Historical Background: A Hero's Welcome

By late December 1942, the situation on Guadalcanal had shifted considerably. The Americans had regained control of the sea lanes to the island, built an effective air unit on Henderson Field - the airstrip captured from the enemy - and begun to relieve the Marines on the island with Army personnel. Cut off from supplies of medicine, rice, and ammunition, the Japanese army was in full retreat, its forces suffering from severe malnutrition and malaria.

"The Army and Marine forces steadily drove the Japanese to the northwestern part of the island, and by late December, the Japanese High Command had already decided the battle was lost," says historian Donald L. Miller, author of 'D-Days in the Pacific' and a consultant on HBO's miniseries. "Many of its soldiers on the place they now called 'starvation island' were so undernourished and wracked by jungle diseases that their hair and nails had ceased to grow."

Infantry soldiers and the remaining Marines, using war dogs to seek out the enemy, drove the Japanese to Cape Esperance, where approximately 11,000 were evacuated by the Japanese Navy. "It was," says Miller, "a Pacific Dunkirk."

On February 9, 1943, the island was declared secured. It was the first time in the war that the Japanese had been defeated in ground combat, and with this American victory, the direction of the war began to change. The Americans also took two strongholds in New Guinea in January, and the Russians reclaimed Stalingrad in February. The battles to take back the Aleutians and drive the Axis forces out of Tunisia were also faring well.

By early 1943, the 1st Marine Division, the heroes of Guadalcanal, was encamped in Melbourne, Australia, where they continued to battle diseases they had contracted in jungle combat: malaria, dysentery and dengue fever. "It's called 'break-bone fever,'" says Miller. "The body becomes extremely dehydrated. Your temperature rockets up, and you have swelling in your extremities until it feels like your bones are breaking. A lot of the guys suffered from it. More than half of the division was unfit for further combat, they were so beaten down."

It took months for the Marines to return to good health, but once they did, the men found themselves amid a very grateful populace in Melbourne. The Australians had been preparing for a Japanese invasion before the Marines landed on Guadalcanal, and they looked on the Americans as the saviors of their nation. "The Aussies harbored some resentment toward the British, who some felt had abandoned them," Miller says. "Then they saw these American troops coming in ... how much they'd sacrificed in blood and health. There was just a tremendous sense of gratitude for what the American troops had done."

The majority of the Australian men were either fighting in North Africa or had been captured when the Japanese took Singapore, Hong Kong, and Burma. So the Marines arrived in a country consumed by the war effort and conspicuously short on men. "Women are everywhere because they're manning war jobs," Miller says. "For many of them, it's the first time they've ever left home, and they're living in flats with other young women and no adult supervision. It was tremendously liberating. What sets in is this feeling of, 'We could all be dead tomorrow,' and everyone's looking for the next drink, the next man, the next woman. You work hard every day, and then you party hard."

For the 1st Marine Division, the pleasures of Australian life ended in September, when they boarded ships for their next campaign. Though they knew that hard times lay ahead, they now had an important psychological advantage. "It had become an offensive war for the Americans," Miller says. "The Marines knew that they would decide where the battle would be. This is pretty much the way it would be for the rest of the war: We're picking the spots where we want to fight." And this time, the spot would be Cape Gloucester, on the northwest tip of New Britain - the most unforgiving jungle environment the Marines would encounter throughout the entire war.