On April 10, 1942, the 7th Regiment of the 1st Marine Division (“7th Marines”) sailed from Norfolk, VA for the South Pacific. The 7th Marines was the first combat-ready and fulled-staffed fighting force which the United States was able to muster in World War II. It had been thrown together around what at the time was believed to be the finest battalions of infantry in the entire Marine Corps. Among those who helped create the 7th Marines’ reputation was Lt. Col. Lewis B. Puller, commander of the First Battalion of the 7th Marines.
The destination of the 7th Marines was a closely guarded secret and the method by which that destination was selected was an even more closely guarded secret. They were headed to the Samoa Islands. The 7th Marines’ objective was to occupy Samoa and hold it against an anticipated assault by the combined might of the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army. The United States knew that the Japanese planned to occupy Samoa because its cryptologists had broken the Japanese diplomatic code and several naval codes. The reason to take Samoa is obvious at a glance when looking at a map of the South Pacific.
Samoa sits squarely astride the shipping lanes between the United States and Australia. Before the war in the Pacific began, England had stripped Australia of most of its army and navy to fight the Nazis. As a consequence, Japan was able to capture Singapore in short order once the Pacific war commenced. With control of Singapore, Japan could interdict all sea traffic between Australia and Europe. Australia’s lone remaining lifeline was across the wide Pacific to the United States. If Japan could take Samoa, then it could sever that shipping artery and the citizens of Australia would demand that its troops return from the European and North African theaters of war. In such an eventuality, England would be forced to sue for peace with either the Nazi devil or the Japanese deep blue sea. But that was no real choice because England would never again appease the Nazis and would have to seek an accommodation with Japan. This would leave the United States alone to face Japan in the Pacific.
Therefore, the entire Allied war strategy was contingent on preventing the Japanese from taking Samoa.
The 7th Marines were sent to do the job. One of Lewis Puller’s company commanders was a newly married 22-year old North Carolinian by the name of Zach Davis Cox, my father. One of the privates in Dad’s company was the Yale-educated nephew of perhaps the most eloquent writer of English prose ever born in the United States, E. B. White.
Because of the secrecy of their undertaking, all mail coming to and going from the 7th Marines was censored. Dad left strict instructions that no one but him was to censor Pvt. White’s mail. Not only was Pvt. White’s primary correspondent E. B. White, but Pvt. White had some of his uncle’s writing skills. Reading their correspondence was one of the very few pleasures in which Dad could indulge with the knowledge that he was also performing a required duty.
The trip to Samoa was made in World War I destroyers that had been converted into troop transports. Room in these “four stackers” was made by removing two of the boilers and installing bunk beds from floor to ceiling. Each ship could transport about one full company of men and all their gear, provided that sleeping was done in shifts. Even with the loss of two boilers, the converted destroyers were still faster than traditional cargo ships. Unfortunately, their narrow beams allowed them to wallow wildly in rough seas and the men of the 7th Marines spent a good part of the trip hanging over the side and longing for dry land.
At the end of their long ocean voyage, the 7th Marines entered the beautiful natural harbor at Apia on the Samoan island of Upola. As they disembarked and deployed, Pvt. White approached Capt. Cox and pointed at Mt. Vaea that overlooked the harbor. He reminded Dad that the grave of Robert Louis Stevenson lay atop that mountain, with the obvious implication that Pvt. White believed it would be a terrible shame to come all the way to Samoa and not visit Stevenson’s grave. Dad acknowledged Pvt. White’s spoken observation and unspoken request.
But nothing could be done until camp was established, duties posted, and routines set. Once these formalities were out of the way, Lewis Puller released his company commanders to begin training. This was the chance for which Dad had been waiting. He announced his first training hike would be to the top of the nearest mountain, Mt. Vaea. With the help of a native guide, a small trail leading to the top was located. This trail, tightly hemmed in on either side by lush vegetation, was but a mere shadow of the well maintained trail used by tourists just a few years earlier.
The men of Dad’s company had to trudge single file up Mt. Vaea.
Once at the top, a halt was called. Pvt. White immediately initiated a search for Stevenson’s grave. He quickly located an enormous block of concrete that was nearly overgrown. Clearing away the brush revealed a small concrete replica of a long-house on top and several plaques. One of these contained the symbols of Scotland and Samoa, the thistle and hibiscus flower. Another confirmed that Stevenson’s wife Fanny was buried here. Finally, a tablet containing Robert Louis Stevenson’s self-composed epitaph was
uncovered. It read:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die
and I laid me down with a will.
Here may the winds about me blow;
Here the clouds may come and go;
Here shall be rest for evermo
And the heart for aye shall be still.
This be the verse you grave for me
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
These words had a sobering effect on the men. A few of them traced the engraved verses with their fingers as they read. But, Pvt. White straightaway began pleading with my father to assign a detail of troops to cleanup Stevenson’s grave and perhaps restore the trail leading to the top.
This request gave Dad pause to think. It was one thing to schedule a training hike to a nearby mountain, but quite another to take men out of training in the midst of a war to cleanup a grave. After a few moments of thought, Dad arrived at what he hoped would be an acceptable compromise. He told Pvt. White that he couldn’t assign men to cleanup Stevenson’s tomb and that widening the trail was out of the question. But, if Pvt. White could get a few of his like-minded comrades to join him, Dad would allow them to work on the grave site, provided they kept it quiet. In short order, Pvt. White had assembled a squad of volunteers. Upon return to the encampment, these men were allowed to requisition tools and return to the top of Mt. Vaea.
Not long after the cleanup of Stevenson’s grave had commenced, Dad was playing bridge with Lewis Puller. About midway through the evening, Puller asked my father if he had any men posted on top of Mt. Vaea. Dad snapped back sharply, “Yes, sir!” And then with false bravado that he hoped would bluff Puller, he added, “The top of Mt. Vaea is the best observation post for the harbor on the entire island! You can see for miles from there.” Puller looked at my father and after a short pause replied, “Cox, have you lost your mind? Get those men off that hill and back into training!”
And with that, the United States Marine Corps honor guard for the tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson was unceremoniously disbanded.