Archaeologists Search for a Lost Marine Patrol on Guadalcanal
It was a dark, moonless night on the coast of Guadalcanal, and Lt. Col. Frank Goettge, the intelligence officer for the 1st Marine Division, had a decision to make. Only five days earlier, on August 7, 1942, the first major American amphibious assault in the Pacific had landed unopposed on the jungle island’s beaches. A captured Japanese officer told his captors the island’s defenders were starving and ready to surrender, and Goettge received permission to try to end the battle before it began. On the night of August 12, he and 24 other men piled into a landing craft for a short trip along the coast. Halfway to their destination, they hit a sandbar in the darkness. As the sound of the craft’s straining engine filled the night, Goettge decided to unload his men and travel on foot instead.
The Japanese, though, were not ready to surrender. As Goettge walked off the beach, he was cut down by machine gun fire. The rest of his men hit the deck. They were lightly armed and pinned down, and over the next few hours the Japanese picked them off, one by one. Only three men escaped, swimming back to the safety of the American lines. One, Sgt. Frank Few, remembered seeing Japanese swords swinging down on his comrades in the early morning sun.
Ever since then, the final resting place of the ill-fated Goettge patrol has been a mystery. Japanese troops later said they had buried the marines in a nearby rifle trench, but their remains were never found. The patrol is among the largest groups of American soldiers from World War II still listed as missing in action.
That may be about to change. Doug Drumheller, a retired engineer and history buff who has traveled frequently to Guadalcanal, led a team of university scientists and students back to the island this summer to try to solve the mystery of the Goettge patrol. The group decided to take up the search after Drumheller, on a recent trip to Hawaii, discovered a forgotten collection of aerial photographs, taken immediately after the battle of Guadalcanal, in the archives of the Bishop Museum, a cultural history museum in Honolulu. Comparing the photos to detailed maps of the area, Drumheller believes he has identified the precise location of the ambush.
Armed with ground-penetrating radar equipment, Drumheller’s team spent two weeks in July scanning a roughly six-acre stretch of what is now an urban area near the city of Honiara. Their efforts turned up several anomalies, including an underground formation that resembled a trench. Upon further analysis it turned out to be a stretch of coral, however, and the group returned home empty-handed.
Which isn’t to say the expedition was without success. “We did find some interesting geological information about the site,” says Cliff Boyd, a Radford University anthropologist who helped conduct the scans.
Most notably, the team discovered that the area where Goettge’s men landed has a surprisingly high water table: the archaeologists hit ground water only three feet beneath the surface.
If the area was similarly waterlogged when Goettge and his men were buried, their bodies would have been placed in shallow graves—making their remains vulnerable to a typhoon that swept over the island in 1958 and dramatically altered the shape of the local beaches.
“It’s possible, given the shifting of the coastline, that they may have been washed out to sea,” says Boyd.
No one on the team has given up hope of finding the men’s remains, however. Drumheller is raising funds to conduct a more thorough search next year with much more digging around the site.
“It would certainly be nice to find them,” he says.
But even if he can’t, he hopes for resolution of another kind: “We can determine then if we should hang this up—if no one’s ever going to find them.”
Trees Bearing GI Carvings Felled in France
They were islands of peace in a sea of war. Nine sprawling U.S. Army camps dotted Normandy’s countryside after the D-Day landings in the fall of 1944, some of them home to as many as 20,000 soldiers. Named after popular brands of cigarettes, Camps Twenty Grand, Old Gold, Lucky Strike, and others offered soldiers a chance to rest and recuperate among the swaying beech trees before being shipped east for battle.
While the GIs awaited orders, they whiled away the hours by carving the names of their sweethearts and hometowns into the surrounding trees with their knives and bayonets. For decades after the war, thousands of these memorials to the end of the Nazi occupation of France have stood the test of time.
Until now. More than 60 years after the last GIs left the French coast, many of these old beech trees have been cut down and turned into paper, outraging historians and stirring up a local movement to preserve the few “name trees” still remaining. That effort should have begun “a long time ago,” Nicolas Navarro, the curator of a World War II museum on the grounds of a nearby chateau, told the Times of London this summer. “It’s sad and pathetic that it wasn’t.” Navarro believes the trees are some of the best-preserved reminders of this area’s World War II history.
Not everyone sees things that way. Last year, local officials determined that the trees, most of which hang over a winding road, were a safety hazard and ordered the land’s owner to prune them. Pruning costs about $550 per tree, whereas cutting down the tree is a mere $150—and economics apparently trumped history. More than 150 trees were felled last year before historians began to protest. “It is a typically French failing to wipe out the traces of the past,” Claude Quétel, a French historian, told reporters. “I am indignant.”
It’s Official: A Suicidal Hitler Prolonged the War By 3 Years
It is a question that has baffled historians since the end of World War II: why did Nazi Germany, in the face of overwhelming military force, doggedly keep fighting on two shrinking fronts, even when the war was almost certainly lost? Official histories of the war written by American and British scholars have grappled with the roots of Nazi fanaticism for years. But only this summer was the German government’s first study on the subject finally completed. Its conclusion: without Hitler’s “suicidal urge,” the war might have ended nearly three years earlier.
In 1978, the military history center of the German armed forces took on the project of analyzing the country’s rise and fall during World War II. In July, the last two volumes of Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg (The German Reich and the Second World War)—a report spanning 12,000 pages and 13 tomes— were finally published. “It will be impossible to write a history of the Second World War without reference to this work,” Col. Winfried Heine mann, the head of research at the center, told reporters. “It is a history of the whole of German society, not just a military account of the battles.”
While earlier volumes of the history have resolutely challenged conventional German wisdom about the war—concluding, for exam ple, that ordinary army units, not just the SS, regularly committed war crimes—the last two volumes tackle the war’s biggest mystery: what made the Germans keep fighting? “Official papers were presented to Hitler in 1942 that Germany could not win the war,” Heinemann says. Still, for nearly three more years—until Hitler committed suicide in April 1945—the German war machine kept running.
The authors of the new history suggest that by 1943, with the country exhausted, many Germans might have been willing to accept the Allies’ terms for surrender. But when Hitler refused to waver, they willingly fol lowed. Even in retreat, the Wehrmacht drilled its sol diers to “do their duty,” and civilians held themselves to the same standard. “That was [the] common denominator with a majority of the Germans, who had been simply sticking to what they were doing, or had not sought any alternative, or had not been able to visualize any other way,” the book says.
The new history concludes that the entire population, not just Germany’s leaders, was gripped by Hitler’s mad ness: “Hitler waged his per sonal war for six years, supported by sentiment in Germany that remained broadly favorable even after a series of defeats and never turned to public resentment.”
The official German his tory of World War II, in other words, has strikingly con cluded that no one in the country during the war can avoid responsibility for the millions of deaths that resulted from continuing the fight. “To the Germans,” the book says, “no alternative appeared feasible, other than the unconditional surrender demanded by the enemy.”
Originally published in the November 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.