Skip to main content

Not Forgetting May Be The Only Heroism Of The Survivor”

July 2024
21min read

Years after one of the bloodiest and most intense battles of the war in the Pacific, a Marine Corps veteran returns to Tarawa

WAR IS A COUNTRY no traveler ever forgets. It haunts those who survive the journey as no other experience. The memories of war cling to the mind with astonishing tenacity, and sometimes in the dark of night when the glow of your cigarette is a distant fire on an island most people have never heard of, nothing seems to equal their demand for attention. Why? Possibly because the memories raise so many questions about oneself, particularly the unanswerable one: Why am I the one here to remember? Perhaps, however, that’s the point—to remember. Indeed, the ordeal of not forgetting may well be the only heroism of the survivor.

Sometimes these memories assert themselves so strongly that you decide to have it out with them. One way to do that is to go back. In early 1968, after a quarter of a century, I returned to Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands in that vast stretch of the Pacific where islands hump their coral backs out of the ocean like so many whales at rest.

Here on little Betio, the last island in the Tarawa atoll, from November 20 to 24,1943, there took place one of the bloodiest and most intense battles of the Second World War. The newspaper reports referred to the carnage as the most shattering experience in Marine Corps history. It may well have been. What is certain is that those who went through the ordeal and those who fell there remain bound together by unusual ties. Tarawa is the only battle I have ever heard of where so many who survived wished to have their ashes returned there.

For most of us Tarawa began in New Zealand at a little railway crossing about thirty miles out of Wellington called McKay’s Crossing. And that’s where my pilgrimage began. It is hard to imagine that this ordinary stretch of rolling land between the hills and the sea once felt the presence of several thousand men. In the intervening years the area had gradually taken on in my mind the tone of some tented encampment preserved for posterity by Mathew Brady. The last of the New Zealand winter was still with us then, and there was often a kind of damp blur in the air; we all scrounged wood and coal for the old Franklin-type stoves in our tents. Although there is always a certain impersonality about military camps, here there was an intimacy we never had again. The messes were small, and late at night if you had the duty, the cooks would fix you bacon and eggs, draw warm cake fresh from the oven, and pour hot coffee into large white mugs. There was no real sense of regiment or division. It was a village existence of companies and platoons.

We all got tired of maneuvers up and down those damned hills ringed with sheep paths, and the hills themselves naturally became higher and higher with every passing year after our departure. I was surprised in 1968 to discover that their summits were not perpetually hidden in clouds after all. The whole area is now a national park, with imposing gates and a bronze plaque. “Half the world distance from home they camped here,” it reads. “They camped at this spot from June 1942 to November 1943 while helping to defend this country. Later they fought in the Pacific Islands where many of them made the supreme sacrifice and cemented everlasting friendship.”

I often had the feeling that I was trying to tap out a desperate message to my new wife, thousands of miles away.

Now, beyond a few broken concrete slabs in the under-brush, there was nothing to indicate this was a wartime camp. Nothing to indicate it was a park, for that matter, except the sign.

This is not to say that New Zealanders have forgotten. Wellington of course was large enough to absorb a division of men, particularly when most of its own were far away. It would be hard to find a Marine who did not have a family he visited regularly on liberty and with whom the closest relationships developed. In 1968 the New Zealanders who had known Marines told me again and again that they seemed to be looking for a home. “The thing that struck me most,” said one woman, “was that when you met them and you liked each other, then you sort of belonged to them and they belonged to you. They weren’t interested in meeting other people and going around and that sort of thing.”

Time has, to say the least, been kind to the Marines who have passed through the filtering process of New Zealand memory: everyone apparently was an Eagle Scout. Neat, clean, polite, generous, gentle with children. In 1968 when I asked a friend what her impression of me had been in those days, she said I was courteous, intelligent, lovable: “You recited poetry for my mother.” My own image from those days was very different: gauche, confused, anxious, lost. Did I talk about the war? Never, she said. Yet it seems to me that it was always on my mind. How could I not have talked about it? But this, too, was a common observation. “No, they never talked about the war, where they had been, where they were going. They talked about New Zealand, what a lovely country it was, how they liked the people. Things like that. We were old-fashioned compared with America, I suppose. I think they liked that for some reason.”


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

IT WAS ONLY NATURAL , then, I suppose, that I became drawn into the Tarawa of today. I had long talks with officials about the problems of bringing the Gilbert Islands to independence (achieved four years ago); listened to British doubts about the future of the economy; talked at lunch with local merchants who weren’t very sanguine either; spent a morning touring the little hospital, including its small leper section; lectured to the sixty students at the training school for Gilbertese elementary teachers; went out to dinner parties; struck up a lasting friendship with Derek Cudmore, the assistant resident commissioner, and his wife Vrai; went on a hunt with the agricultural expert for the dread rhinoceros beetle (we didn’t find it); visited the Catholic bishop, who was in the throes of supervising the construction of a tropical cathedral, and who served me the coldest bottle of beer I had while on Tarawa. By the time I left I was beginning to feel at home and comfortable and somewhat reluctant to leave. A vivid contrast to twenty-five years earlier.

This involvement turned out to be an unforeseen benefit. For almost twenty-five years I had relived the battle so many times that I saw myself doomed to fight it over and over without end. But to see Tarawa now was to realize that even though the past does indeed influence and shape our lives, we cannot live there. Though I came to Tarawa bringing the battle with me, I left without it. There are those who flee the present to find relief in the past. I found that my journey had enabled me to escape the past back into the present. Tarawa, which had innocently placed so terrible a burden on me, innocently lifted that burden a quarter of a century later.


When I first arrived, I was surprised to discover that there was no memorial to the battle. I casually mentioned this when I talked with the students at the training school, not realizing that such a remark, suggesting ingratitude, would cause great “shame” to a sensitive people like the Gilbertese. Several days later, to show they did care, the students put on a big outdoor feast one evening, making me a kind of guest of honor. As the meal progressed, one of the teachers whispered to me that at an appropriate moment I would be expected to rise and speak. I searched my mind frantically for something to say. Suddenly I was nudged. I got slowly to my feet, and that was the moment I realized what had been happening to me during those two weeks. After thanking the students for their invitation, I said, as much to myself as to them: “When I left Tarawa twenty-five years ago, I took with me very bitter and unhappy memories, but I want you to know that when I leave Tarawa this time, I shall carry with me very happy and pleasant memories.” Not eloquent, but the students cheered.

My peace with the battle I would never have to fight again was my own private memorial, but I still thought there should be some visible sign of honor for those who had died on this distant piece of coral. Then, quite unexpectedly, I found it. Not long before I left, I talked with an expatriate minister who told me the following story.

VISITING IN THE northern part of the atoll, he was being taken by an old Gilbertese to someone’s hut. On the way they came to a place with a log and some piled stones, and the old man told him they would sit here. Puzzled, he sat down. Soon a couple of small boys came by, and they too stopped and sat. Then an old woman with a basket. After a couple of minutes, the old man got up. The minister asked why they had stopped there. After the battle on Betio, the old man said, a company of Marines had been sent in pursuit of several dozen Japanese soldiers who had managed to escape. During the chase up the atoll a Marine had been killed in a skirmish at that spot, and ever since then no one went by without sitting for a few minutes in silence. Later in 1968, on the formal anniversary of the battle,a concrete monument was unveiled in commemoration, but I think I prefer that silent ground in northern Tarawa. It doesn’t matter that few remember why they stop there.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.