Often lost in the history of the Guadalcanal campaign is the fact that the six-month battle witnessed the first deployment of Marine Corps Combat Correspondents. Brigadier General Robert L. Denig, director of public relations for the Corps, had begun organizing the correspondents program in early 1942. According to Herbert Merillat, who was recruited into the program, “The idea, as it evolved, was to assist the civilian press in the field and to supplement war reporting of the usual kind with more detailed descriptions of what individual units were doing and, above all, what individual marines were doing.” Commissioned and non-commissioned Marine officers who had been prewar journalists were assigned to major units. While the NCOs were known as correspondents, technically the commissioned officers were public-relations officers.1
When the 1st Marine Division splashed ashore on Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942, two members of the program landed with them—Second Lieutenant Merillat and Sergeant James Hurlbut. After studying journalism at Northwestern University, Hurlbut had worked for newspapers in Chicago before enlisting in the Marines and serving on the staff of Leatherneck magazine. He left the Corps and became a Washington Post reporter in 1933. Prior to his re-enlistment in 1942, he was working for a Washington, D.C., radio station.2
On 10 March 1943, Hurlbut was back in Washington, meeting with Navy Department representatives about his Guadalcanal experiences. After delivering a prepared statement about the course of the long battle, the sergeant answered questions about the enemy and fighting on “the Canal.” What follows are excerpts from that interview.3
Question: How were the Japs on marksmanship?
Answer: I think the reports of the Japanese marksmanship were greatly exaggerated. All Japanese were given credit for being snipers, and I think it is merely the fact that that is usually the kind of firing that goes on in jungle fighting. We found very few Japanese equipped with superior weapons and apparently only these few were qualified as real marksmen or snipers. I know of one occasion, a lieutenant, who had one of the platoons at the Matanikau River, reported that he had been distinctly fired on at least 50 times during one afternoon’s action and never been hit, which might give some idea of the relative superiority of our marksmanship over the Japanese.
Q: They used .25-caliber guns, didn’t they?
A: Yes sir, in the main. They also had some .30-06 rifles which they have captured from the British someplace down the line. The .25-caliber [Type 38 Arisaka rifle] has a high muzzle velocity but doesn’t have a great deal of shocking power. Several men reported having been hit at least two or three times and still able to continue.
Q: Were they able to lug much lead themselves, were they tough or how did they react to our Springfield [rifle] fire?
A: They are very tough. Of course, we had a great many automatic weapons of the .45-caliber class—Reising guns, sub-Thompson—and one slug from a .45-caliber weapon will usually stop anybody, including the Japanese. Our .30-caliber is also capable of stopping the Japanese with a hit anywhere in a vital area. They never were able to materialize one of their banzai charges to the point of personal contact, hand-to-hand contact, because our superior automatic-weapon fire would mow down a bayonet charge before it ever got in close.
Q: How were they in bayonet fighting?
A: We didn’t have much chance to find out, sir, they were mowed down before they got in. I don’t think that they are at all equal to the average Marine as far as bayonet fighting is concerned judging from the few occasions when we did have hand-to-hand combat. They appear to be tough, courageous, wiry, but not a match for the average American soldier or Marine.
Q: Did they appear well fed? What did you find mostly their rations consisted of?
A: Almost every soldier that we found carried with him two bags of uncooked rice, and also some small biscuits, wrapped up in a waterproof container, which looked suspiciously like dog biscuit to us. We understood that these bags of rice were supposed to be sufficient food for a two-week period. However, of course, we intercepted the Japanese supply line and the Japanese suffered greatly from malnutrition and also from malaria during the last stages of the campaign—probably a contributing factor in their ultimate defeat.
Q: What did their medical outfit consist of?
A: We found that they did not have much in the way of medical equipment. . . . The times that we made contact with them before we left the island we found that that was one of the things that caused a great problem to the Japanese, taking care of their wounded. We went into one bivouac area, incidentally, and found 160 dead Japanese . . . with no marks of violence on their bodies. Apparently they had died either from malaria or starvation or a combination of both.
Q: What did their clothing consist of, the Japanese clothing?
A: They also wore the same type of dungaree that the American troops did, although their dungarees were cut a little differently than ours and usually the pants were cut as breeches rather than having the straight trouser leg. They wore a short, wrapped puttee, and almost all of them wore the two-toed, rubber-soled, jungle shoe. The helmet of the Japanese soldier is quite similar to ours in appearance and causes some difficulty at first in recognizing the enemy at night.
Q: In the night fighting, out on sentry duty or patrols, how did you keep from shooting your own people? What procedure was carried out?
A: We always had passwords including the letter “L,” because “L” was thought to be hard for the Japanese to pronounce since there is no “L” in the Japanese vocabulary. There were occasions, however, when the Japanese, apparently American educated, were able to speak English very well indeed. On several occasions, at least one of which I can verify personally, the sentry discovered that the unknown parties in the darkness were Japanese because they used grammar that was much too precise for the average Marine. On one occasion a party came in and said, “Hold your fire, we are American Marines and wish to report our evening’s activities.” [Our sentry] said, “I fired right away, because I knew no marine would talk that way.”
Q: Sergeant, how many combat correspondents were there at Guadalcanal?
A: I was the only combat correspondent on the island until the middle of October. At that time one more man came in, and in the middle of November we had four more combat correspondents come to the island to join regiments within the division.
Q: How did you send your dispatches back?
A: Our dispatches were cleared by the chief of staff for security on the island and sent by guard mail along with the civilian correspondents’ copy to Pearl Harbor. At Pearl Harbor it was censored by the Navy censor and sent on to Washington by air mail. It went to Washington to the Navy Department here, was censored by the Navy and then sent over to the Marine Corps, and finally released either by the Marine Corps or by the Navy Public Relations.
Q: What equipment does a combat correspondent carry? Does he carry the rifle and all other equipment that the Marine carries?
A: Usually, at least in my own case, I was equipped with a pistol. I didn’t have a typewriter when I left. I went out in quite a hurry, enlisting in the Marine Corps on the 6th of May and leaving the States 12 days later. I didn’t have a chance to draw full equipment from the Public Relations Division. I did have a fountain pen with me, and I secured a typewriter by trading this very good fountain pen for a very mediocre portable typewriter on Guadalcanal shortly after I landed.
Q: Who had the typewriter?
A: The typewriter was carried out there by a Marine sergeant in the artillery, Sergeant Bill Murray, whose handwriting was not of the best, but he was willing to sacrifice his own letters for the good of the service and was talked into trading his typewriter.
Q: As a combat correspondent how did you generally obtain your information, I mean generally, in the course of a day’s action? Of course, you were along on some of them and others—would you have a beat to cover, headquarters, or various officers that you covered periodically?
A: Of course, Guadalcanal was a pretty big beat to cover singlehanded, but I made it a practice to go on as many patrols as I could and take part in as many actions as I could. And then, to fill in the background on my stories, I made contact with the officers of the various units within the division. My run, as you might phrase it, consisted of the prison compound, the field hospital, and the regimental C.P.s within the 1st Marine Division, and also of course the headquarters on the airfield. All of those places were very good sources of stories and information.
Q: You mentioned some of the Japanese who spoke English. Did you find many of the prisoners could speak English?
A: Most of them could say a few words and some few of them were quite good at it, although most of the prisoners that we took were of the laborer class and usually of a lower standard than the soldiers or the officers.
Q: Were they willing to talk?
A: Quite willing after they found out that they were well treated by our M.P.s and Provost Marshal.
Q: When a man on sentry duty or on a patrol was killed were you able to get him back and have him buried in the Marine cemetery at all times, or did some of them have to be buried where they fell?
A: We made every effort, sir, to bring the men back for burial in our own Marine cemetery, but there were many graves out in the jungle. Graves marked with the man’s helmet perhaps, his name penciled on it, and probably now other parties have gone out and brought those men in and interred them in the cemetery.
Q: How did the natives react to all this?
A: There are approximately 16,000 Melanesians on Guadalcanal, and when the Japanese came in they treated them very badly. They raided their gardens, killed their pigs, annoyed their wives. They didn’t seem to mind the annoying of their wives half so much as the killing of the pigs because the pig is the measure of wealth among the natives on Guadalcanal. They went back into the hills leaving their villages to the Japanese, and when we came in the native men came down and offered to work for us and were very valuable sources of labor and also furnished a number of scouts and guides for our general fighting.
Q: Were any of them trusted with arms? Did they use spears, or what did they use for protection?
A: Of course, they had the nucleus of the group consisting of these native police boys, or policemen, of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate Constabulary. These men were equipped with cartridge belts and antiquated Enfield rifles, which, however, they were able to handle very effectively. The main body of the natives usually were armed with knives or wooden spears. They seemed to be a very courageous people. I heard of one story in which a large party of native men encountered 11 Japanese. The native men retired and selected 11 men from their group to go out and contact the Japanese. The 11 natives wiped out the 11 Japanese.
Q: How was the general feeling of the Japs as a whole, the prisoners, toward their being defeated and thrown out of Guadalcanal? Were they discouraged or was it a bravado spirit or just how did they react to that?
A: Of course, most of the prisoners that I saw and talked to were [Japanese] laborers, and they didn’t seem to feel particularly bad that they were being thrown out of Guadalcanal. They didn’t seem to care at all. As a matter of fact, I think most of them were much happier as our prisoners than they had been laboring for Tojo’s men.
Later in 1943, Hurlbut was commissioned a second lieutenant and served as technical adviser on the motion picture Guadalcanal Diary. The movie was based on the book of the same name by Richard Tregaskis, a civilian correspondent who had served on Guadalcanal with Hurlbut.4
After the war, the former combat correspondent left active duty and entered the emerging medium of television. An NBC editor and correspondent, he worked and appeared on the TV shows Zoo Parade, City Desk, and the Today show. Hurlbut returned to active duty in in 1965, was promoted to colonel and assigned to Marine Corps Headquarters, and from South Vietnam produced film reports on Marine operations. He passed away on 26 March 1967.5
2. “Col. J. W. Hurlbut Dies, Marine Correspondent,” The Washington Post, 27 March 1967; “Col. James Hurlbut, A Marines Reporter,” The New York Times, 27 March 1967.
3. Narrative by MT Sergeant James W. Hurlbut, USMCR, World War II Oral Histories, Interview and Statements, RG 38, Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.
4. Guadalcanal Diary (1943), IMBd (Internet Movie Database), www.imdb.com/title/tt0035957/fullcredits.
5. “Col. James Hurlbut, A Marines Reporter.”