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Tarawa: When America was shown war’s grim reality  

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THE extensive media coverage of the conflicts in Ukraine, Israel and Gaza is a reminder that war is a battle of images as well as bullets and bombs. A single photograph or a film sequence can be a powerful weapon of propaganda and perception.  

But it’s not a modern phenomenon. During the Second World War, the public on the home front could see motion pictures of battlefields only on cinema newsreels, which were rigidly controlled and censored. In Britain and America, such films were generally upbeat and encouraging.  

However on March 2, 1944, all that changed for cinema audiences in the United States when a newsreel authorised by President Franklin D Roosevelt was shown for the first time. It left the public shocked and stunned as it revealed the dreadful reality of what their troops were facing in the war against the Japanese in the Pacific.  

Entitled With the Marines at Tarawa, the 20-minute documentary featured some of the most remarkable combat footage ever filmed. It was taken when 18,000 US Marines launched an amphibious assault on Tarawa, a remote but strategically valuable Japanese-held coral atoll consisting of a chain of islets in the Gilbert Islands of the west-central Pacific, on November 20, 1943.  

The Marines’ target was Betio, a tiny island in the south of the Tarawa chain where an airfield had been carved out of the jungle. Betio was only two miles long and 800 yards wide, but every inch was heavily fortified, mined and strewn with barbed wire. Almost 5,000 defenders from Japan’s Special Naval Landing Force were concealed in concrete bunkers and pillboxes, with artillery and machine guns sited to rain fire and steel on seaborne invaders.  

Although US Marines had made successful island landings earlier in the Pacific war, this was the first time they had faced a determined, well-armed Japanese force dug in along a beachline and prepared to resist to the death. The garrison’s commander, Rear-Admiral Keiji Shibasaki, boasted that ‘the Americans could not take Tarawa with a million men in a hundred years’.  

The US assault got off to a bad start. Amphibious tractors carried most of the first wave of Marines through murderous fire to Betio’s beaches. But the majority of the troops were in landing craft, some of which – despite their shallow draught – became grounded on the coral shelf surrounding the island because the state of the tide had been miscalculated.  

Marines were forced to abandon the vessels and wade 600 yards or more to the shore in chest-high water through machine-gun and mortar fire. Many never made it. Bombardment of the Japanese defences by US warships proved mostly ineffective, while fighter cover was hampered by smoke and radio communications were erratic.  

Those Marines who got ashore faced a hellish yard by yard slog, targeted by snipers, as they tried to make their way inland. Gradually, as tanks and heavy guns were brought into the fight, the attackers gained the initiative. Infantrymen methodically destroyed enemy bunkers with explosives and flamethrowers and the Japanese command began to unravel after Rear-Admiral Shibasaki was killed when a naval shell hit his headquarters. As the defences were overwhelmed, some desperate Japanese made a suicidal last-ditch banzai charge and were mown down.  

After three days of bitter fighting the Marines finally took Betio at a cost of more than 1,000 US dead and 2,000 wounded. Out of nearly 5,000 Japanese troops, only seven were left alive, with about 140 Korean labourers.  

What made Tarawa remarkable was not only the intensity of the struggle, but the fact that the battle was comprehensively filmed, mainly by two members of the Marine Corps Combat Cinematography Division, Sergeant Norman Hatch and his assistant Bill ‘Kelly’ Kelleher, who were in the thick of the action.  

Despite the danger to themselves, they unflinchingly recorded the savage fighting, the destruction, the suffering and the dying. One of the starkest images the footage captured – one that would etch itself on the minds of the US public – was the bloated bodies of Marines rolling in the surf along the shoreline after the battle.  

Although gained at a terrible cost, Tarawa was a victory for the Marines. But in the immediate aftermath, as reports and photographs of the battle from war correspondents were published in US newspapers and magazines, there was public outrage at the shocking death toll.  

Why had so many Marines been slaughtered for a speck of land thousands of miles from anywhere? What were military chiefs thinking, sending men to be killed in a frontal attack against a seemingly impregnable position? One Marine’s bereaved mother accused the top brass of murder.  

But those at the sharp end of the war effort, especially the men doing the fighting, knew that the American public still had to learn a hard lesson – that this was the blood price that would have to be paid if the Japanese were to be vanquished. There was also the realisation that the enemy was not the cowardly, cartoonish creature depicted in some quarters. There would be further costly battles as the Pacific campaign developed, and Americans had to accept the sacrifice.  

Over the following three months, the footage from Tarawa was compiled into the newsreel documentary, but there were qualms at the highest level over whether it was too gory for the public to see. In September 1943, Life magazine had published the first known picture of American dead seen during the Second World War – three soldiers killed on a beach in the New Guinea campaign. However, the Tarawa footage was a whole new dimension of horror. Finally, it was left to President Roosevelt to decide if it should be released uncensored.  

He was helped in his decision by Life war correspondent Robert Sherrod, who had been at Tarawa. When Roosevelt remarked that the film was ‘gruesome’ and queried if it should be shown to the public, Sherrod replied: ‘Gruesome, yes, Mr President. But that’s the way war is out there, and I think the people are going to have to get used to that idea.’ And so Roosevelt gave the go-ahead.  

With the Marines at Tarawa won the 1944 Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject. You can see it here. 

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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