US Marines during the Guadalcanal campaign, 8th Aug 1942

On 7th August 1942, Allied forces landed on the shores of Guadalcanal, igniting one of the most significant campaigns in the Pacific during World War II. While U.S. forces grappled with a formidable Japanese defence in a treacherous jungle environment, American journalist Richard Tregaskis was on the front lines, reporting on the intense battles, the bravery of the soldiers, and the harsh realities of war. But he also kept a diary that was later published—an intimate and vividly written account that delved deeper than his journalistic pieces, providing a human and compelling look at life in combat. Soon after arriving, on the day the Japanese dropped bombs on the island for the first time, Tregaskis wrote the following entry.

The Diary Entry

Friday, August 14

Enemy aircraft dropped their first bombs on Guadalcanal today. They had been over before, but this was the first time they actually attacked the island.

The time was 12:15, and I was at Gen. Vandegrift’s headquarters, attempting to catch up with my writing, when an outpost phoned in to say the enemy had been spotted. There were eighteen bombers, coming in high.

The air-raid alarm, a dilapidated dinner bell, jangled, and there was a general scurrying for protective foxholes. A few of us, however, went to a clearing to watch the excitement (which I later found to be very bad practice).

In a few seconds, someone shouted, “There they are!” and pointed, and we all looked. Then I saw three of the Japs, silvery and beautiful in the high sky. They were so high that they looked like a slender white cloud moving slowly across the blue. But through my field glasses, I could see the silvery-white bodies quite distinctly: the thin wings, the two slim engine nacelles, the shimmering arcs of the propellers. I was surprised that enemy aircraft, flying overhead with the obvious intention of dropping high explosives upon us, could be so beautiful.

Others said they could see fifteen more Jap bombers, but they were not visible to me at the moment. I watched, my glasses frozen on the flight of three planes, while they cruised slowly, leisurely over the airport.

Suddenly, from directly in front of us, came a swift sequence of explosions, and, in an instantaneous reaction, we hit the deck. But it was one of our own anti-aircraft batteries which we had heard. They were firing fast now; we could see the flashes coming from the gun muzzles, hear the quick reports of the firing.

Up in the blue in front of the three silvery planes, we saw puffs of gray smoke, like small clouds, popping into sudden existence. In some of them we could see a slight dash of bright orange. The shells were bursting. Then we heard the soft whoomp-whoomp-whoomp of the explosions, coming to us late over the long distance. And there were more reports from our guns, more little clouds in the sky, more soft whoomp sounds.

But the anti-aircraft batteries were shooting too low. The planes cruised leisurely, and we saw their wings pass along and over the spreading clouds of the ackack bursts.

Then we heard a closely spaced series of explosions, sharp and apparently quite near. The sounds were notably loud, and sharper than any I had heard before. And the ground shook under our feet. The Japs had dropped six bombs (which had fortunately fallen into the water) near Kukum. The planes swung in a slow circle with anti-aircraft bursting behind them, and disappeared into the sky to the south.

Tonight at Col. Hunt’s command post we were sitting and talking in the dark, and it was peaceful and soothing to sit in close company and hear the voices close by, with only glowing cigarettes to mark the speakers, when the phone jangled. Lieut. John Wilson, one of the staff officers, said, “Oh oh, here we go,” as he picked up the phone, and his predilection for bad news was correct. The news was that five Jap destroyers had been sighted, standing in toward Guadalcanal shore.

We decided that the long-expected Jap counter invasion was on the way. But since there was little we could do about it for the time being except wait for further reports, the talk swung to less serious matters. Don Dickson’s embryonic red beard, for instance; the raggedness of the foliage brought forth some disparaging remarks.

I had imagined that in such a situation, the atmosphere would be more tense. But now it seemed perfectly natural to be joking about beards, while there was a Jap invasion in the offing.

Then the phone rang again, and this time, there was good news. “The five Japanese destroyers have turned out to be four native sampans and a submarine,” Lieut. Wilson reported.

The scare was over. But we did not sleep very soundly. The submarine, a Jap, of course, had been seen standing in toward shore, then submerged. Any time in the night, we knew he might come up and lob a few shells in our direction. As usual, we slept with our clothes on.

The popping of sentry fire in the night did not disturb me. It was becoming more or less routine, like the sound of passing streetcars in the city.

Further Reading

Richard Tregaskis’ Guadalcanal Diary was published in 1943 by Random House, and almost immediately became a film of the same name, directed by Lewis Seiler. The book is an incredibly detailed, unvarnished account from one of just two American journalists on the island during a pivotal moment in history. A fascinating read.


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