Candice Shy Hooper
George R. Tweed,
Robinson Crusoe, USN:
The Adventures of George R. Tweed RM1c on Japanese-Held Guam,
as told to Blake Clark.
1945; rpt. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2010. Pp. viii,
309. ISBN 978-1-59416-111-7. |
Herbert Laing Merillat,
A History of the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal.
1944; rpt. Westholme, 2010. Pp. xii, 283. ISBN
The Bismarck Episode.
1948; rpt. Westholme, 2010. Pp. 232. ISBN 978-1-59416-110-0.
"What were people reading during World War II?" Westholme Publishing
recently answered that question by republishing three "critically
acclaimed titles of the World War II years," as part of its series,
"America Reads: Rediscovered Fiction and Nonfiction from Key Periods
in American History."
All nonfiction, the books tell of one man's harrowing fight for
survival on an enemy-occupied island, a crucial turning point in the
Pacific told from the point of view of the First Marine Division,
and the action-packed hunt for a fearsome battleship in the North
Atlantic. Although it does not appear that Westholme chose these
particular books because of a common theme, all three project a sense of immediacy rarely found in more recent accounts of
World War II. The narratives powerfully demonstrate how war at every
level (one man, one division, one navy) is affected by preparation,
determination, innovation, resilience, and chance.
* * *
most imaginative novelist could not create a better case study of
the maxim that fortune favors the prepared mind than that of George
Raymond Tweed. Tweed was an eighteen-year veteran Navy Radioman
First Class on 8 December 1941, when Japanese artillery fire and
bombers announced the invasion of Guam. The small U.S. force of
about four hundred on the island was quickly overwhelmed and
surrendered almost immediately. Tweed and five others rejected that
option and escaped into the bush to await rescue by the U.S. Navy,
which they confidently estimated would take less than six weeks.
They were wrong by twenty-seven months. Only Tweed survived to greet
the American invasion force on 11 June 1944. His successful
two-and-a-half year struggle to evade concerted Japanese efforts to
capture him was punctuated time and again by close calls and lucky
breaks. The woodsman's survival skills acquired during his boyhood
in the vast forests of central Oregon, the Navy's military and
technical training, and his genuine affability enabled Tweed to
capitalize on opportunities fatally fumbled by his fellow American
Crusoe, USN immediately conjures up the vivid image of a man
trapped on an island, more than one reviewer of Tweed's account
noted its inapt title.
For, unlike Defoe's Crusoe, Tweed was neither lost nor isolated. He
and more than twenty thousand native Chamorros knew he was on the
thirty-mile-long island of Guam. So did the Japanese Imperial Army,
which numbered nearly eighteen thousand troops there by 1943.
Though the Japanese never found Tweed, they knew him by name, put a
price on his head that increased over time, and pressed Chamorros
into search parties along with hundreds of Japanese soldiers to
systematically hunt for him. Rather than a solitary companion like
Friday, who appeared relatively late in Crusoe's island confinement,
a succession of Chamorros immediately began hiding and feeding
Tweed, risking their own and their relatives' lives. Their
assistance was invaluable, but the Chamorros' innate sociability
compelled them to tell their families and friends about him. Tweed
was a combination of local hero and curiosity; one of his temporary
protectors displayed him like an animal in a cage: "Here he is…. I
keep him here. I feed him" (109). But, while the Chamorros seemed
constitutionally unable to keep a secret among themselves, they
never let the Japanese find Tweed, despite monetary rewards and
The book proceeds
directly and chronologically from the Japanese invasion through
Tweed's harrowing escapes to and from a succession of more than a
dozen major hideouts -- including his final eleven-month stay in a
remote cliff-top cave from which he recorded Japanese movements on
land and sea--to "the most exciting moment of my life" (229), when
he recognized the sound of U.S. bombers approaching the island. The
U.S. Navy soon appeared on the horizon, but a week passed before
Tweed finally caught the attention of one of the ships with the
reflected glare of a broken bit of mirror. He then struggled down
the cliff to the beach far below to await rescue. His nerve-wracking
race against Japanese guns trained on the destroyer and Japanese
soldiers who spotted the small rescue craft heading to shore began
only after long, tense communications between Tweed and the USS
One of the book's most gripping scenes has Tweed desperately
trying to overcome the skipper's understandable skepticism that
semaphore signals from homemade flags on the distant cliff were, in
fact, an American's call for help and not a Japanese plot to lure
him within firing range.
Journalist Blake Clark
wrote the book in a distinctive, chatty, first-person style that
must have reflected Tweed's own voice. Every human emotion is
expressed with unvarnished directness; the reader rides the same
roller coaster of fear, relief, joy, anxiety, boredom, and
loneliness that Tweed endured. But loathing of Japanese
brutality--the beheading of captured American sailors and the torturing
of Chamorros who tried to help them--registered most viscerally
and kept him focused on survival:
As soon as [Limty, a Chamorro] could walk, the Japs took him to jail
and started the beatings all over again. Still he never told. When I
heard this, I felt like walking into town and killing as many Japs
as I could before they killed me. It wasn't right for me to cause
people like Limty and Joaquin to be tortured. I felt ashamed of
myself for wanting to save my life.
Then I thought, "What if I do kill half a dozen Japs? When
they get me, the fight's over…." I wasn't going to let those
bastards win out over me. I'd have my revenge when the Americans
came back. I lived for that day. I took heart, too, from what Mrs.
Johnston [a Chamorro] said. If I gave myself up, it would mean to
the natives that I no longer believed the Americans were coming
back, and they might knuckle under to the Japs. As long as I held
out, the natives, too, would have hope (138-39).
No doubt Tweed's tale of courage, daring, and hope was rushed into
print within months of his rescue because those qualities remained
in great demand on the U.S. home front in 1945, while the war was
still raging. For military and civilian leaders, his firsthand
reports of Japanese atrocities would also have been a timely way to
steel Americans' hearts to what appeared inescapable at that time:
an invasion of the Japanese homeland, with equally inevitable and
unprecedented American casualties. More than sixty years later,
Robinson Crusoe, USN still vividly brings a world war to life on
a very personal level.
Herbert Laing Merillat was also an eyewitness to much of what he
wrote of, but The Island is no memoir. Merillat had abandoned
his job as a bureaucrat in the Treasury Department and joined the
Marines in early 1942, and it was both as public relations officer
and official historian of the First Marine Division that
then-Lieutenant Merillat waded ashore on Guadalcanal on 7 August
1942. The Island is neither public relations piece, nor true
official history, nor academic history; rather it combines elements
of all three. Much of it is written in the first person, though one
man could not have seen all the action described, and that is
occasionally confusing. The great strength of this narrative--that
its author was present during the action and also had direct access
to a vast array of official reports and participants in the
battle--is diluted by Merillat's failure to cite his sources beyond
a string of acknowledgements in his preface.
For Merillat's home front audience, however, the lack of footnotes
was a small price to pay for the opportunity to read a detailed
account of the First Marine Division on what needed no more precise
description than "The Island." To the average American in 1944,
Guadalcanal was, indeed, "THE island," and largely because "of what
[the Marines] gave and took in the long struggle with the Japanese
for possession of Henderson Field, the key to the Solomons" (vii).
Accounts of other U.S. combatants and tales from the Japanese would
have to wait to be told--some for decades. Not until Richard Frank's
was there a truly comprehensive,
integrated narrative of the campaign.
Merillat's focus may be narrow in terms of later historiography, but
it was surely wide enough and deep enough for its day.
Merillat presents his story chronologically in three parts. The
first details the Marines' deployment to (often ill-suited) staging
and practice areas in the South Pacific, the surprisingly
uncontested landings on Guadalcanal, and the first wave of fierce
Japanese counterattacks. The second part of the book embraces the
bulk of the Marines' campaign on Guadalcanal, which teetered between
victory and defeat from September through November. Merillat devotes
a chapter to each of the most notable battles, beginning with "The
Battle of the Ridge," where Colonel Merritt A. Edson and an initial
force of three hundred Fifth Marines faced a Japanese force more
than five times their strength. "Smashing the Sendai Division,"
tells how Japan's famed Sendai (Second) Division's largest--and
last--major ground offensive to retake Henderson Field shattered
against the Americans' grim resolve. "The Crisis in November" was,
according to Merillat, "the gravest we ever faced on Guadalcanal"
(203). Fierce U.S. naval and aerial assaults halted the enemy's final
desperate effort to re-take the island, defeating a Japanese
invasion force carrying as many as thirty thousand reinforcements and costing
Japan twenty-eight ships and thousands of soldiers.
In the last part of the book, Merillat relates--with first-person
authority--the relief the First Marines felt leaving the island
on 9 December 1942. And he concludes with a very short
"Retrospective," as befits military history written during the war
it describes. Throughout, Merillat highlights the poor planning,
missed opportunities, and the role of pure chance in episodic
victories and defeats on both sides. He could not have known in 1944
that Guadalcanal would be (according to later historians) "the
turning point of the war,"
but he felt its iconic significance in his bones. His prescient
retrospective is both perceptive and biting:
The Guadalcanal campaign had not been on a large scale compared with
the huge operations which final victory in the Pacific and in Europe
would entail…. As the only active sector in the South Pacific except
for New Guinea, however, Guadalcanal had been the magnet for
powerful Japanese forces and a sink-hole for Japanese strength…. Of
the larger strategy of the war, which led to the original attack on
Guadalcanal, with limited means employed according to hastily made
plans, I cannot speak, for I know nothing of it. The high councils
which decided upon the venture will doubtless make the reasons known
in their own way. I can only say that those to whom fell the honor
to initiate that first United States offensive in the Pacific
entered upon their task and carried it out with enthusiasm and zeal.
Their success against great odds, against an enemy hitherto
unbeaten, quite properly has made "Guadalcanal" a symbolic name and
given it a unique place in our military history (237-39).
Merillat's book may have been "critically acclaimed" when it first
appeared, as Westholme claims, but it has not stood the test of time
as well as his later memoir, Guadalcanal Remembered
(still in print and used in military history courses). Greater
availability of documents from all sides, disciplined sourcing, and
better writing have produced works of superior academic value and
popular appeal. In his "Preface" to Guadalcanal, for example,
Frank cites several excellent accounts of the campaign without
mentioning The Island. But
the first person he acknowledges for his assistance and
encouragement is "H.C. 'Chris' Merillat."
Clearly, Merillat's contributions to our understanding of the Battle
of Guadalcanal stretch beyond the pages of this book.
"Stretch" also suits Westholme's claim that Americans were reading
The Bismarck Episode during World War II, since the book was
first published in 1948.
Of course, Americans had read a great deal about the Bismarck
in newspapers seven years earlier, before the United States was
officially at war. The compressed drama of 21-27 May 1941 was--and
remains--a riveting tale, from the moment the Admiralty suspected
that the Bismarck might have put to sea, to its shockingly
swift and utterly demoralizing destruction of the Royal Navy's
legendary HMS Hood, through the agonizing hours of its
pursuit until British units ultimately sank the crippled German
behemoth as it struggled toward France for repairs. Even Russell
Grenfell's inherent British reserve
cannot dampen the fires of the story he relates:
By 10 a.m. the Bismarck was a silent, battered wreck. Her
mast was down, her funnel had disappeared, her guns were pointing in
all directions, and a cloud of black smoke was rising from the middle
of the ship and blowing away with the wind. Inside, she was clearly
a blazing inferno, for the bright glow of internal fires could be
seen shining through numerous shell and splinter holes in her sides.
Her men were deserting their guns … and occasionally jumping over
the side, to escape by watery death from the terror on board…. And
her flag still flew. (184)
In the main, though, this is a dispassionate, chronological, narrative
history of the British Navy and Admiralty, written by one thoroughly
familiar with the terrain. Captain Grenfell, a distinguished Royal
Navy officer, served aboard the HMS Revenge at the Battle of
Jutland and later taught at the Royal Naval College. Unlike
Merillat, who took part in the events he recorded, Grenfell played
no official role in the Bismarck episode, but like him,
he had official blessing in preparing his account and nearly
unlimited access to British sources. He includes a gracious but
mind-numbing list of acknowledgments, but seldom cites his sources.
He does, however, provide perceptive insights into the conduct of
the Royal Navy during the action, as when he concludes the book by
saying: "There could be no stronger argument for the principle of
decentralization than the conduct of the outlying forces on this
occasion; and no better example, since that of Nelson, of the
willingness to decentralize by an admiral in command" (202).
The seven years that elapsed between the events he described and the
book's publication enabled Grenfell to answer (in a few helpful
footnotes) some of the questions that swirled around the
participants. More recent examinations of the Bismarck's
demise have incorporated valuable information from German sources,
but answers to many questions that still bedevil historians
disappeared forever beneath the Atlantic along with battleship and
over two thousand of her officers and crew.
* * *
The "America Reads" series is a terrific concept, which Westholme
could improve by adding a publisher's note to provide some
context for each volume. Between the covers, the books are just as they were originally
with no information about the impact of the events described or how
later scholarship has increased our understanding of them. Westholme
neither provides proof of the books' critical acclaim nor explains
why such acclaim in the 1940s makes them worth reading today.
Tweed's story will always be a classic tale of survival against
incredible odds, and Westholme has done a great service by
republishing it. But better sourcing and writing have produced
accounts that surpass Merillat's and Grenfell's. Moreover, the
latter falls outside the stated time frame for this series. While
Westholme need not disclose precisely how it selects books for the
series, it should take care not choose books that so readily raise
Boca Grande, FL
 See the "America Reads" page at Westholme's website <link>.
 See, e.g., the review by Orville Prescott,
"Robinson Crusoe, USN: The Adventures of George Tweed, RM 1/c,
USN, on Jap-Held Guam," NY Times (13 Apr 1945) 15.
 See Wakako Higuchi, "Japanese Military
Administration of Guam," Guampedia (updated 18 Nov 2009)
 Not identified in the book, perhaps for
security reasons. But see Dict. of Amer. Naval Fighting Ships,
s.v. "McCall": "By 4 July, the fast carriers were again
raiding Iwo Jima. They then steamed back to the Marianas where McCall,
took up patrol off Guam, 10 July. At 1820 on the 10th, McCall's crew
observed a heliograph from
a cliff south of Uruno
Point. Identifying the operator as friendly, a
motor whaleboat, manned by a volunteer landing party, was
dispatched to effect the rescue of the message sender. In spite
of being within range of 6‑inch coastal batteries, the rescue
was accomplished and George
R. Tweed, RM1c, USN, having been on Guam since
1939 and in hiding since the Japanese occupation, was brought on
board. With him he brought information on Japanese strength,
morale, prelanding casualties, and disposition of troops and
 Full title Guadalcanal: The Definitive
Account of the Landmark Battle (NY: Random House, 1990).
 Herbert Christian Merillat, Guadalcanal
Remembered (Tuscaloosa: U Alabama Pr, 2003). Merillat's name
appears in print variously as Herbert Laing Merillat, Herbert
Christian Merillat, and Herbert Christian Laing Merillat. From
his recent obituary: "Herbert Christian Merillat, 94, an expert
in international law who wrote two books about the Battle of
Guadalcanal, which he had seen firsthand during World War II,
died April 10 at his home in Washington"--Washington Post
(30 Apr 2010) <link>.
 Frank (note 5 above) viii.
 London: Faber & Faber; U.S. ed.: NY:
 Beginning with the book's very title, The
Bismarck Episode--a mere "episode"?
 If legal reasons precluded adding materials
to the original in republication, Westholme might have provided
such information at its website and noted that on the back
 Though Robinson Crusoe, USN originally
carried a subtitle on its cover: The Adventures of George R.
Tweed Rm1c on Jap-held Guam. For the 50th Anniversary
edition (Barrigada, GU: Pacific Res. Inst., 1994), "Jap-held"
became "Japanese-held." Westholme prints no subtitle on the
cover and uses the text of the anniversary edition inside the
book. These alterations from the original should have been
noted, particularly since the word "Jap" appears throughout the