After 76 hours of pitched combat, the battle
of Tarawa was over. Betio looked like a lunar landscape
and was littered with 6,000 corpses decomposing in the
equatorial sun. The 285-acre island was also littered with
the rotting food and excreta of 15,000 men. "Highly
unsanitary conditions were generally prevalent."12 Tarawa
veteran Ed Weber said "the flies were so thick
they covered your food and you couldn't eat.”13 There
was a strong sense of urgency to clean up the island for
reasons. Bulldozers were used to plough Japanese dead into
shell craters and tank traps, and their dead in the block
houses were covered with lime and the structures sealed
Bulldozers were also used to create burial
trenches for the large number of American dead. There were
a minimum of 43 temporary cemeteries scattered all over
the island ranging from one to over 150 bodies in the separate
burial grounds.15 This report uses the word minimum as there
is substantial credible evidence that numerous other grave
areas on the island were lost and never found after the
war until our survey found them in 2008. On the 26th of
November 1943 an intelligence report was prepared by the
2nd Marine Division and in the report was a map showing
the creation of dumps and installations on the island and
the number and location of American graves as of that date.
The number of graves on the island as of that date was
324. Even though it is an unfinished, hand-drawn map, it
remains the most accurate of the Tarawa burial maps because
it was drawn by the unit that actually did the burials.
(See Image 11)
Individual units collected their own dead and buried
them in unit cemeteries as well as in larger cemeteries
shared by all units. By the 4th of December "622 Marines
had been buried on Helen (code name for Betio), 75% of
which had been identified.”16 The 2nd and 8th regiments
of the 2nd Marine Division had departed on the 24th of
November and the rest of the division departed for Hawaii
at this time.
In his report to the CG 2nd Marine Division and CINCPAC
the island commander of Betio after the battle, Captain
Gould, wrote "several more known members of the 2nd
Marine Division were buried by personnel of Navy ACORN
(Aviation, Construction, Ordinance, Repair, Navy) 14 and
the Marine garrison after the assault troops were withdrawn...
a substantial number of unknown bodies were likewise buried
by personnel of US Navy ACORN 14.”17 While Captain
Gould does not quantify the term "substantial" it
is self explanatory: it means a large number. Furthermore,
several Tarawa veterans shared their experiences with this
study of witnessing or creating the mass burials of American
dead on Tarawa (their accounts will be presented later
in this report) and they recount large bulldozer-dug trench
burials with several hundred Marines in them who are not
reflected in any of the archival research material or the
official record. It is highly likely that the total American
burials on Betio well exceeded 800, yet after the war,
only 436 casualties that were buried on Betio were recovered.
What happened to the rest of the Marines buried on Betio?
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