When Eugene Robbins and his fishing buddy Jack Nichols walked out of Miami’s Olympia Theatre (now the Gusman) in 1941, they were inspired by the Marines they had just seen in a movie. They made a pact that if ever a war broke out, they would enlist in the Marines.
A few months later, Robbins was on break from his job at a quarry, eating a sandwich at a barbecue joint, when he heard on the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. It was Dec. 7, 1941. Congress declared war on Japan on Dec. 8. Days later, Nichols called Robbins to hold him to their pledge.
“I was mad about Pearl Harbor,” Robbins recounted. “I felt we got caught with our britches down and that we should react immediately. I felt it was my duty to fight for the country, to try to redeem revenge. I was ready.”
A high school graduate for barely six months, Robbins and six of his friends, including Nichols, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. Soon after, more than 60 other Miamians joined the Marines to take the fight to the Japanese. The Corps formed the McCarthy Platoon in homage to William J. McCarthy, a World War I Marine who would become a well-known Miami police chief. Pfc. Robbins thinks he’s now the only surviving member of the Flagler Street fighters.
More than 2,000 people showed up at platoon’s Orange Bowl induction ceremony on Jan. 15, 1942, including the widowed Mrs. McCarthy and her two daughters. Soon after, the McCarthy boys were sent to boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., where they came to be known as the “Miami Platoon.” Some ended up as radiomen and airplane mechanics; at least 50 were assigned to the First Marine Division, which set out by train to San Diego to ship out.
Off to Guadalcanal
They spent a few days in port in Wellington, New Zealand, and then sailed to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. Not long before landing, they were briefed on their mission: Capture the airfield on the island of Guadalcanal, a stronghold of the Japanese.
Rumors on the ship had it that 45 percent casualties were typical of an opposed landing, Robbins said. Marine Cpl. George Lundgren told The Miami Herald in 1943 — almost a year after the campaign — that he was told to expect 80 percent casualties.
Robbins, now 89, said his platoon was the first to land on the beach on Aug. 7, 1942. They were surprised that the Japanese were nowhere in sight. The rest of the company landed farther down the beach. After a trek through the jungle, Robbins’ platoon met up with their fellow Marines before nightfall.
The company camped in a ditch that night. Robbins remembered hearing a scream, which he figured was someone having a nightmare. Soon they were given the order to fix bayonets, and Robbins heard the clap of rifle fire up the line. The company opened fire, though Robbins never fired a shot because he didn’t see anything. He said he could hear the bullets whizzing by and hitting the earth around him. He assumed it was friendly fire because they found no evidence of the Japanese the next morning.
“A bullet hit the bayonet on the end of my rifle and knocked it out of my hands,” Robbins said. “The next morning my bayonet looked like a pretzel.” Robbins had a tiny shard from his bayonet removed from his neck more than 20 years later.
The island was of strategic importance in the Pacific, and the Guadalcanal campaign marked the first Allied offensive against any Axis power. The operation was hastily planned, and was often referred to by the troops as “Operation Shoestring,” said James D. Hornfischer, World War II historian and author of Neptune’s Inferno: The US Navy at Guadalcanal (Bantam).