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The Rifle Squad

By Frank J. Guidone

Left to right: Bill Kerr – a platoon squad leader, Pete Sparacino – my squad, Bill Zavatchen – a platoon member, Frank Guidone (me), Henry Poppel –a platoon member. Picture taken on New Caledonia just before Tulagi.

Left to right: Bill Kerr – a platoon squad leader, Pete Sparacino – my squad, Bill Zavatchen – a platoon member, Frank Guidone (me), Henry Poppel –a platoon member. Picture taken on New Caledonia just before Tulagi.

I have always felt that the most gratifying job in the Marine infantry is that of being a squad leader. I was fortunate to be a squad leader while training in Quantico. I was not a seasoned squad leader but made every effort to learn my trade so that I would be seasoned.

As a PFC in B Company of the First Raider Battalion my squad leader was Corporal Tony Massar. He had considerably more time in the service than most of us in the squad. I was impressed with his attention to detail, concern for us in the squad, and his knowledge of weapons, tactics, etc. He had a cool demeanor and never came close to panic. He unknowingly was our role model. So with this training in mind I became a squad leader in due time. .

So much time has passed and it was difficult to muster up by name my first squad. During Tulagi and Guadalcanal we received many replacements and it would be impossible to recall all of the men that were in my squad, so I will deal only with those who began their war experiences in my squad. My assistant was William O. Griffiths from Blakely, PA. (near Scranton, PA.). Bill was with the Fifth Marines and had served with them during the Cuba maneuvers as had I. PFC Pete Sparacino from Beckley, Pa. was our company barber as well as a member of my squad. Pete liked to complain but he was always there when you needed him and this would be true in battle. Our BAR man Sylvester Niedbalski was from South Bend, IN. He was of good size and handled the BAR easily. Ski as we called him was a pleasant individual. He always kept up on the marches and endured the hardships in a manly manner. PFC Louie Lovin (Lovinsky) was from a steel mill district not far from Midland, PA. Lou probably would have been a steel mill worker if he had not joined the Marine Corps. He and Niedbalski often worked and played together. Leonard Butts was a rifleman in my squad. A very dependable sort and quiet, he blended in well with the other members of the squad. From upper N.Y. I had Donald Hunt, another rifleman. Don loved to kid around and he was a good liberty man. With his dark black hair, he was good looking and you could understand why he liked to go on liberty. He and Pete Sparacino loved to kid around with each other. Don almost shot my ear off during a firefight along the Matanikau River. I got a piece of him after the incident. Al Belfield had joined our squad shortly before we landed on Tulagi. He was friendly and went along without any complaints. He was the latest one to join the squad and to a degree remained very much to himself.

There were others in the squad but those that I have mentioned were the nucleus of my squad. We had trained together at Quantico, Samoa and New Caledonia. Rubber boats, long hikes, rifle ranges, etc. We did it all at the request of our battalion commander. Our company commander was Capt. Lew Walt. His objectives were to outmarch and outfight any company in the battalion as well as Japanese – he succeeded in both instances.

The landing on Tulagi was uneventful and the squad landed in good order with all of their equipment and an eagerness to seek out the enemy. It did not take long. During the afternoon in our initial attack against Japanese machine guns Louis Lovin and Leonard Butts went down. Lovin died on the field while Butts died on 9 August on a hospital ship. As the fight continued Al Belfield was wounded and out of action. I never saw him again.

That night the remainder of the squad took up a position within the company’s defensive position along a ridge. The Japanese attacked the center of the squad’s position. In a nightlong battle the squad with grenades and some rifle fire repulsed the attack. The squad had no thought of pulling back at any time in spite of the constant Japanese voices and the looming possibility of a banzai attack. The squad had finally cashed in on their training but at a terrible cost.

The movement to Guadacanal came soon. We who thought our fight was over, I learned that it was just the beginning. We received replacements while Sparacino, Niedbalski, Hunt and Griffiths formed the nucleus of the squad. I had an excellent base for a good squad.

The raid on Tasimboko went off successfully. The squad was part of A Company’s flanking move on the village. We suffered no casualties. (squad-wise that is)

For the battle on Edson’s Ridge the company was positioned with our right flank near the Lunga River. The Japanese created a breech between our left flank and C Company. For the whole night we listened to the terrible fight going on to our left. We had our eyes glued to a dark front all night long without contact. The next night we moved our position in support of C Company – kind of their right rear. There was another terrible battle as we listened to the music of war – all instruments were being played – another no event for us.

Then A Company was ordered to make a counter attack into the area that C Company previously had attempted to counter attack. The enemy was strong for them and turned out to be strong against us. The squad performed admirably in our attack. We moved up to within hand grenade range of the Japanese line but had to pull back as their firepower and position were superior to ours. Two or three of the squad members were instrumental in rescuing a wounded marine from C Company. He had lain undercover all night long while Japanese soldiers probed around him. My squad suffered no casualties.

Two battles on the Matanikau River followed this engagement. During the second day we were formed into a line of attack. It was raining and as we moved toward the river the sounds of the Japanese voices could be heard. Then we noted that at the base of a huge banyan tree a poncho draped over some bodies. Now we saw the muzzle of a Japanese machine gun (probably a Nambu) being moved into a firing position. Rifle fire and BAR fire immediately disabled this group of Japanese. As we moved forward toward the machine gun, we received considerable rifle and machine gun fire from the Japanese. We took cover. One of my men was hit by this fire. He was one of the newer men.

Later that night while in a defensive position at the mouth of the river we were attacked by a group of Japanese who ran right through us to get to the beach. The squad fortunately and unbelievably suffered no casualties although the battalion paid dearly for this fight.

We left the ‘Canal’ for New Caledonia and although I no longer had a squad since I had attained another promotion, I remained in the same platoon and visited frequently with the squad members.

William O. Griffiths while in Auckland, N.Z. was hospitalized for some physical damages. He was returned to the United States and left the Corps on a medical discharge and retirement. He now lives in Marerro, LA with his wife Jean. He is a grandfather, retired and is in contact with his squad leader.

Peter Sparacino lives in Roseburg, OR and is fully retired. Pete was a barber for many years in the Washington D.C. area. At one time Colonel Sam Griffith came into his shop to get a haircut. Pete spent no time in telling the Colonel that he was a former Raider. Pete attained the rank of Gunnery Sergeant and was a First Sergeant for Company A during the New Georgia campaign. The A Company commander was Captain Tom Mullahey (retired as Colonel, now deceased). Pete’s Marine journey did not end with New Georgia; he also survived the fierce battles on Iwo Jima.

Donald Hunt from Ossining, NY died during the year 1989. I recall meeting him at one of the reunions in Washington, D.C., but we never communicated after that.

Sylvester Niedbalski lives in South Bend, IN with his wife Esther. Of course, he is fully retired and keeps abreast of events regarding the Raider Association.

Al Belfield remained in the Marine Corps and retired as a Gunnery Sergeant. He lived in Oceanside, CA, until his death in 1998.

We were a small part of the war but the memory we have of each other and the times together is probably one of the biggest things in our lives.

Frank J. Guidone