1st Lt. Dean Ladd, 1/8
CURTAINS OF FIRE
By Dean Ladd
Heavy resistance; many casualties, landing craft destroyed, units scattered.
Betio Islet on Tarawa, November 20th, 1943--the Marines worst challenge in history.
Naval gunfire inadequate, tide lower than hoped, radio communications disrupted.
Marines on the Sheridan troop transport climb down cargo nets into LCVP landing boats.
First Battalion, Eighth Marines enters atoll lagoon and circles all night, awaiting orders.
Finally, seasick men welcome dawn of second day.
Orders never received so continued circling twenty hours--a first.
Long fatiguing night; men crammed on the deck like sardines.
Battalion commander's boat chugs by, "We're going in at Red beach 2."
I glance at my men, they stare back. Expected to land on the left flank.
Our boats arrive at line of departure,
Parallel to landing beaches.
Arrayed like a cavalry squadron,
Waiting for "bugles" to sound charge.
Coxwains nervously rev engines in neutral.
Boats champing at the bit.
Engines blasting; hearing muffled.
Adrenalin surges as we clutch our weapons.
Looking at the island, focusing on the task ahead,
Receive go-signal, our coxswain responds.
Engine bellows and belches smoke, water churns behind.
Stern dips; boat leaps forward;
Bucketing, bouncing, bulling ahead,
Getting closer--closer to the island.
Then we hear tiny objects flying past; zip--zip--zip.
Not angry hornets, they're killer bullets.
Within range of enemy machine guns.
Splat splat here, splat there, splats to the left,
Splats to the right, splats in front of us.
At the reef; deadly curtain of fire spitting from many machine guns.
Heavier machine guns now join the fray,
Along with anti-boat guns and mortars.
Destroying many landing craft;
Killing and wounding many of our men.
Men look grim; resigned to their fate.
No stopping now; keep fear under control.
Do your duty; don't let buddies down.
Unexpectedly scrape bottom; metal grinding on coral.
Stopped abruptly; thrown forward, cursing that we've run aground.
Still 600 yards to go; the coxswain proclaims, "This is as far as we go!"
Ramp screeches open and drops splashing into the water.
There before us, Betio beckons in all its menacing glory.
Scene from hell; inferno of fire and smoke, bellowing--bellowing.
Orange fire, red fire, black smoke curling skyward.
First down the ramp, clutching my carbine, shouting, "Let's go!"
Leap into water to unknown depth, relieved that only waist deep.
Enemy guns rip us apart indiscriminately as we wade helplessly
Shoreward through overlapping patterns of fire.
Like shooting fish in a barrel--no place for protection.
Men get hit, cry for help, plead for corpsmen--
Going under, being chopped to pieces.
Sounds of battle everywhere--sweeping curtains of fire.
Machine guns rattling, a cacophony of staccato hammering.
Geysers of water, fire and body parts.
Keep moving forward, hold rifles above water.
Into the teeth of enfilading gunfire with incredible courage.
I wonder how long my luck will hold. Are those our planes strafing us?
Oh--they're attacking that wrecked freighter grounded on the reef.
Trying without success to terminate enemy machine guns placed there.
My adrenalin is flowing like an electric current.
Finally, inevitably, it happens; a sickening splat,
Like an inner-tube snapped across my bare abdomen.
Sharp stinging sensation-"I'm hit!" I hear myself say.
A bullet has struck me nearly dead center below the navel.
Struck just above water line; a gut-shot wound; worse of all!
Discard helmet, carbine, walky-talky, pack and web belt.
Energy draining out of me, going into shock, keep head above water.
PFC Thomas Sullivan hastens to me asking, "Lieutenant where are you hit?"
Pulls up my jacket, checks my wound.
Disobeying orders, stopping for wounded rather than hurrying to the beach.
PFC John Duffy applies a bandage, sulfanilamide powder floats away.
"You're going to get hit too", I utter in a weak voice "Leave me; get to the beach."
They ignore me-- Sullivan asks," Should I take you to the beach or to the ship?"
I respond, "To the ship for best medical care."
Sullivan drags me to the nearest LCVP landing boat at the reef.
He momentarily stops-- I ask if he's OK; he is just resting.
Reach an LCVP being loaded with wounded, gathered in front of the ramp.
Ramp is raised about three-quarters for protection.
Wounded are pushed singularly over the top.
A husky man waits nearby, unrecognizable due to a gory eye wound.
I motion for him to go before me; he is boosted over the ramp.
Then Sullivan and Duffy attempt to push me up.
The unknown man exerts his waning energy to help me and another.
Reaches down and lifts me on up with one arm.
I tumble down onto the deck next to my unknown helper.
Over a dozen more lie bandaged, bloody and writhing in pain.
Boat races back to the Sheridan,
Bumping hard over the water's corrugated surface.
My wounded abdomen complains with each jolt.
At least if I die I'll be buried at sea instead of on that island.
I recall my parents, they will be devastated!
But maybe I won't die after all.
If only this tortuous ride to the ship would stop.
Coxswain encourages us that we are now approaching Sheridan.
Hoisted aboard ship in a litter basket next to the one who had helped me--
Identified nearly sixty years later as probably Sgt James Maples, company C.
I gasp, "We made it." He murmurs, "You're going to make it now."
Those were the only spoken words. I made it but he didn't.
Buried at sea later that day, leaving a vivid memory.
Also by Dean Ladd:
"Reliving the Battle: A Return to Tarawa." Marine Corps Gazette, (Nov 1983): p.93-98.
Faithful Warriors, Naval Institute Press. To be republished in 2004.
copyright 2003 T.O.T.W.
Created 4 October 2003