Hollywood Does History

At 0825 on 20 November 1943, the first of six waves of Marines left the line of departure and headed for the beach on Betio Island, the principal objective for the United States in the Tarawa Atoll. At 4,000 yards out, shells from Japanese artillery pieces started splashing around the amtracs carrying the Marines. At 2,000 yards, mortars joined in. At 1,000 yards, machine guns opened up. The sound was deafening. Shells were exploding everywhere, and millions of metal fragments filled the air. Amtracs suffered direct hits and exploded in balls of flame and smoke. At 800 yards, the surviving amtracs reached a shallow reef, crawled over it, and began the final run to shore. The murderous fire continued all the way to the beach. There were only enough amtracs for the first three waves of Marines. The next three waves came in Higgins boats.

There was nothing intrinsically wrong with the landing craft designed by an old Marine, Andrew Jackson Higgins, but the craft lacked treads and could not crawl over obstacles like the amtrac. This should have been no problem, but the tides and the depth of Betio's reef had been miscalculated. At 800 yards out, the Higgins boats hit the reef and ground to a halt on the sharp coral. The Marines could do nothing but leap over the sides of the foundering boats and begin wading towards the shore. Shells exploded all around them, throwing columns of water—and the bodies of Marines—high into...

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