by John Wukovits Palgrave Macmillan, 2006

One Square Mile of Hell: The Battle for Tarawa

by John Wukovits NAL Caliber, 2006

For some 20 years John Wukovits has written on U.S. naval operations in the Pacific during World War II, but his latest two books focus on non-naval American icons: Army General Dwight David Eisenhower and the Marines who took Tarawa.

A biography in Palgrave Macmillan’s “Great Generals Series,” edited with a foreword by General Wesley K. Clark, Eisenhower follows the life, education and career of its subject as a learning process from which future generations of military officers can derive lessons on leadership. Eisenhower’s was an unusual case of a man dead set on an Army career whose talents in leadership, staff management and diplomacy prevented him from seeing combat, but whose professionalism and accumulated experience elevated him to the position—and crushing responsibilities—of supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II.

While they were serving in the frustratingly neglected Tank Corps in 1919, Eisenhower’s brother officer and friend Colonel George S. Patton Jr. predicted their roles in the next war by evoking two Confederate Civil War generals: “I’ll be [Stonewall] Jackson, you’ll be [Robert E.] Lee. I don’t want to do the heavy thinking, you do that and I’ll get loose among our #&*?!&% [sic] enemies.” His declaration was remarkably prescient, for Eisenhower proved the right man to formulate and conduct the grand strategy necessary to defeat Nazi Germany, while Patton repeatedly displayed his tactical prowess in the field. What also became evident was that the two were decidedly unsuited to trade roles, as Eisenhower was frequently distracted from his single-minded effort against Adolf Hitler to deal with the conflicting egos of associates, from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery to his unpredictable friend and occasional bête noire, Lt. Gen. Patton.

Much has been written about Eisenhower—including by Eisenhower himself, as well as by his son, John. But Wukovits presents a concise summary of the evolution of an outstanding leader, concluding, as do all the books of this series, with the five leadership traits (focus, teamwork, empathy, media savvy and devotion to duty) that “Ike” leaves for future commanders— and commanders in chief.

If Eisenhower contains an epic career in a small package, One Square Mile of Hell compresses an epic of man-made horror in a very small place: the first seriously opposed landing Americans experienced during World War II, when the 2nd Marine Division invaded the tiny isle of Betio on Tarawa Atoll in the Gilberts, on February 20, 1943. The Marines, young but intensely trained and backed up by the most powerful fleet up to that time, expected a walkover. What they found instead was an ingenious complex of mutually supporting defensive positions that had held up to the shells and bombs, manned by tough naval infantry of the 7th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Force. The three-day slugfest that followed between the U.S. Marines and their closest Japanese equivalent left little room to maneuver for either side. When the mile-square island and its airstrip were finally declared secure, 1,027 U.S. Marine and Navy personnel were dead, 2,292 were wounded and 88 missing. Of some 4,800 Japanese and Korean laborers on Betio, 146 survived— only 17 of whom were Japanese troops.

Running throughout Wukovits’ account are the lives of numerous individuals involved in the fighting. Two, remarkably, are Japanese—Warrant Officer Kiyoshi Ota and Lieutenant Tadao Oonuki. All their paths are skillfully woven together once the Marines make for shore, at which point the narrative becomes as relentlessly grim as the fighting it describes. At times the horror can wear the reader down, which may be appropriate for the situation the author is invoking. This becomes somewhat less effective in the aftermath, however, where Wukovits’ coverage of the bereaved families can come off as tiresome, repetitive variations on the same theme.

One will find some new facts or insights that stand out amid the oft-told saga of Tarawa, however. Ota, though little shocked or awed by the array of firepower and technology he faced, had more doubts about the battle’s outcome when he saw the U.S. Marines cut down in droves, only to see more keep coming until they established a tenuous beachhead at the sea wall. Wukovits also claims that the Marines might have lost the battle on the first day had it not been for two lucky breaks: the death of the enemy commander, Rear Adm. Keiji Shibasaki; and the utter disruption of communications, both of which prevented the Japanese from organizing a counterattack on the critical first night. There is a fascinating study of courage and leadership in which Colonel David M. Shoup, commander of the assault battalions, finds a young corporal from an annihilated Marine company hiding, paralyzed with fear, and restores him to combat fitness by simply giving him a mission.

On a related note, Wukovits also makes a rather profound general comment on the acts of heroism that won the battle and that so many Tarawa veterans still casually dismiss as just “doing what they were supposed to do.” “Today’s world is replete with examples of individuals who do not do what they are supposed to do,” he observes, “parents who abdicate their responsibilities to children, religious leaders who betray the trust of their congregations, politicians who lie, teachers who halfheartedly instruct, students who refuse to work. Imagine what society would be like if everyone imitated the men of Tarawa and simply did what they were supposed to do.”

One perennial use of history is applying its lessons to the present and future, and not necessarily in a strictly martial manner. Readers of both the fast-moving Eisenhower and the harrowing One Square Mile of Hell will find a fair share of such insights—how he or she applies them is the reader’s business.


Originally published in the June 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here