Published June 2000
To the Jungles and Back: Marine battled enemy and malaria
By Jennie Jones Giles
In September 1940, an 18-year-old fresh out of high school in Yancey County enlisted in the Marine Corps for “no particular reason.”
Robert M. “Bob” Cheadle had no idea that by the time he was honorably discharged in October 1945 he would have fought in the jungles of the South Pacific during a world war.
“I was always glad I went in early because our unit was so well trained that going into combat was a natural thing,” Cheadle said. “We were so familiar with our weapons and tactics and made so many landings it came easy.”
Cheadle’s basic training was at Parris Island, S.C., where today’s recruits still train.
He spent the winter of 1940-41 training at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. By May 1941, he was back at Parris Island, where the 1st Marine Division was formed.
He said his most difficult landing was not during the war, but in the summer of 1941 on Hilton Head Island, S.C.
After the practice landing, he saw a “tremendous cloud.” The Marines were ordered onto their Higgins boats to start back to the ships, which were about eight miles off the coast and moving out to sea again.
“We started back, got about three to four miles out, and the storm hit us, with waves of 25 to 30 feet,” Cheadle said.
“We thought we were going under. Our boat almost swamped, but thank goodness for pith helmets. We threw them in the pool of water and we started handing them to the guys on the gunnel and they were throwing the water out and throwing the helmets back in. It ruined the helmets, but we kept that boat bailed out and finally it calmed down and the ships came back in a little closer,” he said.
“No one got sick until we got back on ship,” he said. “That was probably the most traumatic experience I had.”
In the fall of 1941, Cheadle was back in North Carolina at Tent Camp, located at today’s Camp Geiger at Camp Lejeune. The Marine Corps had just started building the base at Camp Lejeune.
“The only buildings were the mess hall and heads,” he said.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Cheadle and a friend were out in the woods knocking mistletoe out of trees with rocks and sticks.
“It was midafternoon. When we got back it looked awfully quiet in camp,” he said.
A fellow Marine hollered, “We’re at war with the Japs.”
“We didn’t know what he was talking about,” Cheadle said. “We walked further and saw clusters of people around tents listening to radios. We went up to one and, sure enough, Pearl Harbor had been bombed.”
From the jungles of Guadalcanal…
Cheadle was assigned to an 81 mm mortar platoon of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
For the next three years and six months, he remained with the same squad of the same platoon.
On Good Friday in 1942, he boarded a Pullman car at Tent Camp and headed to San Diego. By April 13, the battalion was sailing on the USS Harris to Pago Pago, American Samoa.
From there, they went to the island of Uvea in the French Wallis Islands and spent three months putting up defensive positions.
“The islanders were tickled to death to see us coming,” he said.
Then they sailed back to American Samoa and set sail for the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. During the spring of 1942, the Japanese had occupied strategic positions in the Solomon Islands, including Guadalcanal, where Korean forced laborers began construction of an airfield.
“The Tokyo Express was coming down the slot almost every night with cruisers and destroyers and shelling the airfield,” Cheadle said. “In fact, the first night we were there, they shelled it.
“I was under a palm tree trying to get a little sleep. Something hot hit my shoulder,” he said. “A piece of shrapnel had dropped on my shoulder.”
“On Sept. 18, the 7th Marines reinforced the initial landing force, which had assaulted the island on Aug. 7 and had been in several major actions,” Cheadle said.
It was eight months after Pearl Harbor was attacked. The Guadalcanal Campaign was the first amphibious offensive operation to be launched by the United States in World War II. The Marines mission: to safeguard the lines of communication of the United States to Australia and New Zealand. By the summer of 1942, the Japanese had conquered the nations of Southeast Asia, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), many of the Solomon Islands, parts of New Guinea and were threatening Australia. Darwin, the northern territory of Australia, was bombed in early 1942 from bases in Timor.
For the next four months, Cheadle experienced the fighting and misery of the jungle.
One of the more sensational fights he remembers was the only “tank battle” on the island.
“We were at the Matanikau River,” he said. “The Japanese brought a column of tanks down the beach intending to cross the sand spit at the mouth of the river. Only one made it and all were destroyed by mortar and artillery fire.”
Cheadle said the only time the Japanese attacked was at night. These night battles were fought without the benefit of night vision equipment.
“You heard and listened,” Cheadle said. “We set our aiming stakes in the daytime. We knew what our targets would be. We were covering a front.”
The 81 mm mortars were set up 500 to 1,000 yards back of the infantry lines, he said.
“I was very proud that we never had a short round fall on friendly troops,” Cheadle said.
“The worst thing that happened to me on Guadalcanal was malaria,” he said. “It hit me like a ton of bricks. A good friend practically dragged me down to sick bay. Then, I was taken down to the Navy Medical Company by the airfield. That was the worst place in the world to be. It got bombed every night and shelled frequently from the sea. I was dragged in and out of bomb shelters.”
Two weeks later, Cheadle was back in his unit.
Along with malaria was the fear of being stranded.
“We thought the Navy had deserted us,” Cheadle said. “We saw the Japanese cruising all around us, almost at will, even in the daylight, with big ships at night. The Navy had stopped bringing us supplies. It was a creepy feeling.”
Later, after the war had ended, he learned the Navy had lost several ships and pulled out. The channel between Guadalcanal and Tulagi is the resting place of some 50 ships.
“The most dramatic yet gut-wrenching experiences were observing the sights and sounds of midnight sea battles and having no idea of the outcome,” Cheadle said.
But the Navy returned in November 1942, thanks to Navy Vice Adm. William “Bull” Halsey, Cheadle said, and the course of the war changed on Guadalcanal. Cheadle also credits the Marine pilots and anti-aircraft gunners.
“Thirty to 35 Mitsubishi bombers would come over to bomb the airfield, and only once did one of them get through,” he said. “I never saw a parachute. It was really a strange thing.”
From September to November, the Japanese poured in troops, planes and ships. The Marines had been in four months of constant combat and exposed to numerous diseases. The malaria rate was estimated at 75 percent.
Yet by the end of November, the Allies had halted the Japanese forces’ advance on the ground, turned them back at sea and driven from them from the air above Guadalcanal. The Japanese never again advanced beyond the Pacific position that they held at that time.
During the fight for Guadalcanal, the Japanese suffered 27,500 casualties, and the Navy and Marines lost 6,111 men.
… to the shores of New Britain
By January of 1943, the last of the 1st Division Marines pulled out of Guadalcanal, leaving its defense to the Army.
They went to Melbourne, Australia, for much-needed rest and recuperation. They were suffering from combat fatigue, poor diet, numerous tropical diseases and dysentery. It took several months to rebuild the health of the 1st Division Marines.
Cheadle said his weight was the lowest it ever was in his adult life and all he could eat was a little pea soup at lunch. He had to force himself to drink water.
“We loved Australia,” Cheadle said. “It’s a wonderful place. The people, they loved us. We were often called the åsaviors of Australia.'”
After regaining their health, they began two months of rigorous training.
“One week, we would leave and force march 20 miles, rest and march 20 miles back to camp, skip a day and do it again,” he said. “We forced march 40 miles a day with all our gear.”
And, as a mortar man, Cheadle and a fellow Marine were pulling an 81 mm mortar on a cart.
In late September 1943, the Marines left for New Guinea, the staging area for New Britain. An enemy air raid welcomed them.
On Christmas Eve, they embarked on landing craft for New Britain (an island of present-day Papua New Guinea).
In 1942, the Japanese had taken New Britain from Australia. They had converted the village of Rabaul into one of their most formidable advance bases, with a fleet at anchor and five airfields, from where they staged invasions of the Solomon Islands and New Guinea.
The Marines were to take Cape Gloucester, at the opposite end of the island from Rabaul, and cut off this threat to further Allied operations.
It was estimated 91,486 Japanese were on New Britain.
Cheadle was on the island four months during the monsoon season.
“The worst thing about it was the weather,” he said. “Rain, rain and more rain. There was even a small earthquake, and a volcano began smoking.
“We had plenty of supplies, we weren’t stranded and the mission was accomplished quickly,” he said.
“It was hard to get dry,” he said. “We never had clean clothes. There was a fungus that got in the ears and on the feet and many men got scrub typhus, spread by rats. The island was full of rats.
“Some of the trees were 200 feet high and at high noon it was like twilight,” he said. “The jungle came right down to the beach, but we couldn’t land at the best beach, the Japanese had it defended to the hilt.”
On Dec. 26, 1943, the Marines landed, with Cheadle, as a mortar man, in the third or fourth wave. The Japanese were taken by surprise and offered little resistance the first day.
At one point during the campaign, Lt. Col. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller was in command of the 3rd Battalion 7th Marines.
“I served as his runner one day,” Cheadle said. “Sat under a poncho next to him. We were still soaking wet under the ponchos, but they kept us warm.”
Once, walking down a trail through the jungle, a fallen tree blocked Cheadle’s path.
“I heard a shot go by my head and it hit a tree beside me,” he said. “Before I knew it, I was on the other side and still don’t remember going under that tree.”
By the end of February 1944, New Britain was secured and the Japanese had withdrawn all their forces to Rabaul, where they sat out the rest of the war in isolation, surrounded by the Allies.
An official Marine Corps book on the New Britain Campaign states, “The 7th Marines carried the burden of the campaign’s heaviest fighting; a sustained drive of two weeks duration, moving through some of the most difficult jungle territory in the world, enduring some of the worst weather in which troops were ever required to operate.”
Back to the States
After 27 months duty in the South Pacific, Cheadle was sent to Pavuvu in the Russell Islands and then rotated back to the States.
The next months were spent on guard duty at Naval Air Stations in Georgia and North Carolina and in and out of hospitals battling malaria attacks. His last bout with malaria was in 1948.
And even though he enlisted for four years, he had served more than five years.
“We were held COG, at the convenience of the government,” he said.
Cheadle was in the hospital undergoing surgery and preparing to return overseas when the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. He believes the dropping of the bomb saved thousands of lives, possibly his own.
“When you think about what was happening on Okinawa and the closer we got to Japan the worse the fighting got, it would have been difficult to estimate the number of Americans who would have been killed,” he said.
“People don’t think about the thousands of POWs in Japanese prison camps – the Americans, British, Dutch, French, Australians – who never would have made it if the war hadn’t ended when it did,” he said. “Millions of captive peoples were liberated throughout Asia.”
For service to his country, Cheadle received the Presidential Unit Citation awarded to members of the 1st Marine Division who served on Guadalcanal and the Asiatic-Pacific Theater Medal and ribbon, with three stars – for Guadalcanal, New Guinea and Cape Gloucester, along with other ribbons and medals.
After the war, Cheadle made it a point to visit Henderson County and the mother of one of his fellow Marines, “the only expert rifleman at our boot camp.”
Cheadle met Jerry Henderson on Sept. 13, 1940, at the USMC Recruiting Office in Asheville. They served in the same battalion until Cheadle was rotated back to the States. Sgt. Henderson was killed in action in September 1944 on Peleliu. He is buried at the U.S. Military Cemetery in the Philippines.
“He was an outstanding person, an outstanding Marine and highly respected,” Cheadle said.
After his discharge in October 1945, Cheadle worked at Bon Marche Department Store in Asheville and attended Asheville Biltmore College. He worked at American Enka until 1955, when he joined General Electric at East Flat Rock in the product design engineering section and then as an application specialist in marketing. He was later transferred to Houston, retiring from GE in 1985 as a lighting systems specialist.
In 1950, he met Ann Self of Asheville, and they married in 1951. They have three sons, Rand of Washington, D.C., and Greg and Eric of Mills River, along with three grandchildren.
Cheadle has volunteered with the Boy Scouts in Henderson County and Texas since 1959. He was scoutmaster of Troop 610 in East Flat Rock for 12 years. He has served as president of the Flat Rock Lions Club and Bellaire, Texas, Lions and has 33 years of perfect attendance. As a member of Mount Pisgah Lutheran Church, he serves as elder, president of Men’s Fellowship and is a member of the Board of Stewardship. He is also a member of the Guadalcanal Campaign Veterans Association. He and his wife of 49 years now live on Little River Road in Flat Rock.