We Were Going to Win, or Die There

We Were Going to Win, or Die There

With the Marines at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan

Roy H. Elrod, edited by Fred H. Allison

University of North Texas Press, Denton, Texas, 2017, 320 pages

Book Review published on: December 15, 2017

The battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan are iconic in Marine Corps history. We Were Going to Win, or Die There tells the remarkable story of Marine Corps Lt. Col. Roy H. Elrod during World War II and his experiences in those battles.

Elrod opens with a description of his life growing up during the Depression on the family farm in the small west Texas town of Muleshoe. He briefly attended Texas A&M University before enlisting September 1940. Elrod’s depiction of catching the attention of Marine Gunner (Warrant Officer) Henry Crowe and his assignment to Henry Crowe’s 8th Marine Regiment’s weapons platoon reflects a time when “Old Corps” personalities were larger than life.

Elrod takes the reader to the period prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the Marine Corps underwent a major transformation in preparation for war. He describes his platoon receiving the new 37 mm gun, his training, liberty in southern California, and reports of enemy aircraft flying across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. The 2nd Marine Division left San Diego in January 1942 to make the fifteen-day cruise to American Samoa. While there, Elrod successfully completed a grueling field-commissioning program—one of 90 out of 120 marines to do so. Elrod was commissioned a second lieutenant and took over as the platoon commander for the weapons platoon, as the 2nd Marine Division left Samoa to join the 1st Marine Division in its ongoing operation on Guadalcanal.

Elrod artfully describes the combat conditions on Guadalcanal, where marines battled fanatical Japanese soldiers, primitive living conditions, diseases that included malaria and dysentery, and a shortage of rations. His platoon quickly realized that being a 37 mm gun crew was a dangerous occupation as the gun offered little protection and quickly became a target for the Japanese. It was on Guadalcanal where soldiers and marines learned that the Japanese were a formidable foe intent on fighting to the last man. He describes their reprieve in New Zealand following Guadalcanal as his marines prepared for Tarawa.

While in New Zealand, Elrod had fortuitous insight in developing a series of rope slings that enabled his gun crews to get their nine-hundred-pound plus weapons ashore. The gun crews trained extensively on transporting and firing their weapons. They boarded transport ships on 1 November 1942, where they learned they would be heading to Tarawa, code named “Helen.” An intercepted message from a Japanese admiral to Tokyo was broadcasted to the marines; he boasted that Tarawa was so well defended that a million men could not take it in a million years. Elrod, studying the model of the island, realized the reefs would be problematic, so he decided not to place any of the platoon’s equipment on their jeeps.

Elrod captures the bitter fight on Tarawa where three thousand elite Japanese soldiers, highly confident that they could defeat the marines, were in connecting underground pillboxes, machine gun nests, and concrete bunkers. As he imagined, the amphibious tractors were hung up on reefs, forcing the marines to wade through chest high water for eight hundred yards under murderous interlocking Japanese gunfire to the beach. His gun crews played a critical role in neutralizing the Japanese fighting positions, all the while exposed to murderous fire.

He recalls that so many officers and noncommissioned officers were lost, individual marines moved forward or attack positions on their own. The lack of water became a problem as well as handling the wounded. Elrod describes night as especially dangerous, as Japanese soldiers used the darkness to sneak close to the U.S. forces. He describes his closest call during the first night on Tarawa, when a Japanese mortar round landed between him and another lieutenant in their fighting position, bruising their ribs. Fortunately, the other marine was able to throw the round away from their position, as the mortar striker did not impact the ground. Elrod witnessed the bravery of his friend, Lt. Alexander Bonneyman, in attacking a large bombproof shelter containing 150 Japanese soldiers on the third and final day of the operation. Bonneyman would posthumously be awarded the Medal of Honor for taking out the position. Elrod was also wounded on the third day and would be sent to Hawaii to recover before Saipan.

In Saipan, on 2 July 1944, Elrod was seriously wounded when the 2nd Marine Division was taken out of the line. He describes the severity of his wounds and the eventual return to San Diego for medical treatment. Editor Fred Allison follows up in describing Elrod’s life after Saipan and the Marine Corps.

The strength of the author’s work is Allison’s extensive search of Navy and Marine Corps historical files in providing interesting background and context to Elrod’s experiences. We Were Going to Win, or Die There is a remarkable story of one marine’s combat experience in three of the most iconic Marine Corps operations in World War II. It would make a great addition to E. B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed and is highly recommend for anyone interested in a true story of courage, heroism, or World War II.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas