BETIO, Tarawa Atoll -- For three Marines, the Aug. 29 visit of to the island of Tarawa meant more than to the average Marine or Sailor visiting Tarawa for the first time.
Nearly 57 years after the bloody battle for Tarawa, Marines and Sailors from 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) and Tarawa Amphibious Ready Group visited Tarawa for a wreath-laying ceremony to recognize the valiant service of the Marines and Sailors who fought and died there.
Back in 1943, it was their relatives who visited for the first time, under more dire circumstances. The visit brought the stories these men told their children and grandchildren to life.
"It is just incredible for me to think that I am standing on the same spot where my grandfather landed back then," said Capt. Jill Hastings, MEU Service Support Group 13. Her grandfather was a Marine during the war. "I just can't imagine what he and the Marines with him went through."
"I am walking upon a place my father was nearly 60 years ago," said SSgt. Alan J. Taylor, whose father was a Navy corpsman during the war and landed on Tarawa the second day of the battle. "This is hallowed and sacred ground. The entire atoll should be a shrine."
The young Taylor's sentiments echo that of many of the new generation of Marines who walked the beaches where the hot weather was perhaps the last thing on the minds of the old generation for those three November days in 1943. At stake was the survival of a nation and its way of life.
"I can't speak for the other men, but I felt that I understood pretty well the importance of that atoll," said Harry J. Taylor Jr., the staff sergeant's 79-year-old father. He was a Pharmacist's Mate First Class with C Company, 2nd Medical Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, from March 1943 to March 1945. "There was no doubt in my mind that it was an important step toward the defeat of Japan."
Taking Tarawa meant breaking Japan's strategic advantage of controlling Tarawa, the gateway to the central and southern Pacific. There was only one way to do it - amphibious assault.
Once the air and naval bombardment stopped, Higgins boats and amtraks ferried Marines to the shore. The naval gunfire and air bombardment was insufficient, however, and stopped to early, allowing the defenders to emerge from their cover and assume fighting positions.
Still, the former petty officer said most of the Marines and Sailors were confident the operation would not be that hard.
"Many of us thought after the terrible naval and air bombardment, there would only be a few survivors, and those who were left would be in such a dazed condition they would offer little resistance," he said. "We watched this activity for at least a day and a night before the landing. This was an awesome sight. I wondered how anyone could survive such a pounding."
Survive the Japanese did, and they fought fiercely for every inch of the island. Still the Marines overcame.
"I'm not certain about the strategy, but at the time it seemed to be the only feasible option," the elder Taylor said.
It was not without its cost, however; the toll on the Marines and Sailors who survived wasn't just physical, but mental as well.
"My grandfather suffered from post-traumatic stress," Capt. Hastings said. She looked out over the atoll as if trying to visualize what it was like in November 1943. "My mother would tell me about how he could still smell the scent of death, even 10 years after the war. The experience had that effect on him."
Still, when the men spoke of what they went through, their experiences had an effect on the children and grandchildren who sat to listen.
For Capt. Geoffrey Gilliland, a UH-1N Huey pilot whose grandfather stormed these beaches as a PFC, hearing the stories his grandfather told made him realize that when he entered the Marine Corps himself, he was entering for more than slogans and recruiting posters.
"When he told me of the fierce fighting and the life and death decisions he had to make in order to survive, it stands out in my mind," Capt. Gilliland said. "He told me how he and one of his buddies kept throwing back smoking Japanese grenades that were being thrown at them from a pillbox. He talked about having the Japanese shooting at them as they tried to get ashore. They were shooting at the Marines from underneath the pier that ran perpendicular to the approach."
"I first heard of my father's experiences when I stumbled upon a 2nd Marine Division book that basically amounted to a sort of deployment book for all the exploits of 2nd MarDiv in the Pacific during WWII," said SSgt. Taylor. "I brought the book to my father's attention. He described his travels through the Pacific in great detail, often more detail than one would want to imagine. My reaction at the time was 'I want to be a Marine just like my Dad.'"
Staff Sgt. Taylor said after he grew older, he realized his father was in fact a Navy corspman.
"This didn't sway me as far as which service I was destined for. I had grown up thinking my Dad was a Marine."
Captain Hastings said her grandfather's service didn't exactly make her join, but encouraged her decision.
"It became something that was a source of pride for me, knowing the background of service that I'd come from and that I was continuing the legacy," she said.
The three younger Marines described their elders as having different traits that could attribute to their experiences at Tarawa.
Captain Gilliland noticed his grandfather's "integrity, love of country and the sparkle in his eye when I come home to visit and he sees me in uniform. He always reminds me of my responsibility of taking care of fellow Marines and he puffs his chest out and says 'Semper Fi, Marine.'"
Captain Hastings spoke of her grandfather's quiet pride and dignity, and of how he still has deep feelings from his service that are sometimes hard to share.
"When I asked him about this," she said, speaking of her visit, "he began talking, but I could tell there was a point where it was affecting him. I didn't push him."
"My father is your average patriotic American who cares about his country and joined the Navy knowing full well that he could, at any time, pay the ultimate price," SSgt. Taylor said. "Perhaps not (the ultimate price) for his country directly, but definitely for the guy on the right and left. That trait in anyone is more than honorable."
Staff Sgt. Taylor's father is open about his experiences, and in reflection, shares quite a bit.
"I always felt I was fighting for God and country, the American democratic way of life," the elder Taylor said. "There were times when it got more personal, and I thought about my life, as well as God and country. After what I saw, I know that life is very precious. Your life may be tedious, routine, dull and miserable, but in most cases, it is always much better than the alternative.
"The alternative is so final."