Sgt. Lee Miller
Once I had recovered from malaria, at the U.S. Naval (Four) Mobile Hospital, in Aukland, New Zealand, I was TDY to the Second MarDiv encamped near Wellington, N.Z., at Ticonkoreeca ( a Mauria name.)
I was assigned as squad leader, due to my past combat experience, at Guadalcanal and Makin, in the Second Raider Btn., of an assault unit, first wave, landing force to where ever we were headed from N.Z. I had a squad of ten jarheads from the Second, all fresh jarheads, looking like boots fresh from the states. And so, on August 5, 1943 our training began.
Having been a Raider, I trained my squad like Raiders; the usual stuff, like bayonet drill, knife fighting, hand-to-hand judo/karate, various small arms, besides their regular M-1 rifles, and finally had a squad shaping up fairly well. My squad was second, third platoon, Charley or "C" company.
Soon we got word that we were to support a flame-thrower unit, of Baker (b) Company while they assaulted Jap bunkers somewhere a long way from where we were. The flame-thrower unit was skippered by one 1st Lt. A.A. Bonnyman Jr., former platoon leader (mine) in the Second Raiders. When I had departed the 'Canal as a casualty, I thought I had left officers and men of the Second Raiders behind for good. Now here was former Lieutenant Bonnyman in command again, one of the very best officers the Second Marine Division could ever have.
I met with Bonnyman several times, but always to discuss business at hand and no personal fraternization. In those days fraternizing between officers and enlisted personnel was forbidden. But he was happy to see me, as I was him, and I think we both felt safer somehow.
After hard training for the next few months, we boarded four transports at a Wellington dock, got squared away in the holds of the ships, and set sail for a salient unknown. Five days to sea, a tin can came alongside with info of what our salient was, and where. It was a small island named Betio, in the Tarawa atoll, in the Gilberts, where we Raiders had attacked Butaritari Island (Makin) from submarines over a year ago.
1st Lt. Hawkins and Capt. Bonnyman showed us , a big relief map, where we would attack, at dawn, on 20 November 1943. Betio, to me looked like a small porkchop, upside down in a frying pan. We were to land on Red Beach 2, along side a pier, take cover behind a seawall and thence await further orders to attack. The isle of Betio was said to be staffed by about 1,00 Imperial Jap Marines, Japan's best, who would fight to their deaths to hold it. Our landing forces of 12,00 men seemed to indicate the battle would be over quickly.
I learned from someone a former movie star-turned-Marine, Louis Hayward, would be onshore filming our coming battle with a Bolex-held movie camera, in color.
William Hockstedler, Sgt. 2nd squad, 2nd platoon, Charley Co., was assigned to assist my attacking squad if we needed help.
Our armada to Tarawa consisted of several battlewagons, cruisers, and a number of destroyers. Air Corps bombers from Guadalcanal (Henderson Field) and the carrier Lexington comprised our air power, although I saw none of the latter until in landing craft, headed for the beach.
Just before dawn, on 20 November the morning menu was steak eggs for all gong ashore. A typical warriors breakfast, although not well enjoyed or digested due to the combat tension in the atmosphere all around us.
Most of us disembarked our transports into landing craft, called "alligators" but some of us, due to the above craft running into underwater obstacles in Betio's lagoon, came ashore in Higgins Boats. The Higgins craft I was in was struck on the bow by an .88 shell, and it was blown apart. All of us heaved up and over the side in to the water below. I went to the bottom and came up with nothing. No helmet, pack, cartridge belt, weapon...nothing. Just myself and the dungarees I wore. I claim to have "drawn sub-pay" to the beach, finally making a dash to safety behind the seawall near the pier. I was ashore on Red Beach 2, only -- where the hell were my men? Looking lagoon- ward, I soon beheld what had happened to most. Their bullet-riddled bodies were floating in the bloody water, some with bloated bellies, face up; others bellies-down just their backs and butts visible; the rest dead on the bottom of the lagoon somewhere.
I looked around me. I took the rifle and cartridge belt off a dead Marine, who reached the seawall but died there; a helmet from another dead Marine; loaded and fired the weapon to make sure it worked; and then looked around for other "lost sheep" wondering what had hit them. I gathered a squad, eventually, and looked for Bonnyman or any other officer or enlisted man I knew. It was indeed a bedlam of horror and confusion, compounded by Jap bullets and mortar bursts both behind the seawall and our side too. Dead Marines were everywhere; a few dying gargled out their final words in blood, and died miserably.
This scene reminded me of the current movie, "Saving Pvt. Ryan," which devoted 30 minutes to the horrors on Omaha Beach, in Normandy, on June 6, 1944. But this was 20 November 1943!
Sgt. Bill Hockstedler and I found each other, somehow, in that cauldron of hell on Betio's beachhead. Like me, he was minus most of his squad, but had accumulated another of scared-s---less Marines. We then looked for LT. Bonnyman, finally located him about evening, the same day, near the end of the seawall near a Jap tank trap.
The battle raged on. Some Marines were stranded on the reef of the isle, had located some solid sand under the water and were wading ashore with rifles held high, or at a high-port arms.
For chow that night we ate C-ration from the packs of dead Marines. With evening, came rounds from Jap snipers. Some had swam out to our landing craft, caught-up on underwater obstacles, and were now aboard, sniping at these of us on the beach. It was a night of undiluted hell, one I'll remember always.
The following dawn, 21 Nov. 43, Bonnyman organized a squad of men and instructed that Hockstedler and myself support them with infantry small arms fire while they attacked the gun-slots of the bunker. The bunker was formerly used as a power plant, but was now turned into a fortress of sand, cement, coconut logs; much like the bunker our Raider battalion had finally wiped out on Makin Island (Butaritari) the year before.
Hockstedler took his squad to assault the Jap positions to the (our) left side of the bunker, while I took my squad toward the center of the bunker. Bonnyman led his squad up the right side of the bunker and opened up on the gunslots there first. We could hear the screams of pain from Japs being burned alive inside. And soon the stench of death became terrible.
I led my squad toward the steps up the bunker to its top, where, with luck, we would blow in the escape hatch there and trap all Japs inside the bunker. Bonnyman's men would then burn then to death systematically.
The bunker was wiped out, but not until our losses were accounted for and evacuated to the beach. I was one of the casualties. A Jap mortar (from Somewhere?) landed behind me and killed six of my men while the impact concussion blew me forward onto the sand covered steps. Lt Bonnyman, meanwhile, was stitched by 12 rounds of Nambu machinegun fire, but refused to be evacuated to the beach until all of his men were evacuated first. He died from his wounds and loss of blood. For his heroism, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (posthumously). Bill Hockstedler, bless him, lived to be an old man of 72, and then died of cancer. No medals, no nothing...!
I was much later awarded my second purple heart, and luckily am alive today to tell the above story.
One thing I almost forgot. While charging around a Jap tank-trap toward the bunker, actor Louis Hayward jumped up in front of me, from nowhere, and snapped my photo charging at him. I damned near shot him. I later learned who he was, and always wanted to apologize for my brutal actions and comments, but never got the chance to. Too bad. I always liked Hayward as an actor. He was at that time husband of actress Ida Lupino.
I later learned, in the hospital, that the Battle for Tarawa (betio) officially ended at 13:30 hours of the fourth day, 24 November 1943.
Watch for Lee's book on his experience at Guadalcanal!
Marine Secret Execution: Carlon's Raiders Execute Two of Their Own
copyright 2000 Wheaton, Illinois
Created 6 April 2001 - Updated 27 May 2001