Defense Media Network

Richard Tregaskis at Guadalcanal: A War Correspondent’s Story

For journalists, being a war correspondent in World War II was the opportunity of a lifetime. Hundreds received their credentials and though civilians, they wore military uniforms bearing the insignias of their profession. Their ranks included famous authors (Ernest Hemingway and Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs) and women (photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, Martha Gelhorn, and Marguerite Higgins among others). The best of them went into harm’s way to get their stories. Edward R. Murrow filed radio reports from London during the Blitz. Walter Cronkite and others flew as observers in bombers during missions. The war’s greatest correspondent, Ernie Pyle, traveled the globe and survived many a land battle, only to die near the conflict’s end on Ie Shima off Okinawa after being hit by Japanese machine gun fire.

Another war correspondent giant was International News Service reporter Richard Tregaskis, who landed with the Marines on Guadalcanal on Aug. 7, 1942, and lived with them for the first two months of that campaign.

“His weeks, the weeks he describes from July 26th to September 26th, were the worst weeks, the almost hopeless weeks. They were – the comparison is inescapable – the Gethsemane of Guadalcanal.”

“His weeks, the weeks he describes from July 26th to September 26th, were the worst weeks, the almost hopeless weeks. They were – the comparison is inescapable – the Gethsemane of Guadalcanal,” read the International News Service editorial postscript to Guadalcanal Diary.

On Aug. 7, 1942, Marine forces under the command of Maj. Gen. Alexander Vandegrift, landed on Guadalcanal, and the neighboring islands of Florida and Tulagi. The landings took the Japanese by surprise and though the landings at the smaller islands were contested, the main effort on Guadalcanal was unopposed. In the first two days, despite some raids by Japanese aircraft, American forces were able to consolidate their gains and capture the airfield on Guadalcanal that was their primary objective. Then, on the night of Aug. 8, a Japanese surface fleet under the command of Rear Adm. Gunichi Mikawa arrived off the coast and in the Battle of Savo Island, attacked the landing fleet and escorts under Rear Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner.

Richard Tregaskis and Maj. Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift

War correspondent Richard Tregaskis (left) with Maj. Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, who lead the Marine forces during the invasion of Guadalcanal, ca. 1942. U.S. Marine Corps photo

Tregaskis was awakened by the sound of distant naval gunfire and he and a group of Marines gathered beneath some palm trees to watch and listen. He wrote, “We knew the fate of all of us hung on that sea battle. . . . One had the feeling of being at the mercy of great accumulated forces far more powerful than anything human. We were only pawns in a battle of the gods, then, and we knew it.”

Though Turner had a more powerful fleet, Mikawa had better tactics. When Mikawa’s fleet retired at 2:20 a.m. the morning of Aug. 9, Turner could take heart in the knowledge that the Japanese warships had not reached the transports and cargo ships. But three heavy cruisers had been sunk, with a fourth soon to follow, two destroyers were damaged, and more than 1,000 sailors killed, compared to slight damage to three Japanese cruisers.

Still in print, the Marine Corps makes the book required reading for all officer candidates.

Though the Marines’ supplies had only been partially off-loaded,  Rear Adm. Frank Fletcher had already ordered his protective carrier fleet to leave, and with the Japanese Navy sure to return the following night, Turner felt he had no choice. At mid-afternoon on Aug. 9, he ordered his fleet to retire. The Marines were now on their own.

In addition to writing articles for the INS wire service, Tregaskis kept a diary of his experience with the Marines. Tregaskis’s account, published in 1943 as Guadalcanal Diary, was a bestseller and adapted into a movie starring Preston Foster, Lloyd Nolan, William Bendix, Richard Conte, and Anthony Quinn.

Guadalcanal Diary

The cover of the Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis. Richard Tregaskis’ account gave readers at a taste of what the Marines faced on Guadalcanal. David McKay Publications photo

Though subject to wartime censorship, his book gave a vivid account of the day-to-day life of the Marines – the initial inexperience that resulted in jittery sentries mistaking a handful of sampans or a row of nearby islands as fleets of enemy ships and shooting at shadows, of the boredom between combat, the terror of fighting, the camaraderie, the shock and sadness of news of the names of familiar Marines killed in action, and of the fatalism everyone developed over the randomness of survival and death in combat. Still in print, the Marine Corps makes the book required reading for all officer candidates.

Though subject to wartime censorship, his book gave a vivid account of the day-to-day life of the Marines – the initial inexperience that resulted in jittery sentries mistaking a handful of sampans or a row of nearby islands as fleets of enemy ships and shooting at shadows, of the boredom between combat, the terror of fighting, the camaraderie, the shock and sadness of news of the names of familiar Marines killed in action, and of the fatalism everyone developed over the randomness of survival and death in combat.

Tregaskis would go on to cover the war in Europe, flying more than 30 combat missions with Air Force bombers and Navy torpedo bombers, and being badly wounded at Cassino in Italy. After World War II, he covered the Chinese civil war and later rode along in 68 helicopter assaults in Vietnam. Tragically, after risking his life so many times,  Tregaskis drowned while swimming off the coast of Honolulu, Hawaii in 1973.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...