On November 20, 1943, the Second Marine Division assaulted the tiny island of Betio in the Tarawa atoll. Within a week, Betio and the surrounding islands were securely in American hands, and more than three thousand Marines and sailors were dead or wounded. The vast majority of these casualties occurred in the first three days. Numbers of the killed vary from source to source, but average out to over one thousand dead Marines and corpsmen, most of whom fell on an island less than three miles long and half a mile wide. Nearly 4700 Japanese warriors and Korean laborers lost their lives as well. The island has been aptly described as a massive graveyard.
The stories of heroism and tragedy from Tarawa are well known to even casual students of the Pacific War, the Marine Corps, or military history. Yet the scale of the battle is difficult to comprehend to those who were not there. Striking, too, is the fact that nearly half of the dead are still listed as missing in action. The recent returns of Herman Sturmer (2011), Manley Winkley (2013), Randolph Allen (2014), and Richard W. Vincent (2014) made headlines, but since 1949 only six other individuals – five Marines and one corpsman – have been positively identified. (The true number may be only five, as the identity of PFC Arthur Somes has been debated for years.) The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command has devoted resources to the search; independent groups like History Flight, The Chief Rick Stone & Family Foundation, and individuals like Bill Niven, Jim Hildebrand, and Jonathan Stevens have dedicated years to researching the battle and performing fieldwork. The results have been astonishing: in 2013 alone, History Flight recovered the remains of at least 61 Americans, and many Japanese individuals as well.
Still, for the general public, the impact of this battle is seventy years removed from relevance. Instead of creating another list of names and faces, I decided to create an interactive map. Not of Tarawa, but of the United States. And even a simple visual was staggering.
I have to admit that I was a bit taken aback by the sheer number of pins. I used a couple of different sources to account for the individual casualties and came up with a total of 1,015. (I am sure some more knowledgable Tarawa scholar will have some corrections and notes – please do share!) Red pins indicate an individual killed in action and recovered immediately after the War, while blue pins indicate a man who died of wounds and was buried at sea. The black pins represent those whose remains have either been lost forever or have not yet been recovered, and the few candles are for those returned from MIA status since 1949.
Hopefully, this helps to illustrate just how tremendous an impact this one short, terrible battle had on the United States. Nearly every state (with the exception of Vermont) lost somebody; a young man from Alaska and another from Puerto Rico were also among the dead. Many were the only fatality from their area, yet there are a surprising number of small towns that lost more than one. Sergeant Clarence Lowe and Corporal Curtis Lowery were both from the town of Kosciusko, Mississippi; both served with A/1/8th Marines, and both lost their lives and were buried at sea. Surprising, too, were the number of neighbors. Sergeant Donald Stoddard (B/6th Marines) and PFC Robert Smith (F/8th Marines) lived two blocks apart on Pine Street in Boulder, Colorado; Sergeant Charles McGuire (L/8th Marines) and PFC Paul Garrity (C/8th Marines) were virtually next-door neighbors in Indianapolis. One can only imagine that they knew each other before the war; perhaps their families were friends.
I intended to have every pin updated with photographs and a little information on each man, but there were simply too many. It’ll be updated as time and information allow. Hopefully as the months go by, more black pins will be replaced with candles.
So take a moment to look up your hometown, your address, or your favorite place. There may be a pin nearby. Remember that name today. Speak it out loud. It might be the first time someone’s said it in decades.