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.
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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).
The Marines landed over two days. Several U.S. Navy ships were hit, and 19 fighter planes were shot down or crashed. Adm. Frank Fletcher was worried about more losses and the risk to his aircraft carriers. The ships unloaded only a few days of supplies and left two days after the landing, according to military historians.
“We ran out of everything,” Robbins said. Low on food, ammunition and especially medicine, Robbins said he and his fellow Marines lived on two meals a day. Sometimes they found Japanese supplies and had rice to eat, as well as some Japanese canned clams that Robbins said were “black as the ace of spades and tough as nails.”
The Marines later took the airfield with little resistance. With the ships withdrawn and the Allied troops camped in the jungle, the Japanese thought most of the Allies had left.
They thought wrong.
The Japanese landed hundreds of troops on the east bank of what had been called the “Tenaru River,” the start of an offensive to retake the island. Though the actual Tenaru lay some distance east, the ensuing fight came to be known as “The Battle of the Tenaru.” Much to the surprise of the Japanese, the Marines had fortified their defenses on the other bank.
Robbins’ squad marched along the river to meet the Japanese troops by daybreak. Japanese soldiers were running toward Robbins’ squad, trying to escape the heavily armed American forces behind them. Robbins said they were no more than 25 feet away when his squad cut them down with rifle fire.
“We killed everybody that was left,” Robbins said. “There were dead . . . stacked everywhere.”
The Marines routed the Japanese forces — at least 777 Japanese soldiers were killed, compared to roughly 40 American troops. The First Marine Division was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation in 1942 for the gallantry and esprit de corps displayed on Guadalcanal.
“The men from the First Marine Division quickly became legends within the Corps and mentors for the Marines who enlisted afterward,” Hornfischer said.
Robbins, who contracted malaria three times, said the men in his squad were “A-1. I would put my squad up against any they had, man for man.”
Yearning for home
While in the Solomon Islands, Robbins said he thought of Miami all the time.
“Miami was heaven to me,” said Robbins, a graduate of the former Ponce de Leon High School in Coral Gables. The beaches on Guadalcanal reminded him of Miami Beach while the jungles and the coconut palms planted by the British decades earlier reminded him of Coconut Grove.
After more fighting at New Guinea and then regrouping on the island of Pavuvu near Guadacanal , Robbins got word in the summer of 1944 that he and several other Marines were going home. The next two battles for the First Marine Division, the Battle of Peleliu and the Battle of Okinawa, would cost the division more than 2,700 lives.
When his ship landed in San Diego in July 1944, Robbins said they were hounded by reporters.
“We were kind of in shock,” Robbins said. “We didn’t really know what was going on.”
The same thing happened after their train ride to Atlanta. The Miami Daily News and radio station WIOD paid to fly six of them, including Robbins, back to Miami.
They rode in cars down Flagler Street in a tickertape parade that ended at Bayfront Park to celebrate the 48th anniversary of the city’s founding. Miami Mayor Leonard Thomson gave them keys to the city.
For the month they were in the city, they were invited to breakfasts, galas and nightclubs — drinks were always on the house.
“They wouldn’t take our money,” Robbins said. “It was just like being a movie star, with good-looking women trying to grab you.”
After the war, Robbins worked as a maintenance supervisor for BellSouth for 40 years. He moved to DeBary, about half an hour north of Orlando, in 2005. He plans to spend the Fourth of July with his wife, Irene, and her son, having a barbecue and watching the fireworks over Lake Monroe.
Believing he is the final living member of the McCarthy Platoon is “a little bit weird,” he said, but he feels “blessed because I’m still here.”