After testing out LCVP boats in the Caribbean, Ralph was instructed to capture a partially-completed Japanese airstrip in Guadalcanal. The airstrip was a strategically important location for both the Japanese and American forces because it would have allowed the Japanese to fly to northern Australia unhindered, but would also serve as an airstrip in the Pacific Theatre for the allies.
When Ralph’s Marine division landed in Guadalcanal on August 7th, 1942, it was the first offensive landing of United States forces in World War II. The Allies overwhelmed the outnumbered Japanese defenders, but the morning after their arrival Japanese airplanes bombed Ralph’s ship, sinking it, and all their supplies, to the bottom of Guadalcanal Harbor.
For the next five months there were no supplies sent to the Marines on Guadalcanal Island because the Navy was shorthanded during the early parts of the war and didn't want to run ships into the Guadalcanal Harbor where they’d be sitting ducks for the Japanese bombers. As a result the troops lived on captured Japanese rice for five months. A spoonful of rice in the morning and another spoonful of rice at night with the occasional coconut.
The men were always starving but they had to protect the airstrip, which was located near the beach and surrounded by miles and miles of dense tropical jungle. The allied forces protecting the airstrip only had two regiments and auxiliary troops – a division of approximately 7,000 men. They were surrounded by the Japanese that were hiding in the jungles around the airstrip.
Surprised by the initial Allied offensive attack, the Japanese made several attempts over the next few months to retake the airstrip. Since the US forces had already secured the beach, every night the Japanese would sent barges of soldiers into the jungles north and south of the airstrip with the intent that the Japanese forces would then circle back towards the airstrip, but the jungles were so thick that many Japanese troops got lost in the jungle and starved to death. But those that made it back were a constant threat to the men protecting the airstrip.
Since the Japanese infantry had little success navigating back towards the airstrip, the Japanese forces usually bombed the Americans eight to ten times a day. They also resorted to less conventional tactics. There was “Piss Call Pete” – a Japanese airplane that would fly over the American troops at 6:00 AM, throwing hand grenades out of the plane to awaken the American troops. There was also “Washing Machine Charlie” – a two-motor sea plane that sounded like a washing machine and flew all throughout the night to make the American troops delirious with sleep fatigue. Sometimes Washing Machine Charlie would drop 500-pound bombs and sometimes it wouldn’t. The men never knew what to expect when they heard it flying overhead. The allied forces had anti-aircraft missiles, but ‘Piss Call Pete’ and ‘Washing Machine Charlie’ flew outside of range and circled around endlessly.
Ralph was a corporal in the battalion intelligence division. One of his roles was to take patrols into the jungles surrounding the airstrip to monitor enemy positions and report back to base with the information. There was an early morning patrol and a sunset patrol. One evening Ralph was with his division patrolling the hills surrounding the airstrip. He had been watching Washing Machine Charlie circling overhead for hours. When he was relieved from his patrol he came down to the beach when Washing Machine Charlie flew directly overhead. Ralph watched as the bomb door opened and a 500 pound bomb came out of the belly of the airplane and hurtled towards the earth. Ralph watched as the bomb careened towards him. Closer and closer.
“Holy smokes it looks like the bomb is coming this way!” Ralph exclaimed before diving into an eight-inch-deep truck rut, his only defense against the 500-pound bomb.
No sooner had Ralph dove into the rut when there was a tremendous bang that made the entire earth shake. The air was filled with pulverized sand and the acrid smoke of a detonated bomb. There was blood coming out of Ralph’s ears and he couldn’t hear anything. When the smoke cleared Ralph stood up, lost his balance and toppled backwards into the crater that had been left by the bomb that had landed only fifteen feet away.
When Ralph left Guadalcanal on December 12th, 1942 the battle for the airstrip was still raging. The Japanese lost over 100,000 people trying to reclaim the airstrip but the American troops held onto the crucial airstrip for the remainder of World War II.