Lt. j.g. Vernon Martens United States Marine Corps was in the first wave of “Leathernecks” on the beach at Guadalcanal on Aug. 7, 1942. A doctor in the 3rd Battalion, 7th Regiment, 1st Marine Division, he came ashore with his 1906 Springfield rifle in one hand and his medical supplies in the other.
“We jumped over the side of the double-planked, mahogany, spoon-bowed, 40-foot-long landing craft wearing our full field packs into water up to our necks,” the 94-year-old retired physician and Charlotte Ranchettes resident recalled. “We were lucky because we landed in the wrong place. We didn’t have any Japs waiting for us.”
It was Guadalcanal where the U.S. Marines initially stopped the advance of the Imperial Japan’s Army and put it on the defensive for the first time in World War II. The six-month battle for the island in the Solomons came on the heels of the crushing American Naval victories at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May and Midway in June, which also forced the Japanese fleet on the defensive. It never recovered.
“Those first few weeks we lost more people to disease than we did from enemy fire. Marines started coming down with diseases we knew nothing about,” Martens said. “A lot of guys were getting Japanese River Valley Fever from a mite that lives in the high grass the Marines were sleeping in. If you got it, you developed a big, black spot under your arm. Two weeks later you were dead.”
The first major battle involving the 1st Marine Division at Guadalcanal was the capture of Henderson Field. Japanese engineers were in the process of building the airstrip when U.S. Marines arrived. The field was a prime target for Allied invasion forces.
“We lost a bunch of people taking that field. The Japanese had good perimeter fortifications,” Martens said.
On Aug. 20, less than two weeks after Marines had come ashore, a couple of squadrons of Marine F4F fighters and Dauntless dive bombers flew into Henderson Field to provide Allied forces with air protection.
Martens’ toughest time on Guadalcanal came near the Matanikau River, where the enemy launched a fierce attack on Marines in the area.
“The Japs were shelling the hell out of us with mortars at the Matanikau River. They tried to attack us with tanks at low tide from across the river,” he said. “The Marines set up a big gun that knocked off the tanks one-by-one as the crossed the river.”
Before the fighting at Guadalcanal ended in early February 1943, the 1st Marine Division pulled out and left the mopping up to the U.S. Army. The “Leathernecks” were transported by ship to New Briton Island and another round of battles with the emperor’s troops.
“The Japs were waiting for us along the beach with a lot of dug-in fire power, but again we hit the wrong beach,” Martens said. “We came in behind the enemy and wiped ’em out.”
It was here that he and a number of other Marines were caught in a Japanese ambush.
The legendary Lt. Col. “Chesty” Puller, was his executive officer. Puller was about to become a legend in his own time, receiving the first of five Navy Crosses awarded to him for extraordinary valor by the time the war was over.
“I was lying behind a log and ‘Chesty’ was standing up eying the enemy. I yelled, ‘Chesty, for Christ sake get down,'” Martens recalled. “‘I won’t get down,’ he replied.
“‘Chesty, if you get hit I’m going to have one hell of a time trying to save your life out there in the jungle. Chesty, will you get down for me if you won’t get down for the Japs?'”
“‘OK,’ Puller said. He got down behind the log with me.
“One night about a half-dozen guys went out into Jap territory looking for souvenirs and got caught. They tied them up and started cutting the flesh off those captured Marines. All night long they were screaming their heads off until they died,” Martens said.
“The next morning when the Marines moved on the enemy’s position, they took no prisoners. They killed ’em all,” he said.
“By this time in the war, I had been fighting so long that I began to think this was satisfactory behavior to kill the enemy down to the last man. It scared the hell out of me, because in retrospect I couldn’t believe a doctor, or anyone else, could think like that.”
The 1st Marine Division wasn’t at New Briton long when Puller was promoted executive officer of the 1st Marine Regiment.
“He said, ‘Doc, I want you to come with me,'” Martens remembers the legendary Marine telling him. “I told him, ‘Colonel, I just got my orders to go home.’ I’ve been in this war for four years and by God I’m going home.”
“‘Doc, I don’t blame you,’ Puller said.”
Martens stayed in the service as a Navy physician and scientist. He retired as a Navy captain and director of laboratories at Bethesda Naval Medical Hospital near Washington, D. C.
Among the students he taught pathology to at the Naval Hospital was Dr. James Humes. It was Humes who performed the autopsy at Bethesda on the body of President John F. Kennedy following his assassination in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Jan. 15, 2007 and is republished with permission.
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