for getting the Ballard on station in time to save him to see the next one.
While Chesty’s charmed life continued on to the invasion of Peleliu on September 15, 1944 (The Japanese gunners destroyed 60 landing craft in the first hour of the invasion. Puller’s landing craft was hit by a 40mm shell as it approached the beach but the shell was a dud and didn’t explode), Ben Reynolds luck temporarily took a holiday. Puller’s 1st Marine Regiment was pulled off the line after just 8 days, having suffered 70% casualties. By 15 October the 7th Marines had suffered 46% casualties and were replaced by the 5th Marines. Ben hadn’t lasted that long. Pat related the story.
“Dad was one of those 7th Marines severely wounded. He was hit in the right shoulder and then again in his lower jaw. He made his own way back to the beach (the Japanese were shooting stretcher bearers, knowing the Marines wouldn’t leave the wounded out in the open to die) and was spotted by a Higgins boat driver getting ready to pull away. The driver had him crawl onto the gate, closed it and rolled Dad down into the boat for the trip out to the ship.”
With his luck still on pause, “Once on the ship, the medical team had him moved to the ‘dead’ area, believing he wouldn’t make it” and moving on to those whom they felt had a chance to survive their wounds. “Three days later (the raging battle keeping a steady stream of wounded coming aboard) they realized he was still alive and gave him life-saving medical aid. He was then sent back to California, then to Idaho, and finally to Bethesda. All this time his jaw was still shattered. He was walking down the hospital hallway looking for some help when a doctor spotted him and asked him what was going on. Dad told him and the doctor, a civilian, told him he was a plastic surgeon and if Dad would go with him immediately, he would fix his jaw. So they walked down the hallway to the operating room with the surgeon gathering his team along the way and Dad got the surgery he needed.”
Pat is understandably proud of her late father. She is one of the lucky ones who have had the good fortune to hear his story in his own words. I’m proud that she has given me the chance to share it with whoever might read and appreciate his story. I thank her and all the “Ben Reynolds” who have answered our country’s call.