Former Marine shares his side of history
Ninety-five-year-old Matthew Constantino has a warm smile and a hint of a New York accent. His easy-going manner puts those around him at ease, but it also masks something amazing: Matthew helped shape U.S. history. He’s part of a dwindling population of World War II veterans still alive and able to share their experiences.
Matthew fought in the Battle of Guadalcanal, one of WWII’s most critical battles in the Pacific. Lengthy books have been written about Guadalcanal’s significance as the gateway for shipping between the U.S. and Australia. Whoever controlled the island controlled Australia’s fate. The six-month battle began on August 7, 1942, and was the first major Allied offensive in the effort to win the Pacific theater.
Allied forces lost approximately 7,100 men, 29 ships, and 615 aircraft. The Japanese lost approximately 31,000 men, 38 ships, and more than 600 aircraft. Because of American ingenuity, determination, and sacrifice, the last Japanese troops pulled out in February 1943. The victory helped turn the tide toward Allied forces’ domination of the Pacific.
While the historical facts have been recorded, history’s grand perspective often overlooks the individual stories of those who lived through incredible times. Even though it’s been a few years, Matthew can still share his.
Welcome to the Canal
In 1942, Matthew was a Private First Class (PFC) with A Company 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. He was a squad leader for the M2 mortars, or “60 mortars,” lightweight, portable two-and-a-half-foot-long tubes that shot 60mm artillery shells. After the initial invasion of Guadalcanal, the 7th Marines were sent to resupply U.S. efforts.
But getting onto the jungle island was challenging. “At that time, the Japanese navy had superiority and we didn’t,” Matthew explains. “They could do whatever they wanted to do.” After several days and three attempts to get around the Japanese navy, Matthew’s unit landed at night on September 18, 1942.
The fresh Marines were welcomed reinforcements, and they brought much-needed supplies and food rations. Food was still a finite resource, especially with the additional troops. Matthew went on two-meals-a-day rations and ate roots and worm-infested rice captured from the Japanese units. “That was your protein,” Matthew jokes.
All kinds of enemies
Besides dealing with food shortages in those first days, Matthew encountered an enemy who didn’t fight conventionally. “The Japanese studied Western culture and found out we fought in the daytime and slept at night. So they reversed it,” Matthew explains. “Every battle you had was at night. Then they’d send over a rash of bombings in the daytime just to keep you awake.”
Matthew’s company was assigned to the rear perimeter between the Lunga and Tenaru Rivers near Edson’s Ridge. They guarded against jungle attacks from the Japanese. When they weren’t on the perimeter, they went out on patrol.
“We’d go on patrol for two, three, or four days at a time and never see a Japanese soldier in the daytime. At night, you always dug a fox hole because you didn’t know when they were going to come out of the woodwork,” Matthew recalls. Matthew slept in foxholes his entire time on the island.
The gruesome realities of war were never far away. One day, Matthew’s patrol was ordered to have lunch in a field of rotting Japanese corpses. The putrid stench of decay in the air didn’t stop the men from eating canned meat and biscuits before moving on.
Death was always present. Matthew had his own philosophy. “I’m a firm believer in the Man Upstairs. He’s got your number, and that’s the way I felt,” Matthew explains. “I just took life easy. If you don’t, you can end up with some kind of psychological problem.”
Some of his fellow Marines struggled with the thought of dying. “I had a kid in my squad whose dad was a mortician. He’d say, ‘Get me out of patrol, get me out of patrol. I don’t want to die.’ He ended up as a psycho case—dying kept preying on his mind,” Matthew remembers.
The Marines also contended with another enemy: the island itself. Malaria and other tropical diseases were rampant. Microscopic organisms lurked in every drop of river water. Many Marines, including Matthew, developed dysentery from drinking it. But the fighting didn’t stop because they were sick.
“You couldn’t leave the front lines until you had 103˚ fever. I had a 102.8˚ and I had to stand guard half the night and go on patrol. Finally, it gets up over 103˚ and they send me back to battalion, give me some quinine, break my fever, and I’m right back,” Matthew explains.
His perseverance through various illnesses and his ingenuity on the frontlines typify the Marine Corps spirit. Matthew gained the admiration of his battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller, for his quick decisions as a squad leader and accuracy with the 60 mortars despite being only a PFC in a corporal’s position. But his leadership skills were tested further in late October when the Japanese attempted to retake Henderson Field.
On October 25, Matthew and 45 other Marines were sent to an outpost over half a mile outside their perimeter. The Japanese launched a major offensive to retake Henderson Field, the vital airstrip inside the American perimeter. As 5,000 Japanese troops charged the outpost, the Marines were ordered back to base. But they couldn’t make it—there were just too many Japanese troops. Forty-six Marines scattered haphazardly into the dark jungle, trying to evade the enemy.
The next day, Matthew headed back to the outpost to regroup, but it was crowded with Japanese patrols. He located four other Marines and a Navy medic. As the only squad leader among them, Matthew took charge. Their options were few: attempt to get back to base through heavy Japanese forces and likely get killed, or head out into unknown territory controlled by the Japanese and have a chance to survive. They chose unknown territory.
“You’re a mile into enemy territory. Now you understand how a deer feels,” Matthew explains. “You’re on the alert. You see a Japanese soldier, you have to hide—if you kill them, the Japanese know you’re there. So it was a cat and mouse game for five days.”
But the game doesn’t last long if there’s no food or water for the mice. The squad eventually found a patch of lily pads. Their medic cut tubes to suck the water up from the lily pad tops. “We sucked in bugs and everything else. So then he put pieces of gauze on the end of [the tubes],” Matthew remembers. They stayed there for nearly two days.
Evading Japanese patrols, surviving without food, and using his azimuth for direction, Matthew eventually led his men back towards friendly territory. But as they neared the perimeter, they encountered an Army patrol and a big problem. The patrol wasn’t expecting any other U.S. troops in the area.
“So we were standing there trying to figure out how in the heck we were going to let them know we’re not Japanese. Then Richards—he’s a Polish kid with blue eyes and blonde hair—takes off his helmet and raises his rifle. He says, ‘The password was “Yellow” five days ago. Don’t shoot, we’re Marines,’” Matthew says.
Thankfully, the patrol didn’t shoot. Matthew and his squad made it back to base, where Matthew was given a field promotion to corporal for his leadership. He spent the next few months fighting in various battles before leaving the island in January 1943.
Many of the Marines who fought at Guadalcanal are gone, and personal memories are being lost. Matthew tries to keep his memories alive. Occasionally he shares his experiences, using maps, articles, and other records. But it’s not the documents that tell a story.
It’s the memories. Remembering a Marine with dysentery walking around on the front line in nothing but his boots and helmet because his just-washed uniform hung drying on the barbed wire perimeter fence. Or of sitting on a hill at night watching ships battle each other in streaks of light.
Some recollections are light-hearted, while others—like losing two of his buddies—still tinge Matthew’s eyes with sadness. With his warm smile, Matthew cherishes the good memories, and as for the bad memories, he has learned to accept them but not to take them to heart. “I don’t let things bother me,” he says. “That’s why I’m 95 years old.”