"Gentlemen, I’d like to draw your attention to this outline of the continental United States," the old Marine began, as he put the first transparency on the overhead projector. "And this, gentlemen, is an outline of the island of Cuba drawn to the same scale," he added, superimposing a second overlay onto the first. "As you can see, it is over 800 miles long and would run from New York City to Chicago." He paused for effect, and then put on a third overlay. "Can you all see this little red dot?"
"Just barely. What’s tha-at?"
In the relative darkness beyond the bright overhead he couldn’t quite see who had asked, but the Cape Cod twang told him it was either the boss himself or his brother the Attorney General. It didn’t surprise him that the AG was deeply involved. After the boss had had to scrape the Bay of Pigs fiasco off the bottom of his polished oxfords, there were damn few around him he still trusted. Obviously his brother was one, and this old Marine hoped that he too was on that short list. He’d served under many men since his ROTC days at DePauw–some were pompous pinheads and some weren’t–but he genuinely enjoyed serving under this C-in-C. It wasn’t just the famous "vigah" or the fact that he had served in the Pacific. The man was a quick learner, and he needed to be that above all right now.
"I’m glad you asked. That, gentlemen, represents the relative size of the island of Betio in the Tarawa atoll. About two miles long and maybe 800 yards at its widest point. It took 12,000 Marines three days to take it. Over a thousand never came home."
He could tell from the murmuring that they got the point. Those who wore uniforms–and those who had ever worn one–were no longer looking at the red dot. Their eyes were fixed on the little sky-blue ribbon with its tiny stars in the top row of combat decorations on his Class "A" jacket. It was a slight irritant to some of the brass, since they had to salute that ribbon even if they outranked the wearer. They all knew that his had been earned on Tarawa.
On the way back to his office he stopped by the scuttlebutt, took a bottle of his favorite APC grunt candy–Anacin–out of his pocket and washed down three pills with some water. Ever since the Bay of Pigs he’d made it his mission to protect the boss as best he could from the Langley cowboys and Foggy Bottom dilettanti who wanted to play at war, but every attempt left him with a massive migraine. He’d told them before and he knew he’d have to say it again. Either do the sonofabitch and do it right, or don’t do it at all. Quit friggin’ around. He went into his office, closed the door without turning on any bright lights, leaned back in his leather chair and closed his eyes.
WRANNG…! One of the Higgins boats about to unload at the edge of the reef became a blur, and then … nothing. Instantly vaporized. WRANNG…! Another one hit; body parts flying through the air this time.
"Christ! The bastards have the edge of the reef pre-sited with a goddamn dual-purpose gun! They KNEW about that damned dodging tide. Jesus! We’re getting MURDERED out here!"
Col. David Shoup, 2nd Marines, had set up a temporary command post in waist-deep water next to the pier and was taking stock of the disaster unfolding around him. The Amtracs could climb up onto the reef – that got the first wave in – but there were not enough of them, and they were getting hit left and right. The reinforcements had to come in on the old Higgins boats that had a four-foot draft. The tide over the reef going out hundreds of yards from the beach on Betio Island? A lousy, stinkin’ three and a half feet. For want of six inches of water, Marines had to wade in across jagged coral wracked by lines of machine gun, mortar and artillery fire, some of it enfilading from shore curves, docks and a wrecked freighter. It was a bit deeper along the pier, and so Shoup and his staff had made it about halfway to the beach before his boat was hit.
Most of the waterlogged radios wouldn’t work. The initial assault had been delayed so that the preliminary bombardment ended twenty minutes early, giving the Japs just enough time to reinforce the target beaches. All three battalion commanders had been casualties, and only one had even made it as far as the beach. Shattered burning equipment lay everywhere. Scores of dead Marines bobbed in each wave, and the water of the lagoon was now the color of Pepto Bismol – a sickening mixture of blasted coral and Marine blood. Fragments of units were scattered and jumbled up in clumps on the beach, trapped between the open water and the coconut log seawall; most of them leaderless.
The radio with Shoup’s little band by the pier was in and out, but it did pick up this from Maj. Schoettel of 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines:
"Unable to land, issue in doubt … Boats held up on reef of right flank Red 1. Troops receiving heavy fire in water."
"Land Red Beach 2 and work west!" Shoup ordered.
"We have nothing left to land," the radio crackled back.
"Yo! China Marine!" Shoup yelled. He grabbed Lt. Col. Evan Carlson’s shoulder and brought him closer so he could be heard over the din of battle. Carlson, of Raider fame, was an observer along for the ride. It had already been the ride of his life, and like Shoup he was only halfway to the beach.
"What’s that Chinese phrase we learned when we were in Shanghai–the one you kept throwin’ around after your third tour? You said Mao uses it a lot–means working in harmony or somethin’."
"Gung Ho," Carlson yelled back.
"That’s it–Gung Ho. Look around! It’s what we AIN’T GOT!"
"Not enough of ’em are trained to think for themselves, Dave. To improvise, adapt. I keep telling the brass but they don’t listen. And now we’re payin’!"
"Yeah? Well let’s go train ’em RIGHT NOW. I’m goin’ in to that goddamn beach. You coming with me?"
"You bet… Anything but just standin’ here watching those boys die!"
An Amtrac shuttling back from the beach loaded with bodies started to pass nearby and Shoup waved it down. "These men are dead, Corpsman!" he yelled, as he began to pull the bodies off into the water. "The living have need of this vehicle. Turn this thing around!"
Thoump … BOOM! As soon as they jumped onto the beach a round from a Jap mortar exploded a few yards away. Hot shrapnel ripped into Shoup’s thighs, dropping him to his knees. With the ringing in his ears he could barely hear the grizzled old Gunny that helped him to his feet. But he could read his lips.
"You okay, Skipper!?"
"Yeah, yeah, I’m alright…"
"CORPSMAN!" the Gunny yelled, as soon as he saw those bloody legs.
"Cut out the ‘Corpsman’ crap. I told you I’m alright, damn it!" Another round landed a little further away, and Shoup noticed something very odd. There was a pair of Marine boots sticking out of the blasted coral that twitched every time a round came in. "What the hell?" Shoup started pulling at the boots, and a corporal began to emerge from the hole.
"Hey! Semper Fi, Mac! Find your own damn hole!" The corporal yelled, before he could clearly see who was pulling on him. The corporal backtracked. "Oh, geez, sorry sir!"
"You got a mother back home, son?"
"Yes sir!"
"Think she’d be proud of you, all curled up in a hole like that, no damn use to anybody?"
"No sir."
"Where’s your squad?"
"They’re all wiped out, sir!" The corporal’s lower lip began to quiver and his eyes welled up.
"Well go get another one!" Shoup ordered, but the corporal looked befuddled. "I’ll tell you how to do it. Go over there," Shoup pointed along the beach. "Pick a man, then another and another, and say ‘Follow me!’ Just keep doing that ’til you have a squad, and then report back to me!"
"Yes sir," the kid replied, as he snapped to attention, saluted, and crouched down as he ran off under fire towards a group of Marines further down the beach.
Shoup and his staff made their way along the narrow space between the beach and the coconut-log seawall, keeping low and looking for a place to set up a command post. The leeward side of a Jap bunker a few yards inland seemed at least semi-secure from direct fire, and being just west of the pier on Red 2 it was about the same distance from each end of the assault beaches– from the right flank of Red 1 further west to the left flank of Red 3 on the other side of the pier.
"Um … Colonel, just so you know, there’s live Japs in there," the old Gunny offered. Shoup grunted as he got off his bloody legs and leaned his back against the wall.
"I don’t give a crap. Plug the damn firing slits so they can’t shoot at the runners coming in and out of here, and see if you can get that friggin’ radio working."
"You don’t have enough runners, and you need to get a situation report back to General Smith on board the MARYLAND. We need the reserve."
"You volunteering, Carlson?" Shoup asked, half-joking.
"Yeah, as a matter of fact I am."
"Damn, you might well be the highest ranking runner boy in Corps history. In case you ain’t noticed, there’s not a hell of a lot of lieutenant colonels on this beach. Well, you may be red, but you sure ain’t yellow."
"Real funny, Dave. Only I heard it before–on Guadalcanal." He took a few steps toward the beach, then turned. "Hey, before I go, I’ll take that Amtrac and get some of those boys by the pier over here to help push out and try to get these beachheads connected."
Shoup got little rest that night – both because of sporadic enemy fire that seemed designed to prevent sleep, and because he spent most of it planning the pinpoint attacks on the Jap machine guns that he knew would rip apart the reinforcements coming across that reef when the sun came up.
In the morning a breathless Major arrived, looking like he was being chased by hounds.
"Colonel! My men can’t advance! They’re being held up by a machine gun!"
"Godalmighty, one machine gun." Shoup barely raised his head from his map case. He rolled his eyes, shook his head and went back to his map.
The Major paused and took a look at what was going on just yards away all around the command post. He must have realized that on this island–on this morning–one lousy Jap gun shouldn’t mean very much. Off he went without another word, a better Marine and a better leader of men than he had been a minute ago.
A bullet whizzed past the command staff and tore off a piece of palm tree right near an ammo dump in the process of being supplied. A second or two later another round came in. The men setting up the ammo dump scattered in all directions, and everyone except the Colonel hit the deck. An enemy sniper had made his way around to subject the CP to his line of fire.
Shoup just stood there, his hands on his hips. "Stop! God damn it! What are you running for? Take cover, then move up and kill the bastard."
On this second day the slow agonizing watery march over the reef began again. Too many Marines keeled over in billows of red, but some got ashore, and many more followed. By afternoon, more Japs were dying than Marines. Some of the radios were finally drying out, and Shoup knew General Smith was anxiously awaiting his evening report:
Casualties: many. Percentage dead: unknown. Combat efficiency: We are winning. Shoup.
He knew it got through in more ways than one–not only was the message acknowledged, but the ships’ whistles could be heard even out to sea as the news spread.
Also reaching the ships at sea was the stink of death. Marines on the island itself, even if they thought they had gotten used to it, would casually stop to wretch as the stench ebbed and flowed. The cost was being counted, even as action dissolved into mop-up operations. Shoup was passing by Father Kelly, the Navy Chaplain, but when he was close enough to hear him he stopped, removed his helmet and bowed his head.
Out of the depths have I cried unto you O Lord; Lord, hear my voice…
Come to their assistance, all you Saints of God! Meet them, you Angels of the
Lord. Receive their souls, and present them to the Most High…
The blue eyed, dark haired priest from little Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, was so popular that Shoup had seen even some of the Protestant Marines quietly sneak into his confession line just for the comfort such a thing might provide. Here he was, blessing the bodies of some of the men who had been in that line on the transport ship just two days before. Meanwhile, Capt. Donald Jackson was already working on the epitaph that would be placed over the cemetery:
To you, who lie within this coral sand,
We, who remain, pay the tribute of a pledge,
That dying, thou shalt surely not have died in vain.
That when again bright morning dyes the sky
And waving fronds above shall touch the rain,
We give you this – that in those times we will remember…
The buzzing intercom made the General jump in his chair.
"Commandant Shoup? The President is on line one."
"Hello, Mr. President."
"Hello, Dave. Listen, I don’t want you to worry about this Castro thing. Bobby and I agree we’re not going in there willy-nilly."
"I don’t mean to limit your options, Mr. President. But if military intervention is on the table at all, let’s do it right and do it strong."
"I know … I know. But I need you to come in and talk about something else. You got it right on that Laos situation. We didn’t go charging in, and State got it resolved. Now Vietnam’s come up, and I want you to share your views."
"Jesus Christ."
"What’d you say, Dave?"
"Um, nothing. Mr. President, we’ve already got 12,000 so-called advisors in there. Please don’t get us sucked into a major land war in Southeast Asia. It ain’t worth nothing. They’re no threat. They’re a buncha rice farmers, for Chrissakes."
"Well, come on over this afternoon and we’ll talk. Hey, you remember the fun we had threatening the White House staff with that 50-mile march Teddy Roosevelt’s Marines used to do?"
"Yeah… How’s that goin’?"
"Bobby says he’s gonna do it in his oxfords."
"I’d like to see that, Mr. President. I really would."
COLONEL DAVID M. SHOUP, USMC; for service as set forth in the following CITATION: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of all Marine Corps troops in action against enemy Japanese forces on Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands, from 20 to Nov. 23, 1943. Although severely shocked by an exploding enemy shell soon after landing at the pier and suffering from a serious, painful leg wound which had become infected, Col. Shoup fearlessly exposed himself to the terrific and relentless artillery, machine gun, and rifle fire from hostile shore emplacements. Rallying his hesitant troops by his own inspiring heroism, he gallantly led them across the fringing reefs to charge the heavily fortified island and reinforce our hard-pressed, thinly held lines. Upon arrival on shore, he assumed command of all landed troops and, working without rest and under constant, withering enemy fire during the next two days, conducted smashing attacks against unbelievably strong and fanatically defended Japanese positions despite innumerable obstacles and heavy casualties. By his brilliant leadership, daring tactics, and selfless devotion to duty, Col. Shoup was largely responsible for the final decisive defeat of the enemy, and his indomitable fighting spirit reflects great credit upon the U.S. Naval Service: MEDAL OF HONOR.
Author’s Note: The author’s father, David Bradford Barrow, was a WWII Marine who fought on Saipan, and this story is dedicated to his memory. Semper Fi, Dad.