- 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
One of them was the commander of our battalion, Major Kyle. Only twenty-eight at the time of Tarawa, the major had already won his medal for heroism at Guadalcanal, but medals were the last thing on his mind. To the junior officers he was imperturbable, cool, always in command of the situation. Though so remote as to seem almost inaccessible, he had a poise and confidence that I greatly admired and wished I had. While it was possible to think of other people getting killed or wounded, it was impossible to think of anything happening to the major. He struck most of us, I think, as the sort of man who could saunter through a battlefield carrying only a swagger stick, urging men on by his very presence. All right now, on your feet, up the hill, that’s a good chap—much like those nonchalant British officers on the Northwest Frontier whom we used to see in the movies in the 1930s. Little wonder that so many of us were in awe of him. He was, as far as I know, the first ranking officer to cross the island in the assault to split the Japanese forces, and in fact did so before most of the rest of us. I don’t know whether he sauntered or ran.
Some flee the present by seeking the past. I found that my journey had let me escape the past into the present.
My platoon sergeant was a very different kind of man, though no less effective. Far from being remote, Reich was menacingly close to the men of the platoon. He scared them, but they trusted him completely; in his military talents and instincts he seemed the classic warrior type. For him, combat was what life, not just war, was all about. He never worried; nothing bothered him. The company, the battalion, the division, meant nothing to him, only the platoon. On the beach at Tarawa he casually ignored the enemy until after he had taken care of the wounded. No two men were less alike, in background and personality, than he and I, yet we became very close. Why this was so on his part I have never understood, but I do know that I might well not have made it as a platoon leader without him.
The third man was Japanese. By the end of the last day of the battle what was left of my company—I was then the only officer—was dug in on a line from the beach to the edge of the airstrip. Another outfit had moved through our battalion and would absorb the last suicide attack by the Japanese at the eastern tail of the island. Our line crossed over a huge sand-covered bunker. Late at night a group of Japanese burst from it and ran wildly toward the airstrip. Silhouetted by burning debris on the other side, they were instantly shot down. Dumbfounded, and assuming there might be more of the enemy within, I ordered the man dug in on top of the bunker to lean over and throw in a couple of grenades.
THEN IT BEGAN . There were two men left alive inside, and one of them clearly was badly wounded. He began to moan and cry out in agony and despair. His comrade first would try to reassure him, then to defy us. At the time I never really thought of this man except as a threat, that he too might make a run for it and someone would get hurt. Only much later, and not really until twenty-five years later when I stood on the spot where the bunker had been and where perhaps he still lay buried, did I think of him differently. I could imagine him there in the total darkness, on his knees, his voice raised against us in the raging pitch that comes from fear and anger and then lowered to a soothing tone as he sought to comfort his mortally wounded companion. How horrifying it must have been for him, trapped in that black world from which there was no escape. Yet he managed to keep terror under control—to let it out in shouts of obscene defiance to us (for though we could not understand, that is surely what they were), and then to siphon it off in quiet words to his dying friend. Doomed and knowing he was doomed, he never lost control of himself and remained in command of the situation until the end.
As the site of a battle unsurpassed in fury, Tarawa is probably unique in that it was almost untouched by the battle itself and indeed by the course of the Pacific conflict. The usual outriders of war were absent. No civilians killed, no architectural masterpieces leveled, no homes pulverized, no bridges or roads destroyed, no works of art vandalized, no health or food services disrupted. The Japanese occupation lasted only about eighteen months and was relatively mild. The Marine presence was brief. After the battle, nature and the British moved in on Betio, and the signs of war were soon gone, save for the battered fortifications, which in time came to be accepted as part of the natural landscape.
Returning, I felt like the last survivor of a distant catastrophe people knew had happened but which had not really affected their lives. No one ever asked me about die battle.