By: Julius Lacano
Historian, US Navy Seabee Museum
On November 23, 1943, three days after the US Marines Corps invaded the coral atoll of Tarawa, in the Gilbert Islands, the 74th Seabees were cleared to offload from their LSTs. Since the invasion on the 20th, the men of this unit had been waiting patiently off shore watching the aircraft of the US fleet pound the island as the assault forces attacked the Japanese on land. When the island was declared secured by the Marines, the Seabees came ashore to find a landscape that only war can create. “Beito, (the main island of Tarawa atoll) an island of only 285 acres, was a mass of ruins and strewn with the unburied dead” relayed the cruise book for the 74th Naval Construction Battalion. Every tree on the island had been destroyed or toppled by the relentless naval and aerial bombardment that had been unleashed on the island in the days prior to the invasion and that had killed half of the island’s Japanese defenders. Supply dumps destroyed during the bombardment, and full of rotting food, created a breeding ground for the flies and mosquitos that swarmed across the island in a pestilent cloud.
Though secured, the island was far from safe from the Japanese. Hidden pockets of defenders attacked the defensive lines at night, while the island remained under constant threat of attack from the air and from the Japanese fleet that still lurked in the waters around the island. The Seabees, who had finally buried the Japanese and American dead in a makeshift cemetery and cleared enough of the island to begin airfield construction, soon found themselves at the mercy of Japanese snipers who still remained on the island. Though this threat was quickly neutralized,on December 3, the fear of air attack that had been in the minds of every man on the island came to fruition. Between that night and January 17, the island’s new inhabitants were subjected to sometimes nightly bombing raids aimed squarely at the island’s new airfield. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the men on the island received a present of four separate raids in a 48-hour period.
The life of the Seabees on Tarawa paints a portrait of the austere conditions that many soldiers, sailors, and marines faced throughout Pacific Theater. Lack of sleep, poor food, and an absence of any recreational facilities were the norm upon invading a new island. Sleeping quarters for the assault troops also left much to be desired with foxholes that flooded in the torrential rains of the tropics eventually giving way to organized camps with weather and insect proof tent areas. Showers and clean clothes were also a luxury, with the initial troops relegated to stripping naked in the rain with a bar of soap to clean themselves, while using special soap to “clean” their clothes in the brackish or salt water found on and around the islands.
Throughout the bombings and horrible conditions, the men continued to carry out their duty to upgrade the captured Japanese airfield on the island. Though it was usable for fighters, it would take a lot of work to make the coral concrete airstrip useable for its intended purpose of handling medium patrol bombers. The entire surface of the runway, which was not built to handle bombers, soon gave out and had to be replaced in a manner not to encumber flight operations. The Seabees also lengthened and widened the runway, and enlarged and upgraded the tarmac and taxiways that were already built by the Japanese. Though the Seabees anticipated to be finished 45 days after the invasion, they completed their work 18 days early.
The story of the Seabees on Tarawa mimics the story of many units throughout the Pacific in World War II. They faced terrible challenges, witnessed horrible scenes of carnage, and fought bravely under the most severe conditions. Yet, despite all this, they prevailed and won out. Through their victories, whether great or small, the Allies triumphed against their enemies.