Saturday, May 28, 2016

Teardrops over Tarawa

In the middle of World War II, 2,700 Women Marines (average age 22) served in Headquarters Battalion at Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia. 

My mother was one of them.

She told many "war stories" later, mostly comical; and one, in particular, not comical.

The latter was set in late November 1943, when she helped operate a ticker tape machine inside the war room where the top brass worked.

The machine was dedicated to one purpose: transmitting live reports of casualties from the Pacific.

On November 20 of that year, 18,000 Marines began an amphibious attack on a Japanese-held "islet" called Betio.

A mere two miles long by a half-mile wide, Betio is a coral rock 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii and part of a larger atoll named Tarawa—in 1943, the most fortified spot in the Pacific.

As the history books tell, everything went wrong.

As the first assault wave prepared to hit the beachcode-named "Red 1"—high seas slowed the Marines' transfer from the battleships onto the landing boats, so the attack fell behind schedule.

Then, planned air raids were delayed, so the boats had to linger offshore, sustaining terrible artillery fire from the island. 

Slowly, the tide went down—much lower than expected—and grounded the boats on coral reefs. So the Marines abandoned the armored landing crafts and waded toward Red 1 hundreds of yards through chest-deep water and under brutal machine-gun fire from 100 Japanese pillboxes.

Those who made it onto the sand had to crawl inland, to avoid the rain of bullets. 

But hundreds of Marines never made it. They drowned in the surf. Their bodies so clogged the assault path the second wave of reinforcements couldn't be sent until the next day.

In Arlington, the generals in the war room stood watching a sign of the disaster-in-the-making on Red 1: the ticker tape machine.

My mother said it was spitting out the names of casualties faster than anyone had ever witnessed, or thought possible.

She said the normally gruff men were transfixed by the clattering machine. They stood looking helpless, and openly sobbing.
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