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Charles Lee Bruce

newspaper clipping, 1940s

West Virginia Veterans Memorial

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Charles Lee Bruce
1920-1942

"I do not doubt that if the Marines had asked for volunteers for an impossible campaign such as Guadalcanal, almost everyone now fighting would have stepped forward."

Robert Leckie, Helmet for My Pillow

Charles Lee Bruce was born in Kanawha County, West Virginia, on May 22, 1920, the son of Charles Ray Bruce and Myrtle Dawson Bruce. He grew up in the eastern part of the county at Winifrede as part of a large family. 1930 and 1940 Federal Census records, Ancestry.com, and Find A Grave sources show that he had two older sisters, Ella Mae (married name: Cooper) and Nellie Esther. Charles, known to his family as “Lee,” also had four younger sisters, Madge (married name: Bailey), Dolly, Eneda (married name: Taylor), and Maud (married name: Pauley). Lee was the oldest of four male siblings; his brothers included Murray (“Ray”), Herbert, and Cecil. Charles and Myrtle Bruce also had two children who did not live to adulthood, Willhemina (1918-1920) and William (“Billy”; 1929-1931). The 1930 census shows that the family lived at London, while in 1940 they resided at Cabin Creek.
Charles Bruce

Charles Lee Bruce as a young man. Courtesy Brenda Bruce

Charles Bruce

Pfc. Charles Lee Bruce salutes his flag. Courtesy Brenda Bruce

At the age of 20 he was still residing in his parents’ household; he had completed grammar school and the seventh grade and was working as a laborer according to the census. A newspaper clipping from the 1940s of unknown origin states he was employed in the mines at Winifrede. Little else is known of the early life of Charles Lee Bruce, but U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958, show that he enlisted on September 3, 1940, at the rank of private. He reported to the First Recruit Battalion, Recruit Depot, Marine Barracks, Parris Island, South Carolina.

Assigned to Company A, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division, now-Private First Class Bruce was headed for the South Pacific, ultimately arriving at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. It was there that Pfc. Bruce was killed during intense fighting on September 27, 1942.

“Jungle Objective,” an article by Corporal Frank Cameron, USMC (as told to Alan Hynd), in Liberty magazine (March 13 and March 20, 1943), provides a detailed description of the operation in which Bruce lost his life. It’s a long article, excerpted here to emphasize those passages that reveal the character of the man:

Cpl. Cameron and his squad were part of a force charged with the defense of Henderson Field, a strategic landing strip. Their objective was to cut through the jungle and prevent the Japanese—who were all over the place and gaining ground—from reaching the field. The jungle was dense, food and water were scarce, and Bruce was one of a group of nine (out of several hundred in the battalion) at the front of the mission. The men wilted from exhaustion and dehydration. But Cameron says of Bruce:

With quite an effort, I managed to speak to Private [First Class] Charlie Bruce, a redheaded sentimental West Virginian. I asked him if the much displayed pictures of his sweetheart Mary were intact. He hurt himself grinning, and patted his blouse pocket where he kept them.

The Japanese were masters of camouflage, so the danger of ambush was imminent. During the give and take of small arms fire, some of the men were injured, and several died overnight. Cameron describes the horror of discovering a body that was killed with a machete, but somehow, that sight gave the men new courage. His group was glad to become part of a new, revised strategy where some of the troops would strike the Japanese from the rear. He refers to Lee as “Charlie Bruce,” who was part of that strategy. While the plan seemed to be a good one, it became apparent that his group needed to abandon their positions and head for the Higgins boats that would take them back to Henderson Field. Things didn’t look good. Cameron reports this poignant conversation:

Charlie Bruce—the fellow from West Virginia with the girl named Mary—came over and shook my hand and said, “So long, corporal. Nice to have known you.” He reached into his pocket and brought out Mary’s picture. “I guess she and I will never get to be married now,” he said.

“Come on, Charlie,” I said. “That’s no way to talk.”

“I’m just facing the facts—that’s all,” he said. “But I don’t mind going. I only hope Mary won’t take it too tough.”

The group made a run for it. Later, Cameron reports:

I heard a cry near me. It was Charlie Bruce. A piece of shell fragment had gone into his stomach. A couple of the boys made a stretcher for him from a poncho and started down the hill with him. He was conscious and doing two things—praying and speaking of Mary.

Bruce didn’t die immediately. According to Cameron, he “got it again” as he was being carried to the boat. He was alive when the boat started back but died that night, holding a picture of Mary. Cpl. Cameron was sent home to recuperate but was determined to return to the front to “settle a score.”

Pfc. Charles Lee Bruce received a Purple Heart for his actions. Originally buried near where he fell, his remains were later returned stateside. Services were held at the Old Glory Baptist Church at Winifrede with military rites at the Saw Mill Cemetery, where he was interred.
headstone

The headstone for Pfc. Bruce at Saw Mill Cemetery is now weathered, but the World War II emblem stands out clearly. Courtesy Brenda Bruce

Charles, father and brother

Charles Lee Bruce with his father (l) and brother Murray Ray (r). Brother Ray would follow Lee into the Marines. Courtesy Brenda Bruce

Cpl. Cameron was not the only Marine determined to retaliate for the death of his men. Lee’s brother Ray also joined the Marines and ironically ended up at Guadalcanal. An article in the Charleston Daily Mail (“Winifrede Marine Kills Jap to Avenge Death of Brother,” March 31, 1944, p. 8) tells the story:

U.S. Naval Hospital, San Diego, Calif.—There was no searching or endless questioning for Marine Private First Class Murray R. Bruce, 21, of Winifrede, W. Va., when after arriving at Guadalcanal, he sought to find the grave of his older brother.

Assigned to a working party, Pfc. Bruce dropped behind as his group passed one of the marine graveyards on the island.

As though guided by a friendly unseen hand, the marine, his helmet under his arm, strolled over to one of the markers, a concrete block bearing a simple wooden cross.

On the cross was painted: Pfc. Charles Lee Bruce, killed in action, September 1942.

The sad experience was related by Pfc. Bruce at this hospital where he is being treated for a tropical ailment contracted on Bougainville.

It was on the latter island that he succeeded in avenging the death of his brother. Pfc. Bruce shot one of the enemy who was trying to land by native canoe at the airport at Bougainville. In 56 days of fighting on the island he may have got other [Japanese], but that one he was certain of, he said.

Pfc. Bruce is a son of Mr. and Mrs. Charles R. Bruce of Winifrede, W. Va., a mining camp near Charleston. He is now on furlough.



Family information provided by Brenda Bruce, niece of Charles Lee Bruce
Article prepared by Patricia Richards McClure
August 2016

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Charles Lee Bruce

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