- 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
Twenty-five years earlier Betio had been shrouded in smoke and dust, most of its coconut palms blown to shreds, and the whole impression had been one of desolation, barrenness, and sand. Now it was green, quiet, and populous. I knew the island was small, but I had forgotten how small, less than half the size of Central Park in New York City. You can stand on one side with the lagoon at your back and view the ocean on the other. I went three times to Betio, motorbiked around it, bicycled, and walked. Once I tried to retrace my wartime course about the island and came across the small building housing one of the Japanese naval searchlights, where I had spent the fourth night lying in the midst of broken glass, rubble, and blasted equipment, while a single Japanese plane made a casual bombing run down the island. The twisted, rusted rim of the searchlight still lay on the sand. One wall of the building had disappeared, and the equipment and rubble inside had been cleared out; otherwise it was just as it had been. Later, when I paused in front of a bunker, its narrow rifle slits still surveying a long-forgotten field of fire in which I now stood uneasily, I found myself frozen for an instant, swept by the absurd sensation of being terribly exposed.
THESE BLUNT REMINDERS of the past seemed unreal in their peaceful setting of village huts, expatriate homes, and low-slung government buildings. But then I remembered that battle, too, has its incongruous reminders of peace. On the morning of the second day of the fighting, with the first faint light of dawn just appearing, I stood up to have a look around. Coconut palms torn and shattered, broken equipment everywhere, bodies all about in the awkward rigidity of death, Japanese pillboxes silent but menacing, the green dungarees of Marines now turned a dusty gray from the sand and salt spray, nothing moving, utter quiet. And then a rooster crowed. I was so startled by this sound from my childhood that I dropped to the ground as though I had been shot. And then with the crow of the rooster, the firing began again.
One of the things I tried to do in wandering about on my own was to find the place where Joe Sexton had been killed. He had been on my mind from the time I had undertaken this journey. In war few can make it psychologically without the buddy system. This is the basic unit of survival—one, two, or three comrades drawn together by factors quite beyond explanation and wholly unrelated to the common interests, ideas, and backgrounds that bring people together in peacetime. This comradeship does not often last when the war is over, but the memory of its deep, mysterious sense of identification is never lost or diminished.
Joe, Bill, Brownie, and I had been thrown together on the voyage out as replacements. On arrival in New Zealand the replacement officers were all crowded together in a hot, stuffy room for assignment to the various units of the division. In the confusion I became separated from the other three. When the captain in charge finished making the assignments, he discovered he had left me out. What am I going to do with you? his expression asked. I simply pointed across the room and, trembling inside with anxiety, told him, I want to go with them. He understood, and with them I went.
JOE WAS THE ONLY one of us to die at Tarawa. I hadn’t seen it happen myself and only had Bill Howell’s account vaguely in the back of my mind. I finally settled for what I thought ought to be the place and stood there for a long time, feeling curiously empty of emotion. Our reaction to his death had set in after we were sent to rest camp in Hawaii a few weeks later. Up to that time none of us had talked about it. Then, late one afternoon, our baggage from New Zealand caught up with us. Someone had two or three bottles of whiskey in his trunk, and in the midst of unpacking we began to drink. The binge, a collective rage really, lasted several hours and ended with our smashing what little furniture we had managed to scrounge or build, hurling books, clothing, and equipment all over the tent, and fighting one another with staves drawn from the ends of our cots, as though we were medieval ascetics scouring the devil from our bodies.
One thing I tried to do in wandering about on my own was to find the place where Joe Sexton was killed.
One of us was missing.
Joseph J. Sexton, 2d lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. Wife, Veronica. Three-year-old daughter, Tinker. He had died trying to get what was left of his platoon across the airstrip. I tried at least twenty times to write to his widow and had torn up every letter. His death didn’t seem just unnecessary or wrong, but unreal. We staggered and crawled out into the night to get him back. It was raining heavily and very dark. We wept, we cried out, and there on our knees in the muck, we pleaded for him to come back.
And we never mentioned him again.