An Enduring Legacy

By Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

Front-page Headlines

Many outstanding correspondents had covered the war from the start, including Robert Sherrod of Time magazine in the Pacific theater. During the conflict's first 23 months, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration tightly censored news reports from the front lines. Photographs of dead Americans were expressly forbidden until two months before Tarawa, when the President relented, likely in order to inspire public support of sagging war bond drives. Life magazine's issue of 20 September 1943 featured a photograph of three dead soldiers, killed on a beach near Buna, New Guinea, with the editorial comment, "these are our boys, born of our women, reared in our schools, bred to our horizons." The stark photograph elicited a storm of letters to the editor. One New York woman charged Life with "morbid sensationalism." 1

People were still buzzing about the groundbreaking photograph when hundreds of even more graphic photographs of Tarawa began flooding the newspapers. Under pressure by newspaper editors and publishers for greater front-line access and fewer restrictions on their reporters, President Roosevelt had agreed to remove most of the barriers. Tarawa became the first battle waged under this so-called "open-door" policy and was covered by every element of the media.

Graphic reports of the fighting became front-page headlines in American newspapers. "Grim Tarawa Defense a Surprise, Eyewitness of Battle Reveals," reported the New York Times, adding an imaginary tagline, "Marines Went in Chuckling, to Find Swift Death Instead of Easy Conquest." Many asked if tiny Tarawa—barely a pinhead dot in the middle of nowhere on peoples' Pacific atlases—had been worth the 3,400 U.S. Marine casualties. 2  

A Legion of Correspondents

Scores of accredited reporters, photographers, and artists had descended on the 2d Marine Division's headquarters in Wellington, New Zealand. They sailed with the convoy to the Gilberts and landed with the Marines on Betio. Several became casualties; two died. Combat artist Gil Bundy was the only survivor in a Higgins boat filled with troops that suffered a direct hit from a Japanese howitzer. Before being rescued, Bundy spent a horrifying night buried under the bodies of his shipmates as the smoking hulk—his living coffin—drifted aimlessly in the lagoon.

Some members of the press corps were Marines, like Staff Sergeant Norman Hatch, a rifleman turned motion-picture photographer (see story, page 38). Hatch and his team recorded outstanding footage of the ship-to-shore assault and the point-blank fighting ashore, including a remarkable up-close sequence of armed Japanese dashing from a sand-covered bunker at the climax of the assault on day three. Hatch shipped the reels back to the States, where another team edited the raw footage into a 26-minute documentary entitled With the Marines at Tarawa. The closing, full-color scene of dead Marines floating in the lagoon was so powerful that President Roosevelt hesitated several days before releasing it. The film was sensational, and it won the 1944 Academy Award for best short-subject documentary. War bond sales soared; Marine recruiting dropped 35 percent.

 

Major Norman Hatch's footage and retelling of events in

the Naval Institute's Americans at War Series

The lurid stateside headlines aside, the reporting from the beachhead was on the dead level. Most war correspondents, like Sherrod, boarded Higgins boats in the fourth assault wave. When their boats ran afoul of the reef, they waded ashore under fire with the Marines. The traumatic passage unnerved the veteran Sherrod. "I was scared, as I had never been scared before," he said. "Those who were not hit would always remember how the machine-gun bullets hissed into the water, inches to the right, inches to the left." His terse observations of the battle from a sand dune near Colonel David Shoup's bunker on Red Two became a bestselling book, Tarawa: A Story of a Battle , in 1944. 3

Associated Press photographer Frankie Filan ruined both his cameras while struggling to assist a wounded Marine in the fire-swept lagoon. "There I was," he said, "a photographer in the middle of a battle without a camera." Filan continued to rescue wounded men from the turbid waters, earning a Navy commendation for his heroism. Later he borrowed a camera from a Coast Guard photographer and took a riveting, wide-angle photo of the ungodly death and devastation on Betio, a shot that would win a 1944 Pulitzer Prize. 4

Artist Kerr Eby, at age 53 the oldest man on either side at Betio, had sketched Marines in French battlefields in World War I. On Betio, his charcoal renderings captured the desperation of the waterborne assault and the vicious fighting beyond the seawall. Asked by young Marines to compare the Great War battles with Tarawa, Eby admitted that Tarawa was by far the worst, calling the assault "a time of utmost savagery." 5

The Human Toll

Japanese Combined Fleet commander Admiral Mineichi Koga, having heard nothing further from the Tarawa garrison after the second day of the battle, dispatched a search plane to the atoll from the Marshalls on 24 November. The plane reported "no evidence of Japanese forces left on Tarawa, but great activity by enemy on building of airstrip." It was a tough message for Imperial General Headquarters to swallow. Tokyo waited until 20 December to tell the public that the entire garrison in the Gilberts had been killed in action. 6 The 2,571 rikusentai had fought virtually to the last man. None surrendered—the only eight fighters to be captured by the Marines had all been severely wounded. The "Imperial Marines" had sustained a fatality rate of 99.7 percent. Tarawa, in effect, was their Alamo.

This was a harbinger that the Americans did not immediately perceive. In previous campaigns at Guadalcanal and Kiska, the Imperial Navy had skillfully evacuated the last of the Japanese troops to fight again. In the Central Pacific, with the U.S. Fifth Fleet maintaining command of the sea, it now appeared that every amphibious assault would encounter defenders who were prepared to fight to the last man. The long road to Tokyo was going to exact an ever greater toll on both attackers and defenders.

Reports of 3,400 U.S. Marines killed, wounded, or missing at Tarawa roiled the nation, but the public had little knowledge that the Navy had sustained nearly similar losses in Operation Galvanic. The most catastrophic naval loss occurred when the Japanese submarine I-175 torpedoed the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay (CVE-56) off Makin Atoll on the morning of 24 November. The torpedo penetrated the ship's bomb magazine and blew up. So terrible was the explosion that Rear Admiral Harry Hill saw the flash from Tarawa, 93 miles away. The ship sank like a stone, taking 644 men to their deaths, a grim coda to the seizure of the Gilberts. Other Sailors died when a Japanese torpedo bomber damaged the light carrier USS Independence (CVL-22), and a turret exploded on the battleship USS Mississippi (BB-41). Eighty-nine surgeons and hospital corpsmen attached to the 2d Marine Division became casualties ashore, in addition to a number of Navy coxswains, many of whom died at the exposed helm of their landing boats.

Navy surgeon Lieutenant Herman Brukhardt and three corpsmen established an aid station in a captured Japanese bunker strewn with corpses. Clearing a narrow space, the team began tending the wounded, twice having to drop their instruments and draw their pistols when one of the "dead" Japanese abruptly opened fire. Operating with flashlights amid the most primitive conditions imaginable, Brukhardt and the corpsmen treated 126 casualties in the ensuing day and a half. Only four of their patients died. 7

Honoring Leatherneck Heroism

One of the patients that Dr. Brukhardt could not save was First Lieutenant William Deane Hawkins, commanding the 2d Marines' elite Scout-Sniper Platoon-the unit that had stormed the pierhead on D-day. On the second day, with his platoon guarding Shoup's command post on Red Two, Hawkins watched in outrage as nearby Japanese gunners began shooting down men of Major Larry Hays' 1st Battalion, 8th Marines as they waded in from their stranded boats.

Hawkins roared an oath and dashed toward the nearest enemy bunkers. His startled men scrambled to keep up with him. In a wild half-hour, Hawkins diverted much of the Japanese fire toward himself—sustaining several wounds—and personally knocked out three enemy positions. A Japanese gunner shot him through the chest. His stricken men snaked him out of the fire and carried him to Brukhardt's aid station. The surgeon did everything he could, but Hawkins had lost too much blood, and the medical team had no plasma. Hawkins opened his eyes one last time, said, "Boys, I hate to leave you like this," and died. His men—and the medical team—wept.

Deane Hawkins would receive the Medal of Honor for his bold attacks on D+1, and the Marines named the captured Betio bomber strip Hawkins Field in his honor.

Posthumous Medals of Honor were also awarded to two combat engineers, Staff Sergeant William Bordelon and First Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman, for their sacrificial heroism along Red Beach. Ironically, both men and Hawkins shared the distinction of having been rejected by the recruiters of other services before being accepted by the Marines. Hawkins' unsightly burns, the result of a childhood kitchen accident, disqualified him in the eyes of the Army. Bonnyman had been too exuberant an aviation cadet, and the Army Air Forces cashiered him for buzzing the control tower on his first solo flight. The Navy had rejected Bordelon when they found webbing between his toes, a "defect" the Marines considered an advantage.

All three had earned their spurs as enlisted Marines in the Guadalcanal campaign, where Hawkins and Bonnyman received battlefield commissions and Bordelon a meritorious promotion to staff sergeant. All three gave their lives in three successive days during pivotal moments along Betio's beachfront when other Marine lives hung in the balance.

The fourth Medal of Honor to be awarded to Marines at Tarawa went to Colonel David Shoup, the only recipient to live through the experience. Shoup's indomitable leadership throughout the battle had inspired his men to surpass themselves and prevail. Sixteen years later, President Dwight Eisenhower would select Shoup to be the 22d Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Lifesaving Innovations and Improvisations

The old adage "No plan survives the first contact with the enemy" readily applied to Tarawa. The battle swung on the ability of small groups of Marines to adapt to the new reality and quickly devise alternate paths to the objective. Some of this versatility became evident even before D-day. The warrant officers and NCOs of the 2d Marine Division became masters at using unofficial field expedients and off-the-cuff acquisitions to augment a sluggish supply system.

Such a foraging spirit was especially evident in Major Henry Drewes' 2d Amphibian Tractor Battalion. No higher headquarters provided guidance or kits to convert their logistic-support LVT-1 Alligators into assault landing craft. Drewes and his salty staff scrounged whatever they needed from New Zealand sources in order to upgrade each vehicle with improved bilge pumps, armor plating around the cab, rail-mounted heavy machine guns on the bow, and grappling hooks astern to rip barbed wire from its roots. Drewes would die in the assault. His battalion would lose 60 percent of their number and 90 of their 125 LVTs in the fighting. But their innovative field modifications helped deliver the first three assault waves safely ashore at the most critical moment of the battle.

Freshly promoted Major Mike Ryan was a reserve officer, still regarded skeptically by some of the rigid prewar regulars. But no one adapted more effectively to the chaos of Betio than Ryan and his rifle company. Wading ashore from the reef in the fourth wave, Ryan saw the killing zones created by Japanese gunners along the Pocket and led his men out of their assigned lanes and well around to Green Beach, landing relatively unscathed. For the next 24 hours, Ryan—with scant experience in combined-arms operations—forged a provisional battalion of stragglers, learned on the spot how to coordinate naval gunfire and tanks, and swept the entire west face of the island.

Other officers also seemed to thrive in the chaos. Lieutenant Sandy Bonnyman, the doomed engineer officer who would receive a posthumous Medal of Honor, showed up uninvited at Red Beach Three because he was out of a job-a shore-party logistician with no combat cargo to offload and distribute. He watched the 8th Marines struggle to overcome a large, sand-covered bunker that had proven unassailable for three days. After briefly studying the objective, Bonnyman assembled a 12-man storming party of flamethrower operators, demolitionists, and riflemen; rehearsed each Marine's role; and then led them in a charge up the steep slope.

Japanese gunners shot down half of the men; the others flamed the external machinegun nests, dropped thermite grenades down the ventilation pipes, and forced the hundred occupants to bolt out the rear into a fusillade of bullets from the 8th Marines. Bonnyman died on the crest, still unknown. The riflemen had to read his dogtags to identify the man who had, on his own initiative, neutralized the vexing strongpoint.

Tarawa taught other painful lessons. Too many Sherman tanks were lost in the transit from the reef to the beach—they sank in underwater bomb craters, undetectable in the turbid water, and their crews drowned. The supply system had delivered the tanks in time, but not their fording kits, whose hatch seals and exhaust pipe extensions could have saved tanks and crews. Likewise, many of the tank commanders who made it ashore became casualties when they had to dismount to confer with the infantry. The ingenious tank-infantry phone, mounted on the rear of some tanks in the South Pacific, was not available at Tarawa.

Logistical mismanagement almost brought the operation to a standstill. Admiral Chester Nimitz had emphasized speed of offloading to avoid the anticipated Japanese counterattacks. Transport captains readily complied, filling every available boat with cargo, regardless of its priority or the needs of the landing force ashore. Gridlock occurred on the third day as hundreds of loaded boats circled helter-skelter in the lagoon. Colonel Shoup had no idea which boats held the supplies he most needed, nor did he have boats available to evacuate wounded or to transport Major Ray Murray's 2d Battalion, 6th Marines in their assault against the remaining Japanese in the atoll. In this area, as well, Tarawa proved instructive to the campaigns that followed. The V Amphibious Corps at Iwo Jima, for example, with three times the landing force and an equally difficult and contested beach, would never have been able to sustain the month-long assault without the benefit of the painful logistical lessons learned at Tarawa.

An Abiding Legacy

"No More Tarawas" became a mantra for future amphibious planners. The battle's tactical and logistical lessons markedly influenced the landings at Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, as well as the complex plans for Operation Olympic, the planned assault on the Japanese home islands. General Douglas MacArthur's amphibious masterpiece at Inchon in 1950 was a direct reflection of Tarawa's impact. The need to avoid such costly frontal assaults as Tarawa led the Marines and Navy to acquire faster means of forcible entry, such as helicopters and high-speed, air-cushioned landing craft.

For the U.S. Marines, Tarawa was the only amphibious battle that the landing force came close to losing, especially during the vulnerable first night ashore. Many veteran commanders, troop leaders, and war correspondents shared the conviction that the issue remained very much in doubt until daybreak on the second day. Thereafter, despite the setbacks and misfortunes to come, the Marines were ashore to stay. Their costly triumph after 76 hours of close combat reflected an intangible resilience and creative adaptability that salvaged both the battle and the Central Pacific drive to Tokyo.

 

Aftermath of War: Tarawa Today

By Donald K. Allen

The sands of Betio's beaches are a light beige, and the equatorial sun's reflection off the tiny crystals causes Westerners not wearing sunglasses to squint from sunup to sundown. Washed clean of blood, Red Beaches One, Two, and Three are still hallowed ground for the dwindling number of Marine veterans who landed and waded ashore there in late November 1943. Comrades are still buried in lost graves on Betio, perhaps hundreds.

Time has not been kind to this once-idyllic string of islands that form the Tarawa Atoll. The peaceful, ecologically balanced pre–World War II lives of the Gilbertese people may never be known again. The war brought with it many wonders of Western civilization, amazing things like ice cream, motion pictures, and all sorts of modern machines. The food and drinks were all in packages—cans, boxes, and bottles—that did not decay and decompose as readily as pandanus leaves, coconuts, and fish remains. Then came plastic containers and bags, and trash began to accumulate and blow about the islands.

Word of all the things that could be seen on Tarawa, and especially Betio, traveled to the out islands via monthly supply ships, and the atoll became a magnet, like Disneyland is to Americans. The islanders had to see these things for themselves. Part of the culture of the Gilbertese, now known as the I-Kiribati, is the right of visitation. If you had a distant relative on Betio, you could go there to visit and would be welcomed like the prodigal son. The problem arose when the visitors decided to stay; telling relatives to go back home is not acceptable. Consequently, the atoll's population rose from 1,671 in 1947 to well over 35,000 today. It is estimated that Betio, whose area is only one-half square mile, is home to between 12,000 and 20,000 people. One in four households has at least 10 residents.

Then there is the problem of human waste. The Australians tried installing toilet blocks on Betio, but these soon became plugged with the leaves that were used when toilet paper ran out. Traditionally the beach at low tide or the ocean itself served as the islanders' toilet. Anywhere on the beach below the high tide mark is now used, and because of causeways built between the islands after the war, the flushing effect of the tides is not as efficient. The lagoon side of Tarawa is notoriously polluted. With a 90 percent prevalence of hepatitis A on Tarawa, due partly to the sewage contamination of lagoon sea life used for food, life expectancy is well below average. Diabetes is now a problem from the effects of a Western diet, and alcoholism is also a concern.
At least one U.S. veteran, Leon Cooper, a Navy ensig at Tarawa, is leading a drive to clean up the island. Also, in early October an expedition organized by History Flight, of Marathon, Florida, set out for Tarawa with ground-penetrating radar to search for the remains of the missing in action from the assault force that wrested this atoll from the Japanese. The graves are scattered all over the western three-fourths of Betio, and with buildings, homes, and huts covering much of the island, the task will be challenging.

Dr. Allen, a Youngstown, Ohio, veterinarian, is the author of Tarawa—the Aftermath ( www.tarawatheaftermath.com , 2001).
 

 

  

ER, Navy Style

By Nick Cariello

The rough rocking of the waves pushed the Higgins boat against the troopship. I tried to keep my eyes open, but shafts of reflected sunlight bouncing off the transport forced me keep them tightly closed. I then heard the deep baritone voice of the ship's loudspeaker bellow: "Stand by to take aboard wounded! Stand by to take aboard wounded!"

A private first class in F Company, 2d Battalion, 2d Marines, I'd manned an amtrac's .50-caliber machine gun in the first wave ashore on Tarawa Atoll's Betio Island. I'd raked the shoreline the best I could in the bouncy surf on the ride in, and then jumped out onto Red Beach Two. Around twilight, three other Marines and I were evacuating a badly wounded comrade on a stretcher when a Japanese soldier threw a grenade at us. He was quickly killed, but I was wounded by shrapnel. Evacuated the morning of D+1, I never found out what happened to the other Marines.

Now, the relentless Central Pacific sun beat down on me, causing sweat to flow across my body in rivulets. I felt a cool rough cloth on my forehead, and I heard the familiar voice of the corpsman in the Higgins boat. "Want another shot of morphine, buddy?"

I mumbled no, afraid that I might be overdosed. The day before I had been given much of the drug, all I wanted. Thirst, however, came on suddenly, and I asked for water. The corpsman propped me up and poured warm water slowly into my mouth.

I fell into a pain-interrupted semi-doze and then awoke to find myself being winched aboard the troopship and swinging high through the air on my stretcher like a giant pendulum. Anxious voices shouted directions, and I felt eager hands grasping both ends of the stretcher. The phantom hands gently moved me across the ship's hot deck. Then I felt myself being carried down a hatch. The hands finally put me down outside an emergency room loaded with shiny medical apparatus.

Looking up, I saw a very young corpsman, probably 18 or 19, kneeling over me. He was shirtless and had deep blue eyes, almost purple. It was humid and oppressively hot, and the corpsman took a cool rag and wiped my face and neck.

"Got a smoke, doc?" I pleaded.

""Sure," he answered.

I pulled the nicotine-laden smoke deep into my lungs, but then pain started to mount again and I moaned.

 "You want some morphine?" the corpsman asked.  I nodded and said, "Just a little." He quickly injected the drug into my arm, and I marveled at how soon it worked. I felt blissful, like I was floating. I told the young corpsman how and where I had been wounded. He nodded sympathetically and soon dashed off to find me a cold drink.

Glancing over my shoulder, I saw other wounded Marines on stretchers waiting their turn to be treated. A number of corpsmen hovered over them solicitously as they attended their wounds and needs and dispensing invaluable pain relief with the point of a morphine syringe.

As I waited on my sweat-stained stretcher, I thought about the smells, sounds, and sights of battle. My recollections were jumbled and overlapped. But standing out was the memory of the unbelievable and overwhelming sound of battle. The noise was ear-piercing, relentless, paralyzing, and staggering. It was an unending cacophony of aerial bombing, naval shelling, artillery pounding, mortar blasting, and machine-gun and small-arms fire that blended into seemingly continuous explosions—for hour after hour after hour after hour.

Soon I noticed three lifeless forms off in a corner next to a bulkhead, each carefully wrapped in bright new U.S. flags. Our company had taken a brutal pounding, and I wondered if I knew any of the flag-draped dead.

I was surreptitiously wiping away a few tears on my sleeve when the corpsman returned with a triumphant look on his face as he held a tall glass that had a tiny fringe of frost on its edge. "Lemonade," he said with youthful enthusiasm, adding that he snitched it from the officers' mess.
He held my head gently while I eagerly drank. The cold fluid slid down my throat, lifting my spirits. My thoughts drifted home, and I remembered the great summer drinks my mother concocted, mainly lemonade but with an added slice of orange or lime and sometimes pitted cherries.

Suddenly, the corpsman leaped to attention as a Navy surgeon in a white smock spotted with blood strode toward us. He wore a two-day stubble, and I judged him to be in his mid 50s. "Where'd he catch it?" the doctor asked.

"Both buttocks and especially the upper thighs, sir," was the reply. "He has a lot of shrapnel from a grenade."

When the doctor bent over me and asked me how I felt, I noticed that he had deep brown eyes, like my older brother Joe's. I was worried that I might lose part of my legs but said with bravado, "Ready to go back, sir."

Then the corpsman and a helper carried me into the emergency room, where the acrid smell of numerous antiseptics was stifling. Hands lifted me off the stretcher and were carefully rolling me over onto my stomach on a small white table when a live grenade I had forgotten about fell out of my dungaree pocket and rolled under the table.

Panic resulted as the young corpsman yelled, "Grenade, watch out, grenade!"

 I shouted: "No, no, it's OK, it's OK!  It's harmless until the pin is pulled!"

After the young corpsman gingerly picked up the yellow-colored grenade and carefully put it on a shelf, he slashed off my dungarees. He then cleaned my arm with a piece of cotton saturated with alcohol and jabbed me with a needle. I soon had that most welcome and comfortable floating feeling provided by the incredible morphine.

As the surgeon skillfully but slowly pulled off the bandages that had been applied on the beach, I gasped in pain. After examining my legs, he handed me a small wad of gauze to bite on and warned, "It's going to hurt."

At first I felt nothing. Then, despite the morphine, scattered pain became one searing hurt throughout my legs. I chewed hard on the gauze until I couldn't stand the pain any more. I moaned loudly at intervals.

"That's OK, son," said the doctor soothingly. "I'm almost finished."

Again I bit down on the gauze as I heard the clink, clink, clink, clink of grenade fragments being dropped into a metal tray. These pieces were at or near the surface; I would need several major surgeries to remove those lodged deeper in my legs.

Finally it was over, and I could hear the surgeon breathing hard as he quickly wrapped my legs in heavy bandages. Then he said quietly, "Thank you for your service, son." I was flattered and replied loudly, almost shouting, "And thank you for your service, sir!" He gently squeezed my shoulder, and I saw his surgical mask crinkle into an apparent smile.

After receiving a medical discharge from the Marine Corps, Mr. Cariello earned a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin. He worked in journalism for 30 years, including 25 as the news editor of his hometown newspaper, the Racine, Wisconsin, Journal Times .

 


 

 
1. Life magazine, 20 Oct. 1943 (George Strock photograph, editorial), 11 Oct. 1943 (letters).

2. New York Times , 4 Dec. 1943, p. 1. The account, posted by SGT James Lucas, USMC, was authentic; the newspaper's staff conceived the headlines.

3. Robert Sherrod, "One Square Mile of Hell," Time, 6 Dec. 1943. Sherrod, Tarawa: A Story of the Battle (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1944).

4. Frank Filan quoted by Hal Buell, "Why Not a Camera?" in Breaking News: How the Associated Press Has Covered War, Peace, and Everything Else (Princeton Architectural Press: 2007), p. 320.

5. Kerr Eby's comment first appeared in "What's New," a publication of Abbott Laboratories, Eby's workplace, in May 1944; Robert Sherrod later reported it in "Kerr Eby: Combat Artist," Leatherneck , November 1992, p. 67.

6. Sensi Sosho (Japanese War History Series) # 6, Chubu Taiheyo homen rikugen sakusen (1), (Army Operations in the Central Pacific, volume 1), pp. 184 and 191.

7. Interview with former corpsman Robert Costello, 2d Marines, 1994; LT Peter Zurlinden, USMCR, "Pillbox is Used as a Hospital for Tarawa Wounded," Honolulu Advertiser, 4 Dec. 1943, p. 1.

Colonel Alexander is thankful for the assistance of Robbin B. Whittington and Tarawa veteran Larry E. Klatt in preparing his three articles.

 

 

Col. Joseph H. Alexander, USMC served in the Corps for 29 years as an assault amphibian officer. He has written six books, including Utmost Savagery and Edson’s Raiders. He was the Naval Institute Author of the Year in 1996 and Naval History Author of the Year in 2010. He was the principal historian and writer on the exhibit design team throughout the construction of the National Museum of the Marine Corps. He lived in Asheville, North Carolina. Col. Alexander passed away on 28 September 2014. He was 76 years old.

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