"What I saw ... was, I am certain, one of the greatest works of devastation wrought by man. Words are not adequate to describe what I saw on this island of less than a square mile. Neither are pictures - you can't smell pictures."
—Tarawa, Robert Sherrrod
My name is Clinton G. Brame. I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps on November 14, 1942, at the Federal Building on Market and 12th Street, San Diego. From there I was dispatched to MCRD. The training program in boot camp, because of the war, was reduced from 12 weeks; but boot camp was the same for any young fella from any time — it sticks in your memory; you hate your DI, you’re going to kill him, until you get out, when all of a sudden everybody wants to buy him a present. But I’ll say one thing — and I remember things very vividly from time to time — even after Tarawa and Saipan and everything, whenever us guys get together on some of our little reunions, why, we’re there no time at all when talk always reverts to boot camp. I think every Marine is that way.
My desire when I enlisted had been to become a paratrooper. I passed all physicals on the Marine Corps situation during indoctrination, but when I arrived here and they re-examined me, lo and behold, they discovered I’d broken my arm twice in a 13-month period. They figured my bone structure was not as strong as they thought it should be. So in my ignorance and youth, I said, “Hell with it, I don’t care what you do with me."
Well, when we graduated from boot camp, they told everybody else where they were going and what they were going to be, until there was four of us left standing. We chatted a little bit. One fellow said his dad owned a hamburger chain type of thing; another guy said he’d been a baker; and I started tellin’ how I’d had a few jobs in restaurants. And we’d put this down on our applications. I said, “What do you think we’re doing here?" One guy said, “Evidently we’re cooks.” Sure enough, we went through cooks and bakers school right there at MCRD.
Afterwards, we were dispatched to old Camp Elliot — there’s remnants of it out on Highway 15, some old warehouses, a few buildings — where they were shipping all the replacement battalions out to the South Pacific. I was there January until June, a pretty good hitch. And out of each galley at Camp Elliot, we were noted for serving 5500 men a day. We worked every day. My shift broke right after lunch, and I’d be free till one o’clock in the morning, then I’d go back to work again. The only advantage cooks had was an open liberty pass; but you were either too tired or had no money that there weren’t too many places you could go. That’s the way they operated in those days.
I did learn one thing, gettin’ up at one o’clock in the morning to start breakfast for the troops, that maybe I didn’t come out so bad. Out that gate every morning at one or two, there’d be a whole company of Marines runnin’ around in the dark. Hup, two, three, four... I asked, “Who’n the hell are they?” Low and behold, they were the paratroopers.
In the latter part of June, a strange thing happened. They issued us long johns and all kinds of cold-weather greens. Then, like all good Marines, they took us down to the pier. Why the heavy gear? We thought, “Jesus Christ, the Japanese are going to hit Alaska! We’re shipping
They put us aboard a converted freighter with a Dutch crew and a conglomeration of I don’t know what all — Marines, sailors. Army — just a. conglomeration of everybody and everything.
And we were loners. We didn’t have any coverage — no tin cans [escort destroyers], no demolition charges — nothing to protect us at all. So we zig-zagged all over hell, when all of a sudden we headed straight south. Some of us young kids who didn’t know nothin’ about the world — hell, I was born and raised in St. Louis, didn’t even know where Hawaii was — wondered, “If we’re going south, why all this cold-weather stuff?” Then, when we got to the equator, the Dutch crew put us through a little ceremony. Before you cross the equator, see, you’re a polliwog; once you go through the ceremony and cross, why, then you’re a shellback.
They had us strip and put our underwear on backwards and ran us through a paddlin’ line and sprinkled salt water on us. They treated the officers more unkindly, did more cruel things to them, but it was all a fun-type thing. In the end a Dutchman called “Neptune of the Deep” gave a high sign and, like that, you were a shellback.
I can well remember the docks when we got to New Zealand; a band was out there and played us a couple tunes. That’s the only time, going or coming, I ever heard a band. There were no parades or “Hooray! Come Back Alive!” types of things like everybody thinks. You were just plunked on a ship and off you went.
Anyway, we learned why the heavy gear. Once you cross the equator and continue south, seasons down there are reverse of ours. Hell, we arrived in Wellington in July — 17 days from San Diego — in mid-winter.
And boy it was cold.
They loaded us on trucks and drove us 32 miles to a place called Paekakariki; I was assigned to Headquarters company, Second Battalion, 8th Marines, 2nd Marine Division, which was another conglomeration of everything. Some had been on American Samoa, some had been on the Canal [Guadalcanal]; some had seen combat, some had not.
Some of the guys were suffering from malaria and all those kinds of things that were on the Canal. They had some pretty tough stories to tell. How the Japanese didn’t believe in surrender, how vicious they were, some of their tricks. I found out our CO was then-Major Jim Crowe, who was already a legend. First thing he did was take us on a forced march to Foxton and back...quite a march. Some guys were wearing New Zealand boots, and by the time we got back, their feet were blistered and bleeding and what have you.
Several things stick in my memory about those guys off the Canal. One was a fella named Tommy Sutton, and he happened to be from St. Louis, which is how we happened to strike up a conversation. Got to be pretty friendly. He’d asked permission to marry a New Zealand girl, which some guys had to do.
“Gee, Tom,” I said. “You really like her?”
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m gonna marry her.’
“How long’ve you known her?” “Since I got here. And know what?” Still just as serious as can be. “She’s got all her teeth, too!”
Another night I went over to the galley, gettin’ ready to do my thing as a cook, and here’s these guys up on a mess bench singing “You Are My Sunshine” and waving around doing what they called the Samoan War Dance. ‘Where in the hell’d ya come up with that?” I asked. Well, these guys had been on Samoa, where they’d taught all the natives to sing “You Are My Sunshine” and told ’em it was the Samoan National Anthem. I thought, “Jesus Christ, these guys are a bunch of crazy Marines.”
The night I arrived was interesting. After I’d gotten all my gear squared away, I put on that heavy green overcoat and started walkin’ around in the cold. I asked some guy where everyone was, and he said, “Shootin’ craps.” It was payday. They were all in one tent crowded around blankets spread on the floor. Guys were yelling, “Shoot five pounds.” “Shoot ten pounds.” “I’ll take ten of this.” “Gimme ten of that.” And I was a kid raised in the depression — we didn’t have any money. All this manipulation went on for about an hour, when finally I said, “Hey, Mac. What the hell is a pound?"
He says, “Three dollars and 56 cents.”
I looked at him — there’s piles of pounds everywhere — and sorta gasp “Oh, my gosh...” He looks at me strange.
“What else you gonna do with it, Mac?”
We shipped out of New Zealand, I guess it was in October, after two months of maneuvers out of Blackhawk Bay, off Wellington. They’d take us down in trucks and load us aboard ships, and we’d do a float and come back in and do some more floats and hang the nets over the sides and climb into what they called Higgins boats. That went on several times aboard different transports. There were lots of rumors, but evidently they were playing intelligence games — tryin’ to keep the Japanese confused, I imagine — as well as gettin' training in at the same time. We lost some guys during maneuvers, guys who got squashed between the sides of the ships and the Higgins boats.
Anyway, the end result was we finally sailed off to Efate in the New Hebrides chain; and young kids like me, who didn't know where Hawaii was — how would I know where Efate was? We’d be out there on maneuvers for a few days, then sail off again. Rumors were going around; rumors we were gonna hit Rabual, rumors we were gonna go straight to Japan — all that kinda happy stuff — which wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because 99 percent of us didn’t know where we were in the first place. It was worse for those of us who were cooks or bakers. Unlike the grunts — riflemen and mortars and machine gunners and flame throwers — we weren’t kept informed about things we needed to know. I know that caused me problems on Tarawa...not bein’ brought up to date.
We worked our 24-hour routine seven days a week in typical Marine Corps style. Ships built to carry a thousand troops carried 1700. Work was a constant, constant thing. Galleys were built down in the holds where the cargo used to be, with old oil burners and insufficient equipment. Everything was improvised — even the heads for the troops. They were built on the top decks with troughs for the waste hung over the sides.
The code name for the operation, we learned, was Helen. And when we sailed outta Efate, looked out over the water...well, there’d never been a larger convoy in the Pacific than for Helen. Front-line troops got all the briefings — what Helen was, what we had to do. They did bring some of us cooks on deck once to show us the layout.
They showed us Tarawa, but they never said “Tarawa”; they said “Helen" or “Betio” [BAY-she-oh: half a square mile of coral, one of Tarawa Atoll’s 38 isles — the target of attack]. So anyway, end result was, by the time we got to that area, I had some understanding of what the hell we were gonna get into...but not much.
They assured us that we were going to hit the Japs with the heaviest naval gunfire in the history of the United States; that we were attacking a reinforced island defended by Japanese special landing forces — Japanese Marines. They told us that the Jap commander bragged it would “take a million men a hundred years" to conquer his island. Something like that.
What little I got of the plan — ’cause I was workin’ in the galley more’n I was gettin’ briefed — was we were gonna shell it and shell it and shell it some more; that we were gonna bomb and bomb the hell out of it; and that the Marine Corps would take it in ten hours. You know, get in and set up our water-cooled machine guns on the beach and spray straight across. It was just a tiny island...not very far across at its widest.
D-Day was November 20, 1943. We started serving breakfast at two A.M.; fed the troops steak and eggs — that was a mistake. They should’ve never had us do that...fed ’em any of those kinda things. There were a lot of complications later, stomach wounds...all kinds of things. But that was the tradition.
When we got done feeding the troops, I went up to my bunk, got my gear together, and went back down to the galley. They told me I’d be going with either the first or second wave, so I went on deck and waited to disembark. That’s when the battleships opened up on the island. We could hear aircraft above, but evidently they were just fighters; MacArthur’s air force — at my level, see, just a PFC, you only got pieces of information — we thought they was supposed to bomb the hell outta Helen. They never showed up. And that’s when we heard rounds go over our tail.
“Jesus Christ!" I yelled. “We’re gettin’ blasted!”
We were takin’ fire from 12-inch guns that we learned later the Japs had captured on Singapore. Those guns were supposed to have been knocked out by MacArthur’s air force. The Monrovia was in back of our ship [the Heywood], and both maneuvered to get outta the way of those guns. Hell, that complicated things. Some guys had already gone down the nets and were in Higgins boats...circling around and around, tryin’ to get line up on debarkation line.
I saw star clusters around our ship, and there were flashes from the battle wagons, but it was dark and hard to tell what was happening. You could also see where we were hittin’ certain things — evidently some oil tanks — and boy, we thought we were really givin’ ’em hell. Us kids were still pretty anxious, pretty concerned...didn’t know what the hell we were gettin’ into.
Then, just as I’m gettin’ ready to go over the side, somebody grabs me, says, “Not you...you gotta do somethin’ first.”
“What in the hell is that?" I said.
Meantime, first two waves — which I understood I was to be with — transferred into amphtracs (amphibious tractors] to get on the debarkation line. End result was I got split up from my regular group, put in a Higgins boat...got dumped in the water like a lotta other guys.
It was utter confusion.
See, debarkation line was in the lagoon side of the atoll, and by time we got in there, with all the delays, the tide was too low for the Higgins boats to get over the reef...just the amphtracs.
We were supposed to hit Red Beach 2 [west of the 800-yard-long pier stretching from the belly of Betio to the edge of the reef], but I don’t know where in the hell I was that day.
We saw the pier...when the coxswain started off in the wrong direction. See...he got scared, yells, “You’re outta here!” and lowers the ramp. Dumped us out...shit...up to my neck. That heavy gear...some guys drowned...see ’em one second, gone next.
You just start wadin’ in.
I was oblivious. To everything. To things supposed to happen. To things not. See, I wasn’t a regular ground-pounder. I was a cook. The regular ground-pounders, the grunts, knew more
what was goin’ on. Shit. Even those kids were scared to death. If they weren’t scared, they were fools. There was a few around, old-time Guadalcanal guys and the officers. And, hell, the officers were gettin’ knocked off. Seemed everybody was genin’ knocked off Seemed forever to wade in.
I don’t know how to explain it.
Somehow I was utterly confused — guess that wasn’t unusual. Communications broke down. Wires were out. Nobody knew where anybody was...scattered all over. We just ran into all kinds of hell. There was a ship run aground out there behind us; the Japs had swum out there and opened fire on our backsides. They were picking guys off left and right. Troops were under fire from the crossfires set up. And the Japs had automatic fire set all along the seawall that just glazed the water wadin’ in. Shit. It was everywhere. Bodies floating around. Pieces. Heads gone. The water was red...places bubbled red. Stink. It started to stink. It was stinkin’ from the time we got on that damn island. ’Cause the Japanese had been under bombardment and everything else. The odor was tremendous. To me it was. To some guys maybe it wasn’t as obnoxious. But it was to me...stuck with me.
When I got to the seawall...it...it was a bunch of shit. Gear all over the place. Scared Marines crouching against the seawall. Dead Marines all over the place. Bodies piled up on the beach. Floating in the water. Marines with their chests blown open...dying. Scared. I didn’t know what the hell I was to do. Guys I was supposed to be with were dead...dispersed all over hell. I didn’t know where they were. I was utterly confused.
A couple, three amphtracs were broke down on the seawall. I remember seeing Colonel Crowe up by the amphtrac. That mighta been when they took his picture. That Colonel Crowe. He was somethin’ else. I saw him standin’ up there just bigger’n life. But nobody knew me...I was cook. They were grunts. Cooks were separate personnel. But cooks got killed on Tarawa like anyone else.
Lotta people don’t know that. Yeah. And if somebody needed a stretcher-bearer. I’d go over and grab a stretcher. Whatever.
Guy yells, “Where’s the radio man? Where’s the radio man? Where’s communication? Where’n the hell’s communication?”
You’re lookin’ around for someone with a radio...there is no one. He’s dead...or lost like me. It was disorganized...so disorganized. It was unreal. I was all over the place. Didn’t know what the hell I was doin’...what I was supposed to be doin’. During the whole siege of Tarawa, I don’t know how many rounds I fired off. And if I hit anything, I don’t know. No way to really look up and shoot. Then that first night...ah, shit...buncha scared kids. Guys cryin’...some of ’em. I remember this one boy dyin‘...cryin’ for his mother. People yellin’, “Keep your ass down! Keep your head down!”
Next day was bad as the first — everybody still bottled up against the seawall. Relief waves were coming in, the reserve units, and that made the problem worse. Nobody could get over the damn seawall.
It was still utter confusion.
Officers were supposed to know what was goin’ on. Most of them were dead. I have no idea how many guys never got to shore. Bodies floatin’ in the water bloated up. Some turned black. Replacement troops wadin’ in were gettin’ ripped...all I could do was watch. Tell you one thing, guys wanted to stay the hell away from that pier. Guys were gettin’ knocked off more there than in the open water. It was crazy, the way the Japs had the cross-fire set up. There was no safe place. Every place guys were gettin’ the hell blown out of’em.
People kept yellin’, “We need water! We need ammunition! We need medical supplies!” So when the tide was up, I got off the island in one of the Higgins boats and back to the ships for supplies: water, ammunition, medical supplies. I remember so vividly — and don’t know why I did it — but unloading a whole box of grenades, I dropped the suckers. Right off the ramp. Shit. We’re all gonna get blown t’ hell! was my instant thought. Oh, Christ... they’re safer’n people think they are, you know. But I didn’t know that. I wasn’t no hand grenade thrower. I was a cook. I hated the damn things. And I dropped a whole case of those suckers!
Then they started havin’ me take wounded back out. No time...whether I wasn’t thinkin’ correctly or what...did I ever consider stayin’ off that island. No way. You just don’t leave your guys. This is hard to explain to somebody...but the Marine Corps indoctrination is too imbedded in you to ever desert your guys. But there was other indoctrination. I remember a raft carrying wounded Marines...and one Japanese.
They ask our coxswain, “Want this one?” He was pretty shot up.
Coxswain says, “Drown the sonofabitch...don’t fuck with ’im!”
I remember that to this day. Don’t know what ever happened to that Japanese. And that was from Wellington...all the horror stories from the guys off the Canal.
Back on the island, that stench still bothered me more’n anything else. Try to imagine...one degree from the equator...on this island smaller’n half a square mile...6000 rotting bodies.
I can’t describe it.
That second day was the first time I can remember getting over the seawall. Don’t remember what time of day it was...couldn’t begin to tell ya. You lose all track of time.
Somebody yells, “Get the hell off this beach! Go! Go! Go! Get the hell outta here!”
So you go.
You see other guys goin’...think you can make it too.
So you go.
I remember I let off a couple rounds...know damn well I didn’t hit anything. Just blind firing....
The confusion started to clear up the evening of the second day. And I don’t mean in my mind — in the whole layout. This is when guys were gettin’ atop of bunkers and pourin’ gasoline down air vents and droppin’ grenades and all those kinds of things. We got flame throwers in there.
Tanks. Lotta guys were gettin’ knocked off...but things were startin’ to come together. I remember a tin can comin’ in along the reef. Hell, that tin can...their five-inchers and their 40mm’s and all their shit...firin’ constant at the Japs. Point blank. Right into those suckers. That saved a lotta lives.
I was 19 years old. The battle lasted three days...76 hours. And I humbly believe in my mind that history will prove that Tarawa was the most vicious, bloody campaign of World War II. Bar none. Even Iwo Jima. I was on a Higgins boat when they pulled me out on the third day. Next time I saw combat was on Saipan.
I was more hardened to...well...you never get...naw.
The pictures you see today of Tarawa, the official battle photos...they’re gruesome enough. But not really very graphic. And maybe it’s just as well. As years go by memory fades to some degree.
For years I wouldn’t talk about this stuff. Last few years, I’ll talk about it. Before that...you wouldn’ta got crap outta me. You just block it out. Why talk about it?