Tarawa and Eddie Owen: the past is another country

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The house where I was born is now business premises, the hotel where I began my honeymoon has been demolished, the hospital where I did my first operation is now a housing estate.

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The physical reminders of significant past events, large and small, tend to disappear or change so radically that nothing tangible is left.

Well, today is the 70th anniversary of the battle of Tarawa, which I’ve blogged on before. At that time it was one of the most concentrated foci of destruction  in human history.  About 6,000 people killed in three days on a square mile of coral island, under the equatorial sun.  The amazing thing is, that there are still US Marine corps veterans alive who were there.  Not many though.  Of the 467 Medals of Honor awarded in WW2, only 8 are still alive. There were 4 extraordinary Medals of Honor awarded for Tarawa.

Tarawa now though is a densely built area, with Betio, the primary battle ground being taken over by housing , although bodies can still reappear, years later. There is simply too much war debris to clear it all away.

Note the 3 Japanese gun emplacements still there
Note the 3 Japanese gun emplacements still there

The Knife has an enduring interest with Tarawa. The sheer intensity of the fighting, the almost impossible heroism of people like William Hawkins, the craziness of landing assault forces from the sea under ferocious fire, like Omaha Beach, but possibly worse. I ended up acquiring lots of books on it, the best of which are Wukovits’ One Square Mile of Hell, Robert Sherrod’s immortal classic of reportage  Tarawa, the story of a battle  (now available again on Kindle), and Hammel and Lane’s Bloody Tarawa. The last one I got on eBay, for about $30. Which is where it gets interesting.

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Most of the combat survivors from WW2 are older than about 85, and they’re dying at the rate of 600 per day. Thankfully there is plenty of archive footage etc around. The excellent twitter feed WWII Obituaries links to some incredible stories of ‘ordinary’ valour. When I got my copy of Bloody Tarawa – it had come from the USA – it was full of highlighted passages, and  a dedication to the recipient, Eddie Owen, ‘who was there’. Tucked in the book was a note by Eddie (pictured), pointing out the failure by the authors to mention his group’s own work at the infamous pier that was the only way onto the island initially, strafed by machine guns. Reading the book, and seeing his additions, you get the feeling that Tarawa, 59 years earlier, had been the defining event of his life.

It turned out that Eddie was still alive when I got the book, having been a regular at Marine corps events in Texas. I guess the book was part of getting rid of his stuff after his wife died in 2007. Possibly he eventually went into a care home. He died earlier this year, January 4th.

History will honour Tarawa as a defining moment in the greatest conflict.  The tiny pieces that make up that story are disappearing fast. Tarawa itself, like many of the sites of the fiercest fighting, is now a tourist destination for well-heeled Japanese. I feel privileged to have unearthed this precious morsel of personal experience.  To quote from Jenny McCartney, on the death of the last Briton to be born in the 19th century:

That’s how history moves beyond our reach: the last small hand, shrunken with age, finally lets go of ours, and a century slips away from us forever.

Eddie in 2010
Eddie in 2010
eddie 1a
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