Return to Tarawa/Ex-Marines chase phantoms at battle site
TOM HENNESSY Knight-Ridder Newspapers
SUN HOUSTON CHRONICLE, Section A, Page 35, 2 STAR Edition
BETIO, Republic of Kiribati - The chartered plane, a British Aerospace 748, rumbled toward the island with determination, as if on a bombing run. Inside the cabin, gray-haired men peered through the windows at a lagoon. It was lime-colored on this Friday afternoon in November. But they remembered a time, 66 years ago, when it was pink with the blood of their Marine buddies. The men on the plane were survivors; returning to a place that meant terror and sorrow in the dark autumn of 1943.
Returning to Tarawa.
There were 27 of them aboard the plane. They came to this atoll 6,000 miles from California to dedicate a monument. And to chase phantoms.
"Buddies told me if I went back to Tarawa, I should watch for ghosts," said Pat Didlake of Glendora, Miss. "You might even see yourself there," they said. "In a way, a lot of us do think we're still there. There aren't too many days when you don't think about Tarawa."
Most of them were 18 and 19 when they fought at Tarawa, then part of the Gilbert Islands and now belonging to the nine-year-old nation of Kiribati.
Today, the Marines of Tarawa are grandfathers, several of whom brought their wives to see the place that made headlines in 1943.
"The wives are looking for a lot of answers," said Dorothy Pavel of Captiva Island, Fla. "Over the years, every wife I've talked to - their husbands have gone through the same thing - nightmares, screaming at night."
The battle was a 76-hour hell, the first American amphibious assault on a heavily fortified island. During it, 1,113 Marines were killed, 2,290 wounded. Of the 4,832 Japanese defenders, only 17 survived.
The trip to Tarawa was arranged by Bob Reynolds, whose Sausalito, Calif., travel agency, Valor Tours, has returned nearly 5,000 veterans to World War II battlegrounds, to places of sometimes terrifying memory. For almost all of them, said Reynolds, the trips are therapeutic.
"After them, we find wives and sons and daughters are hearing Dad speak (about combat) for the first time. For the (postwar) years, these guys were silent, inarticulate. `Dad doesn't talk about the war."'
At first, the Marines showed little emotion at seeing their old battleground, mostly because they did not recognize it.
When they left 65 years ago, Betio, the two-mile coral strand on which the battle took place, was an island with no native population, no structures save for Japanese bunkers, and no vegetation, all of the latter having been destroyed by shell fire.
But Betio (pronounced BESS-i-o) is now a lush island home for about 9,000 natives, which makes it something of a metropolis by Pacific Island standards.
"This is just not the same island we landed on 66 years ago," said Pete Pavel.
As the Sunday monument dedication ceremony concluded with a floral wreath thrown into the sea and the playing of taps, 66 years suddenly collapsed for the visiting Marines. Many wept openly for fallen friends, for their own youth lost to war, for years of nightmares and pain.
"As I looked out on the water, I did not see the wreath," said Paul Du Pre, a retired Marine colonel from Port Hueneme, Calif. "Instead, my mind's eye saw the floating bodies of my friends, the floating bodies I had seen in that very same area 60 years ago."
Before leaving, the survivors sought out the places on Betio that held the poignant individual memories.
Carroll Strider of Tryon, N.C., found the beach designated "Red Beach 3" during the invasion. "That's where I landed in the second wave. I started remembering that day and looked for where we went inland. And what I saw instead were houses and little children and families."
John Downing of Long Beach, Calif., waded into the Tarawa 's lagoon, looking for his tank. The last time he saw it, on Nov. 20, 1943, it was tumbling from a bombed landing craft and plunging, upside down, into the sea. After an afternoon's search, Downing failed to locate it, but did find a wrecked tank that belonged to his battalion.
Angelo Pace of Riverside, Calif., strolled the beach where he had been wounded and was stopped by a native offering a gift, a canteen. The man obviously had saved the war relic for years. "But when he put it in my hands," says Pace, "I immediately felt hostile. I couldn't accept it. It was a Japanese canteen."
On a plane taking the Marines back to the United States, a flight attendant in her early 20s sat down beside a passenger. She was curious about the group of gray-haired men on board.
"They are Marines," she was told. "They fought at the Battle of Tarawa in 1943 at other battles in World War II."
"Who were they fighting?"
She weighed that information momentarily, then asked: "Who won?"