MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- “A million men cannot take Tarawa in 100 years,” boasted Imperial Japanese Fleet Rear Adm. Keiji Shibasaki.
Sixty-three years ago 35,000 Marines, sailors, and soldiers took the heavily fortified island, and over 4,500 Japanese lives, in 76 hours. It was the first time in history the Japanese forces offered heavy opposition to a Marine amphibious landing.
2nd Marine Division hosted “Tarawa Day” here Nov. 21, in order to honor these veterans and remember the sacrifices made by those who fell on the island. 2nd Marine Regiment joined approximately 20 veterans and their families to commemorate the battle, which took over 1,100 American lives.
The day included a memorial at the base Protestant Chapel and a speech by the regiment’s Commanding Officer Col. Stacy Clardy before moving to a series of static displays which included modern assault amphibian vehicles, as well as WWII-era weapons and equipment.
“Today we remember our fallen brothers,” Clardy said. “That cost is tattooed on the heart of every Marine.”
On the morning of Nov. 20, 1943, American assault crafts approached the small island and the Imperial troops who were bunkered down in two years of fortification. Lead companies, the groups of Marines who landed on the island first, lost 45 percent or more of their men, which was the highest casualty rate of the battle.
“We knew it was death, but the choice was clear,” said Henry Norman, a former private first class and veteran of the battle. “You got the ocean behind you and the island in front of you, and you sure aren’t going back.”
Over 1,000 Marines and sailors died on the beach and 3,000 more were wounded during the three-day battle for the island which keyed the division’s phrase, “Keep Moving.” Some have said the battle validated the Marine Corps’ war-fighting concept of amphibious warfare.
American troops fought through a maze of 500 pillboxes, the name given to fortified machine-gun positions, and bunkers which were connected by tunnels and defended by wire and mines. Of the 4,700 Imperials, only 17 survived the battle.
“We weren’t brave,” said William E. Ashley, Tarawa veteran and former staff sergeant. “We were just going to do what we had to do, and we weren’t going to let anyone die.”
As the men in his amphibious vehicle bailed out water with their helmets, their gunnery sergeant was killed, Ashley explained. Five minutes later there were only five Marines left out of the 15 man team. They hadn’t even landed yet.
The completed, although bloody, mission paved the way for a stronger attack into the main forces of Japan. Tarawa and its airstrip were a much needed foothold into the Pacific, and became an important operational post during the following battles with Japan during WWII.
Clardy ended the memorial with words to the fallen heroes of Tarawa.
“Stand tall while you guard the golden streets of Heaven. Once a Marine, always a Marine.”