I first wrote this on Memorial Day 2010. I feel it's worth a repost. Thank you to all who have served. Have a fun Memorial Day.
My Daddy served in the Navy during World War II. He seldom if ever talked about it.
I knew that he served in the Pacific, and at some point lived on a island, but I never knew where. He told me that he wasn't really involved in any combat, that his age (he was already in his 30s by then) and the fact that he had a law degree kept him mostly doing administrative work. But he was never an officer. He seemed a little saddened by these facts, but never went into any details.
Once, when I was a little girl, we went to Georgia to visit an old Navy friend of Daddy's, a Mr. Brewer. I remember that the Brewers had a huge, Taralike home, and he and Daddy sat and told stories of M*A*S*Hlke military SNAFUs. It was a little bit shocking, listening to the "man talk" and hearing Daddy use what I considered to be bad words, like "bastard" and "son of a bitch", language he NEVER used around me. I remember one of their slightly "off-color" stories was about a time when the Navy powers-that-be decided that it wasn't decent for the native women of the island to be going around topless, so they issued t-shirts to be distributed to the natives. The women seemed delighted with their new shirts, and accepted them happily. The next day, the soldiers went to see the villagers, and all the women had cleverly cut holes in the front of their t-shirts and pulled their breasts through them!
But truly, that's all I knew about his Navy experience.
After Daddy died, I discovered a book in his bedside table. It was a self published book, put together by one of the men in Daddy's WWII unit, about the history of their experience. And it was absolutely fascinating.
It turns out that Daddy was with Argus (Aviation Radar Ground Units) 16, the unit that occupied the Tarawa Atoll following the Battle of Tarawa. The Tarawa Atoll is part of the Gilbert Islands, and was a valuable piece of real estate as the Americans hopscotched their way the Pacific and closed in on mainland Japan. Important because of it's airfield and strategic location for monitoring radio transmissions in the area.
The Battle of Tarawa was fought by the 2d Marine Division on November 20 - 23, 1943, and is considered one of the bloodiest and most savage battles of WWII. 1000 US Marines were killed, and almost 5000 Japanese.
According to this book, Daddy's unit arrived just after the battle, and it was their job not only to occupy the island, get the airfield operating, and set up radio operations, but also to "clean up" the island. Apparently, as they made their way ashore, the bodies of dead Marines floated around them and banged up against the sides of their boats.
So cleaning up meant dealing with the 6000 dead bodies. 6000 dead bodies.
Imagine the mixed emotions they must have felt. The bodies of their comrades who had fought and died. The bodies of the enemy. Feelings of sorrow. Feelings of pride. Feelings of shame that it was these Marines who had done the dying, while you weren't part of the combat forces, just the clean up and occupation. And of course fear, because the Japanese continue to bomb the island, long after the battle was over.
So on this Memorial Day, I'm remembering the lives of those 1000 Marines who fought and died on Tarawa Atoll. Because I'm sure that my Daddy never forgot them.