Austin Civil War Round Table

Harold "Mac" McKenzie and Flo McKenzie

United States Marines and United States Army Nurse Corps

Pacific Theater, 1942-1945

Harold "Mac" McKenzie was born in Hagerstown, Maryland, about seven miles from the battlefield of Antietam. In 1937, Mac moved with his mother and stepfather to Massachusetts, where he attended high school. "We lived about 25 miles south of Boston," Mac says. "The only big town close by was Brockton, which at one time was the shoe capital of the world. The had something like 60 factories there. At the time I was there, the shoe factories were kind of like a ghost town -- they had all left for the South."

Mac and Flo McKenzie Money was tight, and Mac didn't have plans to go to college. "In my junior year of high school, I decided I was going to go in the service when I graduated. I went into Brockton to see the Navy recruiter. Well, it turned out I couldn't get in the Navy." Instead, Mac ended up getting a college scholarship.

"I went to Bridgewater State Teacher's College about 10 miles from home," Mac says. "I really didn't like it -- I wasn't happy there. I had a friend who was a junior high principal, and he said 'If you can stay in school for a year, I'll get you a job.' So when I got out of college my first year, I went to work for a factory in North Easton making shovels. I had in mind that in September of 1942 I would go back to college."

Pearl Harbor interrupted Mac's plans. "I had made up my mind that I was going to go in the service, but I was going to wait for my birthday. My birthday was January 1st, 1942 -- I turned twenty. I remember sitting at the table, it was on the 13th of January, a Monday night, and we were eating. I told my folks, 'I'm going to Boston tomorrow to join the Marine Corps.' My mother started crying, and my stepfather said, 'Well, if you want to join the service, you've picked the right one because you'll get good training.'"

Harold McKenzie Mac went into Boston the next morning and joined up. There were so many people joining at the time that they told him to come back in two weeks. "It was a snowy day, the 27th of January, when we were sworn in," Mac recalls. He was sent to Parris Island for training. "We only did about 6 weeks of training. I never went in the field. I went through the rifle range. From Parris Island, I went to Camp Lejeune, which at that time was a tent city, there weren't any permanent buildings. I was assigned to the First Marine Division. I ended up in a pool of guys that were for the Third Battalion. They ended up putting me in L Company, Third Battalion, Seventh Marines."

That year Easter came early, the third or fourth of April. "When I left to join up, I never got back home to see my folks, and they had said we were going to have leave at Easter time. I had enough money to fly home, and I called my folks and said, 'I'm flying home for Easter.' Well, on the first of April, we boarded a train in Wilmington, North Carolina, to go cross-country, headed for San Diego. On Easter Sunday, we were going through the panhandle of Oklahoma, and it was snowing like the devil. We ended up in Amarillo -- this was my first time in Texas. I guess word had gotten out that there was a troop train coming through, because there were a lot of young ladies at the station. They had cookies and cakes, and magazines. They came on the train, and there turned out to be a kissing contest. I thought, 'Oh, man, I like these Texas gals!'"

On the 10th of April, Mac was aboard ship going overseas. His batttalion was the first Marine battalion to leave. Their destination was American Samoa.

"We arrived in Samoa on the last day of April," Mac says. "Samoa was an interesting island. Their harbor is an inlet between high hills. When it rained, you could look up at the mountainsides and see all kinds of waterfalls. On the far side of the harbor was a little church, and it had the most gorgeous inside, painted blue.

"We combat-loaded our ships when we left in a hurry. You put the things on last that are going to come off first. Our assignment was to be the first Marines to take an island. About 300 miles west of Samoa is a French island called Wallis, across the dateline. The Japanese had reconnoitered that island. At that time, American Samoa and British Samoa were vitally important, because they were a way-station between the West Coast and Australia. Australia had army troops there before we ever left the county. The thinking by the top brass was that the Japanese were going to build a strip there and harass our ships. We made a combat landing, but there were no Japanese. We landed there in late May and were there about two months.

"From there, we went to British Samoa. In the meantime, on August 7th, 1942, the First Division landed on Guadalcanal. Our regiment was not with the division at that point. We joined the rest of the regiment on British Samoa, at Apia, the capital, where Robert Louis Stevenson is buried."

Mac's regiment was aboard ships when the Battle of the Coral Sea was fought. "One night, before we made it to Guadalcanal -- I always remember it real clearly -- we pulled into New Hebrides, Espiritu Santos," Mac recalls. "The Coral Sea battle was kind of a standoff, and they were concerned that the Japanese would try to attack the New Hebrides. We went up a narrow channel and we hardly anchored. Going in, we went into that waterway very cautiously. Coming out, we were like a bat out of hell, and had all the lights on, spot the markers, and everything. Then we headed to Guadalcanal. On the way, we had a couple of submarine warnings, but they never sent any torpedoes our way.

"We landed on the Canal on September 18th, 1942. We were green -- we hadn't been in combat. The first night we were there, they really bombed the heck out of us. We had guys killed."

Their first combat experience was a difficult lesson for the young Marines. "The day we landed we were on the beach unloading ships, and there was a fairly good-size convoy out in the bay. We found out later that our aircraft had been told not to fly over the convoy, because if you flew over the convoy they'd figure you were the enemy. Well, this one dive-bomber, he came over the convoy, and they put up anti-aircraft just like a curtain.

"He comes into the beach, and we're on the beach, and everybody's shooting at him. Pistols, rifles, BARs. He comes to the beach and makes a right-hand turn, and goes into the water. We scream and yell, and we've shot our first plane down. About this time, a Navy Chief Petty Officer came up the beach and screamed, 'You SOB Marines! You just shot down your own plane!' And the yelling just choked up our throats. They got the pilot out, but the gunner went down with the plane.

"That night, we had a good shelling initiation, and then they put us up on the lines."

Guadalcanal

 

Mac recalls his initiation into combat: "You're scared. Everybody's scared. But you don't want to be the one to be the coward. It's your fellow men -- each of you live off one another. When you get into the heat of combat -- I've been there a few times -- you just do things. Even though I didn't have a lot of training in the field, I got training on the job, and that takes over. I've seen guys, big old husky brutes, be as chicken as they could be, and I've seen little scrawny guys be the bravest. So it's not size or intelligence, it's just within you. You want to prove yourself, and you don't want to fail your friends. I was no different than anybody else, but I really believe the Marine training and esprit de corps makes you a different person. One thing about the Marines is, they will mold you whether you want to be molded or not."

The camaraderie held the men together, but the horror of combat was a test each man had to meet individually. Mac recalls the scariest night of his life: "The 12th of November, we were up on the ridges, overlooking Henderson Field. The Japanese made one final push. They pretty well controlled the sea, and we controlled the air, with the help of the coast watchers. This night, the Japanese brought in their battleships and cruisers and had about 50,000 men in transport laying off the canal. What they were attempting to do was to knock the airport out, so they could land and not be harassed by the air.

"Well, they had a float plane that came off one of their ships, and it was dropping flares, to spotlight where the field was, and they also dropped flares over our lines. So here they are, these 14-inch shells, like a freight train coming through the air, and they're hitting our area as well as the field. They're clipping off the tops of the palm trees. They had armor-piercing shells, and they'd go in the ground and explode like an earthquake, and guys were getting killed.

"I'm in a hole with another guy. I still keep in touch with him to this day. We had 50% watch -- one guy would sleep, and one guy would stay awake. I had the first watch. You could see the blast of the 14-inch gun, and you could hear the shell whistling through. I thought the guns were aimed right at me, and I wondered if I should wake my buddy up. Then I decided, 'Hell, if we get hit, he'll never know it.' I didn't wake him up, and the shelling stopped. When he woke up, I said, 'Robert, you'll never know what you slept through.' He said, 'What are you talking about?' And I told him. He said, 'Aww, I couldn't have slept through that.' I said, 'You sure as heck did.' That was a bad night."

Men who survived combat had another deadly enemy: disease, which ran rampant in the tropical environment of the Pacific Islands. "We landed on the Canal on the 18th of September, and we didn't get off until the early part of January," Mac recalls. "During that time, we never slept in a shelter. We lived in foxholes. We had been exposed to malaria on Wallis Island, and I came down with malaria. We were so short of men, that if you had a fever of less than 102 you went back to the foxhole. I went to sickbay, and mine was 101. So they gave you some atabrin, and you went back to the hole."

The jungle warfare was difficult and a test of everyone's endurance. To make matters worse, the Marines ran short of supplies and had to rely on the captured stores of the enemy. "We ended up eating the Japanese rice two times a day. During the day, we would patrol down in the jungle to make sure the Japanese didn't build up a force in front of us, and at nighttime, we'd have 100% watch. We were just going on adrenaline."

"The Japanese were tough fighters," Mac says. "The cartoons of the forties showed them with glasses, caricatures of anything but a fighting man, but they were tough. Of course, they were veterans. They had fought in Manchuria and down through the islands and had been very successful. They certainly had been tested, and they'd defeated us at Bataan in the Philippines. I think they were overconfident.

Harold McKenzie "Early on in the fighting, the Japanese would take no prisoners, and the Marines would take no prisoners, and consequently it was like a vendetta. If you surrendered, they'd kill you anyway, so you'd fight to the end. The only way you'd take a prisoner is if somebody got wounded and was left behind. When I hear about the Battle of Fredericksburg, with wave after wave of Union soldiers coming across the field, I get chills, because we weren't doing it, but we were repelling those who were doing it. They'd drink their sake, and yell 'Banzai!' and 'Maline you die!' and they'd come after you. They were fanatics. They'd been taught all their lives that if you die for the emperor, you're going to heaven. They just really had no quit in them."

"They talk about Guadalcanal as a turning point in the Pacific War, and it was a turning point in two ways," Mac says. "We had it tough, but the Japanese, at the end called it 'Starvation Island.' They were eating grass and the leather off their rifle straps."

After Guadalcanal, Mac's division was sent back to Melbourne. During part of his time in Australia, Mac stayed with a local family in a small sheep town who treated him as one of their own. "The Australians looked on us as saviors," Mac says. "When World War II started in 1939, all their men had gone to fight in Greece and Crete and the desert, at El Alamein. When we went back north into combat, the Melbourne paper said, 'Our First Marine Division Lands in New Britain.' They treated us like their own children."

It took until October of 1943 to get the division back to readiness. "It was in June or July of 1943 that Ed Bearss joined the company," Mac remembers. "I didn't really know Ed that well early on, because I was in the hospital with malaria about every month. Ed went to scout-sniper school. I really got to know Ed aboard ship when we were going north, back into combat, in October of 1943. He was also in L company. I was in the Third Platoon, and he was in the First Platoon. We went to New Guinea and staged there. Going up to New Guinea, we could listen to Tokyo Rose. I remember her saying, 'We didn't get you on the Canal, but we're going to get you when you come into New Guinea or New Britain.'

"We landed in Oro Bay in New Guinea and got there late. The first night, we got bombed. We staged there, and our company got aboard an old four-stack destroyer from World War I. We landed on Cape Gloucester, New Britain, on Christmas Day. Our landing wasn't too tough -- we didn't have too many casualties. The jungle came right down to the water's edge, and the Japanese had built their bunkers maybe 50 yards inland.

"Cape Gloucester gets something like 280 inches of rain a year, and you were never dry," Mac recalls. "You were always soaked, sitting in your foxhole with water up to your chest -- it was very bad. We even had Marines get killed by falling trees. One night, I was in a hole with a young kid. The only thing I can tell you about him was that he was from Kansas City. We were on 50% watch, and he had the first watch. And I'm in the hole with him, and he wakes me up and starts to climb out. He said, 'I'm going to sleep on top.' I said, 'You don't want to do that,' but he said, 'It's OK.'

"Our helmets had a liner. He took off the metal part of his helmet and he was laying there, and one of these mortars lands short. You could hear the whistling of all the shrapnel. I could hear him groaning. So I get out of the hole and I go all over him, and he can't talk. I can't find anything. Finally I put my hand into his helmet liner, and I feel blood. In the meantime, I call the corpsman. They got him back to the station, and he was dead.

"The next morning, I looked at the liner, and it was like someone had pushed a knife through it. Shrapnel had gone into his brain and killed him. The next night, another mortar landed short, right in a guy's foxhole. This guy was the best poker player in the the whole company, I think the whole regiment. He came from Baltimore, Maryland, and sent money home by the bucketload -- never did get to spend a dime of it."

Their assignment on Cape Gloucester was to take a hill called 660, which the Japanese had heavily fortified with artillery. "We made a move to get to that hill. We're in a sweeping formation, and Ed is on my right flank, and he was what they call on point, the lead man. There was a creek there, and he went down into the creek bed, and he spotted the machine guns on the bank of the creek. There was another guy with him, and they opened fire. Well, the Japanese had set up an ambush, and Ed got peppered. He was fortunate to be alive. The platoon nearly got wiped out. Ed says that he came to, and when he tried to get up, they shot him again, once in the foot and again in the arm. Finally, he was able to drag himself to a point where somebody could get him out.

"So the company stopped, and then the next day, we called up the tank and we opened fire with the .75 and the machine guns, and just blasted them. I took over the platoon, because the platoon sergeant had disappeared and the lieutenant had gotten hit. We tried to take the creek. The tanks would go down to the edge, and then they'd blast, then they'd pull back. Our job was to guard their rear end when they pulled out.

"Finally, we got across and went up the trail. We weren't in the lead. We could hear gunfire up ahead, but we didn't know what was happening. Finally we started moving again. What had happened was that there was a Japanese sniper in a tree, and he'd got something like 20 guys, killed and wounded. They finally shot him down out of the tree. They were so angry, in the heat of the battle, they just chopped his head off with a machete, and put it on a pole, and we saw this as we're walking up this trail.

"When you're in combat, in my mind, you revert back to an animal. It's survival. You see things that are done, or you think, 'How in the hell did I ever do something like that?' But you do. You're trained to react."

The battle for 660 raged through the day. "That day, we tried to get up on 660 and the Japanese ambushed us. My part of the company was up towards the top of the hill, and they let about half the company get up to the top and then opened up with machine gun fire, and cut us in half. The only way we got off the hill was we called in artillery and air power, and that got us off the hill.

"So the next day, we go around, and we take hill 660 and got up on the top. We secured it. We could hardly walk -- guys had to crawl off because their feet were in such bad condition."

Mac's next job was a special assignment. "There was a Japanese general in the area, and the famous Marine, Chesty Puller, led a patrol to capture him. I was one of the guys included in it. We had gone by boat to a certain place and we were scouting around trying to find the guy, and we were there a day or two, and never did find him.

"I had been waking up in the morning feeling bad, and I thought I had another malaria attack," Mac recalls. "They had told us while we were in New Guinea about scrub typhus. It's a parasite that gets into your armpits or your groin area. They said for us to put our pant in our socks, and keep our jackets buttoned around our wrists, and we had one guy come down with it there, and penicillin didn't do anything to it. It just was a matter of survival -- whether or not you could handle it. This morning I woke up feeling bad, we were right in the water, and I went out to take a swim, and I checked myself. To this day I don't remember which arm it was under, but I felt this swelling.

"We had a corpsman with us, and I went back to the corpsman and he gave me some static. But he checked me out, and I had a fever. I thought I had malaria, but it turned out I had scrub typhus."

"I ended up in the 30th Evacuation Hospital in Cape Gloucester," Mac says. "We were in tents, and every night they would come over and bomb us. I'm laying there and thinking, 'I can't believe this, this little old parasite is gonna get me yet.' At the foot of the bed on the other side of the ward was an Aussie, and he kept saying, 'I can't die here.' He was concerned that his wife would not get a pension if he died. Well, he did die there. And the guy beside me died.

"I had a fever of a 101 to 105 for eighteen days. I lost something like 60 pounds. I lost my hair, and I always remember the doctor saying, 'Number one, you lived, number two, you'll never have malaria again, because it burned it right out of your system.' I did have one more attack, but that was it."

Mac went through a string of hospitals before ending up in the Fifth General, in Australia. That's where he met a young army nurse named Flo Kieke, who would change his life.

Flo was from Pilot Knob, Texas, and was a graduate of Austin High School and Seton nursing school. In early 1943, Flo was working at Spohn Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, living in a rented room with two other young nurses, Margie and Mary Louise. "One day day Margie and I were downtown, and we saw these posters, 'Uncle Sam Needs You.' Uncle Sam was pointing his finger at us. They had these booths downtown. Margie and I said about the same time, 'Let's sign up.' We had to wait for our orders, and we said we wanted to be together. Margie and I were going in the Army, and Mary Louise was going in the Air Force. I took my physical at Camp Swift. They told us to report to Camp Barkley on April 1, 1943.

"When I went into the service, my mama disowned me. She couldn't understand why her little girl was going so far away."

Flo's unit traveled by ship from California to Brisbane, Australia, a rough passage that took 28 days. "They took some of the nurses off in Brisbane, Australia, then our unit went on the the front. We were an evacuation hospital. We were out in the staging area. What were we doing? Cleaning latrines, peeling potatoes, snapping beans. So when the 42nd and 105th General Hospital got orders that they were going to get a rash of casualties and patients, they would come out to the staging area and say, I need so many nurses. I always volunteered, because it was better than cleaning latrines."

"One day I was working and I got five new patients. There was one that came through my unit, the 30th Evac, and his name was Harold McKenzie." Mac remembers the date, March 31st, 1944.

"Mac's bed was toward the back, he would always slip out the back," Flo recalls. (Mac claims he was at the library). "We had two rooms right up next to the nurses station and had the real sick patients up there. I had a real sick patient who was waiting to come back to the states. Mac was ambulatory, and he always wanted to know if he could get this guy something, and we would tell him what to get. So Mac and I started slipping around. He was an enlisted man, and I was an officer. I'd meet him in town, and we'd go to the show, someplace where you wouldn't be seen. My assistant chief nurse would say, 'You can do better than that Marine.'

"Mac was waiting to come home. He said, 'You want to get married?' I said, 'I'm working!' A bunch of us nurses were going to get leave and go down to Sydney. Mac got leave too, ten days to go to Sydney."

"At that time, when I was in the Navy hospital, I wasn't supposed to have any leave because the ship was supposed to be coming in any time to take me back to the states," Mac recalls. "The commanding officer gave me liberty. We went to Sydney and found an Aussie Presbyterian minister that married us. We had these nurse friends and we decided to have them stand up for us, but we were going to get in trouble for getting married, and we didn't want them to get in trouble for standing up for us. So we had the taxi driver and the minister's secretary stand up for us.

"While we were in Sydney on our honeymoon, I figured the ship would have come and gone, and I'd have another three months or more before another ship came along. As it turned out, I had leave until the 2nd of July and ended up going back to the hospital. And the ship was in the harbor. Flo had four more days of leave, so Flo got back on the 7th, and on the 10th of July, I was aboard ship coming back to the states. I came under the Golden Gate Bridge on the 31st of July, 1944. We used to have a saying in the Marines, "Golden Gate in '48." So I made it four years early!"

In the hospital in San Diego, Mac met up with Ed Bearss again. "Ed at that time was in a body cast, and we talked about our future," Mac says. "I had talked to Flo when we were dating, and I had decided I wanted to go back to college. At that time we were unaware of the G.I. Bill." Mac learned about the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, and he and Ed made plans to go together.

"I ended up getting discharged from the hospital and put in a replacement unit in San Diego," Mac says. "I never had been home since I left on the 27th of January 1942, and this was in September of 1944. One morning, I'm laying in the sack and I hear this guy come down the street. 'McKenzie! Report to the First Sergeant!' I get my clothes on and I go up there, and the First Sergeant says. 'Pack your seabag. You're outta here.' I said, 'Sarge, where am I going?' He said you're going to Hingham Massachusetts Ammunition Depot, which was 20 miles from home. I said 'I could kiss you,' and he said 'Get your ass outta here!'"

Mac served there from the end of October 1944 to late April 1945, when he was sent to Officers' Candidate School. "In August, when they dropped the bomb, I was in school. I had finished 12 weeks of a 16-week course. The captain comes in and we all stand at attention, and he says, 'Gentlemen, I have some good news for you. They've dropped the bomb on a Japanese city and wiped it out. The bomb was no larger than a baseball.' That's the word he used, baseball. And of course we cheered. He said, 'The war's over.' And of course it was. "

Mac had enough combat and overseas points to be discharged immediately. The Marines offered him the chance to continue with officer training, but he would have to re-enlist for two years. Mac said no -- he was ready to get out and start his life with Flo.

After Mac was sent back to the states, Flo left Australia and went up to New Guinea and Philippines. When the war ended, Flo was with her unit in the Philippines and had not seen her new husband for over a year. "We landed at Lingayon Gulf, and we joined the 21st Evac. We went by troop trucks from Lingayon Gulf all the way through Manila. There was still fighting in the streets in Manila, and nothing but bombed out stuff." Flo's unit ended up at Santo Tomas University, where the Japanese had imprisoned thousands of Allied nationals during the war (see Margaret Gillooly's story).

"The hardest thing was seeing our refugees in the Philippines," Flo says. "It was hard to see how our people were treated by the Japanese. Some of them had dysentery, and a lot of them had died of malnutrition -- they were just wasting away. There were a lot of Japanese there too, but they would not let the nurses take care of them."

Mac and Flo were finally reunited in November 1945, when Flo returned stateside. "I got out 27th of September, 1945, and worked with my Dad until middle of November," Mac recalls. "Flo's family had a farm in Pilot Knob, right off of 183. I hitchhiked from North Easton to Austin in three days.

"Flo and I had rings, but I had never bought her and engagement ring. So I bought a ring and sent it by general delivery to the post office in Austin. When I got to Austin, I went by and picked up the ring, and I found her in the beauty shop and gave it to her."

Mac attended the Foreign Service School at Georgetown while Flo worked at Georgetown University Hospital and the VA Hospital. Mac graduated from Georgetown in June of 1948. "I wanted to go in the State Department, but I was a terrible linguist," Mac says. "Flo was still at the VA and told me, 'They're opening a VA Hospital in Houston. Would you be interested in going to Texas?' I wasn't doing anything to speak of, so I said, 'Yeah, let's go to Texas.'"

Mac and Flo have made their home in Texas ever since. Mac worked in retail and sales, selling everything from cash registers to paper products to Nifty school supplies, and managing sales areas across the state, before he retired in 1984.

Mac and Flo have two children. Their son Lance, born in 1952, is in pipeline bulding and purchasing. Their daughter Marilyn, born in 1954, is an attorney. They have two granddaughters and "four granddogs." Mac and Flo still enjoy traveling and have been to Australia the Bahamas. Spain, England, Germany, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Japan, the Far East, the Philippines, and Thailand.

Mac and Flo don't view their military service as anything extraordinary. "I just feel that you owe it to your country," Mac says. "It's your obligation to fight for your country, to fight for your freedoms, and fight for what you think is right. Flo's family felt the same way.

"The way I feel is, this is a great country. You look at the immigrants who have come to this country, and done great things for the country and great things for themselves. You have that opportunity here."

Flo sums it up by saying, "It was quite an experience -- and I'm glad I could be of service to my country."

 

Return to Wartime Heritage Project

Return to Austin Civil War Round Table Home Page