- Historic Sites
Not Forgetting May Be The Only Heroism Of The Survivor”
Years after one of the bloodiest and most intense battles of the war in the Pacific, a Marine Corps veteran returns to Tarawa
October/november 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 6
We did indeed. The homes in which we settled down and spent so much time on liberty were crowded with heavy, overstuffed, old-fashioned furniture with lots of pillows and cushions, innumerable knickknacks, figurines, landscape paintings, and photographs. It was a little like visiting grandmother when a small boy in the Midwest.
There were of course girls in New Zealand, and they were made much of. Different fellows had different need of them. My own needs were not physical for reasons I am no longer able to fathom, if I ever was. Nevertheless there is a sort of law of spiritual logistics. The farther your supply line stretches from its source, the more you have to live off the land. Looking back on it much later, I often had the feeling that in those days I was trying to tap out a desperate message to my new wife thousands of miles away. To be occasionally with someone who wasn’t fighting a war seemed absolutely essential.
In Wellington that someone was twenty-one-year-old Joan, a nursing student. She lived in a house perched on the side of a hill in Island Bay. You went out on the No. 1 tram, and you had to walk up 137 steps to get there. Below were tennis courts where you could see young boys play in the late afternoon, and the garden was full of flowers.
We went walking, sat in the parlor and talked, dined out, or went to the movies. She and her parents and sister were extraordinarily kind to me, and I often had dinner with them Once her mother asked me what my favorite dessert was, and I told her lemon pie. Since she was not familiar with thir delight of my childhood, I described it as best I could, and the next time I came by, there was s fresh lemon pie. The family of course knew that I was married, and on one occasion her mother privately and with considerable delicacy asked me if my relationship with Joan was something she should be concerned about. I replied no, and she never mentioned it again. The pie, as I recall, came after that.
When I first met Joan, she was recovering from the news of the death in North Africa of a young New Zealander she had known well. In a sense, I suppose, she was having some difficulty facing the necessity of life and I the necessity of death, and without quite realizing what we were doing, each helped the other. The innocence of our relationship is likely to be received with skepticism by those whose image of the traditional Marine on his way from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli included activities with women that wenf beyond conversation pnd dinner In fact, today many would probably find it quaint that I struggled with the morality of the matter: Was I being unfaithful to the girl I had married and loved so much because I walked hand in hand with Joan, kissed her occasionally, and on the day of my departure stood out in the clear, open sunshine of their front steps and held her and wiped away the tears she was shedding—for whom? For me? For her friend lost in North Africa? Or simply for all of us?
We were told that, given the heavy bombardment, we would have little to do except walk across the island.
I would have survived Tarawa without knowing Joan, but I think my capacity to deal with Tarawa might well have been different had I not known her.
In the fall of 1943 we sailed for Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. None of us had ever heard of the place before.
Twenty-five years later I made the journey by air. The eight-hour plane flight from Fiji allows plenty of time to drift into the past, and as the plane circled high over the atoll for landing and I saw that dark streak across the water, I found my throat suddenly dry, chest tightening, that rising sensation of alertness in the stomach.
The view from the air was new to me. Twenty-five years earlier I had joined others on the deck of our naval transport long before dawn to watch the pre-invasion bombardment of the island. Naval shells arched in red streaks across the dark sky. At one point, before the big guns on the island had been silenced, a shell whistled overhead, and those of us who were new to this game ducked, to the amusement of the veterans.
This, however, was the lightest moment in a dark three days. Embarrassment was a feather compared with what hit me afterward. For Tarawa jarred my psyche with a blow so painful and long-lasting that in some ways that battle may have been the most dominant experience of my life. I was barely twenty-two years old, totally inexperienced, temperamentally unprepared for combat, by nature vaguely unsympathetic to things military, naive, and generally ignorant in the ways of command. A green second lieutenant responsible for thirty-nine men. It is with a sickening feeling at my own idiot innocence that I recall the little speech I gave the platoon just before we went down the nets into the landing craft. I told them there was no need to worry, no necessity for anyone to get killed, although possibly someone might get slightly wounded. No heroics, then, just do their jobs and what they were told. All would be well.
The platoon was to sustain twenty-six casualties—thirteen dead and thirteen wounded.