Tuesday, October 05, 2004

From too soft to Bloody Tarawa

Originally uploaded by Uncle Mikey.
In November 1943, at Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, US Marines took the war to the enemy for the second time in the Pacific. The main approach to be used by the Navy's LVTs (AKA Amphtracs) and Higgins Boats to land the Marines was from the north, toward and on either side of a 700-yard pier that ran just beyond reefs that ringed the tiny (1 sq. mile) island.

A major question about Operation Galvanic was just how far deep beneath the sea that reef was at any given time. Most of the Australians and New Zealanders familiar with the island agreed that the draft on D-Day would be just enough, about five feet or more, but Major F.L.G. Holland, who had kept local tidal records for the Brits, assured mission planners the depth would be three or less, insufficient to float a Higgins Boat, although the Amphtracs could grind over it. There weren't many of them, though, and to delay until December for better conditions was deemed impossible.

To his credit, 2nd Marine Division Commander MGen Julian Smith understood that if Holland was right, a disaster could develop when entire waves of heavily laden Marines were forced to wade in from 500+ yards out in waist-deep water under heavy fire. He decided to land Waves 1, 2 and 3 in LVTs and send in 4, 5 and 6 in the Higgins Boats, and told them to expect to wade in.

And wade in they did, to disastrous results. I just started reading Robert Sherrod's book "Tarawa: the Story of a Battle," an eyewitness account of the carnage as he went in with the fifth wave. Like most of his comrades, he is surprised to find there are live Japanese soldiers to fire at his transport after days of preparatory bombardment. Enough survived to kill 1,027 and wound 2,292 of the 6,000-man force.

I'm fascinated by what Sherrod says he and many of his friends (FDR, for example) thought about America's ability to fight a global war against a determined foe. An Army General says to him, "I'm afraid the Americans of this generation are not the same kind of Americans who fought the last war." And Sherrod himself tours the country in 1942, concluding from his travels there and abroad that "Our men who had to do the fighting didn't want to fight. Their generation had been told in the all-important first ten years, in its teens, and at the voting age that it was not necessary to fight. Sometimes it almost seemed that they had been taught that peace was more important than honor."

We've heard that about subsequent generations, certainly. And look what the men and women of the Greatest Generation ended up doing in that war, setting a seemingly unmatchable standard of bravery and sacrifice. I for one am not worried about the ability of Americans to be hard enough to handle future conflicts. Warriors won't disappear until war does.

1 comment:

libbyfromphilly said...

Tarawa is a fasinating read and Sherrod was never one to mince words or sugar coat anything. However, well into his eighties, with plenty of time and a sound mind to comtemplate all he witnessed he rarely ever talked about the War. And once when pressed on "The Nature of the Enemy," he said quietly, but firmly..."Remember, things are not always the way they seem."