Guadalcanal: The U. S. Marines in World War II
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 13 Aug 2007
"Even before one drop of blood had been spilled on its fecund soil or a single corpse buried in it," Dan van der Vat said, "Guadalcanal stank". "Move a thousand yards inland. Just be sure you take a compass and leave a Hansel-and-Gretel trail behind you", warned United States Marine Corps veteran and author William Manchester. "If you don't you will die." Despite the detailed descriptions shared by so many authors, for many of us, it is nearly impossible to form a mental picture what fighting on Guadalcanal was like. Enter Guadalcanal: The U. S. Marines in World War II, a collection of photographs by Eric Hammel who has previously published numerous titles on the Guadalcanal Campaign.
If superficial, my first impression of the book is the way it looks and feels; for a pictorial collection, the weight of the paper is important, for that the right paper can bring the photograph to life, and the publisher had done a nice job with the selection. Thumbing through the book, I realized every photograph was described in detail, and there were many I have not seen before. Reading through the Author's Note, Hammel proudly described this book as the largest collection of photos of Marines on Guadacanal ever published, with many being published for the first time, which confirmed why so many seem new to me. I did not count exactly how many photographs were included in it, but at an estimated over 200 photos, I do not doubt Hammel's boast regarding it being the largest collection ever published to date.
Excitedly, as soon as I had some free time this weekend, I dove into Guadalcanal. The book was broken down into four chapters, with each of the first three chapters covering August, September, and October of 1942, while the fourth covered the remainder of the land campaign conducted by the Marines on the island. The book was never meant to be a comprehensive account of the campaign, for that the focus for this pictorial tribute was understandably on the pictures. Nevertheless, Hammel did an excellent job with his narrative, concise but yet detailed enough to rival any primer on the Marines' war on the island. The mood of the writing, as well as the feel I get from the photographs, changed dramatically from the beginning of the book toward the end. In the first chapter, the Marines looked clean and tough, some even smiled for the photographers. Very quickly, however, the men grew haggard. It was only before long when the ugly side of the war set in. Accompanying Hammel's narratives of battles were scenes of destroyed aircraft, disabled tanks, and decomposing corpses. The book closed with a fitting photograph: amidst a calm jungle stream, a makeshift grave marker stood erect. It might or might not be Hammel's intent to use the photograph to commemorate the men lost on the island during the war. However, it did make me think of all the sacrifice made, both American and Japanese, for a stinking island that, if not for its strategic location in modern combat, nobody would ever want to set foot on.
WW2 combat photography did not shine until late 1943 or early 1944. In fact, very few photographers were deployed to Guadalcanal, and their primary missions were more so to take favorable photographs for the American propaganda machine than to faithfully chronicle the campaign. Nevertheless, it is not to say that the collection seen here is lacking in any way. Through the photographs, the determination of the courageous Marines could be seen in their eyes, while the formidable defenses established by the brave Japanese served as the subject of many photographs. There had been more than one instance where I found myself staring at a photograph in this book for minutes before I could move on to the next page.
Hammel mentioned in the Author's Note that Guadalcanal: The U. S. Marines in World War II is to be the first of a multi-volume collection of pictorials. I, for one, cannot wait to get my hands on the rest. This pictorial tribute will be a treasured book in my collection.
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Chiang Kaishek, 31 Jul 1937