Marines form unusual friendship with lion

Roscoe was a great howler — growling madly to the discomfort of some and happily joining in whenever he could.

Roscoe was a great howler — growling madly to the discomfort of some and happily joining in whenever he could.

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Big and friendly, weighing 300 to 350 pounds, he was an African lion and mascot for 5th Marine Division, 28th Regiment, 1st Battalion Company C.

It was an unusual friendship during World War II at Camp Tarawa, located on Parker Ranch land near Waimea. Though brief, it was a plus and as simple as seeking comfort or companionship from another. If anything, it likely boosted the morale for the Marines, who were still boys at the time and preparing for overseas deployment at 17 to 20 years old, said Jim Browne, of the Camp Tarawa Detachment No. 1255.

Of the approximately 55,000 men who trained from 1943 to 1945 at Camp Tarawa, 5,145 were killed in action or died of their wounds. More than 18,000 were wounded in action against Japanese armed forces in the Saipan-Tinian and Iwo Jima campaigns, he said.

Browne spends a lot of his time preserving the history of World War II — specifically the role Camp Tarawa played. One of the many ways Browne and his fellow members of the Marine Corps League Camp Tarawa Detachment No. 1255 have kept the camp’s history alive and well for future generations is through a docent program in conjunction with the National Park Service and a monthly newsletter. For years, they have led regular presentations and “Boots on the Ground” tours.

“While working on my short history of Camp Tarawa, I stumbled on what I feel is a real human, or animal, interest story,” he said. “When I first heard about Roscoe, I was intrigued by the story of just how an African lion wound up as a living mascot for a Marine regiment, how they acquired him, and how they got him aboard a ship and here to Camp Tarawa on the Big Island.”

Thanks to oral history projects and interviews done in 1995 and 1996 by Alice Clark, of the Pacific War Memorial Association, and Maile Melrose, of Waimea Main Streets, Browne learned Roscoe wasn’t a tall tale, “but a fascinating, colorful bit of Marine Corps history.” Clark and Melrose interviewed retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Fred Haynes, who died last year, Browne said.

According to Haynes, the 28th Regiment, 1st Battalion Company C purchased Roscoe, then “a little bitty cub” and “as cute as he could be” for $25 from a Los Angeles zoo, most likely Griffith Park. They brought him to their initial training camp at Camp Pendleton in California. How they transported a lion to the camp no one knows for sure, but Browne does know it wasn’t by taxi or train.

Like any story, there’s always another side. Supposedly, a regiment member bought the cub as a gift for his son, and when his wife shot that idea down, Roscoe came to Camp Pendleton, said Browne, who guessed Roscoe was born in the fall of 1943.

“When we were ordered overseas we, much to their dismay, conned the Navy into letting us bring Roscoe to Hawaii and we settled him in at Camp Tarawa here in Waimea,” Haynes said. “He was still a fairly small cub, but when we went to Iwo (Jima), the Navy wouldn’t let us take him aboard ship, which was probably good luck for him.”

A more likely situation, Browne said, was the regiment smuggled Roscoe aboard ship by putting him in a crate and covering it. When the ship arrived in Honolulu, Roscoe was discovered. The lion spent a week in quarantine before being placed on a plane to Camp Tarawa and arrived in the late summer of 1944.

In the early 1940s, Waimea had a population of fewer than 400 residents and many worked for Parker Ranch. But all that changed as more than 25,000 military personnel, mostly Marines, would soon call it “home.” By the time the war was over, more than 50,000 Marines, Navy corpsmen and Army Seabees passed through the 137,000-acre Camp Tarawa. Richard Smart, Parker Ranch’s then sole owner, leased the land to the government for $1 a year.

While at the camp, Roscoe was known for his musical and showboating ways.

“He could out-howl the band,” Haynes said. “Then we would have these little parades over the athletic field of about 400 to 500 men. Roscoe would drape himself over the hood of a jeep and go over to the parade ground, and the band would play and he would howl, or growl madly, much to the discomfort of the bandleader, Bob Crosby. It was like being in darkest Africa to hear him let fly.”

When the Marines went to the beaches of Iwo Jima, Roscoe stayed at the camp, eating meat from Parker Ranch and scraps from the mess hall.

“He was a big, friendly guy, but we wouldn’t let the average Marine go near him, only the three or four Marines who bought him and brought him to Camp Pendleton and really knew him,” Haynes said. “One or two of them had been wounded at Iwo (Jima) and returned home, but there were a couple of them left when we came back and he was very friendly to them. They would go and feed him, and he would growl a little bit that he was happy they were there.”

Upon return, Haynes expressed his surprise to seeing Roscoe’s drastic size and how much he ate. Still, his love of howling remained, as evidence of his duets with an adjutant learning to play the bagpipes.

“(The adjutant) was an insomniac and would play bagpipes until two or three in the morning, and of course, Roscoe would join right in,” he said. “So we moved both of them far enough away where they could enjoy one another’s music and let the rest of us get some sleep.”

At least four or five months later, Haynes said Roscoe “become quite ill” and “distemper got a hold of him.” Veterinarians put him to sleep and he was buried late summer of 1945 near the camp.

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The exact location is unknown and Parker Ranch has no record of Roscoe, Browne said. By sharing this story, the Marine Corps League Camp Tarawa Detachment No. 1255 is hoping someone knows. The group wants to place a memorial plaque at the site in the lion’s honor.

Anyone with information about Roscoe’s gravesite or with stories about Camp Tarawa should call Browne at 883-0069 or Kathy Painton at 880-9880. For more information about the detachment, visit camptarawamcl.com.