War heroes gather for 'Tarawa Day'

27 Nov 2002 | Lance Cpl. G. Lane Miley

In 1943, Imperial Japanese Fleet Rear Adm. Keiji Shibasaki boasted, "A million men cannot take Tarawa in 100 years." In response, Marines took the island in only 76 hours at the cost of 4,500 Japanese lives.

The 2nd Marine Regiment here hosted "Tarawa Day" Nov. 19 and 20 to remember these actions. The regiment joined 114 World War II veterans and other guests to celebrate the battle's 59th anniversary and remember what many have called the bloodiest fighting of the time.

The celebration began with a dinner at a local banquet hall, and a memorial followed at the Base Protestant Chapel.

Brigadier Gen. Mastin M. Robeson, assistant commanding general, 2nd Marine Division, spoke to the warriors at the chapel and told them how division Marines still rally around the Battle for Tarawa. He said his Marines look back on the bravery displayed on that fated atoll for encouragement.

On Nov. 20, 1943, U.S. assault crafts that approached the tiny island faced Imperial troops who had spent nearly two years fortifying it. Lead companies suffered the heaviest casualties, losing 45 percent or more of their men.

More than 1,000 Marines and sailors died and more than 3,000 were wounded on the beach during the three-day battle. Many have called the battle, which keyed the 2nd Marine Division's phrase "Keep Moving," the validation behind the Marine Corps' war-fighting concept of amphibious warfare.

"This is my greatest honor as a regimental commander," Col. Ronald L. Bailey, 2nd Marines' commanding officer, said during his comments at the chapel. He thanked the veterans for all they gave during World War II.

Former Cpl. Emory B. Ashurst, a combat engineer that landed on Tarawa on D+30, said the beaches were full of craters from naval gunfire that fell short. Now 82, Ashurst said of the 75 men from his "Pioneer Platoon," only 28 walked off the island. He explained many of his Marines fell into the craters during the landing's confusion.

"I was supposed to set up a panel with a half-moon so the coxswain would know where to deliver chow," said the Stockbridge, Ga., native. "Instead, I carried ammunition which was later delivered to infantrymen further up the beach. We knew better than to stay on the beach because of the dangerous machine-gun fire. We got behind pill boxes or anything else we could."

To conclude the memorial service, the regimental color guard retired the colors, and the guests made their way to Range D-29 for a static display. There, the veterans spoke with Marines who use the weapons daily and compared them to those used nearly 60 years ago. The Marines conducted a live-fire demonstration and even allowed many of the veterans to fire the Corps' newest weapons. They fired nonlethal shotgun rounds and the M-16A4 Service Rifle.

To conclude the memorial events, the veterans toured the installation and shopped at the Marine Corps Exchange.