World War II veteran shares memories of Guadalcanal
"Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah."
This is the word Herman Shirley remembers calling out every three steps in the jungles of Guadalcanal Island to steer clear of friendly fire.
It's been 72 years since he stepped foot on the Pacific island during World War II, but Shirley said he can still vividly recall many of the details. The night of the many hallelujahs, he was delivering flares, and the runners always used a password when passing the jungle areas.
The Japanese had a hard time pronouncing L-word's, he said, so hallelujah worked as a phrase and a prayer.
Shirley, who lives in Victoria, was 22 when he and his Marine squad arrived at the soon-to-be landing field, a place believed to be safe with limited opposition.
That island went down in history as the first major offensive attack by allied forces against the Japanese empire during World War II.
Thursday marks its 72nd anniversary.
U.S. Marines launched a surprise attack on that section of the Solomon Islands to garner control of their under-construction air base. Both sides suffered, but Japan ultimately withdrew in February 1943.
Winning the battle allowed troops to control the sea lines between the U.S. and Australia.
But it wasn't a win without great loss, Shirley said.
The Japanese lost two-thirds of the 31,400 army troops by the end of the battle, and 2,000 U.S. Army and Marine soldiers lost their lives, a History.com article reported.
"We all have a life story that should be told before it is too late," he said.
Born in Waxahachie, Shirley spent many of his years in Birmingham, Ala.. He, like many American families, faced severe poverty during the Great Depression. His father, who ran a lucrative coal mine, lost it all. That devastation caused his parents to split, and his mom to leave.
"It was hard for us losing our mother," he said.
As an adult, Shirley became his mother's means of support - a title that almost kept him out of the draft pool. But Shirley wanted to join.
His brother, Carvin, was already in the Marine Corps, and Shirley asked his mother to sign an affidavit that relinquished him from a D-1 draft status.
He enlisted Dec. 16, 1941.
Shirley landed on Guadalcanal Aug. 7, 1942, in Higgins boats armed with a Springfield bolt action rifle.
"If there were any combat Japs on the island, they took to the jungle," he said. "The (Japanese) navy was much stronger than ours, so they had control of the waters."
Japanese airplanes had started bombing ships, which caused U.S. ships to retreat, leaving the men on the island with limited rations.
Today, even though he's 94, Shirley laughs about the time, especially because his brother worked in the mess hall, and he was always taken care of.
The Japanese attacked the Marines on Aug. 21 - "a hard attack," Shirley said, recalling the morning after when all the soldiers in his reserves went up river, crossing the battle area.
"We never saw so many dead," he penned in an autobiography written about his time at war.
His group was once again bombed Oct. 24, "I could hear them falling and hear them hit," he recalled.
Shirley left the island toward the end of December, moving to Melbourne, Australia, the most beautiful, friendliest and biggest city he'd ever seen, he said.
In September, he went to Goodenough Island in the New Guinea group to train and prepare for the landing at Cape Gloucester.
As a runner for the message center, he said what he mostly remembers about Goodenough Island is mud.
The battle at Cape Gloucester, he said, lasted as long as the one at Guadalcanal, and he left the area May 4, 1944.
The Pavuvu Islands were his next stop.
D-Day was Sept. 15.
"While the battleships, the cruisers, the planes and the rockets were pounding the island, we were still on ships having our last meal," he wrote. "You could see the rockets going through the air and the smoke where the shells were landing."
Shirley went home on furlough in October, but knowing the war was far from over, he and his family wondered what the future held.
An atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. The war was over, and Shirley was discharged.
Shirley went on to run a street car with Birmingham Electric Co., ran a service station with his brother and then a trucking business.
He moved to Houston in 1947 - once again following a brother - and settled down with a job working for the Houston Belt and Terminal railroad.
Shirley married the love of his life, Edith Sherwood, had five children who went on to become an engineer, nurse, math teacher, deputy sheriff and a member of the Navy.
After 48 years of marriage, his wife died - I miss her, he said - and Shirley retired in 1981. Today, he enjoys setting record-winning streaks playing solitaire and eating candy - a bin full of Almond Joy's and peppermints sits beside his bed.
Shirley wants to share his story for one simple reason, he said.
"People need to know about it."