My Father’s War is the story of my late father’s experiences during the Second World War, when he fought on various islands in the South Pacific. He was one of fewer than 100 men to earn two Silver Stars during that conflict. The book is part memoir, part military history and part travelogue. It is chiefly an account of the achievements and sacrifices of the men of the First Marine Division, whose efforts on the island of Guadalcanal turned the tide of the war.
In reporting the book, I visited the three islands in the South Pacific on which he fought, and, using maps from the naval archives, was able to retrace his steps through each jungle, and visit the site of each battle. On Guadalcanal I stood on Edson’s Ridge, stood on the sandspit in the mouth of the Matanikau River where he’d been pinned down by machine-gun fire from the opposite bank, and hiked into an overgrown jungle volcano to discover the wreckage of a B-17 with “Esther” painted on its nose. On New Britain I waded into the stream that my father would walk through on unofficial midnight solo missions to get behind Japanese lines. On Peleliu, I explored the caves carved out of coral that had housed the Japanese soldiers, none of whom ever made it off the island.
Along the way, I was the recipient of the unbelievable hospitality of the natives of each island, from the little kids who would lead me into the hills to show me the wreckage to the men and women who fed me eel that had been smoked in jungle pits. On Guadalcanal, I entered a dark cinderblock building that now stands on the site of a former battle. Inside were four picnic tables, full of men drinking beer. Under the picnic tables stood pyramids of empty cans. In the center of the room sat a man in a cage, selling the beer. When I entered, the room fell silent; I was met by dozens of glowering frowns. I was not welcome. “My dad fought here,” I said, to no one in particular. One man looked up at me, and said, “First Marine Division?” I nodded. The man broke into a grin, and stood up to let me take his seat, and went to the cage to buy me a beer.
But the most extraordinary moments of my research were the days I sat and drank in a ballroom in Las Vegas, at a First Division reunion, with several men who had fought in my father’s company, the G-2-5, on Guadalcanal. They drank mostly in silence. When they spoke, it was to ask each other why they were somehow privileged to still be alive, fifty years after so many of the good young men of their company had lost their lives.