Frank Kern, A/1/10
We learned that we were going to invade an island that was part of the Gilbert Islands. It had previously belonged to the British Empire but had been captured by the Japanese. The main battle was to take place on a small island called Betio in the Tarawa atoll. Betio was 800 yards at the widest point and 2.5 miles long. The islandís code name was "Helen" and like a woman it was very unpredictable. The officers said the island would be bombed from the sea and the air. We expected to meet very little resistance. Everything appeared peaceful when looking at the island from aboard the ship.
Mess call for the assault Marines was at 0400. This meal consisted of steak and eggs. The Navy wanted to make sure that we ate well just in case it was our last meal.
Once we were ready to leave the ship, we had to climb down a landing net from the ship in order to enter the landing craft. We had practiced this many times on shore, but it was much more difficult at sea. It was very dangerous because you could be crushed between the craft and the ship. It was not much better if you fell because you would either land on someone or their rifle. Many of our men were hurt before we even got to shore.
From the motion of the landing craft, we were exhausted and seasick because of hours in the heavy swells. We soon realized that the landing crafts could not pass over the reef. Therefore, we had to change to an amphibian tractor to get to the beach. Seventy-five of the hundred and twenty-five amphibian tractors committed to the battle were destroyed by gunfire before reaching the beach. Once we reached the beach, we put our gun and ammunition over the side of the amphibian tractor. The driver of the amphibian tractor ran over some of our shells when he attempted to return to the ship. We were told that we had landed on Red Beach 2.
On the afternoon of our first day on the island, a group of Japanese officers were caught in the open by Navy guns. The Japanese admiral would have ordered a counter attack on us if he had lived. We were not aware that he had been killed and were expecting a counter attack, which never came.
On the other side of the sea wall, a Navy doctor was operating on the wounded. The gunnery sergeant sent four men down the beach to protect the wounded from the Japanese. Unfortunately, they wandered too far and walked into a Japanese soldier who fired a machine gun at them. A Marine named Smith was wounded in the chest and Chester Aubury got hit under his chin. The impact knocked Aubury down but this may have saved his life because two other bullets flew right over his head. The other two Marines were killed. Later, Aubury rejoined us in Hawaii.
On the second day, we were in the water for two or more hours when the tide came in. At daybreak, a tall blonde Marine was walking on the beach when he came close to me. He laughed at me because I was cold and wet. I noticed that the blonde Marine had a rosary around his neck. He walked to a dead officer lying in the sand. He took the officerís wallet and field glasses. He placed the field glasses around his neck with the rosary. He proceeded to walk further down the beach. All I did was look away for a moment and when I looked back the blonde Marine was lying dead on the beach. The Japanese soldiers shot him because they saw the field glasses and assumed his was an officer.
This was the beginning of a very long and unfortunate day for the Marines. The tide that soaked us during the night kept us from seeing the under water defenses of the Japanese. Looking out toward the lagoon, I saw a large group of Marines walking in the water that reached their necks. They were holding their rifles over their heads and struggling with the burden of wet packs on their backs. During the night, before the Marines were trying to get to the beach. Some of the Japanese swam out to a small sunken ship and were firing on the Marines in the water. Other Japanese soldiers on the beach were firing a machine gun at the Marines in the water. A Navy bomber took out the ship with the Japanese aboard and a tank took out the machine gun. Before the tank could silence the machine gun, Captain Brown who was on the tank, was killed. The Marines in the water met no resistance after the bomber hit the ship and the tank found the pillboxes.
We began to move our firing position. It was very difficult to move our guns over the sea wall so we had to get help from the infantrymen. We had not slept all night. In fact, I do not remember sleeping at all during the entire stay on the island. We were scared, wet and tired. As we were moving to our firing position, we came across three Marines that were at a pillbox. They told us that they thought they had killed a Japanese soldier on three different occasions. Each time they thought he was dead, he would jump out of a metal box and shoot back at them. This helps demonstrate how difficult it was for us to kill the Japanese.
Five guns of the First Battalion had finally made it ashore. The gunner had to make the decision as to what target we should fire at because we were using untrained forward observers. At that time, we were receiving rifle fire from the Japanese. I felt something hit my backpack I was not able to stop because I was digging the gun into position so that we could fire our gun. When I was able to look at my pack, I found a bullet that had gone through two cans of my rations. These two cans of ration may have saved my life. Nobody would share their food with me when it was time to eat. The only option I had was to get food from the backpack of a fallen Marine.
The gun to our right was men from the 2nd gun section. Hershell Hyatt told me that the gun bounced every time they fired it. The reason for this was because the right wheel was on the stomach of a Japanese soldier that was buried under the wheel. With very little effect, we kept firing at Japanese pillboxes. Our shells were bouncing off the pillboxes. The pillboxes had five feet of concrete and two layers of coconut logs plus sand. We tried armor-piercing shells that delayed fuses but this only caused holes in the coconut logs. We decided to fire in front of the infantry with anti-personal shells. We filled sandbags and dug foxholes in between firing the gun.
We were told that the Japanese would try a BANZAI attack that afternoon, the rest of the guns of the battalions came ashore. By midnight, all twelve guns of the First Battalion were on the firing line. Sometime after dark, a Japanese seaplane flew over. He was flying so low that you could see the emblem on the wings of his plane. He dropped two bombs behind us and one bomb in front of us. I dove for the nearest foxhole and fell on top of a pot that someone had left behind that was used for digging. I was sore for the rest of the night. We were set up to fire 75 yards in front of the infantry by the fire control center and forward observers. Also, several destroyers off shore fired in front of the Marines for special effect which seemed to keep the Japanese quiet for a while.
On the third day at 0400, the Japanese attacked the infantry. The whole battalion started to fire antipersonnel shells. We were firing as fast as we possibly could. The destroyers were firing as fast as they could too. This attack from the Japanese lasted for about an hour. This was the last big battle on the island. At daylight, the infantry started cleaning up. The infantry drove the remaining Japanese to the end of the island. At low tide, you could see all the way across to the next island where the Battalion of the Sixth Marine Infantry and the 2nd battalion of the Tenth Marine Artillery were firing shells at the Japanese cornered on the end of the island.
At 1305, Tarawa had fallen in 76 hours. After the flag raising all the privates and the PFCs were put on burial detail. This is one thing that we will never be able to completely forget.
We worked with the Chaplain who instructed us what to do with the dead. First, we were to remove all the equipment from the dead Marines. We noticed that most of the water canteens were missing from the bodies. We felt that other Marines had taken them because of the lack of drinkable water. Most of the water had been brought ashore in five-gallon cans. The water tasted like paint and made us very sick. The lack of water would have been a big problem if the battle had lasted much longer.
We were instructed to put the bodies onto stretchers and bring the dead to the Chaplain He would place one of the dog tags in the mouth of the dead man and the other dog tag around the manís neck. Each dead manís personal property and all his vital information were placed into a bag to be shipped home. Afterwards, we took the bodies to a large gravesite for a temporary burial.
During the burial detail, we came across a young Marine who appeared to have nothing wrong with him. We soon discovered that the back of his head was missing when we lifted his body onto the stretcher. We found another Marine in a shell hole that had damage to most of his upper body. In his hand, he was holding a picture of his wife and two small boys. The smell from the blood, heat and decay cannot be described. As we worked steadily for hours, we each thanked God that we were not among the dead. Afterwards, we were called back to load the guns aboard the ship. The Navy Sea Bees and Army defense battalions were about to take over the island.
Unfortunately, some of the Marines died from the wounds that they received in this battle. These Marines were buried at sea. Everyone aboard the ship that was not on duty attended the services of the Chaplain. The bodies of the Marines were sewn in canvas and covered with the flag. They were carried to the starboard side of the ship and lowered into the sea. This was done while Taps was being played and rifles fired in a final salute to them.
When we went aboard the ship, we heard about "Siwash" who was our mascot. She had earned a reputation for fighting a Japanese rooster. After the fight, she was unharmed except for a bloodied head. We felt honored when pictures of her were printed in Life magazine. She even received a Purple Heart and Sergeant stripes. She is still talked about amongst my fellow Marines.
The troop transports smelled of the awful smell of the island, disinfectant and blood. Funerals were held daily for those who had died in battle. The haunting sounds of "taps" were played as the Chaplain held the services. The bodies were sewed into a sail cloth and slipped into the sea while the survivors saluted them. To add to the agony, many Marines and Sailors came down with the mumps from the Japanese soldiers on the island.
Tarawa was later declared a mistake. It was generally thought that Tarawa could have been by passed and there was much talk about a congressional investigation. Speeches were made about the horrors of the large number of lost Marines and why the pacific leadership had allowed so many casualties. Only 12,000 men fought at Tarawa. The truth be known, there was no room for any more men on the island. Unfortunately, 1,262 men died and 2,188 were wounded in only 76 hours. Like a Marine said, "If the Marines could stand all the dying, you would think the civilians could stand to read about it." The lessons on Tarawa had to be learned. We learned it early in the war and perhaps this meant that no other troops would have to die learning the same lesson. Those lives lost on Tarawa made a great contribution to our victory.
Frank's Tarawa account is taken from a longer manuscript covering his WWII service
that was written for his family and friends. Thanks alot Frank!!!
copyright 2002 T.O.T.W.
Created 24 August 2002 - Updated 18 December 2003