I was from Minneapolis, Minnesota when, because of counsel from my father, I joined the Navy at the age of 22. My father had been a Marine in World War I, and he advised my brother and me to choose a branch of the service other than the Marines to promote the chances of our surviving combat. While my brother joined the US Army Air Force, I joined the Navy and went to boot camp in San Diego.  Because I wanted to serve my country in more or less the same way as my father had, I asked to train as a gunner’s mate, but instead, the Navy put me in the Medical Corps.  
For close to one year, I was in the Navy, but I finally had the chance to transfer into the Marines.  As things happened, I was 23 when we went ashore at Betio, and now at 90 it is amazing just how much I still remember of that hell at Tarawa as a Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class in D Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment of the 2nd Marine Division.
The story of how I went to Tarawa, though, really begins with a brief comment about my father:  he was in the 4th Marine Brigade of the 2nd Division of the US Army at the World War I Battle of Belleau Wood near Paris (01 – 26 June 1918).  Described by H.G. Wells as “The War To End War,” World War I ended with “the Peace to end Peace,” as Field Marshall Earl Wavell ironically noted at the time. I was born roughly one year after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles terminating hostilities between Kaiser Wilhelm II’s German Reich and the Allied Powers.  Yet, partially because of the nature of that treaty, only twenty years and two months later World War II began, leading eventually to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 07 December 1941, and Operation Galvanic with the U.S. Marine 2nd Division’s amphibious  assault of Tarawa.
My unit travelled from New Zealand on the converted liner USS Harry Lee (APA-10), arriving off Betio in the dark, early morning hours of 20 November 1943.  
USS Harry Lee  (APA 10)
For some reason, I remember some of us guys referring to the USS Harry Lee as the “Listing Lee,” and every bit of levity we could come up with was essential because we knew that entry into any combat zone could be very bad for us.    For my part, I remember those few hours before the assault began as a time when I checked my equipment, prayed a lot and tried to offer comfort to some of the younger guys.
I was in a group of about twelve guys in my unit in the 2nd wave to Red Beach #2 on D-Day.  We arrived at just about 1130. While the first two waves of amtracs managed to get ashore, most of those vehicles were put out of action by Japanese fire.  That meant my unit used a Higgins boat, but we got hung got up on the reef about 500 yards from shore.   That left us with one option:  wading ashore for 500 yards through a devastating hail of bullets coming seemingly from all directions ahead of us.  All the equipment I had for myself consisted of a carbine I had confiscated somewhere and my medical supplies.  
Hurrying to get out of the landing craft, I landed in a shell hole next to the reef and lost my helmet.   We knew we were well-trained and quite anxious in some ways for our first landing, but wading helplessly into enemy fire hearing screaming and rounds smacking into the flesh of my buddies brought out animal instincts where you felt like killing anything you could.
All the while, I wondered whether I would ever reach the beach or, if I did, whether I would be alive when I got there.  Thoughts like that never leave, not even to this day some 67 years later!  I still have dreams of Tarawa events all these years later.   Those dreams come more frequently because of the sheer sustained intensity of the action at Tarawa, unlike the situation at other battles where a guy might be able to ‘enjoy’ some lulls in the action.
Once I got to the beach, all I could see was complete horror, more so than in any of my next three battles:  Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa.  Of the 12 guys I came to shore with at Tarawa, most were killed en route to the beach. Noise and smoke and the stench of bloated casualties were all about me.  I got to the seawall, and to this day it amazes me how close to the wall I managed to get trying to avoid being picked off by Japanese snipers.  So much of being able to stay alive really boiled down to how much luck a guy might have.  I just tried to do my best, keeping the lowest profile I could and hoping that if my luck ran out, well … my luck would just run out.
Then as now, I remember being told that the Navy had obliterated the island, and we were being sent in just to mop up, regroup and then return to our transports to head some 300 miles northwest to the Marshall Islands for an assault there.  Did that ever change!  
Very quickly we realized we were in for big trouble!  We learned we had no backup, and so much of what we ran into on Betio changed from small unit action to hand-to-hand combat.  We were getting hammered hard.  I couldn’t imagine then -  and I still have trouble with this – how there could be such a horrible place as Betio and how our country could even think of sending us there.
By the time we secured Betio, I was over by the 8” coastal defense gun on the southwest tip of Betio.  I remember seeing the flag-raising ceremony, with both the American and British flags hoisted.   Of the original 12 men I had come ashore with, none of them were with me at this point.  I made my way back to the north / lagoon shore and was taken out to the USS William P. Biddle (APA-8) for the ride back to the Big Island of Hawaii and, eventually, to Camp Tarawa for recuperation, new equipment and training.  
USS William P. Biddle  (APA 8)
We went through a real meat grinder for nearly all of the 76 hours of what many call “Bloody Tarawa.”  Those of us who survived and could still think knew we had been terribly brutalized.  We were mentally and physically exhausted, and somehow we beat the law of averages.  So many were killed, and I lost many good friends.  It is hard … No, it is impossible to describe in just a few words how we existed and survived the physical horror and the brutal reality of Tarawa.  Somehow after 76 hours of absolute hell, some of us have lived to tell at least part of the story.
My injuries from Tarawa were comparatively minor.  I took some shrapnel, which is still in me to this day.  And I was badly sunburned.  Much of my skin was black, and my lips were split.  I was a rotten stinking bloody mess.  My mind was a blur.  We all smelled of death so bad that when we returned to the Biddle, some of the sailors upchucked.  We were ordered to get rid of our clothes and hit the showers, and then we were issued clean Navy dungarees.
Prior to combat on Tarawa, I had been involved in the last two months of the Battle of Guadalcanal.  After Tarawa, I worked as a corpsman on Saipan (where I was promoted to Pharmacist’s Mate First Class); Tinian; and Okinawa, where I was with the Navy working still as a medic on an LST.
By the time the war was over, so many of my memories came home with me as souvenirs, and I still have all of them.  Actual medals, though, were the Purple Heart; Navy Good Conduct; the American Campaign medal; the World War 2 Victory medal; the Asiatic Pacific medal; a Navy Occupation medal; and the Presidential Unit Citation for service at Tarawa; and much later, the Combat Action Ribbon.
Major General Holland M. Smith said it all about Tarawa:  “It seems almost beyond the realm of human possibility that this place could have been taken.”  Even the Japanese commander at Tarawa at the time of the battle, Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki, boasted, “A million Americans couldn’t take Tarawa in a hundred years.”  This expression of confidence was most likely meant to boost the fighting spirit of his troops, but after 76 hours of grim combat U.S. Marines defeated the Japanese in their defense of the 291-acre Tarawa. Personally, I think the outcome might have been different at Tarawa if its defense had been handled by an Army general who would have probably employed different ordnance and tactics.  But we’ll never know.  
As for Camp Tarawa, I would never have thought you could freeze your butt off in Hawaii!  The camp was located on high terrain near Mauna Kea, so the upside of being there was that the cooler weather suited us malaria victims.   I remember a lot of Japanese people living in the area around Camp Tarawa, so we had some lessons to learn.  Born from our experience at Pearl Harbor and the way they maltreated so many people in places they occupied, we had acquired a natural hatred of the Japanese and anything associated with them, but those views eventually cooled somewhat at Camp Tarawa.  I sure wouldn’t go along with the idea that Camp Tarawa was a nice vacationland.  It did serve a good purpose, though, in letting us rest and get ready for the Battle of Saipan.
I was recently selected to speak at a Dr. Harold C. Deutsch World War II History Round Table at Fort Snelling in Minneapolis.  This is the speech I wrote up.  It was recorded and filmed by the American Legion.  
Bernerd  “Bud”  Benoit,  D-1-2
The island the Japanese boasted, “It would take a million men to conquer” helplessly walking into a hail of bullets where each step forward made you a better target and your only protection was good luck.  You’re witnessing better equipment, but that doesn’t change the fact that war is as crude and savage as ever.  This was perhaps the bloodiest beachhead in the Pacific.  True, more men were killed in other battles, but not so quickly on such a tiny island as Betio.  Here, 6,000 men died and 2,200 men were wounded in 76 hours … some said it was WW II’s most unnecessary battle, but 1,000 some graves and us survivors take objection to that.  We were danged proud that America thought us good enough to wade into 5,000 of their hand-picked troops bunkered in behind hundreds of pill boxes having waited a year for us to attack, then against those odds, hand their Imperial Marines the first defeat in their history … some said it should have been bypassed because we had no backup, but hey!!!  Us guys were told it was a walk in the park.  Simply sweep through, form up and head for the Marshalls.  History tells us 70 hours later we were still wondering … then too, the Japs knew we’d never bypass an island with a landing strip … there had to be a Tarawa some place.  We had no experience in hitting a defended beach.  Future landings proved we learned it there.  Here we developed the flamethrower that saved countless lives.  It didn’t have to burn out the occupants; it would suck out all their oxygen, too.  It beat the heck out of rifles, grenades and true grit.
Picture this small sand spit that measured about two miles long and a small portion 800 yards wide.  In other words, Tiger Woods could drive most of it in two shots.  Surrounded by four foot sea walls bristling with machine guns and hellish weapons, dual-purpose anti-boat guns backed up by 5 and 8 inch coastal batteries from Singapore circled by boat and tank traps … all this if you got past the coral reef – 500  yards out.  It was only six to eight feet above sea level.  Privies had to be built over the ocean.  Burial was a problem, so between removal of bodies and those the sea claimed, many people are still trying to find where their loved one’s final resting place is to this day.
There is no way a person can describe this concentrated carnage unless you’ve had the experience since you have had nothing to do with the planning.  Without organization it becomes your own private war from your own viewpoint and your own thoughts and what you remember.  The Good Lord erases things from the mind helping you to bounce back to normal life.  Watching the shelling and bombing you’d think no one could survive, but when we headed for the landing nets, the island started to talk back.  A couple of close rounds caused us to up anchor and get out of range.  We were attacking into the sun; even John Wayne knows better than that!  Now we found the tide was not in our favor and our Higgins boats were hanging up on the reef.  I heard a loud bang and saw a boat vanish.  It was just gone!  And hats off to the Navy for two destroyers covering us close.  They could see over the sea wall, got the enemy’s range and popped him.  That anti-boat gun had us zeroed in point blank, making us sitting ducks.  Incidentally, those tin cans were both hit and held their ground when they were sure needed.
Our boat hit the reef some 500 yards out.  I landed in five feet of water.  Those with heavier loads never came up.  Bullets were zipping all around us; we headed for a pier that jutted out 400 yards.  When we got there the sea was red.  Our Marine were floating all around and now I was walking on them under water.  I wondered if anyone had made the shore and who I’d meet if I got there.  I was following Treadway, when suddenly all that was in his body was hanging out his back.  Ole tough ass tried to struggle in and slipped under.  Finally, I had ground under me in among the dead and dying.  In complete confusion, the pure horror of wading into bullets had knocked all decency out of us, making us like animals.  The enemy had done their jobs well; they’d shot out all our battle plans, leaving small pockets of leaderless strangers, but at least we were on land knowing we had to knock out some of their guns so reinforcements could get in. If we didn’t, all hope would be gone.  Shore-to-ship reported mission in doubt. It looked like mission impossible to me.  
All nations including Americans have surrendered, but not the Japanese.  There is no tougher foe than one who plans and seems anxious to die for his emperor, while your plans are just to get home with one hole in your hinder. Someone yelled, “To stay here is to die” and led us over the sea wall into the first shell holes. For some reason, though, he skirted them and they about tore him in half.  Looking across, a Marine was sitting with his guts in his hands; next to me was a glary-eyed guy.  I wondered if I looked that way, and then I saw some brains hanging behind his ear.  The beach had taken nearly all my supplies, so I patted his belly together and used his skivvies for a bandage, wet-packed the brains.  He didn’t seem to know he was hit.  I told them to stay there and someone would get them, they thanked me.  We all looked the same, so I suppose they didn’t know I was a Corpsman.  The next guy looked up, grunted and slid back - dead.   They were sweeping the island about hip high.  We realized success depended on heroic acts and sheer courage by individuals and everyone was doing it, without knowing it.
Here was a place where fatally wounded men refused to die until something they wanted to do was done.  Medical science would not believe men could move much less fight with their backs open and their bellies out.  Just like us hunters know, a deer can run 50 yards just on nerves with his heart shot out.  Someone hollered, “Dig in!”  The night was ripe for their banzai charge.  We knew we couldn’t stop them, but we might slow them down, long enough so some more reinforcements could get in.  
Finally they made a mistake.  Where they could have crushed us easily, they failed to charge.   Another sunrise felt good. Even though our beachhead was small, they were killing as many if not more than on D-Day.  Behind us we now heard more of our guns and were seeing some dead Japs.  In the next hole, I found a guy with his jaw shot off and was surprised how long his tongue was, hanging down covered with sand.  I helped him to a makeshift aid station and noticed the tide had taken most of our dead out to sea.  Heard later they were floating out past the transports and small boats were collecting dog tags and weighting the bodies down so they would sink.
Returning, I ran into a familiar face, my pal Gunny Sgt Reber, a dyed-in-the-wool Marine.  He said, “Ben, we’re making history.”  His face was all bloody, but I found the blood was not his.  I had to watch the great guy die later on Saipan.  We were pinned down in one hole when a Jap tank rumbled up, lowered his gun and waved it back and forth.  Of course everybody froze; he must have thought we were dead or his gun might have jammed because he just left.  While we were catching our breaths, a grenade rolled in and a Marine rolled on top of it.  He was blown all over us.  I took his dog tags and turned him in for a Medal of Honor.  They asked me if I knew anyone to substantiate it, and I said, “Nope.”  I didn’t even know the guy who saved our lives.  Responding to a call, I found a Marine shot below the knee.  It looked like one of the bones was smashed, so I figured to use his rifle for a splint when a big Jap charged yelling, “Marine, you die!”  He should have used his rifle instead of his mouth, cuz I shot him while he was hollering.  Then you get another feeling: when bullets are flying, killing is not so personal.  Most men are not faced with the one-on-one situation.  Though it’s your job, you won’t forget looking at your dead victim.
At that time, your thought is he could be looking at you.  The stench was unbearable as bodies of friend and foe bloated and burst.  The equatorial sun broiled and shrunk muscles so arms and legs would rise.  The battle was too intense for burial, don’t know how they did it, they’d bust if you moved them.  I stunk bad from others’ blood and body parts.  The only supplies I had left was sulfanilamide, but with the rotten conditions there were no infections.  The transports were heaven to us.  It must have been hell to the sailors on the verge of vomiting at our putrid death smell.  The skipper of the USS Biddle deep-sixed our clothes, ran us thru showers, dressed us in Navy dungarees, fed us ice cream and the Good Lord let our ordeal fade like a nightmare.  I went on with my division to the Battles of Saipan and Tinian, but I never again experienced the shock and terrifying feelings of Tarawa.
Bud, thank you for your service.  We are in debt to you and your vivid recall of the resolute efforts of Marines at Tarawa.  Through your eyes, see can better appreciate and remember what you men went through 67 years ago.  We will remember.
Received 18 November 2010
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