It is said that the two most common expressions in combat are "What was that noise?" and then "Oh, sh--!" And some wise observer said that when you are in a war zone, there are long bouts of boredom and short periods of sheer terror.
But finally we heard that the 1st Marine Division was leaving for Australia. The US Army was starting to come in force. And before long an army unit took over our duties, as the Japanese were near defeat.
Then we (the 2nd Marine Division) departed for New Zealand for rest and rehabilitation. As we boarded ship, we were a tattered and battered bunch and " wore torn combat fatigues, some clipped at the shoulder for freedom of movement. Many of us were underweight and over-tired. Some were dispirited, but most of us still maintained a cocky "esprit de corps" attitude. And we were fervently hoping the girls in New Zealand would be cute and cooperative. And they were!
Soon (after getting settled in New Zealand at the start of March 1943) the morale soared in our camp as we fattened up on mutton and milk, stews and steaks, fish and fruit. Morale was given an added boost when Artie Shaw and his swing band came in for an unexpected visit and played popular tunes such as "Stardust" and "Begin the Beguine." We simply went bonkers and danced wildly in the aisles with each other.
Booze and beer were available in Wellington, near our camp. We went to dance halls and bars and were welcomed into the homes of New Zealanders, who were grateful to us for "saving their asses from those Japs," as one bloke put it. Romances flourished with the local girls, and wedding bells even clanged for some Marines. We knew things were getting really serious when we were issued newly designed .30-caliber Ml Garand rifles, which were semi-automatic and k held an eight-round clip. For months we trained in amphibious landings on the beaches of New Zealand's North Island. The division, plumped out with replacements, was about 20,000 strong.
Finally, with much excitement and speculation, we boarded ships. After several days of sailing, we were told of our upcoming mission. It would the taking of a ' vital Japanese airfield in the Tarawa atoll in r the Central Pacific. Most Americans probably haven't heard about Tarawa. If asked they might think it's a TV reality show, a rap group, or a new Japanese car model. They probably would be surprised to learn that in just three days of stunning savagery, 997 Marines were killed and 2,233 wounded. Another 88 Marines went missing and were presumed dead. Also killed were 30 sailors, while another 59 were wounded. Total casualties: 3,407. (Some sources indicate as many as 1,009 Marines were killed or died of wounds, and some list 2,101 wounded. Many sources include the sinking of the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay (CVE-56) by Japanese submarine I-175 on November 23, 1942, to add 644 US Navy lives lost.)
An Awaiting Island Fortress
The MAIN OBJECTIVE within the Tarawa atoll was a tiny island called Betio. It contained an airfield with an improved bomber strip. Its capture was critical because Japanese aircraft based on Betio were a serious threat to Allied shipping from Hawaii to Australia and New Zealand.
Betio is surrounded by a treacherous coral reef and is only about 2.5 miles long and some 800 yards wide at its widest. According to Marine historians, this little sand speck was said to be the most heavily defended island ever invaded by Allied forces in the Pacific. Japanese Rear Admiral Keiji Shibazaki, the commander on the island, boasted to his 4,800 men (including about 1,000 military construction workers and 1,200 Korean forced laborers) that a "million Americans couldn't take Tarawa in a million years." But only 17 of the enemy would survive, and Admiral Shibazaki wouldn't be one of them.
Fortifications were awesome. Steel and concrete barriers, along with mine fields and extensive strings of barbed wire, protected the three beaches. Nearly 500 pillboxes were scattered over the island. Also present were fearsome eight-inch guns mounted on turrets. In addition, there were anti-aircraft and anti-boat weapons along with howitzers. Machine guns were prevalent, along with scores of mortars.
The night before the landing we sat around cleaning our already spotless weapons. I looked around at the anxious faces of fellow Marines and thought, "Jeez, but we sure are a bunch of young punks." Bravado filled the air. We joked and smoked and heckled and sweated on deck and in the holds of the ship. I recall one Marine, known as Big Red from Alabama, who wondered in his Southern accent "if there were any gals on the island and would they be horny and cooperative." We laughed, punched the air with enthusiasm, and yelled, "Yes! Yes!"
Then a Marine stood up quickly and began singing parts of a bawdy song many of us knew. The tune was based on a rumor that a wealthy American woman had her nymphomaniac daughter sterilized to curb her excesses. The song was called "The Sterilized Heiress" and the first few verses went like this:
Oh, I'm a sterilized heiress, the victim of laughter of rubes. I'm comely and rich and a most venomous bitch Because my mother run off with my tubes! So fie on you mother, you scoundrel. Come back with my feminine toys. Restore my abdomen and make me a woman I want to go out with the boys!
Then somebody in a deep baritone burst out singing "The Marines' Hymn" and we all chimed in with enthusiasm if not talent. At the finish we cheered and hollered for a long time. Sure, we were Marines, but I noticed many a moist eye, including mine.
ABOUT 3 A.M. (on November 20) came the call to prepare for debarkation. We gathered our weapons and shook sweaty hands all around. Then we did what infantrymen have done for centuries: we nervously waited and waited and waited and then waited some more. I admitted to myself that I was scared, really scared. Then I thought, "Hey, that's good. I'll be more alert."
Finally we were told to go over the ship's side. We made the dangerous descent down the cargo nets and dropped into the bobbing amtracs (amphibious tractors). They were slow but capable of moving ashore through shallow surf.
I made my way forward to one of the two .50-caliber machine guns aboard our amtrac. Though I was a young PFC (private first class), my squad leader had chosen me for that position, and I was most proud and knew others were envious. I carefully checked the weapon, which had already been loaded. Its new paint reflected dully and menacingly in the sun. I stroked the gun fondly and said something inane like, "Don't let me down, pal."
Racing for the Shore
AS THE AMTRACS CHUGGED ALONG, the battleships Colorado (BB-45) and Maryland (BB-46) fired their massive 16-inch guns, answering the Japanese naval gun emplacements that initiated the historic battle for Tarawa. We cheered when we saw our red-hot shells howling toward shore. Monstrous fireballs erupted on the island, perhaps indicating a large ammunition dump had been hit. Plumes of heavy black smoke started enveloping the beaches as air attacks began and the incredible noise started to mount.
I looked in disbelief at the havoc being created by the naval pounding and air strikes. I vividly recall becoming extremely apprehensive, and I felt my heart ratcheting up and the strong thumping of my pulse pounding in my ears. Looking out at the armada I felt like an ever-so-tiny cog plugged into a vast killing machine. I glanced at my fellow machine gunner across the amtrac. He had a grim look on his young and unshaven face. He managed a smile and flashed me the victory sign and quickly turned back to his own business.
Time seemed fractured--as Shakespeare's Hamlet so aptly put it, "time [was] out of joint." We circled for what seemed a minor eternity. The blue-green ocean glistened, and oppressive heat began rising from the deep waves.
Finally the order came to head for the island. Our vehicle was in the first wave. As the line of amtracs chugged toward shore, my mouth felt like I was chewing on dry cotton. I took a big swallow from my canteen, but it didn't help. So I reached in my pocket and took out a hard candy that had been sent by my mother. It soothed my parched mouth, and I silently saluted Mom.
We were perhaps 50 yards from shore when the overwhelming sound of battle increased in intensity. It was piercing beyond belief. The terrifying crescendo was almost paralyzing, and I thought my eardrums would crack. The din came from a slew of navy dive-bombers spreading their deadly eggs across the smoking island. Fighter craft relentlessly strafed the beaches. The warships added to the deafening cacophony as they belched salvo after salvo inland and along the battered beaches. The pizzicato humming of enemy machine guns, large and small, was almost continuous. Huge splintered palm trees with their tops knocked off were splayed against the vivid blue sky. Heavy smoke and dust swirled, making it difficult to see.
As we approached shore, I delayed firing my machine gun, as I didn't want to waste ammunition. Hot fragments, probably from shore guns, fell into our amtrac and wounded several Marines. Then I noticed an incredible sight to my left. An intrepid destroyer had slipped in close to our landing site with its propellers furiously churning to keep from grounding. Its five-inch guns pounded the shore in our support. Two sailors, one casually sitting and the other standing, were raking a gun emplacement with automatic rifles.
I began firing the big .50-caliber. It coughed heavily and danced erratically in my sweating hands, making it difficult to control as the amtrac bounced crazily in the surf. But I managed to fire along the shoreline as we closed in. The beach was now just a few yards ahead.
It was then that I saw them. Seven or so enemy soldiers in light-brown uniforms were dashing ghostlike through drifting smoke toward a large bunker. I swung my weapon around, took careful aim, and pulled the trigger. But nothing happened. "Damn it, goddamn it," I shouted. The gun had jammed. Hurriedly I tried to unjam the gun but couldn't. "You lousy piece of sh--," I yelled in anger as I struck it sharply with my palm. Then I realized I was wasting time. I grabbed my rifle and snapped off four shots before the Japanese disappeared through the smoke into the bunker. I may have wounded or killed several, but of course I'll never know.
Suddenly our platoon leader, Randy Johnson, a big fearless guy from Minnesota, yelled, "Everybody down! Down! Get your frigging asses down!" We all obeyed instantly as heavy enemy fire was zipping around the amtrac. Finally the vehicle crunched onto the sand and wheezed a few yards inland. "Everybody out, now!" Johnson screamed. We tumbled over the side and landed on wet sand, with Johnson shouting hoarsely, "Damn it, spread out, spread out and move forward. You go, go, go!"
Battle on the Beach
I LURCHED FORWARD THROUGH the sticky sand, weighed down by two grenades, two canteens, my ammo belt, a trenching tool, a three-pound helmet, my pack containing assorted paraphernalia, and, of course, the 9.5-pound Garand rifle. I wished I was wearing a thick suit of armor instead of flimsy fatigues.
Moving ahead with several others we found a big shell hole about 20 yards inland. We hunched down at its bottom, mindful of enemy machine-gun bullets whining overhead. Finally it stopped. I carefully raised my head and considered throwing a grenade at the gun emplacement that I had spotted behind a massive log. I had played football in high school and had a good arm. But the distance was just too great. So I furiously fired my rifle at the emplacement. Two other Marines quickly joined me, and one had a Browning Automatic Rifle. He set up the weapon and the deep burp-burp-burp of the Browning, with its 20-round clip, was reassuring, though deafening. Then we heard a faint yelp. The operator of the Browning asked me nervously, "Hey, you think we got any?" I answered, "Yeah, I believe so. Maybe they'll stay low for a while." Smoke from our gunfire lazily drifted over our shell hole. Since there was no return fire we figured we either got lucky or the machine-gun crew had moved further inland.
I had never known fear like I was now experiencing. I had endured searing fear numerous times on Tulagi and Guadalcanal. But it seemed different this time. It penetrated the very marrow of my bones and into my psyche. I noticed I was breathing shallowly, so I forced myself to take deep, measured breaths. There was a constant metallic taste in my mouth that I found most strange, so I popped another of my mother's hard candies, but to no avail. I noticed that my muscles were tight and that I was exhausted. It was impossible to relax, and the sauna-like heat drained my energy. Tarawa is only 80 miles north of the equator. My lips were starting to split and my face felt sunburned. I was soaked and sticky, as sweat had gathered in my armpits and then slid down my chest and legs. I felt like I was a tightly wound toy, ready to do anything and everything.
Suddenly a mortar shell whistled in and hit the top of our shell hole about two feet from my left shoulder. I can still see those smoking yellow fins buried a few inches into the sandy soil. My heart was pounding so hard that I had the silly thought that it might break out of my rib cage. We ducked and cringed and cursed and prayed, but nothing happened. After about three minutes, we realized it was a dud.
I STOOD UP AND YELLED, "Holy sh--, but aren't we a bunch of lucky frigging Marines?" Everybody jumped up and we pounded each other on our backs in glee. Then we decided it was time to move out. So we dashed out of the hole and ran forward. Then that damn machine gun came alive, and I could hear bullets chip-chip-chip-chipping the sand around my feet.
It was then that I did something dangerous and perhaps foolish, but it probably saved my life. I saw a small opening into what apparently was an enemy dugout and I dove into it without hesitation. It was neatly carved out of the earth. Empty food cans and equipment were strewn about, and the odor of strange food permeated the area. No enemy was present, or I could have died there.
Rescuers Become Victims
AS I LEFT THE DUGOUT, I saw I had been separated from the others, so I sprinted forward. The never-ceasing sound of gunfire of all makes and calibers was concentrated to my left and rear. Ahead I saw another large shell crater and fell into it. Four other Marines were there, none of whom I recognized but who apparently knew each other. One was a sergeant who had been severely wounded in the groin. A makeshift bandage covered his injury and he moaned as his bloody hands kept clutching and opening around the wound. A Marine asked, "How you doing, Sarge?" The sergeant's face was extremely pale as he shook his head and kept groaning. We conferred and agreed that he needed immediate medical attention. Our location was perhaps 40 yards from the beach, and two Marines volunteered to run for a stretcher.
Dusk was near as we anxiously awaited the return of those Marines with the stretcher. The wounded man continued to moan. We could hear the unrelenting gunfire on all sides. Finally the two soaked-with-sweat Marines came back over the rim of the shell hole. We carefully loaded the now-quiet sergeant onto the stretcher. One Marine said softly, "Let's go," and we quickly moved out. There had been gunfire, but now it seemed strangely quiet.
It was nearly dark. Cautiously we moved toward the beach, expecting sniper fire, but none came. I had the wishful thought that perhaps the snipers were withholding their fire because of our mission of mercy. Not likely, I concluded, but who knows? As we neared the beach with our heavy load, other Marines in the area appeared almost as shadows.
Suddenly there was a stunning blast and I felt like I had been swung up by a giant hand and then slammed hard to the ground. I remember wondering what the hell was I doing on my back. Then I managed to roll over. My legs felt like they had been seared with a blow torch and they burned with almost unbearable pain caused by jagged fragments from an enemy grenade. Many pieces had torn deeply into my buttocks and upper thighs. Many cries for "Corpsman!" rang out, and mine was among them: "My legs, my legs, are they gone?"
I was sure I was dying. A profusion of confusion erupted in the area and there were excited cries of "Get that Jap bastard! Hey, somebody get that bastard!" Those of us who had carried that stretcher believed the other Marines might have thought we were enemies because it was near dark. I yelled, "Hey, for Christ sake, we're Marines! We're Marines!" Others joined my frantic plea. Then I spotted the silhouette of a large marine, who yelled back, "Damn it, guys! I know it! I know it!" He pulled the pin from a grenade and tossed it into a spider hole. There was a muffled explosion and he shouted in triumph, "Yes! I got him. I got the son of a bitch!"
Stretcher-bearers magically appeared out of the dark. Gentle hands carefully loaded me onto a stretcher while a corpsman skillfully gave me a shot of morphine. The awful pain began to lessen.
As I was being carried to the first-aid station on the beach, I thought I recognized the voice of one of the stretcher-bearers. I said, "Hey, Tim, is that you?" He said, "Yes, and who are you?" I told him, and he said tearfully, "Oh, my God, Nick, the guys from Fox company I've picked up today!"
We reached the first aid station and I was taken off the stretcher. Two figures loomed above, one holding a tiny flashlight. The one with the flashlight hurriedly examined me and then I heard him say the sweetest four words I've ever heard: "There's no hemorrhaging, doctor."
I spent the night in a drug-induced fog. Once, I awoke believing that land crabs were ripping at my wounds, but that was not possible, since my wounds had been tightly bandaged. Then I fell asleep wondering whether the gunnery sergeant and the other stretcher-bearers had survived. I never did find out.
Caption: After Guadalcanal's mire, mosquitoes, and blood, the 2nd Marine Division savored rest, recreation, and female companionship in New Zealand. Soon, war beckoned again. Top: When new M1 Garand rifles like the one in this poster arrived, Cariello knew "things were getting really serious." Above: The new target was Tarawa Atoll, seen here in a 3-D model aboard a transport. Opposite: Marines clamber down into landing craft for the November 20, 1943, assault. Cariello manned a .50caliber machine gun in an amtrac, a tracked amphibious vehicle.
Caption: Opposite: The first invasion wave advances toward Tarawa. Cariello was in the first wave, his amtrac chugging forward just behind American naval bombardment and bombing and strafing by carrier planes. But this advance pounding didn't knock out Tarawa's Japanese defenders. Cariello fired his machine gun until it jammed. Below: Cariello's amtrac reached the shore, but these marines' landing craft got stuck on a coral reef. Wading in from 500 yards out, they were easy targets.
Caption: A marine winds up to lob a grenade at a Japanese gun emplacement on Tarawa. Cariello desperately wanted to hurl a grenade at a bedeviling enemy gunner who pinned him and other marines down in a bomb crater, but the position was too far away. Another marine's Browning Automatic Rifle did the job instead. NATIONAL ARCHIVES PHOTO
Caption: Top: Cariello helped carry a badly wounded sergeant toward an aide station, much as these marines are doing for their injured buddy on Tarawa. Suddenly, however, the tables turned. Struck in the legs by shrapnel, Cariello was himself seriously wounded and had to be carried away on a stretcher. Above: A host of dead marines lies strewn across the beach of Betio, Tarawa's main island, after the fighting.
Caption: A symbol of the Battle of Tarawa's human cost: a marine's pack, washed up on Betio's shore, reveals treasured photos of loved ones. Approximately 1,000 marines were killed in the battle or died of their wounds. More than 2,000 were wounded, and dozens were missing.