Surviving Tarawa: Veteran Reflects on 80th Anniversary Of Operation Galvanic

By: Patrick Reed


In November 1943, 21-year-old Private First Class Lupe Gasca waded slowly through chest-deep water, toward the small strip of coral clouded by dark gray smoke. Japanese bullets smacked the water to his left and right as he picked his way toward the only structure that looked as though it might offer some protection—a pier jutting out into the lagoon.

Eighty years later, the memories of that afternoon and the rest of his time at Tarawa remain fresh. His eyes fix on a scene that he still sees clearly in his mind. “I remembered two things I forgot to mention last time we talked,” Gasca said one afternoon in his Minnesota living room. “The heat, and the smell. The smell of death … I can still smell it right now. I’ll never forget that.” Now 101 years old, Gasca is one of the very last who remembers the battle for Tarawa.

Gasca joined the Marine Corps in 1942 from Albert Lea, Minn. The son of tenant farmers, Gasca’s young life was characterized by manual labor on farms during the Great Depression. He went to school on a part-time basis but frequented the local library and was especially enthralled by its collection of images of the First World War.

In the summer of 1934, Gasca had a chance encounter that would change the course of his life. While shocking wheat for a farmer, the farmer’s son returned home on leave from the Marine Corps. “He was wearing the khaki shirt with the blue trousers with the red stripe, and the white cap. And he sat and talked to us.” Gasca recalled. The Marine was serving on guard duty in Washington, D.C., and showed Gasca and the other children photos of himself in his dress blue uniform. Gasca had also seen photos of trench warfare in the library’s collection. “I had seen these guys fighting in the mud and everything. So, when World War II broke out and they started talking about recruiting, I said ‘well, I’m not going to join the Army, I’m going to go in the Marine Corps, because I’ll get the easy job. I’m not going to be crawling in the mud like those other guys.’ ” Gasca did join the Marines, and after completing his training, was assigned to 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, refitting in Wellington, New Zealand.

Marines cross the seawall, moving in from the beach. Shortly after arriving for duty with B/1/2 in Wellington, New Zealand, Lupe Gasca boarded a landing craft to support the beach landing on Tarawa. Courtesy of National Archives.

In November 1943, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines moved from New Zealand to the New Hebrides to practice beach landings, and then finally into position a few miles off the coast of Betio Island. Gasca had been assigned to a machine-gun team of 1st Battalion’s Company B, under the command of Captain Maxie Williams. The 1st Bn was assigned to be the regimental reserve. Even so, at about 2 a.m. on Nov. 20, Gasca and the other Marines of B/1/2 filed into the ship’s galley for their pre-invasion breakfast. Then they geared up, and after a long wait, Gasca climbed down the cargo nets and into the landing craft idling in the water below.

“It was just pitch dark as could be,” he remembered. “I could see the shadows of the other ships, and some Higgins boats already making their circles. And just as I got down on the Higgins boat, I heard this funny whistling noise, right over the top of us. It was a shell! I’d never heard anything like that.” As dawn broke, Gasca and his fellow Marines continued their long wait offshore in their landing craft, “circling and circling,” as Gasca recalled. The plan was for the brand-new amphib­ious tractors, of which there were precious few, to create a shuttle service, taking wait­ing Marines from Higgins boats across the reef to the beach. If all went according to plan, 1/2 would follow close on the heels of the Regiment’s 2nd and 3rd Battalions. “They said, ‘they’re land­ing and they’re going to come back,’ and so we were waiting for that 15 minutes it was supposed to take.” Gasca said. “It was hours before I finally got there.”

As they waited, the water rough from the wakes of the other craft, Gasca heard more artillery. “The Japanese got our spot, and they were concentrating on our group” he recalled, imitating the noise of the incoming fire. “To my left—and I could almost see the shell!—their cox­swain was hit and just disappeared.” Gasca watched helplessly as the Marines in that landing craft were thrown about, becoming casualties before even reaching the island. Even when the tractors finally did appear to complete the shuttle proc­ess, loading from the Higgins boat proved chaotic. In the confusion, Gasca and his gunner, Alfred Lewis, were left behind in the Higgins boat while their ammuni­tion carriers went ashore aboard the amtracs, separating them and leaving the two gunners with all of the ammunition, in addition to the gun and tripod they were assigned to carry.

By this time it was about noon, and the lieutenant in his boat ordered the coxswain to take the Marines ashore instead of waiting for another amtrac. “The guy took off and went, but pretty soon, the thing hit coral. And then, the ramp went down. We were still about 200, maybe 300 yards from the beach. And we were very lucky that when the ramp went down and we started walking, the water was only up to here.” Gasca remembered, drawing a line with his hand in the middle of his chest. “There were no holes. But what happened to some other people [and] tanks completely even—the ramp went down, and the unit went down. The Sailors dropping us off were just as green as we were, they didn’t know.” With their feet on solid coral, Gasca and Lewis began their long trek to shore. “When we got so far, Lewis and I looked at each other, and we headed for the pier.” The pier, a pre-war construction extending 1,000 yards into the lagoon to allow for commercial shipping, divided Red Beach 3 from Red Beach 2, and was neutralized in the morning by a scout sniper platoon under the command of First Lieutenant William Deane Hawkins, one of Tarawa’s Medal of Honor recipients. It offered slight protection for Marines on their harrowing journey ashore.

“We were walking, and we finally got along the pier. And every so often, they would spot us. But then they’d stop again, and they’d concentrate where there were a lot of guys coming in. So, we kept walk­ing.” Gasca recalled. “At that time, I’m just hoping I don’t get hit. When I got off of the Higgins boat into the water, there was no reason to be scared because there was nowhere to go but forward. Lewis and I weren’t even talking, we operated just on instinct.” The two Marines picked their way along the pier, careful on the rocks made slippery with the bodies of small fish killed by the concussion of the pre-invasion bombardment. Having made it to the beach, Gasca found chaos. “Final­­ly at the end of the pier was this coconut wall. All I could see was the wall and the sand, and in the open area a bunch of junk. You could see fire, smoke and everything, and there were maybe 150, 200 guys there,” Gasca recalled. “Who they were, I don’t know. Lewis and I didn’t know anybody. But we knew that our unit was supposed to be to the right, so we started heading that way.”

Marines had to maneuver through a beach littered with tin roofing material and other debris. USMC photo.

The two began to move along the wall, when suddenly Lewis was grabbed by an unknown Marine sergeant. “He said, ‘where the hell do you think you’re going? You can’t go over there! Look!’ and he pointed. And sure enough, there was just a layer of Marines, dead in what they call no man’s land.” Unable to locate anyone from their unit, Gasca and Lewis joined a platoon of Marines fighting from a section of Red Beach 2. “There was a bunch of debris, and I could see to the left the big bunker. I couldn’t see any of the enemy. They were underneath this debris and tin, and they could see us, and they were close,” Gasca recalled. “There must have been buildings there, because there were tin roofs on the ground, with coco­nut trees fallen over on top of them. It was just like being in a pile of junk. And we just kept firing at the tin.” The two Marines remained there, only about 30 feet inland, firing at an unseen enemy until night fell.

When daylight came, Gasca and Lewis continued moving towards where they believed Co B to be. Finally, at about midday, they found a Marine from their company, Wayne Barr. He told them that B Company was in a tank trap, located on Black Beach, across the narrow island. After waiting for an opportune moment to cross the gun-swept terrain, Gasca noticed four planes circling in the sky above. “Just like in the movies, the sun would hit the wings, and flash silver. And then they started coming down, they were dive bombers. And I can recall telling Lewis, ‘when the other plane comes straf­ing, we’re going to take off,’ and so we did. We ran across, and I jumped into the tank trap and just about landed on top of Maxie Williams.”

Machine-gunners fire on Japanese positions while fighting on Betio. USMC photo.

They were greeted by laughter from the Marines in the tank trap, who told them that as they ran, Japanese bullets were hitting the ground right behind their feet. Barr, however, was not so lucky. “As he got up and took his first step, a bullet hit him right in the neck,” Gasca recalled. “We didn’t know what had happened to him, just that he had probably gotten hit, because he never came back.”

Lupe Gasca draws a map of his path across Betio. The memories are still vivid for the 101-year-old veteran of the Battle of Tarawa. Courtesy of Kurt Barickman.

At long last having rejoined Co B, Gasca continued to fight his way across Betio. He and Lewis spent the day providing suppressing fire for riflemen attempting to capture well-camouflaged and heavily defended fighting positions. “We couldn’t see anybody. They’d just tell us to fire, to pin them down while they were trying to go around a bunker,” Gasca recalled. “In one of those instances, the only guy that was there was our squad leader, by the name of [Private First Class] Arthur Wende. He was the only one from our squad, so he was directing us. There was a crater to the left of this bunker, and Wende said, ‘we can’t do anything here. I’m going to go to that crater, you keep an eye on me and I’ll give you the signal to move the gun to the crater, to fire on the other bunker.’ And he took off and ran to the crater,” Gasca said. “Just as he gets there—I can just see him—he gets his head up above the ground. And I can see the bullet hit his forehead. He stayed like that momentarily, and then fell, and was killed. Just like that … and I think that’s the only time I didn’t see Lewis grinning looking at me. And so we didn’t budge, we didn’t go. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”

The Marines continued fighting. An hour later, the two had another close call as a Japanese grenade landed next to their gun. It exploded, bending the receiver, but leaving the two Marines remarkably unscathed. The second day of battle con­tinued for Gasca much as the first had. Even as incremental advances were made, the enemy was largely unseen and well-fortified. Occasionally, enemy emplace­ments would be passed with the thought that they were neutralized, only to present active resistance again later in the day from occupants who had survived pre­vious assaults. Night fell on the second day, with Gasca and his fellow Marines still inside the tank trap.

On the morning of the Nov. 22, the Marines in the tank trap again made plans to neutralize the bunkers in their area. Gasca provided suppressing fire, enabling the riflemen to locate the source of the Japanese returning fire and successfully neutralize the position. The tenor of the fight had changed, advances were being made. “People were more relaxed, some of them were walking around” (as opposed to crawling for fear of being hit), Gasca remembered. But the island was far from secure.

Co B continued their advance along the island’s southern shoreline. “So now, it gets dark,” Gasca recalled. “We headed towards this other bunker, but there was no activity. Nobody shot at us. And so we got there, and made our dugout for the third night.” Gasca was standing watch, with his machine gun facing the water to guard against possible infiltration from the sea. “At about 11 o’clock, I thought I saw some movement at this bunker. Now before it got dark, I hadn’t seen any door there. But pretty soon, I saw a couple of other guys moving. I had a rifle right next to my machine gun, and I picked up the rifle and I fired. And I hit him.”

Wounded Marines are evacuated from Tarawa via rubber boat. Lupe Gasca was one of the many wounded Marines transported from the atoll this way. Courtesy of National Archives.

At once, it all broke loose. “Just as I fired on top of the bunker—which was high and covered in sand and debris—about 20 guys came over the top! They were firing at us, and I spun my machine gun around and opened up. I didn’t even fire a belt, I probably only fired about 15 seconds. All the other guys opened up with rifles and BARs and everything,” he recalled. “And about the same time that I was doing this, a hand grenade landed to my left and killed some of the guys, and that’s when I got hit. I felt warm from my legs, and tried to move, and I fell down. So that’s when I got wounded. I’ll never forget that.”

Corpsmen treat wounded Marines during the Battle of Tarawa. Lupe Gasca can’t forget the sight of so many Marines lying on the beach. USMC photo.
A clipping from a local newspaper announces Lupe Gasca’s wounding at Tarawa. (Courtesy of Kurt Barickman)
Marines are loaded onto a troop­ship using a wire basket. Lupe Gasca was evacuated with others and treated for the shrapnel wounds in his leg be­fore returning to fight in later battles in the Pacific. Courtesy of National Archives.

Gasca was taken to an aid station back by the tank trap, where he was patched up by corpsmen. The next morning, he was evacuated. “A jeep came over with a stretcher to take us, and they brought me back towards the beach, almost where I came in,” he recalled. “And the Higgins boats still couldn’t come in because there wasn’t enough water. So they put me on a rubber boat and took me out to where it was deep enough for the Higgins boat.” From there, the Higgins boat transported Gasca to the waiting ship. “The winch came down from the ship, and the guys in the landing craft put me in the wire basket. And I was just thinking ‘gee, I hope these baskets don’t drop.’ It hap­pened, you know, and you would sink.” Gasca made it aboard without incident and began his nine-day voyage back to Hawaii. Arriving at the hospital in Pearl Harbor, Gasca was greeted with a pleasant surprise. “The day I arrived in the hospital, I got into the [ward], and there he was, Barr! He was already walking, with a bandage around his neck. The bullet had gone through his neck, but he survived.”

Lupe Gasca, center, stands with other Tarawa veterans Tom Glynn, left, and Bud Benoit. Gasca maintained active memberships with multiple reunion organizations through the years. Courtesy of Kurt Barickman.

Gasca underwent procedures to remove the shrapnel from his legs—without anesthesia—and slowly regained the ability to walk. He recovered in time to rejoin B/1/2 and fought with them for the rest of the war, surviving the campaigns on Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa. As a part of the occupation forces, he witnessed firsthand the devastation in Nagasaki. Finally, in late 1945, he returned home to Minnesota.

The Battle of Tarawa remains a defin­ing moment in the history of the Marine Corps. The brutality of the battle shocked the Ameri­can public, and the images produced caused scandal. Nearly 3,500 casualties in just 76 hours was a bitter pill to swal­low. Admiral Chester Nimitz, the com­mand­er of the U.S. Pacific Fleet during World War II, said the battle, “knocked down the front door to Japanese defenses in the Central Pacific,” and in­fluenced American doctrine in amphib­ious oper­ations to come. Eighty years on, remnants of the battle are abundant on Betio, and efforts continue to recover the remains of Marines still buried in lost graves on the atoll, PFC Arthur Wende among them.

To Gasca, the legacy of his involvement doesn’t seem to loom large. “It’s a long time ago, and you know, over the years I never talked about it. I came home and got married and raised a family, and we never talked about it. In fact, even when I got back to B Company right after the battle, we never talked about it,” Gasca said. “But after so many years, I wondered—why did they do it like that?”

Eight decades later, Gasca is one of only a few left who fought on Tarawa. He doesn’t see himself as a hero. “I just went and joined the Marine Corps because I didn’t want to join the Army,” he laughed. “But later on, I was proud.”

Editor’s note: Special thanks to Kurt Barickman for his assistance with this article.

Author’s bio: Patrick Reed is a his­torian and graduate of Abilene Christian University. He has a particular interest in the Marine Corps and Marine Corps history, and travels to speak with World War II veterans about their experiences.