THE THIRD DAY ON RED-3
by Eric Hammel & John E. Lane
Copyright © 1985 by Eric M. Hammel and John E. Lane
Tarawa, November 22, 1943.
The situation on Beach Red-3, the 2d Marine Division's left flank on Betio's northern shore, had remained unaltered for a day-and-a-half. Major Henry "Jim" Crowe's 2d Battalion, 8th Marines, had been pulverized in the initial landing and subsequent stalemate. Company F, which was holding a ten-yard-deep perimeter along the coconut-log seawall, on the battalion left flank, could barely muster enough able bodies to man a platoon. Every one of its officers had been wounded. Company G had been largely broken up to fill gaps and plug holes in the thin battle line. Company E had fared best. It had advanced on D-day to a limit of seventy-five yards inland. Casualties had been heavy, but Company E was still an organization.
Major Robert Ruud's 3d Battalion, 8th, had also landed on D-day to reinforce Crowe's mauled battalion, but it had been blasted apart even before reaching the beach. Scores of Ruud's Marines had been killed or wounded wading to Red-3 through the fire-swept water, and the remainder of the battalion was still sorting itself out, still forming and reforming into pick-up squads and platoons wherever a lieutenant or sergeant or private could persuade enough Marines to sit still long enough to get together.
No gains had been made on Red-3 throughout November 21, the second day on Betio. Crowe's Marines had plugged away at the incredible defenses in depth on Red-3, had probably killed scores or even hundreds of Japanese. But the major uncommitted Japanese combat units were to Crowe's left, safely out of the battle and therefore a huge reserve that could be fed into the battle at will against the Marines struggling to expand the tenuous perimeter on Red-3. No matter how many of the enemy they killed, the Marines on Red-3 had to constantly face relatively fresh reinforcements. It was all the Marines could do to hold their meager gains. Between 0700 and 0720 on D+3, U.S. Navy battleships standing well off Betio fired their 14-and 16-inch guns at targets ranging from the eastern end of the island to within five hundred yards of Crowe's lines on Red-3. Next, U.S. Navy carrier aircraft pummeled the area for thirty minutes. Between 0830 and 0850, the battleships fired again. Then there was another air strike. The battleships fired again from 0930 to 0950, and then there was yet another air strike. And then the battleships fired one last time between 1030 to 1050. The goal was to destroy the Japanese reserve manpower pool and resources in the eastern half of Betio.
Early on D+2, Major Jim Crowe issued general orders calling for an all-out assault against a particularly well-built and stubbornly held defensive complex on his force's left flank, just below an old copra-loading wharf that had been built before the war by the Burns-Philp company. The defensive complex, which consisted primarily of a very large covered bomb-proof bunker and two supporting pillboxes, had stymied Companies F and K for nearly forty-eight hours and had barred the way to the Burns-Philp wharf and the entire eastern end of Betio. Having spent nearly all of D+1 preparing the way, the two badly understrength infantry companies and assorted mixed units under Crowe's executive officer, Major William Chamberlin, were ready to go.
The remnant of Company F drew a steel pillbox covering the wharf and the northeast corner of the bombproof. Company G was in support. A short distance to the south, Company K, supported by two 37mm antitank guns and its own 60mm mortars, was to attack the coconut-log pillbox guarding the south and southeast portions of the bombproof. The most-successful of these assault elements would take on the bombproof itself, after first reducing the initial objectives. There were no plans for further advances by any of the units on Red-3; orders would be issued when the bombproof fell. If the bombproof fell.
Preparations for the assault began at about 0930, when most of the machine guns along the front, particularly those supporting Company F, were shifted to what was hoped would be better advantage. At the same time, Marines began cleaning their rifles and automatic weapons in relays, for the accumulated crud of the two days of battle had fouled many weapons to the point of unreliability.
Also at 0930, the 60mm mortars supporting Company K were unleashed against the coconut-log emplacement and the area around it. No fire was directed against the covered bunker as that would have been a waste of precious ammunition. One round from a Company K mortar hit an uncharted ammunition dump, which blew up with a resounding bang. The dump, to the amazement of all, had been in the very emplacement that had held up the advance for two full days. Machine-gun fire from this quarter ceased to be a problem.
While the infantry's preparations continued, Colorado, the lone surviving Sherman M4 medium tank of 1st Lieutenant Louis Largey's platoon--the only medium tank left on Red-3--slowly advanced through the riflemen huddled along the beach to a position behind the eastern-most extremity of Company F's seawall line. Lieutenant Largey directed Colorado's 75mm main gun against the steel pillbox, and a quick succession of direct hits flattened the position, which gave Company F free reign over the area.
At 1000, moments after Colorado destroyed the steel pillbox, the assault on the bombproof was canceled. Rather, Company F was ordered to assault eastward along the beach in order to outflank the defensive keypoint. Then the main event would commence.
The haggard remnants of Company F had only thirty yards to take, the same thirty yards the company had conceded the day before in order to consolidate its position on the beach. A lot had happened to weaken and demoralize Company F in two days of battle, so it took the company commander, Captain Martin Barrett, several hours just to maneuver his Marines into position.
Company F struck at 1300 and immediately met with ferocious defensive fire from Japanese infantry positions along the beach and just across the seawall. Although small gains were achieved, it was decided that the assault on the bombproof would have to be made without the added benefit of flank control.
§As the covered bunker was the main objective in his sector of Red-3, Major Bill Chamberlin, Crowe's exec, was more or less given the task to organize the proceedings. With Company F bogged down at the seawall and Company K engaged on the bombproof's western flank, it was impossible to draw upon any organic infantry units to mount the assault. So Major Chamberlin began scrounging.
One of the first men nabbed in the major's roundup was Technical Sergeant Norman Hatch, the only combat movie cameramen on Red-3 (and the only one on Betio through D-day and D+1). Using his rank and considerable bulk to bolster his native talents for organization, Hatch helped Major Chamberlin gather a mixed group of stray riflemen and specialists. Once organized, the group huddled below the seawall for a quick briefing. Chamberlin pointed to the crest of the bombproof and told the men, "When I yell 'Follow me!' you follow me up that bombproof."
Hunched up against the wall with Technical Sergeant Hatch, Chamberlin watched and waited for a few moments. The fire did not slacken, and the scene changed not one jot. The major shrugged and, without looking back, rose to his feet and yelled "Follow me!" Norm Hatch raced with him to the top.
At the crest of the mound, the major and the cameraman--who was carrying his movie camera--stared in amazement as a squad of Japanese broke into the open and turned toward the two Marines, who were silhouetted at the highest point of Betio's smoky skyline. Chamberlin instantly prepared to fire, but it was then that he realized he had given his weapons away.
Norm Hatch wordlessly looked on. The major looked at him, snapping him into action. Hatch placed his precious movie camera under his arm and furiously sifted through his film-filled bandoleers in search of his .45-calibe pistol, which had long since been twisted out of reach behind his back. He looked at Chamberlin in helpless dismay, and Chamberlin muttered one curt suggestion, "Let's get the hell out of here!" The two turned and barreled off the mound, unhurt, furious.
§On his own initiative, 1st Lieutenant Alexander "Sandy" Bonnyman, of Company F, 18th Marines--a pioneer (shore-party) unit assigned to Red-3 to unload supplies--had also scrounged together a mixed group of engineers, pioneers, and stray riflemen to mount an assault on the bombproof. Bonnyman's group worked through the Company F seawall line and sought the protection of a six-foot-high wooden fence running at right angles to the seawall, just off the bombproof's northwest corner.
The bombproof was the closest thing to a hill on Betio. Since it had proved impossible to breach either of the entryways, the only tactic left to Bonnyman was a direct uphill assault. The Japanese engineers who had designed the bombproof had left a number of large black ventilators protruding from the well-camouflaged roof. Those ventilators would be Sandy Bonnyman's key objectives. A bit of flamethrower fuel fired into them would almost certainly force the defenders into the open. The alternative was air too hot to breathe and eventual asphyxiation.
So, supported by 37mm antitank guns, 60mm mortars, and an assortment of automatic infantry weapons, Bonnyman's group lined up single-file below the seawall and stepped off.
Each of Bonnyman's men individually vaulted the seawall to the higher ground behind the L-shaped fence. From there, following hand signals from observers who could clearly see the objective, the Marines in the assault group worked along the fence to the foot of the slope, where they were stopped by heavy gunfire.
Corporal Harry Niehoff's demolitions team was intercepted by Major Chamberlin as it returned from a minor foray farther along the beach. Chamberlin asked Niehoff if there were any explosives available, and Niehoff replied that he still had several charges. "Where do you want them used, Sir?" Chamberlin motioned to the covered bombproof and explained that the Japanese were reinforcing the position from the southeast but that their avenue of approach was well camouflaged and had not yet been found.
Harry Niehoff hurled several charges over the bombproof and ducked behind the seawall as a flurry of fire sought him out. When the firing subsided, he led his engineers around to the L-shaped fence and prepared to move on the summit.
Private First Class John Borich, who was operating one of two flamethrowers on Red-3, was Corporal Niehoff's pointman. He lightly doused the top of the bunker with flaming fuel while Niehoff tossed a big explosive charge he hoped would kill or stun the defenders. Next, Borich moved forward to spray a burst of flame. As Niehoff prepared to throw another charge, Borich screamed, "Grenade!" And everyone hit the dirt. The instant the dust settled, Corporal Niehoff threw another big charge. When it blew up, every man behind the L-shaped fence piled into the open and legged uphill to the bombproof's summit.
All over Red-3, Marines curious about the commotion stopped what they were doing to look on as Sandy Bonnyman and a half-dozen Marines made it to the top. Technical Sergeant Norm Hatch captured the breakthrough with his movie camera.
The first key had been turned by the engineers, Private First Class Johnny Borich and Corporal Harry Niehoff. The combination of flame and TNT had killed the crew manning a machine gun at the top of the bunker and had set the palm-frond camouflage afire to cover the breakthrough.
The next key was turned by a pioneer named Earl Coleman. As Sandy Bonnyman sparked his pick-up assault team and issued a steady stream of orders, Coleman yelled for TNT. He tossed fused charges as fast as he could light them. In moments, Coleman had blown the cover off a camouflaged entryway on the southeast corner of the huge structure. As soon as he did, as hundreds of helpless Marines looked on, a large knot of Japanese burst from the exposed entryway and formed to counterattack Bonnyman's assault team.
There were only a half-dozen men atop the bombproof at that moment. Private First Class Johnny Borich was firing burning fuel into the ventilators, forcing the Japanese to evacuate; and Earl Coleman, Corporal Harry Niehoff, and Sergeant Elmo Ferretti were furiously heaving blocks of TNT. So Sandy Bonnyman faced the Japanese alone with his light M2 carbine.
Bonnyman leaped to the forward edge of the toehold, beside Harry Niehoff, rammed home a full fifteen-round clip, and rapidly fired into the oncoming Japanese naval infantrymen. Several of the Japanese fell, but most of them kept coming. With the Japanese only yards away, Bonnyman rammed home another fresh clip and killed three, just as Marine reinforcements attacking up the back side of the bunker blunted and turned the Japanese drive. But the help arrived too late for Sandy Bonnyman. He had been shot dead in the final moments of his one-man defense of the bombproof summit.
As soon as Harry Niehoff heard the killing shot thud into Sandy Bonnyman's body, he flattened himself against the ground. It was just in time, for one of Earl Coleman's potent TNT charges arched back over the knot of the defending attackers, bowling men from their feet. Sergeant Elmo Ferretti was badly dazed and had to be led back down to the seawall.
Moments later, as Corporal Niehoff was firing his carbine into the midst of another Japanese sally, he heard something drop next to his head. He saw a grenade from the corner of his eye. Without thinking, he leaped across the dead lieutenant's body and wedged himself between it and a dead Japanese machine gunner. But nothing happened. Long moments later, Niehoff ventured a peek and saw an unarmed American grenade, thoughtfully provided by one of the men at the foot of the bombproof.
Tension, smoke, and the stench of burning flesh finally got to Harry Niehoff. Since he was out of TNT and ammunition for his carbine, the engineer corporal lurched to the rear for a break. He had not suffered a scratch, even though thirteen of the first twenty-one Marines to reach the top of the bombproof had been killed or wounded. On losing their bid for the summit, the Japanese sought to abandon the position; they cascaded from the two entryways and legged off to the east. Most of them were cut down by Marines from Company F. Many defenders who turned south to escape the fire from Company F were felled by a pair of Marine 37mm antitank guns that fired canister rounds as fast as the gunners could reload.
§After leaving the bombproof, Corporal Harry Niehoff wandered down the beach to his engineer platoon's impromptu command post. There he found a large cache of TNT. Rising above his exhaustion, Niehoff loaded an ammunition cart with explosives and, after soliciting help from nearby Marines, hauled it to the beach by the bombproof. By the time Niehoff got there, however, dozens upon dozens of Marines were swarming over the area, rooting out Japanese survivors and snipers.
Corporal Niehoff decided to call it a day. He sat down to rest and, following a few near-sighted reveries, discovered a pile of glass at his feet. The glass was of a sort known to all Marines--the kind they make beer bottles with. Niehoff idly poked through the shattered debris and found the best reward he could ever have hoped for. He pulled one tantalizing, if warm, full and unopened bottle of Kirin beer from the wreckage of what had once been a goodly supply. As his tongue madly quivered, Harry Niehoff prepared to open his prize. But a voice from behind shattered his solitude. Commenting on the corporal's ideal luck, Major Bill Chamberlin stared at the lone bottle of beer through eyes that had become a gateway to his soul. The major looked precisely as bad as the corporal felt. Succumbing to one of the hardest decisions of his life, Harry Niehoff silently handed the major the prize of a lifetime.
§Following the annihilation of the bombproof defenders, the Marine infantry companies on Red-3 got set to move. Major Jim Crowe ordered his command to attack eastward along Betio's northern shore until stopped by the onset of darkness or a Division order.
While Company F occupied a holding position, Companies E and G moved around the north side of the bombproof. To the south, Company K stood down to cover a demolitions team as it moved to seal the southeastern entryway of the bombproof. No one was about to enter the building, and no one wanted any more Japanese vacating it after dark, by which time it would be well behind Marine lines. Next, K Company and Colorado attacked parallel to Company E along the southern side of the bombproof.
A team of riflemen that had been left to guard the southern side of the bombproof whiled away the afternoon by chucking grenades into any openings that could be found. In time, a bulldozer with an improvised armor-plate cab arrived to seal the entire structure with sand. Doubtless, any Japanese still cowering within were asphyxiated.
Companies E, G, and K had a field day. Everything fell before them. Trenches, buildings, and pillboxes were blown up wherever they were encountered. Although a number of Marines were wounded, no one was killed. First Lieutenant Robert Rogers, the Company E commander, had a close call when he noticed a Japanese officer bearing down on him, sword held high for a killing blow. Fortunately, the attacker was shot dead in his tracks by a nearby rifleman.
§The last major objective of the advance from Red-3 was a massive concrete bunker that housed the headquarters of Rear Admiral Keichi Shibasaki's 3d Special Base Force. For nearly three days, Japanese machine gunners on the flat roof of the headquarters bunker had had an unobstructed view of the Marine positions on Red-3. Their machine guns had taken the lives of many Marines.
While a line of machine guns was positioned to keep the Japanese from manning the bunker's numerous firing embrasures, a large group of combat engineers tactfully approached the bunker in short hops. Their objective was the massive steel door, which had been banged shut by seven fleeing Japanese naval infantrymen only minutes earlier.
The engineers set and ignited a powerful charge beside the door, then ducked around the corner. The door was buckled and thrown open, and Private First Class Johnny Borich stepped through the billowing dust and smoke to douse the bunker's innards with a stiff dose of flaming flamethrower fuel. When Borich turned to let waiting riflemen pass into the bunker's interior, he was greeted by a tremendous cheer from scores of Marines who had watched his calm actions.
Marines streamed by. The advance was so swift and steady that Colorado, which was backing Company K, was never called on to help.
Later estimates concluded that nearly one hundred Japanese throughout the area committed suicide in the face of the successful Marine attacks. This, more than anything, accounted for the low casualties among the assault units; only three Marines were wounded after the leading files passed the Burns- Philp wharf.
In the end, Major Jim Crowe's two mixed battalion landing teams covered almost four hundred yards straight out. Late in the afternoon, however, orders from Division Headquarters pulled Crowe's forward elements back nearly one hundred fifty yards, to the airport turning circle. It was feared that Crowe's fields of fire might endanger a Marine unit that was rapidly taking ground in its attack through the area south of the turning circle.
For playing his vital role in turning the key that unlocked the gate that had been blocking the Marine advance on Red-3--for defeating the large covered bombproof--1st Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman, Jr., was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. Major Bill Chamberlin received a Navy Cross for his part in the attack, and Harry Niehoff, John Borich, and Earl Coleman each received a Silver Star.