At 20, I joined the U.S. Marines from my hometown in Columbus, Ohio.  By age 21, I was a Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class (PhM 2/C) in C Company, 2nd Medical Battalion in the 2nd Marine Division, and I was at Tarawa.
The USS Sheridan (APA-51) was the transport that brought my unit to Tarawa. 
USS Sheridan (APA-51), as John knew her
San Francisco Bay, California, September 1943
Courtesy:  US National Archives and
Generally, we were in Task Group 53.1 Transport Group, but specifically we were in Task Unit 53.1.2, along with other transports such as the Monrovia (APA-31); Doyen (APA-1); Ashland (LSD-1); Virgo (AKA-20); and La Salle (AP-102).
We left the Aotea Quay in Wellington, New Zealand on 01 November 1943 …
escription: WELLY DOCKS late Oct 1943
Wellington docks, loading for Tarawa  (Courtesy:  Kim Harrison)
Wellington, 2012
On a north-northwest heading for about 1,500 nautical miles, we arrived at Havannah Harbor, up on the northwest coast of Efate Island in the New Hebrides.  This group of islands is located about 600 miles west of Fiji.  From a colonial status (joint control by Britain and France), the people of the New Hebrides voted in 1980 to form themselves into a  culturally diverse parliamentary democracy named the Republic of Vanuatu.
Why were we at Efate?  Why were we at Havannah Harbor?  
Basically, our stop served at least three purposes:  waiting for more vessels to join our convoy; practicing more amphibious landings at Mele Bay (on Efate's southwest coast) while waiting for those additional vessels; and refueling Sheridan and resupplying the troops on board.
For at least 18 months prior to our arrival at Havannah Harbor, the US Army and, eventually, US Navy Seabees had been constructing port and airfield facilities at Havannah Harbor. Initiated by the 101st Engineer Regiment of the US Army's Americal Division and completed by the US Navy Seabees, this work gave the US Navy a support base that increasingly enabled the implementation of the Navy's warfare strategy in the South and Western Pacific.  The first tough test of this build up was the Navy's costly but ultimately successful performance in the Battle of the Coral Sea in early May of 1942.
Cronin, Francis. Under The Southern Cross: The Saga of the Americal Division.  Boston: Americal Division Veterans Association, 1978. 15-16, 31-32.
The following passage from the HISTORY OF USS SHERIDAN (APA 51) corroborates John’s report about the presence of Monrovia at Havannah Harbor … 
“SHERIDAN arrived in Noumea, New Caledonia on 18 October 1943, debarked her troops, and commenced unloading her cargo.  She sailed to Lamberton Harbor, Wellington, New Zealand on 21st, and on 1 November, sailed for Havannah Harbor, Efate Island, New Hebrides in company with the battleship USS MARYLAND and attack transport USS MONROVIA.”
History of USS Sheridan (APA 51). Division of Naval History, Ships’ Histories Section, Navy Department, 1952. <>.
A WWII US Navy Seabee map of Efate Island, New Hebrides
Havannah Harbor, Efate Island
Havannah Harbor and Mele Bay were such a paradise for us!   These photographs bring back good memories, except back in November 1943, these harbors were fairly full of US Navy warships.  These images of paradise, when contrasted with the hell we ran into at our next still-unannounced destination, just boggle the mind. That was the case some 70 years ago; that still is the case.
Mele Bay, Efate, New Hebrides (now, Republic of Vanuatu)
After a few days at Efate, we got underway again.  There was some scuttlebutt that we were headed to Wake Island, some 2,200 nautical miles to the north of Efate and some 2,000 nautical miles to the west of Honolulu.  This made a lot of sense to many of us, in that an amphibious assault there would avenge the loss of that island to the Japanese nearly two years previously … the day after their attack on Pearl Harbor.
However, several days out of Efate, we were told that Tarawa and Abemama Atolls in the Gilbert Islands were our destinations.  We had briefings about their locations and about what we could expect there.  We were told that before we got there, intense and sustained aerial and naval bombardment would have been finished, effectively reducing those places to rubble and destruction that nobody could survive.
Well, it didn’t work out that way, but more on that later. 
Life at sea settled into regular routines.  The Navy food was pretty good.  Many of us slept in canvas bunks stacked six high.  Quarters were very close.  Almost daily, we had one or two times out on deck for PT exercises.  We all had lots of time to go over our gear to make sure our equipment and ourselves were ready for upcoming events.  As for us corpsmen, there wasn't much we could do to make sure our .45 pistols worked properly and dependably (we had carbines at Saipan).  For about two weeks, for close to 1,200 miles after Efate Island, these were the sort of routine experiences we had as our convoy headed inexorably north-northeast to Tarawa.
As for me, whenever I could, I would go topside and get some fresh air and enjoy the slow rolling movement of our transport and survey the waters around our convoy.  Several times I watched some beautiful sunsets.  Any time I could do that, it was better for me than being down in cramped quarters below deck.  
A representative photograph of a US Navy convoy in WW II
So, where are Tarawa and Abemama Atolls located?
Tarawa Atoll and its general location in the Central Pacific
We arrived off Tarawa early in the morning of 20 November 1943. That night in the dark before the assault, I spent a fair bit of time up on deck standing behind a vent. I often did this to get fresh air and, on this particular night, I wanted to see the action from the very beginning.  The shelling of Betio by US Navy ships was impressive, noisy and colorful in the darkness before the dawn.  The sunrise that morning I still remember so well -- the sky was so red and full of smoke because of the fires caused by the naval bombardment.  
My unit and I did not go ashore on D-Day, and for that I am personally very grateful.  The carnage was awful and non-stop.  What turned out to be a 76-hour battle had an intensity that has rarely, if ever, been matched in Marine Corps history. 
Some estimates put the total killed at over 5,600 and over 2,000 Marine Corps wounded, with one fatality every 48.3 seconds and one casualty (KIA + WIA) every 34.8 seconds.  Staggering and unforgettable!   I did not get around much on Tarawa, during or after the battle.  The reader will see why that is the case.  My personal view of events was from a single half-underground hole.  I didn’t see much of the battle, but I heard and smelled more than I ever wanted to ever again. I saw the results of the battle in terms of broken, wounded and dying Marines.  
If a picture is worth a thousand words, the following post-battle photograph shows the battlefield devoid of living matter, resembling the back side of the moon.
This was the post-battle scene a few hundred yards to the east of my location on Betio.
After 70 years (John is now 91 and the 70th anniversary of this battle fast approaches), (John continues) I remember well the ride to Tarawa, but just as vividly I remember the fact that when my unit left the Sheridan to go ashore, some Sheridan crew looted our quarters.  Stuff was taken, some things were broken and we were unbelievably annoyed.
One sailor of the Sheridan crew, though, was properly respectful of our feelings.  That was Edward Albert Heimberger, the man who later became known as Eddie Albert, the successful Hollywood actor.  Eddie blew his stack!  I really respected him because of how he took a stand on this  and because of how he rescued perhaps as many as 100 guys during landing operations at Tarawa.
Edward Albert Heimberger, hero to many at Tarawa long before he ever got on television
USMC photo
Early on D+1, our medical team (consisting of myself, three other corpsmen and two doctors) headed in to Red Beach 2.  By the time we got near the pier, we were in the water wading to shore trying to avoid being shot, but we made it and found our way to a large square excavated hole, slightly to the west of the foot of the pier.  That was our makeshift hospital … just a hole in the ground treating wounded and dying Marines all day and all night for four days.   That day or the next, a bomb hit about 40 feet away from where we were, and frankly I thought it was the end of the world.
The only equipment I had with me was two canteens, a medical bag with bandages, tourniquets, morphine and 58 rolls of Life Saver candy rolls, many of which I gave to Marines.  I tried my best with what I had.  We wore the same clothing as the Marines, so in a sense we didn't stand out any more than they did.  For enemy defenders, killing one more Marine was what they were there to do; if a corpsman happened to come into their range, well, that's just the way it went.  I didn't carry an ammunition pack, but I did carry a medical pack slung over my shoulder.;article=18491
One of our doctors was Dr. Walthall, and he had the disgusting habit of taking both dog tags from dead Marines.  I kept complaining, but his reply was, "I'll do what I want!"  And then he would just ignore me.  Sincehe he would not stop, I just walked away.  What he was doing was so disrespectful to our Marines.
On D+4 late in the day, Company C, 2nd Medical Battalion returned to the Sheridan. I remember having a cup of coffee.  Everyone, and I mean it … every guy in my unit and in sight nearby, was so very quiet, almost ‘stoned’ trying to come to grips with what we had just been through.  Some things like that a guy can never forget.  
We arrived at Pearl Harbor on 02 December 1943, almost two years after the Japanese attack there which got us into the war in the first place.  We discharged our casualties at Pearl; the vessel was inspected by Admiral Nimitz; and three days later we were in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii, where my unit and I began the trip to Camp Tarawa.
Camp Tarawa brings back good memories, too.  We had week-long crap games!  Won some, lost some!  And I remember well swimming for the first few weeks in our ‘birthday suits’ at Kona!  That actually started a swimsuit business locally, and a suit I got there at that time I actually kept for at least the next 30 years!  I also remember a Japanese family who ran a store at Kamuela. They were frightened by us Marines at the beginning, but we became friends later. The other Pacific battle I was in was Saipan, where Company C, 2nd Medical Battalion went ashore on the first day.
Medals received by war’s end included the Presidential Unit Citation (Tarawa); Navy Good Conduct medal; a Combat Infantry medal ... , and I really believe we deserved a Marine Good Conduct medal, too. Besides lots of memories that are just as alive and vivid as when I was there at Tarawa, I also have some souvenirs, including photos and a Jap bayonet.
I have been a member of the Second Marine Division Association for years.  I am also a Life Member of the Marine Corps League and the VFW.
John, I hope you know just how respected and valued all you corpsmen were at Tarawa and other Pacific battles.   Time after time, I have heard Marine veterans say how deeply grateful they were  AND STILL ARE!  that you corpsmen were there to help them in some of the most harrowing moments of their lives.  They know you tried your best, and many wouldn’t have come home if you corpsmen had not been there for them.  They who survive say THANK YOU, andyour fellow countrymen say THANK YOU for your compassionate and dedicated service to our Marines.
No better accolade about the selfless, caring and brave work you did at Tarawa and Saipan exists than the remarks of Lt. General Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, USMC, when he said, "You guys are the Marine's doctors; there is no better in the business than a Navy Corpsman ..."
Well done, John. Thank you for your service.  
Received 29 November 2010; updated 6 November 2013
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