ailing away from New Zealand was just as painful as the departure from San Diego. Now Wellington was home. The Scuttlebutt News Factory was operating full blast and we believed every new rumor about our destination. The Philippines and Wake Islands were at the top of the list of possible targets.
We anchored near Efate in the New Hebrides and made some more screwed-up practice landings. I got to miss a couple of these fiascos because I was designated the battalion delegate for a crash course on poison gas. There were rumors that the Japs were planning to use gas. Most troops had discarded or traded away the cumbersome gas masks, so now we were to be taught how to minimize casualties if a gas attack occurred. Delegates were to return to their outfits and pass all this information along to the rest of the troops. I don't think anyone took any of this very seriously. If the enemy used gas, we'd be dead ducks. Huddling under a poncho and breathing with our noses in a scooped-out hole in the ground wasn't going to save us. One memorable gem of information passed on to us for transfer back to our outfits: "After exposure to gas, flush out your eyes with a sterile liquid. If no clean water is available, use urine." Doesn't that conjure up an interesting scene? A bunch of Marines staggering around pissing in each others faces?
I was the lowest-ranked person in the group. There was one captain, a few lieutenants, and most of the rest were staff NCO's. I remember that one of the lieutenants was Louis Hayward. I didn't know he was a celebrity until someone told me that this guy next to me was married to Ida Lupino. As I recall, this didn't make any great impression on me. He was just as apprehensive as the rest of us and being married to a movie star didn't give him any particular edge. He was on the same vulnerable boat as we were.
We made our assault on Tarawa, November 19, 1943. I have a reluctance to describe this landing... or the time I spent on this atoll. I suppose I don't want to recall and record a vision of hell.
After that damn Navy traditional breakfast of beans, we mustered on deck and got prepared to climb down the nets into the Higgins boats. Our Instrument section was assigned to load up with an infantry company and land with them in the second wave. It was still dark and our only glimpse of the island was during the flashes of the shells from the naval barrage. When daylight came we could see the first wave boats doing their "circle ballet" around the transports. Finally they assembled into a line and headed for the beach. We cheered as we lined up along the railings. We were confident that this would be an easy landing. It was inconceivable that anyone could have survived all that naval shelling. (Tarawa was also supposed to be bombed by MacArthur's Air Force, but "Dougout Doug" decided that he wasn't going to risk some bad weather just to help out some sailors and Marines. He ordered his planes to turn back.)
We were prepared to crawl down the nets and swoop in with the second wave but the order was never given. Now we were getting reports that the first wave was almost wiped out. Naval shelling started up again and we were ordered below deck again. This seemed ominous. Were we going to pull out and leave those surviving Marines to fend for themselves?
We finally mustered back up topside and into the Higgins boats. I've been able to blot out most of the memory of that long ride to the beach. I remember wading ashore in waist-high water and having to push my way through the floating bodies of dead Marines. We made it to a narrow strip of sand under a coral break-water. My automatic drive kicked in again so I was able to try to organize a survey for gun positions, but where the hell could twelve howitzers be landed on that narrow strip of sand which was covered by dead, wounded, and dying men? I recall feeling that we were actually in the way of the frantic rifle squads who were trying to make a break-through and get off that tiny, bloody, noxious beachhead. Our radioman was finally able to establish contact with a cruiser, and we were told to abort any survey operations and were designated as forward observers for the naval shelling.
These naval barrages weren't very effective. The flat trajectory of the ship's guns didn't really do much damage. The shells pulverized the coral and shredded the palm trees, but the Japanese were well dug in. They had constructed underground bunkers of concrete and palm logs that were impervious to anything but a direct hit. What we needed were some bombs dropped on the more vulnerable roofs of these forts. MacArthur could have saved the lives of hundreds of Marines if he would have been willing to risk the lives of a few bomber crews.
The final victory was not due to naval firepower but to the incredible bravery of those infantrymen who crawled up under machine-gun fire and tossed hand grenades into the gun-slots of the Japanese positions.
This once beautiful little atoll looked and smelled like what I imagine hell must be. This was my shortest, and my worst, campaign. I was only there for two weeks, but I saw more death and destruction in those few days than I ever experienced again. I often wonder about the innocent, peaceful natives who watched their beautiful homeland being pulverized by so-called "World Powers" just because it offered a strategic location for an airfield. After the war ended, did we offer them any reparations? Did we try to restore what we destroyed? Did we even offer them an apology?
Betio was declared "secured" four days after our disastrous landing but many Japanese had escaped and retreated up the atoll to the last little islet. Most of the 2nd Division was relieved by an army outfit and sent back out to the troop transports but one company was left behind and given the task of sweeping up the atoll to kill or capture the Jap holdouts. We got assigned to support this outfit and they suffered many casualties from the Jap suicide snipers hidden in the palm trees.
Tarawa is an "L-shaped" atoll. Betio, the largest island, is located at the corner of the "L". At low tide, you can wade between the dozens of other little islets. We followed the infantry most of the way to the end of the atoll where there was a leper camp. We five members of the H&S Instrument Section were ordered to set up base on a little coral outcrop near the tip of the long leg of the atoll. We had nothing to do so we just basked in the sun, swam in the warm lagoon, and tried to forget the horrors we had just experienced. We spent Thanksgiving Day, 1943, on our little island "paradise". We did get a turkey dinner, though. The Navy was doing its best to help their Marines ashore and sent landing boats up the length of the atoll all loaded with hot chow. We even got ice cream.
Early in December we were finally loaded aboard a transport and set sail to try and catch up with our division, which had left almost ten days before. Again we hoped we were headed back to San Diego, but we soon got the news that we were going to establish a 2nd Division camp on the "Big Island", Hawaii. We arrived at the docks in Hilo about the 10th of December.