PFC Robert Cook, Weapons 2
PFC Robert L. Cook, Regimental Weapons Co., 2nd Reg., 2nd MarDiv from 1942-44.
The ships slipped out of moorings in the dark of night. By the time the troops arose the next morning they were out to sea. The usual pattern of ships, troop and Naval, had taken their place and the convoy steamed along at the pace set by the slowest ship. They could recognize the old President Liners, Hayes, Jackson, Grant as well as the Crescent City which the Kid called home while at sea. He was back in the same number four hold where he had been on the last voyage as well as the first. It was still dark and hot and badly ventilated. He had tried to remedy that once by cutting a hole in the vent pipe that brought air into the compartment. The navy was not too pleased with this and tried to charge him with a deck court. The CO sent him ashore in New Hebrides to get him out of the way!
The routine of troops aboard ship was established. Gun watches were set and what small amount of policing that was necessary, to maintain order and cleanliness, was relegated to the few men who were on the roster. The Navy regulated the “clean sweeps” that were a part of every ship in the Navy! And so the time goes.
The call for all NCO’s to muster on the forward deck came early one morning about a week out from port. The men who had been with the division before ‘Canal knew what this meant. Briefings about the coming landings were about to be laid out for those in command. The troops knew they were about to learn, finally, where they were going! The wait was long and interminable, so it seemed.
It was after evening chow that the word came in the person of the Platoon Sergeant. He gathered his men around him in the semidarkness of the hold and patiently explained as much as he had been told . The landings were to be made on the atoll of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. It was a small island heavily fortified and was important to the advance across the Pacific. Its main feature was the landing strip that would afford the Air Force another base closer to Japan which was later found to be erronious!
Activity now centered on the preparations for the landings. Each platoon was taken aside and informed of the roll they would play, where they would be going ashore and what was expected of them. The men knew that the odds of all this going as was planned were two to one against it! They also knew that in any case all Marines are trained to rely of their own initiative and training. To pursue the goal of the mission and to rely on each other as a team. None of them had any doubt that the landing would not be successful. Their morale was high, their faith was strong!
At that point the landings were about a week away. They loaded ammunition for the machine guns and inspected their weapons over and over. They also wrote letters.
The convoy approached the island as usual in the dark of night. They stood off some four miles from shore as the Navy began its shelling operation. The sound of the guns was clearly heard on the troop ships as was the sound of the Higgins boats being put over the side. The troops were up way before dawn. Those who were in the first assault waves were fed first and put on the stand-by. They read or played cards to take their minds off the coming battle. They knew that some of them would not be coming back, but their natural sense of optimism kept them from believing it would be them. The Kid was not among those tagged for the first wave. He felt neither disappointed or relieved. He knew that he had no say in the matter! It could have been either way. It was just the roll of the dice!
The Navy continued to shell the island, being joined at dawn with the dive bombers and strafing fighter planes. The pall of smoke and dust hanging over the atoll obscured the low lying ground. You could not see the results of the shelling or the bombing. It just sat there, seeming to stare back at the searching eyes of the Marines on the decks of the troop ships! The first waves had left the ships about 0330 hrs. and were in the rendezvous pattern somewhere off the shore. Each wave loaded their boats according to a schedule posted from the battle plans commission made up of the Command Officers involved in planning the invasion. The subsequent waves boarded their boats in turn and proceeded to their areas of departure. The battleships had begun their shelling about 0500 hours and continued firing after finding their range. They poured shell after shell on the island scoring hits on the big naval guns that were a part of the Jap defenses. The huge shells struck the ammunition dumps and the fuel depots sending huge columns of flame into the dark sky. Amazingly the Japs fired back with the guns that somehow had been missed by the Naval gunfire. They may have gotten off a couple of rounds before they were discovered and annihilated.
The first waves made their approach somewhere around 0500. The waves were made up of landing craft and amphibious tractors which had the ability to cross the reef that surrounded the atoll. The reefs were an impediment to the Higgins boats and stopped the boats from finishing their run to the beach. This factor was not known due to the lack of information about the tides. There were no sources of information about the islands here, as there had been no studies made relative to the problems. The only reconnaissance information available was gotten from the British who had manned the island prior to the war. The was sketchy to say the least! The bottom line was that the landing parties were all subject to the reef leaving the men to wade to the beach in water up to their chest! This left the men vulnerable to enemy fire long before they could reach the beach. The casualties were tremendous! Companies lost two thirds of their men in the first waves. Only by pure grit did the men move forward, establishing a foothold here and there as small numbers of men made it to the sea wall surrounding the gun positions. The pier, jutting out into the cove, offered a way ashore for the guns and vehicles. The heat of battle had destroyed the pier early in the fighting, except for the shattered remnants. Only a few men, led by the “Scout /Snipers” and a courageous officer, were able to gain access to it and to hold on to it by sheer force of determination and guts. The enemy fire upon this facility was tremendous! Hauling the gear from the boats up onto the pier under constant fire was costly of manpower. The efforts were superb!
As the day passed, the men pressed the battle and little by little they gained a foothold on the beach. Heroic efforts under overpowering odds gradually turned the tide of battle toward the Marines advantage. As the tides changed the boats were able to get in closer to the shore undergoing heavy fire and the many casualties. But the delivery of men closer in added to the number of men ashore increasing the power of the Marines.
He left the transport on the late afternoon of “D+1" accompanied by a couple of men from his platoon and a truck driver. They were taking a truckload of supplies ashore to the men on the line from Weapons Company. He took along his demolition gear and his issued arms. Leaving the ship they proceeded shore ward, feeling their way through the coral reef that surrounded the island.
The usual clearness of the tropical water was not evident now! The terrific shelling of the beach installations and the churning of the boats had turned the water into the murky gray of the coral sand . The oil from the damaged boats filmed the water surface for many yards around. Our forces had taken command of the pier. They were instructed to report to the “Beach Commander” there. Approaching the pier with other landing craft, equally anxious to get their gear ashore, they were waved off and told to stand by. It was evident the island was far from being secure, as Jap snipers were firing from hidden positions along the beach .No one paid a lot of attention as they were engrossed in getting the material ashore to the fighting men.
They stood off a few yards waiting for the word to drop the ramp and drive the truck in. It was beginning to show signs of dusk and they were anxious to get ashore before the dark set in. No one could land on the pier so we were told to pull as close to shore as possible and drive the truck the rest of the way. The cox’n drove the boat halfheartedly in ‘til the keel barely touched the bottom and dropped the ramp. He was afraid to jamb the hull into the beach, as he might get stuck there and never get back to his ship that night! The truck lurched forward over the ramp burying its front end into the surf and dying on the spot! The rear end of the truck was left hanging onto the boat. The cox’in was yelling to get that damn truck out of the boat as it as it was swamping the craft. Thinking fast the Kid yelled to the cox’in to reverse the engines and back out from under the truck as it was taken out of gear. The boat backed away quickly leaving the truck standing in water up to the hood! The men were wet and disgusted with the whole affair! There they were sitting in a stalled truck with night coming on and the tide coming in!
By this time dusk had taken on a deepening shade and was well on its way to deep purple . It was hopeless to try to get the truck ashore that night. And besides moving around on the island at night was a good way to get killed! They perched themselves in various positions to get some rest, if possible.
They were only a few yards from the pier, which still had a number of bodies trapped within its pilings. The water along the beach was littered with the bodies of fallen Marines who had made it that far before being cut down by enemy fire. It would be days before they could be cared for properly
In a couple of hours the tide was up to their level. The Kid awoke with his feet immersed in the cooling water of the ocean. Her awoke the others and they decided to make their way to the pier. So, holding their gear over their heads, they waded neck deep in that stinking oily water to the wharf! As they approached the pier they were confronted by a Marine peering down the sights of his rifle, directly into their faces. The usual “ Halt!” command brought them to protest and a quick reply with the password, which , luckily they remembered! They could have just as well been Japs infiltrating the area, as far as the guard knew! They were helped up onto the pier, where they spent the night with snipers bullets whining over their heads and watching the naval shells rumbling across the night sky. They got very little sleep!
As dawn came slowly to the sky, they roused themselves and made for the beach. The truck was out of their hands now, so they sat off to do something about the war effort!
Gaining the shore the Kid set about finding the company or some of its elements. Stumbling along the war torn area, he came across one of the half tracks working on a large bunker. It was constructed of layers of palm tree logs and concrete. The half track would drive forward to the very entrance, which was solidly filled with heavy timbers and such, firing point blank into the bunker. The 75mm shells had no big effect on the box. They fired many times! There was no firing ports on this one, so no return fire was evident. As the Kid made himself known to the officer in charge, he was immediately put to work building Bangalore torpedoes. These are sticks of TNT three inches in diameter and about six foot long. Bundling them into packages of three , taped together and fused with a ‘pull start fuse’ lighter, they made a formidable explosive weapon! The men would dash forward, poking the torps into the cracks of the bunkers and quickly pull the fuse starter, running back to a safe position before the explosion! The box would seemingly jump into the air, throwing pieces of logs and concrete in every direction. The bundle of torps had the power of the 14 inch naval shells! They were convinced there would be no more return fire from this bunker!
Working with a flame thrower operator, his pack of TNT and grenades the Kid went to work on another bunker that stood nearby. It was somewhat smaller than the first but definitely alive with enemy presence. After a few attacks on the box with the high explosives and grenades they were successful in bringing the Nips out into the open where they were annihilated by the riflemen. One of the poor devils was hit by the flame thrower and as he fell his saber went flying into the air landing close to the Kid. He grabbed for the sword just as another Marine did, but the Kid was faster and claimed the saber for his own! This was a prized possession! Later, he shipped it home along with a rifle!
Walking toward the still remaining fighting that proceeded down the center of the island, he came across a firing line that consisted of a couple dozen men in a skirmish line across the that perimeter. They were advancing in the usual fashion with the ends trying to keep up with the center. This requires some direction and command as it is easy to get the line uncoordinated and straggly. There in the center of the line was a young Marine directing the firing with all the command skills of an old timer. The Kid recognized the Marine to be one of his buddies from the company who was only a Pfc! His natural leadership had presented itself and he a had responded at the right time and place.
Detaching himself from the immediate fighting the Kid went exploring. The destruction was all around him. He made his way down the center of the island around the airstrip to the site of the long range guns the Japs had brought from Singapore and had set them up to command the sea approach. They were British naval guns of at least eight inch caliber. Intelligence had know about the guns and had spent a lot of time and ammunition on their demise. They showed the results of the repeated bombing and shelling. The bases were all torn to pieces and the barrels were sitting askew, pointing aimlessly at the sky. They were no longer any threat!
The gun emplacements around the air strip were completely demolished and still held the bodies of the Nips that defended them. Some supply dumps were still partly intact and held the kind of rations that were Japanese in nature. Canned fish and dry rice, and bottles of Saki and beer! The troops made themselves at home in this instance and though the beer was not cold,they didn’t much give a damn! There were other things like rice cakes in tins which went well with the fish. The troops, as usual, collected a lot of souvenirs! They were warned to stay away from those things as the Japs were know to “bobby trap” such items. An old but intact bicycle was being ridden around the strip by a carefree Marine who looked like he couldn’t have been happier!
Edging back toward the beach, the Kid skirted the fighting and walked along the waters edge which was secure by that time. The carnage that was the first wave was evident as the bodies of the Marine dead still floated in the wash of the sea. They floated among the boats and amphibious tractors that had been torn apart in the initial landing. There was no time to attend the dead. The fighting was still going on, though greatly diminished. They were still mopping up on the gun emplacements and bunkers where the Nips were still holding out. Capturing a few enemy soldiers, (actually Japanese Marines!) they were being held in a bomb crater under the watchful eye of half dozen Marines . They looked just what they were, dejected, defeated and scared. Half naked and starving. Such is war!
After an evening meal of “C” rations and a gulp of warm water, a nice dry foxhole had a lot of appeal! Having spent the day with the troops blasting out the Nips from their well dug defenses the Kid was ready to retire. It had been strenuous! There is always a tension even if you do not feel any immediate danger.
The day had ended with a suddenness as the sun seemed to quickly fade into night. There were no guard perimeters set at least not in his area. Each man attended to his own comfort and safety. Taking advantage of an already prepared foxhole the Kid laid his gear well within reach. He removed neither his helmet or shoes, knowing it might be necessary to make a hasty exit! Which did not happen! What did happen was the arrival of the ol’ adversary “Washing Machine Charlie” who had followed the troops from ‘Canal to make his appearance here much to their chagrin! He came low ,daring the troops to open fire. He made one pass down the center of the island, strafing the ground! The Kid was apprehensive to say the least! He was glad to have the foxhole for protection and hugging the insides was what he did best! The tracers lighted up the area close by, but no one was hurt on that run!
The next morning, (D+3) after a “K” ration breakfast, and having no immediate assignment, he continued snooping around the island. The airstrip lay in the center, as said. It was the necessary land to take and so they did, but with awful consequences. The dead still lay out on the field where they had fallen in the do or die effort to take it. One of the Kids friends was found out there in the sun where he had fallen The tropical sun is not gentle on a live body, what it does to a dead one is not to be witnessed! The body was hardly recognizable.
The destroyers came in as close as possible to the beach to pour fire into the huge bunkers. The Marines marched up the beach destroying each fortification as they came to it! Walking behind the tanks as they forged ahead the troops did an admirable job of cleaning out the resisting Japs, but not without losses.
The Kid was not part of this contingency. He remained with his company that was being used on the continued mop up. The half tracks were still in demand, blasting the gun emplacements still active with enemy fire. Most of Regimental Weapons gun crews were acting as infantry now as their 37mm guns were no match for the heavy pillbox fortifications. The war from that time on was a matter of digging out the enemy from his forts and killing them if they did not surrender, which few of them did! They were more inclined to commit suicide which they did in numbers!
Needless to say the battle of Tarawa was far more reaching than can be told in one small recounting of one lone Marines experiences in the conflict. The reams of copy written by numerous corespondents, that were eventually committed to books, are heavy. The stories told of individual Marine heroism are in themselves astounding. The officers and men who fought the battle will go down in history for fighting one of the fiercest in the history of the South Pacific. Perhaps of the entire war!
The Kid was ordered back to the ship on the afternoon of the fourth day! The major part of the battle was over and the moping up of the small pockets of resistance was going as planned. Some of the company was left ashore as part of the security forces and such. They helped with the cleaning up of the casualties and the squaring away of company gear that was to be brought off the island. The “Crescent City” and other vessels loaded their contingents back aboard and set sail for Hawaii. The scene aboard ship was one to remember. The troops came aboard after four days ashore in the grime of the battle field. They were stained and grimy, starved for food and drink and very tired! They stood at the mess tables scarfing down all they could hold of everything the Navy put forth. Coffee by the gallon and milk! They ate the place empty! The scene was printed in one of the magazines!
The company stood the test and came away with few losses. The men and officers performed well under combat conditions holding its own. The half tracks did a fine job of blasting the enemy out of his strongholds of well constructed positions.
The experience toughened the men making them more combat ready for the next campaign! Tarawa was behind them!!
Weapons 2 SPM on Saipan.
copyright 2006 T.O.T.W.
Created 16 June 2006 - Updated 10 November 2008