While the vast majority of Americans enjoyed a turkey dinner with all the trimmings this Thanksgiving holiday, a mere handful of octogenarians and nonagenarians remember when a certain Thanksgiving didn’t smell like baked ham and apple pie, but of human flesh either burnt or bloated and rotting in the 115°F (46°C) equatorial heat. As reported by Hans von Spakovsky of The Daily Signal/The Heritage Foundation (via World Net Daily) on Nov. 25, 2015, it was 72 years ago that Marines assigned to Maj Gen Holland M. (“Howlin’ Mad”) Smith’s Fifth Amphibious Corps were engaged in one of the bloodiest battles in American history in proportion to the forces engaged.
It was in late November of 1943 that men of the Second Marine Division were ordered to re-take the British overseas territory of Betio Island from the Japanese. Located in the Tarawa Atoll in the Central Pacific’s Gilbert Islands, “Bloody Betio” (rhymes with ratio) was garrisoned by nearly 5,000 elite Special Naval Landing Forces, Japan’s equivalent to American’s Marine Corps. Commanded by Rear Adm Meichi Shibasak, he boasted “a million Americans could not take Tarawa in 100 years!”
Roughly the square footage as New York’s Central Park, 76 hours after the first landing, Betio was completely held by the Marines. Of the 4,800 Japanese troops on the island, only 17 were alive when the shooting stopped. Besides the island being liberated, so were 129 Koreans brought to the island by the Japanese as slave laborers.
During the course of the 76-hour long battle, 933 Marines were killed, 2,186 were wounded in action. A Marine was killed every 4 minutes and 50 seconds. A Marine was wounded every two minutes and eight seconds. Factored together, every one minute and 28 seconds a Marine was killed or wounded on Bloody Betio. One in five of the 2d Marine Division was a casualty on Betio during the Marine Corps bloodiest Thanksgiving.
Arguably the most nightmarish of scenarios in the annals of warfare happened during the amphibious landings on Betio. With Marines packed into Navy Landing Craft assaulting the island from numerous directions, hundreds of the Teufelshunde found their boats stuck on a previously unknown reef just feet below the surface of the water. It was then the Marines had to wade 500 yards through Betio’s lagoon’s chest-deep water – directly into Japanese machine gun and mortar fire.
The occupying Japanese had constructed hundreds of fortifies pillboxes, block houses and machine gun nests across the width and breadth of the island. Seen as a number of battles within a battle, just as soon as Marines wiped out one Japanese position, another one was just yards away killing as many American troops as possible. Some have described the Marine attack on Betio as essentially throwing huge chunks of raw hamburger at a brick wall. But in this case, the raw hamburger won.
Not only has this Thanksgiving season seen an ever diminishing number of surviving Marines remember their sanguine youth, Knoxville, Tennessee’s WBIR recently reported that one of the heroes of Tarawa has finally come home. After 72 years of officially classified as “missing, presumed dead,” Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman will now finally rest in peace beside his parents and siblings. As reported, “He was buried in the sands of that island until a non-profit group called ‘History Flight’ recovered his remains earlier this year.”
Lt Alexander Bonnyman – a former Princeton football player and owner of a New Mexico copper mine, went into the attack mode during the Battle of Tarawa. Recently promoted from the ranks of the enlisted, the newly minted lieutenant was armed with a flame thrower and an M-1 .30 caliber carbine, faced off against 100-150 Japanese troops who suddenly charged forth from reinforced bunker. Bonnyman provided the charging sons of Nippon every opportunity to die for the Emperor, but was killed while single-handedly thwarting their charge. Lt. Bonnyman was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Traditionally referred to as a “teen-ager’s war” it’s been recognized my many throughout the years that the Marine Corps was the youngest of all the branches of the Armed Forces during WWII. Never officially acknowledged by the powers-to-be in Washington, it was widely known that boys as young as 14 were lying about their age in order to get into the fight. With moral absolutes much different than present day, it was also widely understood at the time that lying simply wasn’t something one would do – even if it meant stepping forward to fight for your country.
What under-aged boys would often resort to would be writing the number 18 on a piece of paper, then stuffing it into one of their shoes. Understood as technically telling the truth, whenever a recruiter asked if they were “over 18,” the wannabe-Leathernecks could in good conscience answer in the affirmative. Yet another example why those of that era really are The Greatest Generation.