Hell in the Pacific: Delving into the world of nonfiction

Normally people grumble and groan about the assigned readings for class. Not me, not this time. For my American Military History course each student reads two novels of their choosing about, you guessed it, American military history. This post is about my first of the two, Hell in the Pacific: A Marine Rifleman’s Journey from Guadalcanal to Peleliu. (To read my more formal and complete summary and review of this book I did for class, click here)

This book is the memoir of Jim McEnery, a soldier in the 1st Division Marines K/3/5 rifle company (If anyone’s seen the HBO miniseries Pacific, that’s the same company.) He details his experiences on the front lines of three major campaigns in the Pacific Theater during World War II, beginning at Guadalcanal, then to Cape Gloucester and finally to Peleliu.

I really enjoyed reading this book, for many reasons. My grandpa was in the Navy during World War II, so the Pacific Theater has always held a specific interest for me. Reading this book has rekindled my interest on the subject, and I learned a lot about the reality of island hopping in the South Pacific. I’d never thought about what it was like between campaigns, but it wasn’t a bunch of R&R for those boys. Maybe when they were on leave in Australia, but McEnery talks about his time off at Pavuvu after Guadalcanal. The exhausted Marines come ashore looking forward to simple amenities like electricity and running water and instead are greeted with rats mud.

Another aspect that made this book so great for me is that McEnery (with the help of Bill Sloan) is a fantastic narrator. He inserts his feelings into his retelling. I’d heard the phrase from the war, “the only good Jap is a dead Jap,” but McEnery’s story made this concept so much more real. The Japanese soldiers during WWII were cutthroat and would die before being captured by our boys. The wounded would set off grenades if any American came to help them, taking themselves with it. McEnery gets to the point where he can kill a Jap without a second thought, but it doesn’t make him inhuman. He retains a human connection that is so important in a war novel. Part of the way he retains that is by expressing his emotions in the situation. He doesn’t pretend that he, along with the rest of the boys, wasn’t scared shitless sitting in those foxholes, not knowing if they were going to make it through the night. Surprise attacks, buddies dying right before his eyes. McEnery is painfully honest, and this honestly helps the reader continue to perceive him as a person and not just a mindless killing machine.

Everything is told from a grunt’s eyes’ perspective, not a history book. In movies I’m used to seeing gore and war, but hearing the descriptions straight from someone who was there and witnessed it firsthand is different. McEnery tells everything in such detail, every reality of war, from combat to malnutrition to mentality. Jim McEnery was one of the few soldiers who witnessed the killing of Captain Andrew “Ack-Ack” Haldane at the Battle of Peleliu. “Then Ack-Ack’s head vanished in a flash of red, and a shower of blood blew back in my face.” I wasn’t familiar with Capt. Haldane’s story, and I’m fairly sure I audibly gasped when I read that sentence. For me, Jim McEnery’s recounting just drove home the weight of what these men went through for the security of my country. I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for a truthful account of what the Marines faced in the campaigns of the South Pacific. The book contains strategic summary (for comprehensive purposes), but is mostly a personal narrative. This means that there’s bias, but it’s stated as such and the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions. It’s an easy read logistically, but I can guarantee it’ll make you think, and thank the men who went through hell so you don’t have to.

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