Victoria man recalls Guadalcanal battle

Camille Doty

Aug. 6, 2012 at 3:06 a.m.

Herman Shirley vividly remembers the horrific battle scene on Guadalcanal, where he landed with the First Marine Division in 1942.

Herman Shirley vividly remembers the horrific battle scene on Guadalcanal, where he landed with the First Marine Division in 1942.   Frank Tilley for The Victoria Advocate

Herman Shirley arrived at Guadalcanal on Aug. 7, 1942. The First Division Marine thought he landed in a place with no opposition.

But to his unit's surprise, Japanese forces started bombing the U.S. ships. A battle for life and death ensued.

Shirley was 22 years old when a commanding officer asked him to determine the source of the attacks. His fellow soldiers, Charles Debele Jr. and Frederick Secor, already volunteered.

A Waxahachie native, Shirley explored the foreign land. In a matter of moments, Debele and Secor were killed. Shirley survived without a scratch.

"I guess God was looking out for me," he said.

On the 70th anniversary of the landing, the 92-year-old retired private first class remembers his war stories as though they happened yesterday.

The father of five, who now lives in Victoria, made his mark in history as part of the first large-scale offensive action against the Japanese in World War II.

The jungle-covered island was considered a strategic point for both sides of the war.

If the Japanese captured the island, they could cut off the sea route between the United States and Australia.

If Americans maintained control of the island, they would be able to protect Australia from Japanese invasion.

Marines had to mostly fend for themselves because a good portion of their vital equipment had not landed.

"The ships left without unloading all the supplies we need," Shirley said. "They just opened up on us."

Besides dealing with the humid temperatures, fatigue, and assaults, dead bodies riddled with disease were piling up on the island. Shirley said some of the deceased men were so dried up that the flies didn't even bother them.

He wanted to help his debilitated soldiers, but dealt with severe limitations.

"We couldn't rescue them because we had no place to carry them," he said.

On Aug. 21, 1942, the Japanese attacked the Marines on the west side of the Tenaru River.

Shirley said the hard-fought battle ended with 34 American deaths, plus 75 wounded. The opposition lost between 700 and 800 soldiers, he said.

Although Guadalcanal was declared an American victory, the Japanese proved to be a formidable opponent.

Lt. Gen. Lewis "Chesty" B. Puller, one of the most decorated Marines in history, joined the Guadalcanal battle to direct the defense until reinforcements arrived.

Shirley was grateful to serve under Puller's leadership.

"They surrounded us good," Shirley said. "But we didn't have to worry about them."

Shirley said by the end of December 1942, the reinforcements were under control, and he later transferred to Melbourne, Australia.

"I was there. I'll never forget it," he said. "It's been a long trip, but a good one."

Life as a Marine

It's in Shirley's DNA to become a soldier. He's traced back his roots to the Civil War. His great-grandfather, father and brother served during wartime. As Herman Shirley boasted about his family lineage of fighters, he understood the sacrifices that soldiers made fighting for freedom.

"It makes you feel good to serve," he said.

While living in Birmingham, Ala., Shirley joined the Marines Corps soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. He later received a D-1 draft card, which meant someone else depended on him. Brother Carvin Shirley was already enlisted.

The eager draftee, Shirley, convinced his mother to sign an affidavit to let him fight.

"She knew how things were ... and I would probably be drafted anyway," he said. "I wanted to get into the Marine Corps."

Shirley began training in Parris Island, S.C., and lived in and was later shipped to New River, N.C., which is now called Camp Lejune.

Shirley arrived in San Francisco in June 1942, got aboard the USS Barnett and headed for New Zealand.

Shirley arrived in Melbourne, Australia, in January 1943. He described the city as the most beautiful, friendly and biggest place he had ever witnessed.

Six months later, he moved to an island in New Guinea, and by Christmas Day, he arrived at Cape Gloster. Shirley was a runner for the Message Center. The position suited him well.

"Couldn't nobody catch me at school," he said. "The fact is, no one ever did."

After three years of service, Shirley left the Marines at the age of 25.

"I thought I was old then," said the man who is now close to 100.

Shirley found a job with the Birmingham Electric Co. Most importantly, he was delighted to be reunited with his family.

Life as a family man

Shirley moved to Houston in 1947, where his met his late wife, Edith (Sherwood) Shirley.

He worked as a switchman for Houston Belt & Terminal Railroad for three decades.

He retired in 1981, when he was 62 years old, and received a safety award for going years without an accident. Some family members said his whole career was blemish-free.

His daughter, Patricia Simons, said she learned from her father to do the best she could and take nothing for granted.

Shirley taught all of his children not only how to drive, but maintain a car.

"There's no such thing as a free ride," she said.

Although Shirley didn't receive more than a formal eighth-grade education, he supported his four daughters and one son by assisting with their homework.

"He taught us the most important thing you can do is learn and understand what you're reading," said Simons.

All of Shirley's children were college-educated and had successful careers.

Simons said her father didn't talk about his war involvement until she and her twin sister began inquiring.

A 59-year-old Victoria resident, Simons said Shirley was likely protecting his family from the horror. "There was so much death ... you just want to put the past behind you," she said.

Moving forward

Shirley is known for his quick wit and irrepressible smile.

The grandfather of 10 still cruises around Texas with ease to visit relatives. Shirley even admitted to putting the pedal to the metal occasionally.

"I'm surprised that I haven't been arrested yet," he said jokingly. He has several relatives in law enforcement.

Simons said her father's key to longevity is staying active.

Brenda Knight, Shirley's daughter, said he would fill her childhood home with lively whistling and singing.

The 60-year-old algebra teacher from Sugar Land has fond memories of family road trips to Alabama because it was an opportunity for the close-knit unit to bond and learn history.

Knight, a mother of three, said she's amazed by her father's accomplishments.

"I'm so proud to say that my dad is a Marine," she said.

From time to time, Shirley wears his red Marine baseball cap.

"Sometimes people tap me on the shoulder, thanking me for my service," Shirley said.

"I just get ate up with all that stuff."

The great-grandfather of seven still keeps in touch with fellow soldier Charlie Loeschorn, of Lakeland, Fla.

Although the former comrades have not seen each other in person in 65 years, they still talk on the phone during the Christmas holiday.

Shirley revels in celebrating with other Marines.

During the Marine Corps birthday celebration, the oldest and youngest Marine cut the cake with a sword and exchange pieces. It's been a long-standing tradition.

Shirley plans to keep breaking his own record.

"I've been able to cut the cake the last 10 years, and I'll be cutting the cake again Nov. 10," he said.



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