The returning amtrac churned toward the safety of the invasion fleet at Tarawa. A Japanese shell splashed close behind. A second exploded to the right. Then came the third.
Whenever U.S. Marines get together, the game of “pulling time” is popular. Seniority is determined by whose serial number is lower. There are times when a Marine has bragging privileges around “boots” (youngsters fresh from boot camp) and times when the same Marine stares in awe at an old salt whose serial number is so low that it seems he must have served m the corps from the beginning.
The superior attitude commonly held by veterans was widespread in Company A, 2nd Amtrac Battalion, 2nd Marine Division. Unlike the rest of our battalion, we had been involved in the Solomons campaign–Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo–since the first landing. We had served as raiders for a short time and occupied Gavutu for what seemed like an eternity.
After more than eight months away from civilization, our living habits changed drastically when we arrived in Wellington, New Zealand. Our company had been awarded the Asiatic-Pacific ribbon with two stars and the Presidential Unit Citation with one star. We were thin, brown as lifeguards, and ready to enjoy Wellington’s hospitality.
Unfortunately, our exuberance was forestalled when malaria contracted in the Solomons surfaced in our ranks. Some of our people had it so bad that they were sent Stateside.
The replacements for our departed buddies arrived. Then, after what seemed too long a time for a unit to be away from combat we boarded ships with our amtracs (amphibious tractors) and equipment. We had made good friends among the New Zealanders, and when our ships left Wellington Harbor we felt we were leaving our home away from home.
By the fall of 1943 the American drive across the central Pacific was coiled and ready to spring. The previous August the United States had wrested the offensive in the Pacific away from Japan with the landings on Guadalcanal.
Now, however, a different kind of fighting awaited the U.S. Marines, whose blood and toil would pave the way to the eventual recapture of the Philippines and bring the war to the Home Islands of Japan on the wings of American bombers. In contrast to the heavy mountains and thick jungle of the Solomons farther south, the terrain of the central Pacific is comprised mostly of atolls, groups of coral outcroppings often only a few hundred yards across, encircling or nearly encircling lagoons, and providing limited access.
Two island chains, the Marshalls and the Gilberts, lay in the path of the American advance. Five hundred miles southeast of the Marshalls, the Gilberts had to be neutralized to protect the American flank and eliminate the threat of Japanese interference in the rear of an operation against the Marshalls. The two principal atolls in the Gilberts were those farthest west, Makin and Tarawa.
On our transport we had four amtracs, 13 of our company’s people, plus about 1,500 men of our division. The amtracs were stored in the forward hold, mine being the last one put aboard.
Several weeks passed as we sailed closer to “Helen,” our objective and the name given to Tarawa, which we were to capture. Maps were studied, beach areas where we were to land were mulled over and, finally, exact locations for assault were pinpointed. Mine was to be on Red Beach One, in the small cove on the northwest side of the island. My cargo was to be 81mm mortar shells. Each amtrac carried one .50-caliber and two .30-caliber air-cooled machine guns. We also had M- 1 rifles and two 5-gallon cans of potable water.
Several days before the landing, our small group was called together and informed that there would be approximately 80 percent casualties among the amtrac people. Our group went quiet…too quiet. To break the spell, I put my arm around our corpsman and said, “I’m going to be sorry to see you go, fella!” Everyone burst out laughing, including the corpsman. The solemn attitude quickly disappeared. Everything in readiness, we had only to wait and let the Navy get us to our disembarkation point.
The eve of invasion was a quiet night. Each one of us withdrew into our private dreams of home or vivid memories of past experiences, thoughts on the hazy unknown of the immediate future, and a word or two with God. Some of us stayed up so late that going below deck to our sacks would have accomplished little. We were lying on the hatch cover where our amtracs were stored when someone mentioned that, if we fell asleep, surely someone would wake us before they removed the hatch cover. He was right. For me, the morning started with a hard kick in the back of my head. A sailor running across the hatch cover in the darkness had been responsible. It was a lousy way to start D-day.
At this point I had some illogical thoughts regarding my future well-being and my wristwatch. I had decided that I would either come out of this battle without a scratch or be killed in action. So I put my watch in a waterproof container and stored it in the pontoon of my amtrac.
A day or two later I recognized the absurdity of what I had done. If I were to come out of this battle without being wounded, why not wear the watch? And if I were killed, why shouldn’t I die wearing the watch! I mention this because I have no idea of what time I left the transport, or of the time of other events that followed. They all fall between very early morning and mid-afternoon, when I was back aboard ship.
We went below for a quick breakfast, cleaned up and then went to our amtracs. As soon as the first part of the hatch cover was removed, I told Stanley “Bro” Brodowski, my driver, to start the engine. I rechecked the guns, then attached the sling to be used by the ship’s crane to lift us. As I saw the first part of the three-part hatch cover lifted away by the crane, I nodded to Bro, and he hit the starter. The engine turned over several times but did not start. He tried again to no avail. Our amtracs had been in the ship’s closed hold for several weeks without the engines being started.
Then the second part of the hatch was lifted away by the crane. Another try by Bro failed. I stuck my head into the driver’s compartment and asked, “You think it’s flooded?” “I don’t know. Maybe,” he answered. I told him not to try again until the hatch cover was completely removed and the crane hook was dropped. I thought that if it was flooded, waiting a minute or two might help, and a private prayer to the “Mechanic” upstairs could not hurt.
The last of the hatch cover was removed. As the ship’s crane was dropping the hook for us, I crossed my fingers and nodded to Bro. He hit the button, and this time the engine started. That loud, wonderful sound was sweet music to my ears. I thanked the “Mechanic.”
After attaching the crane’s hook to our sling, we were slowly hoisted out of the hold. As we came even with the main deck, there were about eight sailors standing nearby watching us with their mouths open. They were awed by the fact that this soaring metal container with machine guns pointed skyward would soon be in mortal combat with the enemy. I smiled at one of them. In jest I signaled for him to join us. The other sailors saw it and started to playfully push him toward me. He would have none of it, even though it was only horseplay, and managed to push all the others back a foot or so.
Once we were in the water with the crane hook removed from the sling, a naval officer with a bullhorn on the ship’s bridge called out to us, “Attention, amtrac!” I looked up at the officer questioningly. “Proceed to the beach!” he shouted. I thought, “Good God, fella, where else!” I gave him an ‘okay’ sign, and we proceeded to the beach.
It took the better part of an hour to churn from the ship to a point 1,000 yards from the beach. We rechecked our three machine guns as we headed for the cove. Then came our first contact with the enemy.
I saw machine-gun bullets hitting the water on our starboard side. The pattern was coming straight for us. I ducked. We were much too far away from the beach for that type of fire. Besides, the beach was to our south, and this pattern of bullets had come from the west.
I stood up. Again the bullets made the same pattern in the water. This time when I ducked I heard several bullets come through the amtrac’s side. I looked at my cargo–mortar shells–and swallowed hard.
The Japanese firing must have thought our amtrac was armored, since they had stopped shooting when they could not see me. Carefully, I looked over the side with just my head exposed. We took no fire. I looked toward the cove. There was nothing there. The only activity that I could see was on the extreme northwest point of the island. One amtrac and about 20 Marines were visible.
We started toward that point. I told Bro to stop alongside two Marines, rifles at port arms, wading through the water toward the beach. I told them to get on board and that we would take them ashore. Both looked frightened. The one who appeared to be leading said, “No.” Again I told them to get aboard. This time he yelled, “Get that damned thing away from me!” Apparently he felt safer without an amtrac around. At port arms his M-1 was pointed at me. Reluctantly, I told Bro to continue.
We pulled in west of the other amtrac. The crewmen stayed aboard to hand down our cargo. I got out and hollered at no one in particular that we were delivering mortar shells. Three men came to the side of the amtrac and took the crates from my crew. I got a good feeling when, within two minutes of pulling ashore, the mortar shells were being fired. While helping to unload, crewman Winston Beaudoin took a bullet that entered at his elbow and exited at his wrist.
The cargo unloaded, I shouted for the wounded to be brought aboard. While they were being loaded, I climbed up and took the forward machine guns, a .50 and a .30, off their mounts and gave them to the few men left on the beach.
As I was about to order Bro to back into the water for our return trip, a Marine came up on the starboard side. He asked if I had any water. Our eyes made contact. “God,” I thought, “he looks entirely too young to be here.” I gave him both 5-gallon cans and wished him good luck. Then we started back toward the larger support craft.
Beaudoin, holding his injured arm, was in the driver’s compartment with Bro. There were about 12 wounded, all ambulatory, in the cargo compartment. I manned the .30 caliber installed aft and searched the shore for any gunfire we might draw. None came.
About 300 yards offshore, I broke out a pack of cigarettes from my breast pocket and handed it to the nearest fellow. As the pack was passed around, I thought, “The smoking lamp is now lit.”
We were about 600 yards out when I saw a flash from the southwest corner of the island. Immediately, a large geyser of water appeared behind us. The strong current had forced our amtrac some distance to the west and exposed us to enemy fire. Another flash was followed by a second geyser of water, this time on our right.
I knew that if we turned eastward, the island itself would offer some protection. I rushed forward, reaching toward Bro’s right shoulder to indicate that he should turn in that direction. I didn’t reach him. A terrific blast splattered me onto the cargo deck. I thought: “So, this is death. It’s not so bad.”
Slowly, I regained consciousness. I heard screams and felt the frantic shuffling of people around me. When I finally opened my eyes, I was looking at part of someone’s head. Since blood was running down my left cheek and I could not see out of my left eye, I thought, “If that’s mine, I’m really dead.”
Reaching up to touch my left temple, I was happy to find it there. Then I staggered to my feet. My pants were bloody. I could feel blood trickling down my leg. I was having difficulty breathing because of blood gurgling up into my mouth.
I heard Bro scream for me to help him. I had never seen or heard him frightened before, and it upset me to hear him that way now. I was not facing the driver’s compartment, so I was unable to see him, but with what little breath I could gather, I screamed, “Oh, shut up!”
He did. When I turned I saw why he had been upset. He was still in the driver’s seat, but his torso was bent backward into the cargo compartment, and our starboard gas tank was on fire. I was sorry I had yelled at him.
Facing forward, I straddled his body. Being left-handed, I naturally tried to reach him with my left arm. It would move up and down, but 1 could not control its movement side to side. I looked at Bro between my legs and said, “Hey, I’m wounded!”
His sarcastic answer told me that he was much worse off than I. Still in the driver’s compartment, his legs were twisted in an unnatural position. I dragged him with my right arm into the cargo compartment. When I looked up, I saw one of the wounded staring at me. He was a kid I remembered from aboard ship. We had nicknamed him “Freckles.” He helped me lower Bro over the side and into the water. I told Freckles to get off and took a last look at the carnage aboard the amtrac. When I looked back up, Freckles was still standing there watching me. I cursed him and again told him to get over the side. This time he complied.
No one was left alive in the amtrac. By the time I climbed out all those still alive were scattered 50 to 100 yards north of me. I knew there was no way I could muster enough strength to get to the transport ships. It was also too far to go back to the beach.
The water appeared to be 3 or 4 feet deep as I stood on the submerged coral. I allowed the current to push me along to the west. Machine-gun bullets suddenly hit the water about a foot to my right. They had come from the east behind me. I turned to face that direction, and another pattern of machine-gun fire began hitting the water. This time the bullets came directly at me. I waited until they were about 30 yards from me and threw my right arm above my head, twisted my body and flopped into the water. I wanted whoever was firing to think I had been hit, and good; I purposely staggered to my feet, walked two steps, twisted and flopped into the water again. This time I came up facing east. I stayed low in the water so that only my head was exposed. I was confused as to where the fire was coming from. It was exactly like the fire we had taken on our way in.
I saw a destroyer heading straight toward the island, precariously close to the coral reef. Its forward turret belched flame. A large fireball rose from the rusty wreck of an old ship lying about 600 yards north of the island.
Damn! I cursed myself. Four times I had received machine-gun fire, and all four times it had come from that bastard ship. I berated myself for not spotting our antagonist sooner.
As I slowly walked westward with the current, I saw my Bible floating in the water in front of me. It had eased itself out of my jacket pocket. I put it back, and it floated out again. I took my helmet off, turned it upside down, put the Bible in it, and watched them both float away.
The amtrac that had been on the beach when we arrived was really hightailing it away from there. It was making the same mistake we had by pulling too far west. As it passed about 30 yards west of where I was standing a geyser of water shot up behind it. It was the same gun! I had a chance to get back into the battle. If I could stop one of those shells, the amtrac might make it. I figured I was going to die anyway, so what a great way to go!
I moved as fast as I could and placed myself where I believed I was between the shore battery and the speeding amtrac. Waving my right arm above my head, I saw the gun flash, followed by a loud crash behind me. I turned around. The amtrac was stopped dead in the water. Two men got out, one helping the other. They started wading toward the boats.
The amtrac was about 50 yards from me and, unlike mine, was not on fire. I made my way to it, closed my right eye and looked at the steps with my left. The steps were blurred and hazy, but I could see them.
On board, I tried lying down, but the blood came gurgling into my mouth much faster. Finally, I sat with my back to the driver’s compartment and took comfort in the fact that I would be found now even if I were dead. I must have slept for some time, or maybe I passed out.
I do not know how long I was there before another Marine came on board. He was bare to the waist and had no dog tags, a stocky kid with light brown, reddish hair. He lay down on his stomach, his head toward me. His left shoulder blade was missing. His heart was exposed, and I watched it pump. He asked if I had a drink. I looked around. There was nothing in the cargo compartment. I did, however, see a can of fruit juice and a canteen in the driver’s compartment. I reached the canteen and pushed it to him. He drank from it and thanked me.
We had to have been there for more than an hour, dozing off spasmodically, when I heard someone call out, “Anybody in there?” I didn’t answer. The few Japanese I had seen in the Solomons spoke English quite well.
Then a voice as beautiful as any I had ever heard said “Cain’s be ainybody ay-live in thar!” It was a slow, deliberate drawl. No Japanese spoke like that! I hollered, “Yo!” as loud as I could.
A Higgins boat pulled alongside, and some men boarded the amtrac. I could hear voices giving orders on how to get us to the boat; other voices commented on the condition of the amtrac. But the voice I heard above all of them was that same sweet drawl; he was talking about me, using my nickname. “It’s Moe! Oh, no! Heah, gimme ah hand with haim!”
I raised my head to see who “sweet voice” could be. It was Pete Airhart from Plains, Mont., a buddy dating back even before the Solomons campaign. Pete, with several others, got me into the Higgins boat. He sat on the deck and held me in his arms whispering: “Oh, Moe. Poor Moe.” I think he was crying. The stocky young Marine was placed on the engine hatch cover.
A corpsman stuck a needle in my arm–morphine. Immediately the pain was gone, and I felt giddy. Blood was still coming up into my mouth. I don’t know how long we were in the Higgins boat, but I do remember we stopped to help pump out a boat in need of assistance.
At the transport ship Harry Lee, they lowered a stretcher by crane. Someone called to send up the Marine on the hatch cover first. The corpsman in our boat yelled that he was already dead, so they put me on the stretcher and hoisted me aboard.
My stretcher was placed on the deck next to the bulkhead. Someone covered me with a blanket and gave me another morphine shot along with some sulfa tablets to chew.
Still feeling no pain, I used my right arm as a pillow and watched the scurrying sailors. One kid made eye contact we me. I smiled. In return he gave a look of sheer fright. I suppose my smile was less than a pretty sight. His reaction embarrassed me, so I pulled the blanket over my head. The thought that the doctors would think I was already dead crossed my mind, so I uncovered it again.
Eventually I was carried into the ship’s sick bay. Someone asked where I hurt the most. I told him, “It’s a pain in the ass!” When I was turned on my right side, someone said,
“To hell with your ass, your back is enough to keep us busy.”
I was transferred to a small compartment off the main sick bay. It held four bunks. From my bottom bunk, facing the main sick bay I could see the top bunk across from the hatchway. It was occupied by a salty old dog who was also one of our amtrac people.
After a lengthy procedure to repair my damaged arm, all I had left to do was wait and think. The battle was foremost in my mind. How was it progressing? Were we losing? Marines losing a battle? How could I go home and tell my father I was in the first battle the United States Marines had ever lost?
One of the doctors came in to check on me. I asked how things were going on the beach. He said something like: “Just you don’t think about that now. You’re out of it, so get it off your mind.” I kicked at him, but he was too far away for me to reach. I cursed him and said: “Damn it, don’t you even care?” Without a word, he turned and left.
For the next day or so I lay on my bunk and worried about my friends on the beach. I know I ate and slept, but I do not remember doing so.
The next time I saw that doctor, he put his head in the compartment, looked at me and stepped cautiously through the hatchway. Pretending to be frightened, he stood with his back against the bulkhead and said: “The battle is over. Your Marines have taken the island.” The Japanese had boasted that Tarawa was unconquerable, but it was captured by the USMC in just four days.
I thanked the doctor for bringing me the good news. He came over, gave me a big smile and tousled my hair with his hand. I returned his smile. We shook hands, and he left. I closed my eyes and went into a wonderfully long and peaceful sleep.
Was it luck, or maybe an act of God, that I had pulled ashore where mortar people were waiting to put my cargo of shells to use? I know the two machine guns I left with the Marines on shore played a part in strengthening our position on Red Beach One. I also think of the two 5-gallon containers of water I gave the young Marine. I often picture that small group during their first night, waiting for a Japanese counterattack, and one perpetual optimist saying, “Well, at least we’re not thirsty.”
My driver, Bro Brodowski, survived, but he was paralyzed from the waist down. When we put him over the side of the amtrac, one of the other wounded helped him, and they made it to the boats together.
When I was transferred to the hospital ship Solace from Harry Lee about two days after the battle, I was encased in a body cast with my left elbow extended out from my body. Now more than 50 years have passed. I have limited use of my left arm.
Still, not a day passes without memories of Tarawa, the spirit of the Marine Corps, and of all the good men with whom I served.
This article was written by Norman Moïse and originally appeared in the September 1998 issue of World War II magazine. For further reading Tarawa veteran Norman Moïse recommends Tarawa: A Legend Is Born, by Henry I. Shaw, Jr., and Follow Me: The Story of the Second Marine Division in World War II, by Richard W. Johnston.
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