20 to 23 NOVEMBER, 1943

Copyright © 2005
Thomas G. Pettit

How many ways do we count the dead? 1,115 Marines, Doctors and Corpsmen. Deconstructing as we must, we lost about 185 per landing zone or battalion; 15 per hour of combat; one every 4 minutes; all in about one square mile of misery. And the enemy lost four times that many. But these are politicians’ and journalists’ numbers.

Let us count the dead from the beginning in our hearts. Here is the leaden, gray equatorial air in the pre-dawn darkness. Here is an armada of American souls, queued and milling in preparation for a mysterious drama, a tragedy. They have rehearsed but are more uncertain than novice actors in the wings of a foreign theater . . . . .

Up from New Zealand, troopships in the night
Gun bristling warships, bomb packed carriers
Ten thousand Marines on deck at first light
Abeam of Tarawa’s coral barriers

This Betio sandspit, bunkerpocked wart
Shaped like a rifle, two miles in length
Rigosentai stuffed, Marine Corps to thwart
The Emperor’s legions, boasting of strength

In stone strong pits under rock covered logs
Groaning abulge with munitions and guns
Grenades and explosives, seething like dogs
Ready, they thought, for America’s sons

“Not a million Marines in 100 years”
Their Admiral Shibasaki had stated
Could win at Tarawa or conquer their fears
Against power that could not be abated

At sea in the distance our countrymen stood
As flaming shells from their warships were driven
And seeing that fire, they knew as they should
It’s a stage set for death and the curtain has risen

Their awe and their fear turned to focus and action
As they swarmed down the nets to a strange hostile world
Wrenching and pitching, their LC’s gained traction
Then lurched to the mission, colors proudly unfurled

From New York and Texas, Tennessee and Vermont
A cop and a convict, an old China hand
Beacon Hill Brahmins and Okies still gaunt
Miraculous brothers, an impossible band

Most very young and from everywhere really
Even far distant places, unknown to most
They brought pride and courage, stubborn and steely
A gift we’d soon know and then sadly toast

At 500 yards out some LC’s were halted
Those mean coral reefs rising out of the tide
The miscalculation was bitterly faulted
As sergeants were shouting “go over the side!”

In shoulder high water they dropped and they fell
Then started to wade with their weapons held high
And the fire was on them like bullets from hell
The boat captains watching knew many would die

Amtracs were sent to go all the way in
Low drafted and treaded they crawled in the surf
Bringing men to the fight again and again
Guns blazing, they growled to their tenuous turf

Some stayed in the water while others would ride
But all were exposed to death dealing dangers
In those hours of peril, spilling blood in the tide
They were comrades in arms, none of them strangers

A slender wood pier, stretching out from the shore
Just over the water to just breach the reef
Was quickly co-opted for shelter and more
Marines moving beneath it, finding relief

Suddenly grappling that pier’s ocean end
Two LC’s brought a platoon very brave
Scrambling up fast to attack and to send
Its defenders to a watery grave

This unique and elite Scout and Sniper platoon
Well trained and ready for the combat they’d face
Skilled in the grief they’d be delivering soon
To the enemy’s best at a blood measured pace

William Deane Hawkins was their leader that day
A new First Lieutenant, but brilliant and sure
A beacon of strength as they went to the fray
At age 29, he was wise and mature

Stubbornly forward, the Leathernecks pressed
On each side of the pier in chaotic bands
In withering fire, America’s best
Many died for a stake on Betio’s sands

First Lieutenant Ott Schulte’s Amtrac took fire
From a three-sixty arc as beachward it crawled
His two wounded gunners refused to retire
Standing tall to their task, though brutally mauled

When Lieutenant Jim Fawcett’s craft hit the sand
His platoon, though unscathed, had watched others suffer
So they humped on ahead, every last man
Protecting their friends as the battle got rougher

Some thirty feet wide, their beach-hold was laying
To a seawall of logs, a fortunate shield
Hunkered there knowing the price they were paying
Gut-checking and angry, refusing to yield

Massive bombardment from the sea and the air
Had little effect on those bunkers so strong
Undaunted defenders, in strength, were still there
Seething for combat, both brutal and wrong

Fallen Marines gently washed by the tide
Others fell in the sand, their backs to the sky
Their comrades fought onward, keeping with pride
The oath for the ages, their bond; “Semper Fi”

Our first waves assaulted the enemy’s front
Their first line of bunkers, just over the wall
Crawling over those logs, they went to the hunt
With hand-carried weapons and courage, that’s all

With flamethrowers, rifles, grenades, bayonets
Plans made on the spot in haste and in doubt
Marines viciously calling the enemy’s bets
Returning their fire and burning them out

Sgt. Bill Bordelon, ashore with wave one
Quickly and boldly blew three bunkers away
Though wounded, this Texan, audacious and young
Was charging another when killed the first day

Major Mike Ryan, in the fight from the start
Led the way out of chaos for many Marines
Brilliant and bold with a warrior’s heart
He turned stranded troops into fighting machines.

With a bleeding leg wound and limping ashore
The man in command on the scene in this fight
Colonel David M. Shoup had written the score
Now on stage to conduct, he prayed he’d been right

Doctors and Corpsmen at heartbreaking work
Unwavering and grim, gentle and stoic
From desperate triage, they never did shirk
The stricken called their commitment heroic

Milton Meyer was short, a tough PFC
Foot-wounded and lame, “I’ll stay here!” he cried
He cursed as he boarded his evac to the sea
It then soon exploded and everyone died

Flamethrowers were manhandled onto the scene
By hefty Marines who could use them with skill
These fire-spitting, 80 pound grief machines
Brought death in a flash from the hinges of hell

Young Johnny Borich with one at his back
Faced two wounded foe making uncertain threats
With quick moves, he covered their possible track
Then triggered the fire that cancelled their debts

Japan’s defense was both fluid and static
Strong bunkers with movement by snipers and tanks
Colonel Shoup’s team with concern, but not panic
Used real time tactics sent up from the ranks

Bunker busting Marines would rush to a vent
Dropping fire and blast force into its heart
To these nightmarish tasks, no one had to be sent
Unasked volunteers would just pick up and start

Harry Niehoff, Corporal, TNT trained
Blew big holes in bunkers with his blasting skill
Delivering shock, concussion and pain
Flushing them out where they’d choose to be killed

Shoup’s first action report was carried by hand
At noon on day one with his radios out
“Need men and supplies to take and hold land
The flow must start now, the issue in doubt”

General Julian Smith took that request
A blooded two star at age 58
He rapidly put his staff to the test
Before nightfall, relief would be out the gate

With dusk on day one, the tempo subsided
Marines waited now for a Banzai attack
But for one night their concerns were misguided
The battered and shocked Rigosentai held back

Ignoring the valor they’d faced that day
With American softness their living lie
And Imperial hubris their chosen way
They bled for a fiction they’d still not deny

Just an hour past the second day’s dawn,
A great fort of supplies had grown on the pier
Sheltered only by crates, the handlers worked on
Under fire, they brought the food and the gear

Goods were swarming ashore in 1000 ways
Chaotic, ad hoc, ingenious and strained
A great Yankee effort was now on display
Creative fast action, sweatsoaked and profane

Two 900 pound guns appeared on the shore
Needed up front, now, beyond the log wall
Two dozen Marines faced fire for the chore
Hoisting ‘em over, ammunition and all

Deane Hawkins, twice wounded, led his platoon
As they went to the fight again and again
This scholar and scrapper had sensed he’d die soon
And on day two, he gasped farewell to his men

1200 Marines, a Major Hays in command
Embarking through hell at sunrise on day two
Were ordered to wade nonstop to dry sand
Leaving casualty care to a follow on crew

Marines on the beach watched this with dread
While hundreds were hit and dropped out of sight
And the sea turned pink as Americans bled
500, at least, were lost to the fight

But the combat surged and expanded apace
Rigosentai were now besieged from all sides
And collapsing back from the beaches in haste
As fresh Marine troops surged in through the tides

Sandy Bonnyman knew the odds were not good
From fortune and Princeton, he was pure volunteer
Leading his troops as a privileged knight would
He died for those men in his 33rd year

The Japs were confused by constant attacks
Tornadoes of fire, random and wild
This storm front so vicious was breaking their backs
Their composure and pride were being defiled

And as they moved back, they came into the clear
Firepower found them with lethal effect
While the Navy’s big guns arced blast force and fear
Close cannons and mortars shellacked ‘em direct

Pushed to Betio’s tip, a small narrow space
Seeking cover in bunkers, foxholes and trees
Their fighting reflecting impending disgrace
Not quitting, but virtually down on their knees

Their last gasp came the night of day three
A Banzai charge which Marines had expected
Rigosentai madly joined the melee
Knowing they’d finish dead and dejected

Our came our Marines to fight hand to hand
Bayonets and fists against Japanese swords
With American courage, both tragic and grand
They stood fast and subdued those heathenish hordes

The last fighting stopped near noon on day four
Setting sons of Japan, broken and solemn
Heard the last crackling notes of this tragedy’s score
Broadcast in two tongues, “Betio has fallen”

“Not a million Marines in 100 years”
Shibasaki, you’ll recall, had stated
He died with that claim at the scene with his peers
Hubris tattered, in ruins and deflated

For 76 hours the battle had raged
10,000 horrors in three days of madness
Exhausted Marines commanded the stage
The curtain came down on ruin and sadness

Congressional Medals of Honor were placed
On four valorous men, each with a story
Though just one survived to tell his with grace
All are etched in the Corps’ Legends of Glory

Bonnyman and Hawkins, Bordelon and Shoup
Blue ribboned stars from this battle so brutal
Now let us tell you of each man in this group
Praying they know that their pain wasn’t futile

In honoring them, we pay homage to all
Who brought Globe and Anchor to Betio’s shore
Relentless, they stormed to this crucible’s call
Intrepid, they burnished the soul of the Corps

Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman, Jr. A 33-year old First Lieutenant, son of the President of the Blue Diamond Coal Mining Company in Knoxville, Tennessee. He attended private schools and Princeton where he was a first string football player. This adventure lover was released from the Army Air Corps for buzzing control towers. He owned copper mines in New Mexico, was married with three daughters when he enlisted in July, 1942. His medal was awarded to his eldest daughter, Frances, by James M. Forrestal, then Secretary of the Navy, at the Department, in January, 1947.

His citation reads in part: “Determined to effect an opening in the enemy’s strongly organized defense line . . . he voluntarily crawled approximately 40 yards forward of our lines and placed demolitions in the entrance of a large Japanese emplacement as the initial move in his planned attack against the heavily garrisoned, bombproof installation . . . Withdrawing only to replenish his ammunition, he led his men on renewed assault, fearlessly exposing himself to the merciless slash of hostile fire as he stormed the formidable bastion . . . flushing more than 100 of the enemy who were instantly cut down and effecting the annihilation of approximately 150 troops inside the emplacement . . . assailed by additional Japanese after he had gained his objective, he made a heroic stand on the edge of the structure, defending his strategic position with indomitable determination in the face of the desperate charge and killing three more of the enemy before he fell, mortally wounded.”

William Deane Hawkins. A 29-year old First Lieutenant raised in Fort Scott, Kansas and El Paso, Texas. Son of a schoolteacher. Brilliant, he won a statewide Chemistry essay contest in high school and was admitted, at 16, to the Texas School of Mines on a full scholarship, graduating with honors. He had been an avowed pacifist until the Japanese attacked. Working as an engineer in Los Angeles, he enlisted three weeks after Pearl Harbor. He had been rejected by other services because of a large burn scar. Recognized quickly as a rising star, he was promoted up from private and selected to lead his Regiment’s elite Scout and Sniper platoon.

His citation reads in part: “ . . . 1st Lt. Hawkins unhesitatingly moved forward under heavy enemy fire at the end of Betio Pier, neutralizing emplacements in coverage of troops assaulting the main beach positions. Fearlessly leading on to join the forces desperately fighting to gain a beachhead, he repeatedly risked his life throughout the day and night to direct and lead attacks . . . personally initiating an assault on a hostile position fortified by enemy machine guns . . . boldly firing pointblank into the loopholes and completed the destruction with grenades. Refusing to withdraw after being wounded in the chest in this skirmish . . . steadfastly carried the fight to the enemy, destroying three more pillboxes before he was caught in a burst of Japanese shellfire and mortally wounded.”

William James Bordelon. A 23-year old Staff Sergeant, born on Christmas day, 1920, in San Antonio, Texas, Growing up there, he enlisted three days after Pearl Harbor. A graduate of Central Catholic High School, he had been a cadet officer in the ROTC. He qualified as a Marine Marksman in boot camp, firing a 214 with the old Springfield rifle. His medal was presented to his mother, Carmen, at an impressive ceremony at the Alamo, by President Roosevelt on 17 June, 1944.

His citation reads in part: “Landing in the assault waves under withering enemy fire which killed all but four of the men in his tractor, Sgt. Bordelon quickly made demolition charges and personally put two pillboxes out of action. Hit by enemy fire just as a charge exploded in his hand while assaulting a third position . . . Disregarding his own serious condition, he unhesitatingly went to the aid of one of his demolition men . . . Still refusing aid for himself, he again made up demolition charges and single handedly assaulted a fourth Japanese machine gun position, but was instantly killed when caught in a final burst of fire from the enemy.”

David Monroe Shoup. A 38-year old Colonel, wrote the Tarawa battle plan and took his Command Post in a trench on Betio as the first waves came ashore, from where he directed all 76 hours of the combat. Born on a farm near Battle Ground, Indiana. Graduated from DePauw University, commissioned a Marine Lieutenant in June, 1926. Served in many roles, at sea and ashore, in the 17 years preceding the battle of Tarawa. Serving in many more roles in the ensuing years, mostly stateside, many at Marine Headquarters, he was promoted up the steps. He was promoted to four star rank and assumed his post as Commandant of the Marine Corps on January 1, 1960. Received his medal from James V. Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, on 22 January, 1945.

His citation reads in part: “Although severely shocked by an exploding enemy shell soon after landing at the pier and suffering from a serious painful leg wound which had become infected, he fearlessly exposed himself to the terrific and relentless artillery, machine gun and rifle fire from hostile shore emplacements. Rallying his hesitant troops by his own inspiring heroism, he gallantly led them across the fringing reefs to charge the heavily fortified island . . . assumed command of all landed troops and working without rest under constant enemy fire during the next two days, conducted smashing attacks against unbelievably strong and fanatically defended Japanese positions.”

Back east to Hawaii, troopships in the night
Spaces stand empty, cold, stark and secured
Sleep troubled sailors reflect on the fight
Klaxons blare rudely and then Taps is heard

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