P.F.C. Donald Tyson, C/1/18
"The first wave of Marines, of which the author was part, thought nothing could have survived the bombing and strafing and shelling from 16-inch naval guns prior to the World War II amphibious landing on Betio, Tarawa Atoll. But the Japanese defenders were taking to heart a boast their commander made in his diary: "A million men couldn't take Betio in ten years."
Chow the night before was better than usual, which should have been a tip-off that all might not go as expected. It was November 1943, and the 2d Marine Division was preparing to invade a small island in the Pacific called Betio, part of Tarawa Atoll. I was a member of C Company 1st Battalion, 18th Marines, or C/l/18, as we used to stencil it onto our sea bags. My platoon was trained in the use of demolition and flamethrowers, and for this landing, four of us had been assigned to a rifle squad of the 2d Battalion, 2d Marines. My comrades were Sergeant Earl De Long, Corporal Otto Mohacsi, and Private First Class McElfresh, whose first name escapes me. We were scheduled to be part of the first wave and to land on Red Beach Two. Like myself, many of the troops were young and never had been exposed to combat. We were told that the Army Air Forces would be bombing a few days before the landing and that naval gunfire and carrier air strikes would take place on the morning of the assault. Units were given area and pillbox assignments, and many of us figured that we would land, mop up a few surviving Japanese, and have lunch.
We had rehearsed the debarking procedure, so when 0500 arrived, everyone in the assault waves went to his station and proceeded to climb down the landing nets into Higgins boats. After what seemed an eternity of confusion, the Amtrac we would ride to the beach pulled along side, and the rifle squad, plus the four of us, clambered into the cramped quarters. More circling and maneuvering finally had the first wave of craft in a line, ready to make the run to the beach.
Army people were driving our tractor,1 which carried two forward-mounted .50-caliber machine guns and one side-mounted .30-caliber machine gun. The "Alligator," as our brand of tractor was called, had no armor plating (the newer "Water Buffaloes" did), and our speed through the water was extremely slow and cumbersome.
Dawn revealed the low silhouette of the tiny island we were to attack-2 1/4 miles long and 800 yards wide. The naval bombardment already had begun, and as we watched the spectacle of 16-inch shells exploding from one end to the other, we found it hard to imagine how the island's occupants could survive. Soon the carrier aircraft arrived, and their bombing and strafing runs continued until the initial waves of tractors were near the beach. On the way in, almost everyone was standing and waving to the men in the tractors flanking their own, and the number of them to port and starboard seemed endless. Our course toward Red Beach Two took us about 100 yards to the right of the main pier. At some point during the long ride in, a light rain fell; our spirits remained high, however, as we witnessed the pounding the enemy had to have been taking ashore.
At a predetermined point offshore, everyone was ordered to get down in the tractor and prepare for the final run to the beach. As we neared the island, our machine guns opened fire, and the blasts from our two .50-calibers were ear splitting. Any thought that no one had survived our naval onslaught was dispelled quickly, as the Japanese unleashed an intensive barrage. The Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) man firing our port .50-caliber gun died instantly, as the first rounds of enemy rifle and machinegun fire raked our Amtrac. Simultaneously, a steady stream of bullets began coming in one side of the tractor and going out the other with a pinging sound-except when someone's body got in the way. Our starboard-side .50 caliber gunner was killed, and a replacement for the port-side gun jumped up, grabbed the cocking handle and pulled it back, but he was killed before firing a shot. Our gunner on the .30-caliber machine gun had been hit, too. At about this time, an antiboat gun shell tore into our starboard track, causing the tractor to make a half right-turn stop. The port side then dropped into a small shell hole, exposing part of the inside to the beach.
We had been on board our Amtrac for almost five hours, and during that period, equipment was scattered every where about the interior. As our occupants began to debark, I started trying to round up my gear, which included a five-gallon can of diesel oil for the flamethrower, a pack loaded with blocks of TNT, and my rifle. By this time, everyone had gone over the side, except Corporal Mohacsi and myself. Boot camp had taught us always to pick up an automatic weapon when available; therefore, I left my rifle in favor of the BAR lying in the bottom of the tractor. Quickly, I began removing the BAR magazines from the shoulder harness of our first casualty and putting them inside my dungaree jacket. One of the wounded men-because he was in tremendous pain-begged me to drag a dead man off his legs. I made him as comfortable as possible and then decided to take stock of my own situation before jumping into the water.
I looked over the beach side of the tractor and sized up the situation as far to the left and right as I could see. The beach was a few hundred feet away, and the only sign of life I could see was a single group of about a dozen Marines huddled against the seawall. That long line of tractors I had observed earlier had disappeared, and my only thought was that I had the place all to myself. This crazy notion dissipated quickly, as the Japs spotted me. That pinging sound started again.
As I attempted to see more of the beach from the steering slits in the cockpit, I noticed that both of our drivers were dead. I also tried looking through the bullet holes in the sides. Perhaps the Japs thought I had been hit, because the firing against me ceased. I then made the decision to exit the tractor on the seaward side and to plan my next move.
Corporal Mohacsi was sitting in the port rear corner of the tractor with a fixed stare on his face. I told him the tractor was no longer safe and that we had better get out fast. I got no response from him, not even the blink of an eye. I begged him to jump out when I did, but my pleas seemed to fall on deaf ears. He seemed to be in a state of what I considered shell shock, so I gathered up my gear and prepared to jump over the starboard side into the water. I threw the BAR over the side and jumped quickly after it.
To my surprise, DeLong and McElfresh were in the water behind the tractor with two wounded riflemen and the platoon lieutenant. The BAR had landed on the most seriously wounded man and disappeared to the bottom. It was readily apparent than any attempt to leave the cover of the Amtrac was suicidal, as all the Marines who had made it to the beach side were dead. Our small group appeared to be the remains of what had been only minutes before an assault vehicle with two drivers, a rifle squad, and four engineers.
For the moment, our position behind the tractor seemed tenable; we were exposed to sniper fire, however, from under the pier and from a wrecked cargo boat several hundred yards offshore. Everyone agreed a run to the beach at this time was virtually impossible. I don't know how much time passed, but a Buffalo that had made it to the beach and discharged its troops was returning to sea and finally spotted us. The driver maneuvered his tractor so that his front end was next to ours, forming a V. The logical move to make at this time was for us to board this vehicle and try to reach a point of safety.
We agreed that McElfresh would climb into the Buffalo and the lieutenant, DeLong, the man wounded in the shoulder, and myself would pick up the man wounded in the stomach and pass him to McElfresh, who would lean over the side and take him from us. The bulkheads of the Buffalo were quite high, and our task seemed impossible, as sniper fire kept McElfresh from leaning over to help us. The four of us were standing in knee-deep water, holding the wounded man as best we could. Our adrenaline must have peaked at that moment, because on a count of three, we literally threw this 180-pound man up over the side of the tractor. We then all scrambled in our selves, and the driver headed for open water beyond the reef.
Once we reached a safer distance from the beach, we transferred to a Higgins boat that took us to a hospital ship. Sadly, our critically wounded man died before we arrived. The deck officer yelled for any wounded men to board his vessel, and the man wounded in the shoulder and the lieutenant climbed on board. DeLong, McElfresh and myself were then taken back to the ship whence we had come to this awful place. By this time it was between 1300 and 1400 in the afternoon.
The Navy gave each of us a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, but as soon as we had finished eating, Sergeant DeLong told us we were going back. Again we climbed down the nets and boarded a Higgins boat carrying some Navy personnel and headed for the reef.
The Japanese gunners had a hot reception for any boat foolish enough to get too close to their island; therefore, we spent the rest of the day lying offshore waiting for darkness and a chance to land. Midnight passed before we made the end of the main pier, and as we debarked, other boats were busy loading wounded to be taken to a hospital ship. In an effort to remove Japanese snipers from under the pier, First Lieutenant Alan Leslie, platoon leader of my engineer platoon, had set the end of the pier on fire that morning with a flamethrower when he arrived with the first wave. The smoldering embers cast an eerie glow in the darkness, so to avoid creating a silhouette, we crawled all the way to the beach. Sporadic rifle fire across the pier indicated the enemy was still alert. None of us had a weapon, so we spent the rest of the night under the end of the pier on the sandy beach, hoping for no counterattack.
At daybreak, we made our way down the beach to a point approximately opposite our disabled tractor. Since we needed weapons, I volunteered to wade out to our Amtrac and try to recover some rifles either in or around the tractor. As I approached the bodies in the water, I noticed two dead Japanese soldiers and surmised that they probably had intended to board our Amtrac and use our machine guns against our troops on the beach. I heard later that Corporal Mohacsi had reached the beach under cover of darkness and guessed he may have been responsible for the two dead Japs.
I collected several weapons and headed hack to the beach, surprised I had not been fired on. A hit later, DeLong, McElfresh and I joined with Lieutenant Leslie and several other engineers. We spent a little time at Colonel David Shoup's headquarters, which happened to be just outside a still-active Japanese bunker just inland from Red Beach Two.
Col. Shoup's CP on Red Beach 2.
The few engineers present formed a small combat team and began the task of trying to eliminate enemy pillboxes and other strongholds. Having only one flamethrower, Lieutenant Leslie strapped it on his own back and ordered us to cover him. As burning soldiers ran out of their bunkers, they were promptly shot.
While I write this account, I seem to have no recollection of how I spent the third day on Tarawa; an incident that occurred on the second morning, however, will be etched in my memory forever. While still on the beach, we witnessed the attempted landing of Higgins boats with reinforcements from the 8th Marines. These brave men had to abandon their boats in deep water several hundred yards from the beach and make their way toward shore with no cover whatsoever. The Japanese machine gunners had a field day, as their accurate fire rained up and down this line of men who had no choice but to keep wading. I weep as I write about this now.
The Marines at Tarawa faced a tough and formidable enemy. The defenders consisted primarily of Naval Landing Force troops, or "Imperial Marines." With these elite troops, an abundance of weaponry, and virtually indestructible bunkers and pillboxes, the Japanese commander boasted in his diary: "a million men couldn't take Betio in ten years." The 2d Marine Division took it in 72 hours, but not without a price.
Sergeant DeLong, Corporal Mohacsi, and Privates First Class McElfresh and myself survived Tarawa and were permitted to depart on the fourth morning after the island had been declared secure. The 2d Marine Division received a well-deserved Presidential Unit Citation for this operation, and my platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant William Bordelon, received the Medal of Honor, posthumously. The incidents described here are told as accurately as I can remember them, and I shall forever be proud to have served with a Marine division that distinguished itself in such an exemplary manner."
Mr. Tyson is retired from McNeil Laboratories, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, and he lives in Annapolis, Maryland. After Tarawa, he was in the first wave of the amphibious invasion of Saipan and also participated in the landings on Tinian. He was sent back to the United States in mid-1945 for the Navy V-12 program, which was canceled when the war ended. Mr. Tyson received a law degree from the Woodrow Wilson College of Law in Georgia and passed the bar. He was called back to service in 1950 (inactive reservist) and rejoined the 2d Marine Division at Camp Lejeune. He served for seven months and was discharged with the rank of sergeant.
Tyson much of the first night under the pier at right, hoping the enemy would not see him. At dawn, he waded out to retrieve weapons from his Amtrac. He "would bet a nickel," he says, that the dark object just off the beach in the middle of this photo is his wrecked tractor.
Source: Donald Tyson, "All Might Not Go As Expected," Proceedings, November 1999, p. 54-56.
1. Naval personel drove the Higgins Boats. The Army was not involved in landing the 2nd Division on Tarawa.
copyright 2003 T.O.T.W.
Created 27 September 2003