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Famed N.D. unit saved the day in WWII battle

Ed Mulligan of Detroit Lakes, Minn., still remembers vividly his first night on Guadalcanal with the 164th Infantry Regiment. Now 84, Mulligan, a medic with the 2nd Battalion, was just a young man on that terrible night more than 60 years ago -- Oct.


Ed Mulligan of Detroit Lakes, Minn., still remembers vividly his first night on Guadalcanal with the 164th Infantry Regiment.

Now 84, Mulligan, a medic with the 2nd Battalion, was just a young man on that terrible night more than 60 years ago -- Oct. 13, 1942.

The North Dakota Army National Guard unit, part of the Americal Division, had landed at dawn that day. The 3,000 enlisted men and 125 officers had been sent to reinforce the beleaguered 1st Marine Division, which had been chewed up by weeks of combat against the Japanese.

It was only hours before Mulligan and the 164th realized they had descended into hell.

"The night we arrived, 11 Japanese ships sat offshore and shelled us at a rate of 100 shells a minute for 90 minutes," said Mulligan. "They were firing shells ranging in size from six to 14 inches.


"After the first 10 minutes you weren't worried about surviving because you knew you wouldn't. You just hoped it wouldn't hurt too much when you were killed."

Amazingly, only three boys were killed the first day. Many more would have died had the Japanese been using airburst shells. The first to die was Cpl. Kenneth Foubert of Grand Forks, N.D., a machine-gunner with Company M.

The North Dakota soldiers were the first U.S. Army troops to see combat in World War II in any theater of operations.

"The Jap battleships Haruna and Konga pounded us all night," said Jim Fenelon, a staff sergeant from Devils Lake, N.D.

"There was organized confusion on the beach. We couldn't find our entrenching equipment and the Marines kept saying that Jap troops were coming," said Fenelon, now 80 and living in Marshalltown, Iowa.

"Guys started diving into any hole they could find. One guy hollered all night, '2nd Squad, Company I.' That was a Wahpeton company. He was lost. Someone finally told him to shut up."

It got worse after that, but the 164th, which had been shipped in from New Caledonia, was soon a battle-hardened unit.

John G. Holt, now 80, Fargo, was a farm kid back then who grew up northwest of Grafton, N.D., and joined Company C in Grafton.


"When we landed I asked a Marine how much of the island was ours. He said, 'We've got the airstrip (Henderson Field) and two miles around it. Everything else belongs to the Japs.'"

The perimeter tightened considerably after that and it took desperate hand-to-hand combat to hang onto the airstrip and the island in the weeks ahead, said Holt.

"The Japs we were fighting weren't little," remembers Fenelon. "They were big, crack Imperial Marines, and they were rugged fighters."

The Japanese kept pouring fresh troops into the fray until the Japanese fleet pulled out after a series of naval battles in November, leaving their troops to fend for themselves. That marked the beginning of the end for the Japanese.

Holt later volunteered to serve with "Merrill's Marauders," the famous unit that served behind Japanese lines in Burma for the rest of the war.

Holt said Burma was a lot worse than Guadalcanal. "It was terrible. We marched 1,600 miles in jungle, fighting all the way."

He said he came out of Burma weighing only 130 pounds, suffering from malaria and yellow jaundice, as were most of the troops.

"They shipped us to a hospital in India for a month," said Holt. Both he and Mulligan were awarded Bronze Stars for heroism in combat.


Fenelon said there were several sets of brothers in the 164th Infantry. Brothers Gil and Mel Shirley were both members of Company A out of Bismarck.

Mel was shot during an attack. His brother came over and helped bandage him up, but he appeared to be mortally wounded, said Fenelon. It wasn't until several months later that Gil learned his brother had survived his very severe wounds.

Fenelon says there were weeks of hard combat on Guadalcanal.

In the battle for Henderson Field alone, a battalion of the 164th reinforced a Marine unit and killed 2,000 Japanese troops in a single night of fighting. There were other equally ferocious nights of combat in which the 164th killed hundreds of Japanese.

George Duis of Fargo, a member of Company M, was bayoneted three times in the stomach during hand-to-hand combat before he was able to kill his attacker with a pistol. Duis had also dispatched two enemy soldiers the day before. Fenelon said it was a week before they could get Duis off the island, and a miracle that he survived.

Bernie Wagner was a member of Company G out of Valley City, N.D. Born and raised on a farm near Sanborn, N.D., in Barnes County, he was in Officer Candidate School on New Caledonia when he resigned from officer training at the request of members of his weapons platoon (machine guns and mortars) to return to his position as platoon leader.

That was a blessing for his men, because it was SSgt. Wagner's outstanding leadership and coolness under fire that kept many of them alive as he directed the fire of his mortars and machine guns in battles at Koli Point and near the Matanikau River. He was recommended for the Legion of Merit, but it wasn't awarded until earlier this year by Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D.

One of Wagner's best friends from Valley City, N.D., machine gunner Bill Carney, was killed on Guadalcanal.


Mulligan remembers the night in November when a direct hit from a 90 mm mortar in a tree overhead killed or wounded 25 men in his aid station.

The 164th received many awards for heroism, but Fenelon remembers Lt. Col. Robert Hall of Jamestown, N.D., being awarded the Navy Cross, the nation's second highest award for heroism. Hall brought his 3rd Battalion on line to fill a break in Marine lines where the Japanese had broken through. It saved the Marines from being flanked.

The interesting thing is that only Marines and Naval personnel generally qualify for that award. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, the overall commander on Guadalcanal, made an exception in Hall's case.

That was not the only exception made for the 164th. The soldiers were so good that they were the lone Army unit authorized to wear the patch of the First Marine Division on their uniforms. The unit also was awarded the Navy-Marine Corps Presidential Unit Citation.

Lt. Col. Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, one of the most highly decorated of all Marines, heaped praise on the 164th, saying he would take as many of the North Dakota boys as he could get -- that they were top-notch fighters.

The 164th finally was pulled out of Guadalcanal on March 1, 1943, and sent to the Fiji Islands for rest and refitting, but the fighting wasn't over. They next went to Bougainville, then to Leyte, Cebu, Samar, Bohol, Mindinao and Los Negros in the Philippine Islands.

When the war ended, the 164th was preparing for the invasion of the Japanese homeland.

"Had we invaded Japan, I doubt there would have been enough survivors in our unit to fill a lifeboat," said Mulligan. "We were expecting


1 million U.S. casualties."

During 600 days in combat, the 164th lost 325 men and its 1,193 wounded were awarded 2,000 Purple Hearts. Decorations for heroism included six Distinguished Service Crosses, 89 Silver Stars and 199 Bronze Stars.

On Guadalcanal alone, the 164th won one Navy Cross, five Distinguished Service Crosses, 40 Silver Stars, more than 300 Purple Hearts and many Soldier's Medals and Legions of Merit.

The gray-haired members of the 164th Infantry are now in the winter of their lives and their numbers dwindle each year, but they still get together.

Nearly 150 members of the 164th Infantry Association of the United States and their wives were in Bismarck in October to mark the 60th anniversary of the unit's landing on Guadalcanal.

Readers can reach Forum writer Terry DeVine at (701) 241-5515

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