Operation Watchtower: Cigars, Whiskey & War On Guadalcanal

August 7, 1942, the men of the United States Military were sent into combat on the first major amphibious operation of the Second World War. Their goal was to halt Japanese expansion in the South Pacific and capture the Island of Guadalcanal. The Imperial Japanese Navy and Army utilized part of the Solomon Island chain to create airfields to launch further operations. The allies worried that this airfield at Guadalcanal would put Australia in danger of being bombarded and invaded. 

The battle of Guadalcanal would shock much of the western world when stories of the brutal war in the Pacific returned home. The 1st Marine Division conducted an amphibious assault on the Solomon Islands. After two and a half months of fighting in the thick jungles, the Marines were tired, running low on supplies and morale as the onslaught of the IJA and IJN forces continued to harass them by bringing more and more reinforcements on the Island. The bombings against the Marines were relentless as the Navy had to pull back their forces, leaving the Marines surrounded.  

October would see their fate change as the Navy returned and battled the Japanese fleet pushing them back and allowing the Army and much-needed supplies to arrive to the exhausted Marines. Robert Leckie, one of the Marines of 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division and author of several books about the Second World War, describes his experience in his memoirs Helmet for My Pillow. 

Some of the officers and enlisted had become disgruntled that supplies were moving extremely slow to those who needed it most on the front lines. Private First Class Leckie and his squad mate were ordered to go out and tactically acquire, also known as “steal,” the supplies from the rear echelon units. The grunts fighting at the front were upset, knowing that the non-combat troops in the rear, which did not have to fight at the front, were enjoying the fresh supplies arriving on the Island while they continued to suffer. 

They had found a Post Exchange “store” brought ashore by the 8th Marine Regiment. They formulated a plan to liberate these supplies from their sister regiment, which two sentries guarded. PFC Leckie would stealthily crawl behind the tent through the jungle. In fifteen minutes, his buddy would come out of the jungle to talk and distract the sentries. Once he heard this, he would enter the tent and use the empty combat packs to stuff supplies in for his brethren. Marines were looking for baked beans, Vienna sausages, canned fruit, candy bars, Peaches, and the famous and coveted Spam.

PFC Leckie found cigarette cartons, something that was not in short supply for the troops already, and searched for more appealing treasures. He found cookies and started to stuff the packs full of them. He filled an entire pack of cookies and sweets, but he continued until his eyes were in disbelief at what he saw. Five boxes of cigars like gold shimmered in the light, dancing through the hole he had cut into the tent. “If cookies were worth their weight in gold on Guadalcanal, then cigars were worth theirs in platinum. In value, cigars could only be surpassed by whiskey, and there was no whiskey on Guadalcanal, nor had there been cigars till now” (Leckie, 170). 

Filling both packs, PFC Leckie retreated from the tent and slipped back into the jungle where he hid the packs. He then joined his friend in talking to the sentries planning to come back at night to get the packs. 

They returned to their position sharing the cookies amongst the men but keeping the cigars close to their chests. Their Machine gun position had become the new smoking lounge with officers and, notably, a Major visiting them to beg for a cigar. The enlisted man had bested the officers by not sharing their beautiful cigars. The officers of 2/1 would not forget this snub by Leckie and his brothers. They knew their time would come. 

Unfortunately for Leckie, when the men boarded Naval ships to retrain and refit on other islands after their battle of Guadalcanal, they were not permitted to bring aboard anything that was not issued to them. The officers like Lieutenant Ivy League (Nickname for his Platoon Commander) were allowed one bag of items. Leckie entrusted his cigars to his Lieutenant, yet he had no choice but to trash them or have an officer take them. This was a mistake as many of the officers, once arriving on Espiritu Santo Island, smoked and shared the cigars amongst them as the enlisted men watched. Something that Leckie took personally as an insult. 

After three weeks of training, the men were shipped off to Australia for rest and relaxation, train, and prepare for the coming battles ahead. Leckie, partaking in Australian alcohol, would soon find himself in a lot of trouble again because of the cigars. One night after becoming inebriated, Leckie returned to the soccer field that had been made into a makeshift barracks for the Marines. He ran into his friend who had helped him steal the cigars on Guadalcanal. 

His friend was on duty and needed to use the bathroom. It was an emergency, but leaving your post on duty is a crime that during wartime can be punishable by death, but realistically, lesser punishments were delved out. He handed Leckie his pistol belt and service pistol so that Leckie could hold his place for just a moment. Fate was against them as the Officer of the Day was none other than Lieutenant Ivy League. Leckie instantly drew his pistol, full of rage, and pointed it at his commanding Officer. “Stop where you are, you lousy cigar stealing son of a bitch or I’ll blow your gentleman’s ass off” (Leckie, 221). Lieutenant Ivy League left in a hurry to return with more men and overpowered Leckie taking the pistol out of his hand. At that moment, his friend had just returned, but it was too late. Both were thrown in the brig. He was let off easy because of his background and war record on Guadalcanal and sentenced to only five days of bread and water.

With Respect,
Steven Ramos
U.S. Marine Corps Veteran