When Harold Berg stepped onto the white beach of Guadalcanal in late July, he carried memories of the battle he participated in 75 years ago, and also of his buddies he left behind.
“That to me, is the greatest thing. I didn’t know the men who died, but I’ll be representing the Marines that should be there. I feel that I am doing that,” he said. “I feel that I am representing the Marines who should be there.”
Berg, 91, is among the last of the World War II Raiders, an elite unit that was the precursor of special operations in the US military. And this soft-spoken, former insurance salesman from Central Peoria is the only veteran of that battle able to make the trip to the Solomon Islands for the dedication of a new memorial to honor the Raiders who fought and died there.
And what a trip. He flew from Peoria to Los Angeles to a small airport in the Fiji Islands. From there, he caught a connecting flight to Guadalcanal, a mere five hours away. Also to be present were members of the modern Raiders, the Marines with the US Marine Corps Special Operations Command, which carries on the namesake of their World War II brethren.
Berg was asked to participate because he is among the last of those who served in the original Raider battalions, which were based upon British commando units. The two-year experiment was a way to bring the fight more quickly to the Japanese who, until Guadalcanal, had ridden roughshod across the Pacific. Raiders weren’t designed to win big battles.
They conducted small unit raids. Essentially, they were to land on Japanese-held islands before the main force of Marines, disrupt the beach defenses, and to cause as many casualties and as much destruction as they could. They were on their own, without much support.
Berg dropped out of Woodruff High School as a junior and enlisted in the Marines when he was 17. “It might not be politically correct, but I wanted to fight the Japanese,” he told the Journal Star late last year.
And he did, participating in Guadalcanal, where he waded ashore in early 1943. The bulk of the fighting was over, but thousands of Japanese soldiers still were on the island looking to kill as many GIs as they could. He also was wounded in Guam and participated in the battles for Saipan, Bouganville, and New Georgia.
After the Raiders were folded into the 4th Marine Regiment, he participated in Okinawa as a squad leader. All 12 of his men were killed or wounded during the fighting. He, too, was injured in the Pacific’s last big campaign.
Berg wants to go not just to honor his fallen Marines but also to bring history to life for the younger generation. For many, he says, the war has become nothing more than words on paper. By talking at memorials or reunions or functions, Berg shows a more human side and that it was, indeed, real.
“I have a lot of friends that I meet every week and I tell them what I see,” he said of his frequent outings with area veterans. And his son, Brad Berg, agrees.
“This is a chance to tell his story and for others to hear it. Am I nervous? Yes, he’s going a long way, but he’s going back there to help and to honor the Marines and others,” his son said. “I am proud of him.”