Tarawa Wreath-laying ceremony

29 Aug 2000 | SSgt. Stephen Gude 13th MEU(SOC) Public Affairs Chief

Marines and Sailors of 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) and Tarawa Amphibious Ready Group commemorated the battle sacrifices of Marines and Sailors nearly 57 years ago by conducting two wreath-laying ceremonies, Aug. 29. 

Honoring the servicemembers who stormed the beaches of Betio, the southernmost island in the Tarawa atoll, Nov. 20-23, 1943, one ceremony was held in the morning aboard ships of Tarawa ARG -- USS Tarawa (LHA-1), USS Duluth (LPD-6) and USS Anchorage (LSD-36) -- while another was held on Betio in the afternoon.

Aboard the ships, the gentle waves of the central Pacific gave a soothing, yet somber feel to the proceedings.  Aboard USS Tarawa, the ship's crew and Marines formed around the ship's captain, 13th MEU(SOC)'s commander and the commander of Amphibious Squadron Five, all of whom spoke.

"In the roll call of epic contests, the name 'Tarawa' stands out with unique singularity," said Col. Christopher J. Gunther, commanding officer, 13th MEU(SOC).  "For Marines, and especially for the personnel of this great ship, Tarawa has a special resonance.  Even to those who know very little of the history of warfare, the name Tarawa evokes memories of a brutal battle, one characterized by no-holds-barred fighting at close quarters... Tarawa was indeed an epic struggle, as one observer put it, of the utmost savagery."

The ceremony ended after a 21-gun salute with the playing of "Taps," and preparations were made to head ashore to the island where the battle that changed Marine Corps amphibious assault doctrine took place.

Under bright blue skies and surrounded by a thick wall of heat, approximately 100 Marines and Sailors from the ships of Tarawa ARG gathered outside the Betio Town Council building, where a memorial to the epic battle sits.  A large portion of the island's population was present, watching the event unfold.

This day, the Marines and Sailors landed in a manner different from that of their predecessors in 1943, flying in on UH-1N Hueys and CH-46 Sea Knights.  There was also no machine gun fire to deal with.  Instead, children ran down the island's streets, waving at the helicopters as they landed, while smiling citizens gathered outside the Town Council building, seeming to revel in the novelty of being caught in rotor wash.

Coming in by air allowed servicemembers excellent views of the former battlefields, which are now pristine white beaches on the southern side of Betio and a seawall on the north.  Houses and buildings peek from underneath the shade of slim-trunked coconut trees whose edges follow the contours of the beaches.  Large machines of war are visible as rusty shadows underneath the calm, light blue water.  The hulk of a Japanese ship sits nearly a half-mile off the north beach, where it became stuck in 1943 while Emperor Hirohito's minions were building up the island's defenses.

Back in 1943, before these houses were there, there was a rudimentary airstrip here, the reason this tiny sliver of land in the giant Pacific became so important that the United States sent 35,000 Marines and soldiers to take the island by force.

It was hard for some to put together the romantic beauty of the atoll, the friendliness of its people and the calm of its surrounding water and then think of the savagery and hell the 76-hour battle was. 

"As we look around, we can try but we can not truly comprehend what (the Marines and Sailors who fought here) experienced," said Capt. A.D. Wall, the commander of Phibron-5, while speaking to the assemblage at the ceremony.  "On November 20, 1943, the first of 5,000 men from the 2nd Marine Division poured ashore against a seemingly invincible fortress.

"Many were killed on the beach by the earth-shattering barrages of the island's defenders," the commodore continued.  "Even the survivors paid dearly.  The tropical sun burned their skin while volcanic dust choked their throats.  After the third day, the smell of death was so prevalent that it could not be escaped."

"I believe the words spoken by Abraham Lincoln in his address delivered at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg best captures this moment," said Col. Gunther, delivering a speech during the ceremony.  "Lincoln said, and I quote, 'But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow - this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.  The world will little note, or long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.'"

Marines celebrate the history of their Corps almost from the time they step on the yellow footprints at Parris Island or Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, so the significance of this visit was not lost on them.

"Going to Tarawa is a once-in-a-lifetime deal," said SSgt. Alan J. Taylor, who works in the S-2 section for 13th MEU(SOC)'s command element, and whose father hit the beaches of Betio on the second day of the battle.  "I'm walking upon the site of one of the Marine Corps' bloodiest battles, a place my father was nearly 60 years ago.  I can visualize what he has described without going to the beach - things I have been fortunate not to see firsthand."

"This was a unique opportunity to visit a World War II battlesite," said Col. Gunther.  "Not a lot of American servicemembers get to go there, and I was pretty excited about this myself."

Judging from the reaction of the islanders, any time American servicememebers are here, it is an event.

"The last time I saw American military here was 1988," said Betero Teekabu, a policeman here who kept the thick crowds back from the area where the Marines and Sailors conducted the ceremony.  "It is always good when you come here.  It is good that you remember what happened here, even though it was so long ago."

The citizens here remember in their own ways as well.  Displayed on tables in front of the Town Council were bullets, shell casings, artifacts, helmets, even a grenade.  A walk around the area revealed an amtrak, a Japanese pillbox pockmarked with strikes from bullets and larger munitions, and other wrecks of the battle which were left to nature's devices.

The climate here has preserved these relics of battle, but not the people who actually saw it take place. 

"Almost all of the people who were here when the battle took place are gone now," Teebaku said.  "What we have is what's been passed down."

It is the same sort of thing that keeps sea service history alive - the tradition of passing on what others have gone through.  Still, nothing more could be added to what the Marines and Sailors who stormed this island nearly 57 years ago.  Col. Gunther ended his speech by reading the inscription of a plaque at a military cemetery here:

"So let them rest on their sun-scoured atoll,

The wind for their watcher, the wave for their shroud,

Where palm and pandanaus shall whisper forever

A requiem fitting for heroes proud."

13th Marine Expeditionary Unit