As a huge wave of U.S. Marines bent on delivering Pearl Harbor payback waded onto the beach of the Solomon Island of Guadalcanal on Aug. 7, 1942, a Japanese radio operator frantically vowed to his superiors, "we will defend our posts to the death."
He got his wish, thanks to 11,000 brave Marines, including an 18-year-old Bronx kid named Al "Duke" Dellaera who still recalls the initial hours that kicked off a grueling, six-month battle that helped turn the tide against the Axis Powers in World War II. For the first few days, the Marines met little resistance, but as they moved deeper into the island during the first week, patrols were regularly ambushed from the jungle shadows.
“We got in a few hundred yards in from the beach and then the Japanese opened fire on us,” Dellaera, now 89, said, recalling one such attack in the early days of the invasion. “We were ambushed, really surprised. All I saw was debris falling all over the place.”
Seventy years later, the Guadalcanal Invasion stands as a seminal moment in World War II, the beginning of the end of Japanese naval dominance in the Pacific Theater. It was the Allies' first engagement with the Japanese Imperial Navy, which had for months been establishing bases and dominance throughout the Pacific Theater, threatening supply routes between the U.S. and Australia.
The invasion, the brainchild of legendary U.S. Adm. Ernest King, came as the Army, including what later became the Air Force, had its hands full battling the Germans in Europe. King lobbied hard for men and supplies, and in the end won approval for the invasion. It had been eight months to the day since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, awakening, in the words of Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, "a sleeping giant" — along with Dellaera, who was among thousands of American men and boys who signed up following the sneak attack.
"I rushed home naturally, because I knew my parents would be upset," recalled Dellaera, who now lives in Fairfield, Conn. "My parents had a fit. I said, 'I don't want to wait,' so I went down and enlisted."
Just months out of basic training at Camp Lejeune and a member of the 1st Marine Division, Dellaera found himself in the island jungle, often knee-deep in mud as he scouted out routes for fellow Marines, relaying what he saw using complex hand signals. Always, the enemy was lurking nearby.
“There was so much action going on that you didn’t dwell on anything,” Dellaera remembered. “But believe me, I was afraid a lot of times before things got started. I’m not afraid to admit it. But when action started, that fear left you and you concentrated on doing what you had to do.
“They were desperate days,” he added, recalling times when he subsisted on maggot-infested oatmeal. “You’ll eat anything when you’re hungry. But I wanted to be there because the country was at war and I felt it was my duty.”
During one nighttime patrol along the Ilu River, Dellaera saw a “shadow up ahead” in the grass, just shy of where heavy vegetation began.
“It turned out to be a Japanese soldier … so there we were, face-to-face more or less, about 25 to 30 yards apart. He stopped and I stopped, and we just stayed there quietly. And he was probably thinking, ‘Did I see something there or was it my imagination?’ And I was thinking the same thing.”
Eventually, the soldier crawled away without incident and Dellaera’s good timing and fortune would continue until Sept. 16, 1944, when he was wounded in action on Peleliu Island. He was hit by shrapnel from a Japanese grenade, and simultaneously shot in the upper right arm, effectively ending his brief military career. He would later return by ship to Oakland, Calif., just before Christmas that year.
By then, Dellaera had done more than his share, enduring “grinding” months he believes came to define him as a man.
“That was the turning point of the war,” Dellaera said. “Guadalcanal was their last frontier. From then on, they were going back, back, back. It turned out to be a disaster for the Japanese.
“Wherever I go — and I’m always with that Marine cap — people will come up to me, grab me by the hand and say, ‘I want to thank you,’ which is really touching,” Dellaera said. “At one time in history, a lot of people made sacrifices, so many kids never came back … and people today, young people, they appreciate that.”
All told, Japanese forces were decimated during the campaign — code-named Project Watchtower — that was initially expected to last just six weeks. Roughly 31,000 Japanese troops died, compared to roughly 7,100 Allied forces. In addition to fierce land, naval and near-daily aerial fighting, troops on both sides were plagued by tropical heat, dysentery and malaria.
To mark Tuesday’s anniversary, the 35th commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos, will attend a commemoration ceremony at Guadalcanal hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Suva. Amos, in a statement to FoxNews.com, said the battle was the Marines' "baptism by fire" during World War II.
"It was the first moment that untested Marines met crack Japanese troops in the skies, on the beaches, and deep in the jungle — and prevailed," the statement read. "Men on both sides struggled in the most challenging of human environments and fought for their beliefs, their nations, and their brothers. We honor their sacrifices on this 70th anniversary of the battle by carrying the memories of their trials and victories in our hearts. The peace they achieved has prevailed for nearly seven decades and now serves as the bedrock of our alliance with the people of Japan."
Dellaera returned to Guadalcanal in 1994, but didn't make the trip this year. He said he would quietly remember the combat action he saw during the Battle of Edson’s Ridge — the second of three major Japanese ground offensives — and later along the Mataniku River. He enjoys recounting the stories of battle, heroism and friendship with a younger generation aware that there aren't many Guadalcanal survivors left.
"I told her, 'Don't put me on a pedestal, I'm not a hero — I just happened to be out there.' The heroes didn't come back. Those were the real heroes."
- Al Dellaera
One of those people is Justin Taylan, the 34-year-old founder and director of PacificWrecks.com, a nonprofit organization and website that seeks to document U.S. airplane wreckages and battlefields in the Pacific, as well as to capture first-hand experiences from World War II veterans. Taylan met Dellaera at a 1st Marine Division reunion in 2001 and they’ve been friends ever since.
“What’s interesting about Dellaera as a veteran is that he was involved in the entire [Guadalcanal] campaign and he went back there as a veteran in 1994,” Taylan told FoxNews.com. “He has a perspective of then and now. And he was a private during the battle, so, to me, his experiences are very genuine and among those not represented in the official record.”
Taylan, who has traveled to Guadalcanal four times, stressed the importance of tapping the remaining World War II veterans for their experiences before it’s too late.
“These are things that only Al can tell us and only he knows,” he said. “If we don’t access that information from him, we’ll never know. It’s a moment in history and we’re so lucky to have some of those veterans with us. You appreciate how tragic and violent and chaotic war is — and how it was also the high point of his life.”
Dellaera, meanwhile, recalled a recent run-in with a college student who mined his experiences for a report on the war.
"She calls me up occasionally, she sends me emails," he said. "It's embarrassing, really. I told her, 'Don't put me on a pedestal, I'm not a hero — I just happened to be out there.' The heroes didn't come back. Those were the real heroes."