Americans at home thought all the island battlefields in the Pacific were pretty much alike: jungly, rainy, with deep white beaches ringed by awnings of palm trees. That was true of New Guinea and the Solomons, but most of Admiral Nimitz's central Pacific offensive, which opened in the autumn of 1943, was fought over very different ground. Only the palms and the pandanus there evoke memories of the South Pacific, and the pandanus do not flourish because rain seldom falls. A typical central Pacific island, straddling the equator, is a small platform of coral, sparsely covered with sand and scrub bush, whose highest point rises no more than a few feet above the surf line. Tarawa (pronounced TAR-uh-wuh), like most of the land formations in this part of the world, is actually an atoll, a triangular group of thirty-eight islands circled by a forbidding coral reef and sheltering, within the triangle, a dreamy lagoon. The fighting was on one of Tarawa's isles, Betio (BAY-she-oh), because that was where the priceless Japanese airstrip was. Betio is less than half the size of Manhattan's Central Park. No part of it is more than three hundred yards from the water. A good golfer can drive a ball across it at almost any point.
Tarawa is in the Gilbert Islands. Nimitz's real objective was Kwajalein, in the Marshall Islands, over five hundred miles to the northwest. The largest atoll in the world, sixty-five miles long, Kwajalein would provide the Americans with an immense anchorage and a superb airdrome. But Tarawa and its sister atoll Makin (pronounced MUG-rin) had to fall first. Unlike the Marshalls, which had been mandated to Japan in the Treaty of Versailles, and which Hirohito's troops had spent twenty years arming to the teeth, the Gilberts, where Tarawa was, had been a British crown colony. The Nips had arrived there two days after Pearl Harbor. Colonel Vivien Fox-Strangeways, the resident British administrator, had fled Tarawa in a small launch, dashing from island to island by day and holing up in coves by night until a British ship picked him up in the Ellice Islands, to the south. Since then the only Allied contact with the Gilberts had been the ineffectual foray by Carlson's Raiders on Makin. Carlson reported that he hadn't encountered much resistance. By the autumn of 1943 that was no longer true. Carlson, ironically, had been the agent of change. Warned by his strike, the enemy had strengthened the defenses of the Gilberts, particularly those on Tarawa's Betio. The Japanese needed that airstrip there. It is a sign of their determination that they had chosen Betio's beach to site the British coastal defense guns they had captured at Singapore.
Before the war these islands had been as insignificant as Guadalcanal — remote, insular, far from the Pacific's trade routes. The islanders lived in thatched huts, harvested copra, fished for tuna, and watched the tides alter their shoreline from year to year. A schooner arrived once every three months to exchange tobacco and brightly colored cloth for copra. The Gilbertese were living over valuable phosphate deposits, but in the 1940s no one was aware of it. Indeed, few outsiders even knew or cared about the islands' existence. Christian missionaries were exceptions; by the time of Pearl Harbor half the natives were Catholics and the other half Protestants. They paid a price for their devotion when the Nips landed. Under threat of death Gilbertese men were forced to defecate on their crude altars; Gilbertese women had to perform obscene ceremonies with crucifixes. It was the same old story: islanders who had little stake in the war, and might have been befriended by their conquerors, were alienated by a barbarous occupation policy. Long before the fall of 1943 the Japs were thoroughly hated throughout the Gilberts.
In planning the seizure of Makin and Tarawa, Nimitz chose as his commander Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, who had performed superbly at Midway seventeen months earlier. Spruance divided his armada of over a hundred warships into three task forces, one for Makin, one for Tarawa, and one to throw up an umbrella of fighter planes from seventeen carriers, challenging Jap fliers from Kwajalein who tried to disrupt the two operations. In the event, enemy warplanes were intimidated. Hirohito's troops were not. Makin, which was supposed to be easy, wasn't. GIs didn't take it until the fourth day of fighting. Here, for the first but not the last time, a basic amphibious issue arose between U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps generals. Soldiers moved slowly to keep casualty lists short. Marines lunged at the enemy, sometimes at reckless speed, because they knew that until the fighting ended the fleet which had landed them would be vulnerable to enemy attack. They believed that Makin vindicated them. While GIs crawled ashore there, a Nip sub torpedoed an American carrier, drowning ten times the number of men who died fighting on Makin.
Tarawa was to be a tragedy for different reasons, which, seen through the telescope of hindsight, seem incomprehensible. Everyone knew that Tarawa — which is to say Betio — would be tough. The reef was formidable. The enemy had mined it. The beach bristled with huge guns, concrete obstacles, and barbed-wire concertinas designed to force invaders into the fire zone of cannon and machine guns. That was only part of the problem, but it was the part known to Spruance and his staff before the first wave of Marines went in. The greater problem was the reef. The only craft which could cross a jutting reef, even after the mines had been defused, were what we called “amphtracs” — amphibious tractors. Driven by propellers, they could move through water at four knots; their caterpillar tracks would carry them over land, including the reef ledge, at twenty miles per hour. Twenty Marines could ride in each amphtrac. The landing force needed all it could get. But there were few available, and Spruance's staff, notably Rear Admiral Turner, took a sanguine view of the tidal problem anyway. Using 1841 charters, they assured the Marines that at H-hour the reef would be covered by five feet of water, which meant that a loaded Higgins boat, drawing between three and four feet, could cross it. Therefore there would be enough amphtracs for the first wave, though, they conceded, there would be none for those following.
This defies understanding. A landing in spring would have been another matter, but Fox-Strangeways had described Betio's low, dodging autumn tides to the Americans. Major F. L. G. Holland, a New Zealander who had lived on Tarawa for fifteen years, said the tide might be as little as three feet. And the night before the Betio attack Rota Onorio, now Speaker of the Gilberts' House of Assembly and then a fourteen-year-old boy, paddled his dugout out to the Allied fleet and told naval officers that tomorrow the reef would be impassable, even at high tide. He, Fox-Strangeways, and Holland were ignored. Then, in the morning, the situation worsened when the fleet's timetable began to come apart. The transports carrying the Marines were trapped between Spruance's battleship bombardment and the replying fire from the enemy's shore guns. They moved, delaying the landing and missing the tide. Next it was discovered that the battleship captains and the carrier commanders had failed to consult one another; the ships' thirty-five-minute salvos ended to permit the carrier planes to come in, but the planes, whose pilots had been given another schedule, were a half hour late. That permitted the Jap batteries to open up on the transports, further delaying the landing waves. The air strike was supposed to last thirty minutes. It lasted seven. Finally, everyone awaited what was supposed to be the last touch in softening up the beach defenses, a massive B-24 raid from a base in the Ellice Islands. They waited. And waited. The B-24s never arrived. H-hour was delayed by forty-three more precious minutes.
After the battle Seabees built more than nineteen miles of roads on Tarawa and erected piers, observation towers, and radio towers; installed a fuel pipeline; and gave the islands electricity, refrigeration, mosquito control, water purification, and a twenty-four-hundred-foot mole. The atoll's Australian nuns were presented with new blue-and-white habits. Then the war ended and the Americans left. Most of the technological marvels were ruined by the weather. The Gilberts once more became backwaters. Today Tarawa is less lonely than it was before the war, but by the standards of the rest of the world it is still remote. The atoll may be reached by air twice a week from Nauru, itself obscure, or every other week from Fiji. I choose to come via Nauru Airways. Peering down from my lazy flight — we are over an hour late — I see the twenty-two-mile reef first, a lopsided horseshoe containing the beautiful pink isles, each with its umbrella of palms twisted by centuries of typhoons. Sturdy Seabee rock-and-coral causeways still connect some of the islands in the atoll, though not Betio, which since 1943 has been regarded as the pariah of the Gilberts. As we enter our glide pattern I look down on the shore, four thousand yards within the reef, and see the horizontal rippling of the sand where the sea has ridged it. Here and there on Betio, rusty hulks are visible, though there is no way of telling whether they are the remains of boats, tanks, or shore batteries. The waters are placid. The islets are like stones in a delicate necklace. The trees lean indolently. It seems inconceivable that what happened here happened here.
We land on Bairiki, the islet closest to Betio. The runway (“Bairiki International Airport”) is there. So are the government's offices; so is the atoll's tiny, whitewashed cinder-block Otintai Hotel. The airfield's tin-roofed, open-sided terminal building is about the size of a Beverly Hills carport. Outside are little rustlings and stirrings among the palms, as though they were whispering among themselves, but inside the terminal one's senses are assaulted by a shouting, sweating, colorfully dressed crowd. Sometimes, in a paranoid mood, I wonder whether these mobs at Pacific airports aren't always the same mob, a troupe that flies ahead of me to block my way. They all look the same, sound the same, smell the same. Abruptly the chaos thins and I am confronted by a black giant wearing Her Britannic Majesty's white tropical uniform — white short-sleeved blouse, white shorts, white pith helmet. He studies my passport, stamps it, rummages through my B-4 bag, and waves me on.
Outside I board a minibus. One by one, then two by two, other passengers join me, until the bus resembles one of those Barnum and Bailey circus cars packed with flesh, or the Marx Brothers' stateroom in A Night at the Opera. But I have a window. It provides an astonishing glimpse of one of those high, old-fashioned London taxis which were replaced by smaller, sleeker cabs years ago. The taxi bears Elizabeth II's coat of arms on its doors. Within, a pukka sahib — later I learn he is Governor the Honourable Reginald Wallace — is waving cheerily. No one waves back, or even glances in his direction. Thus, as in India, the British Raj ends with neither bang nor whimper but merely with massive indifference among its former, or soon-to-be former, subjects. In a few months, one of my fellow passengers tells me, the Gilbertese will become independent. He proudly shows me the new nation's flag: a yellow bird and sun on a red background, with wavy blue and white stripes below. It is vaguely suggestive of Arizona's state flag.
Here in the far reaches of the Pacific there is a kind of camaraderie among Europeans, a generic term which includes Americans, and within an hour I am lunching at the Otintai with four new acquaintances, all British, one of whom, a stocky woman who works for the World Health Organization, recently spent a week crossing the mountainous spine of Guadalcanal, a feat which has been matched by few, if any. My friends are all hearty, jolly, and blessed with that English love of incongruity which makes the eclipse of British power almost droll. A slender Welsh economist married to a Polynesian girl has discovered that one of the old Japanese blockhouses on Betio is precisely the size of a squash court; he is using it as such. Tony Charlwood, a chief master in the Royal Navy and an ordnance expert — his last assignment was defusing IRA bombs in Belfast — has just finished a three-month job here, removing from the beaches, at low tide, seventeen tons of live ammunition, including several eighteen-inch shells. He makes it sound like a parlor game.
The most interesting of the four is Ieuan Battan, deputy secretary to the Gilbertese chief minister, a handsome, husky man who just now has a grisly problem, though he speaks of it lightly. He has to handle the delicate consequences of finding the skeletons of fighting men, which are discovered from time to time when new sewer lines are laid, say, or when children are building sand castles around old spider holes. Last week a group of little boys unearthed the fleshless corpses of four Japanese and one American. How, I ask Ieuan, can he tell the four from the one? It is easy, he replies; the American was wearing dog tags and a Swiss watch, and Japanese femurs, teeth, and skulls are microscopically different from ours. At the moment it is the Nipponese skulls which are worrying him. A nine-teen-man delegation is on its way from Tokyo to cremate what is left of their countrymen. But the children who found the craniums are exhibiting them on their windowsills, and he must persuade the boys to relinquish them. If this is black humor, there is worse to come, though I suspect it may be fictive. One of my companions insists that recently two couples were making love on a sand dune known to be littered with old artillery duds. One couple, still in the prelims, heard the other man shout, “I'm coming!” The girl cried, “I'm close!” Then they blew up.
Most of Ieuan's tasks are duller. He is masterminding the transfer of power from British colonial rule to Gilbertese independence. He deals with the islands' elected officials and such issues as water tables, natural resource development, and fishing rights off Christmas Island, one of the Gilberts. The main problem, he says, is that natives on outlying Gilbert islands are moving to Tarawa Atoll. Their expectations were raised during the years of the American occupation — they were given room and board, and paid twenty-five cents a day — and now they want cash wages, dance halls, and a consumer society. Before the war they didn't know that appliances, movies, and private cars existed. Now they do, and they are determined to have them, despite the meager yields of their primitive economy. Had they known I was coming, Ieuan tells me, they would have greeted me at the airport with tawny girls dancing the exotic maneaba, because they know visitors expect that of them. But they prefer the Twist. Chubby Checker is their idol. They are addicted to filter tips. On Betio, where young lovers couple in positions described by Masters and Johnson, their slogan is “Betio Swings!”
I decide to nap after lunch. Tropical evergreens decorate the hotel entrance; Christmas is a month away, but already the merchants are psyching up customers who really can't afford their wares. A few skilled workers can; outside my hotel door, interrupting my afternoon nap, are two islanders jabbing at coral with a jackhammer. I think of the Marines who tried to dig in here with entrenching tools. At dusk, as the sky deepens with a lovely flush — “Out here the sun,” Bob Trumbull told me, “sets on the British Empire with style” — I slip into swimming trunks and dive from a coral ledge into the sea. The water is warm, sensual, but when I climb out I am reminded how vicious coral can be. I nick an elbow and open a nasty gash above a knee. Neither is disabling, however; tomorrow I shall take the ferry to Betio. Already the Sergeant in me is brooding about it; I know I can expect a hilltop nightmare tonight. The Twist. Chubby Checker. Betio Swings. Is that why 3,381 Marines of my generation fell here thirty-five years ago?
Both the American and the Japanese troops were commanded by admirals — the defenders of the atoll were members of the Japanese Special Landing Forces: Japanese Marines, wearing the distinctive crysanthemum-and-anchor emblem on their helmets — and confidence was high, both on the flagship offshore and in the beach's headquarters bunker. The admiral commanding the American bombardment told Marine officers: “Gentlemen, we will not neutralize Betio. We will not destroy it. We will obliterate it!” A Marine general, Julian C. Smith, replied: “Even though you navy officers do come in to about a thousand yards, I remind you that you have a little armor. I want you to know that Marines are crossing that beach with bayonets, and the only armor they will have is a khaki shirt.” But despite scheduling blunders the warships and warplanes seemed to be doing their best to prepare the way for the landing force. Three U.S. battleships, five cruisers, and nine destroyers had plastered the shore with three thousand tons of high explosives — roughly ten tons per acre. Yet the Japanese admiral remained confident. He had said that “a million men cannot take Tarawa in a hundred years.” Each of his underground pillboxes was built with steel and reinforced concrete, covered with coconut logs and coral, invisible to the American bombers and warships. Underground tunnels, invulnerable even to direct hits, connected the pillboxes and blockhouses. Fourteen huge coastal guns, including the eight-inchers from Singapore, led an orchestra of fifty field-pieces. Over a hundred machine-gun nests were zeroed in on the lip of a four-foot coconut-log and coral-block seawall. The Japs doubted that any of the U.S. assault troops would ever reach the beach, however. The reef standing between them and the Allied fleet was wider than Betio itself. And the Japanese, unlike the Americans, possessed accurate tide tables.
The struggle for the island began in the early hours of Saturday, November 20, 1943. By 4:30 A.M. the Marines assigned to the first wave had descended their cargo nets, jumped into Higgins boats, and transferred to amphtracs, which began forming for the assault. Japanese ashore were aware of dark hulks in the night but were waiting until the Americans committed themselves to the isle's sea beach or its lagoon side. At 4:41 A.M. a Nip coastal defense gun fired a red-star cluster over the six U.S. transports. Now they knew: it was to be the lagoon side. Our naval gunfire had been stunning — one Marine said, “It's a wonder the whole goddam island doesn't fall apart and sink” — but it had ended an hour earlier. Two U.S. destroyers laying down a smoke screen for the Marines were shelling the beach, but against such defenses tin-can fire was ineffectual. Japs who had been braced for an approach from the sea leapt into prepared positions facing the lagoon. Now the American Marines would confront 4,836 Japanese, most of them Jap Marines.
Amphtrac coxswains found the seventeen-mile-long, nine-mile-wide lagoon choppy, its current strong, and their screws baffled by a riptide, a tug created by large volumes of water being sucked through underwater gaps in the reef. Instants later, they discovered that the Japs had somehow survived the bombardment. At three thousand yards from shore enemy artillery opened up on them; at two thousand yards they came under fire from long-range machine guns, and at eight hundred yards, as their awkward vehicles, half tanks, half boats, waddled over the reef, they were greeted by everything the enemy had, including sniper fire and heavy mortars. The amphtracs, performing as expected, came on. The Higgins boats behind them were stranded on the reef. They lowered their ramps, and the Marines stepped into chest-deep water. Robert Sherrod, then a Time war correspondent, has recalled: “It was painfully slow, wading in such deep water. And we had seven hundred yards to walk slowly into this machine-gun fire, looming into larger targets as we rose onto high ground.” Aboard one of the American warships a naval officer wrote in his log: “The water seemed never clear of tiny men … slowly wading beachward. … They kept falling, falling, falling … singly, in groups, and in rows.” Yet they trudged on, keeping their formations, “calm,” in Sherrod's words, “even disdainful of death … black dots of men, holding their weapons high above their heads, moving at a snail's pace, never faltering.” At Balaklava Pierre Bosquet had said of the Light Brigade: “C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre.” And at Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War, where the French cavalry charged the Krupp guns again and again, until the last of them lay writhing in their own blood beside the carcasses of their slaughtered mounts, the King of Prussia had lowered his spyglass and murmured: “Ah, les braves gens!” Tarawa was more ghastly than magnificent, and it was certainly war, yet after all these years the bravery of its men is still wondrous.
There was a ramshackle, cribwork pier, long and narrow, jutting out from the beach. As shelters the pier's coconut stanchions were pitifully inadequate, but they were better than nothing, and those who reached them unwounded thought themselves lucky. There they crouched, with shellfire pealing in their ears, amid geysers of water from new shells and the smaller splashes from machine guns in the bunkers and Jap snipers tied in the trees overhead, while the precise American invasion plan fell apart. The troops in the amphtracs were luckier than those jumping from the Higgins boats stranded on the coral-reef apron, but in this fire storm danger was merely relative; there was no real safety for anyone. Unprotected by counterbattery fire from the U.S. fleet, which could not risk hitting Americans, five out of every six amphtracs were destroyed or disabled. Some reached the wrong beaches. Some, their coxswains dead, ran amok, spinning crazily and hurling seasick men into the surf. Some toppled into shell holes. And some blew up when enemy bullets pierced their fuel tanks. A survivor of the first wave remembers: “Amphtracs were hit, stopped, and burst into flames, with men jumping out like torches.” Craft which survived were shuttling back and forth from the reef, carrying the wounded out and reinforcements in. The commander of the assault, Colonel David M. Shoup, a bullnecked, red-faced fighter who was also a scholar and poet, was wading toward shore when he hailed an amphtrac, ordered its crew to help him toss the Marine corpses in it overboard, rode in, and then set his command post in the shadow of the pier pilings, issuing orders while standing waist-deep in water with two other officers and a sergeant. Shrapnel riddled Shoup's legs; he winced and then braced himself, waving away a corpsman. Other drenched Marines who had made it ashore huddled, terrified, beneath the four-foot seawall. Two brave amphtrac coxswains punched a gap in the long wall. Marines following them actually established a precarious toehold at the edge of the airstrip, about fifty yards inland, but their waterlogged radios didn't work and so Shoup was unaware of their position. Closer to him, another coxswain trying to climb the wall succeeded only in jamming his amphtrac treads against it. The men who had reached the beach alive seemed doomed. One later said that it felt “like being in the middle of a pool table without any pockets.”
Wading ashore at Tarawa
The author by the pier
Enemy guns overlooking Tarawa beach, 1978
It was now noon. Because the tide had been misjudged, the Higgins boats couldn't even mount the reef now. Most of the amphtracs had been destroyed. One of them completely disappeared in a shell burst. “It had been there,” recalls a Marine who was nearby, “and then suddenly it was not. In its place, for a split second, there was a blur in the air, and then there was nothing.” One horrified coxswain lost his mind. On his way in, with bullets rattling on his hull, he screamed, “This is as far as I go!” He dropped his ramp and twenty Marines bowed by weapons and ammunition drowned in fifteen feet of water. A battalion commander elsewhere raised his pistol as he waded in and cried to the men behind him: “Come on, these bastards can't stop us!” A Nambu ripped open his rib cage, killing him instantly. Another battalion commander, gravely wounded in shallow water, crawled on top of a pile of dead Americans to avoid drowning in the incoming tide. He was found there the following afternoon, still alive but raving.
Enemy fire, writes Morison, “was horribly accurate; several times it dropped a shell right on a landing craft just as the ramp came down, spreading a pool of blood around the boat.” The Marine dead became part of the terrain; they altered tactics; they provided defilade, and when they had died on barbed-wire obstacles, live men could avoid the wire by crawling over them. Even so, the living were always in some Jap's sights. There were many agents of death on Tarawa: snipers, machine gunners, artillery shells, mortar bursts, the wire, or drowning as a result of stepping into holes in the coral. As the day wore on, the water offshore was a grotesque mass of severed heads, limbs, and torsos. If a body was intact, you could tell which wave it had been in; the freshly killed were limp, with only their scalps and arms visible in the swells, but those who had died in the first hour floated stiffly, like kayaks, showing faces, or pieces of faces. If they had lost all their blood they were marble white, and the stench of their putrefaction soon hung over them. Most of those still alive cowered where they were. One who didn't, a corporal and a professional baseball pitcher in civilian life, crouched beside an amphtrac that Japs were trying to stop with hand grenades. As the grenades sailed in, he fielded them and flung them back as fastballs. Then one took a home-team bounce. Before he could grab it, it exploded. Later his hand was amputated. His example awed his men but did not inspire them. Real leadership was impossible. In a typical company, five of six officers were dead and all the sergeants dead or wounded. The survivors were bunched in little groups of three or four, trembling, sweating, and staring the thousand-yard stare of combat.
By early afternoon, with the tide falling, virtually all in the fourth wave, including 37-millimeter guns and their crews, were blocked by the reef. Some coxswains found holes in the coral; the others would be unable to move until night fell and the tide rose. The fifth wave landed its Sherman tanks on the reef; they plunged into four feet of water on the lee side and churned gamely on. Ashore, the survivors of four assault battalions held a lumpy arc about 300 yards wide which at places, owing to individual acts of heroism, reached a maximum depth of about 150 yards. Shoup had moved his command post fifteen yards in from the surf. His legs streaked with blood, he was standing exactly three feet from a Japanese blockhouse, but owing to the angle of its gunports, he couldn't reach the enemy and they couldn't reach him. Here and there officers and NCOs were shoving and kicking — literally kicking — dazed Marines inland. All the news was bad. The most dismaying reports came from the west, or right, of the island. The seawall was useless in the cove there; a sweeping cross fire enfiladed our riflemen. The battalion commander in the cove, seeing that his men ashore were being scythed by machine gunners, held the rest of them on the reef. He radioed Shoup: “Unable to land. Issue in doubt.” After a silence he radioed: “Boats held up on reef of right flank Red One. Troops receiving heavy fire in water.” Shoup replied: “Land Red Beach Two” — to the left — “and work west.” Another silence from the battalion commander, then: “We have nothing left to land.” The officers around Shoup stared at one another. There had been seven hundred men in that battalion. How could there be nothing left?
In fact about a hundred of the men were still alive, but in the chaos on the beach, with most radios still sodden or jammed, no one, including Shoup, knew of local successes. There was that tenuous hold on the end of the runway. It lay on the left flank of the assault, east of the pier. There was also the battalion of Major Henry P. “Jim” Crowe, a redheaded mustang, and it had landed intact, thanks to the covering fire of two destroyers. Except for the force on the runway tip, Crowe's men were pinned down on the beach by fire from Jap pillboxes, but he could have silenced them with flamethrowers and TNT satchel charges if he had had enough of them. Chagrin yielded to alarm when an enemy tank appeared, clanking toward the battalion. Two U.S. 37-millimeter antitank guns were offshore in a sunken landing craft. The men hauled them through the languid surf and then, with all hands lifting, the two nine-hundred-pound guns were thrown over the seawall just in time to drive the tank back. On the other end of the Marine position, Major Michael P. Ryan, leading a ragtag force of men who had made it ashore and supported by the 75-millimeter guns of two tanks, overran several enemy positions. But Ryan, too, lacked flamethrowers and TNT. Finding that he couldn't reach Shoup to call for reinforcements, he pulled back to a defense perimeter about five hundred yards deep. On Tarawa that was a victory.
Messages between the troops ashore and the hovering fleet also went astray. In desperation, Shoup sent out an officer (Evans Carlson) in an undamaged amphtrac to beg for men, water, and ammunition. Carlson didn't reach the battleship Maryland until late in the evening. By then, however, the plight of the force ashore had become obvious to General Smith, who had been anxiously following the sketchy reports from his CP on the battleship. Smith radioed his senior, Marine General Holland M. Smith, who, aboard the Pennsylvania, was commanding both the Makin and Tarawa assaults. His message to Holland Smith was: “Issue in doubt.” He wanted the Sixth Marines, which were being held in reserve. Meanwhile he was organizing cooks, field musics, typists, motor transport men, specialists, and staff officers into an improvised battalion which he intended to lead ashore if reinforcements were denied him. But he got the Sixth Marines. At the time it was thought they might just swing the balance, but Shoup's position was at best precarious, and the Japanese were by now notorious for their night counterattacks.
As darkness fell, five thousand Marines on the beach awaited death or terror. Ryan's and Crowe's men were wired in and Shoup held a shallow, boxlike perimeter at the base of the pier. Everything, including ammunition, was in short supply. The beach was covered with shattered vehicles, the dead, the dying, and the wounded awaiting evacuation. Five 75-millimeter pack howitzers were ashore and a few medium tanks; that and the 37-millimeter guns was about it. The tropical moon was only a quarter full, but fuel dumps burning all over Betio provided a lurid, flickering light. Corpsmen worked through the night, ferrying casualties to the reef in large rubber rafts; other rafts brought water, blood plasma, ammunition, and reinforcements to the pier. The men on the perimeter, who thought they were ready for anything, were shocked to find their foxholes raked by machine-gun fire from the sea. Japs had swum out to disabled amphtracs abandoned there and were firing at the Marines' backs. To the Americans that seemed the ultimate blow. Demoralized, they expected a banzai charge at any moment. To their astonishment it didn't come. The night passed quietly. The Japanese had problems, too. Naval gunfire hadn't obliterated the island, but it had inflicted heavy casualties on Nips outside their bunkers. And it had destroyed their communications. Great as Shoup's radio problems were, the Japanese commander's were worse. He couldn't get anymessages through.
Seawalls are to beachheads what sunken roads — as at Waterloo and Antietam — are to great land battles. They provide inexpressible relief to assault troops who can crouch in their shadows, shielded for the moment from flat-trajectory fire, and they are exasperating to the troops' commanders because they bring the momentum of an attack to a shattering halt. On Tarawa the survival of the American force depended upon individual decisions to risk death. Wellington said, “The whole art of war consists of getting at what is on the other side of the hill.” If no one vaulted over the wall, no Marine would leave Betio alive. Naturally everyone wanted others to take the chance. In the end, some did — not many, but a few — and they were responsible for the breakthrough. In defense of those who chose to remain until the odds were shorter it should be said that Tarawa was exceptional. In most instances frontal attacks are unnecessary. Cunning is more effective than daring. Even on Betio, even after the reef blunder and the failure to bombard the enemy until the last possible moment, permitting the shift of defenders to prepared positions on the lagoon side, there was a way out. Ryan provided it. He had turned the Jap flank. If Shoup's radio had worked he would have known that and could have strengthened Ryan, rolling up the Nip defenses from the rear. So the instincts of the rifleman who hides behind the wall are usually sound. At least that is what I tell myself whenever I think of Tubby Morris.
My seawall was on Oroku. There was no reef to speak of, and though enemy fire was heavy as the Higgins boats brought us in — we were soaked with splashes from near misses, and we could hear the small-arms lead pinging on our hulls — we lost very few men in the landing. Then we saw the seawall and thanked God for it. It was built of sturdy logs and stood over five feet high. Incongruously, an enormous scarlet vine rioted over the lower half of it. Between there and the surf line the beach was about ten feet deep. It looked wonderful. I was prepared to spend the rest of my life on those ten feet. A braver man, I knew, would try to skirt the wall and find Jap targets. But enemy machine gunners knew where we were. Nambus were chipping at the top of the wall; you could see the splinters. Even if I hadn't been determined to save my own skin, which I certainly was, there were other reasons for staying put. I was surrounded by the Raggedy Ass Marines, the least subordinate of fighters. I knew that if I went up I would be alone. Furthermore, it seemed possible, even probable, that the First Battalion, on our extreme right, could envelop the Nips. The seawall tapered off in that direction, and the map showed an inlet where our men had room to move around. Anyhow, I was going to give them their chance and all the time they wanted.
That was when Tubby arrived in the third wave. He had been in my officer candidate class at Quantico, and unlike me he had been commissioned. Now he was a second lieutenant, a replacement officer making his debut as a leader, or presumed leader, of seasoned troops. If there is a more pitiful role in war, I don't know it. Troops are wary of untested officers, and the Raggedy Ass Marines were contemptuous of them. Some of them, like me, remembered him from Quantico. He hadn't changed since we had last seen him; he was a stubby, brisk youth, in his early twenties but already running to fat around the jowls and belly. He had the sleek peach complexion of a baby and a perpetual frown, not of petulance but of concentration. I hadn't known him well. He had the megalomania of undersized men. He was like one of those boys who always do their homework at school and never let you copy. He had been an overachiever, determined to please his superiors, but there had been many like him at Quantico. Here, however, he was unique. Among men who prided themselves on the saltiness — shabbiness — of their uniforms, his was right off the quartermaster's shelf. I wondered whether he had been disappointed when they told him not to wear his bars in combat, for whatever his other failings he was, and was soon to prove, courageous.
He caught his breath, looked around, and said, “I'm your new officer.” I grinned, held out my hand, and said, “Hi, Tubby.” That was stupid of me. He glared and kept his own hand on his trouser seam. Standing cockily like a bantam rooster — the wall was just high enough to let him stand — he crisply asked, “Sergeant, are these your men?” The Raggedy Asses grinned at one another. The very thought of belonging to anyone amused them. I felt cold. This wasn't the good-natured Tubby I had known. This was trouble. I said, “Tubby —” and he cut me off: “Slim, I am an officer and I expect to be treated with proper military courtesy.” That broke the men up. He heard their stifled chuckles and looked around furiously. It was an insane situation. Here we were, in the middle of a battle, and Tubby seemed to expect a salute, if not homage, from me. There wasn't much room, but I said in a low voice, “Let's talk this over,” moved away a few feet, and knelt. He bridled, but came over and squatted beside me. I told him that I didn't want to undermine him, that I hadn't meant to sound familiar, and that I was sorry. His jaw muscles were working. He said, “You should be.” Anger stirred in me. Looking back, I see that my motives were less selfless than I thought then. My sympathy for his position, though genuine, was tainted by resentment at taking orders from this little man whose background was no different from mine, by irrational scorn of junior officers who hadn't yet proved themselves, and by the arrogance which combat veterans feel toward all green replacements, especially platoon leaders. At that moment, however, all I saw was that there was bound to be a certain stiffness between us which we would probably work around in time. Then I learned that for Tubby there wasn't much time. He said, “Don't tell me. Show me. I'm going to lead these people over the top, and I want you with me.”
He actually said “over the top.” We didn't talk like that. He must have heard it from his father. World War I soldiers left their trenches to go over the top, over the parapet, into no-man's-land. Then the implication of what he had said hit me. I whispered, “You mean over this wall?” He nodded once, a quick little jerk of his head. He said, “That's where the Japs are. You can't kill them if you can't see them.” I felt numb. I said, “Look, Tubby — Lieutenant — I think —” He snapped, “You're not paid to think. You're paid to take orders.” I considered saying the hell with it. But this was literally a matter of life or imminent death. I tried again, earnestly: “Going up there would be suicide. The First Bat's down there,” I said, pointing. “Give them a chance to turn the Nips' flank and roll up those machine-gun nests.” He growled, “What's the matter with thisbattalion?” I said, “We're pinned down, so the action is on the flanks.” I could see I wasn't convincing him, and I said hoarsely, “Tubby, I know they didn't teach you that at Quantico, but that's how we do it here. You're not on some fucking parade ground. You can't just pump your fist up and down and expect the men to spring up. They won't do it. They won't do it. I've been out here a long time, Tubby. I know.”
He stared at me for a long time, as though waiting for me to blink first. I blinked and blinked again. Letting his voice rise, he said, “You're scared shitless, aren't you?” I nodded emphatically. His voice rose higher. All the guys could hear him now. He said, “That's why I put up bars and you're just an NCO. They could tell the difference between us in O.C. I've got balls and you haven't.” There was just a tremor in his voice, and it dawned on me that he himself was petrified — he was masking his fear with his rudeness to me. But what he said next smothered my compassion. He sneered, and keeping his voice in the same register, he said: “I know your kind, Bub. You think we couldn't hear you back there in the squad bay, masturbating every night? Did you think they'd give a Marine Corps commission to a masturbator? Only thing I couldn't make out was how you dried the come. I figured you had a handkerchief.” I heard a titter from Bubba. I'm sure Bubba had never masturbated. His father, the Alabama preacher in whose steps he hoped to follow, had shown him the way to what he called “Nigra poontang” when he reached adolescence. But I wasn't interested in Bubba's good opinion. What Tubby had done, and it was unforgivable, was make me look ridiculous in the eyes of all my men. He knew that was wrong. They had taught that at Quantico. By mocking me he had contaminated both of us. I thought: Since I am a dog, beware my fangs. He and I were through. He was past saving now. His longevity would be less than a Jap's. No one could lengthen it for him. I've kept telling myself that all these years, but there will always be a tug of guilt.
Rising in one swift motion, he wiped his hands on his sturdy thighs, stood with arms akimbo, and barked: “Men, I know you'd like to stay here. I would myself. But those yellow bastards down the beach are killing your buddies.” He didn't even realize that a combat man's loyalty is confined to those around him, that as far as the Raggedy Ass Marines were concerned the First Battalion might as well have belonged to a separate race. He said, “Our duty lies up there.” He pointed. He went on: “That's what we call a target of opportunity, lads.” He paused, and his pouter-pigeon breast swelled. I wondered if he was trying to imitate Chesty Puller, that legendary Marine hero who is said to have boasted that he would win a Medal of Honor if he had to bring home a seabag full of dog tags. Tubby said, “I'm not going to ask any of you people to do what I don't do. I'm going up first. Your sergeant will —” He checked himself. “It's your sergeant's job to see that every man follows me.” I was still down on one knee, eyes averted, running sand through my fingers. I wanted no part of this. He asked, “Any questions?”
They looked up at him glassily. He hesitated, probably wondering whether he should threaten them with courts-martial. Then he turned and sprang at the seawall. He was too short. He couldn't get a footing. He tried to stick one boondocker in a vine crotch, but the V was too tight. He could only wedge his toe in sideways, and that didn't give him the right leverage. Panting, he tried again and again. He turned to me, his face flushed. He said, “Help me.” He must have hated to ask. I certainly hated his asking. I felt an insane urge to laugh, which I knew would turn into weeping. I looked into his wide eyes and said, “My legs are too shaky.” It was true. He said between his teeth, “I'll take care of you later.” He turned, pointed to Bubba, and said, “You, over here.” Bubba came over and linked his hands. Tubby put in a foot, as if into a stirrup, swung up, rolled atop the wall, and rose till he stood sideways. Both his hands were pointing. His left forefinger was pointed down at us, his right forefinger at the Japs. It was a Frederic Remington painting. He breathed deeply and yelled, “Follow me!”
The men's faces still were turned up, expressionless. Nobody moved. I stood beneath the wall, my arms outstretched, waiting to catch what would be left. At that moment the slugs hit him. It was a Nambu; it stitched him vertically, from forehead to crotch. One moment he was looming above us in that heroic pose; in the next moment red pits blossomed down him, four on his face alone, and a dozen others down his uniform. One was off center; it slammed into the Marine Corps emblem over his heart; the gunner knew his job. Blood had just begun to stream from there, from his face, from his belly, and from his groin, when he collapsed, tottering on the edge and falling and whumping in my arms face up. His features were disappearing beneath a spreading stain, and he was trying to blink the blood out of his eyes. But he could see. He saw me. He choked faintly: “You … you … you …” Then he gagged and he was gone.
I looked away, feeling queasy. My blouse was wet with gore. Mo Crocker and Dusty Rhodes took Tubby from me and gently laid him out. There was no malice in the section. They mourned him as they would have mourned any casualty. They — and I above all — had merely been unwilling to share his folly. It was followed by savage irony. We had scarcely finished trussing him up in a poncho when we heard the sound of cheering to our right. The First Bat had turned the Jap flank. You could just see the bobbing of the camouflaged helmet covers and the moving line of smoke, and you could hear the snuffling of the tanks as their drivers shifted gears. I raged as I had raged over the death of Zepp. It was the sheer futility of it which was unbearable. Then I was diverted, as death in its grisly mercy diverts you, by the necessity of disposing of the corpse. I said to Knocko, “Pass the word to Buck Rogers —” Suddenly I realized that Buck might not still be alive, and that because Tubby had arrived so recently, his name might be unknown at the CP anyhow. Instead, I said, “The new lieutenant is dead. Pass the word to the nearest officer.”
One of the problems at Tarawa was the uniforms. When General Smith said the Marines' armor would be limited to khaki, he was speaking figuratively. The men actually wore new jungle suits, camouflaged green on one side and brown on the other, presumably for use if the Marine Corps found itself fighting in the Sahara Desert. But the designers of the suits had neglected to make them porous. Wearing them was like being wrapped in plastic. The men would have sweated that first night on Betio whatever they wore — they were just ninety miles from the equator — but in those suits they lost pounds, and greeted the dawn gaunt and shrunken. In the early light, they saw that their lines were intact. That heartened them, and led many to conclude that the crisis was past. They were wrong. As the struggle resumed its ferocity, Sherrod heard on all sides the pi-ing of enemy rifles rippling the air and the ratatatata and the brrrp of their machine guns. In five minutes he saw six Marines die. He wrote: “This is worse, far worse than it was yesterday.” The battleship Maryland, with communications restored, radioed Shoup, asking him if he had enough men. He said he didn't and added: “Imperative you land ammunition, water, rations and medical supplies. … Imperative you get all types of ammunition to all landing parties immediately.” The corpsmen ran out of bandages. Shoup ordered them to wade out to the reef and strip dead Marines of first-aid kits that all men carried on their belts. At mid-morning he told Sherrod: “We're in a mighty tough spot.” At 11:00 A.M. he radioed General Julian Smith: “Situation doesn't look good ashore.”
The immediate problem was bringing in reinforcements from the Sixth Marines. They had been waiting in Higgins boats for nearly twenty hours, trying to find a way past or over the reef. The Japs on the stranded amphtracs were still in position, firing seaward now, their .303-caliber copper bullets hitting with remarkable accuracy whenever men on the landing craft peered over their bulkheads. Nambus seemed to be firing on all sides. One was set up on a Jap privy built over the water. The greatest danger, however, came from the hulk of an old freighter to the right of the pier, about seven hundred yards out. From here the enemy could smash the fuel tanks of landing craft, exploding them, and zero in on the Sixth Marines as they jumped out into the water and started trudging in. There were 800 Marines when they started; 450 made it to the beach.
Marines already ashore rocked the freighter with 75-millimeter pack howitzers and 81-millimeter mortars, and dive-bombers from U.S. carriers tried to take it out, but it seemed indestructible. A naval officer on one Higgins boat suggested to debarking men that they keep the boat between them and the hulk, as a shield, but, as the officer recalls, “They told us to follow the plan and retire so other waves could get to help them.” It was at this point that the erratic Betio tide began to rise, threatening the wounded men lying on the reef with drowning. A salvage crew from the transport Sheridan, rescuing them, encountered about thirty-five Marines, unharmed but lacking weapons. The skipper offered to evacuate them. They shook their heads, asking only that the crew “bring back something to fight with.” During the five hours needed to land the First Battalion of the Eighth Marines — the last of the reinforcements — its casualties were greater than those of any battalion reaching shore the day before.
The survivors strengthened Ryan's end of the beachhead. At daybreak, his communication with the fleet reestablished, he had called in a barrage of five-inch shells from a destroyer offshore. With those salvos and fire from two tanks, he recovered the ground that he had yielded the previous afternoon; pushing on, he crossed the airfield and established an anchor on Betio's south shore. This time Shoup learned of Ryan's progress and altered his tactics to exploit it. As Tarawa's tide turned, the tide of the battle was at last turning with it. The freighter hulk was annihilated by concentrated fire. Jim Crowe's mortars and a seemingly invincible tank christened “Colorado” were cracking pillboxes open. Flamethrowers, suddenly plentiful, licked at spider holes and bunkers. One two-story concrete blockhouse, intact despite point-blank fire from a destroyer, was knocked out when a Marine tank crawled up to the entrance and blasted away. Over three hundred charred corpses were later found inside. The western half of Betio was now in American hands. Shoup radioed the fleet: “Casualties many; percentage dead not known: we are winning.”
The Japanese didn't think so. They laid down such heavy howitzer fire on Shoup's left flank, resting on a Burns-Philip Company wharf, that any U.S. advance there was out of the question. The enemy didn't know about the cargoes of equipment, supplies, and plasma coming in over the now-submerged reef, or that another battalion had reached Ryan — the first to stream ashore with few casualties and dry weapons. The Nips' will to resist was as inflexible as ever. As American firepower drove them back and back on the eastern half of the island, their snipers scampered up palm trees or lay among their dead comrades, feigning death until they could leap up and attack Marines whose backs were to them. Monday night they launched three vicious counterattacks against the Marine line, which now lay athwart the entire island. Despite naval gunfire and Marine artillery, some Japs penetrated the American perimeter. Hand-to-hand fighting followed, with Kabars and bayonets. A Marine lieutenant sent back word: “We're killing them as fast as they come at us, but we can't hold much longer. We need reinforcements.” He was told: “We haven't got them to send you. You've got to hold.”
They did; Tuesday morning they counted 325 Jap bodies around their foxholes. At the time it was impolitic to pay the slightest tribute to the enemy, and Nip determination, their refusal to say die, was commonly attributed to “fanaticism.” In retrospect it is indistinguishable from heroism. To call it anything less cheapens the victory, for American valor was necessary to defeat it. There were brave Marines, too, men who didn't commit suicide, as Tubby did, but who knew the risk, decided an objective was worth it, and never looked back. There was Jim Crowe, charging and shouting over his shoulder, “You'll never get the Purple Heart a-laying in those foxholes, men!” There was Lieutenant William “Hawk” Hawkins, who knocked out machine guns by standing in full view of the gunners and firing into pillbox slits, then tossing in grenades to finish off the Nips inside. He was wounded by a mortar burst and told a corpsman: “I came here to kill Japs, not to be evacuated.” Still erect in the terrible heat, Hawk blew up three more pillboxes before a shell killed him. And there was Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman, an officer of engineers who could have left the fighting to the infantry but who chose to attack the enemy's huge headquarters fortress bunker with five of his men. They climbed up the tough, stringy weeds of the slope outside to reach the roof, the highest point on the island. A door opened and a horde of Japanese poured out to drive him off. Bonnyman remained standing for thirty seconds, firing a carbine and then a flamethrower before he fell, mortally wounded. He had held the erupting Nips off just long enough for his men to drop grenades into the strongpoint's ventilation system. When the grenades exploded, more Nips swarmed up. Shells and small-arms fire drove them back. A bulldozer sealed the entry. Gasoline was poured in vents still open and ignited by TNT. The Marines heard the blasts, then screams, then nothing. Inside were nearly two hundred Japanese corpses.
One of them was that of the Jap admiral commanding Betio's defenses. His faith in Tarawa's impregnability had been based on the assumption that if he were attacked, Tokyo would send him warships, warplanes, and more troops. His superiors had assured him that Tarawa would be “a hornet's nest for the Yankees.” He couldn't imagine what had gone wrong. We know now. Because of America's twin-pronged drive, the men and equipment which had been earmarked for him had gone to Bougainville, under assault by the Third Marine Division, and to MacArthur's objectives in New Guinea. Shortly before Bonnyman's feat, the doomed admiral had radioed Tokyo: “Our weapons have been destroyed, and from now on everyone is attempting a final charge. … May Japan exist for ten thousand years!” Leaderless now, the remaining Nips formed for the first of those suicidal banzai charges or took their lives in a sick ritual which would soon be familiar to American assault troops all over the Pacific: lying down, jamming the muzzle of an Arisaka rifle in the mouth, and squeezing the trigger with the big toe. By Tuesday Japanese resistance had collapsed. Except for seventeen Nips who surrendered, all were dead or fugitives, running across the reef to other islands in Tarawa's atoll, where they were soon pursued and shot. Tokyo's commentators eulogized them as “flowers of the Pacific” and quickly turned to other news, as well they might. Tarawa had been a Nipponese disaster. Already Hellcats were landing on Betio's airstrip, named Hawkins Field for Hawk. At 1:10 P.M. Tuesday the battle was officially ended. It had lasted seventy-six hours, and the only dispute about it now was whether the island's bird-shaped fragment of coral was worth the price the Americans had paid.
In Washington's new Pentagon building, officers studied the pictures of dead Marines on Tarawa, debating whether to release them to the press. They decided to do it; it was time, they felt, to shock the home front into understanding the red harvest of combat. The published photographs touched off an uproar. Nimitz received sacks of mail from grieving relatives — a mother wrote, “You killed my son” — and editorials demanded a congressional investigation. The men on Tarawa were puzzled. The photographers had been discreet. No dismembered corpses were shown, no faces with chunks missing, no flies crawling on eyeballs; virtually all the pictures were of bodies in Marine uniforms face down on the beach. Except for those who had known the dead, the pictures were quite ordinary to men who had scraped the remains of buddies off bunker walls or who, while digging foxholes, found their entrenching tools caught in the mouths of dead friends who had been buried in sand by exploding shells.
Time trumpeted the defense of the American tactics: “Last week some 2,000 or 3,000 United States Marines, most of them now dead or wounded, gave the nation a name to stand beside those of … the Alamo, Little Big Horn, and Belleau Wood. The name was Tarawa.” That made everyone on Betio stand tall, but it deserves second thoughts. The Alamo and Little Big Horn were massacres for Americans, and the Fifth and Sixth Marines had been cut to pieces in Belleau Wood. Time's comment may be attributed to a curious principle which seems to guide those who write of titanic battles. The longer the casualty lists — the vaster the investment in blood — the greater the need to justify the slain. Thus the fallen are honored by hallowing the names of the places where they fell; thus writers enshrine in memory the Verduns, the Passchendaeles, the Dunkirks, and the Iwo Jimas, while neglecting decisive struggles in which the loss of life was small. At the turn of the eighteenth century the Duke of Marlborough led ten successful, relatively bloodless, campaigns on the Continent, after which he was hounded into exile by his political enemies. In World War I Douglas Haig butchered the flower of England's youth on the Somme and in Flanders without winning a single victory. He was raised to the peerage and awarded 100,000 pounds by a grateful Parliament. Every American child is taught how Jackson's brigade stood like a stone wall against the waves of Union assault troops at Bull Run, but only the most zealous Civil War votaries know how, husbanding his strength, Jackson flashed up and down the Shenandoah Valley in 1862 with brilliant diversionary tactics, preventing the dispatch of reinforcements to McClellan, who, had he had them, could have taken Richmond. Similarly, in World War II Anzio and Peleliu are apotheosized, though neither contributed to the defeat of Germany and Japan, while the capture of Ulithi, one of the Pacific's finest anchorages, is unsung since the enemy had evacuated it, and Hollandia, MacArthur's greatest triumph in that war, is forgotten because the general's genius outfoxed the Japanese and limited his losses to a handful of GIs.
In the Pacific we received “pony” editions — reduced in size, with no ads — of Time and the New Yorker. The comparison of Tarawa with great battles of the past didn't impress most of us; we saw it for what it was: wartime propaganda designed to boost the morale of subscribers, a sophisticated version of rhapsodies about the Glorious Dead who had Given Their All, making the Supreme Sacrifice. Our sympathies were with those who protested the high casualties. Even so, neither we nor they were prepared to answer the ultimate question: What happens to the dead? Death's shadow falls on every man in combat, but he is, almost without exception, blind to it. If one is brave enough to try facing it, his mind comes to a shattering stop. Hemingway believed he knew what lay ahead: “Nada, nada, nada.” He was in his forties then, however. Youth who haven't reached their twenty-fifth birthday seldom grasp the concept of their own mortality. Like eternity and infinity, it is beyond them. They think: “It will happen to you, and you, and you, but not me.” Indeed, virtually no one can come to terms with his own extinction until the very end, if then. This is especially true of fighting men. The mystery of war enshrouds the deeper mystery of death. And they are in no hurry to solve it. Yet its fascination lurks just outside the perimeter of their consciousness, as it has throughout the history of the human race.
Possibly prehistoric man first became aware of the puzzle when he saw that some sleepers never awoke and that their bodies subsequently underwent unpleasant transformations. We know that man, the only creature to bury his dead, began to do so before 50,000 b.c., and that Stone Age corpses were given food and interred in the fetal position, possibly to prepare them for rebirth, or possibly to shackle them, for a recurring theme in the history of thanatophobia is the belief that the dead may become possessed by evil and thus become a threat to all who are still alive. Over two thousand years before Christ strong stone coffins were pieced together for interments. At the same time, despite the horrors of rotting flesh, survivors were convinced that the dead lived on in one form or another. Two traditions evolved. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have held that souls carry on elsewhere, in sheol, hell, or heaven, and that all will be judged one day; Buddhists, Orphics, Pythagoreans, and Platonists, on the other hand, have believed in reincarnation. Egyptians, among others, went to great lengths to provide cadavers, particularly if they had been powerful in life, with meals and equipment to see them through to the other world. Since we are not dealing with reason, it is unsurprising that few cultures have looked upon death as natural. Usually it has been attributed to a demon. In Etruscan sepulchral art a terrible god called Charon is the slayer; in the Dark Ages the skeletal figure of Death was armed with a dart; Christians believe that Cain, the farmer son of Adam and Eve, committers of the original sin, introduced death into the world. Sinners, all agreed, are dealt with harshly after their demise. Judaism's Last Judgment is largely a vindication of Israel; Arabs, for example, are treated mercilessly in Jewish apocalyptic literature.
The geography of the next world varies from one creed to another. In Athens and Rome a coin was placed on the tongue of the corpse as payment for a dark guide waiting near the grave to lead him over a barrier. In ancient Egypt dead pharaohs flew up to join the sun-god Ra, but later Egyptians discovered the idea of passing across an infernal river on the way to the afterlife, with a fearsome ferryman at the tiller. Ancient Greeks and Romans, following suit, thought their dead crossed the Styx, or the Acheron, carrying with them delicious cakes to give Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the entrance to the hereafter. But since corpses have usually been interred, most peoples have believed that the dead lived somewhere under the earth. In ancient Crete, graves were provided with pottery pipes from above, so that rainwater could slake the corpses' thirst while they awaited passage to the underworld. The Scandinavians envisaged a huge pit, ruled by a dreadful king. Others followed pretty much the same line: the awful sovereign was called the Yama by Buddhists and Hindus; Nergal in Mesopotamia; and Hades in Greece. As epoch succeeded epoch, the inevitability of hell, a joyless, gloomy underworld, became too terrible to contemplate, and the Buddhists, Hindus, Gnostics, and Christians conceived of a way station, a purgatory, where good souls could pay the price for excusable misdeeds before ascending into a divine realm. The form in which the human spirit expressed itself is conceptualized in Saint Paul's use of the Greek word soma, which might be roughly translated as gestalt, and Dante's account, in his Purgatorio, of the trials somata must endure as preparation for paradise.
The twentieth century has extended these threads. The followers of now-forgotten death cults, with their devotion to iconography (Etruscan effigies, early Christian art in the catacombs), would understand, and approve of, Moslems' deification of Mecca, Israel's enshrining of the ashes of those who died in the Holocaust, and Communists who make pilgrimages to the tombs of Marx and Lenin. A majority of mankind, which does not necessarily rule, is still convinced that there must be a life after death. In today's sophisticated cultures, however, there seems to be a silent but concerted effort to hide man's grief for the departed and his apprehension over his own eventual departure, as if both were shameful, or at least in poor taste. Deaths occur in hospitals, where children are “shielded,” or “protected,” from them. Undertakers disguise corpses to make them as lifelike as possible. Heaven, hell, and eventual judgment are rarely mentioned, even by clergymen. Funerals are almost stealthy. Mourning is seldom worn. Graveyards are landscaped, like parks. None of this is helpful to those who must do the dying, which, of course, means, sooner or later, everyone. The mortally ill must still pass through the five final stages of natural death: disbelief, rage, prayers for postponement of the end, depression, and acceptance. Modern society even deprives the dying of their final solace, when those breathing their last want their families gathered around the deathbed.
Violent death, including death on the battlefield, is unsparing on next of kin. The man killed in action cannot observe the five stages, so those who loved him must do it for him, or at least try to. Those who succeed are fortunate, and few. I wrote many letters to the parents of Marines who had died in my section. One came from the mother of an Iowa horticulturist. She was furious with me because I was alive and her son was not. I envied her; she was passing through a strengthening catharsis. Most relatives could not. They repressed their anguish, at great cost to themselves. We on the line did the same. It was bad form to weep long for a fallen buddy. We moved on, each of us inching along the brink of his own extinction, never speaking of what we considered the unspeakable. Today's children are baffled by our acquiescence then in what, to them, appears to have been a monstrous conspiracy against our lives. They are bewildered by those waves of relentless young men who plodded patiently on and on toward Betio's beach while their comrades were keeling over on all sides. They ask: Why? They are convinced that they couldn't do it.
And they are right. The United States was a different country then, with half today's population, a lordly father figure in the White House, and a tightly disciplined society. A counterculture didn't exist, as a word or as a concept. The thought of demonstrating against the war, had it crossed anyone's mind, would have been dismissed as absurd. Standards were rigid; everyone was determined to conform to them because the alternatives were unthinkable. Girls who became pregnant, or boys who cheated on examinations, were expelled from school and cast into outer darkness. Their only hope lay in moving to another part of the country, where they were unknown. Social criteria had to be met, and the Protestant work ethic was very strong. Although the Great Depression was plainly a national disaster, social workers had repeatedly observed that the jobless were suffering from feelings of guilt. “I haven't had a steady job in more than two years,” a man facing eviction told a New York Daily News reporter. “Sometimes I feel like a murderer. What's wrong with me, that I can't protect my children?”
The bastion of social stability was the family. Children were guided, not by radar beams picking up trends and directions from other children, but by gyroscopes built into their superegos at home. Parents had a tremendous influence on them. If adolescents wanted to read pulp magazines, or smoke, or listen to Ben Bernie or the Lucky Strike Hit Parade on the radio, they needed parental permission; if they wanted to see The Philadelphia Story, their fathers decided whether or not it would be bad for their morals; if they made money shoveling snow or cutting lawns, their fathers, again, told them whether they should save it for college, or, if it was to be spent, what they could buy. (Usually it was clothes.) There was no teenage ethos; indeed, “teenage” meant “brushwood used for fences and hedges.” Young people were called “youngsters,” and since the brooding omnipotence of the peer group had not yet arrived, children rarely felt any conflict between their friends and their families. No youngster would dream of discussing familial conflicts with other youngsters. An insult to either parent had to be avenged. The master bedroom, in upper-middle-class homes, was off limits. Fathers had always ruled homes like sultans, but the Depression had increased all family activities over which patresfamilias reigned; a study of over a hundred families in Pittsburgh discovered that a majority had increased family recreation — Ping-Pong, jigsaw puzzles, checkers, bridge, and parlor games, notably Monopoly. There was also plenty of time for the householders, the doughboys of 1918, to explain to their sons the indissoluble relationship between virility and valor.
Sheathed in obedience, reinforced by Marine Corps pride and the conviction that the war was just, the men wearing green camouflaged helmets could outfight the Japanese, and they did it again and again. Home-front America was shocked by Jap kamikazes, but its own sons were capable of similar sacrifices, and not just Marines; the Devastator torpedo bombers who crashed Nip warships at Midway knew they were diving to certain death, and so did Air Corps pilots over Ploesti. Today their sons wonder why. I wonder why. The chasm between generations is one explanation. Perhaps it is the only one. Yet on one level of the subconscious, too deep for me to reach it, I am unsatisfied. So I have nightmares, and so I have returned to the islands to exorcise my inner darkness with the light of understanding.
But not on Tarawa. This visit in the fall of 1978 is my first here; like the journeys to the Philippines and New Guinea, it is useful in re-creating the Pacific war, but since I left none of myself here, there is nothing of me to find. Yet it has one advantage; I come without bias. Leaving the cinder-block hotel after breakfast, I cross from Bairiki to Betio on the 8:15 a.m. ferry. Next to Guadalcanal, Tarawa is the battle natives remember best, and on the opposite shore I question islanders until I find Itaaka Bamiatoa, who was here during the battle and whose capped teeth give him a glittering plastic smile. Bamiatoa, in turn, takes me to Taute Takanoi, a handsome, immaculately groomed native police officer. Takanoi has just what I want: a Land Rover. Idle at the moment — the chief local offense now is drunkenness, and all the local topers are in jail — he agrees to chauffeur us, creeping along at twenty miles per hour, the local speed limit, taking little side trips for my benefit. Because of its isolation, the isle has changed little in a third of a century. There are two stone moles, one of them built by Seabees before they left. Hawkins Field, the battle's prize, no longer exists, and erosion has revealed sunken wrecks which were formerly invisible. It is a balmy, calm day. Under a canopy of coconut trees we pause at the Nano-Lelei supermarket for Australian soft drinks, my treat — nagged by my déjà vécu thirst, I gulp down two — and as we finish them Bamiatoa tells me that the historic beach is within strolling distance. We pass a silvery British Petroleum storage tank, several sago-leaf-thatched huts, and the wreckage of the Saeda Maru, an abandoned Japanese freighter which island women are using as a clothes rack. Then, suddenly, we are on the shore. The scene has appeared in a hundred photographs of Tarawa, but like the Berlin Wall it must be seen to be believed.
The debris of battle is all around us: rusting tanks and amphtracs, artillery pieces twisted into grotesque shapes, coconut bunkers, bent armor plate blackened by flamethrowers, shattered landing craft, concrete pillboxes, and, under the coconut fronds, the Japanese admiral's command post and a cement blockhouse shaped like a double Quonset hut, looking much as it did when Bonnyman stood defiantly on top of it. The blockhouse now serves as a social club for native officials; another bunker nearby has become a meeting hall for Rotarians. Altogether, there are over five hundred fortified positions on Betio, many of them intact. Here and there, stepping on the thousands of cartridge cases underfoot, you can see a Nip coastal gun which was actually pulled out of its mooring by American naval shells. At first glance the famous pier seems largely demolished, but it isn't; beyond its stump, if you peer down, you can see the rest of it under water, submerged by half a lifetime of wave action. Takanoi remarks that the tide is now high. Looking seaward, I realize that the only way I can grasp what the assault was like for those first three waves of Marines is to get my feet wet. Leaving my camera with the policeman, to photograph me, I trudge out and don't reach landing-craft depth until I have gone over a thousand yards. Looking shoreward from that distance, seeing the bunkers and pillboxes, I feel anger roaring in my chest, and I think of the men who fell in the surf, sprawled like priests at high mass. Suddenly the most important thing in the world for me is to leave Betio.
At the ferry slip I find Tony Charlwood, the ordnance wizard. He has finished defusing shells and will return to Belfast and the IRA on tomorrow's plane. As we wait for the boat he talks about the battle here and says bluntly, “It was a bloody crime.” In his opinion even the coming of the white man was tragic for the islands because the natives adopted the worst of the newcomers' ways. Pointing toward a litter of Australian beer cans and discarded filter-tip packs, he says scornfully, “Look at that. The people here have no respect now. And look at that.” I am already looking at it: a monument to the Marine dead defaced by graffiti. But perhaps the memorial deserves no better, for as we read it together we see that it is clearly self-serving. “Tarawa,” the plaque reads, “was the testing ground for Marine amphibious doctrine and techniques. It paved the way for the island campaigning that followed and provided answers that saved thousands of American lives along the road to victory in the Pacific.” Tony turns away. He mutters, “That's what the British said about Dieppe.”
Now Nimitz's central Pacific drive, like MacArthur's in the southwest Pacific, began to pick up speed. MacArthur had left Rabaul to rot and was in the Admiralty Islands. Meanwhile, less than three months after Betio, GIs of the Seventh Division and Marines in the newly formed Fourth Marine Division had taken Kwajalein Atoll, next on Nimitz's hit list, 718 miles beyond Tarawa. Eleven days after that they plunged ashore on Eniwetok Atoll, another 575 miles closer to Tokyo. These islands shared with Betio one advantage for attackers: no high ground. If one assumes that the men at Betio had to serve as guinea pigs — that admirals could learn only through blunders — then these relatively bloodless assaults were a partial justification of Tarawa. Battleships and cruisers coordinated their salvos with the landing timetable; there were more amphtracs, carrying heavier armor; and carrier pilots took out the great Jap base at Truk in the nearby Caroline archipelago, destroying two hundred enemy planes and sinking forty-two ships. Unfortunately, as we shall see, Tarawa was not the last botched landing.
Approached by air, Kwajalein, or “Kwaj,” as it is now known, resembles every other atoll: low, flat, and verdant, with a tan prayer rug of a beach. This is one of the loneliest parts of the world. The 1,335 square miles of Micronesia, half the size of Rhode Island — including the Gilberts, Palaus, Carolines, Marshalls, and Marianas — comprise 2,141 islands, of which only 96 are populated. The natives on all of them would fit in the Rose Bowl. Typically, there is no heavy surf at Kwaj; the beach is a strip of unvexed sand behind which pandanus, royal palms, and Samoan palms conceal the community inland. As we fasten our seat belts and I knock out my pipe, I see all of Kwaj below, serpentine and green in the placid dark blue water, supreme and magnificent. The plane touches down beside a sign: bucholz army field. All around the enormous airport are the varied pleasures of a remote U.S. military base: TV aerials, a movie theater, tennis courts, golf courses, swimming pools, bicycle racks — the twenty-eight hundred people on Kwaj own five thousand bikes — and a tax-free supermarket.
Consternation greets my arrival. Civilian planes are allowed to refuel here, but passengers may not wander off the runway. This rule, when written, was understandable; the Pentagon built a billion-dollar missile base here, and real military secrets cannot be reasonably challenged. I am an exception to the rule, however; I carry papers from the Department of Defense permitting me to roam. These are carefully examined. Officers huddle by the control tower and come up with a bureaucratic solution: twenty copies of my orders are Xeroxed, so everyone is covered. But they are still uneasy, and I am puzzled; the most sensitive missile equipment, I have been told, has been moved elsewhere. Then I come upon a likelier explanation for their touchiness.
It is the outrageous discrepancy between conditions on Kwaj and those on Ebeye, a much smaller island in the atoll, less than a mile long and nowhere more than 650 feet wide, where nine thousand native laborers live, six and seven to a room, in rat-infested shacks. The men are unskilled or semiskilled workers earning $2.10 to $2.40 an hour, and their wives are paid $5 to $6 a day as maids. Each morning all are boated to Kwaj and at the end of the day they are boated back. They may not stay on the main island overnight or shop in the supermarket there, though powdered milk, which must be imported, costs $4 a box on Kwaj and $10 on Ebeye. They cannot send their children to Kwaj's high school. Nor can they swim in its pools, eat in its restaurants, see its movies, use its hospital and dental facilities, or even borrow books from its library. This is what is called a Trust Territory of the United States. In an aside an American official tells me, “I hope the UN never hears about Ebeye.” I reply that if it doesn't it won't be my fault. That night, I know, the Sergeant in my dream will be bitter.
Kwaj is depressing. On all sides are radar domes, sinister square towers, and curious contraptions fashioned of steel tubing which project antennae at awkward angles. Until recently, strategists in what are euphemistically called war games fired nuclear rockets from here, knocking down other rockets coming from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, five thousand miles away. Today Kwaj's great radar systems, with walls thick enough to absorb atomic blasts, have become empty monuments to advancing technology. If they are obsolete, what can be said of the weapons in mywar? In the opinion of military historians, the decisive tactical innovation of World War II was the amphibious landing, developed by the Marine Corps in response to a 1927 directive from the Joint Army-Navy Board. Its doctrines were used successfully, not only in the Pacific, but in Morocco, Algeria, Sicily, Italy, Normandy, and southern France. Today, however, in a major war, landing operations would be as useless as flintlocks. This is hardly cause for sentimental regret, but when a man reaches his late fifties almost any change empties him a little. It is disconcerting to feel quaint.
After the conquest of the atolls, Nimitz, still driving hard, took dead aim on the Mariana Islands, a thousand miles closer to Tokyo. First would come the turn of Saipan, to be attacked nine days after D-day in Normandy, and then Tinian. Saipan would be our first battlefield to be inhabited by a large number of Japanese civilians who, since the Versailles treaty gave the island to Tokyo, had established a substantial colonial presence among the Chamorro natives. Next we would take Guam, the only American possession to have been seized by the enemy in the great offensive that followed Pearl Harbor. Guam had a good image; the Chamorros there liked us, and we knew it. Saipan — where I would almost bleed to death later in a receiving hospital — was less popular. “Men,” a sergeant told his people aboard ship before our invasion of the island, “Saipan is covered with dense jungle, quicksand, steep hills and cliffs hiding batteries of huge coastal guns, and strongholds of reinforced concrete. Insects bear lethal poisons. Crocodiles and snakes infest the streams. The waters around it are thick with sharks. The population will be hostile toward us.” There was a long silence. Then a corporal said, “Sarge, why don't we just let the Japs keep it?”