Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Second World War and The South Pacific

I am not a history buff, as a matter of fact history tends to be one of my least favorite topics ... however there is something about World War II that intrigues me.  It leaves me feeling dizzy with mixed emotions of amazement and fascination intertwined with a deep sadness and sometimes even horror and shock.  I know embarrassingly little about WWII, not ever realizing how much the small islands and atolls of the Pacific played a roll, until we began our exploration of them.

It started with an email from my Dad ... Did you know your Grandpa was in the following islands [during the war]...?  For what I wondered, nothing happened out there, on those tiny little islands and atolls ... oh how wrong I was.  Some of the largest D-Days of the war occurred in these remote "paradise" locations.

WWII in the Pacific

Our tour began in Tuvalu.  During the war, more than 6,000 Americans occupied Tuvalu as they set up base on Funafuti and built airfields at Nukufetau and Nanumea.  From this strategic location the US was able to bomb Japanese bases in Kiribati, Nauru and the Marshall Islands.

During our stay in Nukufetau we walked upon the old tarmac, now retaken by the atoll jungle, peered into a deep well dug during the war, now tainted and polluted, and pushed our way through the dense greens to see a downed B17.  None of it seemed terribly real, just old artifacts left from a long time ago.

Then Chris happened upon two cement slabs nearly buried beneath the deep growth of the inner atoll. While one slab was unreadable, the other slab clearly read "Al Zuro  ♥'s Mrs. Mildred Zuro", "USMC", "10-17-43".  That's when the reality hit me.  What entered my mind was an 18 year old boy (perhaps older at 20 or 22), newly married, battling a tropical heat he was unaccustomed to, miles from home, unknowing of what was to happen next ... thinking of his wife and previous life back home.  What worried me most (and yes, I was truly worried, some 63 years later) was that by now I knew that the Battle of Tarawa, an extremely bloody battle, occurred just over a month later on November 20, 1943.  Was the 10/17 date the inscription date or, since it was inscribed twice, could it have been their marriage date?  If the former, was Al part of the Tarawa battle, and if so could he have possible survived?

The next time we had email access we anxiously emailed Chris' dad, Art, asking him to help us research Al and Mildred.  It is amazing what Art can accomplish, he is a very thorough man!  I'm not sure how many hours he put into it, but from the mounds of paperwork he showed us, it appears to be quite a few.  Luckily all his diligent work paid off.  I was extremely happy to hear that Al survived the war, and he and Mildred had four sons.  He died on Friday, January 15, 1999 at the age of 78 (meaning that he was indeed around 22 years of age during his stint in Nukufetau).  At the time of his death he had seven grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and was living in St Petersburg, Florida.  Mildred died a few years later in 2002.  The story was completed when Art was able to contact a couple of the sons to share this piece of family history.

We continued to see reminders of the war as we headed north into Kiribati.  In Tabiteuea a large gun shell hung from a tree, used like a bell and for decoration.  In Abemama pieces of another plane were covered by bush.

Battle of Tarawa   

But the real tragedy of the war hit us when we reached Tarawa (Kiribati).   In December of 1941 the Japanese bombed Ocean Island and took along with it, Butaritari, Makin, and Tarawa.  From the accounts we've read and heard, it seems it didn't take long for the killing to begin.  On October 14, 1942, twenty-two unarmed British Coast Watchers were murdered (supposedly be-headed) by the Japanese.  The British Memorial (pictured right), dedicated to these twenty-two young men seems to be one of the few historical sites that most of the Tarawa locals know about.  It stand beautifully within one of the local cemeteries.

In 1943 the US Marines attacked; the Betio attack was the first real battle of the Central Pacific, the first real test of the American Amphibious doctrine, and the first American troops to attack a defended atoll.  The plan was to land over 18,000 Marines on the northern lagoon beaches.  The landing area had been divided from west to east, into three beaches; Red Beach 1, 2 and 3. Intelligence had estimated between 2,500 and 3,100 Japanese forces.  Interestingly enough these calculations were derived from the number of latrines (toilets) the Japanese had built (the latrines were multi-holed wooden "buildings" built over the water and clearly visible on aerial photographs). Even more interesting was that the estimated number was remarkable accurate! (The Japanese forces consisted of  2,619 combat troops.  However, in addition there were 2,217 labor forces)

It is impossible to grasp the massiveness of the attack and the space it occurred in.  Imagine 35,000 troops, 6,000 vehicles, 19 carriers, 12 battleships, and more; a fleet of warships covering 50 square miles of ocean, and a huge percentage of it was committed to the Betio attack.  Now imagine Betio; less than 2 miles long and approximately 700 yards at its widest spot; its total acreage reaching barely 1/2 of a square mile.  Think about it this way: it is about the size of New York's Central Park.

Blockhouse: A structure of heavy timbers or reinforced concrete used for military defense with sides loopholed and pierced for gunfire and often with a projecting upper story 
Pillbox: A small low concrete emplacement for machine guns and antitank weapons

But even with huge forces, the attack wouldn't be easy.  First, Betio had natural defenses, with 800 - 1200 yards of fringing reef and extreme tides.  Next the Japanese had built a 3-5 foot high barricade from coconut logs, wired and stapled together, along the edge of the beach.  Behind the barricade, machine gun emplacements were connected by trenches.  Twenty-five 37mm-75mm field guns sat in pillboxes, so protected that only a direct hit from a large shell  would be able to disable them.  In total the Japanese had over 500 blockhouses and pillboxes.  The Japanese also had fourteen coastal defense guns covering the beaches.  On the seaward side (where Japanese had expected the attack to come from), the beaches had been mined and obstacles set up to funnel any invasion crafts into lanes covered by the artillery.  Rear Admiral Shibasaki told his troops that the Americans could not take Tarawa with a million men in a hundred years.

Amphibious Vehicle:  A device for transporting personnel and equipment that can operate as a wheeled or tracked vehicle on land and as a boat in water. Two principal types appeared during World War II: the LVT (“landing vehicle, tracked”),  and the “duck” (DUKW), The LVT resembled a tank, whereas the duck moved on rubber tires ashore and was propeller-driven when afloat.

On November 20, 1943 the Second Marine Division began the assault against Betio from within the lagoon.  Due to the surrounding coral and low tide, the American landing craft could not make it to the shore; starting from 300-900 feet out the marines had to make their way in.  125 vehicles were able to make it over the reefs and assist the land assault.  The LVTs (amphibious tractors or alligators) were able to deliver 1500 men to the beach.  However the remaining troops had to wade in, chest deep in water, under fire.  There was a lot of confusion, and a lot of death.

Red Beach 1 consisted of a deep cove easily defended by fire from both sides.  Here the Japanese waited until the vehicles and marines were within a hundred yards of the beach and then opened fire; with the marines in a cross-fire between the arms of the cove.

On Red Beach 2 the Marines encountered the log barricade.

And just beyond the 800+ yards of beach that made up Red Beach 3, stood the Japanese Command Post Bunker;  a 60 by 40 ft reinforced concrete blockhouse, standing 25 feet high, with two 13mm machine guns mounted on the roof.

5,000 men attacked that day, and by midnight more than 1500 were dead or wounded, making it the bloodiest day (up to then) in Marine Corp History.  Even more horrifying was when Chris and I watched some of the video footage from the Tarawa battle; until then I hadn't really put 2 and 2 together enough to imagine what that many injured and dead people would look like in such a small space.  I can't imagine how the survivors continued to function and fight.

Because the US couldn't get their full force ashore, and therefore couldn't get by the Japanese forces, the marines who did make it ashore had to spend the night huddled together on a narrow strip of beach.  On the second day Major Ryan, his troops, and two tanks fought down the west coast and captured a large beach (called Green Beach).  With this capture reinforcements could now land, along with heavy weaponry.

On Nov 23, 1943 the fighting ended.  Betio was declared secured at 1312 on the 4th day.  The battle lasted 72 hours and 42 minutes.  Only 17 Japanese prisoners (along with 129 Koreans) were captured, another 4,690 estimated dead.  There are conflicting totals on the American casualties, the numbers ranging between 3,110 to 3,407 killed, wounded, and missing; nearly 1% of the ENTIRE (390,000) Marine Corps officers and men.  With over 1,000 men in the killed or missing category.  The total death count (American and Japanese) neared 6,000.  All in less than a 1/2 square mile.

The Battle of Tarawa made history in another way as well; the film With the Marines at Tarawa, was the first war footage with dead American soldiers to be released and shown in the States.  While this bloody battle proved that the war would not easily be finished, thereby increasing war bond sales, it had a dramatic effect on military enlistments, causing a 35% drop.

Many other battles occurred in the Pacific, including the fierce battle at Iwo Jima, where the historical flag raising photograph was shot and remains a symbol of the courage and unconquerable will of our Military to this day.  Two great books are; D-Days in the Pacific by Donald L Miller, and Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley with Ron Powers.

As Chris and I explored the structures and weapons now deserted for more than 60 years, I couldn't help but think of the young men (and in later wars, women) that fought not only in the Second World War, but in every battle that has occurred in America's short history.  And closer to home, I felt a huge twinge of relief (and very lucky) that so many of my own family members have survived a variety of wars.  There is a huge history of military, especially strong in the Marines, in my family, and as we walked through the ruins of war I had a tremendous urge to call them up and tell them how proud and thankful I am  ... but also how very hopeful I am that the Battles of Tarawa someday cease forever.

D-Days in the Pacific, by Donald L Miller
South Pacific, Lonely Planet
Flags of Our Fathers, James Bradley w/ Ron Powers
Britannica 2003 Deluxe Edition, CD-ROM

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