Tarawa -- 1943

By Norman T. Hatch - Originally Published November 2002

First in the 'Sting of Battle' series, Norm Hatch provides insights on what was, to that time, the bloodiest single fight of the Pacific War. In 76 hours 2d Marine Division lost over 1,000 dead and over 2,200 additional wounded Marines

Andy Warhol once said that everyone would have his 15 minutes of fame! Well, during combat, time is often measured in seconds! One frequently can remember the oddities that happen in the midst of war's carnage that made you cry, laugh, or evoked extreme fear or wonder at the amazement of it all.

I had two such occasions in the 76 hours it took to conquer that sand spit of Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, which was not any larger than Central Park in New York City. My weapon was a motion picture camera, and my responsibility was to document this first ever, by the Marine Corps, amphibious attack against a heavily fortified beachhead. The first 2 days of fighting (20-21 November) were what might be expected, and I was busy. However, it was on the third day that a peculiar happening took place, and in addition, an unusual bit of photographic history of the war was accomplished.

Maj Bill Chamberlain, the 2d Battalion, 8th Marines executive officer, was planning an attack on a large Japanese blockhouse that was a major command post for the island. We were sitting in a deep shell hole accompanied by his platoon leaders and senior noncommissioned officers (NCOs). It was agreed that at 0900, and at Chamberlain's order, the attack would begin. The officers and NCOs went back to their troops to inform them of the action, thus leaving my assistant, PFC Bill Kelliher, and me alone with the major. At 0900 the major looked at me and asked, "Are you ready?" I replied, "Yes!" What else was I going to say? Maj Chamberlain then stood up, looked around at his troops spread over the terrain, and shouted, "Follow me!"

With that, he and I ran up the side of the blockhouse, all the way across the top, and looked over the other side to see about a dozen Japanese Naval Landing Force (Marines) staring up at us and wondering what we were doing on top of their command post. In the few seconds that effort took, we turned and looked behind us for our troop support, and there wasn't a single Marine in sight. The two of us were standing on top of the world of Tarawa wondering what came next. I discovered that the major didn't have a weapon. He lost his pistol in the landing and had given his carbine to a Marine whose rifle had been damaged. I had a pistol but it was in the back of my belt and my hands were full of camera gear, so I suggested that we better get the "hell" out of there! We did, running at full speed, and needless to say there was a strong chewing out going on in the shell hole we soon occupied. As the assault restarted I said to the major, "Those were nearly 'famous last words.'" He said quite strongly and with a wry chuckle, "I'll never say 'follow me' again!"

The second incident happened shortly after the first and during the attack on the blockhouse. I was doing the kind of coverage one might expect when all of a sudden someone yelled, "Here come the Japs!" I quickly turned, with camera running, to capture two squads of Japanese, who had left the safety of the blockhouse and were trying to stop the Marines from surrounding their position, in the same frame with Marines shooting at them. This encounter lasted a little more than 15 seconds, but it was the only time in the Pacific War, and perhaps the European one as well, that both sides were caught in the same images while in a fighting stance! All of the Japanese were killed!

So, contrary to Warhol's prediction, my film has had 60 years, and counting, of recognition. In addition, that particular sequence helped immeasurably in the Marine Corps receiving the Academy Award for "The Most Outstanding Documentary Short Subject" of 1944! The title of the film is With the Marines at Tarawa!