While the vast majority of Americans enjoyed a turkey dinner with all the trimmings this Thanksgiving holiday, a mere handful of octogenarians and nonagenarians remember when a certain Thanksgiving didn’t smell like baked ham and apple pie, but of human flesh either burnt or bloated and rotting in the 115°F (46°C) equatorial heat.
It was 72 years ago to this same time that Marines assigned to Maj Gen Holland M. (“Howlin’ Mad”) Smith’s Fifth Amphibious Corps were engaged in one of the bloodiest battles in American history in proportion to the forces engaged.
It was in late November of 1943 that men of the Second Marine Division were ordered to re-take the British overseas territory of Betio Island from the Japanese.
Located in the Tarawa Atoll in the Central Pacific’s Gilbert Islands, “Bloody Betio” (rhymes with “ratio”) was garrisoned by nearly 5,000 elite Special Naval Landing Forces, Japan’s equivalent to America’s Marine Corps.
Commanded by Rear Adm Meichi Shibasak, he boasted “a million Americans could not take Tarawa in 100 years!”
Roughly the square footage as New York’s Central Park, 76 hours after the first landing, Betio was completely held by our Marines.
Of the 4,800 Japanese troops on the island, only 17 were alive when the shooting stopped. Besides the island being liberated, so were 129 Koreans brought to the island by the Japanese as slave laborers.
During the course of the 76-hour long battle, 933 Marines were killed, 2,186 were wounded in action.
A Marine was killed every 4 minutes and 50 seconds. A Marine was wounded every two minutes and eight seconds. Factored together, every one minute and 28 seconds a Marine was killed or wounded on Bloody Betio.
One in five of the 2d Marine Division was a casualty on Betio during the Marine Corps bloodiest Thanksgiving.
Arguably the most nightmarish of scenarios in the annals of warfare happened during the amphibious landings on Betio. With Marines packed into Navy Landing Craft assaulting the island from numerous directions, hundreds of the Teufelshunde found their boats stuck on a previously unknown reef just feet below the surface of the water.
In what would beat-down the most ardent apostle of Cross-Fit, it was when the Marines had to wade 500 yards through Tarawa lagoon’s chest-deep water with full combat load.
But for the Marines, the 500 tortuous yard march was directly into Japanese machine gun and mortar fire. But forward they fought.
The occupying Japanese had constructed hundreds of fortified pillboxes, block houses and machine gun nests across the width and breadth of the island. Seen as a number of battles within a battle, just as soon as Marines wiped out one Japanese position, another one was just yards away, killing as many of the Leathernecks as possible.
Some have described the Marine attack on Betio as essentially throwing huge chunks of raw hamburger at a brick wall. But in this case, the raw hamburger won.
Not only has this Thanksgiving season seen an ever diminishing number of surviving Marines remember their blood-soaked youth, the Omaha World-Herald recently reported that one of the heroes of Tarawa has finally come home.
After 73 years, Marine Private Palmer Haraldson was finally laid to rest in American soil, in spite of the family being informed in 1949 by the government that his remains were officially declared unrecoverable.
Haraldson, a native of Lincoln who grew up near Fort Dodge, Iowa, died Nov. 22, 1943, during fierce fighting against Japanese forces at Tarawa Atoll. This week his long-lost remains — identified earlier this year by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency — will be buried with military honors in Fort Dodge.
Though none of Haraldson’s immediate family is still living, at least 30 relatives are expected to attend the ceremony on Wednesday, said Haraldson’s niece Carolyn Redding, 70, of San Clemente, California.
Haraldson was born in Nebraska in 1912, but his family moved to Iowa when he was still a toddler. He moved to California during the Great Depression and married his wife, Patricia, in 1937. He enlisted in the Marines in February 1943 and was assigned to Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines.
Nine months later, Haraldson died in the assault by 18,000 Marines on Tarawa’s Betio Island, the best-defended Japanese garrison U.S. forces would face during the war. The battle lasted four days; only 146 of the island’s 4,836 defenders survived.
Haraldson and the rest of the more than 1,000 Marines who died in the battle were hastily buried in makeshift cemeteries. Some, but not all, were recovered and reburied after the war.
Traditionally referred to as a “teen-ager’s war” it’s been recognized by many throughout the years that the Marine Corps was the youngest of all the branches of the Armed Forces during WWII.
Without fail, men such as Pvt. Haraldson were invariably nicknamed “Gramps” by the boys who lied about their age to get into the fight.
What under-aged boys would often resort to would be writing the number 18 on a piece of paper, then stuffing it into one of their shoes.
Understood as technically telling the truth, whenever a recruiter asked if they were “over 18,” the wannabe-Leathernecks could in good conscience answer in the affirmative.
Yet another example why those of that era really are The Greatest Generation.