“The Battle for Tarawa” by CM3 Claude Hepp


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.


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.

PFC Charles R Taylor.jpg

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.


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)