(Reprint from MLive.com, September 20, 2008)
Veteran judge remembers role in historic battle
Just hours before Japanese bullets struck his head and arm, Marine 2nd Lt. Edward Campbell Farmer Jr. of Muskegon could hear all hell breaking loose near the American-held airfield, roughly a half-mile distant.
Farmer's platoon was dug in behind the scant cover afforded by a coconut grove guarding a slightly elevated ridge, known to the enemy as Tora Heights. The ridge rose above the sandbar crossing at the nearby Matanikau River on Guadalcanal Island.
The young Marine officer -- who would later become one of Muskegon's most honored judges -- did not realize he was about to take part in one of the most important battles in World War II. He had no idea his unit's heroism would be a factor in turning the tide in the Pacific theater.
But today, 66 years later, the 90-year-old knows he may be the last of the Marines who fought that bloody battle still standing.
"They're all gone now, as far as I know," he said during a recent interview in his Glenside home.
The Matanikau, on Sept. 14, 1942, was the extreme right flank of the shorthanded 1st Marine Division forces on the island. This outpost was held by the battalions of the 5th Marine Regiment, which included Farmer's 3rd Battalion.
These forces were incorporated into a defensive line that covered an arc around the Lunga Point beachhead and the airfield, known as Henderson Field. These were the two keys to the American position, since they represented the only lifelines to the outside world through which reinforcements and supplies could be brought in to the troops.
The Marines were alone on Guadalcanal.
A scant eight months after the infamous Pearl Harbor attack, "Operation Watchtower" had brought them to this solitary outpost in the Solomon Islands group in the Southwest Pacific. But the invasion had been run on such a shoestring that disaster threatened on a daily basis. The Japanese enemy, which held overwhelming naval and air superiority in this part of the world at this time in history, was determined to wipe them out.
The 1st Marine Division was seriously undermanned. It was missing a regiment and an artillery battalion. Supplies and ammunition were in very short supply, because right after the Marines came ashore, the Japanese had decimated the naval task force assigned to guard the invasion, forcing the Navy to withdraw prematurely.
The retreating ships took most of the Marines' supplies, forcing them to subsist largely on captured Japanese rations, such as maggot-infested rice and dried plums.
Conditions in the tropical combat zone were horrific. Malaria was becoming a serious problem. Fungus infections known as "jungle rot" turned minor cuts and abrasions into oozing sores. A bath in one of the sluggish rivers covered a man's body with blood-sucking leeches. Strange insects rustled through the jungle and over men's faces at night, increasing the terrors of the dark.
In the weeks after the Marines hit the beaches and surprised the Japanese, the enemy had been landing reinforcements almost nightly in preparation for a new offensive. They had been building up a force designed to cut into the Marines' perimeter, seize the airfield and pin the Marines down so they could be finished off.
Now, the plan was unfolding.
Unseen but not unheard by Farmer's platoon and the rest of his fellow Marines of L Company that night was the climax of the battle of Bloody Ridge.
The series of hills was also called Edson's Ridge because the position was held by Marine Raiders and paratroopers under the command of Col. Merrit A. Edson. It blocked access to the airfield, so the ridge became the chief object of the multi-pronged Japanese assault.
Throughout the previous night of Sept. 12-13, Japanese soldiers threw themselves at Edson's Ridge in screaming human waves, dying by the hundreds.
This night, the Japanese attacked again, and again were thrown back, not just at Edson's Ridge but also on the perimeter's left. By dawn, those Japanese elements were in retreat.
But another part of that force had one more stab to make -- on the right, at the Matanikau positions held by the 3rd Battalion.
There, Farmer and his men were hunkered down in their positions waiting for their turn to be hit. Ahead of them in the pre-dawn twilight were the tall coconut palms of what had once been a Lever Brothers plantation that turned the big trees' "eggs" into palm oil and copra.
The trees had been put to good use by the Marines. Stripping the barbed wire off a long plantation fence, L Company put entanglements between the trunks to protect their front from direct attack.
Farmer, helmetless since he seldom wore the heavy head gear and exhausted by hours of being on perpetual alert, hugged his 1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle, rested his head on his pack and dared to close his eyes.
Almost at once, Farmer heard his runner, a private named Rumford, shout, "Geez, here they come!" Farmer roused himself, rifle in firing position as up the ridge boiled the enemy in their brown helmets and tan uniforms.
A wild melee of kill-or-be-killed, hand-to-hand fighting raged up and down the line. The Japanese took terrible casualties but managed to breach the barbed wire.
At the most dangerous moment in the battle, the enemy broke through the line dividing 3rd Battalion's companies K and L.
K Co.'s commander, a Lt. Davies, was shot in the head. Another Company K squad leader was already dead. Farmer, whose platoon formed part of L Company's position, quickly rounded up part of another platoon's squad and with those men and his own charged into the attacking Japanese.
Pistol in hand, Farmer shot a Japanese officer, killing him.
An instant later, an enemy bullet creased his head, fracturing his skull. Farmer's next sensation wasn't pain, but rather surprise.
Dazed, he looked down at his hand and saw that it had dropped his pistol onto the ground. It had slipped from his fingers; his arm had gone numb. He had been struck by another enemy round. Blood spurted from a severed artery in his forearm.
"Cam" Farmer had fallen in the middle of a pitched battle raging around him.
From Muskegon to the battlefield
Farmer's sojourn from his hometown of Muskegon to Guadalcanal began with his acceptance as a student at Dartmouth College.
In the years prior to America's 1941 declaration of war against Japan in World War II, Dartmouth was home away from home for the son of then-Muskegon City Attorney Edward Farmer Sr. and Beatrice Campbell Farmer, whose father, John Campbell, was a lumberman and compatriot of Charles Hackley as well as mayor of Muskegon.
Young "Cam" -- short for Campbell -- attended McLaughlin School and Muskegon High School, and grew up in the late 1920s and early 1930s in a tightly knit, middle-class family in the era of the Great Depression.
For spending money, Farmer sold issues of Colliers and Saturday Evening Post magazines door to door. Among other youthful joys, he and brothers Sam and John, and sister Judith, would buy streetcar fares to Pere Marquette Park, where they would climb up the big sand dune at Pigeon Hill and slide down from the heights on old rugs.
There were movies and newsreels at the old Michigan Theatre, semi-pro baseball games at Marsh Field or hot fried perch dinners at Pasco's restaurant in Bluffton to wolf down.
"It was a fun place to grow up in," remembers Farmer.
While studying at Dartmouth, an interest in learning Spanish led Farmer to study in Mexico City during the summer of 1938. To augment his meager spending money, Farmer got part-time work as a "runner," delivering telegrams and messages for the American embassy.
"I got to know the Marine officer there," Farmer now recalls. "They were great recruiters. He asked me, 'What are you going to do after college, son?' They gave me the original pitch."
As world tensions built due to the rise of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the Marines needed young men of promise for an expanding officer corps. Their recruiters elected to solicit future military talent at what were considered the best schools -- like Dartmouth.
So when the recruiters, resplendent in their "dress blue" uniforms, showed up on campus in the spring of Farmer's junior year, 1939, he was ready to listen to what they had to offer.
"The Marines have a helluva sales pitch. But they were very vague. Not an awful lot of us joined. Only a few. They're still doing the same thing, of course," he chuckled. "It sounded pretty good to me, so I joined up."
Farmer's father, a World War I veteran, was displeased to say the least. He warned his son that "the Marines were a dangerous outfit."
"He was right," Farmer laughed.
For two summers, Farmer attended Platoon Leaders Class at the Marines headquarters in Quantico, Va. After graduating from Dartmouth in 1941, Farmer was commissioned as a reserve corps officer, subject to call-up.
That day arrived on Jan. 2, 1942, less than a month after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. Farmer received his notice to report to Marine Basic Officers School in Philadelphia for another six weeks of training.
"This time we were taught how to command," he said.
Farmer has rich memories of that class of young officers, many of whom were to become his best friends in the service -- with many also lost during the war. His class would suffer an especially high rate of casualties.
"I remember sitting in a classroom and the colonel pointed to us and said, 'You there,' (indicating the men to the left and right). 'One of you is going to get killed, one of you is going to get wounded and one of you is going to get lucky.'
"He was right," Farmed added. "Although sometimes it was worse than that."
In Philadelphia, Farmer was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, a proud moment. Equally thrilling was his assignment to the famous 5th Regiment, a signal honor as it was considered one of the best outfits in the Marines at the time (and still is).
The following months were a whirlwind of drawing equipment, new classes, medical exams and shots, and then a long sea voyage through the Panama Canal to New Zealand.
But still no definitive assignment came until word reached the men late in July 1942 that they were moving out again. "Scuttlebutt," the age-old gossip grapevine of soldiers that was often wildly inaccurate, had it that they were to see action.
This time, scuttlebutt had it right.
Fighting in the jungle
The landing at Guadalcanal was unopposed, although the capture of two smaller outlying islands were rough encounters for those Marines assigned to take them.
Farmer's 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, was the first unit onto Guadalcanal proper. Commander Maj. Gen. Alexander Archer Vandegrift ordered his troops to move inland to take the airfield and secure the closest river lines, the Tenaru on the left and the Lunga on the right. It was all they dared attempt with the limited forces at their disposal.
Beyond the Lunga was the Matanikau River and the Japanese.
At this time, Farmer was assigned as a lead scout for battalion headquarters. It was the job of the scouts to push out past the perimeter to see where the Japanese were.
One of Farmer's first patrols brought him into the small jungle village of Matanikau, just across the river of the same name. There, his squad found abandoned huts and left-behind Japanese packs and equipment, which were searched for useful information. Inside one of the huts, Farmer and his men found a surprise: pictures of the Pearl Harbor attack taken from Japanese planes.
This was the routine of Farmer's first few weeks on Guadalcanal. Take a squad, push into the jungle and try to establish where the Japanese line of resistance was.
During one of the many small combat actions near the Matanikau, 2nd Lt. George Mead of L Company was killed. Heir to the Mead Paper Co. fortune, a popular polo player from Yale, Mead was also one of Farmer's buddies at Platoon Leaders Class.
His loss came as a blow. Then Farmer was picked to replace Mead in L Company.
"We were a rifle platoon," Farmer said of his new command. "We had three rifle squads and a weapons squad, 52 men. We held that flank toward the Matanikau.
"We would patrol that area early in the morning just to make sure everything was clear. And then we had occasional patrols beyond the river, to make sure the area was clear there."
The knowledge Farmer gained leading patrols into enemy territory led him to believe that a powerful Japanese presence awaited any Marine probe beyond the river. Yet Lt. Col. Frank Goettge, the division's intelligence chief, was convinced the Japanese there were ready to surrender.
Farmer said he warned Goettge's men about the danger.
"I remember talking to one of his sergeants. He asked me, 'You've been patrolling in that area?' and I said, 'Yeah, there are Japanese there, for God's sakes.'
"I said, 'I don't think that's a good idea' for them to go there. So they went anyway. They hit the beach on the other side of the (Matanikau) river and they were wiped out. Killed them all."
The Japanese threat continued to grow until it erupted in the battle of Edson's Ridge, in which Farmer was severely wounded on Sept. 14, 1942.
He said he owes his life to a platoon sergeant, "Wild Bill" Kulchycki, who dragged him down the ridge's rear slope to safety, and to a Marine corpsman who put a tourniquet on Farmer's arm to stop the massive blood loss.
Kulchycki rejoined the fight and helped 3rd Battalion stop the Japanese advance. The casualties on both sides were horrific, but in the end, the Japanese couldn't break through.
Farmer was taken to a makeshift hospital on the edge of the airfield and was eventually airlifted off Guadalcanal.
He believes his habit of not wearing a helmet -- "You can't hear where a sound is coming from" -- probably saved his life. "The bullet might have disintegrated (after hitting the helmet) and killed me," he said. Instead, it put a dent in his skull.
The arm wound was far more serious. Combined with his worsening case of malaria, Farmer would be unable to continue as a jungle-fighter.
After a lengthy recuperation period, he was promoted to captain, took command of the Marine detachment at Attu Island in the Aleutians near Alaska, where, he said ruefully, "we were closer to Japan than we were to the states."
Farmer's war ended in Alaska. He came home to Muskegon and took his father's advice to study law. Recapturing his love for winter activities in the war zone's farthest reaches, he met his future bride, Kim Harrington, and wooed her by taking her dogsledding in Aspen, Colo. Their 53rd wedding anniversary will be celebrated this week, and they have four grown children.
The new Muskegon lawyer took up another offer back in his hometown, and ran for district court judge, a post he held until his retirement in 1992. He lives in Glenside with Kim and their two poodles, Jolie Coeur and Cliquot.
Outside, a Marine Corps flag waves proudly from above the garage door.
Thinking back to the terrible battle and his grievous wounds, Farmer, now 90 years old, summed it up simply: "I was lucky."
Holder of the Purple Heart, a Presidential Unit Citation, a Combat Star and the Asiatic Pacific Theater Medal, Farmer pooh-poohed the idea of himself as a hero. "No, we were all in it together," he insisted.
The phone calls, letters and greetings from his fellow Marines on "the Canal" have ceased. To the best of his knowledge, "I am the last," of his company, his battalion and perhaps his regiment.
In the years since he returned to civilian life, he and Kim, a retired travel agent, have gone all over the world and have seen the sights of a lifetime.
Yet there is one place Farmer has not returned.
Once was enough, he said.