Served: U.S. Marines 1940-1957
U.S. Army 1957-1962
Residence: Fort Edward, New York
Nominated by Matthew Rozell, History teacher
Served: U.S. Marines 1942-1946; 1950-51
Residence: Glens Falls, New York
Nominated by Matthew Rozell, History teacher
On May 21, 2013, local World War II veterans Gerald West and Robert Addison will be honored in a ceremony for the New York State Senate Veterans’ Hall of Fame. They were nominated by Senator Betty Little at the suggestion of Hudson Falls history teacher Matthew Rozell, whose students had interviewed these men several times.
Mr. Rozell is in the process of writing a series of articles on World War II for the Washington County Historical Society Journal utilizing the class archives of interviews. The following narrative is condensed from the upcoming Fall release of the Journal, which will publish Part II (of 4) in the Pacific series entitled “Recording the Voices of World War II-From Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay.”
In this installment of an ongoing series, my students and I have pieced together narrative voices of local residents and their friends that show the enthusiasm for the war effort. Maybe more importantly, their recollections amplify other points essential to an understanding of World War II, but often overlooked. In the study of this war, we are tempted to both teach and learn the history as if the way things turned out was somehow preordained − as if, from the outset, it was a foregone conclusion the Allies would win the war. Because we know how events turned out, we read the history with a sense of inevitability (as several historians have pointed out). Nothing could be further from the truth.
By talking to persons who lived through these troubled times, my students and I gained insight into the urgent, uncertain, confused way many events actually unfolded. We confronted particularly – through the stories of local men and women − the nation’s unpreparedness in the first years of the Pacific War, beginning with the initial limited response to the Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, Guam, and the Philippines. While military planners in Washington debated, numbers of local men would fight to survive in vicious jungle fighting. Indeed, it was the incredible actions of these men, against overwhelming odds, which would shape events and force policymakers in Washington, D. C., to take notice.
Six months after Pearl Harbor, American naval forces won a decisive engagement at the Battle of Midway (June 4−7, 1942) At this time, advance elements of General Alexander Vandegrift’s 1st Marine Division were gathering in New Zealand, with no American offensive action planned until early 1943. However, soon after Midway, intelligence showed a Japanese air base under construction at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. If finished, the Japanese noose encircling Australia would be complete and any Allied counteroffensive very difficult. A U. S. amphibious landing was needed immediately, and on a scale not attempted since the World War I Allied debacle at Gallipoli (1915) − and with much less time to plan. “I could not believe it,” General Vandegrift would later say of this plan.
Vandegrift had within his command a special unit, under formation only since February 1942, the “1st Marine Raider Battalion,” which would play a key role in the ultimate U. S. success at Guadalcanal. Schooled by veterans of Marine operations of the 1920s and 1930s in Central America and China, 900 specially selected young men formed a lightly-armed, mobile commando unit able to operate in sub-equatorial jungle − the vanguard for larger troop landings to follow. Named “Edson’s Raiders” after their Colonel “Red Mike” Edson, the unit would earn combat honors unparalleled in Marine Corps history in 18 weeks of violent engagements at Guadalcanal.
Of the 900 original Raiders, two local veterans interviewed by our class belonged to this elite group and currently reside in Senator Little’s 45th Senate District.
Gerry West grew up in Fort Anne, and like many other during the Depression, decided to enlist in the Marine Corps following high school, and would remain in the military until 1962. In fact, he was already a Marine when he heard the news of Pearl Harbor. “I’ll never forget it. I was sitting in a barracks in Quantico, Virginia. I had the duty that weekend, and there were about ten of us there listening to the Washington Redskins football game which had just started…and something like 1:05 they broke in with the announcement saying that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.” Robert Addison of Glens Falls, originally from Ohio, spent 29 years as Athletic Director of Adirondack Community College. He also recalls the day: “The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on my nineteenth birthday. A month later I found myself in the Marine Corps in a time compressed boot camp…When I was just about ready to finish boot camp, they were filling up and forming this Raider battalion.”
Addison made the cut and was interviewed by a Marine captain who told him the Raiders would be the cream of the Marine Corps, but also warned their mission would likely be “first in and last out.” Addison accepted the challenge and was assigned to a mortar squad in the fledgling Raiders. More training followed. Some days they marched, fully equipped, dozens of miles in the day, only to turn around and re-navigate the same terrain, in the dark, through swamps and across rivers.
Bob Addison: “When we got into the Raider Battalion, then we really got into the force. On a Saturday morning, we would go on a 22-mile, full-pack, forced march − you know, in the morning − and then they give us liberty in the afternoon . . . And Edson was known for getting people in good physical condition. He was the type of guy you would follow him anyplace, because what he would do when we were on these forced marches, he would stop and watch everybody go by, and he would walkie-talkie [to the head of the column], and they would hold up, and he would start [jogging past the men] double-time up [to the head of the column] . . . When we came in, at the barracks, he would stand there and watch every man go by and give compliments to us − you know, “good job, good job.” That’s the type of leader he was. Everybody practically worshipped him. He was quite a leader.”
The Raiders embarked on a cross-country train journey and were then, for two weeks, carried by reconverted World War I destroyers across the South Pacific to Samoa. There, in conditions of hot, muggy weather and frequent rain, training continued with cross-country hikes in a mountain terrain of steep ridges and slippery trails, often at night. Sometimes pushed from 5:00 A. M. until 10:00 or 12:00 P. M., the men survived on skimpy rations, while also completing a training schedule that included practice landings in inflatable boats, Judo, bayonet combat, first aid, stalking, and demolition.
Eight months after Pearl Harbor to the day, the Marines landed in combat. To secure Guadalcanal, the Raiders were assigned to take the neighboring island of Tulagi, where they would be up against the best of the Japanese combat forces, the Rikusentai or Japanese “Special Naval Landing Forces.” Coming in on Higgins Boats in the morning hours of August 7, 1942, the Raiders would clash for three days in vicious fighting, encountering hitherto-unknown Japanese cave bunkers plus their enemies’ sniper actions, night-fighting, and willingness to fight to the death. The Raiders then conducted raids on Japanese camps on Guadalcanal, as enemy forces ere being reinforced at night, every night, while the US Navy left the scene.
Addison was trained as a mortar man and West was a demotions expert and tapped as a machine-gunner in the critical battles at Guadalcanal, where the Japanese were developing an airfield to support their attack on Australia. The Marines captured the airfield and the Raiders pulled back to high ground overlooking it to defend it. If the Ridge fell, Guadalcanal would fall; and if the ‘Canal fell, Australia might be next. A vicious battle for the high ground would ensue.
West recalls: “They did not get through us, if they had gotten through, they would’ve had the airstrip back. Most of us just refer to it as Bloody Ridge. We had 50% casualties that night…”
On September 14th, 1942, first light at Guadalcanal revealed over a thousand Japanese dead on the ridge. Outnumbered five to one, for two nights the Raiders held on against Japanese shelling by sea and Imperial troops, and the battle has become legendary in Marine Corps history.
West continues: “It was probably the decisive battle of the whole campaign. In the Battle of Bloody Ridge, just to give you an idea, two men in our battalion received the Congressional Medal of Honor and there were thirteen Navy Crosses awarded to men in our battalion just for that one battle, which is unheard of.”
Suppressed from the public at the time, more than 7000 U.S. Marines, soldiers and sailors would die in the six month Guadalcanal campaign. Japanese losses were much higher. By the time the last starving and dispirited Japanese troops left in Feb. 1943, further Japanese expansion into the South Pacific was halted.
Bob Addison: “They called it Hell Island, the Japanese, because they had to live out in the jungles… They had lost over 26,000 men. A lot of them died of starvation and diseases… When they left, they left 26,000 behind.”
Only a handful of the original Marine Raiders are left. Addison and West survived to return home, marry, and raise children. Seventy one years later, their friendship endures.
Condensed from the forthcoming Washington County Historical Society Journal.
The Washington County Historical Society Journal is an annual 96 page print publication of the WCHS. The Journal seeks to publish new research into any aspect of the County’s history, and this includes reminiscences and interesting unpublished source materials. All members of the WCHS receive it; for membership information, please visit their website at www.wchs-ny.org.
 William Manchester, Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War (Boston: Little Brown, 1987) p. 167.
 Geoffrey C. Ward & Ken Burns, The War: An Intimate History (NYC: Knopf, 2007) pp. 47−49.
 Among them, 24 U. S. Navy ships would be named in honor of individual members of the Battalion before the war was over. See Col. Joseph H. Alexander, Edson’s Raiders: The First Marine Raider Battalion in World War II (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000) p. 49.
 Alexander, op.cit., p. 32.
 Merritt “Red Mike” Edson was born just over the border from Washington Co. in Rutland, VT, in 1897. Retiring as a USMC Brigadier General, he returned to Vermont and became the first Commissioner of the Vermont State Police.
 Alexander, pp. 60−63.