It has become a habit with me to have a small 9-volt radio under my pillow at night. I listen to various talk shows and baseball games. One morning a few months ago, I woke up at 2:30–3:00 a.m. hearing some sportscasters or writers on this particular talk show. The topic was famous football players of the past. Each in turn was naming their favorites. One said Ernie Nevers, another Tom Harmon, another said Joe Kuzma.
At the sound of that last name I literally jumped out of bed. Instantly, as by magic, I went back in time 55-plus years. I was once again a 22-year-old Marine on that godforsaken piece of real estate called—Guadalcanal.
I was a telephone lineman with the communication platoon, Headquarters
Company, First Battalion, Seventh Marines. Our Commanding Officer was Colonel Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, and the Executive Officer was Major Otho L. "Buck" Rogers—both fine officers. After several days on various patrols, we had set up a defense perimeter on "Bloody Ridge." I'm not sure how many days passed when Lt. Col. Puller got orders to take the main body of the First Battalion to check out some reported enemy activity on the Matanikau River. Major Rogers was in command of approximately 400 of us left in reserve. A few days later Major Rogers ordered us to get ready to move out. As usual, we had very little information as to what our mission was to be. A short time later we were on the beach boarding Higgins boats. The best information we could gather was that there was a number of enemy soldiers concentrated at a place called Point Cruz. Lt. Col. Puller had already started overland to that area. We were to go by boat, land at Point Cruz and proceed inland. The plan was for the main body of the First Battalion-7th to circle around the enemy and our group, led by Major Rogers, was to approach them from the sea and trap the enemy between us.
When we disembarked from the Higgins boats and started inland, we were
surprised that there was little or no resistance. As we made our way inland 400–500 hundred yards, we encountered some sporadic bursts of machinegun fire. I'm sure all of us kept thinking we are going to meet heavy resistance soon. I recall crossing one clearing of about 40 yards where we would normally be very vulnerable to enemy fire—but the entire body passed the clearing without incident. We soon started to climb a hill. I remember vividly passing a horse corral, where we saw two dead Jap soldiers inside. We continued until we reached the crest of the hill. We could observe very well from there, but saw nothing unusual.
Allow me to digress a moment. (For what reason I don't know, but the main body of our forces was unable to complete its part of the plan. We had no radio with us so we were unaware of this situation). Now in retrospect, it becomes clear why we met so little opposition as we made our way from the beach to the top of the hill—instead of putting a squeeze play on the enemy, we found ourselves completely surrounded.
Suddenly all hell broke loose, mortar and artillery fire seemed to be coming from everywhere. We all instinctively hit the deck. While on the deck next to Sergeant John Riordan, I remember saying I needed a drink and raised myself up to get my canteen out. At that moment another shell exploded nearby. A fragment of shrapnel cut the canteen on Riordan's hip completely in half and imbedded itself in the ground where I would have been lying—had I not raised up to take a drink from my own canteen! I told Riordan I was going to get the hell out of there and we both moved down the hill a few feet.
Neither of us got hit—to this day I've often wondered if he is still alive and has that half of a canteen for a souvenir. There were several casualties and we learned that Major Rogers had been one of the first. He took a piece of shrapnel in the neck and died instantly. I recall the junior officers discussing what should be done. I heard one say we should dig in for the night and I was glad they didn't put that plan into effect. I really believed that if we tried to dig in we had better dig deep because we'd be there forever. It was finally decided that we'd fight our way back to the beach and hope that there would be boats to take us away.
Someone noticed a destroyer off the coastline flashing light signals in Morse Code. Sgt. Danny Raysbrook could read the code and we were told to signal and give yardage so the ship could lay down a barrage to keep the enemy busy as we made our way back to the beach. Sgt. Raysbrook was signaling to the ship with semaphore flags. When the firing began, Sgt. Raysbrook would give instructions whether to raise or lower the elevation. His actions definitely made it possible for us to escape the predicament we were in. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions.
As we started to make our way down the hill, I heard someone call my name.
I followed the sound and he asked, "Is that you Tommy?" (It seemed as though anyone with the last name of Thomas or Thompson was called "Tommy" in the service). I answered his call and told him everything would be all right. I looked at his face and didn't recognize him. I looked at the tag that had been put on by a corpsman (I think the corpsmen attached to the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal had to be the greatest our Navy ever had).
When I looked at the tag I recognized the name as a man who had been with us for a few months. His face was so twisted and distorted from pain and the severity of his wounds that I was unable to recognize him immediately. All he said to me at first was, "Don't leave me." I assured him that would not happen.
I got help from a couple of Marines and we put him in my poncho and half carried, half dragged him toward the beach. I remember seeing the horse corral mentioned earlier. The lone occupants were still there. The clearing we passed on the way up was the most dangerous to cross safely. Two or three Marines would position themselves on each side of the clearing and lay down a rifle cross-fire, enabling others to cross. By changing places as each group made it across we were able to reach the beach while still carrying our wounded.
At the time my buddy kept imploring me that I should not leave him. Each time I reassured that I'd stay with him until we got help. I'm not sure he believed me because he kept repeating his plea. When we finally reached the beach we saw one beautiful sight—the Higgins boats had returned to pick us up!
Once again I asked a couple more men to help me. We carried him several yards out into the water to the nearest Higgins boat. Looking inside I saw the bottom of the boat was already filled with badly wounded Marines. With no more room inside the boat, we put my buddy on the boat's edge in as comfortable a position as possible. I climbed up and held him on as we made our way back to where we could get medical attention. It was a long 10–12 miles. We finally made it back to where the medical tents were set up. There were a number of people to help unload. After getting help with my buddy I was holding him and I said, "Well, buddy, we made it, you're going to be alright now." There was no answer. He had died in my arms. His name was Joe Kuzma.
The Joe Kuzma in this account was the namesake and nephew of the Joe Kuzma who was a star football player for the University of Michigan in the late 1920s or early 1930s.
While attending Memorial Services on 27 May 1996, at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, I felt compelled to tell this story. I told it once before, to my wife the morning after the radio broadcast that brought it back so vividly. I was unable to control my emotions completely at that time. Although the emotions still remain, I found it easier to write this memoir than relate it verbally.
Everyone living in this country, whether he or she is a survivor of one of our wars or not, owes the Joe Kuzmas in all branches of the military in all our wars a debt of gratitude. By the sacrifice of their lives they have enabled all of us to live in a country that offers its people a freedom never enjoyed by any other people in the history of mankind.
It is our sacred duty to see that they are never forgotten.
Freedom is not free.
W. Ray Thomas
Life Member and
California State Representative
Guadalcanal Campaign Veterans Association
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Author: Ray Thomas, of National City, California, was active in veterans affairs well into his eighties. Ray died on 23 July 2005, following his beloved wife, Helen, who passed on 11 May 2002. Both are dearly missed by their family of children and grandchildren. Click link to contact Ray's granddaughter, Melissa Lantz.