Radioman 2nd Class William L. McDonald
Radioman Second Class William L. McDonald
I was assigned to APA Zeilin as a radioman. I had been on amphibious assaults before Tarawa. I was involved in the Guadalcanal invasion, landing at Tulagi. I also made landings in the Aleutians before going to New Zealand to prepare for the landing at Tarawa.
As a naval radioman assigned to the Zeilin I was involved with communications between the landing control boat and the Zeilin. The control boat was the captain's gig. It was not a large boat and was similar to a boat that would be seen on any lake. An officer commanded the boat, I think he was a lieutenant commander, but I can't remember his name. There were seven men aboard, and I was assigned to the operation of a radio. It was the control boats' assignment to lead the second wave of the first three waves into Red Beach Two near the pier.
The night before the landing, I slept topside on the deck. I did not sleep very well if at all. I went to Mass and had breakfast of eggs and steak. During most of the training for the landing I had gotten to be friends with a Marine Major, I can't recall his name, but he had a feeling that he would not survive the battle. Before making preparation to disembark the Zeilin he asked that his personal affects be placed in my locker in case he was killed. He asked that I send these affects to his wife. He addressed the package and left it in my locker. He was a good-looking dark haired officer, with a bushy mustache. I don't remember his name.
When it was time to disembark, we crawled down the cargo nets to the boat. There were seven men and I was carrying a TBY radio unit. We circled for quite awhile near the Zeilin making certain that all landing craft were in the right formations. When it was time to head for Tarawa we were in between the first and second wave of the first assault group which had three waves of landing craft. The waves were between 100 to 200 yards apart in the advance toward Red Beach 2. As the waves began receiving fire from the beach the control boat lined up with the second wave heading for Red Beach 2. Looking to the nearest Higgins boat we realized that the coxswain driving the boat had been beheaded but was still driving the boat. We yelled at the men on the boat so that they could fix their situation. Nearing the reef, the control boat took a direct hit from mortar fire. Five men on the boat were killed, including the commander of the control boat. A man named Bowden and myself survived. Bowden had lost a leg and I had shrapnel in my right arm and leg. A light Higgins boat soon picked us up. It appeared that the boat contained survivors from several different boats that had been hit. Another boat came by that was headed back to the Zeilin with wounded. A slightly wounded Marine lieutenant jumped into the hospital boat along with Bowden. I realized I was bleeding pretty good and with the fire in front being very heavy I felt like getting into the hospital boat as well. At about that time a Marine Sergeant who was cut up pretty bad by shrapnel yelled at the hospital boat to get the hell out of there cause we were heading for the beach. I felt that if that tough bastard could make it so could I.
We took off for the beach and were immediately coming under attack from machine gun fire and mortar fire. A marine standing near the front of the boat slumped back into the boat. We checked him and found a small hole right between his eyes. He was a good-looking blonde marine. We then ground into the reef and realized that we weren't going any further on the Higgins boat. We piled out of the boat into chest deep water. Chest deep for me, I was 6'3" at the time, and it was a tough walk for me in the water. I was near the pier coming in, and I thought that the pier was providing cover from the fire coming from Red Beach 3. I didn't realize it at the time, that we were taking a lot of fire from the pier. We were also getting hit from an old hulk of a ship in the Red Beach 1 area.
I finally got to shore and hit the sea wall. It was then that I realized that I did not have my TBY, it must have been lost when the control boat was sunk. The first officer I saw was the Major that had the premonition of death the night before. He was laying dead on the pier. I had made it to the wall with a carbine and ammunition. It was clear that we weren't going any further for awhile. There were machine gun bunkers directly in front of us. I turned to look at the lagoon, and I saw hundreds of men bobbing in the water. There were no more men coming in. We were pinned down, things were a mess, and there was very little communication.
Soon however, naval aircraft came in and began strafing and bombing the enemy position. Their dive on the island looked like they were aiming directly at us along the wall. We could see the tracers firing and they looked like they were going to hit us. The bullets and bombs hit directly in front of us and went across the enemy position. I was right next the pier, and the enemy had a gun right near the pier. There is a picture of this gun on this web site. It was a gun near the pier between Red 1 and Red 2. It was not being manned at this point. We stayed in this position until some reinforcements came in toward the evening. It was at this time that I received a radio. A TBX radio unit was brought in and after securing the beach near the pier we set up a headquarters for the beach master. I believe he was a Lieutenant Commander or Commander.
The headquarters for this officer was located right on the end of the pier between Red Beach 1 and Red Beach 2 near the Japanese gun emplacement. I didn't feel comfortable at all with my station where I could not really dig in and was not well protected since we were above the sea wall. I quickly built a small fort with k-ration cans. These were heavy metal crates that held small cans of food. The reason we had so many k-ration crates was because our supply boats out in the lagoon past the reef were sending k-rations every time we requested 75-mm rounds. The problem with communication and supplies was so bad that in some cases we would get a tractor and race out to the supply boats and get what we needed, since there seemed to be so much confusion with the radio messages.
On at least a few occasions the men who were in the supply boats off of Tarawa were in considerable danger during the night. Small groups of Japanese marines would swim out to these boats and kill the men on the boats, usually with knives. There were times that we would radio out for supplies and not get a response from the boat. We would send a party out to the boat and find the men dead.
Also during the nights we would set up smudge pots containing some fuel that would be lit in order to hide the silhouettes of our ships that were near the island. If we received radio contact from a radar base on a ship that enemy planes were in the region we were suppose to light the smudge pots to create smoke to hide the ships. We never received any reports so we did not light the pots. I had to keep in radio contact with a Destroyer Escort during the night, and this meant reporting in every fifteen minutes. I believe it was the second night that I was out there near the smudge pots, very tired, having not slept since before the landing, when I heard something bump against the side of my boat. I had one headphone over my ear and the other resting on the side of my head so I could hear what was going on around me. There were others in the boat that were sleeping. The bump got my attention, so I peered into the darkness to see if I could see what had made the bumping sound. I soon realized that a figure of a man was raising himself into the boat. I was armed with a .45 caliber pistol, and my carbine was laying by my side. When the figure pulled himself above the boat, I fired the pistol. Of course everyone in the boat was wide-awake at once. Morning couldn't get there fast enough. When the sun came up, I looked over the side of the boat and saw a dead Jap floating some fifty feet away.
My job was mainly running errands for the beach master, helping with the radio communications, and in some cases being picked up to go on various scouting missions. We heard that there were some Japs on a small island that connected with Betio so we took a landing party to the island. We were relieved to find that the Japs on the island had already committed suicide. I do have a strange recollection of seeing an American torpedo on the landing strip in front of my position on the pier. We never knew how it got there.
I kept up with my duties with the beach master the entire time that we were fighting to secure the island. I finally received word that the Zeilen was leaving, and I realized I had better get back to the ship. I hadn't slept for the entire time that I was on Tarawa, and felt very weak once finding a boat to take me back to the ship. When I finally got to the ship, they flung the cargo net over the side so I could crawl up the side up the side of the ship. I was carrying weapons and a TBY radio and got about half way up the side when I couldn't go any further. Men scrambled over the side to help me. When I finally got to the top, out of exhaustion I fell onto the deck and could not see anything. I was blind, caused by a condition known as water blindness. I remained in that condition for several days. I had a tough time eating because every thing smelled like dead bodies. It was a smell that I couldn't get away from for a long time. Betio smelled very bad with the stench of bodies.
Because of my injuries from the shrapnel I was sent to Pearl Harbor for medical reasons. I did not spend too much time there as I was sent to a new ship, USS Rowe, a newly commissioned destroyer. I served the rest of the war on the Rowe and worked in the Aleutians and later in the Okinawa Campaign. We were involved in many deadly conflicts with kamikaze planes.
An interesting side note to the Battle of Tarawa. I later became a State Patrolman in Colorado, and eventually the Sheriff of Washington County. My Under Sheriff was a former marine named Bob Jones. Although neither us of knew each other during the war, we realized that during the battle we were probably huddled next to each other near the pier on Red Beach Two. Bob was on the Zeilin as well. He died in 1986.
Thanks Pat for sending your father's account and thanks William for writing it!
copyright 2001 Wheaton, Illinois
Created 17 August 2001