Amid the whirlwind of the Battle of Tarawa, Japanese soldiers dash for cover as nearby Marines open fire. A cameraman, then–Staff Sergeant Norman Hatch, captured the gripping scene—the only instance that U.S. servicemen and enemy forces appeared in the same World War II combat images. But the footage was only a fraction of what Hatch filmed on Tarawa Atoll’s Betio Island, the highlights of which appeared in a short documentary, With the Marines at Tarawa. The historic film brought the grim realities of Pacific island fighting to the American home front and earned the 1945 Academy Award for best short-subject documentary.
Retired Major Hatch, who passed away in 2017 at age 96, was a valued contributor to and friend of the U.S. Naval Institute. On 24 July 2007, he sat down with Yehuda Goldman for what would be a 1-hour, 45-minute interview for the Naval Institute. That raw footage, which is now available for general viewing, was edited down to 90 seconds and appeared as one of the Institute’s Americans at War television interstitials.
What follows is former Naval History Editor Fred Schultz’s interview with Major Hatch, which appeared in the magazine’s December 2008 Tarawa issue.
Naval History: Tell us how you got started in the film business.
Hatch: I was a private first class in the Marine Corps as well as cleared for duty with Navy public affairs. When I came out of boot camp, I went into teaching English at the Marine Corps Institute. Then an opportunity came to join the Leatherneck magazine staff.
On the bulletin board one day, I saw an ad for a photographic school that had just started in New York at something called the March of Time. It was to teach military personnel how to tell stories with cameras. So I applied for it. Even though it said no experience was required, I was turned down because I had no experience. I then applied a second time and once again was turned down.
After I transferred to the Navy Department, I applied a third time. After President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt called for using the Naval Reserve, one of the new public-information officers was a reserve lieutenant by the name of Alan Brown. He had been a director at the March of Time.
I told him my story and he said, "Let's see what happens with this request you've got in right now." In the middle of September in 1941,1 received word that I had been turned down again.
So I went back to Lieutenant Brown and explained what had happened. He told me Louis de Rochmont, the producer of the March of Time, was coming to town the next day. He said, "I'll call him up and tell him your story and that you're coming by."
I dropped in on de Rochmont, and we talked for an hour. When I got back to the office, I called Lieutenant Brown and told him it was a very nice conversation, but I thought I was doomed.
Two days later, I heard that I got orders to be in the next March of Time class. I went back to Lieutenant Brown's office and asked him how this happened. He told me de Rochmont had been a Navy lieutenant in World War I, and his roommate was now the chief of naval personnel, a rear admiral. So when de Rochmont constituted the school, he asked his friend the admiral to send a half-dozen Navy petty officers competent in camera work.
Lou was apparently pleased with meeting me and called the admiral's office, asking for Marines and for me by name. So I wound up as an instructor. That's how I learned my trade and set out on my career.
Naval History: Now, take us to Tarawa. How did you get to go there?
Hatch: After I left the March of Time, I went to Quantico. The 2d Division was forming, and we fully expected that some of us would be shipped out. Two of us who had been at the March of Time were shipped to San Diego to join the division.
We found out we were the only trained motion-picture cameramen in the organization, two of us to cover a division of 20,000 men. We convinced the bosses that we should go to Hollywood and buy as many 16-mm cameras as we could and the color magazines to go with them. We bought about a dozen or so and all the film in Los Angeles we could find. When we shipped out, we heard we were heading to New Zealand.
We were there for 11 months, and Johnny Erkel, the other motion-picture cameraman trained at the March of Time, and I taught a number of our cameramen how to shoot movies. When we mounted out to go to combat in November 1943, we at least had movie men and still men who could do a credible job.
Johnny and I carried 35-mm Eyemo cameras, which were the standard of the day. The film went through our cameras at 100 feet a minute, and we could only put 100 feet in the camera. So we had to be very careful about how we shot.
Naval History: How were you transported to the beach?
Hatch: I wanted to go with a certain battalion and its leader, at that time Major [Henry] "Jim" Crowe, the battalion commander, 2d Battalion, 8th Marines. I selected Crowe because I knew that wherever he was, there was going to be trouble.
When I went to see him, he asked me who I was and what I was doing. When I told him, he said, "I don't want any goddamn Hollywood Marine with me!"
I told him I had five years' experience and said I knew if I needed a rifle, all I had to do was bend down and pick one up. He looked at me for a second or two and said, "Well, all right. But stay the hell out of my way!" Consequently, I went into his LCVP and sat on the engine hatch alongside of him.
I was correct in assuming that being with Crowe would be right. In making the landing, the amphibian tractors were having a bit of a problem on Red Beach Three, Crowe's beach. His battalion exec was already ashore with the amtracs, and Crowe wasn't due to go in until the succeeding boat waves came in.
Naval History: What did you find the situation to be when you reached the beach?
Hatch: Even after all the Navy gunfire and preliminary bombing, we still faced enemy fire. It seemed that as soon as a boat would drop its ramp on the reef, a shell fired from bunkers on the island would explode in the boat, and people were forced to swim the reefs.
This happened all up and down the beach. The Navy had made a tremendous mistake by firing 14-inch armor-piercing shells at sand block houses. When a shell hit the sand, the impact wasn't enough to set it off and it would skitter over the ground and finally out to the airfield. The airfield was covered with unexploded 14-inch shells.
Naval History: What did you see on the beach?
Hatch: Off to our left was a Japanese machine-gun turret firing at the amphibian tractors. The shooter was apparently scaring the life out of the amtrac drivers. On our right, a pier ran out about 600 yards, and amtracs were bunching up against it.
All Crowe could visualize was his landing craft unloading on an unprotected beach. So he told the coxswain to put his boat into the water. But the coxswain ran it up on the reef, and the ramp wouldn't go down. Everybody had to go over the side.
In the LCVPs, the gunwales up at the top and on the sides were almost shoulder level for most of those people who were six feet tall, like my assistant, Bill "Kelly" Kelleher, and I were. At least we were tall enough to see over the damn thing without having to hold on.
Everybody had to go over with 80 pounds of gear and drop in the water. The kids who were short had to start swimming right away, whether they knew how to swim or not. When Kelly and I went over the side, we had the Navy guys put the cameras and film canisters over. We could not get into the water with the film and the cameras. Jokingly, I told Kelly that if he fell into a hole and got those cameras wet, I was going to kill him.
In the end, neither of us fell, and we walked in. Many of the guys who came out of the LCVP did a lot of dog-paddling, because we were being shot at by the Japanese from under the pier as well as by the guy with the machine gun.
When we reached the beach, both Kelly and I were exhausted. After 15 minutes or so, we got our breath back and got oriented to where we were. Jim Crowe was walking up and down, yelling at his troops to "get over that goddamn seawall! They can't hit you, what are you hunkering down here for?"
They eventually moved up and went over the seawall, but a lot of guys had wound up under the pier because they had lost their weapons and didn't know what to do. Eventually, a couple of junior lieutenants got the troops doing what they were supposed to do.
Of course, I started shooting film. Crowe was directing things from the stern of an amtrac that tried to crawl up over the seawall but didn't make it. That became his permanent command post during the 76-hour battle.
Naval History: What happened at the large sand-covered blockhouse?
Hatch: The battalion exec, Major Bill Chamberlin, said that they were going to take this blockhouse that had been an obstacle to us since day one. When he got through telling how he was going to do it, he turned to me and said, "Do you want to come and photograph it?" Now, what's a staff sergeant going to say to a major when he asks a question like that?
At 0900 he stood up and waved his hand, loudly yelling: "Follow me! Follow me!" We tried running up the side of the sand blockhouse, but the sand made it slow going. We finally got to the top and looked over the other side. Japanese troops were standing outside, wondering what the hell we were doing.
We turned around, and there wasn't another Marine in sight. Nobody followed me. So I asked the major, "Where's your rifle?" He said he gave it to somebody who lost theirs in the landing. I asked, "Where's your pistol?" He said he lost that, too. I had a pistol, but it was in the back of my belt and it was covered with film canisters.
Finally, we both agreed we'd better get the hell out of there and ran back to the command post. Soon after, the attack started. And I photographed it.
While I was shooting, flamethrowers were being used on the top of the hill, and somebody said, "Here come the Japs!" I swiveled my body, and in the view finder was a shot of a machine-gunner in the foreground. In the distance, about 15 yards away, I saw Japanese running out of their block house. There were about three squads of them, and we eliminated them all.
That was probably the best footage I shot, because it was the only time, to the best of my knowledge in both the Pacific and European theaters, that a cameraman was fortunate enough to capture both sides in a fighting stance.
Naval History: How did With the Marines at Tarawa win the 1945 Academy Award for short-subject documentary?
Hatch: The battle took place in November of '43, so we needed to rush to have a film together and out in theaters before the end of that year to be eligible for the award the following year.
Naval History: Why do you think it won the award?
Hatch: I think maybe it was not so much that the film was so great, but that for the first time, it told the public what war was like. No one really had seen anything like it.