P.F.C. Raymond Knight, L/3/8
Serial # 320707 USMCR
Ray Knight wrote an extensive account of his service in the USMC during WWII for his family and friends. His family has graciously provided a copy of his manuscript for publication here. A copy has also been donated to the Illinois State Historical Library. Ray's comments about Tarawa and the immediate aftermath follow:
We sailed that night and the next morning we knew something was up. As the sun came up, we could see ships all around us and us old Vets knew we were in for something more than maneuvers. We sailed for about seven days and one morning we spotted land. We pulled into an inlet and were told we were at New Hebrides where we were to make a practice landing. We all knew we were going to land somewhere soon against the Japs because we had landed here on our way to Guadalcanal a few months ago. It was a beautiful beach and there was no enemy to greet us like our last landing on the canal. We reloaded our ships and more and more ships joined us. As we headed out of New Hebrides we knew we were headed for some fortified island. Our feelings were verified when they called all of us N.C.O.'s to a briefing of our upcoming operations. Our officers had maps of an island called Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands which had little impact on us at this time, but later was to put us through seventy-six hours of hell. It would cost us about 200 lives from our company of 260 Marines. Therefore, I count myself lucky to be here, forty-eight years later writing this story that has lived with me all of these years. I guess it will remain etched in my mind until I pass on.
At the briefing they called this island code name Helen. They showed us all of the gun emplacements and the airport that was under construction. We were told what each squad would do and we were led to believe that after the advance bombing and shelling that was planned we would have a easy task of taking this island. Nothing could have been farther from the truth.
We pulled into the lagoon on the north side of the island around 4:00 a.m. We had breakfast of steak and eggs which is customary of your last meal before any landing. We had our heads shaved the day before this in case you get a head wound. They can better get to it to treat it. The Navy had moved in close with the mine sweeper between us and the beach to remove any mines that might hinder our landing craft later on. We had remained top side after our morning chow and were lined up watching the proceedings. The Japs fired first, they sent up a white flare and opened fire with their 8 inch guns. Those guns they had brought from Singapore. We soon found out that Betio (Tarawa) had not been evacuated or totally destroyed by our previous bombing raids or our Naval shelling.
Our Navy, consisting of battleships and cruisers, opened fire. While they were doing this we Marines who were on the troop transports moved back out of the reach of their guns. We were supposed to have an air strike in the early hours preceding the first one. It got fouled up somehow and showed up late. I still do not know why. After this strike two tin cans (destroyers) moved into the lagoon on the pier side. One of them took hits from the Jap shore batteries. I don't remember any names as you only see ships around you and don't know the names other than you can tell a battle wagon, cruiser, and tin cans or a D.E.. (destroyer escort) or a mine sweeper by looking at them. The only ship you actually know is the troop transport you are on. I was on the USS Monrovia. You get so tired of the heat you put up with in the poorly ventilated holes where you sleep on canvas racks with no mattresses which are stacked about five or six high on metal poles with just enough room to slide in from the front side and also all of your weapons, pack, and gas masks are stored with you. By the time you put up with these living conditions, fighting the sweaty bodies and poor air circulation, it is almost a relief to make a beachhead and engage the enemy. After being cramped up like up like this, you wouldn't believe it, but if It wasn't for the smoke and gun powder smell you could actually smell the green vegetation.
After the air strike and the destroyers moved in, they quit firing at the transports that they had been concentrating on. I guess the naval shelling and the air strikes either knocked out so many of their guns or they quit so as not to give away their positions. By this time the island was covered by smoke and most of the palm trees, which weren't too many were busted up. There was one big explosion and a cloud of black smoke which later turned red which we found out was an ammunition dump.
The smoke hid the island and also the reefs which was later to give us trouble. I can remember my squad that was with me watching from our stations on the deck feeling real happy as we were sure there would be no Jags alive on the island after taking such a blasting and we would walk ashore with no casualties. We found out later nothing could of been farther from the truth. Since the return fire ceased our transports moved back in closer to the island. The first waves were climbing down the cargo nets into their bouncing boats because of heavy seas at this time. As these boats loaded with the first wave of Marines, they pulled out to the rendezvous area and stayed there while the other boats landed.
This is always the way it is done so everyone is ready before you hit the line of departure. This is a point where all boats leave for the beach. But before this was to take place there was a specialist team that landed on the end of the pier that jutted out in the water five or six hundred feet. This detail was under a Lt. Hawkins who was killed and whom they later named the airstrip in his honor. They were equipped with satchel charges and flame throwers and because of their heroics they helped save a lot of lives among the Marines that landed later. They also found out the tide was lower than anticipated and coral reefs out about five or six hundred yards were almost of the water. They also found out there was plenty of live Japs on the island.
The first wave of amtracs (this is the first time they were used) came under heavy fire from machine guns and anti-boat guns. Some got tangled up in the barbed wire that the Japs had put up. These marines had to bail out and wade in as we who landed later had to also. We who landed later were in the old type L.C.I. which was like the old type Higgins boats we used on the Guadalcanal landings. As the first wave moved toward the beach in these slow amtracs they also came under heavy anti-boat gun attack. These boats were hit air burst type shells that normally were used for anti-aircraft fire. These shells were set with time delay fuses that were set to explode over the loaded boats and sprayed shrapnel onto the boats wounding and killing them in their boats.
Also there was a coconut log wall about four feet high along the beach we were landing on. This was about ten yards from the waters edge so you see there wasn't much beach area. All of the boats that were lucky enough to get to the beach through all of this fire got hung up when they hit this wall. The Marines had to bail over the high sides of the amtracs taking heavy fire from machine guns and mortars. Some of them were blown up by Japs running up to them with satchel charges and grenades which they tossed into the boats before the Marines could disembark.
My company, L Company 8th Marines was to be held in reserve but since the Marines in the first wave took such heavy losses, we were loaded in our boats and told to land immediately. As we hit the line of departure we were taking shelling from the twenty millimeter type Jap guns. We could glance up and see boats being blown up on our right or left. We also hit the reef when we got about 500 or 600 yards from the beach. We were being raked with machine gun fire and took a hit in the bow of our boat. We had to go over the side not knowing where we were and being pinned down in our boat by machine gun fire. I thought like everyone else that we were on the beach and I was really, surprised when I jumped over the side into about four feet of water. There was a steady stream of machine gun fire and every once in a while you would hear a anti-boat shell go over and see a boat beyond you blow up and bodies going through the air.
I had no more than hit the water when one of my riflemen by the name of Wayne Carlton got hit in the throat and was bleeding and stumbling around in the water. My B.A.R. man by the name of Austin helped me hold Wayne's head out of the water and get him back to the boat. After we all got out of the boat which took the weight off of it, the coxswain was able to back the boat off of the coral reef and get Wayne back to our ship where he could get medical attention. That saved his life. I joined the Second Marine Association and was able to obtain his address. I went to see him last fall forty years later. We had quite a reunion and have been in touch ever since. Also I have corresponded with Austin and we plan to attend the Second Marine Division Association convention this August in Norfolk, Virginia. It is quite a sentimental feeling to remember how young we were then and see how old we are now, but we still have great friendship and respect for each other because of what we lived through and we were Marines.
Now back to more of the landing. After we hit the water about 600 yards from the island, with the Japs churning the water with everything they had. I spotted the pier about 100 yards to my right and decided as several other Marines did that it offered more protection than wading straight in because it was hard to walk in the water. It gave the Japs more time to pick you off from their pillboxes and fortifications on the island. From experience gained from fighting on Guadalcanal I knew the Japs did not use any traversing fire as we would have set up a final protective line. We would have used a crossfire and over-lapping fire and nothing would of gotten through if all our guns were able to fire.
As I made my way toward the pier I would watch and when the Japs would squeeze off a burst I would dive under the water and come up and watch for his next burst hoping all the time another gunner wouldn't join in. I made it to the pier and worked my way onto the beach which was also under heavy fire. There was about 10 yards of beach and then the manmade sea wall where I landed.
This was where Colonel Shoup was running up and down along the sea Wall urging Marines over the wall. We went over the wall into heavier fire as the Japs had pill boxes staggered to protect one another and big sand fortresses that were virtually bomb proof. Sixteen inch shells off of our battleships would ricochet off of them, but they were finally knocked out by flame throwers and charges dropped down the vents which they had put in to get air into them. Also some entrances were sealed later by bulldozers using their blades to push sand and coral over the ground level entrances.
I am a little off of my story as the reinforcements that were landing the second day were still under heavy fire. As we lay in our shell holes on the island we could see men walking and falling everywhere in the water. We realized what we had gone through the day before. These Marines were getting fire from the beach and from Japs that had swam out to the disabled amtracks we had left on the reefs the day before and from an old Jap freighter hull that had been beached before we got there.
We called in dive bombers to knock it out but they couldn't seem to make a bomb hit on it. I think a demolition team finally had to storm it and knock the Japs out of it. I also remember seeing amtracks that got re-started and headed back to the ships loaded with wounded and I recall getting so mad and having a hard time holding back the tears as I watched the damaged boats sink when they got in deep water from holes in their hulls caused b y hits they had taken as they brought in the assault waves the day before.
Nothing went as planned and every Marine that got ashore was lucky, considering all of the fire power the Japs had left. The operation was successful because of a few Marines forming groups of what was handy with an officer or non corn, taking charge and engaging the enemy. Some of the buddies next to you, you had never talked to before this situation was brought about by the fact we were all dumped in the water so far from the beach and everyone used different routes to get to the beach, and therefore, you got separated from you unit.
I have since learned that the Japs had 4500 men on the island and they were Imperial Marines which was supposed to be their finest. Since the island was only 2 l/4 miles long and 700 or 800 yards wide at the widest point and everything was tunneled, you can see why it was so costly. The Jap commander said it would take a million men a hundred years to take it. We took it at great cost in seventy-six hours but both sides paid heavily. I think, if I remember right we took seventeen prisoners and some of them were Korean laborers which the Japs used like slaves.
I never ate in the seventy-six hours we were on the island because we had to throw our packs off when we hit the water and. Therefore, there went our rations. There was no way you could of eaten anyway as the smell of death was so thick. You can't imagine unless you have been around this situation, the odor from swollen bodies that have laid in the tropical sun for three days. The beach and lagoon was full of bloated bodies. The Japs had almost 4500 laying on the island in various forms and we had 3100 plus killed in the water and scattered throughout the island. The smell was so bad that the pilots that were flying over the island strafing in the final mop up got sick in their planes so you can imagine being on the ground laying among them.
As I look back at those 76 hours of Hell and all that we went through, I now realize that it would be hard to tell it as it was. Their feelings would be different for each Marine who had to endure the firm power the Japs had as he waded toward the beach with death all around him knowing it could come to him at any second.
Our division left there on Thanksgiving Day and went to Hawaii to Camp Tarawa named after the island we had just left. We stayed there for about eight months and got replacements and trained them. At this point there was only five Marines counting myself left that had left the states January 6, 1942 one month after the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor. Of this number most were killed but some were just wounded and returned state side and a few had Malaria so bad they were sent home.
They kept telling us one more landing and you can go home, but after a while you knew there was no chance as long as you could walk. I remember in Hawaii, the division Chaplain called us five to his quarters because someone must have told him of our feelings since we had been overseas around three years. As we went into his tent he explained that he knew how we felt and could sympathize with us but he said I am going to tell you a little story and then you will know what your chances are of going back to the states at this time. He started out by saying, "I was down to the Battalion Aid Station the other day and they brought a Marine in with no legs or arms and he said to me 'Chaplain, since I am in this condition I am of no use to the war effort and I'll get to go home.' He said the surgeon in charge said, 'No, you see that Marine over there pumping water, we'll carry you over there as he is blind and you can tell him when the buckets are full.'" So we gave up the idea of going home soon and our division went on to land at Saipan, Tinian, and Okinawa.
But I finally did get to come home and spent time in the hospital at Oakland, California and then was sent to a rest camp at Klamath Palls, Oregon. When they dropped the atom bomb on Japan, since I had so many points, I was placed in a separation center at Camp Pendleton, California and was one of the first Marines discharged from there.
I will close for now. This is all written from two articles I wrote in 1983. The rest came out of mind, after all. of these years.
March 22, 1991
We went to New Zealand and after eight months [on Guadalcanal] and after getting replacements we headed for Tarawa as I stated in my other article. I will add some more to my original story now - as I reach back and get some of my memories.
As you can now read in history books today Tarawa was the bloodiest and most costly operation during W.W. II. We were dumped out in the water 500 or 600 yards from the beach. We were sitting ducks as there was a bullet about every square inch. I am sure it was from the grace of God and some Jap guns jamming or being knocked out on the island that we made it ashore.
We were fortunate that our officers made the decision to land on the north side. The Japs thought any landing would come from the south side of the island. We starting bombing the island a week or so before the landing date. The General in charge started stringing barb wire and placing land mines on the reef and beach area. We were lucky that he did not have time to finish the wire defense and had not armed the mines so we didn't trigger them when our boats hit them on the exposed reefs. As we went in, we had to wade through our own dead and at times we used those piled on reefs and barb wire for cover and to lay on them to rest so we could continue on in. Although we had 80% losses when we worked our way across the center of the island which took two days, on the morning of the third day we looked out to the ocean area and saw what we would of run into if we had landed from the south. The Japs had "Tetrahedrons" which are made out of cement. There purpose is to channel all of our landing craft into a certain area. They then concentrate all their fire power on this area. We would have been wiped out. Also all of their land mines in this area were armed. I don't think any of us would have made it alive on this side. Another thing that saved us was the initial shelling was not effective against the pillboxes and block houses. The Japs made the mistake of having all of their telephone lines above ground and the shelling knocked them out. Therefore, their general could not contact and direct his troops to counter attack and use his mortars to shell us on the beach area. If he had done this the first night, he would have killed most us and pushed us back into the lagoon for a quick slaughter.
We were lucky in two ways - one by attacking from the lagoon Area (north side) we caught them with most of their guns pointed south and their pre-arranged fire plans pointed the wrong way. Although they got some of them changed while they in the process of doing this, some of us lucked out and got ashore and got a chance to fight with some odds to win.
We left Tarawa Atoll on November 24, 1943. The ship mess had us a delayed Thanksgiving dinner. Since I hadn't eaten in four days I had a hard job keeping my stomach from rejecting this food. As I said in the first part of the article I hadn't eaten because we threw our packs off so we could wade and swim in that 600 yards on the first day of landing so we lost our rations. Also, by being under such stress and the smell of death it seemed like hunger was one of my last worries.
But as we ate this warm meal I couldn't help thinking of my buddies who weren't eating with us and who were still lying in the water and throughout the island we had just left. It is one Thanksgiving I always try to forget. After about a ten day trip living on the same boat that brought us to this hellhole, enduring the smell blood and death, and several burials at sea, we arrived in Honolulu. Here we unloaded the rest of our wounded. We then sailed for Hilo, Hawaii and were then trucked up a winding road high in the mountains. To "Parker Ranch" where we thought we would move into a camp and get some rest and good food. This was at Kamuela, Hawaii. We soon found that our life style wasn't going to improve soon. We were in a mountain pass where high winds and icy fog blew constantly. We unloaded to find a bare campsite. We gazed upon a stack of wooden tent decks stacked high in the air and tents were piled along side these still in the bags they were shipped in. Again as Marines we knew we had to adjust.
It took us a few weeks to get a camp that was halfway liveable. We worked long hours by day in the chill of rain and fog. By night we froze having only thin combat uniforms and no [blankets as our sea bags were stored in a warehouse in New Zealand. Our general tried to get the army officer in Hilo to send us some blankets but he refused. So our general went over his head and called his boss in Honolulu and he told this moron to release us some blankets which made our sleep a little more bearable. It was a lot better than crawling in the treated tents lying on the ground. The smell of whatever they had waterproofed the tents with was almost impossible to stand and it burned your skin. They finally sent some Naval SeaBees over from Pearl Harbor and they set in and built us some mess halls, heads, and showers. Al though they were quite crude we could take cold showers and get part way clean and wash off some of the chemicals from the tents.
They said they sent us to Parker Ranch as we all had malaria and they thought the cold climate would help contain this disease.
I was one of the first Marines to come down with it again and they sent me to a nearby Army hospital. The doctors and nurses acted like they were afraid of me and they put me in isolation in a small room away from everyone. Within a short time after several other Marines started coming down malaria, they moved us out to a regular ward and the officers got my small private room. It was good while it lasted.
We stayed here quite a while and got replacements to cover our huge losses at Tarawa. Christmas 1943 was not a high point in my life. After extensive training my outfit went on to land on other islands closer to the Jap homeland.
Thanks alot Sheilah for your help and providing the manuscript!
copyright 2002 T.O.T.W.
Created 28 September 2002 - Updated 26 July 2003