The Marines and Japanese Souvenirs on Guadalcanal August-October 1942

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher.

On the morning of August 7, 1942, the Marines landed on Guadalcanal, relatively near an airfield that the Japanese had begun constructing, and the relatively small number of Japanese on the island melted into the jungle.  The following day the Marines began collecting Japanese souvenirs near the airfield.  On August 9 a 1st Sergeant with the 11th Marines (artillery) reported that he saw some members from the 1st Marines, First Marine Division, returning from chasing the Japanese and that they had acquired Japanese souvenirs. The following day this sergeant reported that he went into a Japanese weather station, found weather charts, and “other interesting things.”  Around August 10 or 11, members of 11th Marines found in some rubbish near a tool shed among scattered papers, blank notebook paper which they divided among themselves.  Within a few days many Marines were writing letters on Japanese paper, as well as using Japanese occupation money they had found at the airfield to buy souvenirs, and by August 13 one gunnery sergeant had began conducting a small class in Japanese flower arrangement; his text a beautifully illustrated book on the subject recently published in Tokyo and picked up as a souvenir.

A little over week later, in the darkness of the morning of August 21 a newly landed Japanese force of about 900 men from the 28th Infantry Regiment, termed the Ichiki Force, commanded by Colonel Kiyono Ichiki, tried to cross the sand bar at the mouth of the Ilu in a bayonet assault designed to overrun the positions occupied by the 2nd Bn., 1st Marines, protecting the east flank of the perimeter. For many Marines and others the myth of Japanese invincibility was shattered at the Tenaru (as the battle at the Ilu would be mistakenly called).  Almost all of the Ichiki Force were killed, wounded, or captured.  Coast Watcher Martin Clemens, who later visited the battlefield, wrote in his book Alone on Guadalcanal, that “we had great difficulty with Marine souvenir hunters as we searched for maps, orders, and the like.”  Indeed, as soon as the fighting ended, the souvenir hunting began. Robert Leckie, recalled in his book Helmet For My Pillow, that “moving among them [the dead Japanese] were the souvenir hunters, picking their way delicately as though fearful of booby traps, while stripping the bodies of their possessions.” The packs of the dead were inspected. They contained the inevitable diary and Japanese flag, as well as small amounts of candy and cigarettes. Many of the dead Japanese officers and non-commissioned officers carried heavy leather dispatch cases containing maps of the area, notebooks, and other records.  This souvenir hunting would continue several days.  Maj. Gen. A. A. Vandegrift, the commander of the First Marine Division, would later report to the Commandant of the Marine Corps that during the August 10-21 period a great deal of captured material was wasted through pilfering and souvenir hunting.

Despite the setback at the Tenaru, the Japanese were determined to recapture the airfield, named Henderson Field, which had become operational on August 12, and drive the Marines off Guadalcanal.  Assigned the task was the 35th Infantry Brigade, commanded by Maj. Gen. Kiyotake Kawaguchi.  In early September Kawaguchi landed his forces on Guadalcanal and moved them through the jungle and launched a surprise attack, primarily aimed at a ridge near the airfield held by the combined raider and parachute battalions, commanded by Lt. Col. Merritt A. Edson, which had been brought over to Guadalcanal from Tulagi at the end of August.

An estimated 2,000 soldiers from Kawaguchi’s brigade attacked the ridge (later termed Bloody Ridge and Edson’s Ridge) on the nights of September 12-13 and 13-14.  The Marines held their position and at daylight on September 14 the Marines found upwards of six hundred dead Japanese on the ridge slopes and nearby jungle.[see image number 3]  Souvenir hunters quickly moved around the bodies in search of swords, fire arms, flags, and other such items. A 1st Sergeant with the 11th Marines went out to the battlefield on September 16 and 17 looking for souvenirs.  He found some and noted that the Marines there had all sorts of souvenirs from the battlefield, including some exquisite swords.

By the time the 2,852 men of the U.S. Army’s 164th Infantry began landing on Guadalcanal at dawn on October 13, the Marines had an abundance of souvenirs with which to trade or sell.  The soldiers came with hundreds of cases of assorted candy bars.  Bartering began about 9am with Hershey bars or Butterfingers being exchanged for a sword or flag.  Often the flag was one that the Marines had made, which, to make it appear more authentic, included Japanese script copied from Japanese canned goods.  The Marine Pioneers, according to Guadalcanal veteran Kerry Lane, in his Marine Pioneers: The Unsung Heroes of World War II, traded souvenirs to the soldiers for “food, new socks, dungarees and even shoes.”  The Marines also traded or sold souvenirs to the crews of ships that had brought the soldiers to Guadalcanal.  It was not just the enlisted Marines who were into bartering.  General Vandegrift recalled in his Once A Marine, that he had an aide trade sailor’s cold storage eggs and canned ham in return for a Japanese rifle or sword.

Reading the various accounts of the Guadalcanal campaign one gets the impression that the Marines seemed obsessed with souvenirs. Newspaper correspondent Ira Wolfert, in his 1943 classic Battle for the Solomons, recalls the story of when in mid-October 1942 on Guadalcanal an American pilot told him of a conversation he had with a captured Japanese bomber pilot, who claimed to have been a graduate from the Ohio State University.  The Japanese said they were fighting for Togo and the Germans were fighting for Hitler, “but your Marines seem to be fighting for souvenirs!” William Manchester, another Guadalcanal veteran, wrote in Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War that “We used to say that the Japanese fought for their emperor, the British for glory, and the Americans for souvenirs.”

Although souvenir collecting, according to some, represented the one major industry on Guadalcanal, the mission of the Marines and soldiers were removing the Japanese from the island.  This was accomplished at the beginning of 1943, but not before the death of 1,598 American ground combat forces (1,152 of them Marines).

One thought on “The Marines and Japanese Souvenirs on Guadalcanal August-October 1942

  1. William Manchester was not a Guadalcanal
    veteran. Yes; on his way to war, he stopped
    off at Guadalcanal, but by that time, the
    Japanese had left the island. Great book, though.

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