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Donald R. Nelson: Veteran Story

 Marines take cover during the Battle of Tarawa, November 1943. (U.S. Navy photo)
Marines take cover during the Battle of Tarawa, November 1943. (U.S. Navy photo)

Lt. Commander Medical Corps, Donald R. Nelson, Tarawa

December 18, 1943

Dear Mother and Dad-

Received a letter from you today, dad, dated Dec. 9, 1943 which is quite good. Thought that by Dec. 7th you would have received the letters I wrote you aboard ship after we left Tarawa. Imagine that you have by now.

In case you didn’t and now that I have "calmed" down a bit, let me give you a resume of what happened after we left Wellington. N. Z.

Cannot give you the date that we left there (censorship). From there we went to an island further north for training and then shoved off for Tarawa. Outside of sinking one submarine on the way there, had an uneventful trip. Were expecting some air attacks but none materialized. Had ample protection along with us, the details of which I cannot give.

We were assigned a new Colonel, Colonel Shoup shortly before leaving N. Z., Colonel Marshall being relieved. Col. Shoup is a man of 38 years. All regimental commanders in the future will be young. You are undoubtedly reading a lot about him in the newspapers. He is a capable and smart officer, —well respected and liked by us all.

We arrived outside Tarawa before dawn. Prior to this the island had been thoroughly bombed by Navy dive-bombers for two days. At daybreak they again worked it over, following which our battlewagons really worked it over with their 16" guns at a relatively short range. Then we started in.

The first wave of Marines hit the beach around 9:00 A. M. I was in a landing boat with Col. Shoup, Lt. Col. Carlson of Marine Raider fame, about whom a movie is being made (he was a long as an observer for another Marine Division and did he get an eye full), Major Culhane our operations officer, one of my corpsmen and more of our H&S Co. personnel. We left the transport at 8:30 A. M. As I once told you, the Colonel does'nt land until there is a secure beach head. But Col. Shoup does'nt play that way.

On our way in landing boats and tank lighters were being sunk all around us by Jap anti-boats guns 50mms. and we really had some close ones, but on we went. As we got closer to shore we encountered considerable machine gun fire. We headed for a pier but about 50 yeards from it our boat broke down and we had to wade in still receiving machine gun fire while in the water. Finally reached and started wading towards shore along the side of the pier using it for protection. When one quarter of the way in I was told that there were five wounded men in a boat at the end of the pier who needed medical care. Taking my corpsman I went out there and took care of them. As I stood up in the boat a man beside me was hit twice with machine gun bullets.

I ran across the pier and dove into a heavy Jap tank lighter that was tied there. Lt. Col. Carlson dove in it with me. A few minutes later a Jap mortar shell hit the end of the lighter burning my right leg and a piece of shrapnel hit my left leg. I figured that the next one would hit inside the lighter so I dove overboard and swam towards the side of the dock, keeping my head under the water as much as possible. I then crawled through the water towards shore using the side of the dock for protection, taking care of wounded as I went in. On the way in, a Marine in front of me got hit square between the eyes, —he just looked surprised never said a word—just fell in the water dead. About then I decided that my prospects of being an old man were quite slim. I finally got in to the beach and joined Col. Shoup at the Command Post, which was established just off the beach behind Marines the wall of a Jap block house with 26 live Japs inside of it. Later they were killed with hand grenades and flamethrowers. The front lines were 25 yards in front of us, and snipers in the coconut trees. All in all, there was plenty of lead flying around.

The area around the Command Post had many wounded, and I was kept busy, —as you can imagine. The first night was pretty grim. We knew that we were in a tight spot—and that if the Japs had counter-attacked we would have all been dead ducks. The next day was rugged with many casualties, but the Marines made good progress and by nightfall we knew that we were going to make it.

On the morning of the second day I saw a horrible thing. Saw a reinforcing battalion of another regiment wading in towards our beach with Jap machine guns on both of our flanks shooting directly into them. It was just like watching a movie, bullets peppering the water. Frequently you would see a Marine fall into the water and disappear. They never faltered but kept coming in, with all their arms and equipment. Was truly a fine display of courage.

By the fourth day the island was secure, and we re-embarked aboard ship. Had Thanksgiving dinner aboard ship—turkey and all the trimmings. Sure tasted good. —And we had plenty to be thankful for. All church services aboard ship on that day were well attended.

A lot of my good friends are buried on that island, including two of my Battalion Surgeons.

If the people who grumble about rationing, or who strike could have seen the horrible wounds, or the dead being buried in the plain large trench with not even a coffin; they would have something to think about.

On my way back from the Command Post to my Regimental Aid Station a Lieutenant gave a jump and looked startled (he was walking beside me). He reached in his hip pocket and pulled out a Jap bullet. It had gone through a package of cigarettes in his pocket, but didn't even nick his skin.

Treated another Marine who had a bullet burn one side of his cheek where it grazed him. It went into his helmet and come down the other side of his face creasing it. Needless to say, I saw many horrible things that I'd rather not talk about.

One of our tanks engaged in a scrap with a Jap tank. They both fired at once, —our tank blew the turret off the Jap one and the Jap shell entered the barrel of the 75mm. gun on our tank. No one in our tank hurt.

One of the first things I saw when I got ashore was some chickens and a dog—still alive in spite of the terrific bombing. In the middle of the shooting in the early morning after our first critical night we heard a rooster crowing. Imagine!

The Artillery battery attached to us are a crazy bunch. They acquired a Duck in Wellington who they named Siwash. Siwash was given beer for fluids and was tight most of the time. They brought him along. There was no beer aboard ship and Siwash would'nt drink water. They were afraid he would die, but finally after a few days he drank plain water. Early in the morning on the second day of the battle a group of Marines was seen pulling in a 75-mm. gun through the water. Lashed on top of the gun was a crate with Siwash; head sticking above it. (There still was plenty shooting!) On getting ashore Siwash was uncrated and started waddling around. He spied a duck—one the Jap's had on the island—and went over to pay a call. Said Jap duck kicked the hell out of one Siwash. After sulking a while, he went over to investigate a Jap hen, —who have him a good pecking. The boys then gave him the Purple Heart—the medal for wounds received in action. Siwash is now back here with the boys completely recovered.

The Marines had learned a lot from Guadalcanal. Any prisoners who surrendered were made to strip stark naked before they were brought in, —so that they couldn't pull any fancy stuff. Most of the prisoners taken were Koreans.

Afraid we are going to have to kill the Japs one by one. They won't surrender. A lot of them committed suicide. Saw one Jap body with his rifle against his head and his toe on the trigger. Our regimental photographer is going to send a picture of him to Life magazine.

My legs are now entirely healed and I feel quite well. Lost some weight. Now weigh 210 with my clothes on.

Lost all of my clothes in the fray—ruined my so-called waterproof wristwatch, —so am starting off from scratch. Have my good uniform and stuff in my trunks which are on their way from Wellington. Will not receive those for several weeks.

Am not permitted to tell you where our camp is. Millie, I think can tell you in what group of islands we are located, as I wrote her that a Dr. we both know is located on one in the group.

Read the article in the Saturday Evening Post about McKinley High. Massillon sure gave them a pasting. Enjoyed the clippings very much.

We are a long way from any town and life is going to be monotonous here, I'm afraid. Can't do any shopping as there is no place to do any, so you all will have to forgive me for not sending any Xmas presents.

Your letters sound as if you are feeling better, dad. Knew that you would. Am enclosing some Jap money that our yellow friends from Tarawa have no further use for. Merry Christmas to you both and much love.

Don

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