• Donald Allen

April, 2011

A WWII veteran of the 6th Marine Regiment read the story in March/April 2011 "Semper Fi" about History Flight's trip to Tarawa in search of Marine graves. He was irate that the Seabees had "destroyed" Marine graves and even paved them over under the airstrip. The son of a WWII Seabee wrote me to find out about this, and if it was true. Here's my reply:

Hi John,

Well, some Marines may be under the airstrip, but here's the reason why. During the battle, many Marines were buried by their buddies right where they fell. In 24 hours, a body in the 100-degree-plus temperature on the equator gets nasty quickly. They often marked the grave with an M1/bayonet in the ground, but that wasn't always so. Sometimes just a stick.

Then they moved on with the fight. I'm sure there may have been some buried right next to the original Japanese airstrip. When the battle was over, the Seabees had orders (I've never seen them) to clear the island and make it ready for a support base. Many of the graves were lost during this process. The airstrip was widened, and if there was a body along the original strip, it may have been covered during this work. No fault of the Seabees. During and immediately after the battle, burial trenches were dug with a bulldozer and Marines were laid in them and covered. These were supposed to have been accurately marked and recorded, but the didn't have GPS in those days, and there were few landmarks left. In most cases, they weren't properly surveyed for actual coordinates. So, after the war was over, we sent out teams throughout the Pacific to recover bodies. They couldn't find half of the men left on Tarawa, usually because the grave location information they had was wrong. Also, after the battle and when things were getting organized on the island, the Navy created "memorial cemeteries" to commemorate those lost in the battle. Sometimes there were actual bodies in these cemeteries, and sometimes they were just symbolic. Sad, but true.

Also immediately after the battle the Seabees began construction of a proper bomber airstrip on the east corner island of the atoll. The strip on Betio (west end island), was really only suited for fighters and medium aircraft, not the heavies. I have never read of anyone knocking the Seabees. They and the Marines had mutual respect for each other, and what this person is saying is just scuttlebutt.

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