Numerous books and articles have explored every detail of the World War II assault on Tarawa, a battle that ranks alongside Iwo Jima and Okinawa as one of the most significant in the history of U.S. amphibious warfare. For many Americans, however, Tarawa's most memorable product was the detailed account of the battle recorded from 20 to 23 November 1943 by the 20 journalists and photographers who accompanied U.S. Marines into battle.
Among the astounding photographic products of the battle was a 19-minute Academy Award-winning documentary, With the Marines at Tarawa (1944), which featured some of the most stunning images ever taken of warfare, including the only picture of Japanese naval infantry and U.S. Marines on the ground together in action. Also included were compelling scenes of the severe casualties resulting from the assault on the heavily defended atoll. These sobering images shocked the public, which was still digesting the first published pictures of dead U.S. servicemen, including George Strock's timeless image a month earlier in Life magazine of three GIs sprawled on Buna Beach in New Guinea.
Movie-star-turned-Marine Captain Louis Hayward led the team of photographers who filmed With the Marines at Tarawa. Known mostly for his swashbuckling roles, Hayward was poised to become one of Hollywood's leading men but was determined to join the armed forces of either Britain or the United States on the eve of World War II. The day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen and enlisted in the Marine Corps. Shortly thereafter, Hayward was assigned to the 2d Division as a photographic officer.
Marine Corps photography was in its infancy, and its new photographic office was searching for Hollywood expertise. The 2d Division was fortunate to have Staff Sergeants Norman T. Hatch and John F. Ercole, both recent graduates of the March of Time School of Pictorial Journalism. The school was the brainchild of producer Louis de Rochemont, who anticipated U.S. entry into World War II and wanted to guarantee availability of adequate film footage for use in newsreels and movies. De Rochemont was a Navy veteran of World War I, and he knew how to negotiate within the armed services. He succeeded in establishing the March of Time school by emphasizing the importance of motion-picture photography as a training tool.
Before joining the Marine Corps in 1939, Hatch was an 18-year-old camera buff from Boston who enjoyed shooting still photographs with the then-ubiquitous Argus 35-mm camera. He was assigned to Navy public affairs in Washington, D.C., and after repeated applications was admitted to the third class of the March of Time school. There, Hatch gained first-hand knowledge of practical filmmaking techniques, including exercises in cinematography, sound recording, and editing.
Ercole grew up in New York, where he developed a great interest in photography, especially motion pictures. During his last year of high school, he held an evening job working on the set at theMarch of Time shop in New York. After graduation, Ercole worked as a still photographer for The Daily Reporter in White Plains. He joined the Marine Corps in 1940, and after a brief stint as a horse guard (his hobby was horseback riding), he transferred to the photographic unit and enrolled in the March of Time motion picture class. Hatch and Ercole were among the first Marines to graduate from the school.
As the Battle for Guadalcanal came to a close, the 2d Division's photographic team assembled in San Diego prior to sailing for New Zealand. Before they left, director John Ford's spectacular color documentary The Battle of Midway (1942) was released, setting a new standard for filmmakers. Ford had filmed the aerial battle for Midway live from a tower on nearby Sand Island and was wounded by shrapnel during a Japanese bombing run. Hatch and Ercole knew they could never cover the entire division with the equipment available and convinced Chief Warrant Officer John Leopold to purchase new 16-mm color cameras with a tongue-in-cheek assurance that they could equal Ford's achievement. Somewhat to their surprise, Leopold was smitten with becoming the next John Ford. The two cameramen "thought he was crazy" but were glad to have the additional equipment.
At Wellington, New Zealand, the photographers trained alongside infantry Marines for the upcoming amphibious assault. They traded carbines for .45-caliber pistols in order to keep their hands free to operate cameras. Their instructor told them to fire first to startle their adversary, even if the shot missed. Hatch recalled that even firing through the holster was advisable in order to buy time. Those uncomfortable with the new side arms received the dubious reassurance that, if they needed a rifle, "all you have to do is bend down and pick up a weapon because there's usually one laying [sic] around some place." This admonition proved all too accurate.
Despite his inexperience and the distraction of his Hollywood background, Hayward was a fine leader. He shared his unit's goal of filming the upcoming landing with movie cameras, and he encouraged Hatch and Ercole to train still photographers in their use. William F. Kelliher, a 20-yearold Marine private from Kansas City, Missouri, was among the still photographers assigned to the unit. A former newspaper photographer, Kelliher accompanied Hatch and Ercole to a motion picture school established by the Fox Movie Company in Hollywood. Later, in New Zealand, he received additional training in the use of movie cameras, as the film unit prepared a documentary on treatment of the malaria-stricken veterans of Guadalcanal.
The photographers were with the Marines at Efate in the New Hebrides for practice landings. In order to enhance productivity and training, Hatch and Ercole had the motion picture photographers work in teams, taking turns loading and unloading 100-foot rolls of 35- and 16-mm film. Before leaving for the Gilbert Islands, Hayward gave the unit a pep talk: "I know all of us are fed up with hearing about the 'marvelous' photography coming out of the European war. This time, let's really give 'em something to talk about—from the Marines in the Pacific."
Hatch managed to have himself assigned to ride in with Major Henry P. "Jim" Crowe, a shotgun-carrying, cigar smoking Marine known for single-handedly directing the elimination of enemy emplacements at Guadalcanal. Crowe was a skilled marksman who held the national record with the Browning automatic rifle and established the Marine Corps marksmanship school. At a meeting with the major prior to the landing, Hatch explained his goal of filming combat at Tarawa. "I don't want any damn Hollywood cameraman on board my boat," said Crowe. Hatch managed to convey that he was a regular Marine before becoming a photographer, that his film would be used for training purposes, and that he could handle a rifle as well as anyone. Crowe relented and allowed Hatch and Kelliher to join the Marines in his LCVP (vehicle and personnel landing craft), "so long as you keep the hell out of my way."
Each photographer carried an Eyemo 35-mm camera and 2,000 feet of film along with the rest of their equipment. The photo unit was aware of the Navy's promise to "obliterate" the island and filmed the preceding lengthy naval bombardment. On D-Day, they shared the widely held belief that "we were supposed to take that island without any trouble at all in 72 hours" and "the only reason we were carrying our shovels was to bury Japanese bodies," an attitude that changed markedly once fire from Japanese antiboat guns delayed the landing.
Hatch and Kelliher's baptism as combat cinematographers came during their harrowing ride to Red Beach 3 with Crowe and 33 other Marines. Crowe's boat was following a wave of LVTs (tracked landing vehicles—also known as Amtraks) led by his executive officer, Major William C. Chamberlin, a former college professor. Crowe's mission was to coordinate reinforcement of the beachhead. With shells landing around the vessel, Hatch realized immediately that many Japanese defensive positions had been virtually unaffected by naval gunfire. The atoll was littered with 16-inch armor-piercing shells that had shot through and around the enemy emplacements without exploding. As they neared the reef, Japanese gunfire intensified such that Crowe observed the preceding wave of unarmored LVTs being forced toward the pier by a 50-mm machinegun emplacement dug into the beach. "I'm losing my front!" he yelled, "Coxswain, take this Goddamn boat in!" Hatch recalled that, without Crowe's act of almost suicidal bravery, their boat never would have made the run for the beach.
Shortly thereafter, while Hatch and Kelliher were shooting footage from a perch atop the engine, the LCVP's ramp jammed on the coral, and the nervous coxswain was unable to loosen it. "All right, men" said the major, "we're wasting too much time here. Let's go over the side!" Crowe and his Marines disembarked promptly, leaving the two cameramen to gather up 200 pounds of equipment and follow.
Unlike the other Marines, many of whom crouched or crawled across the reef flat, the photographers were compelled to walk upright, holding their precious camera equipment overhead, perfect targets for the withering Japanese machinegun fire. Kelliher recalled seeing a Marine carrying a flame-thrower disappear suddenly beneath the surface, only to emerge moments later several yards away. "Shell hole" he exclaimed, "it was easier to walk along the bottom than to try and swim." His comment relieved some of the tension, as the photographers slogged through 600 yards of water peppered with machinegun fire and strewn with the bodies of dead and dying Marines. Miraculously, they reached the beach unscathed and took cover in a shell hole.
Nearby, Major Crowe was taking it all "as calmly as if he were on practice maneuvers, and the air around his command post was a mass of lead." For Hatch, the sudden reality of combat came as a shock: a few feet away lay a Marine whose buttock had been torn away; he was bleeding profusely but remained stoically quiet, awaiting a corpsman. Kelliher watched as one corpsman attended to a wounded Marine, only to be shot in the cheek. The corpsman collected himself, and after placing a hand over what remained of his face, resumed treatment of the fallen man. Once he witnessed this act of bravery, Kelliher "was certain that he would survive the battle."
Hatch and Kelliher started filming almost immediately after reaching shore. Hatch watched as shells obliterated 12 landing craft the moment they lowered their ramps. "It was as if the gunners were looking down into the boats and blowing them completely out of the water . . . [leaving] smashed bodies all over the place." By the end of the first day, the first wave of Marines had secured a narrow toehold on Tarawa. Hatch recalled that, had the Japanese counterattacked, "most of us would have been swimming for the boats."
Next morning, Chamberlin asked Hatch if the cameramen wanted to film an assault on a large bomb-proof that was thwarting the Marines' advance. After crawling 20 yards to the forward command post, Chamberlin pointed to the crest of the obstacle, instructing his men "When I yell, `Follow me!' you follow me up that bombproof." Shortly thereafter, the major and Hatch charged to the top and, after reaching the summit, peered down at 30 Japanese defenders. At that moment, Chamberlin realized that he was not carrying a weapon and that Hatch, camera in hand, was the only Marine who had accompanied him to the top of the emplacement. "We'd better get the hell out of here!" yelled Hatch, and the two beat a hasty retreat. After some "serious ass-chewing" Chamberlain organized a successful assault on the bunker.
Hatch filmed portions of the sequence as Marines set charges and used flame-throwers to flush out more than 100 Japanese troops. During this action, the photographer made newsreel history by capturing the first and only image of Japanese troops and Marines in combat together. As the Marines encircled the large sand-covered blockhouse, two squads of Japanese ran out and were cut down by attackers on either side. Hatch was filming as the group passed in front of the camera just as the startled Marines began to fire. Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman spearheaded the attack on the bunker and was killed while fighting off a Japanese counterattack. Bonnyman later was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. (Even though he filmed the action, Hatch does not recall seeing Bonnyman at the bunker.)
Hatch, Kelliher, and still photographer Obie Newcomb were the only members of the photographic crew to make it ashore during the first day of combat. Warrant Officer John F. Leopold, Hayward's second in command, joined Don Senick of 20th Century-Fox Movietone News, the only civilian newsreel man at Tarawa, in a second boat. Leopold and Senick boarded the landing craft at 0400 on the morning of D-Day, 20 November—"the longest, hottest day I have ever known"—and made several charges toward shore. "All day long, as we bobbed offshore beneath a blazing sun, the Japs peppered us with everything they had." On one of their first attempts to get ashore "a very-near miss from one of the big Jap guns bounced us in the air and sent shrapnel tearing through one side of our boat. Luckily we landed right-side-up with the boat still beneath us." Leopold spent the first few hours ducking shells but later stood up and filmed everything he could see, keeping two 16mm cameras working all day long.
Hayward, Ercole, and still photographer Jack Combs also were turned back once their LCVP hit the reef. Ercole shared the general belief that the attack would be over in 72 hours and that the Japanese could not have survived the naval bombardment. In preparation for a dry landing, he carried separate bags containing two black-and-white and two color cameras. On the first day he used 35-mm Eymos to record the action from the boat. The film crew then spent the night in their boat with the only news of the carnage ashore coming from Navy Lieutenant Eddie Albert, also a movie star, who stopped to brief Hayward while shuttling dead and wounded from the lagoon
The next morning, Hayward, Ercole, and Combs faced limited opposition when their boat landed at Green Beach on the western end of Betio. After discovering that his Eymos had become frozen with corrosion from the salt spray, Ercole switched to 16-mm color and captured a multiplicity of the most violent scenes ashore. Included were vivid images of bodies floating in the surf and littering the beaches. Ercole was shocked at the number of dead, recalling that "every goddamn one of them looked like [his friend] Norman Hatch."
After the battle, the color film was developed at Pearl Harbor and printed in Washington, D.C. Hatch's black-and-white footage was placed in the hands of Marine Corps public affairs in San Francisco, where, after obtaining permission from Washington, it was released to the newsreel services. Hayward also returned and was assigned the task of incorporating the motion-picture footage into a 19-minute documentary produced by Warner Brothers and distributed by Universal Pictures. Warner Brothers tinted the 35-mm black-and-white, blending the combat scenes with the remaining 16mm color film. These incredible frames appeared in newsreels across the United States and in With the Marines at Tarawa. In later years, Hatch's combat footage appeared in practically every film dealing with Tarawa or war in the Pacific, including the four-time Academy Award nominee and top grossing film of 1950, The Sands of Iwo Jima.
In most instances, the public received news of the war many days after the fact and often in the form of "flashes" or rewritten communiqués sent by reporters who were nowhere near the battle. Soldiers were disgusted by what they perceived as the sugarcoating of news on the home front. A bomber pilot returning home from the Pacific recalled that, "When I told my mother what the war was really like, and how long it was going to take, she sat down and cried. She didn't know we were just beginning to fight the Japs."
Despite public dissatisfaction with the sparse coverage, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had mixed emotions about releasing the Tarawa documentary to the public. The newsreel combat sequences did not show scenes of dead servicemen, but the subsequent color and color-tinted scenes showed many vivid images of numerous bodies. Some of these images appeared as black-and-white still photographs published in Life and Time magazines, but color motion-picture footage added an entirely new dimension. Warner Brothers editors made effective use of "impact cutting" in preparation of the film, taking full advantage of the black-and-white combat sequences. After a Washington news briefing, Roosevelt consulted privately with senior Time/Life correspondent Robert Sherrod, a veteran of the assault on Tarawa, who advised him that "the public knew little about the real nature of the war with Japan and recommended that the film be shown without restriction." Shortly thereafter, President Roosevelt released the film.
Critics raved at the footage in With the Marines at Tarawa, heralding it as "the most descriptive account of American men in combat that has been issued this war." Manny Farber of The New Republic noted that, "besides the intensity of its image of men facing death at every instant, it gets over an equally meaningful one of the special state to which modern fighting has progressed. You never see the enemy because he is hidden behind incredible concrete defenses, but you realize his deadliness by the way the Marines inch their way up to these defenses until they can blast out the occupants with flame-throwers, grenades, and mortars." Bosley Crowther of The New York Times marveled at the "impressive and gripping scenes in the film," and particularly "the fighting along the beach and the slow, stubborn, deadly destruction by the Marines of the enemy's sand forts." These combat sequences have "all the immediacy of personal participation in the fight, and its sense of actual combat in close quarters is overpoweringly real."
Norman Hatch returned to San Francisco to find his name emblazoned on the marquees of every movie house in town. William Kelliher had noted the photographer's name on each canister of film, and the newsreel services used this information in their preparation of the film. This was the first and only instance where a service photographer received credit for a film. Subsequent Marine Corps policy precluded this sort of recognition.
Louis de Rochemont was astounded by the combat footage and joined Frank Capra in commending Hatch for a job well done. Richard de Rochemont, who succeeded his brother Louis as head of March of Time, was particularly interested in learning "how did you stage that combat sequence with the Japanese troops?" Hatch reassured him, "Dick, those shots are real," noting that luck rather than talent played a large part in his achievement, especially remembering how many Marines were killed during his long walk to Red Beach 3 and throughout the first and second days. In a letter to Life, Richard de Rochemont described the photography from Tarawa as "one of the finest service produced pictorial records of actual combat in this or any war."
Louis Hayward resumed his acting career after World War II. He also formed his own film company and was one of the first stars to demand and receive a percentage of the profits from his pictures. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz awarded him the Bronze Star for his contribution as leader of the photographic unit. Shortly thereafter, With the Marines at Tarawa won an Academy Award for best documentary of 1944, the first such award ever given to the Marine Corps.
Many of the Tarawa photographers went on to film more action in the Pacific war. John Ercole and Kelliher filmed the landing at heavily defended Saipan. Once their combat footage and still photos were released, Hatch, Obie Newcomb, and a group of Tarawa correspondents returned to the United States to tour the country as part of the fourth war bond drive. Hatch appeared before large audiences and narrated a short film entitled Tarawa-I Was There, directed by Frank Capra as part of the Army-Navy Screen Magazine series. Hatch and Newcomb later returned to the Pacific, where they filmed the assault on Iwo Jima.
When Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal witnessed the flag-raising atop Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi, undoubtedly one of the most dramatic moments in Marine Corps history, he turned to Marine General Holland M. Smith and proclaimed that the Marine Corps would last 500 years. A year later, as the Pacific war faded from memory, the Corps' survival was in jeopardy again as it tried to convince Congress that amphibious operations were a vital part of U.S. military capability. At that point, combat footage from the Pacific campaign played one of its most important roles. Marine Colonel Victor H. Krulak (father of the current Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Charles Krulak) recalled that the Corps was going down the drain "if something radical wasn't done quickly," and thought a film might be the best means for getting through to Congress. At his request, the Marine Corps photographic office gathered footage of amphibious operations during World War II, while Krulak prepared the script. The product was Bombs over Tokyo (1947), a film "extolling the Air Force, and then showing that it could not have reached the main Japanese islands without the Marines and their skills." Afterward, Krulak told Hatch that the film influenced congressional discussion of a future role for the Marine Corps. Shortly thereafter, the National Security Act of 1947 passed, guaranteeing "statutory protection of the Marine Corps, air, ground, and Reserve.”
Motion-picture combat photography at Tarawa set a precedent that subsequent cinematographers continued and improved upon. New Marine combat photographers learned the ropes from veterans of World War II. In addition, they attended a variety of civilian and military schools, including the Navy-run photojournalism course at Syracuse University. This led to spectacular results in Korea and Vietnam.
This tradition is declining in the post-Cold War era. Photography, once an integral part of operations, is now under the Training and Education Division. Current policy indicates that impending cuts of up to 50% will effectively kill this segment of the Marine Corps. During Operation Desert Storm, few cameras recorded actual fighting on the ground. Indeed, some of the best footage was "`home video' shot by Marines who'd secreted camcorders in their seabags." Marine Corps camera teams were neither well organized nor adequately equipped, and few civilian videographers accompanied Marine units into combat. In some instances, these crews "would not have been accepted as integral parts of combat teams; in others, civilian video journalists decided against accompanying the Marines into harm's way."
Chief Warrant Officer Chas. Henry was among the few Marine Corps cameramen to film combat as the 1st Marine Division crossed minefields under mortar and tank attack before retaking the airport in Kuwait City. His most memorable shot was of a Marine light armored vehicle passing beneath the "Welcome to Kuwait" sign. Henry's experience confirmed, however, that "what Marines do individually in battle is exceptional and deserves to be recorded if only to show that they did it."
The Marines who carried their cameras across the reef at Tarawa started a tradition of combat photography that later helped justify the role of the Marine Corps and captured the essence of combat operations. Above all, combat photography of amphibious operations was a valuable future training resource and inspired a new generation of Marine Corps photographers. That tradition should not be allowed to fade.
Dr. Neushul is a visiting researcher in the Department of History, University of California, Santa Barbara. Second Lieutenant Neushal is serving with the 7th Communications Battalion on Okinawa.