More and more debris filled the water as we neared the desolate shore.1 Several times a bullet whined near us, and I ducked behind the boat’s wheelhouse. Then, when no more came, we ventured back to watch the shore as we approached. On the beach everything was confusion. Ruin and desolation was everywhere. All of the trees were blackened by smoke and shattered by shell fire. Palms hung limply. The beach had several hundred men milling around who had just come off boats.
To our right, sporadic firing was going on. They had a sniper there. To our front, we could hear terrific explosions. A dense cloud of smoke rose above us from somewhere deeper in the island. A smaller fire raged not more than 200 yards back from the beach. I dropped my pack with an artillery outfit and started inland to look for a command post and to try and find the correspondents and get their copy out, as this was my job.
I had not gone 50 yards before I came upon a gang of perhaps ten men who were going through a ruined shack like a gang of ferrets. Apparently it had been an officers’ shack. One was throwing things out of a suitcase while others grabbed at the articles of clothing and held them up to themselves. One man put on a naval shirt that came up to his belly and left his long arms dangling. “Damn that laundry,” he yelled. Another took a bottle containing some sort of liquid and sniffed it cautiously. “Maybe it’s sake,” he ventured. One picked up a small book covered with Japanese writing. “Hey, the Reader’s Digest,” he yelled. In five minutes the shack and its contents were more wrecked than if a 16-inch shell had hit it.
I ran into Colonel Colley, division intelligence officer, and Colonel Johnston, an operations officer.2 I started off with them to locate a hole in the ground where it had been decided to set up the division command post. I noticed that the Marines we were passing were crouched behind trees and in holes but did not think much about it until suddenly a bullet cut through the air just above us. Without being told, we hit the dirt. The Japs were in a building just ahead, and a whole fusillade went over our heads. We waited until it quieted down and went back down the trail. At last we found what we were looking for—a big rectangular hole about 4 feet deep and 50 feet long. We jumped in and sat down.
Tracer bullets from machine guns zipped over our heads, and we all sat with our backs nearest the enemy. I peeped up over the rim and from behind a stump could see a destroyer was in close throwing shells at the blockhouse about 300 yards in front of us. I sat down and began eating some K rations—cheese and crackers—which I shared with Colonel Colley and Colonel Johnston.
Johnston, who has a broad smile and friendly manner, asked me what my job was. I told him division public relations officer, not unaware it sounded rather silly right there.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked.
“Looking for some civilian correspondents,” I told him.
We all began digging foxholes in the corners of the hole. Pop and I put down a poncho and pulled his poncho on top of us.3 There were many lumps underneath, but a helmet makes a pretty good pillow. Every blast from the destroyer sent showers of sand down into my ears, and I was as much annoyed about that as the bullets and shells that whistled overhead.
Once I climbed up to see what was going on. The building in front of us was on fire, and occasionally the destroyer would blast out in the darkness. Then there would be a whirring noise as the shell passed us and a close explosion. Colonel Colley was talking with Colonel Johnson, saying he didn’t know just what the answer was to taking these places. We had all the naval gunfire and bombing we needed, and we still have to dig the Japanese out, he said.
Through the darkness came the ring of a field telephone that had been run up soon after we moved in. I thought how utterly incongruous was the homey sound of this bell amid the death, destruction, and noise around us. At last I fell into a fitful sleep, awakening only long enough to shake the sand out of my ears and take off my helmet, which had felt so comfortable before but now was literally giving me a pain in the neck.
Dawn broke and along with it came the familiar sound of a rooster crowing somewhere amid the ruins. The coconut trees, though blasted, were still beautiful in the early morning light, and for a while there was a vague uneasy quiet over the island disturbed by just a little sporadic firing.
A sergeant who had come ashore with me was nearby and suggested a walk. We started along the beach, and I was amazed at the thick coconut logs and the steel reinforcements that lined the beach and held masses of twisted, bloated, and burned enemy corpses. Because an overpowering stench was everywhere, I put my hand to my nose and picked my way along with the sergeant.
Equipment and battle gear was strewn about the ground in profusion. Grenades, bullets, bandoliers, weapons, papers, shells, shoes, kimonos, and books were all there. We pawed through a few of the papers. Also, there were songbooks, stationery, Japanese cigarettes, rations, all scattered like the material on a dump. Men were there too, picking over the stuff for souvenirs. I picked up a dozen clean handkerchiefs to wipe my carbine with, for it was a mess from the coral sand and the brief shower we had during the night.
By the time I got back, the command post was beginning to take shape. A canvas top had been spread, and already several officers were grouped around a map.
I was told we would have to find a new place for the correspondents, and I looked around for a place to stay that night. Back at the beach a crowd had grown and boxes were piled in utter confusion, it seemed to me. Ammunition and food were everywhere. Lines of men were unloading the waiting boats. Several men loitered around a small prisoner and watched him. He squatted in the sand with an impassive face and had on nothing except a loincloth and a bandage on his shoulder.
After returning to the CP, we gathered up our things and moved up to the edge of the runway. Pieces of small concrete covered it, thrown up from the explosions, and holes were in its surface. Burned, destroyed Japanese planes were over on one side of the runway; a few were protected by coconut-log revetments. Everywhere there were bodies. Many were Marines. Some lay in queer distorted positions, while others seemed to be merely asleep.
Frank Filan, Associated Press photographer, picked up his camera, and he and I started out toward the island’s tip, where the Japanese were still holed up. A tremendous fire was still raging through a big blockhouse, and ammunition was exploding like firecrackers. The stink there was terrific. We shuffled along, examining ruins. We found a medical warehouse with bottles and boxes of linens and bandages. Next we found a bank; there were ledgers around it and many Marines with packages of Japanese money.
We then came to where a large number of barrels were stored. Several men were taking helmet baths. They told us that this was the Japanese garrison’s water and, unlike ours, it didn’t taste like gasoline. We were all of the opinion that you could run a jeep a quarter of a mile on a canteen of our water, as it had so much oil in it. We got water to drink from the barrels, and later thought it was rather foolish to drink untested water. It tasted very good at the time. And also we had our first helmet baths.
We moved on and came to a dugout, which I glanced into briefly, and then sat down nearby to examine a lot of blueprints, thinking probably it was an engineering shack. Suddenly, Frank Filan jumped up and said someone was in the dugout. We moved around until we could see the entrance. Two other Marines joined us and yelled, “Who the hell is in there?” It was a Seabee. He had on his head a Japanese Marine cap, slightly crooked, and was a little drunk. “Shay,” he said, “I found some sake in here.” Then he saw our guns leveled at him and realized how close he had come to getting shot. All he could say was, “Jesus Christ.” We gave him hell for hanging around dugouts like that while the enemy was still around.
Walking on, we cut around toward the north beach. Firing was going on up ahead. Suddenly a man on top of a dugout told us to duck down, that there were some snipers nearby and we were within their range of fire. We lost no time in ducking down and making a circle around the blockhouse.
We then came upon several Marines sitting on a coconut log talking. We asked them what was up, and they pointed toward the blockhouse and said that about four Japs were in there. Someone had gone for some dynamite. We sat with them and took a swig out of our canteens. The talk was easy and mostly about souvenirs. One of the boys had a wristwatch, broken; another had a Japanese medal.
Presently the dynamite man returned with a little box. He was Corporal Rhoden of Kerrville, Texas. We took positions where we could see the entrance; others covered it to keep the men from coming out. Already they had poured gasoline in and tried to burn them out. And they tried throwing grenades and shooting into the place. Still the men inside fired at any target in the clear and had hit one man. Filan set up his camera, and so did Burns.4 Rhoden was sitting easily on top of the blockhouse, smoking a cigarette waiting for us to give him the word to set the charge. We did and he scampered away.
An explosion—then whistles from the fragments over our heads. The Japanese fired out again in a few moments. We moved in again to blow more dynamite, and still there was firing. One Marine walked toward the entrance like a boy going up to a rabbit hole, with his rifle in the crook of his arm. When a shot came out he started blazing at the entrance, and others followed his example until about 10 men were pouring hundreds of rounds of ammunition right to the very door of the blockhouse.
Then there was some yelling over to the right and a single shot. Private John Jennings of Columbia, Missouri, had shot a Jap hiding under a culvert that Burns, Filan, and I had walked over several times. It was a good shot. We pulled him out by his heels and found he had several grenades. Evidently he had been in there several days.
Then, an interpreter went back to the door of the blockhouse and yelled for the men inside to come out and surrender and they would not be harmed. We heard some jabbering inside and the muffled boom of an explosion. They had blown themselves up.
While this was going on I heard from about 500 yards away or closer the thin sound of taps. A military funeral was being held on the battlefield. Back alongside the warehouse where we had our press room were the assault troops, lined up on dusty, crowded roads. They had done their job well and were being sent to a rear base. Their faces were tired, strained, and their clothes filthy. Some battalions had lost nearly half of their officers and men. Some of the men looked stunned. They waited patiently and talked in low tones while naval construction personnel filed past them.
Someone said that a flag had been raised, and I walked around to look at it. There it was, fluttering from the top of a sheared-off coconut palm. To see it seemed to place a final stamp of ownership on the island, and it gave me quite a thrill.
1. Abridged and edited transcript of narrative by Captain Earl J. Wilson, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Tarawa campaign, recorded 27 December 1943, World War II Oral Histories, Interviews, and Statements, Record Group 38, Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland.
2. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas J. Colley and Lieutenant Colonel Arnold F. Johnston.
3. First Lieutenant John N. Popham, a Marine Corps combat correspondent.
4. Sergeant Larry Burns, a Marine Corps combat photographer.