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Calendar >  One Square Mile of Hell – Thomas Calabrese

One Square Mile of Hell – Thomas Calabrese

By   /  July 27, 2019  /  20 Comments


Private Parcel In Heaven

Thomas Calabrese — The November 1943 invasion of the Gilbert Islands was the beginning of the U.S. ‘island hopping’ campaign in the central Pacific during World War II. U.S. commanders determined that amphibious attacks on Japanese –occupied islands was the key to victory. The island of Betio was the first target in the Allied campaign and the largest island in the Tarawa Atoll and the base for the majority of the Japanese troops.

The 6th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force was commanded by Rear Admiral Tomonari Saichiro, an experienced engineer who directed the construction of sophisticated defensive structures on Betio. A tremendous number of pill boxes and firing pits were strategically placed to stop the American Marines in the water or pin them on the beaches. In the interior of the island were the command post and a number of large shelters designed to protect Japanese leadership from air attacks and naval bombardment. The Japanese worked intensely for nearly a year to fortify the island. To aid the garrison in the construction of the defenses, 1,247 men of the 111th Pioneers, similar to the Seabees of the U.S. Navy, along with the 970 men of the Fourth Fleet’s construction battalion were brought in. Approximately 1,200 of the men in these two groups were Korean laborers. The garrison itself was made up of forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The Japanese Special Naval Landing Force was highly trained, well disciplined, extremely tenacious and took great pride in the fact that every man was willing to fight to the death. Their unit was bolstered by 14 Type 95 light tanks.

A series of fourteen coastal defense guns, including four large Vickers 8-inch guns were secured in concrete bunkers around the island to guard the open water approaches. These big guns made it very difficult for a landing force to enter the lagoon and attack the island from the north side. The island had a total of 500 pillboxes built from logs, sand and reinforced with cement. Forty artillery pieces were scattered around the island in various reinforced firing pits. An airfield was cut into the bush straight down the center of the island. Trenches connected all points of the island, allowing troops to move where needed under cover. Japanese command believed that their coastal guns would protect the approaches into the lagoon and prevent an attack on the western and southern beaches. Rear Admiral Keiji Shibazaki, an experienced combat officer who relieved Rear Admiral Tomonari was quoted as saying, ‘It would take one million men one hundred years to conquer Tarawa.’

Staff Sergeant Santino ‘Sonny’ Mordente was born in San Diego to the parents of Italian immigrants and worked on tuna fishing boats prior to his enlistment in the Marine Corps after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He served in the Solomon Islands and was assigned to Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines as a machine gunner under the command of Staff Sergeant John Basilone. He was wounded twice during the battle for Henderson Field and suffered through a serious bout of malaria while on Guadalcanal between August 1942 and February 1943.

 Following the completion of the campaign the 2nd Marine Division was withdrawn to New Zealand to recover from their wounds and illnesses and for some much needed rest and recuperation. On 20 July 1943, the Joint Chiefs of Staff directed Admiral Chester Nimitz to prepare plans for an offensive operation in the Gilbert Islands. Admiral Raymond Spruance flew to New Zealand to meet with 2nd Marine Division, General Julian Smith and General Holland M. Smith, commander of the V Amphibious Corps to initiate planning for the attack on Tarawa.

General Holland M. Smith voiced his concerns, “This is a small and unimportant island.”

            “It has no strategic importance, our resources could be better utilized somewhere else,” General Julian Smith echoed the sentiments of his fellow Marine.

Admiral Spruance sighed, “I knew that you two were going to say that, but I’m just following orders like you need to.”

General Holland Smith cursed under his breath then made a thoughtful comment that every battlefield commander probably thought about at one time or another, “Even when we do everything perfectly, men still die, but when we make stupid mistakes and foolish decisions we fill cemeteries with honorable brave Americans.”

Corporal Glenn Hamel was an administrative clerk at 2nd Marine Division Headquarters. When he saw the two high ranking generals meeting with an admiral, he knew something was going on so he did a little covert eavesdropping. While he didn’t have the details, he picked up enough information to know that the unit was moving out soon. He approached Staff Sergeant Mordente with his suspicions, “Scuttlebutt is that we’re pulling out.”

Santino shrugged, “You didn’t think that we were going to sit here for the rest of the war, did you?”

            “A guy can hope.”

            “Hope is a good thing, sometimes it’s the only thing we have,” Santino walked off.

When Colonel David Shoup was briefed on the Tarawa mission, the first thing he did was request to look at the personnel roster for his unit and saw that there was an equal mix of seasoned combat veterans and new replacements. While meeting with all his combat experienced staff non-commissioned officers, “You’ve been through this before so I’m not going to give you some rah rah talk. We‘ve got our orders ,but once we hit that beach, it’s not those orders, but men like you that will determine if we win or lose…survive or die. Good luck, Marines.”

The American invasion force was the largest ever assembled for a single operation in the Pacific.  It consisted of 17 aircraft carriers, 12 battleships, 8 heavy cruisers, 4 light cruisers, 66 destroyers a 36 transport ships and 35,000 troops. The invasion began in the pre-dawn hours and the Japanese opened fire with their 8-inch guns and the battleships Colorado and Maryland returned fire. Luckily for the Marines that one of the 16-inch shells found a Japanese ammunition bunker and the ensuing explosions knocked out three of the four guns, leaving the approach to the lagoon open. The north beaches were divided into three sections: Red Beach 1 on the far west of the island, Red Beach 2 to the west of the pier, and Red Beach 3 to the east of the pier.

The tide had not risen enough for the shallow draft Higgins boats to clear the reef so Santino and his men were stranded 300 yards ashore. Having no other choice, they began wading ashore. With a pause in naval bombardment, those Japanese who had survived the previous shelling were able to man their firing pits and were also reinforced from troops from the southern beaches.

The Marines were easy targets as they struggled through the water with their equipment. Men were falling every second as they moved closer to the island. Santino had given up all hope of surviving so he was more surprised than anyone that he was breathing when he collapsed on the beach.  Enemy bullets were coming so close to him that he could smell the hot metal of the projectiles.

When Santino looked around he came to the brutal realization that not one of his men had made it to shore. Intertwined with the sounds of exploding bombs and small arms fire were the screams of anguish from wounded Marines. He knew that if he was going to die, it would be from going forward and not hunkered down in the sand. Santino always had a great admiration for Corpsmen and when he saw Petty Officer Josh Hancock risking his life as he ran from wounded Marine to wounded Marine in the middle of deadly fire, that opinion was enhanced.

While running inland, Santino came face to face with a crazed Japanese Imperial Marine and engaged in hand to hand combat with him. The fight lasted several minutes before he was able to kill his opponent with his bayonet. Two hours later, he crossed paths with Major Michael P. Ryan, a company commander who had gathered 50 men from surviving remnants of Marine units as well as two Sherman tanks. When Major Ryan saw Staff Sergeant Mordente, he flashed a weary smile, “Good to see you, Staff Sergeant.”

            “Same here, Major. How do you want to do this?”

            “My last orders before losing communications was to secure the west end of the island,” Major Ryan answered.

By the end of the first day, of the 5,000 Marines that disembarked the transport ships, 1,500 were casualties, either dead or wounded. As night began to fall, Santino set up his fellow Marines in a 360 perimeter to prepare for any attacks, but the Japanese chose to harass the Marines with sporadic small arms fire until sunrise. In the darkness some Japanese marines swam to some of wrecked landing crafts with the hope of firing on U.S. forces from behind. When Santino saw them entering the water, he instructed several of his Marines to set up a heavy machine gun on the beach then found a mortar platoon and told them to be prepared to fire offshore. When the sun came up and the Japanese began firing from the crashed landing crafts they were quickly blown out of water by the prepared Americans.

Major Ryan, Staff Sergeant Mordente and their Marines reached the airfield located in the center of the island by noon where they encountered heavy resistance. They suffered major losses to an overwhelmingly superior Japanese force, but bravely held their ground. Later that day they joined forces with 1st Battalion 6th Marines and took the offensive and pressed the Japanese forces across the southern coast of the island. At 0300 hours Japanese command ordered a banzai attack and killed 45 Americans and wounded 128 more. Santino was shot through the upper right arm during that attack.

At 0400 the Japanese launched an even larger banzai attack of 500 Japanese troops from the opposite direction and Santino called in naval gunfire from the destroyers Schroeder and Sigsbee. It almost looked like the Marines were going to be overrun until Santino took a great risk and called in artillery to within 50 meters of their own position. The Japanese troops who managed to make it pass the Marines’ defensive perimeter were killed in hand to hand combat. When the assault ended 58 minutes later there were 300 dead Japanese soldiers in front of the Americans entrenched positions and two hundred more behind their lines.

Santino was wounded three times by gunfire and shrapnel and his badly damaged body was operating on three things, adrenalin, pain killing morphine and a sense of duty. On the second night on the murderous island, he began to shiver as chills ran up and down his body as he suffered through a relapse of the malaria that he caught on Guadalcanal.

            “Are you going to be alright?” Major Ryan asked.

            “Compared to what?”

Major Ryan called out, “Corpsman!”

Corpsman Guy Zwickell crawled over and quickly examined Santino, “Nothing I can do, he needs a hospital.”

            “I also need a home cooked meal and a quiet nap on a beach in Oceanside with Hedy Lamar by my side, I’m not going to get those either,” Santini grimaced.

That morning Ryan, Mordente and their men rendezvoused with India and Lima Companies and helped to eliminate a large group of connecting bunkers. Using flamethrowers and demolition the Marines destroyed the Japanese strong point and then moved on to the eastern tip of the island.  The Marines killed 475 Japanese soldiers on their third morning on Tarawa while losing 9 killed and 25 wounded. Sensing the battle was lost, a group of Japanese soldiers made one last banzai charge against the exhausted Marines. Sensing that his men were about to be overrun, Santino took a 30 caliber water cooled machine gun and as much ammunition as he could carry to the top of a small ridge, and began mowing down waves of fanatical Japanese soldiers. When his machine gun jammed, he resorted to using his .45 caliber pistol to fight off the enemy. Santino’s efforts allowed his fellow Marines time to regroup and repel the attack, but he was seriously wounded in this latest battle. This time he had no choice, but to be medically evacuated to a hospital ship offshore.

Of the 3,636 Japanese in the garrison, only one officer and sixteen enlisted men surrendered. Of the 1,200 Korean laborers brought to Tarawa to construct the defenses, only 129 survived. All told, 4,690 of the island’s defenders were killed. The 2nd Marine Division suffered 894 killed in action, 48 officers and 846 enlisted men, while an additional 84 of the wounded survivors later succumbed to what proved to be fatal wounds. Of these, 8 were officers and 76 were enlisted men. A further 2,188 men were wounded in the battle, 102 officers and 2,086 men. Of the roughly 12,000 2nd Marine Division Marines on Tarawa, 3,166 officers and men became casualties.Nearly all of these casualties were suffered in the 76 hours between the landing at 0910 November 20 and the island of Betio being declared secure at 1330 November 23.

General Holland M. Smith, commander of the V Amphibious Corps toured the beaches after the three day battle and was both shocked and brokenhearted at the human carnage that he witnessed, “This is like Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.”

The heavy losses by the United States at Tarawa resulted from several contributing factors, among which were the miscalculation of the tide and the height of the obstructing coral reefs, the operational shortcomings of the landing craft available, the inability of the naval bombardment to weaken the defenses of a well-entrenched enemy, and the difficulties of coordinating and communicating between the different forces involved. It was the first time in the war that a United States amphibious landing was opposed by well entrenched, determined defenders. Previous landings, such as the landing at Guadalcanal, had been unexpected and met with little or no initial resistance. At the time, Tarawa was the most heavily defended atoll invaded by Allied forces in the Pacific.

The 4,500 Japanese defenders were well-supplied and well-prepared, and they fought almost to the last man, exacting a heavy toll on the United States Marine Corps. U.S. Divisions suffered similar casualties in previous campaigns, such as over the six months of the Guadalcanal Campaign, but the losses on Tarawa were incurred within 76 hours!

Staff Sergeant Santino Mordente was placed in the hospice ward of the military hospital with a large group of seriously wounded servicemen. The instructions given to the medical staff were simple; make the men as comfortable as possible during their final days. Over the next couple weeks, Santino would see a tall white haired gentleman walking among the beds and occasionally he would stop and talk to one of the patients. When he would look again, the bed would be empty and the white haired man would be gone. He did not really want to know where they went.

It was early morning when Santino felt a hand on his shoulder and heard a soothing voice, “It’s time to go.”

He opened his eyes and saw the white haired gentleman standing next to his bed, “Go where?”

            “You’re being transferred,” The White Haired Gentleman responded.

            “To somewhere else in the hospital?”  Santino inquired.

            “You have a new assignment.”

            “I’ll go wherever you send me, but I don’t think I’m strong enough to return to combat just yet,” Santino said.

            “Just like a Marine to think of his duty first. You’ll be alright, trust me.”

The White Haired Gentleman placed gently touched the injured Marine’s forehead and he slowly drifted off to sleep. When Santino awakened, he never felt better. He stood up and stretched and looked around the lush surroundings that stretched all the way to a white sandy beach and a crystal blue ocean. He looked at his body and saw no evidence of his wounds, not even a scar to show where they used to be. 

The White Haired Gentleman walked over, “How do you like your new duty station?”

            “Is this what I think it is?” Santino asked.

The White Haired Gentleman nodded.

            “You sure about this, I’m not that religious a guy,” Santino smiled as he rubbed his hand over at his clean jungle fatigues.

            “You’re more spiritual than you think,” The White Haired Man reminded the American hero. “Any Marine that is willing to lay down his life to take one square mile of hell is going to be rewarded with his own private parcel in heaven.” The End

NOTE: Aspiring Writers Join us on the 3rd Saturday of each month between 11:00 am and 2:00 pm Veterans Writing Group of North County (non veterans are welcome) 1617 Mission Avenue , Oceanside,CA. 92054
(619)  991-8790 www.veteranswriting group.org – www.facebook.com/VWGSDCounty


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  • Published: 4 months ago on July 27, 2019
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  • Last Modified: July 26, 2019 @ 12:14 am
  • Filed Under: The Back Page

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  1. Robert says:

    A little different than previous stories. Enjoyed it as it had a different twist on the ending.

  2. John Michels says:

    Very interesting history lesson. Quite informative even though the story is supposed to be fiction

  3. Joe says:

    Great story. My father was a Navy Chief Machinist Mate/Seabee.
    He was on Tarawa. I wish I have learned more about his service, but he didn’t talk much about it I was only 16 when he died.

  4. Bart says:

    Good story and very well researched

  5. Ronald B Pickett says:

    Good story Tom.

  6. Cary says:

    When I read a story like this about sacrifice and bravery then see how people disrespect our flag and country…I can’t begin to tell you how angry I get. To all the knucklehead protesters…the country has done nothing wrong, the flag had nothing wrong…it has been the government and our moronic politicians making stupid decisions and ridiculous laws that you should be protesting..God Bless America and the men and women of our military and police departments who go into harm’s way on a regular basis. Thank you

  7. Jeremy says:

    I enjoyed the story and learned a lot too

  8. Larry says:

    Thanks Tom. found the story moving and touching. What is those Marines went through is truly amazing and heartbreaking.

  9. Clyde says:

    I never heard of Tarawa, but after reading this story I won’t forget it

  10. Mona says:

    Good story Tom! I learned a lot from it……

  11. Jocelyn says:

    You bring history to life..thank you

  12. Steve says:

    My thanks to the greatest generation..they earned it with blood and sacrifice Semper Fi

  13. Guy says:

    I really thought that this was a story that needed to be written

  14. Dan says:

    I am never ceased to be amazed by what our military went through and accomplished during World War II

  15. Josh says:

    I really liked the story, because I love world war stories

  16. Kyle says:

    It is a shame that so many World War II vets have died and continue to pass away. They were definitely the best of America

  17. Tony says:

    What a tremendous and heartfelt story by Mr. Calabrese. A lot of facts and historical significance contained in this moving story of a Marine Staff Sergeant that gave his all. Certainly would make a great movie.

  18. wolf says:

    A well done readers digest of the battle for Tarawa. Liked the ending, they certainly served their time in hell.

  19. Mike says:

    So many brutal battles in World War II and so much sacrifice and bravery. We have a lot to be grateful for

  20. Janet says:

    After reading this story I did some research this battle. Many of Tom’s fact were right on point. Good job

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