By a veteran of Lt. Col. Merritt A. Edson's battalion, and author of the Dick Winters biography Biggest Brother and coauthor of A Higher Call
On the killing ground that was the island of Guadalcanal, a 2,000-yard-long ridge rose from the jungle canopy. Behind it lay the all-important air base of Henderson Field. And if Henderson Field fell, it would mean the almost certain death or capture of all 12,500 marines on the island . . .
But the marines positioned on the ridge were no normal fighters. They were tough, hard-fighting men of the Edson’s Raiders; an elite fighting unit within an already elite U.S. Marine Corps. Handpicked for their toughness, and submitted to a rigorous training program to weed out those less fit, they were the Marine Corps’s best of the best.
For two hellish nights in September 1942, about 840 United States Marines—commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Merritt Austin “Red Mike” Edson—fought one of the most pivotal battles of World War II in the Pacific, clinging desperately to their position on what would soon be known as Bloody Ridge.
Wave after wave of attacking Japanese soldiers were repelled by the Raiders, who knew that defeat and retreat were simply not possible options. But in the end, the defenders had prevailed against the odds.
Bloody Ridge and Beyond is the story of the 1st Marine Raider Battalion, which showed courage and valor in the face of overwhelming numbers, as told by Marlin Groft, a man who was a member of this incredible fighting force.
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Marlin F. Groft was born in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps from 1939 to 1941, and then became a silk-screen printer in a textile factory. He joined the U.S. Marines after Pearl Harbor and, following boot camp, he volunteered for the 1st Marine Raider Battalion under Lt. Col. Merritt A. Edson, and served with that unit until its dissolution. Assigned to the 29th Marine Regiment of the newly formed 6th Marine Division, he served beyond the end of the war, seeing duty in China until the end of 1945. Groft and his wife, Vivian, live in a Lancaster County retirement community.
Larry Alexander is the author of the New York Times bestselling biography Biggest Brother: The Life of Major Dick Winters, the Man Who Led the Band of Brothers and the coauthor (with Adam Makos) of A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II, another New York Times bestseller. He is also the author of Shadows in the Jungle: The Alamo Scouts Behind Japanese Lines in World War II and In the Footsteps of the Band of Brothers: A Return to Easy Company’s Battlefields with Sgt. Forrest Guth. Alexander has been a journalist and columnist for Lancaster newspapers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for nearly twenty years and has won numerous state-level awards for excellence in journalism.
AUGUST 6, 1989
On the warm, sunny Sunday morning of August 6, 1989, I and a number of my colleagues of the 1st Raider Battalion, the famed Edson’s Raiders, stood on the grounds of the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia, not to train for war as we had done forty-seven years prior, but to remember our departed brethren and our Raider legacy. We had returned to where it all began for the Raiders in order to dedicate a memorial as part of the Quantico National Cemetery.
I am more than a little proud of the fact that the idea for the memorial had been first floated by me six years earlier during the funeral of Ben Howland, who had been something of a legend in the Raiders. A tenured professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia after the war, Ben had become both a teacher and mentor to my son Eric, who was studying at the university’s School of Architecture.
At the reception following Ben’s death, several Raiders commented that Ben had not been buried at Arlington, but rather was interred at the Quantico cemetery, which, we noted, incorporated some of the very ground we had trained on in 1942. Would it not be appropriate, I mused, if a memorial to the Raiders would be erected on the site?
Coincidentally that summer, Eric had an internship as a student landscape architect with the Veterans’ Administration’s National Cemetery Service. The Quantico National Cemetery had just recently been opened and was being viewed as a “replacement” cemetery for Arlington. In his capacity as a landscape architect, Eric embraced the idea of the memorial, which we envisioned as being placed alongside a memorial path through the woods.
The idea took wing and over the following year, a memorial committee was formed. Eric donated his time to work on concepts and ideas that were presented at the annual Raider Reunion in February 1984. Since our reunions were held at Quantico, we walked the memorial trail. Getting the needed approvals proved somewhat frustrating, with government bureaucracy being notoriously slow. Plus we had to raise funds, although after all this time, I no longer recall how much we needed. Finally, it all came together.
Eric’s plan called for the creation of a small parklike setting shaded by towering oak trees and partially enclosed by a low stone wall. A path weaves through a series of low granite boulders emerging from the ground, each representing one of the islands where we Raiders fought and bled, principally Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Makin, New Georgia, and Bougainville. The design included a bench that overlooked the cemetery and our former training grounds. The ground-cover vegetation assumes the role of the Pacific Ocean, lapping around the granite “islands.” A large boulder near the bench holds a bronze tablet that briefly outlines the Raiders’ history and our stand on Bloody Ridge.
A number of invited guests attended the dedication, including the sons of our late commander, Austin and Robert Edson. Dedicatory remarks were made by General Alfred M. Gray, the Marine Corps Commandant, and the memorial marker itself was unveiled by the widows of Lew Walt and Ben Howland.
As Taps was blown to conclude the ceremony, I paused to reflect on the pride each of us Raiders felt that day; pride in our commander, in our unit, and in ourselves.
The Raiders were formed on February 16, 1942, and existed until February 1, 1944, fifteen days shy of two years. More than eight thousand men served in what eventually became four Raider battalions. Of that number, 892 never returned home.
Yet over that short period of time, we carved a legend for ourselves on far-flung battlefields like Hill 281 on Tulagi, Tasimboko, the God-awful Bloody Ridge, and along the Matanikau River on Guadalcanal, and in the jungles around Enogai and Bairoko on New Georgia.
I was a member of the 1st Raider Battalion, serving under Colonel Merritt A. Edson. By being a member of that magnificent organization, I was among the very first Americans to take the war to our enemies as we landed on Tulagi, an hour before the Guadalcanal fight began. As part of Edson’s reconnaissance patrol, I scouted the barren hilltop that would become known as Bloody Ridge, and stood with him atop that blood-soaked ridge as thousands of Japanese tried to sweep us aside in two desperate nights of hand-to-hand fighting. I was with the Raiders in the fierce fighting amid the stinking jungles on New Georgia, and remained a member of the unit until its disbanding.
Counting myself among those who served in this valiant battalion of the finest men in the United States Marine Corps is perhaps the proudest achievement of my life.
These are my remembrances, which I hope will serve as a legacy to the brave Marines who fought beside me and shared my hardships, preserved for my grandsons and for future generations of my fellow Raiders.
Marlin “Whitey” Groft
In my twenty-plus years of being a journalist, I have had the distinct honor of interviewing combat veterans from every American war of the twentieth century, from World War I through Iraq. In each instance, I have found their valor, courage, and willingness to put themselves in harm’s way for their nation to be inspiring. In a few cases, most particularly Major Richard D. Winters and Sergeant Forrest Guth, both with the famed “Band of Brothers,” they became friends.
The same can be said for Marlin F. “Whitey” Groft.
I met Marlin in 2009 when I was looking for a veteran on whom to write a newspaper story to run on Veterans Day. I knew Whitey had been a Marine during the war, and that he had served on Guadalcanal. I did not know until I began the interview that he had been a member of one of the Marine Corps’s most famous World War II fighting organizations, Edson’s Raiders.
As a historian who specializes in the Second World War, I certainly knew who Merritt Austin Edson and what were sometimes referred to as his “do-or-die men” were and what they had done. I had studied the Battle of Guadalcanal intensely and also read many of the fine accounts written about the Raiders, including Edson’s Raiders by the eminent military historian Joseph H. Alexander, who is, so far as I know, no relation. So as Whitey spoke about Bloody Ridge during our interview, I could follow the action in my head.
Of all the Pacific battles, to me the Guadalcanal campaign is the quintessential struggle. Not just because lessons the American commanders learned during this first land offensive were put to use in later invasions, but because it was the only land battle after America went over to the offensive that America came seriously close to losing. It was hastily planned, poorly executed, abysmally supplied and supported, and at one point, the Marine ground commander, Major General Alexander Vandegrift, was authorized by his superiors to surrender his forces if necessary. And of all the many individual battles on Guadalcanal, the Raiders’ valiant two-day stand against an overwhelming number of Japanese soldiers on what is called both Edson’s Ridge and Bloody Ridge was the most important fight of the entire campaign. Had the Japanese taken the ridge, they’d have plunged straight through the Marine defensive perimeter, taken Henderson airfield, split the American forces in half, and, quite likely, forced the surviving Marines into the jungle to fight as a disorganized guerilla force, or to simply starve to death, because there would be no American Dunkirk from a U.S. Navy still reeling after Pearl Harbor.
Edson’s recognizing the strategic value of the ridge and knowing the consequences of its loss, plus his dogged defense against odds of three or even four to one, and the ability and courage of his men to stand and smash wave after wave of enemy attackers, combined to make Bloody Ridge one of the most crucial battles in American military history.
Yet, ironically, the Marines Corps high command never wanted the Raiders. Indeed, the Raiders were the bastard child foisted off on the Marines by Colonel James Roosevelt through his father, the President of the United States. Young Roosevelt was a devotee of Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson, who studied the tactics of the Red Chinese forces fighting the Japanese in China. An eccentric man who had a habit of rubbing people the wrong way, a trait that lost him popularity with his superiors, Carlson devised a raider concept to strike at the enemy behind his lines, where he least expected it. Edson, too, was working on a similar concept, and the two men would become bitter rivals.
What President Franklin D. Roosevelt liked most about the raider idea, and why he ordered it initiated, was that America’s military had suffered a string of humiliating defeats starting with Pearl Harbor, and the morale of the troops, not to mention the folks on the home front, needed some type of victory. The smashing American victory at the Battle of Midway had been a start, but more—much more—was needed. The idea behind the Raiders was to launch sizeable attacks behind enemy lines, taking the war to the enemy and letting him know that America was down but not out. This, Roosevelt believed, was imperative. The Marine high command, however, did not feel the need for some type of elite fighting force, considering as they did that all Marines were elite. To them, the Raiders were redundant and resulted in nothing more than a serious drain from the regular ranks of some of the Corps’s best fighting men.
Whitey Groft was there. He lived what I had simply read about. He was personally interviewed by Edson for the Raiders (and was initially turned down), and he had several personal stories about his own interactions with the famed commander.
As we spoke that day in 2009, he showed me a fifty-seven-page memoir he had entitled “Under the Southern Cross and Beyond,” which covered his time with the Raiders, as well as his eventual reassignment to the 29th and, later, the 22nd Marines on Okinawa, and in China, guarding a vital airfield against Communist Chinese forces after the war ended.
After the newspaper story ran on November 11, I kept in touch with Marlin. He had mentioned to me that he’d always wanted to convert his short memoir into a book, and in 2012 we began to convert that wish into reality. Using his memoir as a starting point, plus adding many hours of interviews with Marlin, as well as phone calls to his friend and machine gun squad leader, Bill Waltrip, and to former Raider Robert Youngdeer, as well as consulting various historical sources to flesh out the action on Tulagi, Guadalcanal, and New Georgia, Marlin and I have combined to create an intimate look at one of American’s most dynamic fighting units, by a man who was a part of it from start to finish.
I wish to thank my editors at Berkley for their help in allowing us to tell this story. A big thank-you goes to Holly Bowers Toth for information and photos of her uncle, Kenneth E. Bowers, Whitey’s best friend who died on Tulagi. Thanks also to Bob Gilbert of the Kenneth E. Bowers VFW post in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, for putting me in touch with the Bowers family.
My heartfelt thanks also goes to my wife, Barbara, who sacrificed our family time while I worked on this project.
Lastly, my personal thank-you to Marlin Groft and all the other Raiders for doing their part to halt the Japanese aggression in the Pacific, and to all the men and women who served in World War II, in whatever capacity they were called on to provide, for doing their part in preserving freedom across the globe.
The midday sun shone down brightly on the city of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, its beams sparkling off the windshields, chrome bumpers, and grillwork of the cars that cruised along Cumberland Street. A number of the city’s 27,206 inhabitants, some bundled in winter coats despite the warming rays bathing the city, leisurely strolled the sidewalks on this quiet Sunday. Church was out, but from somewhere across town came the low, mournful bong-bong of a steeple bell.
It was December 7, 1941, and I and a few of my buddies were sitting on the steps outside the front doors of the William Penn Restaurant and Bar, which had been opened thirteen years earlier by its Greek owner, Constantinos “Gus” Levendis. I had been born in this city, the second youngest child of fourteen—seven boys and seven girls—born to John and Emma (Barshinger) Groft, who had spaced us out over so broad a gap in time that many of my older siblings had married and left home before I started school. One brother, Ernie, died of an illness when he was seven years old.
I had graduated from Lebanon High School in 1939, and since the country was still in the grips of the Great Depression and jobs were at a premium, I entered the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s federally run public works programs. The CCC bounced me around to different locations, mostly in Pennsylvania, although my last post was in Washington, D.C. There I lived and worked at Rock Creek Park, operating a dragline excavator to help dredge the waterway. Following my one year of service, I returned home.
My parents no longer lived in Lebanon but had moved to Lancaster County sometime after Dad’s crippling. My father had been an ironworker for the Lebanon division of Bethlehem Steel, and when I was about three years old, he had been horribly burned by molten steel, thus ending his working career. There was no workers’ compensation in those days, and he received some pitiful payout of $400 or so, if my memory serves me. Survival from that point on became a total family affair, with all of my brothers and sisters of working age and ability getting jobs and chipping in.
For myself, I had just been hired as a silk-screen printer in a textile mill, so as I sat on the steps of the hotel that Sunday, I was feeling good about my future prospects. That was when a man came out of the restaurant and asked if we had heard the news on the radio.
“What news?” I asked, squinting up at him in the bright sunlight.
“The Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor,” he replied breathlessly. “It’s war.”
War, I thought. That was one wrinkle in my future plans that I had not considered. Naturally, I was aware of the fighting in Europe and how Adolf Hitler was kicking just about everybody’s ass over there, and I knew the Japs were fighting in China. But I had not planned on anyone, least of all the Japanese, having the balls to attack us.
My first thought now was to answer the call of my country. As a boy, I had grown up with my father’s stories of his time in the Spanish-American War. He had joined the cavalry, and although the war ended before he had gotten any farther than some drab Texas Army base, he loved to tell stories about Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. Those tales danced across my imagination, and now as a new war opened, I was determined to follow in my father’s boot prints. I’d join the U.S. Army and volunteer for the cavalry. I tried to encourage my friends to sign up with me, but after a week of waiting for them to follow my lead, I grew impatient and ended up being the only one ready to jump on the enlistment bandwagon. Since my parents were living in Lancaster, I traveled there the next day and informed them of my plans. Having done that, I mounted the concrete steps leading into the General Charles P. Stahr Armory on North Queen Street to sign the papers. Inside, I strode confidently into the Army...
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