Major Norm Hatch's footage and retelling of events in
the Naval Institute's Americans at War Series
Tarawa would be remembered for many things; extraordinary bravery of unprotected men, chest deep in water, moving slowly toward the beach through incessant machine gun fire; inspired leaders at every level doing whatever it took to get their men to assault massive fortifications; loss of essential weapons and equipment while struggling to the beach and still making do with what was at hand; blistering, brutal heat from an overhead sun that would turn a casualty's face into bacon in a matter of minutes and rob his speech for lack of water.
Every veteran would remember it for still another unforgettable reason—the incredible stench of death that would impregnate all clothing, equipment, and one's memory forever. Even today it is the first comment heard from the diminishing ranks of Tarawa veterans. Later, when the naval squadrons operated from the island even for a short period pilots would complain of the hordes of flies forcing them to keep their canopies closed in the oppressive heat and interfering with food consumption by any means.
Smaller than New York City's Central Park, Tarawa was an island of concentrated death—violent, brutal, fanatical, merciless death—that shocked even the sensibilities of the numerous Guadalcanal and Solomons campaign veterans. Exactly 17 of Admiral Shibasaki's force would surrender, and of those several were Korean laborers. The lesson to our fledgling Joint Chiefs of Staff and to the President personally was clear: America must be prepared to fight the Japanese to the death for every square mile of territory in the Pacific on the path to Tokyo. This was not Europe. The concept of chivalry or battlefield honor was simply nonexistent. Furthermore, our enemy considered surrender dishonorable. An emphasis on the Manhattan Project—to produce an atomic bomb, now primarily for use against Japan—was given even greater presidential priority. More important, at the highest command level, the President showed the resolve to use it without question. Tarawa was a preview of what would face an Allied invasion force landing in Japan itself, and it was a price we would avoid at any cost. Such is the legacy of Tarawa.