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11-08-08, 09:38 AM
Guadalcanal vets hold unique honor

By Cortney Langley

The Virginia Gazette

November 8, 2008


Louis Imfeld is vying to be the last of the first.

The 86-year-old retired attorney and Ford’s Colony resident was among the first company of Marines to land at Guadalcanal during World War II.

At the time, he hadn’t even heard of the small island in the Solomons. G Company was on its way to New Zealand in the summer of 1942 when it got news it was instead heading for Guadalcanal. Imfeld had no idea he and his buddies would be making history.

The military had just found out that Japanese forces were establishing an airfield on Guadalcanal that severely threatened supply lines to and from Australia and New Zealand. Although they were not yet at full strength, G Co. was immediately rerouted.

The group landed on Aug. 7, 1942. At first, resistance was scarce. The Japanese forces and workers retreated into the jungle and the Marines easily secured the field. Within days, however, the Japanese were back, fighting day by day to retake the airstrip, now named Henderson Field.

“It became a matter of hanging on while the Japanese bombed us every day, and their navy sometimes shelled us at night,” Imfeld recalled. “After massing their forces, they would hit our lines at night at a point where they believed they could break through and retake the airfield. They never did, but they came close at times. We never knew where or when they were going to hit, so we were always on alert.”

The fighting lasted for months, becoming the longest battle of the war. It wasn’t until February that the Japanese withdrew, validating the Allies’ first successful offensive in the Pacific.

The Marines paid a dear price for the victory, however. It’s estimated that within two weeks of the landing, one in five was inflicted with dysentery.

“We were malnourished after living on two meals a day and exhausted after being on the lines for four and a half months… sleeping on the ground or in a hole in the ground without mosquito netting.”

By the time Imfeld cycled out in November, he had suffered both malaria and dengue fever. He went on to fight at Cape Gloucester, New Britain and Peleliu and returned stateside before the invasion of Okinawa.

Back home, a number of those first Guadalcanal veterans got together during the summer of 1944 to form “The Last of the First Club.” A World War I veteran and editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Ralph McGill, donated a 25-year-old bottle of cognac to the group.

McGill had picked up the bottle while fighting in France during World War I. The idea was that the last 1st Division Marine who saw combat in the Pacific would receive the cognac, raising a toast to the men with whom he’d fought.

“The Guadalcanal veterans who organized the Last of the First Club in 1944 were understandably proud of their outfit and its accomplishments,” Imfeld said. “By establishing a prize to be given to the last surviving member, they obtained assurance that those accomplishments would be remembered at least as long as they lived.”

Through the years, the club died off with its founders. The charter expired, and the original club was all but forgotten.

“Most of us had heard about it, or rumors of it,” Imfeld said. Over the years, as the numbers at reunions dwindled, the buzz increased. Imfeld decided to investigate.

He found the original charter, and the original bottle, at the 1st Marine Division Association in San Francisco. Today, the bottle waits at the Marines’ Memorial Club in Union Square.

“I wanted to find out and contact, if I could, some of the Marines who formed it back in ’44,” he said. He rebuilt the eligibility list from the association’s records, coming up with 1,936 qualified members. He suspects more are out there.

“I’m sort of acting as a recruiting officer for this,” he joked.

He doubts he’ll be the one to receive the lonely honor, although he’s in good health. There are only 10 left from his G Co. In 2002, six of them returned to Guadalcanal to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the landing.

“Those kids, now in their early- to mid-80s, were too young to join the Marines when we went into Guadalcanal in 1942. But those who served on Peleliu in 1944 or Okinawa in 1945 obviously have an edge on us older guys.”

The First Marine Division Association, he said, has taken on the commitment to make sure that the bottle reaches its rightful recipient. Still, he has some hope.

“It’s something to live for.”