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American Heroes: The Marines of Tarawa

"This is gonna be a piece of cake," thought the young second lieutenant from South
Dakota as he readied himself for the invasion of the Japanese held island of Tarawa on November 20, 1943.

In an interview with "War Stories with Oliver North," Don Lillibridge recalled how he had watched in amazement as the small island 2500 miles southwest of Hawaii (that's smaller than New York's Central Park) was pummeled by two thousand tons of shells from ships offshore and another 900 tons of bombs from the air for a punishing three hours.

"It didn't seem possible that there could be anybody left alive on the place," he remembered.

"I figured with all that bombardment," retired Major General Mike Ryan told Oliver North, "we're gonna be able to get across that island in a hurry."

They were both wrong.

• Catch the 'War Stories Classic: Bloody Tarawa,' Mon., November 24 at 3 a.m. ET

The commander of the estimated 4400 Japanese troops on Tarawa was Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki. Having turned the island into a fortress, he bragged that he would hold Tarawa "against a million Americans for a hundred years."

He was wrong, too.

The brutal battle for Tarawa would be waged for three days, costing more than 1,000 Marines their lives and wounding 2500 more. The Japanese defenders were almost completely wiped out.

All to gain control of a two-mile long atoll.

"It was a very high price to pay in terms of square yards per life," says Eric Hammel, the author of "Bloody Tarawa." "It was the bloodiest landing of the war."

Tarawa was part of the Gilbert Islands, a strategic stop on General Douglas MacArthur's Pacific "island hopping" campaign that was headed straight for Tokyo. Tarawa had to be taken.

Under withering gunfire, it took some of the Marines seven hours to wade to the beach. Once ashore, they engaged in fierce combat with an enemy embedded in 500 pillboxes, each one emitting a never-ending firestorm of bullets.

"You almost never saw the enemy — never," remembered Lillibridge. "They were in the bunkers and they were firing at you and you were firing at them."

"They were always hidden," remembered combat cameraman Norm Hatch, who was documenting the battle. "Most of them were dug in some place."

The dug-in Japanese knew that there was no escape, no chance of survival. "In many cases, the Japanese privates holed up in bunkers with American troops all around would fight until they couldn't fight anymore," says Hammell. "And then take his shoe off, put his toe in the trigger guard, put the barrel of the rifle in his mouth and squeeze the trigger with his toe."

As the savage fighting continued on Tarawa, many of the wounded Marines who never made it to the beach were trapped on the barrier reef that encircled the island. Help for some came in the form of a salvage officer from the USS Sheridan named Lt. Eddie Heimberger.

On the second day of the battle, Heimberger was sent ashore to salvage whatever equipment he could that had been left on the beach. What he discovered were the scores of wounded Marines trapped in the line of fire. Heimberger used his salvage boat to repeatedly shuttle the wounded to safety and saved the lives of dozens of Marines. Heimberger was awarded the Bronze Star for his bravery. After the war, he had a long, distinguished career as an actor. His stage name was Eddie Albert.

A shocked public got their first real look at the horrific fighting in the Pacific when the short documentary "With the Marines at Tarawa" began showing in 16,000 theatres throughout the country in December of 1943. Initially, President Franklin Roosevelt was reluctant to release the brutal footage to the public until Merritt Edson, the chief of staff of the 2nd Marine Division and a Medal of Honor recipient, offered him some advice.

"Edson said to him very quietly," recounts Hamell, "he was a very soft spoken man although he was a killer in action. If we don't show these people these pictures now, all the telegrams are gonna be sent out during the course of this long war, will come as a surprise and they won't understand. This is our chance to show them. This is gonna be a tough, long haul."

— Steven Tierney is a producer for "War Stories"

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