- 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
Thinking about Joe brought to mind again the slaughter that was Tarawa’s principal distinction. Tarawa was not a very big battle, as battles go, and it was all over in seventy-two hours. But its briefness only sharpened its intensity and ferocity. Compared with many other fights, the number of casualties was not impressive—about thirty-three hundred Marines and somewhat over three thousand special Japanese soldiers plus about two thousand Japanese and Korean laborers. But the percentage of casualties was very high. Only seventeen Japanese, all wounded, were taken prisoner. The rest died in the fighting, some committing suicide in their bunkers near the end. The Marine assault units, whether platoons, companies, or battalions, suffered an appalling casualty rate, some as high as 70 or 80 percent. Bodies were everywhere—floating in the water, piled on the beaches, crumpled awkwardly on the sandy soil. The stench became overwhelming. The heavy, peculiarly sweet odor of death has been remarked upon in the literature of war a thousand times, but you have to experience it to understand its overpowering presence. It lingers in the nostrils and stays locked in the memory to be set loose by even the most innocent associations. I remember one afternoon later on when I was driving around the island of Hawaii for the first time and was suddenly hit a nauseating blow to the stomach by what turned out to be the fleeting scent of sugarcane on the breeze.
Death, of course, is what war and battle are all about. The idea is to inflict punishment,to destroy, to kill. General Patton allegedly remarked that patriotism is not dying for your country but getting the son of a bitch on the other side to die for his country. But it works both ways. Death is a part of life, as we know, the unavoidable fate of us all. But no one, especially the young, normally gives much thought to the matter, because it seems too distant, too unpredictable, too unreal. But in wartime death is very real indeed, and it is all around you.
Seeing a great many dead, when you have never even seen a single dead person before, is bound to have a disturbing influence on the nervous system. Not so much at the time, however. During a battle you are temporarily immunized against the shock of death. It is afterward that the shock hits. You know now what the dead in war look like, bodies ripped open, an arm or a leg gone, a head rolling gently at the water’s edge, corpses bloated and split open from the heat. And death becomes very near and very predictable. Later, when we were in Hawaii to recuperate from Tarawa and to rebuild for the next invasion, I would lie awake in a literal sweat of terror in the middle of the night, hearing the sound of my own death rushing toward me.
Yet in actual battle I never experienced such a sensation. Uncomfortable, nervous, worried, confused on occasion, scared sometimes, but never terrified. Not even when I lay alone and badly wounded in Saipan, with the enemy a few feet away. The absence of fear under such circumstances doesn’t imply the presence of courage; it’s just that in battle there is little time for the imagination to work, only the adrenaline. The time for imagination comes later. Years after the war I would sometimes wake from an afternoon nap and have the frightening feeling that I was experiencing a kind of “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” that if I opened my eyes I would find myself dying in that swampy reed field on Saipan.
DEATH MAY HAUNT the imagination with terrible images, but fear of death rarely determines behavior. What men tend to suffer the most intense private anguish about is their personal conduct when the guns begin to fire. How will I, how did I, measure up? You very much want others to think well of you, but even more you want to think well of yourself. Not many men come out of battle fully confident that they passed the test. In this, Tarawa was like any other battle.
Yet, at the same time, Tarawa was one of those rare battles in which every participant did his duty and became a hero in spite of himself. Just getting ashore, or trying to, was a major act of courage—one reason, I suppose, why the division received a Presidential Unit Citation. And there were four Congressional Medals of Honor, three of them awarded posthumously, as well as scores of other decorations. There are always men who meet the test so well that in comparison you have come in a distant second, at best. I knew three.