A Shorts Story: With the Marines at Tarawa (1944)


The photo above shows U.S. Marines assaulting a Japanese fortification during the Battle of Tarawa on Nov. 20-23, 1943. 
This article is part of  the Hidden Classics blogathon from the members of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Click here to read more articles from some of the best bloggers in the business.

"War is a horrible, nasty business, and to say otherwise is to do a disservice to those who died," war correspondent Robert Sherrod, who covered the Battle of Tarawa.

The Oscar-winning documentary short subject With the Marines at Tarawa (1944) is an extraordinary visual record of combat during World War II. The raw footage of the brutal, four-day battle between U.S. and Japanese forces on a small Pacific atoll shocked the American public with its images of the carnage created by total war, but it also galvanized public opinion to continue the fight against the Axis powers.

With the Marines at Tarawa was one of several films the U.S. military made during World War II. Some of the films were used for training soldiers, but others, like With the Marines at Tarawa, were made to be shown to the millions of American moviegoers who packed their local theaters every weekend. A newsreel like With the Marines at Tarawa would have been shown before the feature film, probably along with a cartoon and a comedy or musical short, so it's conceivable that audiences who went to see Meet Me in St. Louis or Double Indemnity (these two films were very popular in 1944) could have seen With the Marines at Tarawa before the feature presentation.


The military drew on the talents of the old Hollywood community during WWII with directors like John Ford, Frank Capra, and John Huston making training films and documentaries. With the Marines at Tarawa was directed by South African-born actor Louis Hayward who became a U.S. citizen and enlisted in the Marines after America's entry into WWII in December 1941. Old Hollywood fans will know Hayward from The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) Dance, Girl Dance (1940), And Then There Were None (1945), and his prolific career in '50s TV.

The Marines took advantage of Hayward's movie experience by having him command a photographic unit, which was assigned to film the invasion of Tarawa by the Marines' second division. Tarawa is a small chain of islands that are basically strips of land in the vast Pacific Ocean -- don't worry if you've never heard of Tarawa; none of the commanding officers had either before they received their assignment. However, military brass deemed Tarawa strategically important for the planned invasion of The Philippines and Japan (Tarawa was used for two airfields later in the war). The Japanese military anticipated this turn of events and they set about heavily fortifying the atoll against an American invasion, which made for a bloody, four-day battle that was unprecedented in its brutality and loss of life. 


Fortuitously, Hayward's unit included Staff Sgt. Norman Hatch, a 24-year-old photography buff from Massachusetts who had been trained by the military to use a movie camera and then assigned to Hayward's photographic unit (Hatch died in 2017 at age 96; here's an excellent Washington Post obituary about his fascinating life. Also, here's a blog article from the National Archives, which shows a newsreel of Hatch detailing his experiences at Tarawa. I must say that Sergeant Hatch cut quite the dash 😉). In fact, it is the raw black-and-white footage that Hatch shot on the first and second day of the Battle of Tarawa that gives the movie both its shock value and its gripping power (some of the footage was also shot by Staff Sgt. John Ercole). You can watch the entire 19-minute documentary above; Hatch's combat footage begins around the 6:00 mark. With the Marines at Tarawa does contain graphic violence, and, more typically for '40s and '50s Hollywood, stereotypical depictions of Japanese soldiers.

By 1944, movie audiences were used to seeing newsreel footage of American soldiers fighting abroad, but the level of graphic violence shown in With the Marines at Tarawa was without precedent. The final decision on whether to allow the film to be shown in movie theaters rested with President Franklin Roosevelt. FDR screened the film at the White House in total silence and then consulted with a trusted friend, war correspondent Robert Sherrod, who had covered the Battle of Tarawa. Sherrod later recalled telling the President to release the documentary, saying according to his recollection, "Our soldiers on the front want people back home to know that they don't knock the hell out of them every day of every battle. They want people to understand that war is a horrible, nasty business, and to say otherwise is to do a disservice to those who died." (FDR rarely let his advisers or anyone else know the entirety of his motives. While I'm sure he did want to honor the dead at Tarawa, he was also sending a message to the Japanese government about America's willingness to use jaw-dropping firepower against them and to the American people about the likely cost of invading the Japanese home islands).

With the Marines at Tarawa eventually went on to win an Academy Award for best Documentary Short Subject at the 1945 Oscars. The statuette, which was made of plaster because of wartime rationing, is on display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va.

A USMC photo of the Battle of Tarawa

With the Marines at Tarawa remains an essential historical document that forever preserves the heroism and grit of what historian Ian W. Toll called the Marine Corps finest hour. It also, I think, has a message for viewers today. The Bible says that the greatest love a human can give is "to lay down his life for his friends." The 1,000 U.S. soldiers who died at Tarawa not only gave their lives for their comrades-in-arms and their friends and family at home, but, in a very real sense, they were giving their lives so future generations could live in peace and democracy and that the right would (at least eventually) prevail. I hope that those reading this article will remember the Marines at Tarawa from time and time and silently thank them for their sacrifice (especially this Memorial Day if you live in the U.S.).

Finally, a word on the depiction of the Japanese soldiers in With the Marines at Tarawa. The stereotypical depiction of the Japanese soldiers is quite typical of Hollywood films at the time period (y'all know this if you've been anywhere near a John Wayne movie), but most of the Japanese soldiers on the atoll died in battle or by suicide. Some of the men shown in the film are most likely Koreans, who were used as forced labor by the Japanese army and were very helpful to the Marines after the battle. Also, the Hollywood stereotype of Japanese soldiers as bloodthirsty automatons isn't always an accurate depiction of the average Japanese soldier. The excellent Japanese film The Burmese Harp (1956) delves into both the physical and psychic pain suffered by many soldiers both during and after WWII. The Burmese Harp is available for streaming at The Criterion Channel.


Comments

  1. Your post left me with a lump in my throat and swelling of pride in my heart. What a wonderful choice for this blogathon. It is sobering to think that this could have been shown prior to a film like "Meet Me in St. Louis" and what audiences were living through at the time. Great post.

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    1. Thank you. I saw part of it on a History Channel documentary a few years ago, and I always thought it would make an interesting blog post

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  2. A timely reminder of what was given and what was gained by those who fought in World War II (which includes all of my uncles and my father). I hadn't seen this before and I won't forget it soon. Remarkable.

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    1. Thanks to your father and uncles for their service. Also, Happy birthday, today.

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  3. What a great selection! I am fascinated by war footage and need to see more of these documentaries by the masters. We are so fortunate to have YouTube for easy access. Thanks for highlighting this one.

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    1. It looks like The National Archive has done a nice job of putting the WWII documentaries online.

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  4. A fascinating and heartbreaking historical selection. I applaud your choice and your moving article.

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    1. Thanks so much. It is wonderful to hear from you. I hope you're recovering well.

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