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Return to Tarawa

Remains of a B-24 Liberator on the flats of the lagoon outside Betio
Remains of a B-24 Liberator on the flats of the lagoon outside Betio
TARAWA, KIRIBATI (TR) – Sixty-six years ago, the Pacific island atoll of Tarawa was a World War II battlefield of billowing black smoke and death’s stench. Allied and Japanese forces blazed through its coconut trees and white sands, today a part of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, and turned it into a charred chunk of earth upon which roughly 6,000 lives were lost — making it one of the most gruesome battles in U.S. military history.

Former U.S. Naval Ensign Leon Cooper remembers that seventy-six-hour period as if it were yesterday. “I still have nightmares from to time,” says the 89-year-old. “A random smell reminds me of the stink of that time. A sudden loud noise makes me jump.”

But with the landscape of Tarawa, the capital of the nation’s collection of coral atolls that are spread over 1,351,000 square miles of ocean, now largely a rubbish pit, Cooper set his demons aside and returned, in February 2008.

“I decided the only way I could get the garbage removed from Red Beach, the hallowed ground where so many of my countrymen died, was by filming the outrage,” he explains of the condition of the main landing beach for U.S. Marines.

The result is “Return to Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story,” a forty-seven-minute documentary in which he recounts his harrowing experience six decades ago and his current quest to properly honor his fallen comrades.

In the film, which is hosted by actor Ed Harris, Cooper expresses his anger at the U.S. government for ignoring the fact that Tarawa’s shores are cluttered with mounds of plastic bags, aluminum cans, and diapers — a grave insult to those who died serving their country, he believes. “I hope I can shame our dumb government into doing something about it.”

Tarawa is a narrow, low-lying strip of coral, located roughly 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii, that wraps around a lagoon. A lack of natural resources requires locals to rely on packaged foods, whose wrappings cannot be disposed of properly due the country’s small geographical size.

Though waste management programs have begun, Kiribati officials are hard-pressed to make substantial changes. “At the moment, people litter everywhere — on the beach and from vehicles,” says Noketi Karoua, assistant pollution control officer at the Ministry of Environment, Lands & Agricultural Development, whose division is now employing pilot projects that attempt to alter the public’s perception about the appropriate disposal of inorganic waste. “Before and until now, most people didn’t know how to manage inorganic waste.”

Yet to Cooper, even more shocking was his realization that numerous U.S. remains have not been repatriated. “Return to Tarawa” explains that following the battle the corpses of over one hundred Americans were deposited in unmarked graves. Cooper believes the basis of the problem exists with the U.S. Government’s policy of returning the remains of fallen soldiers in the most recent wars first, a procedure that relegates WWII to a lesser priority.

“It is essential that the Department of Defense make its policies known to the American public and then undertake an accelerated recovery rate of the WWII MIAs,” he says. “Absent the Department’s disclosure, Congress should begin a formal inquiry into this matter. Only in that way can the relatives of the WWII MIAs ever obtain closure.”

Larry Greer, a representative within the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office of the Department of Defense admits that the U.S. Government did once have an unofficial “most recent conflict first” policy in place. “But in recent years that has been changed to ‘all conflicts are equal,’ meaning that no one conflict has priority over another in terms of our applying U.S. government efforts toward recovering and identifying remains,” he says.

Greer explains that Tarawa is an especially challenging case, reporting that there are 500 Americans and 3,000 Japanese still missing. “So if there are initial indications that unidentified remains have been discovered, one must recognize that there is a high probability that they will ultimately be identified as Japanese,” he explains, adding that hundreds of Marines were killed in waist-deep water, a fact that further complicates retrieval. “Their bodies were floating around in the shallow surf, and some of the U.S. aircraft pilots reported that many of these were seen floating out to sea. But who were they? For those bodies which were recovered from the surf, the precise location of each and every burial is definitely not known.”

The fighting was centered on Betio, which is a half-square-mile strip of land that forms the western end of Tarawa. The Japanese troops arrived in late 1942. The island was subsequently converted into a fortress. Korean and local labor hacked tree trunks and assembled the logs into stockades. Large coastal guns, capable of firing 8-inch shells, were mounted along the beaches, which were further protected with coils of barbed wire, mines, and barricades of steel protruding from concrete mounts set in shallow water.

American battleships and destroyers started their assault on the morning of November 20, 1943. Later that same day, Marines riding tracked vehicles and landing crafts began the ten-mile charge towards the beach. But the Marines had underestimated the strength of the Japanese fortifications. The morning’s low tide also caused some of the low-draft crafts to be trapped on the reef off the lagoon.

Cooper was responsible for 15 of these boats. “A colossal miscall of the tides gave the Japanese gunners the proverbial ‘sitting duck’ targets as dozens of boats were perched helplessly on the reefs that ringed the island,” remembers Cooper. “I still don’t know which of the Red Beaches we landed on — there was so much smoke and fire enveloping the island, hiding it. I simply headed my boat group toward any beach, relieved that I was able to get to the ‘sand’ at all.”

Weighed down with heavy equipment, some Marines drowned after attempting to wade ashore. Japanese machine-gun fire caught others.

But eventually a Japanese line of defense was broken during that first day. After more positions were secured in the following hours, tanks and other heavy equipment were moved ashore. Flame throwers set the Japanese stockades ablaze.

American victory was symbolically secured on November 23rd, at noon, when a Navy airplane was able to touch down on the airstrip.

Casualties on both sides were heavy. The Americans lost over 1,000 troops, and the Japanese nearly 5,000, with many of the bodies cluttered on the beaches or, as Greer noted, lost at sea.

Today many war relics linger, crumbling on the white sands. Pieces of a B-24 Liberator bomber sit in the lagoon, some of the Japanese coastal guns still point out to sea, and various concrete bunkers are being used by the locals for housing.

For Cooper, the battle rages on. He has spent over $100,000 of his own money on the implementation of “Action Program for Tarawa,” which he hopes will benefit the health and well-being of the people of Kiribati and make for a model to be followed by the rest of the Pacific in “restoring the beauty of the ocean and reversing the destruction of marine life.” The two-phase waste management project includes the provision of waste containers, a disposal education program, and the supply of an incinerator.

“Red Beach would once again become a pristine area,” he says, “a permanent memorial to those who fought and died there.”

Note: This article originally appeared in the autumn 2009 issue of Tokyo Journal.