“The Battle for Tarawa” by CM3 Claude Hepp

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Drawing, charcoal on paper, by Kerr Eby, 1944. A Marine continues forward in grim determination, rifle in hand, as he struggles out of the surf of Betio Atoll and onto the beach to fight the Japanese.

November 20th was the 74th Anniversary of the Battle of Tarawa. A young American named Claude William Hepp, born in Iowa, enlisted in the Navy on 13 January 1943, and became one of the famed Seabees (serving in Naval Construction Battalion 18) that fought throughout the Pacific in WWII. A Carpenter’s Mate third class, his unit was assigned to the 18th Marine Combat Engineers, (3/18), Second Marine Division, and sent to the South Pacific.

navy seabee poster

WWII recruiting poster for Navy Seabees

CM3 Hepp wrote this poem after participating in the bloody battle at Tarawa from 20-23 November 1943. Claude died of wounds he sustained during the bloody invasion of Saipan on 16 June 1944, and was buried at sea just two days after his 22nd birthday. His name is among those listed in the Courts of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (“The Punchbowl”). For all the Marines, Navy Corpsmen, Seabees, airmen and others that suffered and bled at Tarawa, I’ve added CM3 Hepp’s poem in full in honor of their memory.

The Battle for Tarawa by CM3 Claude Hepp

“The time has come,” the commander said,
“When we must fight once more;
So pack your gear and shoulder your gun,
We will board the ship at four.”
We boarded the ship in New Zealand
For a place we knew not where.
But deep down in our hearts we thought
Of the hardships we’d have to bear
Twenty long days and twenty long nights
It took to reach the Atolls
We wiped off our guns and counted our shells
And loosened the straps on our rolls
Then came the word, “All hands topside”
And our boats were lowered to sea
I’ll tell you every man was scared
And we prayed for the things to be.
Our fleet was constantly pounding the isle
To make things easier on shore
Then they finally slacked up around noon
To let our fighting men score
The first wave shoved off for “Helen”
The coral reefs made it tough;
The tank bogged down, the boats were sunk
My God, those boys died rough.
Machine gun nests were thick on the beach
But our men struggled nearer the sand
Some of them died in the water
Some of them died on the land.
That was the first wave I have told about
Then the second wave moved in
‘Twas the same thing, but their lines grew weak
And some of the boys wore a grin.
Now the Marines kept pouring in
From the places a rat wouldn’t go
They tromped over bodies of dead Nipponese
And onward to finish the foe.
Then our boys had formed a line
And darted from tree to tree
But the Japs were camouflaged so slick
It made them hard to see.
Jap snipers in the tree tops
Pill boxes on the ground
Mortar shells were flying everywhere
Hell was all around.
Those pill boxes I spoke about
Were concrete, logs and steel
And the contents of the hole below
Our bombs could not reveal.
Our tanks pulled right up to those holes
And fired again and again
Now you can bet that it made Hell
For those stubborn Japs within.
Flame throwers left a path of death
And burned everything in sight
It didn’t take long for those Japs to decide
That the Marines, too, could fight.
Imperial Marines the Japs called themselves
They were supposed to be tough
But they soon found out that U.S.M.C.
Was built of the rugged and rough.
Do not under-estimate our slant-eyed foes
They were fortified to the tee
But it took the Second Division
To set up another V.
Exterminated Japs filled every hole
And soon began to smell
On blood-stained coral we made our beds
And slept in that living Hell.
Four thousand Japs were slain on that island
Pill boxes numbered five hundred
Soon the air strip was repaired
Again our Air Force thundered.
More than eleven hundred Marines lost their lives
They put up a damn good fight
I salute each and everyone
Whom we buried the following night.
Just one word for the Seabees
In discussion they’re always left out
But the fighting 18th was there from the first
And they were the last to move out.

1 bn 8 rgt 2nd Marine Div in lcvp headed to Tarawa 21 Nov 43 vargas pinup

Marines from 1st Bn, 8th Rgt, 2nd Marine Division, in an LCVP headed for Tarawa on 20 November 1943 look at a Varga pinup girl.

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An Oklahoma Marine Still Missing at Pearl Harbor

december 2017 america in wwii

Front cover of the December 2017 issue of America in WWII magazine (Author’s copy)

The December 2017 issue of America in WWII magazine includes an article written by myself that focuses on the tremendous efforts by the historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, military personnel, researchers, and other civilian workers that make up the Department of POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) at Joint Base-Hickam in Honolulu, Hawaii, and their latest successes and goals in identifying the remains of U.S. servicemen from our past wars.

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Boot camp photo of PFC Charles Robert Taylor (Photo in possession of author).

Oklahoma Missing

Poster hanging in the laboratory area of Department of POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), Honolulu, Hawaii, shows photos with names of sailors and Marines of those killed onboard USS Oklahoma (BB-37) whose remains have yet to be identified. The red banners indicate those whose remains have been positively identified. PFC Charles Taylor’s photo is at extreme top right corner. (Photo by Guy Nasuti)

What began as a story I was in the process of developing due to my work as a US naval historian, suddenly turned into a personal one for my wife and I upon learning of my father-in-law’s discovery that he had an uncle that had been killed at Pearl Harbor he hadn’t known of. PFC Charles Robert Taylor, a 23-year-old from Carnegie, Oklahoma, died onboard USS Oklahoma (BB-37). Taylor was one of the 40 men that made up USS Oklahoma’s marine corps detachment. Of the 429 men killed aboard the Oklahoma, 35 were identified, and the rest were buried in a mass grave at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (the “Punchbowl”). As of February 2017, 30 more sets of remains from USS Oklahoma have been identified, and several more have been identified since then (the exact number was unavailable to me).

With the 75th Anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor last December, my wife and I traveled to Honolulu to try and discover where DPAA was in the process of identifying our missing servicemen’s remains and how they went about doing so. We also wanted to pay tribute to PFC Taylor and all of his shipmates and comrades during the war.

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The home of the Senator Daniel K. Inouye, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Center of Excellence building at Joint Base-Hickam, Honolulu, Hawaii, is where several civilian and military personnel work collecting evidence to help identify the remains of American servicemen still carried as Missing in Action or Prisoners of War from past wars in our nations history.  (Photo by Guy Nasuti)

Bring the Bell Up?

USS Indianapolis Found

Due to the recent discovery of USS Indianapolis resting 18,000 feet at the bottom of the Philippine Sea by billionaire Paul Allen, some people have already called for one particular object to be raised from the depths.

Recent photos released by the submersible visiting Indy’s watery grave show one particularly interesting photograph of a ship’s bell. But it is not THE ship’s bell, which has been on display at the Indiana World War Memorial in Indianapolis.

Should they still bring the bell up?

USS Indianapolis ship’s bell

USS Bunker Hill Veterans Reunited

Norm Lasman was a 21 year-old sailor down below in an engine room onboard USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) when the ship was hit by two Japanese kamikazes in less than 30 seconds on May 11, 1945, just off the coast of Okinawa. In the deadly minutes that followed, he heard someone pass the word over his sound-powered headset to “Abandon ship.” (Note: This was the CO, Captain George Seitz, who ordered those at the aft ends of the flight and hangar decks, where flames and smoke were heaviest, to abandon ship; the order no doubt added to an already highly confused situation to those that heard it, and even to those who did. Quickly, the rumor spread around the ship that she was to be abandoned, and there were a few incidents of sailors and officers that were not in immediate danger jumping into the sea or onto ships that had come alongside to provide assistance. There was at least one court-martial case brought against a junior officer for abandoning his men and post, and may have been others).

Lasman made his way up a ladderwell and almost out onto the flight deck towards relative safety, when suddenly he heard the Chief Engineer, Commander Joseph Carmichael, tell his engineers “We are not abandoning ship. We are going to stay at our posts and keep the ship afloat.” Lasman, realizing he most certainly would die by doing so, took one last look at the sky, closed the hatch and climbed back down the ladderwell and into his workspace to do his job and help save his ship.

Some 19 hours later, Lasman woke up on the flight deck, surrounded by his dead shipmates. With no recollection of who saved him that day, he spent the next several decades with issues of short and long-term memory loss, and later discovered he had suffered severe issues from carbon monoxide poisoning. It wasn’t until the book Danger’s Hour by Maxwell Kennedy that he finally began to fill-in some of the blanks from before and after the events of May 11, 1945. A neighbor of Lasman began to do help him do some additional digging online, and with additional help provided by Chicago’s Channel 9 WGN News, they were finally able to track down now 97 year-old Al Skerritt, one of Lasman’s former shipmates and the man that pulled Lasman out of the engine room that fateful day. Skerritt lives across the country from Lasman in Seattle, but see the link below to watch the phenomenal reunion between the two World War II heroes.

 Bunker Hill vetsUSS_Bunker_Hill_hit_by_two_Kamikazes