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After 70 years, a family discovers a lost diary of the Guadalcanal invasion

DUNEDIN — Last Christmas, a daughter was winnowing the junk from the treasures in her mother's attic when she came across some of her late father's World War II memorabilia.

Tucked in with a few photos and a tin first aid box filled with medals and badges, she found a small, blue, leather-bound book with the title "My Life in the Service." The first page identified it as the diary of her dad, Glenn DeVere Maxon.

She showed it to her older brother and her mother, neither of whom had ever seen it.

"This is really something," the brother, Warren Maxon, said as he read the first pages.

Glenn Maxon had never talked about what he had seen in the war, but here, in page after page of elegant cursive, he made it clear he'd seen plenty.

The diary begins in earnest in June 1942 with then-2nd Lt. Maxon and the rest of the 1st Marine Division steaming across the Pacific. By the beginning of August they knew that their destination was the Solomon Islands, and one island in particular: Guadalcanal.

Aug. 6 — At last we're ready. Every man has his gear and equipment in perfect shape. They're all eager to go.

Aug. 7 — 0615 We shelled the beach and what a bombardment, dive bombers and all. 0900, zero hour, the landing was perfectly synchronized. 1045, I left the Alchiba in a tractor. By dusk all objectives were taken with very little opposition. Japs have taken to the hills.

For the next 142 days, until his battalion shipped off the island, Maxon recorded in blunt detail the rigors of fighting in one of the longest and fiercest battles of the war. Short rations, incessant Japanese bombardments, monsoon rains and malaria. As the days dragged on, the quality of the penmanship never changed, but Maxon, who was promoted to captain on the morning of the invasion, tallied the mounting death toll of the enemy with increasing relish. By the end, "Japs" have become "yellow rats."

If you're a person of a certain age, especially if like Warren Maxon you are a Marine yourself, Guadalcanal is not likely to have escaped your attention. It is part of Marine Corps lore, enshrined in books and movies. The first land battle of the Pacific, it gave the United States the toehold necessary to launch the island-hopping campaign that pushed Japan steadily backward over the next three years.

So the diary didn't teach Warren Maxon much about the battle. What he and the rest of the family learned about was their father.

• • •

Glenn Maxon grew up near Ames, Iowa, in a small town where his father at various times ran the Ford dealership, the movie theater and town hall. He went to the University of Iowa, majored in accounting, and within a year and a half of graduating found himself enlisting in the Marine Corps Reserve as a private.

Then came Officer Candidate School, and not long after that, a trip to Dunedin that would change the course of his life. The purpose of the trip was to train on the new amphibious tractors in the back yard of their inventor, Donald Roebling.

The more important meeting for Maxon was a blind date in early October 1941. Her name was Hallie Stone.

For the next two months, Maxon, known to his friends as "Maxie," and Hallie spent as much time together as a working woman and an enlisted man could. The day after Pearl Harbor, Maxon's unit boarded a train to North Carolina to get ready to go overseas.

"Our courtship was mostly by mail," said Hallie Maxon, 92.

He told her everything that went on during the training camp, but once he was bound for combat, the level of detail dropped.

As Hallie described them, Maxon's letters were full of " 'I miss you' and 'Tell everyone hi,' and memories about this and that."

Of course, she didn't have any real idea what he was leaving out. That is, until the diary surfaced nearly 70 years after the fact.

• • •

In an entry on Aug. 13, 1942, Maxon recorded the dispiriting results of an ambushed patrol. A Japanese prisoner had led a colonel and 30 men into a trap in which 25 of them were killed, including the colonel.

Two days later he wrote to Hallie: Unable to say much at this time except we're all in fine shape, excellent health and excellent spirits. Big shortage of food and clothing.

From a letter dated Aug. 21: Everything looks rosy.

Diary the same date: 0200 Lots of gunfire on our east flank — Stand by! Later reports — landing by Japs, estimated 4 to 500 — all bottled up by 1st Reg and slaughtered on the beach. The smoke and dust clear away! Over 700 dead Japs and about 60 prisoners. 23 Marines killed and 60 injured.

Newspaper accounts of the unfolding battle that Hallie might have read in Clearwater sounded like they were written from thousands of feet above the island, full of strategy and utterly lacking sensory detail.

Sept. 8 — Am running a good fever again. Don't know what it is. Supper time another air raid. Midnight — 1 cruiser and 6 destroyers shell hell out of us.

At times, the entries read like a man shouting into his pillow. "That was him to him," Warren said. "Or him to his God."

Oct. 1 — Blowup is coming. The (battalion) is falling apart and just one person to blame.

Maxon never said who that was, and it was one of only two times he criticized another Marine.

Oct. 13 — Last night storms and heavy rains caused high waters — We're stranded — send tractors for food and water. ... Five more air raids during the night and 2 hour shelling.

Oct. 14 — Out of gasoline. Planes can't go up.

Nov. 3 — We kill off about 1,500 more of the yellow rats.

Nov. 23 — Can't afford a recurrence of malaria. I'm just a bag of bones now.

None of this Hallie knew at the time.

"I had so much faith. I just felt like he was not going to be in any real danger," she said. "I guess I didn't realize how bad it was.

"I think that's why he didn't talk about it, because it was so bad."

• • •

The diary ends in August 1943, but Maxon remained overseas until the fall of 1944. He hadn't been back in the States a week before he was in Clearwater proposing in the front seat of 1941 Ford to the woman he called "The Princess." On Nov. 7 they were married.

He embarked on a 20-year career with Montgomery Ward that moved his growing family to a half-dozen states, from West Virginia to Illinois to Maryland. When he grew tired of being moved around, he quit and brought his wife and five children to the area where he and Hallie had met. He got into commercial real estate and became the managing general partner of the original Clearwater Mall.

"He had a lot of confidence," said Warren, 65. "He knew he could make it."

He had good taste in clothes and would tell you plainly whether you did, too. He was a man of Midwestern competency and dutifulness — athletic, good head for numbers, faithful to the church where he was married and, in 2006, buried.

"I never viewed him as a very empathetic person. He was a bit of a dictator with us," Warren said. "You toed the line. There was right or wrong and no in between for him."

But right there in the first pages of the book, Warren read an entry from Aug. 4, 1942, written as his father sailed toward Guadalcanal, that made him pause:

Whenever I'm tired or discouraged I need only to go down among the men and their fine spirit immediately cheers me and bolsters my confidence.

"That showed a more human, vulnerable person than I knew him to be," Warren said. "He showed his own weakness, but he strengthened that by going below with his men."

The war, and Guadalcanal in particular, changed Glenn Maxon as it did so many others. But maybe it only made him more of the person he'd been when he went in: more driven, more disciplined, more certain of his ability to overcome any ordeal.

The last entry, written shortly after a hospital stay for his second bout of malaria, sums it up:

Aug. 21 — Back to duty.

Bill Duryea can be reached at duryea@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8770. Historian William Sutton, who is writing an account of Dunedin's contribution to the war effort, provided significant assistance in the preparation of this story. Times researcher Natalie Watson also contributed.

ON THE WEB

To listen to a reading of some of Glenn Maxon's diary entries go to links.tampabay.com.

After 70 years, a family discovers a lost diary of the Guadalcanal invasion

08/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 7, 2010 11:01pm]

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