- 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 had been told that, given the heavy naval and air bombardment, we would probably have little to do except walk across the island. We would be lucky, went the phrase, to fire a shot. On that score the high command was right: a great many Marines never had the chance to fire a shot.
The impact of the losses rendered me almost completely ineffective in any military sense. When the battle was over and we were taken off the island, my state of personal shock at what had happened is suggested by the fact that I sat in the wardroom on our naval transport and over and over again wrote down the names of the dead and wounded, as though somehow putting their names on paper made them alive and well. For years afterward I could order up the entire platoon before me, each man in his place, and call the roll. I was sure I would never forget. But of course I did. Most of the names gradually disappeared over the years. But the faces still remain.
All of this drifted uneasily through my mind as the plane circled and landed in the late afternoon on the airstrip about halfway up the atoll—just a cleared stretch of packed coral. The original airstrip built by the Japanese on Betio, and after the battle renamed Hawkins Field in honor of the young lieutenant posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his deeds, had long since disappeared.
MY UNEASINESS dropped away after the landing. A large crowd of Gilbertese always gathers at the little airfield—Tarawa National—when a plane comes in or departs, and there are various government people on hand to greet new personnel or returning families. The terminal building was a small open shed with a low fence over which passengers passed luggage and goods—a process to which customs officials paid no attention at all. Informal, but still it was like coming into any airport: you end up being concerned about passports, baggage, transportation. The confusion was mild, however, and soon I caught a ride up the one narrow road that runs down the southern half of the atoll to the little six-room hotel on Bikenibeu.
In 1968 Tarawa was the administrative and commercial center for the Gilbert and Ellice Island Colony, one of the last fragments of the British Empire. It lies somewhat above the equator and across the international date line. With the exception of Betio, which has to be reached by motor launch, the small islands making up the atoll are linked by causeway. The highest point is about twelve feet above sea level. Betio is little more than two miles long, and eight hundred yards wide at its western end, tapering down to about three feet at its eastern end.
Tarawa is isolated by most modern standards. The then-fortnightly flight from Fiji existed primarily to handle government personnel and families on their way in or out for various reasons. I turned out to be the only Marine who had ever returned and one of the few genuine visitors in living memory. This made me something of a curiosity.
Since the war the British, in a concerted effort to bring the Gilbertese more or less into the twentieth century, had brought in various experts in education, agriculture, health, family life, and the like. The hospitality of these people was typical not only of the countries from which they came—England, New Zealand, and Australia—but also of what we associate in tale and myth with the Pacific Islands. I started to get invitations before I even reached the hotel, the first coming from the driver of the car that took me there.
Few of these expatriates, or the Gilbertese for that matter, knew much about the battle, although they were reminded of it all the time. For Betio, which is the most heavily populated island in the atoll, still carries on its narrow back the monuments of war. The Japanese had had about a year in which to turn the island into a defense bastion, and many of the fortifications that they built still stand, too massive to destroy. The naval guns still tilt in rusted anguish toward the sea or lie broken on the beach. Ammunition washes up with the tide. Shattered amtracs lie half-buried in the sand. Small children still dig up American grenades and bring them into the homes, and broken weapons are propped up here and there in front of houses, casual reminders of the past.
The morning after my arrival I hitched a ride down to Bonriki, where the government offices are located and from which I took the battered launch across to Betio, about a thirty-minute trip. As the launch eased alongside the pier, the sound of an explosion ripped the air—a startling but familiar greeting from the past. My stomach flipped. Ammunition and explosives uncovered during some construction were being destroyed—a common occurrence.