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Guadalcanal Vets Relive Epic WWII Campaign

Times Staff Writer

Sigurd Carlson, the “indestructible Marine,” was a mere boy of 15 when he landed on Guadalcanal with the 2nd Marine Division in August, 1942. Overnight, the jungles of “The Canal” turned him into a man, and he went on to become a legend of near-immortality for cheating death after being pronounced dead five times on Okinawa.

Forty-four years and dozens of postwar experiences later, the high school dropout from Chicago, unsuccessful actor, former accountant and retired educator joined about 100 other survivors of Guadalcanal at a reunion in San Diego to relive the good and bad times of the island battle that changed the course of the Pacific War.

The Southwest Region of the Guadalcanal Campaign Veterans got together over the weekend at a Mission Valley hotel to keep the camaraderie alive.

Veterans of the Army’s Americal Division, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines, all participants in the six-month battle, relived the times they stared death in the face. The survivors included retired Marine Master Sgt. Marvin Delgado, from Peoria, Ill., and now living in Oceanside, who survived wounds from other island battles to fight again in Korea, Lebanon and Vietnam; Tommy Stamos, an artilleryman from Stockton, trained by the Army for desert warfare but sent to the steamy jungles of Guadalcanal instead, and Chula Vista resident Fil Hernandez, an American Indian and Marine machine gunner who also fought in Korea.

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Hernandez, a mountain of a man and everybody’s hero at the reunion, was credited with “almost starting World War III” during a recent visit to Korea.

“First of all, you gotta understand that nobody has messed with Fil and lived,” said Jimmy Ellison, an ex-Marine and close friend of Carlson. “In 1980, Fil went to Korea with some other Marine veterans, and somebody thought it would be nice if they got to visit the DMZ to stare across at the North Koreans.”

“Well, that wasn’t good enough for Fil,” continued Ellison, to the applause of other veterans who had heard the story dozens of times. “He stood at the wire and insulted the North Koreans with taunts. . . . Finally, somebody dragged Fil away, just short of almost starting World War III.”

The ranks of the Guadalcanal survivors dwindle every year, but as long as there are two men alive to relive the tales of America’s first land offensive of World War II, the reunions will continue, the veterans say.

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“When you hold a man’s hand in hell, well, that’s a feeling that never leaves you,” said Carlson, who lied about his age to join the Marines. “When you cradle a man’s head in your arms--and both of you are sobbing like babies--if you’ve been in combat, you know that’s a powerful intimacy that’s hard to describe. How can anyone who has never experienced combat know the deep feeling that I have for Jimmy (Ellison) today because we shared a foxhole 44 years ago?”

Carlson, an eloquent man who taught in Pasadena city schools until forced to retire in 1981, earned the title of the “indestructible Marine” on Okinawa on May 16, 1945. After six weeks of bitter fighting against almost 100,000 Japanese troops, Carlson was hit three times in the abdomen with exploding bullets.

Moments before dying for the first time, Carlson asked the same question that thousands of soldiers who have suffered similar wounds in thousands of other wars have asked: “Is it still there?”

“If that was the only thing missing, well, it wouldn’t have been such a big loss. Sig could’ve been the first Christine Jorgensen,” said Ellison, a Bell Gardens resident who also was wounded on Okinawa. “But you could put both fists inside his stomach and touch the pelvis.”

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Carlson was quickly placed on a stretcher and was driven by jeep to a field hospital. According to other veterans at the reunion, Navy corpsmen pronounced Carlson dead five times en route to the hospital. Because the priority went to wounded troops with a chance of survival, Carlson was placed on the ground after each pronouncement.

“But every time that they threw him on the ground, (he) would groan and the corpsmen would put him back on the stretcher,” Ellison recalled proudly. “That’s the story of Sig’s life. Despite all of the education that he has now, he’s too stupid to realize when he’s beaten. That’s why the guy is indestructible.”

After the war, Carlson returned to high school at age 19. After an unsuccessful stint at acting in New York and a short-lived career as an accountant, Carlson left Chicago to attend college in California, and at age 35 he earned a teaching credential.

He taught business courses, computer programming and world history in Pasadena schools until forced to retire in 1981 after having a heart attack in the classroom. Most of his students were poor Latinos and blacks.

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“That’s the way I wanted it,” he said. “I didn’t want to hurt anybody any more. I’ve had students who went into professional football and baseball. I had one kid who was picked up for murder, while his brother went on to become a doctor. Many of the successes that I have enjoyed in the past years have come from the kids I’ve taught.

“As long as you treat kids fair, they give you hope for the future.”

Today, Carlson lives in Studio City and travels throughout the country as a representative of AmVets, helping disabled American veterans battle the federal bureaucracy.

When home, he spends most of his time with his wife of 38 years, “Big Althea,” and his daughter, “Little Althea,” who is a Beverly Hills police detective.

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“For every unpleasant memory that I have about the war,” Carlson said, “I have one that produces a chuckle. Like the times that Jimmy and I used to throw pebbles at our company commander’s helmet. For 40 years (he) never knew who used to ping his head with pebbles on those Pacific islands, until Jimmy here shot his mouth off last year and told him.”

‘When you hold a man’s hand in hell, well, that’s a feeling that never leaves you.'--Sigurd Carlson, Guadalcanal veteran


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