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Wukovits, John. One Square Mile of Hell: The Battle for Tarawa.

Wukovits, John. One Square Mile of Hell: The Battle for Tarawa. New York: New American Library, 2006. 320pp. $15

One Square Mile of Hell relates the story of the November 1943 battle for the Tarawa Atoll from the personal level of the Marines who endured this remarkably bloody fight. John Wukovits makes use of firsthand interviews with veterans of the operation, while also citing personal letters and diaries. The result is a personal history that draws the reader into the lives of the corpsmen, privates, lieutenants, and colonels who grimly made their way across the central Pacific.

As events unfold, Wukovits traces the lives of several Marines as their paths converge on Tarawa. The marriage proposals and strong family ties ominously set the stage for the tragedies that would follow, although the general historical discussion of the war leading up to Tarawa is at times made awkward by the intermixed personal story lines.

The assault on Betio, a strip of sand and coconut trees two miles long and half a mile wide, became a bloody slugfest. There was little room to hide or maneuver on the island, and the frontal assaults by the Marines produced unprecedented casualty ratios. As a battalion commander emphasized to his men, there were two choices: move forward or die. Complicating the operation was the fact that amphibious planners had utilized outdated charts and inadequate tide tables to determine water levels over the island's outer reefs, resulting in numerous groundings and unnecessary exposure to enemy fire. After three days of brutal, hand-to-hand fighting, the Marines subdued the Japanese defenders and claimed a costly victory.

A common theme of the accounts is the incredibly adverse battle conditions. The limited space and high casualties resulted in a layer of death and carnage over the entire island. The equatorial sun and legions of flies added to the misery, but it was the smell of death and decay that lingered in one's mind. "The smell was inescapable," wrote a correspondent; "it evoked instant and nightmarish memories.... Betio was nothing but stink and death."

Besides being a testament to the courageous leadership and fighting spirit of the Marine Corps, the Tarawa operation raised questions in 1943 regarding the degree of force that should be employed in war. The issue has been continually debated following the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, and it is still argued today in connection with harsh interrogation techniques used on suspected terrorists.

Time reporter Robert Sherrod, who accompanied the Marines during the Betio landing, struggled to reconcile what he saw at Tarawa with the clean, edited version of war presented to the American home front. "Americans," he wrote, "are not prepared psychologically to accept the cruel facts of war." Sherrod's observation makes One Square Mile of Hell poignant indeed for Americans today.

While it is noble to memorialize the courage and sacrifice of the Marines at Tarawa, it is equally important to remind ourselves that victory comes at a steep price. Sherrod regarded the carnage of Tarawa as "the most haunting memory of World War II." Indeed, the story of Tarawa should haunt all Americans.


Commander, U.S. Navy

Naval War College
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Author:Shaw, Ronald R., Jr.
Publication:Naval War College Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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