The men aboard the U.S. Navy’s Harris-class attack transport USS Zeilin (named for Jacob Zeilin, the seventh commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps), on its way to an operation in the Central Pacific in the fall of 1943, had few options for relaxation on their voyage. They played cards, read dog-eared magazines, watched movies, and slept, which one observer noted they could do “at any time in any position on almost any given surface,” including in their bunks, under landing boats, and on the ship’s deck. A
As they neared their combat assignment, the 1,692 enlisted men and ninety-six officers of the Second Battalion of the Second Marine Division that had called the haze-gray ship their home for nearly a week busied themselves with the necessary chores for battle. They meticulously cleaned their Garand M-1 semiautomatic rifles, M-1 carbines, shotguns, and Browning Automatic Rifles, and sharpened their bayonets. They also pared down their loads to the essential equipment they needed to carry—ammunition, canteens, entrenching tool, K-bar knife, field rations, medical kit, and poncho—for the planned November 20 assault against the bird-shaped, reef-fringed island of Betio (given the codename, Helen) in the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands, located approximately eight miles north of the Equator.
The night before the marines of the Second Battalion were scheduled to hit their designated target—Red Beach 2—as part of what had been designated Operation Galvanic by navy officials, the enlisted men started eating their “breakfast” of steak and eggs (a traditional British meal the marines had come to enjoy while stationed in New Zealand) with fried potatoes at 10:00 p.m., while their officers ate at midnight. Thinking of the battle ahead, and the resulting casualties, a navy surgeon griped, “Jesus, that will make a nice lot of guts to have to sew up—full of steak.” In spite of the oppressive heat of the close quarters on the ship that left the men “swimming in sweat,” they washed down their meal with steaming cups of coffee. While a large group of about 500 marines knelt in the wardroom for a Catholic mass given by Father F. W. Kelly, another member of the ship’s company made his way to his junior staff officers’ bunkroom to make his own preparations for hitting the beach.
Robert L. Sherrod, a reporter covering the fighting in the Pacific for both Time and Life magazines, spent the bulk of his time on the transport studying the marines. To him, they looked just like any other “ordinary, healthy young Americans.” The Second Battalion men—most of whom were more than a decade younger than the correspondent—represented a cross-section of America. In civilian life they had been farmers, truck drivers, lawyers, and college students, and among them were both rich men’s sons and runaways from troubled homes. Although the marines came from the same places and used much of the same equipment as their GI counterparts, they had earned for themselves a reputation for excellence when it came to fighting ability, and a tendency toward bravado. When a reporter had asked a Second Marine Division rifleman if he felt afraid before the invasion of Beito, he had a simple answer: “Hell no, I’m a Marine.”
Sherrod had been impressed by what he had seen of the marines during their time together on the Zelin. Earlier in the war he had questioned whether or not young Americans had the heart to fight, but on the transport he came to understand that the marines fought almost exclusively on esprit de corps. “It was inconceivable to most Marines that they should let another Marine down,” he said, “or that they could be responsible for dimming the bright reputation of their corps.” He believed that it came down to a simple fact: The marines “didn’t know what to believe in . . . except the Marine Corps.” He added that the marines always assumed they were “the world’s best fighting men.” This confidence in their own abilities was often resented by other branches of the service, who viewed those in the Corps as arrogant. However, the marines’ brashness “paid off in battle,” said Sherrod.
A few hours before “breakfast,” Sherrod had gone to the cramped room (“a hell hole,” as he later described the accommodations) he shared with six junior officers and fellow correspondent William Hipple of the Associated Press. One of eighty Time Inc. reporters to file dispatches during the war, Sherrod found his helmet and placed inside it folded sheets of toilet paper and a jungle-green mosquito head-net. He also stuffed rations in the pockets of his green Marine Corps dungarees, filled two canteens with water, and stowed away two morphine syrettes and a two-ounce bottle of medicinal brandy supplied to him by one of the transport’s surgeons. Worried that if he were killed the Japanese might learn something valuable from the notes he had already jotted down during the voyage, he made sure to pack two fresh notebooks for his observations about the fighting on Betio. “My barracks bag, which contained all my clothing except what I wore, and my typewriter, I left to be brought ashore at some indefinite date—when the island was ours,” he recalled.
At about 8:30 p.m., Sherrod and his roommates turned out the light in their cabin and tried to get a little sleep. The correspondent could not drift off, and spent his time smoking cigarette after cigarette, hoping that lighting them did not awaken the others. He need not have worried. “When we were called at ten minutes before midnight, we all observed that we had been as wide-awake as a two-months-old baby yelling for his six-o’clock bottle,” Sherrod remembered. The excitement about the landing had been too much for most of them. They all half-believed (Sherrod nine-tenths believed) that the Japanese had evacuated Beito, as enemy forces had done on Kiska in the Aleutians after Attu had fallen to the Americans. “But there was the possibility...,” he added. Sherrod confessed in his notes at the time that if there were a large number of enemy on the island he would be “utterly unprepared psychologically.”
Nothing could have prepared Sherrod for the carnage he witnessed on November 20 on Beito, which ultimately became for him “the acme of all my personal horror.” On the morning of the invasion, the reporter stood on the Zeilin’s deck to witness the awesome bombardment coming from the sixteen-inch guns of the armada’s battleships, along with fire from the cruisers and destroyers of Rear Admiral Harry W. Hill’s Task Force 53. A Japanese soldier cowering for cover on the island marveled at the bombardment, describing it as “a frightening and horrifying experience! It went on and on, without ceasing; the shriek and rumble of heavy shells and the terrific explosions.” A score of U.S. Navy aircraft from carriers also bombed and strafed enemy positions. “The sky at times was brighter than noontime on the equator,” Sherrod observed. “The arching, glowing cinders that were high-explosive shells sailed through the air as though buckshot were being fired out of many shotguns from all sides of the island.”
Surely, Sherrod thought to himself as he viewed the spectacle unfolding before him, nothing could have survived after such an onslaught. After all, had not an American navy officer promised, “We do not intend to neutralize the island, we do not intend to destroy it, we will obliterate it.” (A more realistic assessment, however, had come from Major General Julian Smith, commander of the Second Marine Division, who noted: “Even though you navy officers do come in to about a thousand yards, I remind you that you have a little armor. I want you to know that Marines are crossing that beach with bayonets, and the only armor they will have is a khaki shirt.”)
Sherrod’s hopes of an easy battle were dashed a half hour after dawn when a shell splashed into the water near a ship only thirty feet away from his transport. The correspondent believed that American warships were firing wide, but a marine major shook him back to reality when he said, “You don’t think that’s our own guns doing that shooting, do you?” For the first time, Sherrod realized there were Japanese still alive on Beito waiting for the enemy to come ashore and fulfill their commander’s pledge that “a million Americans couldn’t take Tarawa in 100 years.”
As the marines began to carefully climb down the embarkation nets along the side of the Zeilin to the landing craft waiting below, the ship’s captain played “The Marine’s Hymn” over the transport’s public-address system and the crew cheered. Scheduled to be part of the fifth wave to land at 6:35 that morning aboard the battalion executive officer’s Higgins landing craft, Sherrod had a wet ride into the beachhead, as about a half barrel of water splashed over the boat’s high bow every minute. The marines crammed aboard the landing craft were thoroughly soaked before they had made it a half-mile away from the Zeilin. To help ward off the sudden chill, Sherrod drank from the small bottle of brandy he had stowed away, sharing its contents with the grateful marine standing next to him. “If there was ever an occasion for taking a drink at seven o’clock in the morning this was it,” said Sherrod. The shivering reporter added that his only memory of the first hour and a half of the ride toward the beach was of “sheer discomfort, alternating with exaltation.” His excitement quickly turned to fear as his landing craft came under a barrage of Japanese mortar and automatic-weapons fire. “I gritted my teeth and tried to smile at the scared Marine next to me,” Sherrod said.
The coral reef surrounding the island was exposed, preventing his landing craft from disgorging its load directly onto the beach. The correspondent and the fifteen men with him had to wade ashore for about 700 yards in neck-deep water with about five to six machine guns firing at them, averaging several hundred bullets per man. “It was painfully slow, wading in such deep water,” he said. Strangely, Sherrod realized as he struggled to find shelter on the beach that he was no longer afraid. “Perhaps it was when I noticed the bullets were hitting six inches to the right or six inches to the left,” he recalled. “I remember laughing inside and saying, ‘You Japs are certainly lousy shots.’” After the battle, he described this feeling to a marine officer he knew as his “hysteria period.”
Although he made it onto the beach without a scratch, Sherrod remained in peril throughout the first day of the battle—the only one in his long experience of covering the war in the Pacific that he believed U.S. forces might lose to the Japanese. Finding a semblance of safety alongside a coconut-log seawall constructed by the enemy, Sherrod watched as a Japanese artillery shell made a direct hit on a landing craft bringing many marines ashore. He could already faintly detect “the smell of death under the equator’s sun,” and watched, stunned, as a young marine about fifteen feet away from his position flinched as a bullet tore through his helmet. The marine survived; the bullet had missed his head. The first dead American the correspondent saw was a twenty-year-old crewman on a boat that had stalled on the beach during the first wave. “He had been shot through the head, had murmured, ‘I think I’m hit, will you look?’ and died,” Sherrod reported. The first enemy soldier he spied ran out of a coconut-log, tank-turret blockhouse into which marines had tossed in dynamite charges. “As he came out a Marine with a flame thrower was waiting for him,” Sherrod recalled. “As soon as the flame touched him the Jap flared up like a piece of celluloid. He died long before the bullets in his cartridge belt had finished exploding sixty seconds later.”
Between those two incidents, thirty minutes apart, Sherrod witnessed what he called “the most gruesome sight” he had yet seen during the war. A young marine walked briskly down the beach and turned to grin at one of his friends sitting next to Sherrod. “Again there was a shot. The Marine spun all the way around and fell to the ground, dead. From where he lay, a few feet away, he looked up at us,” the correspondent said. “Because he had been shot squarely through the temple his eyes bulged out wide, as in horrific surprise at what had happened to him, though it was impossible that he could ever have known what hit him.”
The ferocity of the fighting on Betio staggers the imagination. Flying over the battlefield in his Vought OS2U Kingfisher observation plane, Lieutenant Commander Robert A. McPherson could make out “the tiny men, their rifles held over their heads, slowly wading beachward. I wanted to cry.” A marine struggling ashore remembered the water around him colored “red or pink with a churning mass of spouting geysers; bodies were floating on the surface everywhere I looked; here a man moving along was no longer seen.” Private N. M. Baird never forgot the sight of bullets pouring at him “like a sheet of rain,” with Japanese fire “knocking out boats left and right.” The landing craft taking Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Swenceski, the commander of the operation’s tank battalion, to the beach had been destroyed by Japanese fire. Seriously wounded and knocked overboard, he struggled to keep from drowning by climbing to the top of a heap of dead marines; he survived. Lieutenant Colonel Herbert R. Amey, the Second Battalion commander, tried to inspire his marines by standing up and shouting as he waded through the water, “Come on—those bastards can’t stop us!” Japanese machine-gun fire slammed into his chest, killing him instantly.
Such scenes caused some marines to refuse to leave the safety of whatever cover they could find. A frustrated major bitterly complained to David Shoup, the barrel-chested, cigar chomping, and profane commander of the marines on Betio, that his men refused to follow him for an attack on the island’s airfield. “You’ve got to say, ‘Who will follow me?’ And if only ten follow you,” Shoup said, “that’s the best you can do, but it’s better than nothing.” Trying to get word of the dicey situation on Beito to General Smith and Admiral Hill onboard the USS Maryland, the battleship that served as the command center for the invasion (the opening bombardment had knocked out the ship’s radio communications), Shoup sent Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson with a message on what supplies were needed. “You tell the general and the admiral that we’re going to stick and fight it out,” Shoup told Carlson.
As night fell on the first day, American forces held a tenuous toehold on the island. Of the 5,000 marines who had landed on Betio, 1,500 were dead, wounded, or missing in action. The accurate Japanese fire meant that Americans could not use the island’s wooden pier to bring in heavy weapons, but had to haul them over the seawall by hand. As darkness settled on the island, Sherrod, who had miraculously found Hipple amidst the confusion, borrowed a shovel from a nearby marine and began looking for a place to dig a foxhole. He found one, located only ten feet away from a coconut-log pillbox with four dead Japanese soldiers still inside. “I was quite certain this was my last night on earth,” said Sherrod. For the first time since early that morning, he felt fear, as he did not know what might happen under cover of darkness. If the enemy counterattacked, he could see no other possibility than the marines shooting at the Japanese from behind the seawall until they were overwhelmed by superior numbers and annihilated. In spite of the growing terror welling up inside of him, Sherrod tried to joke with Hipple, whom he had been very glad to run across, convinced as he was that he was the only reporter left alive on the island. “Well, Bill,” Sherrod remembered telling his colleague, “it hasn’t been such a bad life.” Hipple responded: “Yeah, but I’m so damned young to die.”
The two correspondents survived the night, and were there for the ultimate American victory after nearly seventy-six hours of relentless fighting. It was a battle, Sherrod later observed, won “by sheer courage—when the Marines had nothing else to fall back on, they had courage.” The Second Marine Division sustained high casualties in winning the first major amphibious operation in the Pacific to be met with organized resistance on the beachhead. Approximately a thousand marines were killed and almost 2,300 were wounded; only seventeen Japanese were taken prisoner. The brutal combat, and the photographs of dead marines littering the beaches and bobbing in the surf that were eventually released for publication, shocked a complacent American public that had “never been led to expect anything but an easy war,” noted Sherrod. Nearly two years into the war, the country still, the reporter realized, found it nearly impossible to bridge the gap that separated “the pleasures of peace from the horrors of war,” a fact that frustrated Sherrod.
To awaken those on the home front to the understanding that there would be no easy way to win the war—he warned that “the road to Tokyo would be lined with the grave of many a foot soldier”—and to honor the men who had given the last full measure of devotion to their country, Sherrod, upon his return to the United States and in just six weeks, produced a book reporting in detail what he had seen while with the marines on Betio. Released on March 7, 1944, Tarawa: The Story of a Battle, remains a classic of war reporting. Julian Smith called the book “the finest account of any battle by land, sea, or air” that he had ever read. Civilian critics also praised the Sherrod’s work for its unflinching look at combat, with the often crusty Edmund Wilson of The New Yorker describing Tarawa in a 1944 review as exceptional. “His book,” Wilson said of Sherrod’s Tarawa, “has none of the vices of journalism, and it provides perhaps the best first-hand description of action that has yet come out of the war.”
Sherrod also personally lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to release for public viewing authentic film footage of the fighting on Tarawa taken by marine cameramen that Roosevelt had described as gruesome. “Gruesome, yes, Mr. President,” Sherrod said to Roosevelt, “but that’s the way the war is out there, and I think the people are going to have to get used to that idea.” The documentary, With the Marines at Tarawa, went on to win the 1945 Academy Award for best documentary, short subject. (The film might have been too much of an eye-opener for some young Americans: A marine public relations officer told Sherrod that enlistments in the corps dropped 35 percent after the documentary’s release