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Born in Texas and raised in Plymouth, Michigan, Arthur “Art” Russell joined the Marine Corps at the age of 20 on November 17, 1941—exactly three weeks to the day before Pearl Harbor. Russell recalled that he joined because a friend of his mother’s had spent four years in the Corps, and told the young Russell that he’d get the best training as a Marine. He figured, “well, that’s what I need.”

Russell, who turns 99 on April 29, spoke with HistoryNet about the three “completely different” operations on Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian as a member of the 2nd Tank Battalion, 2nd Marine Division. 

The Battle of Tarawa is often referred to as “Bloody, Bloody Tarawa.” Of the 5,000 men who landed on the first day, no one had penetrated more than 70 yards inland. It was seemingly a miracle that there was no banzai attack. You were part of that invasion force. Did the coral defenses cause any difficulty? Can you describe the fighting conditions as you experienced it?

Arthur Russell (Courtesy of the Russell Family)

I was a little delayed because we were aboard the [M3 Stuart] tanks in Higgins boats. We were headed toward the beach on Tarawa when the coxswain of our boat got a little too close to the coral reefs—Tarawa was surrounded by coral reefs.

The coxswain sheared off one of the screws on the propeller—in the Higgins boat there were two propellers—so we had to come back. We came back and tied up alongside a destroyer.

A white-hat sailor turned to me and told me to go and get the swabbie that was in charge of the underwater welding. He went up and cut off where the shaft was damaged, put another propeller on it, and we headed back to the beach.

By the time we joined back up the beach was secure, so we drove up the beach and joined the other tanks that were there.

Tarawa was the first Pacific operation that used medium tanks. How was that to try and traverse the landscape of the island and work in coordination with the men on the ground?

 There was a driver and the gunner—that was me. We had a radio man and then the tank commander. He was the one with his head sticking out of the turret hatch.

Our crew was a little different than a lot of them, because we worked with the infantry very closely. We had attached some grouser tracks on the tank—which is on the tail end of the tank—because we were going through sand.

As we would roll ahead, we always had a man on the telephone. He would tell us where the targets were. We would come up on a pillbox and attack it with a shot at the opening. The explosion of the shell would draw the oxygen out of the pillbox, suffocating those inside.

Medium tanks are brought into a quickly erected “repair shop” after battle, November 22, 1943. (National Archives)

We didn’t go very far [on Tarawa] because the Japanese had anti-tank guns and they hit the drive sprocket on the left side of our tank, breaking it. That meant all we could do was drive in a right-hand circle.

We had to abandon our tank and get in a shell hole because our planes were bombing the island. We couldn’t get out of there. There was one Japanese sniper that tried to get us. By trying to hit the angle that he did, the bullets would hit our tank and then glance off—so we thought we better take care of him. I’ve got his rifle sitting on my mantel to this day.

 After Tarawa where did you go?

We left our tanks on Tarawa and headed to Hilo, Hawaii. We picked up 15 Sherman tanks…and the next operation that we had was Saipan.

Marines with the 2nd Marine Division use a captured Japanese tank in Saipan in 1944. (Department of Defense/USMC)

The fighting on Saipan was incredibly vicious and oftentimes down to the last man for the Japanese. Was that your experience?

Our operation on Saipan was completely different from anything else that we were trained for. The Japanese let us come onto the island. I was with the first wave of troops that were dispatched. We had around five waves that were coming in. Then the Japanese started [shooting] at the water’s edge. From the mountains they were shooting and trying to destroy us. They even had a banzai charge come down the road to try and do away with us, and we slaughtered them. There wasn’t anybody left after we got done. We never took any prisoners.

We secured the island with the exception of a mile and a half, and then at that time we turned the fighting over to the Army. The 2nd Marine Division was on the left flank, an Army division was in the center, and the 4th Marines were on the right flank.

The Army was initially held up because there was a sniper in the trees. We had to go back and take care of the sniper for them. We told the officer there, “you shoot the midsection…or shoot for the privates. When you hit him, he will drop his rifle and will fall out of a tree.”

[After that] we pulled back to get ready to hit Tinian, and a couple days later we landed on the island.

A demonstration of a portable ramp for LVT-2 (Doodlebug) approaching the bluff and beach at Saipan, 12 July 1944. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Tinian is famous for the feint tactic, with Gen. Holland Smith declaring the invasion, “the most perfect amphibious operation in the Pacific War.” What was the difference in fighting at Tinian, as opposed to Tarawa and Saipan?

There was no Japanese to speak of. We made it look like we were going to land on the south part of the island, when we really made the landing on the north end. We made ladders because the cliffs were some 15 feet up. We put them on the front end of the Higgins boats, and the coxswains would hold the nose of the boat steady along the bottoms of the cliffs while we went up the ladders. There wasn’t too much fighting to speak of.

We took the airstrip on Tinian with all the planes intact. They placed Marine guards by the planes so that we couldn’t strip the copper tubes we needed to create our liquor. [Laughs] We used to make our own liquor and we needed the cooper tubes for distilling purposes.

They had wised up to what you guys were trying to do.

Absolutely, yeah. We should have told them, “hell man, we’ll give you a little!” The officers got their own share of whiskey, but they wouldn’t share that with us.

Was what you made more like moonshine?

Exactly. We had two boys from that area back in the States and they knew what they were doing.

After Tinian did you have enough points to come home?

After Tinian I went back to Saipan and left there on Christmas Eve [1944] to go back to the States. I was over there for 27 months.

After that I was sent to Camp Lejeune. By then our time was up, the war was over, and we wanted to go home.

The colonel that was in charge said, “I’ll tell you one thing boys. See that ship out in the harbor? That Dutch ship over there?” He said, “You go home after those Dutchmen take those tanks—” He pointed [at the tanks]. “Take those tanks aboard that ship. And when that ship sails towards the Dutch East Indies, then, and only then, do you get discharged.”

Definitely motivating.

Oh yes. We got those ships on there in a hurry and we got our discharge. We got to go home.