Between 20 November and mid-day on 24 November of 1943, the Second Division of the United States Marine Corps poured over 10,000 men onto Betio island. That island, now part of the nation of Kirbati in the Gilbert Islands chain, occupies a mere 0.59 square miles or 376 acres. To put that into perspective, the National Mall in Washington, DC encompasses just over 309 acres. If we add the White House grounds and the grounds of the US Capitol, the total grows to 385 acres, creating an area roughly equivalent to Betio.
The men of the 2nd, 8th and 6th Marine regiments confronted 4,600 well-entrenched, experienced Japanese combatants in a very confined space. The ensuing battle, passed down to us as the Battle of Tarawa (Betio is part of the Tarawa Atoll) was the most violent engagement yet for American forces in almost two years of war. Seventy-five years later, American military historians find few analogues to the intensity of the fighting.
So fierce was the combat on the three landing beaches (Red 1, Red 2 and Red 3) that by the end of the first day the Marines had not established a defensible beachhead.
Many Marines never made it ashore, victims of exceptional Japanese defensive planning and well-disciplined troops. Those Marines that reached Red 1 carved out a small isolated pocket on the island’s northwestern-most point. Red 2 had become a killing zone for landing troops, but the regimental commander Col. David M. Shoup had managed to establish a command post on the eastern edge near the pier. The Marines coming ashore at Red 3 fared better but were also unable to sustain gains, pulling back toward the beach to maintain a defensive perimeter. As the sun set, Marines in these different pockets piled into the few dozen yards of beach belonging to them, waiting for a Japanese counterattack that might well destroy their fragile toe-hold ashore and force a temporary withdrawal from the Gilbert Islands.
The first night passed without a counterattack, but the battle would last for another two and a half days. In this short span of time the Marines suffered over 3,300 casualties, with about 1,000 dying as a result of the battle (estimates still vary). Japanese fatalities pushed close to 100%, as only seventeen Japanese combatants survived to be taken prisoner.
The battle also marked a turning point in the visual coverage of the war. Politicians and the War Department had by the end of 1942 grown concerned that a dangerous gap was growing between the published visual imagery of the war and the grim reality of combat slowly working its way back to the home front in the form of personal letters, accounts from returning and disabled veterans, telegrams and gold stars. In 1943, a call went out to service branches to increase the production of more balanced still and moving pictures to bring home a properly sobering picture of war’s violence in an effort to prepare the nation for the greater sacrifices known to lie ahead. Orders went out to film more combat for distribution to the public. In response, invasion planners made certain the fight for Tarawa Atoll would be well documented by still and moving pictures.
Some of the resulting film has been shown in many documentaries. Sergeant Norm Hatch justly garnered praise for one particular sequence showing both US and Japanese combatants in the same frame—a shot which affirms Hatch’s own exposure to fire. But he was just one of member of Combat Camera, a detachment of still and motion picture cameramen who went into battle on Betio. Captain Louis Hayward, a well-know screen actor, led the unit ashore.
Along with them came about a dozen journalists from newspapers and magazines (including Time’s Robert Sherrod), wire services, and Fox Movietone News.
As the representative for all newsreel companies, Fox Movietone’s Don Senick was expected to bring home images specifically crafted for newsreel use. However, while he was scheduled to land the first day, his landing craft (which also included Warrant Officer John Leopold of Combat Camera) unexpectedly spent D-Day awaiting orders to hit the beach; they would ultimately land on the second day with an artillery unit at the main pier separating beaches Red 2 and Red 3.
Senick’s 35mm black and white film of Betio was the first to make it to the home front, appearing in newsreels the first week of December. The more intense combat footage ultimately came from the Marines shooting 16mm Kodachrome color film for Combat Camera, select scenes of which screened in newsreels a week later. Leopold and Hatch were joined by Corporal Obie Newcombe as motion picture photographers. Hatch and Newcombe came ashore together on D-Day at Red 3 immediately after the assault waves landed.
Although some scenes from Combat Camera were screened in newsreels, the lion’s share of the film was edited together and released in 35mm Technicolor in March 1944 as With the Marines at Tarawa (available here from the United States Marines Corps Film Repository at Moving Image Research Collections). The film won the Oscar for best documentary in 1945.
Today, the battle continues to be documented. Betio’s small land mass meant that the conflict raged over the dead for days. Even while the fighting was going on, Navy chaplains provided comfort to the living and the dying and began the process of documenting the dead. Bodies were buried and reburied.
By the end of the fighting the tiny island was home to 41 Marine cemeteries. In many cases, rapid decay, fire, or kinetic force rendered remains unidentifiable. In other cases, the whereabouts of Marines could simply not be determined. The bodies of many Marines killed while wading through the lagoon were taken by the sea with the changing tides. Over 500 were listed as unrecoverable, others were officially buried at sea off the Tarawa atoll. Even remains initially identified and buried could be lost in the congested reconstruction environment of Betio—which was quickly remade as an airbase. One cemetery in particular, No. 27, originally placed just inside Red 3, was lost.
The fate of these Marines and others listed as “Unknown” has been the subject of investigation by a collaborative team from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) and the non-profit History Flight. The History Flight team successfully identified the location of cemetery no. 27 and began the painstaking work of forensic analysis to determine if the skeletal remains could be tied with certainty to a lost Marine and repatriated to surviving family. According to History Flight’s Katie Rasdorf, “the Partnership between History Flight and DPAA has resulted in 93 identifications of Tarawa MIAs since 2010. DPAA has exhumed all of the “unknowns” graves associated with Tarawa losses from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP or “Punchbowl”) in Honolulu and continues to pursue identifications in a dedicated Tarawa lab in Honolulu.”
Their work has reunited the remains of Medal of Honor awardee Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman with his family in Tennessee, and most recently identified the remains of a young Naval aircraft mechanic, John Owen Morris. This week, twenty families, relatives of Tarawa “unknowns” who have been officially identified, have traveled to Hawaii to attend ceremonies denoting the change of status.
The United States Marine Corps Film Repository at the University of South Carolina contains a number of films made on Betio, including one of General David M. Shoup returning to the island 25 years afterwards, walking the beaches and reflecting on the actions of those few days that clearly impacted him greatly. Seventy-five years ago, for seventy-six hours, the Marines of the Second Division persevered in the face of a determined enemy force at great cost to their own. Today, the Marines are still coming home.
~Written by Dr. Greg Wilsbacher