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Fun in the Sun: Tarawa Atoll in 1944

by on November 10, 2010


Today’s post is written by Lloyd Beers, a processing archivist who works with U.S. Navy records.

Wartime has many faces and all of them are revealed in the records held by the National Archives and Records Administration.  The April 17, 1944 issue of Life magazine featured a more relaxed face with an article picturing U.S. service men and women on the Pacific islands of Tarawa Atoll.  Not five months prior, this island group had been the scene of fierce fighting with significant losses for both American and Japanese forces.  Press reports of the assault produced lurid headlines that prompted officials in Washington to question the value of the victory versus its cost in human life.

One might think that loved ones on the home front would be relieved that their service members were out of harm’s way, occupying an isolated island atoll in the South Pacific after a hard fought victory.  However, this was not the case. When Life magazine hit the newsstands in mid-April, the mail started pouring in to the islands, and the military commander of the Gilbert Islands Sub-Area was not very pleased.  The commander wrote Admiral Chester Nimitz “The article and illustrations of Tarawa in Life magazine, dated 17 April 1944, have created in the minds of the families and friends of the personnel stationed on Betio Island an impression of conditions different from those actually existing.  It is recommended that the necessary steps be taken to correct the discrepancies and the erroneous impression created by this article.”  Admiral Nimitz sympathized, but realized that little could be done.  The conditions on the island were nowhere near as pleasant as the magazine portrayed.  However, to the folks back home Tarawa appeared as a tropical paradise where their fighting men and women were having way too much fun.

To get an idea of how Life portrayed “life” on Tarawa, the records speak for themselves through compiled excerpts from letters received by the troops on the island and shared with their commander in an effort to have the record set straight.  What follows is a representative sample.

“We received our new Life magazine yesterday and it shows photos of Tarawa and the improvements that have been made.  We are happy to hear directly about the life you live. Personally, Walt says that the writer must be planning a post war Hotel on Tarawa and is plugging for feature business.  Are you permitted to tell how much is true?  We are sending you the Life”

“I have seen a number of pictures in the papers taken at Tarawa.  There was one showing the fellows playing baseball, and one with a group of nurses swimming and having a good time.  So, what are you doing?  Just having a good time for yourself, eh?  What a life.  Poor Sailors and Marines.”

“Darling, you didn’t tell me how pleasant it was at Tarawa.  After all these months I had to see Life magazine to find out the real story.  No women, eh?  Oh well, I suppose you fellows deserve a little relaxation of that sort.”

“Listen to me my sweetheart, you leave those little native girls alone will you.  I don’t like that a bit you see.  I ain’t doing you that way and I don’t want you to be doing me that way.”

“So you haven’t seen a white woman for six months!  Well! Well!  Then how do you explain this?  Do you think that you are pulling the wool over my eyes?”

“Dear John, today I saw Life magazine.  Just how dumb to you think I am?  You told me in your last letter that life on Tarawa was very drab and as far as entertainment is concerned it was practically nil.  Well Wiseguy, I have a good pair of eyes and I seen where all you boys have to do is play around in the water with a bunch of hussy’s. (sic)  If you think I’m going to sit at home and wait for you while you mess around on a south sea island paradise drinking booze, playing tennis, and swimming in the surf, you’re crazy.  I can hardly believe that you would mislead me thataway.  Your brother Herman always did say that you were a damn liar.  I am convinced however, that before I pass judgment on you I will wait to see what excuses you have in your next letter.  They better be good.”

“…..and then Mrs. Hoffman came over to show me the Life magazine pictures.  She was so mad.  She says that we are all crazy to by War Bonds and save and save just so a bunch of kids can play around on an island paradise with natives and nurses and drink liquor too.  Son, I don’t think she has the right attitude but will you tell me honestly just the truth about Tarawa?”

The National Archives and Records Administration Archives II at College Park holds the records that answer questions about Tarawa and the U.S. island hopping strategy in the South Pacific in World War II.  This story comes from Record Group 313, Records of the Naval Operating Forces, Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet, Secret and Top Secret General Files (1941-1944), currently being processed.

To see the photographs that caused so much consternation for the troops on Tarawa, visit http://www.life.com/search/?type=images&q0=Tarawa&k110824=World+War+II and explore the images.  You’re on the home front, what’s your interpretation?


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