Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa — these amphibious assaults during World War II upon Japanese-held redoubts stand out in the nation’s memory, perhaps. The rest of the some dozens of invasions of Japanese strongholds in the vast Pacific theater have by now faded into the annals of battles.
But one stands out in my memory, scarcely recalled by any except the participants — Tarawa, an equatorial atoll. It was my first battle experience as a landing-craft officer, responsible for landing assault troops on enemy-held beachheads.
In November 1943, the nation was shocked to see photos in Life magazine of “Bloody Tarawa,” as it was promptly termed, of U.S. Marine dead — taken before the burial crews did their clean-up work — of corpses floating in the water, of others sprawled on the seawall, of still others huddled near the stump of a coconut palm. This was warfare close up — almost a tactile experience for the nation. Never before had the public seen a display of carnage, such horrors, of dead Americans. But then there were other battles and less graphic photos. Tarawa faded with time.
The key to victory over the Japanese was command of Pacific Oceana. An important factor in the battle plans of the U.S. Navy High Command was the seizure of certain Central Pacific islands en route to the Japanese homeland. The Tarawa atoll, with a landing strip on one of its islands, Betio, was selected as the first in the island-hopping campaign.
It is impossible for me to shake loose from my memory even the most trivial details of the battle for Tarawa: The Navy’s traditional “battle breakfast” — steak and eggs — at 3:00 a.m. on November 23, the shrill bos’un’s whistle over the ship’s PA system, then the barked command, “Now hear this! Away all boats! Away all boats!” On my way to my loading station, I see a marine lieutenant with whom I had made fast friends during our trip from New Zealand. We grip each other’s hands, then say something nonsensical. Before climbing down the debarkation net, I stand transfixed, looking at the gun flashes on the horizon. I remember thinking, “How in hell did I ever get here?”
In the night sky away from the island, the constellation Orion is shining brilliantly, as is the luminous Southern Cross. I’m struck by the contrast of this serene, heavenly vista and the violence a few miles away. I’m in my landing craft with my boat crew and 30 marines heading to the debarkation area, marked by two destroyers — their five-inch guns banging away at the island — 1,000 yards from the beach. Swimming alongside, keeping up with us, a 6-foot blue shark. A sign? An omen?
Leaving the debarkation area, I stand up on the engine box, using flags to signal the other 10 boats in my assault wave to form up, as I was trained to do. Splashes in the water march toward us — automatic-weapons fire and mortars. My brain and my body are in a struggle; my body refuses to yield, forcing me to kneel.
Meticulous planning, of course, preceded the invasion — and, as in all battles everything comes apart. But this time, one incredible blunder after another. Only a few hours of bombardment before H-Hour, compared with the days of it in later invasions. Landing craft hung up on the reef owing to lousy tide forecasting. Improperly trained, or perhaps, cowardly coxswains dumping marines in water over their heads, causing many to drown. Enfilading Japanese fire, disrupting the orderly dispatching of landing craft at the debarkation point. Landing Vehicle Tanks with paper thin armor — carrying command and communications personnel — ripped apart.
Days after the battle for the tiny Betio island is over, I come ashore. It is less than 300 acres, approximately the size of downtown Malibu. The air is still heavy with the stench of death. The burial crews have removed the U.S. dead, but some Japanese dead are still lying where they were killed, rotting and stinking in the tropical sun. Gun emplacements are everywhere.
Around the island are symbols of Japan’s conquest of huge swaths of Asia: an 8-inch gun with English markings that had been taken from the former British territory of Singapore. The dead gun crew are lying on the concrete gun foundation and scattered around them are Philippine currency in centavos denominations, showing Emperor Hirohito’s face. Among the non-American casualties of the battle are non-combatant Koreans, including “comfort women.”
The U.S. won the battle for Tarawa, but what was the price for this little piece of land? During less than three days of fighting, 8,000 were dead or wounded: The combined American casualties was close to 3,500. Most of the 4,800-member Japanese garrison was killed.
Several years ago, my late wife, Alberta, and I toured the South Pacific including the “Islands of Valor,” as the tour company called them: Guadalcanal and others in the Solomon Islands group.
In the islands, it was as if we were in a time warp. Nothing had changed. The islands are as lush, as verdant and as brilliantly colored just as I had remembered. The islanders still follow the sun’s pattern, arising at daybreak and retiring at sunset — still no electricity. WW II detritus was everywhere — abandoned bulldozers and jeeps in jungle clearings, here virtually an entire machine shop, there beached landing craft. On one of the islands, the wreckage of Japanese aircraft lie jumbled in and around bomb craters. Miraculously, one plane, a “Betty” class medium bomber, stands nearly intact some yards from the debris.
I climbed aboard and seated myself in the cockpit while Alberta took pictures.
A short time later, three young Japanese men from a separate tour group approached the plane as we left the area. Looking back, I watched one of the Japanese, laughing boisterously, climb into the cockpit I had left moments ago, presumably to have his picture snapped as well.