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THE RARE BREED
Recognizing Area Veterans Of World War II

U. S. Marine Leonard Kunefke Landed
On Both Guadalcanal And Tarawa


Marine Corps PFC Leonard Kunefke

Two years ago at this time, the Palacios Beacon started a 2-part feature on Leonard Kunefke's four years in the Marines, that included the battles of Guadalcanal and Tarawa. His story belongs in this Rare Breed series and so, the Dec. 27, 2000 and Jan. 3, 2001 articles have been condensed as follows:

Born at the Winnie, Texas home of his parents, William Paul and Gladys Emiline Kunefke, on July 27, 1920, Leonard was spending Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941 away from his oilfield job at home with his parents when Japan sneak-attacked Pearl Harbor.

A year later, he was on Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, fighting the Japs. In fact‹ 60 years ago today, Kunefke spent Christmas with his rifle in the jungles of Guadalcanal.

Kunefke selected the Marine Corps when he reported for induction into military service at Beaumont in May 1942, because he liked the uniform.

"I didn't know a thing about the Marines or any of the services, but there was a Marine there, all decked out in his dress uniform. He looked real good in that uniform, so I thought that must be a pretty good outfit. Draftees could select their branch of service at that time, so I told them I'd take the Marines."

He officially became a member of the Marine Corps on May 21, 1942. After boot camp at San Diego, Calif., and several weeks of training, Kunefke was a Private First Class in Company B, Infantry, Second Division of the Marines, headed for Guadalcanal‹ where American troops had gone on the offense for the first time in the war, to stop the Jap avalanche that was sweeping toward Australia and New Zealand.

The trip across the Pacific, aboard a luxury liner the Navy had taken over and converted into a troop transport ship, took about 30 days on a zig-zag course of over 3,000 miles, without escort, to reach the small island of Tulagi. After getting land legs back and further training, it was on to Guadalcanal sometime in October. The Americans and Japanese were both pouring additional men and supplies into the battle on the jungle-tangled, rain forested, swampy, hilly and muddy island infested with mosquitoes and disease.

It didn't take Kunefke long to see his first Jap.

"As we were coming off the beach, there came an airplane, not more than 30 feet above me. I could plainly see the pilot, with his white scarf and big red sun on it. I can still picture that in my mind to this day," he says.

"I raised my M1 rifle and was taking aim when my platoon sergeant hollered not to shoot. The Jap was so low and so close that if he was hit, he would crash into our men."

Other than seeing that pilot, Kunefke never saw a live enemy up close, nor any prisoners while he was on Guadalcanal. But he knew the enemy was there.

"One would see their shadows at night as the Japs, in their split-toe sneakers, roamed thru the tree branches and crept around our perimeter. And, there was always the snipers, hidden in the jungle trees."

Death was everywhere. There were several incidents of hand-to-hand combat, some with knives and bayonets. Kunefke said he lost four "really good friends." His platoon sergeant, standing not six feet from him, was hit by a mortar shell.

It wasn't just the Japs that made life hell. "There was the rain, rain and more rain, plus hot temperatures." Almost no one on Guadalcanal escaped the malignant mosquitoes and flies, nor malaria and dysentery. Kunefke was stricken with malaria and with "jungle rot" in both ears.

For food, troops in the line ate C rations "or worse." Sometimes tinned Japanese food would be found. "Once we found a bottle of Japanese sake," Kunefke recalls.

At night time, troops could see the firing and exploding of shells in the big naval battles going on in the waters surrounding the island.

As the conquest of Guadalcanal wrapped up in early 1943, Kunefke and fellow "Gyrenes" of the Second Division boarded ships on the morning of Jan. 31, and headed for months of rest, recuperation and training replacements at Wellington, New Zealand.

Kunefke spent the first couple of weeks in the hospital at Wellington, for treatment of malaria and the jungle rot in his ears. He got to see Bob Hope when he came to entertain the troops. And, $100 in back pay reached him. "Man, I thought I had all the money in the world when I got that money."

As a PFC in the Marines, he received $21 a month, plus an extra 5% for overseas duty and another 5% when in combat. So, he was receiving $23.10 a month, less a deduct for insurance and the $5 he was having sent back home to his parents each month.

After eight months of enjoying the good life in New Zealand, the Second Division sailed away from Wellington near dawn on the morning of Nov. 1, 1943. This time the destination was Betio (or Bititu) Island of the Tarawa atoll. The Jap commander had said "a million men could not take Fortress Tarawa."

The Japs had fortified long, skinny Betio, which was 2 1/4 miles long and a mere 800 yards wide at its greatest width, with their best‹Naval Landing Troops‹ the counterpart of U.S. Marines. The island was mostly sand and rock, with coconut trees.

The four beachhead landings were under intense weapons fire and many of the troop-carrying Higgins boats got tangled up on coral reefs. "We had to wade ashore from about 200 yards out. Rifles were held high to keep them out of the water. Some of the landing boats were hit by enemy shells and exploded," Kunefke says.

The land battle of Betio began at 9:10 a.m., Nov. 20, 1943. It ended 76 hours later at 1:30 p.m., Nov. 24.

"It never got dark in those 76 hours," Kunefke says. "The Navy was sitting out there shooting flares throughout the night and other ships were firing their guns point blank at the Jap fortifications from about 10 miles out at sea."

The 16 to 20-inch Navy shells would rocket in with a roar and be so low that Kunefke says "you felt like you could reach up and touch them. They created a vacuum feeling as they passed overhead and slammed into the cliffs."

Kunefke said everything the Japs had on Tarawa was underground, from living quarters to mess hall, with interconnecting tunnels, including those that led to pillboxes.

"The only thing that saved us at Tarawa was the flame-thrower," he says. Still, that took time and many Japanese.

Kunefke said there would be up to five pillboxes within about a mile, all shooting at the Marines at the same time. A flame-thrower would get close enough to trigger the disintegrating fire into a pillbox. All would be quiet from that pillbox for an hour or so, then the gunfire would resume. The Japs, from their underground bunkers, would clear away the torched remains and others would take their place.

The flame-thrower would again wipe out the pillbox occupants. There would be silence, then it would resume firing, until the entire bunker manpower was destroyed. When finally silenced for good, remains of the previously cremated enemy would be found stacked against the back wall of the pillbox.

While the battle of Betio lasted just 76 hours, the conquest of Tarawa was not completed until Nov. 28. The Second Division Marines had 3,301 casualties among its 12,000 troops sent onto Betio. Some 4,690 Japanese and Koreans died, including the fortress commander. The division's history book, "Follow Me," called Betio the most costly territory the U.S. had ever won, in terms of percentage of casualties suffered.

Kunefke left Tarawa, and his final battle, with his fellow Second Division Marines after six days‹ still in their tattered and dirty fatigues. This time, their ship took them on a 2,000-mile journey for "R&R" on the Big Island (Hawaii) in the Hawaiian Islands. Kunefke recalls that several of the wounded Marines died aboard ship and were buried at sea, with full shipboard services.

After surviving Guadalcanal and Tarawa without a scratch from the enemy, Kunefke broke his leg on Hawaii. That occurred when he and some Marine buddies took a jeep for a drive around the mountainous area and wrecked the jeep.

"I damn near got court-martialed over that," he said with a smile, without going into particulars.

Kunefke was on Hawaii for 4-5 months. One day the Marines were lined up and those with enough "overseas points" were told to step out and form a new line‹ for those to return stateside.

"There was a bunch of us stepping out," he said. "When the first ship came along, we were placed on it, headed for San Francisco." For those who remained, and with fresh-faced replacements, the next stop was Saipan, then Tinian and Okinawa, before the Second Division landed at Nagasaki, Japan on Sept. 23, 1945 to begin occupation duty.

At San Francisco, Kunefke was given a 35-day leave. Then for several months he was in the Military Police at Camp LeJeune, N.C. Formation of a new Fifth Marine Division, to be sent to Okinawa and prepare for the invasion of Japan, started in the early summer of 1945 and Kunefke was assigned to it.

Then came the two atomic bombs. Suddenly the war was over.

"You never saw a happier bunch of Marines," Kunefke said.

He remained in the Marines and with MP duty until receiving his discharge, at the rank of Corporal, on May 21, 1946‹ exactly four years after becoming a Marine.

On June 19, 1946, he began a 35-year career with Sun Oil Co. He was sent to work on a steam rig at Midfield. For the first week he lived in Bay City, "then the entire crew moved to Palacios in July."

It wasn't long before he met Agnes "Honey" Maples at the Bowden Drug Store in Palacios. They were married on May 14, 1947.

After 35 years with Sun Oil, Kunefke retired to devote full-time to the fishing business, which he retired from a few years ago. Honey died on March 13, 2000.

Leonard and Honey had three children, daughters Lynele Plant of Huffman, Kathleen Conrad of Humble and Vickie Kunefke of Palacios, along with son, Leonard Kunefke, Jr. of Palacios. There are also six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.


LEONARD KUNEFKE IN 2002


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