“Another young Marine walked briskly along the beach. He grinned at a pal who was sitting next to me. Again there was a shot. The Marine spun all the way around and fell to the ground, dead. “
This was the recollection of Robert Sherrod (above), an American journalist, editor and author. Sherrod covered the war in the Pacific as a war correspondent for Time and Life magazines. He was embedded with United States Marine Corps units during combat on Attu, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Sherrod wrote five books on World War II, one of which was “Tarawa – the Story of a Battle” (1944) In the following short excerpt written on today’s date of November 20, in 1943, he gives a slice of what life could be like in a Marine Amphibious operation, and how the dividing line between life and death in such a setting could be so very thin both for the hunter and for the hunted and how the end for each could be not only macabre but terrible.
“Somebody go get the son-of-a-bitch!”
“From where he lay, a few feet away, he looked up at us. Because he had been shot squarely through the temple his eyes bulged out wide, as in horrible surprise at what had happened to him, though it was impossible that he could ever have known what hit him.
“‘Somebody go get the son-of-a-bitch,’ yelled Major Crowe. ‘He’s right back of us here, just waiting for somebody to pass by.’ That Jap sniper, we knew from the crack of his rifle, was very close.
“A Marine jumped over the sea wall and began throwing blocks of fused TNT into a coconut-log pillbox about fifteen feet back of the sea wall against which we sat. Two more Marines scaled the sea wall, one of them carrying a twin-cylindered tank strapped to his shoulders, the other holding the nozzle of the flame-thrower. As another charge of TNT boomed inside the pillbox, causing smoke and dust to billow out, a khaki-clad figure ran out of the side entrance. The flame-thrower, waiting for him, caught him in its withering stream of intense fire. As soon as it touched him, the Jap flared up like a piece of celluloid. He was dead instantly but the bullets in his cartridge belt exploded for a full sixty seconds after had been charred almost to nothingness.”
Tarawa, the largest of the Gilbert Islands was eventually taken by the United States Marine Corps by November 23, 1943. But the price had been terrible. Nobody had expected the Japanese to put up such resistance for Tarawa. But the landing craft were caught on the coral reef surrounding the island, and the defenders had managed to withstand a full week of bombing, and several hours of naval bombardment in their sand-covered concrete bunkers. The result was 911 Marines were killed and over 2300 were wounded. But vital lessons had been learned in the taking of Tarawa. The length of bombardment was increased to two MONTHS, for example, and the right type of landing craft were used. Thus, when the Marines invaded Kwajalein, northwest of Tarawa in February, the casualties among Marines were 1/3 of what they had been on Tarawa.
Out of more than 3500 Japanese defending Tarawa, one officer and 16 soldiers survived.
“Eyewitness to History” Edited by John Carey, Avon Books, New York, 1987
“The American Heritage Picture History of World War II” by C.L. Sulzberger. American Heritage Publishing Co. Inc., 1966