For Cletus Brault, left, and Harld Carstens, the memories of Tarawa are still huntingly fresh.


**** The heros of Tarawa were many. In fact, four Medals of Honor and a dozen Navy Crosses would issue from this 76-hour brawl. "Hawk" Hawkins, the brooding lieutenant who led his Scout-Sniper unit in a running gun battle down the long pier in the battle's opening minutes, would earn a Medal of Honor for his final deeds on Earth. Survivors remember the young Texan stomping out of Shoup's headquarters, then coolly ambling across a 75-yard stretch of "moon-scape" howling with enemy fire. He neither ducked, nor ran. When he got to the blockhouse he was aiming for, he dropped an explosive charge through a gun aperature blowing the redoubt to bits. Then he slowly walked back to his own lines, as calmly as he had come. In several more minutes, he's shot in the chest, but refuses to be evacuated, Then he mounts an amtrac, turning its 50-cal, machine gun on Japanese targets of opportunity. A fellow Marine would later recount: "He was a madman. He cleaned out six machine gun nests, with two to six Japs in each nest. I'll never forget the picture of him standing on that amtrac, riding around with a million bullets a minute whistling by his ears. ... I never saw such a man in my life." Enemy machine gunfire finally cut him down, though, and he was carried to the rear. "That night," notes battle historian Martin Russ, "William Hawkins layout under the slowly wheeling Southern Cross. He died before dawn." And the remarkable Lt. Alexander Bonnyman, an assault engineer who fought his way to the top of Shibasaki's blockhouse headquarters, would earn the CMH this day, as well. Bonnyman would hold off a Japanese counter attack bent on driving the engineers from the fortress roof. The engineers destroyed the redoubt with Shibaski inside, but Bon-nyman is killed in the firefight. By 1 p.m. on Nov. 23, the battle of Tarawa Atoll had ended. The clash had cost the lives of 1,113 Marines and 4,819 Japanese - over 20 dead man for every acre of Betio's coral sand. Only 17 Japanese are left alive. And 300 of the American dead still bobbed in the surf near the landing beaches. Another 2,290 Marines had been wounded, many so badly they can never return to fight future battles. The white sand which once bordered the seawall is white no more. Carstens recalls it as stained brown from the endless bloodletting of the hellish three-day brawl. When word of the shocking number of American casualties suffered at Tarawa reaches the United States, there are cries for a congressional investigation. Many demand to know why it was necessary to invade Tarawa at all. Why wasn't the heavily fortified base by-passed? Admiral Chester A. Nimitz receives letters beginning, "You killed my son." Most military historians maintain that Tarawa taught the United States valuable lessons that would save many American lives in the remainder of the Pacific campaign of one amphibious operation after another. One lesson learned is never underestimate the enemy's ability to build defenses that can only be destroyed by a longer and more concentrated naval and aerial bombardment. Some say the invasion of the Gilbert Islands opened the front door to the Japanese empire. And it also gave the Americans an airbase. The 4,000 foot strip, which Sea bees began working on even as Tarawa burned, is promptly named Hawkins Field - a final tribute to the heroism of the "Hawk" of Tarawa Atoll. ****

Additional stories that accompanied the November 21, 1993 run of Tarawa...
  1. Atoll
  2. Casualties
  3. Old Marines Hunted by memories
All posted with permission from the Daily Journal, Kankakee, IL.
All stories written by Mike Lyons Journal writer
  1. Atoll

  2. An officer from graves registration bends to snip a single dog tag from a mangled Marine corpse. Two privates roll the dead man in his poncho, shoulder their lifeless cargo, then stagger down the ramp which leads to the trench. Quicklime dust rises with each footfall, its earthy aroma over-whelmed by the horrific stench of decay. They lay the fellow beside a score of fallen comrades, then stagger up the incline to begin again. The next corpse has no dog tags. He has no head. No arms. A grizzled war correspondent, watching the grim parade, wretches at the sight. "What a hell of a way to die," he mumbles, to no one in particular. Looking up, he catches the steady gaze of a red-haired Marine rifleman, whose soiled and sweat-stained fatigues mark him as a veteran of this brawl. His voice drained of passion and leaden with fatigue, the Marine answers simply, "You can't pick a better way."... Fifty years ago this morning the 2nd Marine Division was locked in its most desperate battle of the still-young Pacific War. Tarawa Atoll, a forsaken smat-tering of coral islets in an island chain called the Gilberts, was proving a meat grinder no one had imagined. The six-month dog fight called Guadalcanal had been brutal enough, to be sure. Now, in just 76 hellish hours, Marine casualties would nearly match those the Corps sustained during that Solomon Islands slaughter. Taking Betio, the largest of the atoll's islands, would become nothing less than a knife fight in a broom closet - littering the 2 1/4 mile long by 1/4 mile wide spit of barren landscape with the wreckage of humanity. And no wonder. Tarawa was a 291 acre fortress, of which, Japanese Rear Adm. Keichi Shibasaki liked to boast, "A million men could not take Betio in a thosand years of battle!" It was a boast which generated nervous laughter among the 20,000 Marines laying off the Tarawa Coast that invasion eve. But in the opening hours of the Nov. 20 invasion, no one was laughing anymore. The island's shores were festooned with heavy gunnery theretofore unseen in the Pacific. Not even the fallen American bastion of Corregidor offered defenses to match the labyrinthine trenchworks, block houses, bomb proofs and pillboxes which laced the sands with a horrible grid of interlocking fields of fire. Were that not enough, Shibasaki's 4,800 rigosentai, or Japanese marines, deployed scores of snipers, many embedded in the cocoanut log seawall which spanned the landing beaches like a Pacific wall of Jerico. But there was further protection. This one offered by nature in the form of an anomaly - an unpredictable trickster called a "dodging tide." Should the dodging tide suddenly appear, with its extraordinarily low water levels, the flatbottomed landing craft would run aground on the barrier reef, forcing Marines to wade through 600 yards of chest-high surf in the teeth of a relentless hail of gun fire. Tarawa would be the Marine Corps' first assault against a heavily defended beach. Its cost would be numbing. A half-century since the guns of Tarawa fell silent, its wrenching horror survives. And like the dodging tide, its recollections burst unpredictably upon con-sciousness and afflict the dreams of its survivors. An incubus which descends with no greater invitation than that provided by a soft summer breeze - a gust which vaguely mimics the salt breeze of the southwest Pacific. It's been that way with Bradley's Harold Carstens and Chebanse's Cletus Brault, 2nd Marine Division survivors who've spent the decades since the slaughter surviving in the long shadow of Tarawa's memory. The assault that Nov. 20 began with a furious naval bombardment from the battleships Maryland, Tennessee and Colorado, plus four heavy cruisers. An 80-minute devastation through which none watching believed anyone could possibly survive. In fact, the Naval cannonade capped off a three-week hammering by two dozen Army Air Corps B-24 Liberators based at Baker Island, some 500 miles distant. Kankakee's Ira Lawless, who helped man the Liberator base at Baker, recalls the Air Corps "heavies" limping back with flak damage, even as the invasion date neared - a sign which should have convinced battle planners that Tarawa's defenders could take a licking and keep on ticking. The Marines launched their assault from the lagoon side of the tiny island, a move, it was hoped, would catch defenders off balance, and perhaps spare the task force the plague of heavy guns deployed on the island's seaward side. Besides that, the 500 yard long pier jutting from the island to the barrier reef's edge, could be useful in off-loading supplies once the battle moved inland a bit. The first wave thrust forward from the line of departure at 9:13 a.m. Their amphibious tractors, or amtracs, struck the reef, removing all doubt that the dodging tide had "decided" to weigh-in on the side of the defending Japanese. The tractors scaled the reef, then plowed on toward shore, their 50-cal. machine gunners standing in a blizzard of small arms fire in order to offer what protection their guns could provide. Ahead of them, a platoon of Marine Scout-Snipers and engineers mounted the pier's end, engaging Japanese snipers secreted in the pier's truss work. They were commanded by Lt. William Deane Hawkins, a somber youngster driven by some unfathomable will to close with the enemy at any cost. "Hawk," as he was known to his men, had told his closest friend following his enlistment, "I'll see you some day Mac - but not on this Earth." The first wave was slashed, finally reaching the beach in a swirl of confusion. Commanders radioed the fleet of heavy casualties and desperate disarray. When the flat bottom Higgins boats of the second and third waves hit the reef's outer edge, the boats stalled and Marines jumped into the waist deep sea to begin a half-mile wade down Hell's hallway. A Navy flier, high over the landing beaches would later recall the sight: "The water seemed never clear of tiny men, their rifles held over their heads, wading beach ward - "I wanted to cry." Machine-gun fire raked the water, turning the blue lagoon to a swirl of bloody froth. Marines tried to help stricken buddies - until bullets found them both. Others tried to zig-zag, but the effort seemed futile and most resorted to a straight-in approach. And still others ducked below the churning surface, moving a few feet forward, then surfacing to catch a breath before the next dive. Carstens, struggling through the water with his bloodied and battered buddies of the third wave, recalls "There were bodies and legs and arms in the water everywhere." He moved toward the seawall, now just yards away. The low wall, despite its ample sniper posts, offered the only cover for the incoming survivors of the long "march." He recalls the narrow ribbon of "safe" sand at the wall's base jammed with the exhausted, the dead and the dying. Still, Marines rallied in the saving shadow of the wall. Units separated from their leaders, vaulted the wall under the command of lesser officers or non-corns. But that fateful leap over the wall, proved a leap into eternity for many. "Marines were dropping all around me," Carstens recalls, stopping briefly as the sting of memory robs him of words. His eyes redden, and he continues. "We lost a lot of good boys ... we lost a lot of good men at the wall." Commanders at sea, and those who had lived to make the beach, were in grave doubt of the attack's success. By the end of the first day, only 2,000 had made shore, and radio calls from commanders under fire carried this grim assessment "Heavy casualities! Issue in doubt!" The bloating bodies of dead comrades, bobbed in the grisly surf behind them. As night fell on the bloody beaches of Tarawa, it was still anybody's battle to win. And the 2nd Marine Division, famed since World War 1's battle of Belleau Wood, was locked in the jaws of its greatest challenge.

  3. Casualties

  4. Gunfire still flashed on the island as Cletus Brault approached the pier's end in a Higgins boat. Detailed to a work crew, the landing party mounted pier decking still smoldering from "Hawk" Hawkins' violent passage just hours earlier. The work party labored in the cloaking darkness of the battle's first night. It was a trip they'd been scheduled to make at mid-morning, but the carnage which greeted the assault waves caused them to be pulled back from the line of departure until some tangible progress became evident. "You could work on the pier for awhile, then a sniper in the seawall would open up and we'd hit the deck," Brault recalls, adding that the deadly game of dodge'em continued through the night. The first glow of dawn found him down in the Higgins boat, lashed to the pier's side, heaving up crates of war supplies for the gathering battle ashore. "A sergeant and a lieutenant were standing on the pier above me. "I heard one shot. Then another. "When I looked up, the lieuten- ant hit the deck - a sniper bullet smack between his eyes!" But the work crew continued to labor, "watching the tree tops" and other likely sniper roosts. But not all sniper activity could be expected from the shore. A small Japanese freighter which had gotten hung up on the reef harbored a nest of Japanese machine gunners - a contingent who'd slipped out from shore during the night and now awaited the assault waves of the second day. From their lines of departure hundreds of yards out to sea, the assault waves of Nov. 21 moved toward beaches as deadly as the day before. But this time, the struggling waders were caught up in a wicked crossfire, courtesy of the beached freighter and its crew of snipers. "That's one of the reasons there were so many casualties," Brault recalls, noting the despair felt by the work crew on the pier as they watched the assault waves withered by unsuspected freighter fire. Despite frantic efforts to wave the beseiged waders nearer the protection of the pier's underpinnings, few responded, convinced the withering fire was coming from shore gunners. Meanwhile, Marines ashore still struggled. Progress was not apparent, a fact which vexed Lt. Col. David Shoup, a Battleground, Ind. native, now commanding the desperate fray from ashore. Like many, Shoup had been wounded on his approach to the beach. Waving-off the attempts of medics to assist him, he radioed fleet commanders his assessment of the battle - a sentiment now famed for its bravado, and, perhaps, for its insight. "Our casualties heavy. Enemy casualties unknown. We are winning!" But it didn't feel like winning to the battle-seasoned Harold Carstens, running half bent across the shell-pocked coral, his entrenching tool and his 03A3 Springfield clutched in his hands. The air was alive with the whine of bullets, the shriek of shells. He was convinced that Tarawa was worse than Guadalcanal. And quite likely, "it was the worst there was." Brault notes that personal behavior in battle comes as a surprise to warriors. "You never know until you get into that spot what you're going to do - what your reaction is going to be. "I always contend that anyone that went into combat was scared, but the mind pushes it out of the way - this is where I think the mind is a great thing." But sometimes the mind would fail in its job. A critical lapse at an inopportune moment. Death was the result. Carstens recalls a point near the battle's close. With Japanese losses mounting and the Admiral Shibasaki's "1,OOO-year fortress" beginning to crumble beneath them, Marines came face to face with a suicide charge - the fearsome banzai attack. "They'd come in and come in fast. They knew it was the end, for them," he recalls, noting the piercing screams that attended the onslaught. "I'd see Marines freeze. And some of them got it." That brief failure - that mental gridlock when training and even survival instinct take a vacation - often lost life to the thrust of an 18-inch bayonet. For that's what this battle had become now. The intricate mechanisms of modern warfare mattered little at close quarters. War now was as the ancients knew it. As brutal and as personal as it was for Caesar's Legions. Sharp steel against sharp steel. Carstens heard the shrieks as the charge began. Lifting himself from a shallow foxhole to meet the lethal charge, Carstens noticed that a Japanese officer had singled him out for destruction. The gleaming blade of the Samurai's three foot sword flashed blood red in in the early sun. The weapon slashed at the air as the officer charged headlong toward Carstens. Three foxholes away Texan Jack Stanbaugh saw the officer charge toward his buddy. Apparently fearing his friend didn't see his nearing attacker, Stanbaugh lifted himself from the scant protection of a foxhole and began to move. Tarawa was Stanbaugh's first combat. He'd joined the 2nd Division as a replacement in New Zealand, where the 2nd had laid-up to lick its wounds following Guadalcanal. "They told Stanbaugh, 'come over here kid. We want you to meet the outfit's real killer," Carstens recalls, laughing at his buddies' effort to impress the green Texas youngster. But they'd become friends. Carstens cared for the kid. Looked out for him when he could. "He didn't need to get out of that foxhole," said Carstens, seized with emotion over the half-century-old sacrifice his friend was willing to make. "I saw that officer coming, and I was ready for him!" Stanbaugh intercepted the officer. But his bayonett was a tad slower than the Samurai's swift blade. "He nearly cut him in half," Carstens says, his eyes filling with tears with a memory as painful as any he's known in life. But the butchery was the samurai's last. Carstens flipped off the Springfield's safety, then fired at point blank range into the swordsman's torso. Even as he fell, Carstens worked the Springfield's bolt, firing round after round into the lifeless warrior, until the Springfield would fire no more. The entire event had taken just seconds. Now Carstens turned his rage and his bayonet upon the still onrushing, enemy. "You couldn't stop. You have to move! Move! Move! "Even when you saw guys freeze, you had to keep on moving." After long minutes of hand-to-hand fighting, the charge was finally broken. There would be more of them, perhaps. But not now. In that instant, Carstens looked at his left hand. Shocked that it was blood-covered and sticky, he thought he must have been hit. But he hadn't been. His eye lifted from his bloody hand, to the bloody forestock of the Springfield, finally coming to rest upon the Springfield's crimson bayonet. The blood was the enemy's. A river of it shed in a spasm of violence which lasted but seconds. Its memory, a ghastly legacy of a killing ground called Tarawa.

  5. Old Marines haunted by memories

  6. The capture of Tarawa Atoll did not signal the end of battle for Carstens and Brault. Still more island abattoirs lay ahead for the 22-year old Marine volunteers. By mid-summer of 1944, the 2nd Marine Division was back in action, assaulting the beaches of Saipan, an island in the Marianas chain. Saipan's capture, it was hoped, would allow the new B-29 Superforts now flowing from Boeing factories, to launch attacks against the Japanese home islands. Brault, by now a crewman on an 81 mm mortar team, found himself layingin protective fire close to Marine front line foxholes - a dangerous bit of business, but a tactic widely employed to help break the increasingly frequent Banzai attacks. Carstens was one of those frontline foxhole inhabitants, happy to see "friendly fire" no matter how close. His 27-day stint on the front line produced still more close calls, including one for his brother Don. Don Carstens, who'd volunteered for the Corps shortly before Harold had, was also on Saipan, but as part of the paymaster's contingent, he was quartered in the relative safety of the rear. But that didn't stop brother Don from visiting his Marine sibling one night. "I looked around, and here he come," Harold remembers of Don's surprise visit to a front line foxhole. Don's unexpected appearance scared Harold. And for good reason. Everything to the front of the Marine's line of foxholes was "Indian country," with treetops bristling with snipers just waiting for a Marine to show himself. "He come all that way just to give me a can of peanuts!" Carstens says, then laughs, adding "and he even had clean clothes on!" Carstens thanked his brother. Then sent him packing the same way he'd come in. But, as Brault notes, every time a Marine managed to leave an invaded island unscathed, the odds were building against him. Sooner or later, that last ounce of luck will run dry. It happened that way for Carstens on an island called Tinian. A neighbor to bloody Saipan in the Marianas. Emerging from a cane field, the platoon came under brutal attack. Marines died in bunches as artillery rounds shattered their ranks. One round landed directly behind Carstens, lifting him from the ground then slamming him to earth again. The two Marines behind him were less lucky. Their mangled bodies lay just feet away. "At first it didn't hurt. I felt something warm tickling my back and when I felt around, it was blood!" He'd taken nearly 30 hunks of shrapnel. And more than that, he'd taken a sniper's bullet in the neck, to boot. Evacuated to a hospital ship, Carstens first long night at sea brought him face to face with mortal crisis. "We didn't think you yere gonna make it through the night, Marine," said Navy medics the following day. Many didn't make it through the night, though. Carstens' memory is still haunted by the sounds of the endless screams of the wounded. The largest hunk of iron was removed. The others - including that sniper's bullet - have remained with him for half a century. Tinian was his final combat. Not so for Brault, who found himself laying off Okinawa in April of '45, part of the "floating reserve" for the 2nd's assault. As it turns out, it was not a safe place to be. "We suffered almost as many casualties as the landing force," he notes of the result of a Kamikaze strike on the troop carriers. Brault recalls coming up on deck just as the Kamikaze's death dive commenced, the gunners on the fantail desperately trying to nail him. "I was a long way from the super structure and you can't dig a foxhole in steel deck," he recalls, then laughs. But laughs are infrequent, when thinking of those days of gambled youth in the southwest Pacific. Both 72, and grandfathers now, Carstens and Brault find memory still haunted as the island battles continue to rage. It was like that some few years back when Brault and his wife, Viola, were visiting Hawaii. Sitting on the beach at day's close, a familiar sea breeze plunged him suddenly into painful recollection of the terrible tangle at Tarawa. He quickly excused himself, and walked to the memory cleansing lights of the hotel foyer.

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