Grim humour on Tarawa.

Grim humour on Tarawa.

Grim humour on Tarawa.

Ultimate List Of Reaper Names And Names For Death From Around The World

Death in many cultures is often personified and represented as a person or animal in some sort of way.

Most often death is known by the name the Grim Reaper and is said to be the one who comes to collect the souls of the dead and those about to die. In most cultures, the reaper is represented as a male figure but sometimes they can be female or genderless.

The reaper collects the souls of those that just died and those about to die. These souls are escorted to the underworld or the lake where they are ferried to the underworld. In certain other claims, it is not uncommon to find death represented as a female. The reaper is also known as the angel of death, a sign of danger or impending doom. However, it is not really listed as an angel. Although, in most faiths such as Christianity, there is an angel of death. There are different roles of the reaper based on certain mythologies. While some say the reaper collects souls and escorts the dead to the underworld or the afterlife, others believe they kill or cause death in different ways and also collect the souls of these recently dead.

The reaper holds a significant place in history and in all cultures. Because death is inescapable, there has been a need to explain the concept which led to the personification. This helped people in the past to explain certain circumstances that occurred around them. It also helped them cope with the loss of loved ones and those who felt they got the rewards of their bad deeds. In every culture, religion, belief and in all through history, there is a mention or reference to the reaper or something similar in traits.

If you are into dark and death names, then this list provides you with some possible names of death from different mythologies around the world. We also have more articles you will love such as dark last names and names that mean dark.

2 thoughts on &ldquo20 November 1943 Tarawa Keep Moving&rdquo

The island, roughly two thirds of the size of my college’s small campus, was the most heavily fortified beach in the world.

Here is an outline of Betio superimposed on the Pentagon:

It is too bad they did not take the adjacent island (Bairiki) first to set up artillery, as Shoup wanted to do.

Lacey’s book Pacific Blitzkrieg is also good, although it is not just about Tarawa.

Ernest Hemingway’s Most Wicked and Hilarious Rivalries

While everyone today is fixated on Hollywood catfights, a century ago, writer feuds got tongues wagging. And while actors today may spar in Twitter wars, writers have always exchanged barbed words.

H.G Wells called Henry James “a painful hippopatamus.” John Keats resented comparisons between him and Lord Byron so much that he complained, “He describes what he sees — I describe what I imagine — Mine is the hardest task.” And Mark Twain’s hated on Jane Austen — “I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Clearly, Twain was not a fan.

The Search for the Lost Marines of Tarawa

U.S. Marines and their landing craft on the beach during the Battle of Tarawa in 1943.

Credit. Frederic Lewis/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

U.S. Marines and their landing craft on the beach during the Battle of Tarawa in 1943.

Credit. Frederic Lewis/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Wounded Marines being towed on a rubber boat to a larger vessels that will transport them to base hospitals for better medical care.

Credit. US Marine Corps./Interim Archives/Getty Images

A cemetery for Marines killed in the battle for Tarawa, in the Pacific.  American servicemen played baseball nearby.

Credit. Peter Stackpole/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

A newly constructed American base on Tarawa atoll, four months after defeat of Japanese troops there.

Credit. J.R. Eyerman/Life Magazine/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

A U.S. fighter plane taking off during the Battle of Tarawa.

Credit. Edward Steichen/George Eastman House/Getty Images

We had been on the island for about an hour when we found the first skeleton. It was a pile of yellow bones tucked inside a cardboard box. Mark Noah squatted down for a look. He is a stocky man of 48, with a light buzz of blond hair and the wind-beaten eyes of a lifelong outdoorsman. Since 2008, he has been traveling to the tiny Pacific atoll of Tarawa to search for the remains of more than 500 Marines who died there in World War II. Sometimes locals dig up their bones and leave them in his storage locker.

Noah reached into the box and pushed aside a fragment of cranium to remove a curved metal plate. “Wow,” he muttered. “Clearly a World War II burial with the helmet.” He passed it to the man crouching next to him, Bill Belcher, and added, “It looks American.”

Belcher nodded. “That’s what I thought when I saw it.” He laid the piece back in the box and picked up two sections of jawbone with the teeth still attached. They fit together into a complete lower mandible, which Belcher held close to his glasses, squinting. Noah pulled another hunk of metal from the box. “And this is a hand grenade,” he said. He shook his head and smiled. It was all pretty normal on Tarawa.

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Tarawa. It was a fight that lasted only three days, but they were among the bloodiest in 20th-century American history. By the time the battle ended, more than 1,100 U.S. Marines lay dead on the sandy earth and churning water.

By themselves, the islands held little value to the Japanese or the American government. They were situated about halfway between Pearl Harbor and the Philippines and were barely large enough to hold an airfield. But they served as an essential steppingstone across the Pacific: If American bombers wanted to reach Japan, they would need an air base in the Mariana Islands to capture the Marianas, they would first need the Marshall Islands and for the Marshalls, they needed Tarawa. To fortify the atoll, the Japanese sent in 3,800 imperial troops, along with 1,200 enslaved Korean laborers to be thrust onto the front lines. They spent a year building concrete bunkers and planting massive cannons along the beaches. The leader of the Japanese garrison, Rear Adm. Keiji Shibazaki, predicted that it would take “one million men, 100 years” to seize the islands.

American commanders selected the Second Marine Division for the job. In the fall of 1943, they boarded a convoy of battleships and destroyers, which the legendary war correspondent Robert Sherrod described as “the largest force the Pacific has seen.” Sherrod climbed aboard. As they drew close to Tarawa, he watched the ships unload 2,000 tons of explosive shells while American planes laid another 900 tons of bombs across the islands. It was, Maj. Gen. Julian Smith wrote, “the greatest concentration of aerial bombardment and naval gunfire in the history of warfare.” Into this inferno, the Second Marines disembarked. They descended into amphibious landing vehicles and raced toward the beach, but the tide was out, and the water was too shallow for their boats. The Marines found themselves stranded on reefs, hundreds of yards offshore, wading through waist-high water as Japanese gunners mowed them down. Those lucky enough to reach the shore crawled through a maze of corpses. “No one who has not been there,” Sherrod wrote, “can imagine the overwhelming, inhuman smell of 5,000 dead who are piled and scattered in an area of less than one square mile.”

After their victory, the Marines set about burying the dead. They wrapped the bodies in ponchos and folded them into shallow graves. Then they moved on, and military construction crews came in to raze the island flat. They expanded the airfield and built a network of roads and offices. By the time an excavation team arrived in 1946 to exhume and identify the dead — part of a global campaign to recognize the fallen — no one could remember where they were. Investigators spent three months searching, but they found only half the Marines. Today, 471 of the Tarawa Marines are buried by name in American cemeteries. Another 104 have been laid to rest in “unknown” graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.

And the rest — perhaps as many as 520 Marines — are still on, or near, Tarawa.

Mark Noah had come to find them, though he couldn’t fully explain why. He is a private citizen with no formal connection to Tarawa or the Marines, but over the last several years, he has been consumed by a personal quest to locate the lost graves.

Noah was born in 1965 in Taipei, the son of a Foreign Service worker. By the time he turned 18, he had spent years in China, Korea, Finland, Thailand, the Philippines and Russia, where he became deeply conscious of the lingering effects of war. “Thousands of maimed Russian World War II veterans lived out on the streets,” he said. “A lot of the guys would still have their tunics on and all their medals, missing an arm or both legs, and living in the street in the middle of the winter in Moscow. And so I became very interested in the history.”

Today Noah works as a commercial pilot, but his passion for history defines him. In 2001, he bought and restored a 1945 Navy airplane called an SNJ-6. A couple of years later, he bought another and began offering rides to veterans who once flew them. Then he incorporated the operation under the name History Flight and began to expand his fleet. While researching vintage planes online, he was stunned to discover how many planes, and men, were still missing from the war. Nearly one in five American losses had never been found. “I had no idea,” he said, “because if you look at the standard mainstream history, it’s not in there.” Noah began to visit the National Archives in search of information about the missing troops, and in 2007 came upon a postwar report from Tarawa. It said that nearly half the Marines who died there had not been found. “I almost fell out of my chair,” Noah said, “because I knew that over 1,100 people had died.”

Since then, Noah has traveled to Tarawa more than a dozen times. He has canvassed the neighborhoods and alleys with ground-penetrating radar and magnetometers, completed the first RTK GPS survey in the region and launched a camera-mounted drone to produce a 62-foot-long aerial photograph. He has also hired a small team of archaeologists and historians who join him on the islands, along with a handful of local employees.

In the process, he has enraged parts of the U.S. military, including the man who stood beside him now.

On the surface, Mark Noah and Bill Belcher seem to have much in common. Each is physically imposing, wry, stubborn and occasionally prickly, with a penchant for colorful language. But Belcher wasn’t part of Noah’s team, or even really a friend. For 15 years, he has worked as a field archaeologist in the Joint P.O.W./M.I.A. Accounting Command, or JPAC, the military unit that recovers the remains of missing troops. And Noah’s work on Tarawa raised complicated issues for JPAC and Belcher. For months leading up to our October trip, the two men were locked in a feud with lasting implications for M.I.A. recovery around the world.

Noah first contacted JPAC in 2008. Over the course of a year he had assembled more than a hundred archival photographs that showed the original burials on Tarawa and had pieced together a theory about where the graves might be. But JPAC archaeologists are famously resistant to outside help. Enthusiastic civilians contact the unit routinely to offer information about sunken ships and planes and graves. The trouble is that many of those volunteers turn out to be little more than treasure hunters who have already pillaged the sites for artifacts, like guns, watches and coins.

“I always have a very, very deep, deep level of skepticism about people involved in this,” Belcher told me. “Particularly with World War II, because a lot of people want it for notoriety. They want to feel important. And the artifacts are actually worth quite a bit of money to collectors.”

When Noah delivered his initial Tarawa findings to JPAC, the unit largely ignored him. “They blew us off, and that was that,” he said. Noah tried to push back, issuing a news release about his project and reaching out to public officials. A Chicago alderman who served in the Marines put him in touch with Representative Dan Lipinski, and in 2010, under pressure from Lipinski, JPAC sent a team Tarawa to investigate Noah’s theories. But when the JPAC team dug four sites and found nothing, each side blamed the other: JPAC insisted that Noah’s research was worthless Noah blamed JPAC for digging in the wrong places.

Noah kept going back. He began to experiment with new technologies. He bought a magnetometer to search for traces of metal underground, which might be a gun or a dog tag. He brought a cadaver-sniffing dog to search for the odor of decay. He took soil samples to study for subtle chemical clues. At one point in 2010, he says, the JPAC leadership tried to stop his research. An immigration official for Kiribati, the republic that includes Tarawa, emailed Noah that he would need embassy clearance to return to the island. Noah contacted Lipinski, who reached out to the State Department and, after nearly a year, was able to restore Noah’s access.

Noah had been in touch with the head of the veterans association for the Second Marine Division, a retired colonel named Dave Brown. In the summer of 2011, they flew to Hawaii to meet with the JPAC staff. It was a disaster. A lead archaeologist in the unit, John Byrd, attacked Noah’s methodology. “I got about two sentences into the first description, and Dr. Byrd was just crapping all over everything,” Noah said.

A month later, though, Noah received an unexpected call from Johnie Webb, one of JPAC’s senior leaders. Webb had been with the recovery unit since its beginning. Over the years, he led missions, commanded the unit and, after his military retirement, stayed on as a liaison with the families of missing men. Webb told Noah he was intrigued by his work and willing to bend the rules. “So he says, ‘Could you coincidentally be on Tarawa on the 5th of October?’ ” Noah recalled. ‘ “Because I coincidentally might have some of our people out there.’ ”

Noah spent four days on the islands with a JPAC analyst named Jay Silverstein, who immediately sensed that Noah’s work was serious. “It was really exceptional,” Silverstein told me. “Mark had put together a crack team. They were innovative. They were open to new ideas. Tarawa is one of the most complex battlefields we have, and Mark was using the right composite of scientific members to piece together that puzzle.” Back at JPAC, Silverstein began pushing for a new recovery team to return to Tarawa and excavate Noah’s target sites. He encountered fierce resistance from some of the unit’s archaeologists, but last year, JPAC committed to sending another excavation to Tarawa. This time, the lead archaeologist was Bill Belcher.

Belcher arrived on the island last fall with modest expectations. By the time he left three weeks later, he had successfully excavated three sets of skeletal remains that he believed to be Marines, from a neighborhood Noah calls Cemetery 25.

Then the relationship between Noah and Belcher fell apart. Belcher had promised Noah that if JPAC returned to Tarawa for another dig, Noah could join them. But early this year, Noah’s contacts on Tarawa informed him that JPAC was already there. Noah accused Belcher of lying, which Belcher denied vehemently by email, leading to a vituperative exchange that culminated when Belcher told Noah never to speak to him again.

For the next six months, Noah did not. Instead, he began to dig. Between February and July, Noah and his team were on Tarawa almost continuously. Finally, in August, Noah flew to Hawaii to reveal his results to Johnie Webb. “I didn’t even want him to come to JPAC, because I didn’t want him to get attacked again,” Webb told me. Instead, Webb brought the commanding general of the unit, Kelly McKeague, to meet Noah at a Chinese restaurant. Over lunch, Noah revealed that he had begun to dig on his own. He had filled seven large cases of material for JPAC — including dog tags, boots, ponchos, helmets, ammunition clips and the skeletal remains of at least 50 U.S. Marines.

Webb laughed when he recalled the conversation, but he said the prospect of telling Belcher filled him with dread.

Belcher’s response surprised him. “I said: ‘You know what? We can’t stop him,’ ” Belcher recalled. “ ‘Let’s see what he’s doing.’ ”

Now Belcher and Noah were back on the islands, standing over a box of bones. We piled them into the car and set off down the road. From the size of the cranium and the shape of the grenade, both men were beginning to suspect that the skeleton was not American but Japanese. But they wanted to find out where the bones were found. Nearly everyone who lives on Tarawa has dug up bones at some point. The water table is only a few feet deep, so nothing is buried deeply. With so many skeletons being found and reburied, year after year, the bones can get mixed up. A Japanese cranium could be intermingled with American remains.

We drove through a series of shacks built from sticks and logs. Most were only a few feet square, with open sides and a slag of thatch on top to slow down the rain. Seventy years ago, none of this was there. The construction crews that razed the landscape and covered over the graves erected a number of stark geometric cemeteries lined with white crosses — but these were largely symbolic. The unit that came to exhume the graves in 1946 quickly discovered that most of the crosses weren’t placed over actual graves. “These ‘cemeteries’ were placed without any relation to the actual burials,” the leader of the ’46 recovery team, First Lt. Ira Eisensmith, wrote in his report on Tarawa. Many of the skeletons that Eisensmith and his team found were missing their hands and feet. Noah, who has studied the postwar report, questions its accuracy. “It’s a real C.Y.A. report,” he said. “It says that many of the Marines were buried without their dog tags, and that’s not true, because we’ve been recovering their dog tags. And it says that many of the dog tags were illegible, yet that’s not true — we’ve recovered many legible dog tags 70 years later.” Noah suspects that most of the Marines were intact when they were buried, and that Eisensmith’s team did incomplete excavations that left some of the remains in the ground. “I’m not one to make a big deal about it,” Noah said, “but the people that did this recovery work did a terrible job.”

The conditions on Tarawa today only complicate the process further. Tarawa is one of the most impoverished and overpopulated atolls in the Pacific. The main island, Betio, has more than 20,000 residents, crammed into about half a square mile, which is roughly the population density of Hong Kong. With this overpopulation comes environmental crisis. Garbage is strewn across the beaches and neighborhoods, along with human waste. Many islanders use the beach as a toilet, which pollutes the aquifer and the sea. Outbreaks of typhoid, hepatitis and tuberculosis, along with increasing incidents of leprosy, have struck in recent years, making life for islanders grim and recovery work all the more difficult.

Half a mile down the road, we turned into a dusty lot. This was the neighborhood of a man named Kautebiri Kobuti, who leads Noah’s crew on the islands. Kobuti was in the yard taking a shower with a jug of water. He explained that the bones in the cardboard box had been excavated by his friends. We drove to their house, where four men stood around the edge of a sandy pit while a fifth worked the bottom with a wood-handled shovel. Noah jumped into the pit and examined the ground. After a moment, he stood up with a small bone balanced on a leaf. “Just a fish vertebra, right?” he asked.

Belcher studied the bone. “No,” he said, “that’s a dog.”

Noah turned to Kobuti. “There’s more in here?”

Kobuti conferred with the men, who nodded vigorously.

“Can we scrape some of it away?” Noah asked, hunching down to study something lodged in the side of the pit. As he did, another man hurried from the house with a pink grocery bag filled with bones. A large femur protruded from the top.

“O.K.,” Belcher said, “those are definitely human.”

It can take thousands of hours and millions of dollars to bring home bones from a place like Tarawa, and even then the bones must be tested for DNA and matched with a surviving relative — all so that they can be buried again, closer to home. The closure that this gesture provides to families is difficult for outsiders to grasp, and only a handful of researchers have ever focused on the M.I.A. experience.

One of the first to do so, in the early 1970s, was a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin named Pauline Boss. She was interested in the way that families cope with uncertainty. Whether it’s the sudden disappearance of a child or the slow erasure of a parent by dementia, the grief process is complicated by a disrupted narrative, because so much of grieving depends on the understanding and acceptance of what has happened.

When Boss presented her ideas, which she would later call “ambiguous loss,” at a conference in 1973, she was approached by a social scientist, Edna Hunter-King, who had been working with the relatives of missing men from the Vietnam War. “She said, ‘We have data on this, but no theory,’ ” Boss recalled, “ ‘and you have a theory with no data.’ ”

In the decades to come, they would develop a small literature on M.I.A. families. What distinguished the missing soldier from other combat losses, they found, was that the family was deprived of a clear explanation for their loss. “When you have someone missing, it does something to the human psyche,” Boss said. “There are no rituals for it. The rest of the community doesn’t know what to do. And grief therapy doesn’t work.”

Boss was also interested in the way M.I.A. grief passes down through generations. In many cases, a daughter, a son or a grandchild would become fixated on the loss of a man she or he had never known.

Over the past five years, while working on a book about a missing B-24 bomber from the Pacific war, I’ve met with dozens of M.I.A. families who have been profoundly shaped by the disappearance of a relative they never met. Lisa Phillips was born in 1963, but she grew up in the shadow of her uncle Joe, who was captured by the Japanese in World War II and killed in a prison camp. A military recovery team went to exhume his remains in 1947, but as they flew across the Himalayas on their way home, their plane went down. The remains of Phillips’s uncle, and of the recovery team that found him, are still there. Phillips said the loss has been part of her family ever since. “Every holiday, my grandmother would burst into tears,” she said. “She kept a room, his bedroom, the way it was when he left.” One of Phillips’s aunts could not accept that Joe was gone. Until the end of her life, she refused to move from her Connecticut house, saying, “I know he’ll be home someday, and I want him to be able to find me.” Today Phillips is the head of a group known as World War II Families for the Return of the Missing, which has encouraged the expansion of JPAC’s purview.

The modern recovery program, which includes JPAC and seven other offices spread throughout the Department of Defense, has operated in roughly its current form since 1973. For most of those years, the unit’s focus has been on Vietnam. That’s because advocates for the Vietnam missing are organized and politically savvy. But in recent years, M.I.A. families like Phillips’s have pressured Congress to widen the recovery mission. In 1994, legislators added the missing from Korea in 1999, they folded in the aviators and airmen who flew over New Guinea in World War II and in 2009, they added the rest of the World War II missing. In the space of only a few years, JPAC’s mandate ballooned from 1,647 personnel in the Vietnam area to some 83,000 M.I.A.’s around the globe.

World War II families see this as a matter of parity. They say there is no reason the missing from one war should be recovered but not those from another, because the legacy of loss persists in their families as well. “It’s been carried down,” Phillips said. “Even my kids are like, ‘You know, if something happens to you, I still want to get Uncle Joe back.’ ”


By 1998, Boss and Hunter-King had found so many M.I.A. families in which the grief haunted a second or third generation that Hunter-King was invited to draft a new chapter for the clinical handbook of multigenerational trauma, alongside entries on the effects of slavery, nuclear annihilation and the Holocaust. “Unlike the Holocaust,” she wrote, “mothers of M.I.A. children were not suddenly uprooted from their homes and deprived of their possessions, countries and cultures. They did not lose parents, siblings and husbands to programmed incineration. . . . On the other hand, most children of Holocaust survivors have not waited for over a quarter-century in a state of ambiguous grieving, wondering whether their parent is dead or alive, as children of M.I.A.’s have done.”

Many M.I.A. relatives are also burdened by a family story of how the missing man might have survived — perhaps he is lost, or has amnesia, or is being held captive. The son of a missing Army Air Force flier once told me of the great relief he felt at a meeting of M.I.A. families. “You go to these meetings,” he said, “and everybody has a story like mine. You know, somehow the guy survived. He’s still going to come home. You hear that from people who lost somebody in the Pacific, in Europe, in Africa, all parts of the world. As soon as they start talking, there’s something along that line. It’s a mistake. It’s not right. There’s something funny about it. Every time.”

This form of hope can seem corrosive and difficult to comprehend. Even within individual families, Boss explained, the persistence of survival stories can lead to profound conflict. “A family rift is almost predictable,” she said. “When you have no facts, no proof, then everybody makes up their own story — and the stories that family members make up often do not agree.”

This phenomenon makes the JPAC recovery effort not so much a military mission as a humanitarian cause. Deno Zazzetti was 13 when his brother died on Tarawa. The news arrived on Christmas Eve, 1943. “A Western Union kid drove up with his bicycle, gave the telegram to my sister and took off,” Zazzetti told me. “My sister yelled, and we found her on her knees.” That moment, he said, marked a breaking point in his life. “My ma used to sing all the time. She never sang again. She had pitch-black hair — a year later, she was solid white.” Today Zazzetti keeps an empty plot beside his mother’s grave. “For me,” he said, “it would be the best thing that I could do in my lifetime, if I could get my brother back to my mom.”

On Tarawa, Noah and Belcher wanted to sort through the bones, so we drove to a concrete government building where Noah rents an office. The room is tiny, about 150 square feet and lined with the portraits of missing Marines. A skeleton stands in the corner, by a bookshelf stacked with the white crosses that once marked Marine graves.

Noah set the box of bones on a workbench then he and Belcher stretched on rubber gloves and began to sort through the pieces. Noah began with the cranium fragment. “Somebody already did the lifting-the-head ritual,” he said, referring to a custom that involves pulverizing and consuming a skull.

Belcher rummaged through a jumble of vertebrae and pulled out a nasal bone. “They’re Japanese,” he said. “We have a peaked nose, and Asians have a relatively flat area. This nasal area is flat instead of peaked.”

The other evidence in the box — helmet, bullets and the hand grenade — also looked to be Japanese, so Belcher and Noah began to pack everything into an evidence bag. They would take this to the local police station, where Japanese officials could pick it up. The custom in Japan is to incinerate the bones as part of the national tradition.

Next, Noah pulled out a bag of American artifacts. His team recovered so many Marine skeletons this summer, more than 7,000 bones, that they still had not found time to sort through all the other artifacts. For 30 minutes, Noah and Belcher pored over each item: a metal ring, the chin strap for a helmet, dozens of coins and buttons and a pair of dice.

Noah approaches his work on Tarawa with little sign of emotion, and he spends little time speaking to the descendants of the missing. One exception came this summer, when he traveled to Indiana for the funeral of a Marine named Manley Forrest Winkley, whose skeleton was one of three that Noah led JPAC to recover last fall. Winkley stormed the north beach of the battlefield on the first day of combat and was killed by a shot to the neck. When the JPAC team uncovered him, three feet below a pigpen, he was still wrapped in his service poncho.

On Aug. 24, Winkley’s family gathered around the coffin holding his remains in Nashville, Ind., then drove 60 miles in procession to a veterans’ cemetery. All the way, the streets were lined with veterans, children, firefighters and church groups who had come out to welcome home a Tarawa Marine. “There were probably about 4,000 people standing on the side of the road,” Noah said. “All these little towns were shut down. It made me feel like we had helped to put some of the America back in America.”

While Noah was in Indiana for the funeral, JPAC was under siege. All summer the unit was inundated with criticism about its management and methods. A report in July from the Government Accountability Office revealed the longstanding friction between JPAC and another agency of the recovery program, the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, or DPMO. That same month, another report surfaced in The Associated Press, disparaging the unit’s historians. In early August, two congressional committees began inquiries into the reports. And in October, an NBC News story accused JPAC of holding “phony ceremonies” in which previously recovered remains were unloaded by an honor guard in full military dress.

Most people familiar with the recovery program knew these reports were thin. The tension between JPAC and DPMO goes back years, and it is typical of any interagency program. Likewise the report attacking JPAC historians was difficult to take seriously — it was commissioned by JPAC’s laboratory staff, which competes with the historians for influence and funding. Senator Claire McCaskill, who is leading one of the congressional inquiries, told me the tone of that report, filled with ad hominem attacks, made her instantly suspicious. “It was bizarre,” McCaskill said. “It was a giant, childish mess.”

The story of the “phony ceremonies” was equally peculiar. It described a purely symbolic ritual that takes place after each successful mission. Anyone who had actually been on a mission knew that there was another ceremony, which took place in the field, where the recovery team stands at attention as the human remains are loaded onto a transport jet, then flies 10 or 15 hours around the world, often arriving at JPAC headquarters after midnight. The idea that someone at the symbolic ceremony in Hawaii might believe the honor guard in dress uniform, carrying a flag-draped coffin, was actually a recovery team returning from six weeks in the jungle was absurd.

The real problems facing JPAC were more serious and complex — and they were embodied on the Tarawa atoll. With more than 73,000 new cases from World War II, many of them deep in the Pacific, on islands filled with homes and people and racked with environmental damage, and with a testy public-private partnership struggling to bring home what may prove to be the largest M.I.A. recovery in American history, Tarawa was no longer just a distant string of islands. It had become a symbol of the recovery program itself — its history, its mission, its problems and, maybe, some of the answers.

One day last month, I flew to Hawaii to meet with JPAC’s senior leader, Johnie Webb. I’ve known Webb for many years, and we met at a restaurant overlooking the beach to speak frankly about the challenges facing the unit. Webb has come to believe that outside groups like Noah’s can do some recovery operations as well as JPAC. The question was how to change the culture of JPAC so that those groups would be welcome, without abandoning the unit’s standards and oversight. “Everybody’s not going to be Mark,” Webb said. “Do we set up some type of program, training, whatever you want to call it, and then we certify these groups?”

Belcher, too, had come around on this point. He was planning to spend much of November and December coordinating with a private operation in the Himalayas, while a younger JPAC archaeologist would spend six weeks with Noah on Tarawa.

The bottom line, Webb told me, was that “there’s more work to do than we can get done.”

On our last day on Tarawa, Belcher and Noah decided to dig together. We drove to a tattered neighborhood with a small crew. The two men knelt on the ground to frame a rectangular space with twine then they grabbed shovels and began to cut into the earth. They found diapers, chicken bones, a piece of rubber hose. As the sun went down, Noah dug while Belcher leaned against a tree. “Mark,” he said, “I’ve got your next project.”

“Hürtgen Forest.” It was a battlefield in Germany where hundreds of Americans went missing. Belcher did an excavation for JPAC a decade earlier and has been pushing to go back ever since.

Grim humour on Tarawa. - History

The world's most viewed site on global warming and climate change

Location Pacific Ocean
Coordinates 1°20′N 173°00′E
Archipelago Gilbert Islands
Area 500 km 2 (190 sq mi)
Highest elevation 3 m (10 ft)
Population 56,284 (2010)


(Make a mental note of the current highest elevation.)

Anyone who has ever seen the classic John Wayne movie, The Sands of Iwo Jima, is probably familiar with the Battle of Tarawa.

I digitally planimetered the area of the island:

Since Kiribati is supposedly being inundated by Gorebal sea level rise, one might think that it must have shrunk in size over the past 76 years of climate crisis. So I planimetered a Google Earth image of Betio. Note that I cropped off the man-made jetty.

Betio appears to have a larger land area now than it did in 1943.

In 1943 “Betio was less than three miles long”.

In 1943, Betio was “no broader than 800 yards at its widest point”.

In 1943 Betio “contained no natural elevation higher than 10 feet above sea level”.

Tarawa is a coral atoll formed on top of a volcanic seamount which rises steeply from 4000 m of water. The atoll is roughly triangular in plan and comprises a chain of small islands on the south and northeast sides which partially enclose a central lagoon (Fig. 2). The islands are generally 2-3 m above present sea level. The surface material of most of the islands is coral sand. In places, cemented coral hardpan forms a terrace 1.5-2 m above sea level. The first four bores drilled on Bonriki and Buariki intersected coral sand to depths of 7.5-11.5 m below the ground surface (Appendix 1). Beneath the sand, these bores intersected buried coral reef, 1.5-12.0 m thick. Beneath the buried coral reef, some of the bores encountered interbedded limestone and sand others had a limestone sequence extending to 30 m below surface, the maximum depth of drilling. The total thickness of the limestone sequence is unknown. The nearest atoll to Tarawa that has previously been drilled is Funafuti in the Ellice Islands (Fig. 1), where volcanic basement was not encountered even at 330 m. The nearest atoll where basement has been intersected is Enewetok in the Marshall Islands, where basalt was encountered beneath 1300 m of limestone.


3 meters is about 10 feet.

I visited Dave Burton’s awesome Sea Level Info website to see what tide gauge stations might be available and found one from NOAA and several from PSMSL. These stations are scattered over a pretty wide swath of the Pacific Ocean (Kanton Island is about 1,100 miles ESE of Tarawa) but they all tell the same story.

Sixty years of relentlessly rising seas amounted to the width of the trigger guard on an M1 Garand rifle.

So, I extrapolated the sea level rise crisis out to 2100.

Over the next 80 years, sea level is likely to rise from just below the side skirt of an LVT-2 all the way up to just below the side skirt of an LVT-2.

While the sea level crisis would have posed no challenge to the LVT “amtraks,” the seawall was a different story.

Eighty-seven amphibian tractors, old and new, made the six-hour odyssey from the ill-chosen Transport Area and delivered about 1,500 Marines ashore, losing only eight vehicles to enemy fire—a remarkable performance under the conditions. Admiral Shibasaki was astonished by what he described in his 0930 report to his headquarters at Kwajalein as “amphibious tanks” (also described by one of his men as “the little boats on wheels”), the tracked landing vehicles that could travel from so far at sea, cross the exposed reef, and debark assault troops on the beach. 9 David Shoup’s great gamble had paid off.

But now the “wheels” came off. Few of the LVTs could negotiate the seawall and force their way inland. Japanese machine-gunners recovered from their initial shock and shot many Marines as they struggled awkwardly to roll over the top of the 8-foot-tall vehicles and drop to the beach. A few drivers extracted their emptied vehicles from the shore and began shuttling the Marines of the fourth and fifth waves from the reef, as planned, but heavy fire from four 75-mm guns in the Pocket took a toll. Their lower hulls peppered with shell holes, many tractors filled with water and sank. Others simply ran out of gas after six hours of heavy acceleration. The shuttle plan failed. The Marines stranded on the reef took a deep breath and began wading the 500 to 600 yards to shore against relentless fire.

Naval History Magazine

Shocking! Betio needed a seawall in 1943!


The men of the 2nd Marine Division faced a genuine existential threat during those 76 hours of Hell in November 1943. Too many did not survive. However, their sacrifice undoubtedly saved many thousands of American lives in future amphibious landings.

It is truly ironic that the location of this historical genuine existential threat has become one of the poster children for today’s fake existential threat: The climate crisis.

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Facts, backed up with proven history…. Yet any ody who says co2 is good is labelled as a fool. Personally I think we need to print leaflets about the truth of CO2, and post them across all nations… The smartest need to force themselves on to tv and radio shows…

You can’t bring facts into a climate argument – it’s against the rules.

It’s like Joe Biden said — “We believe in truths, not facts”.

Of course, “truths” can be anything you want……

You can take a horse to drink but you can’t make it water …

So, no. The faithful will not read your pamphlets.

…And you cannot oblige it to drink if it is not thirsty.

Duplicate commentIts amazing how some people are some people are so good at lying they can successfully lie to themselves for this long.

All the coral reefs are dead. Globally. That should say something..

And here is what sea level rise is going to bring by 2100 (spoiler: 2 meters of sea level rise is now the upper bound for planning in the New York area) –

“Ice sheet contributions to future sea-level rise from structured expert judgment”

Its amazing how some people are some people are so good at lying they can successfully lie to themselves for this long.

All the coral reefs are dead. Globally. That should say something..

And here is what sea level rise is going to bring by 2100 (spoiler: 2 meters of sea level rise is now the upper bound for planning in the New York area) –

“Ice sheet contributions to future sea-level rise from structured expert judgment”

You should lay off eating lead paint chips.

1 meter of SLR by 2100 is physically impossible and “all the coral reefs” are far from dead.

Now that Marine Ice Cliff Instability has fallen flat on its face and given the total irrelevance of Meltwater Pulse 1a, there’s nothing short of an asteroid impact on the Antarctic Ice Sheet or massive volcanic eruption from below the ice sheet that could trigger this sort of sea level rise.

Besides, if the risks of catastrophic sea level rise were upon us, I seriously doubt that your favorite president would have bought a $15 million beachfront mansion.

A great splash of perspective, as always, David. And, of course, thanks to your creative use of informative graphics, quite amusing too! Keep up the good work!

I had mixed feelings about being amusing while also writing about Tarawa.

There is a TV series called “The Lost Evidence” that was originally broadcast on the History Channel but has recently been re-broadcast on the Quest channel and one of the programs was about the battle of Tarawa. The program uses photo-reconnaissance pictures taken before and during the battle to help illustrate how the battle took place.

I can understand that.
But your humor showed absolutely no disrespect to those men. Your post showed just the opposite.
They won their battle at great cost, but valuable lessons were learned.
Perhaps the record of their battle can help win another.

“I had mixed feelings about being amusing while also writing about Tarawa.”

I completely sympathize. The American losses in the Pacific Theater of Operations were horrendous, both prior to and after Pearl Harbor. Japanese losses were also staggering, but I consider Japan as the aggressor, and can’t put their losses and ours on the same moral scale.

Thanks for this essay. I think it was both useful, and tasteful.

“I had mixed feelings about being amusing while also writing about Tarawa.”

Naturally! In KIA cumulative (both sides) per acre, no other major battle of WW II that I have researched compares. Even Iwo Jima doesn’t come close using that metric. The battle to take Betio was a concentration of fury on a scale pretty much stands without compare in WW II.

Lack of sufficient numbers of LVTs (Alligators) was a major contributing factor due to the exceptionally low tides that prevented conventional landing craft from passing over the reefs and thus causing the majority of the Marines to wade up to 400+ yards under fire just to get to the beach. Not only were they sitting ducks, when the radios operators got to shore their radios wouldn’t work due to not being sufficiently water proofed and thus, just as happened on Omaha beach later, the command had very little commo with the engaged units and surviving fire control teams on shore had no way to call for fire or air strikes during the critical first hours.

The failure to recognize the need for on site reconnaissance to reveal the state of tide and reefs was the key planning failure and that being recognized after Tarawa, UDT units were formed. Also Nimitz ordered that the Japanese defenses on Betio be studied and documented in detail and then replicated those defenses on another island where Navy ships tasked for close support of amphibious landings could practice their gunnery for subsequent operations. When it came to opposed amphibious operations, no matter where conducted, properly directed naval gunnery was the king of the beach for the assault waves. Far more effective than air support or the limited artillery assets the initial assault waves could bring with them. The Navy learned at Tarawa that no matter how small the assault area(s), blasting away, even with battleship main guns and aircraft directing the fire, simply did not get the job done.

Official name: Republic of Kiribati
Capital city: Tarawa
Population: 111,796
Area: 811 sq km
Major languages: I-Kiribati, English
Time zone: UTC+12/+13/+14 ()
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

1. Kiribati in Oceania is made up of 33 atolls – ring-shaped reefs or series of islets caused by submerged volcanos – of which only 20 are inhabited.
– Source: Britannica, National Geographic

2. The first settlers in Kiribati came from Southeast Asia, via Micronesia, around 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.
– Source: Britannica

3. Between the 11th and 14th centuries, Samoans migrated to the islands, followed by Fijians and Tongans.
– Source: BBC News

4. The first Europeans to sight the islands were Spanish explorers in the 16th century, but the majority of Kiribati was not mapped (by westerners) until the early 19th century.
– Source: Britannica

5. In 1820 Kiribati was named the Gilbert Islands after British naval captain Thomas Gilbert who encountered several of the islands in 1788 when sailing from Australia to China.
– Source: BBC News

6. Kiribati was a Brtish protectorate from 1892 until 1979 when it became independent and was officially renamed Kiribati.
– Source: BBC News

7. For six years from 1957, the British military conducted nuclear tests on Christmas Island (and Malden Island) in Kiribati. As a result, parts of the island were sealed off for decades.
– Source: BBC News

A nuclear bomb test in Kiribati in 1957 (Public domain, Universal City Studios)

8. The name Kiribati is the local translation of Gilberts. The local language is Gilbertese, or I-Kiribati. The language has 13 sounds and ti is pronounced as see. Therefore, Kiribati is pronounced ‘Ki-ri-bas.’ Likewise, Christmas Island is written as Kiritimati Island.
– Source: Britannica

9. During the Second World War, parts of Kiribati were occupied by Japan. US forces liberated the islands during the Battle of Tarawa in 1943 – one of the bloodiest battles in US Marine Corps history.
– Source: History Channel

10. Despite having only a tiny land area of 811 sq km, Kiribati is spread across an area roughly the size of India.
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

11. Kiribati is the furthest (14 hours) ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), making it the first country in the world to celebrate a New Year.
– Source: The Telegraph

12. Kiribati is the only country in the world to fall into all four hemispheres (northern, southern, eastern and western).
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

Many interesting facts about Kiribati stem from its unique geography (Shutterstock)

13. Kiribati is home to the world’s largest designated Marine Protected Area. The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) is also the country’s first and only UNESCO World Heritage Site.
– Source: UNESCO

14. With a mean elevation of just two meters, Kiribati has one of the world’s lowest average elevations.
– Source: CIA World Fact Book, The Telegraph

15. As such, this low-lying country is under threat from rising sea levels caused by climate change.
– Source: The Guardian

16. In 1999, two uninhabited Kiribati islands, Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea, disappeared underwater.
– Source: The Independent

17. Kiribati has purchased 6,000 acres (24 sq km) of land in Fiji in case rising sea levels force the permanent evacuation of its residents.
– Source: The Commonwealth

18. Kiribati’s flag is made up of six undulating horizontal stripes of white and blue representing the Pacific Ocean. The top of the flag is red with a yellow sun and a local frigate bird.
– Source: Britannica

The flag of Kiribati (Shutterstock)

19. The main island of South Tarawa is one of the most densely populated places on earth, with a population density similar to Tokyo or Hong Kong.
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

20. There’s only one road on the main island of South Tarawa which is in very poor condition. Potholes and wash-aways are commonplace.
– Source: The Guardian

21. Kiribati is the third-least visited country in the world. Receiving around 6,000 visitors a year, only fellow Pacific island-nations Marshall Islands and Tuvalu receive fewer tourists.
– Source: UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)

23. There were no political parties in general elections in Kiribati until 1985. Instead, candidates stood for election as independent individuals.
– Source: The Commonwealth

24. Kiribati is one of just 22 countries not to have an army.
– Source: The Atlantic

Collection Snapshot: Merle Korte and the End of WWII

Merle Korte (far left) with unnamed service buddies. Merle Korte Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/47044.

This month sees a round of 70th anniversaries relating to the end of World War II–the release of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th, and Japan’s announcement of surrender on August 15th. The Veterans History Project‘s (VHP) official commemoration will come next month, with the September 8th release of an “Experiencing War” web feature focusing solely on the end of the war. To whet your appetite for it, I wanted to give you a taste of one of the collections that I’ve been exploring and that will be included in the web feature.

A farm boy from the tiny town of Woden, Iowa, Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Merle Korte enlisted in the Navy in 1943. He hoped to become a naval aviation cadet, but his mother’s fear of plane crashes prevented him from pursuing that option. Instead, he was assigned to the USS Rutilicus, a cargo and supplies ship that hauled landing crafts and provided support for island invasions in the Pacific Theater. Serving aboard the Rutilicus, he witnessed many of the most memorable events of the war, such as McArthur’s return to the Philippines and the Battle of Tarawa. In his oral history interview, Korte recalls receiving the news about the Japanese surrender, and the ensuing celebration that occurred aboard ship: while liquor was officially prohibited, it seemed like every man on the Rutilicus was able to find a bottle of whiskey with which to toast the end of the war.

Photograph captioned, “All Hail the Conquering Heroes,” taken in Nagasaki, Japan, 9/1945. Merle Korte Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/00/47044.

Korte goes on to discuss his experiences briefly serving in Japan after the end of the war. His extensive photo collection also documents much of what he saw, including American prisoners of war who had been captured on Wake Island, and the effects of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. One photo in particular, depicting a crew of smiling American sailors piled on a truck, captures the dissonant nature of this time period. The photo is captioned “All Hail the Conquering Heroes,” and although the photo is a bit hazy, the disintegration of Nagasaki is visible in the background. While the end of the war brought jubilation for Allied countries, it could not erase the costs of war, a fact not lost on Korte. Out of his graduating high school class, four out of twelve did not make it home from the war. As he concludes his oral history, “War is a hell of a thing.”

You can watch Korte’s full interview here. A previous “Experiencing War” feature on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II is available here, and don’t miss the new feature when it debuts on September 8th!

PS: Korte’s collection also includes wonderful photos depicting the crossing the line ceremony, previously discussed in this blog post.


The unnamed services buddies in this picture are my grandpa Frank Martin (center), and George W. “Hoot” Bailey on the right.

Hi Mr. Martin, wow! Thanks so much for filling in the missing information, we are thrilled to hear from you. If you have any material (such as original letters or photos) that you would be willing to donate to the Veterans History Project, his collection would make a wonderful complement to Mr. Korte’s. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any interest in this. Thank you once again for reading!

Thank you so much for this posting and these photos!! My Dad, Patrick J. (Joe) Nolan, Jr. was on the U.S.S. Rutilicus from the time he volunteered to join the Navy at age 17 in July, 1943 until he was honorably discharged in 1946. My Dad also went by the nicknames of “Red” (for his hair color) and “Chicken” (for his skinny build and chest). This post and thesew photos confirm the role he played, along with his shipmates, in rescuing POWs from Nagaski at the end of the war. He never spoke much at all of what he did in WWII. I have his war records, so I knew what battles the ship saw action. I had seen references to the ship going to Nagaski and to POWs being rescued but no direct reference to the role they played. I am so proud he could help these heroes! My Dad died 40 years ago in August 1981. I plan to share this information with his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren! Thank you again!

Thanks so much for reading, Pat Nolan! Your comment is very gratifying I’m so glad we could help illuminate a bit of your father’s experience aboard the Rutilicus. Please do share this post with your family, and if you have any questions about the Veterans History Project, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at [email protected] . Thank you once again for reading.

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The history of “Rapunzel” as a story is actually quite convoluted. Although the world is generally the most familiar with the version published by the Brothers Grimm in their 1812 collection Children’s and Household Tales, author and editor Terri Windling (who is wonderful, and you should absolutely read her stuff) traced it back much farther in her essay “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair”: The Grimms took it from Friedrich Schulz’s version, which was published in 1790 Schulz had taken his version from the 1698 French tale “Persinette” by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force and she had taken it from “Petrosinella,” a 1634 Italian story by Giambattista Basile.

In Basile’s version, the pregnant woman with the craving for greens (who appears to be a single mother — there’s no mention of a father in the picture) climbs into the forbidden garden herself, instead of making her husband do it what’s more, the garden is an ogre’s, not a witch’s, and the woman craves parsley, rather than the type of lettuce known as rapunzel. The ogre catches her just as the witch does the husband in the Grimms’ story, though, and makes the same deal with her: She can have the greens if she gives the ogre the child. The woman agrees.

She names her daughter Petrosinella — a play on the word for “parsley” in the Neopolitan dialect — but interestingly, the ogre doesn’t claim the girl immediately. She’s seven when, passing the ogre’s house, the ogre tells her to remind her mother of her promise she does so, and the woman, terrified, says, “Tell that woman my answer is: ‘Take her!’” So the ogre snatches up Petrosinella and hides her away in a tower with no doors and only one window.

From there, the story develops the same way as always — a prince finds her, he climbs up her hair, they have sex — but then it turns into more of an adventure than a tragic romance: Petrosinella tells the prince to bring a rope with him the next time he comes then she drug the ogre, steals three magical acorns from her, and escapes. When the ogre awakens and chases after them, Petrosinella throws down the acorns one by one, which turn into a fierce dog (the ogre stops it by throwing it a crust of bread), a lion (dressed as a donkey, the ogre charges it down), and a wolf. The wolf eats the ogre, and the prince and Petrosinella get away scott-free. They marry and live happily ever after.

It’s possible that the heroine in this tale might be inspired by Saint Barbara, a Christian Greek Saint and martyr from around the third century. According to the lore, her father, a pagan, had locked her up in a tower to prevent the outside world from getting to her however, unbeknownst to him, she had become a Christian, and so rejected the non-Christian marriages he arranged for her. Eventually he found out she was a Christian and tried to kill her, but her prayers literally opened a wall in the tower through which she escaped. She was eventually caught, tortured, and killed, however — but she maintained her faith the entire time. Ergo: Saint Barbara.

However, there’s some doubt about whether Barbara actually existed, so it’s not totally clear whether or not we can really consider this a “historic” basis for the “Rapunzel” tale.

Lessons from Iwo Jima

Editor's Note: See the introductory note by Robert Brent Toplin, the series editor.

In February 1945, a U.S. force of some 70,000 Marines invaded Iwo Jima, a tiny volcanic island 522 miles south of Tokyo defended by over 22,000 Japanese. American intelligence expected the island to fall in five days. Instead the battle lasted seven times as long&mdashfrom February 19 until March 26&mdashending in 6,800 U.S. fatalities, close to 20,000 U.S. wounded, and the death of 20,700 defenders. Twenty-two Marines and five Navy personnel received Medals of Honor from this ferocious engagement.

For Japanese, the final year of World War II in Asia was a blur of wholesale death overseas and on the home front as well, with U.S. air raids eventually targeting 65 cities. The nation's leaders had started two wars they could not end&mdashfirst in China in 1937, and then against the United States and European colonial powers ensconced in Asia in December 1941. From the emperor on down, they were caught in the coils of their disastrous wars of choice: trapped by rhetoric, paralyzed by a blood debt to those who died in the lost cause, persistently blind to the psychology and rage of the enemy. They had no real policy other than escalating killing and dying&mdashhoping against hope that this would persuade U.S. and British leaders to abandon their plans for invading the home islands and their demands for unconditional surrender.

Apart from momentary grief and commemoration, Iwo Jima did not register strongly on Japanese consciousness. When Hollywood director Clint Eastwood cast Japanese actors for his recent reconstructions of the battle, most knew nothing of the slaughter and small wonder. Close to two-million Japanese died in that last year of the war&mdashover a million fighting men (most of whom perished from starvation or illnesses related to malnutrition rather than actual combat), and a half million or more civilians in the urban air raids that began in March 1945 and continued through the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Extermination of the garrison on Iwo Jima was easily obscured in the shadow of this grander catastrophe. And the grander catastrophe itself, of course, took place long before most contemporary Japanese were born. 1

In the United States, by contrast, "Iwo Jima" has always been dramatically visible, courtesy of serendipity and the camera's eye and unflagging patriotic publicity. The battle gave Americans their most graphic icon of the Pacific war: Joe Rosenthal's photograph of six Americans raising the Stars and Stripes on stumpy Mount Suribachi. This was the subject of James Bradley's probing 2000 study Flags of Our Fathers, on which Eastwood based the first of two path-breaking films about the battle&mdashhumanely deconstructing, as it were, both "victory" and "heroism." In his sequel, Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood took on the remarkable challenge of seeing the same battle through imagined Japanese eyes.

Both films are provocative and eminently serious, and their challenge doubles when they are viewed side-by-side. As it happens, moreover, both can be paired with intimate and accessible books. One is Bradley's bestseller. The other is a newly translated popular work by Kumiko Kakehashi, based largely on the communications and personal letters of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the commander of the Iwo Jima garrison and central figure in Eastwood's Letters. Taken together, and complemented with other films and readings, there is grist here for more than a few scholarly discussions and classroom assignments. 2

Iwo Jima is small and resembled hell even before the Americans invaded. Temperatures reach as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The largely barren soil is mostly volcanic ash, and digging a warren of tunnels and ventilation shafts exposed Kuribayashi's men to dangerous sulfur fumes. (Iõ-jima, the island's Japanese name, means Sulfur Island.) There is no drinkable ground water. The few civilian residents were evacuated before the battle, and U.S. aerial bombardment actually began in the summer of 1944 and was conducted on a regular basis from December. Supplies, including food, became all but cut off. Malnutrition and the illnesses accompanying this plagued the defenders even before the attack.

Eastwood's Letters includes a champion horse, but there were in fact only three horses on the island altogether, there being neither fodder nor water to maintain them. One of General Kuribayashi's many humanizing acts&mdashand, here as elsewhere, the film accords with what historians can reconstruct of what actually took place&mdashinvolved ordering his officers to eat the same meager rations as conscripts. When his personal stewards demurred, declaring that regulations required that the commanding officer be served a fixed number of dishes, he simply told them to set out the dishes and leave them empty.

Many of Kuribayashi's letters to his wife and children, especially his nine-year-old daughter Takako&mdash"Tako-chan" in his affectionate diminutive&mdashhave survived. They are warm, pragmatic, and unusually frank for a military man on active duty. (As commander, he was able to evade the censorship routinely imposed on personal communications from the front.) We also have a good sense of his orders to his men. It was Kuribayashi who defied Tokyo by repudiating the established practice of defending his doomed island on the beachheads he chose to fight from laboriously fortified caves and tunnels instead. And it was Kuribayashi, the general who showed rare consideration for inferiors, who informed his men that they were expected to kill 10 Americans before dying themselves.

Why die? And why in that godforsaken place? Non-Japanese rarely had or have much difficulty answering this. As one wartime piece of American journalism headlined it, "These Nips Are Nuts" and in one way or another, this was reiterated in countless variations from the lingo of battlefield dehumanization to the "beast in the jungle" tropes of Hollywood to the jargon of academe (where "collective neurosis," "feudal legacies," fanatical "emperor worship," and the mindset of the "obedient herd" filled the diagnostic bill). In Letters from Iwo Jima&mdashseen entirely from the Japanese side, with Japanese actors speaking their native tongue&mdashEastwood presents individuals with generally distinct personalities who, with some exceptions, would choose life if they could. Most could not. (In the film, two Japanese soldiers who surrender are casually killed by the Americans.) 3

As with the general and his empty plates, Eastwood also humanizes the doomed defenders with small touches. We know now, for example, that while Japanese fighting men did frequently charge into hopeless battles screaming the name of the emperor, more often their final thoughts and words evoked their families back home&mdashparticularly, with young men, their mothers. Eastwood introduces this early on in Letters, in voice-over mail being read and letters being written and in a brief scene involving a young American prisoner, he brings this full circle. The American dies in one of the caves holding a letter from his mother a Japanese officer translates this aloud for the beleaguered soldiers clustered around, who have previously expressed hatred and contempt for the alien foe and, however fleetingly, a spark of common identity is established.

Unlike some of his men, Kuribayashi never questioned the necessity of dying on Iwo Jima. Like Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the Pearl Harbor attack, Kuribayashi had spent time in the United States as an attaché, admired the Americans, and thought choosing war against them was folly. Partly for this reason, he did not hold particularly distinguished commands. His assignment to Iwo Jima came in late May 1944, almost nine months before the attack, and from the outset his duty was clear in his own eyes. It was not merely to obey orders (tactically, he rejected orders to mount a beachhead defense), and not because he cherished death before dishonor more than being reunited with his family.

Kuribayashi died, and took his men with him, to buy time for his country and loved ones by slowing down the U.S. advance on the homeland. In a letter dated September 12, 1944, he wrote his wife that "When I imagine what Tokyo would look like if it were bombed&mdashI see a burned-out desert with dead bodies lying everywhere&mdashI'm desperate to stop them carrying out air raids." Prolonging the battle of Iwo Jima, he believed, would impede establishment of an air base that could facilitate air attacks on Japanese cities. 4

This was wishful thinking. The great Tokyo air raid of March 9 and 10, which initiated the U.S. policy of systematically destroying urban centers (and Japanese morale) with firebombs, occurred in the very midst of the battle for Iwo Jima and killed around 90,000 civilians in a single night. One consequence of suicidal policies like Kuribayashi's&mdashrepeated with greater fury and fatalities in the ensuing battle of Okinawa that lasted from March into June of 1945&mdashwas to strengthen U.S. resolve to intensify the bombing and, as it transpired, deploy the new nuclear weapon as quickly as possible.
As it turned out, moreover, Iwo Jima did not actually play a major role in the U.S. bombing campaign, although it did provide marginal support. 5

In a traditional jisei or death poem written before the American attack, Kuribayashi departed a bit from tradition. "Unable to complete this heavy task for our country," he wrote, "Arrows and bullets all spent, so sad we fall." When this was released to the Japanese press following his death, Imperial Headquarters changed "so sad" to "mortified." 6 Sadness is gentler. Eastwood's critically acclaimed Letters conveys this sentiment, and in giving the role of Kuribayashi to the charismatic Ken Watanabe (who was also the doomed protagonist in The Last Samurai), he reinforces our sense of the tragic waste of this battle, and perhaps of war in general.

To a certain degree, Eastwood's screenplay, written by Iris Yamashita, carries echoes of imperial Japan's own wartime feature films, which also emphasized the gentle (yasashii) personalities of male as well as female protagonists. 7 Letters conveys a different ultimate message, of course it is a eulogy for wasted lives rather than a paean to the righteousness of the emperor's holy war. What it leaves for other films and texts to dwell upon, in any case, is the obverse side of such humanism: the utter degradation of war, where the last vestiges of humanity are left behind.

As it happens, this was powerfully addressed in text and film by the Japanese themselves many decades ago. For a truly searing glimpse of the imperial military's descent into the abyss, there is still nothing that surpasses Shõhei Õoka's Fires on the Plain. Õoka, a scholar of French literature, was drafted in his mid-thirties and taken prisoner in the Philippines. His terse novelistic story of a tubercular Japanese soldier left behind to starve, published in 1951, is a classic. Madness, cannibalism, a hopeless cry for meaning or even the smallest gentle touch are Õoka's themes, and the stark film version directed by Kon Ichikawa and released in 1959 (available with English subtitles) does the novel justice. 8

With this book-and-film pairing added to the recent treatments of Iwo Jima, the lessons to be learned and taught about war in the Pacific, and war in general, become more complex and compelling than ever. Still, this is only the half of it. Having gazed more closely and honestly at the ravages of combat, there still remains the more old-fashioned challenge of rethinking basic military strategy. Were Japan's war planners criminally incompetent by war's end? Did the patriotism and personal courage of commanders like Kuribayashi abet this folly? Was Iwo Jima really of critical strategic importance to the United States&mdashor, as the military historian Robert Burrell argued recently, did the famous photo and horrific U.S. losses "create the myths that followed"? 9 And, in retrospect, how should we evaluate the Allied policy of terror bombing itself?

All that is another story.

&mdash John Dower is the Ford International Professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


1. Total Japanese military fatalities between 1937 and 1945 were around 2.1 million, with most coming in the last year of the war. Civilian fatalities are more difficult to calculate. The aerial bombing of a total of 65 Japanese cities appears to have taken a minimum of 400,000 and possibly closer to 600,000 lives (over 100,000 in Tokyo alone, and over 200,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined). Estimates of civilian deaths in the battle of Okinawa that followed Iwo Jima range from around 80,000 to 150,000. Civilian death among settlers and others who died attempting to return to Japan from Manchuria in the winter of 1945 were probably around 100,000. The Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare later estimated that starvation or malnutrition-related illness accounted for roughly 80 percent of Japanese military deaths in the Philippines, and 50 percent of military fatalities in China. See Akira Fujiwara, Uejinishita Eireitachi [The War Dead Who Starved to Death] (Tokyo: Aoki Shoten, 2001) I am grateful to Michael Cutler for this reference.

2. Kumiko Kakehashi, So Sad to Die in Battle: Based on General Tadamichi Kuribashi's Letters from Iwo Jima (New York: Presidio Press / Ballantine Books, 2007) the original Japanese is Chiruzo Kanashiki: Iõ Jima Sõshikikan Kuribashi Tadamichi (Tokyo: Shinchosha, 2005). The battle of Iwo Jima took place too late for wartime Hollywood treatment. Prior to Eastwood, it was most famously depicted in Sands of Iwo Jima, starring John Wayne, which was released with strong support from the Marine Corps in 1949, at a time when the Corps was particularly worried about being marginalized in postwar military planning and appropriations. The paradigmatic wartime Hollywood combat film on the struggle for control of islands in the Pacific is Guadalcanal Diary (1943), a formulaic, over-narrated, and enormously popular movie that also has a counterpart print account the film is based on a book of the same title by the war correspondent Richard Tregaskis. Essentially, Eastwood's two-part reconstruction of Iwo Jima is a repudiation of the simplistic patriotism enshrined in films like Guadalcanal Diary.

3. GIs killing Japanese prisoners is not new to American depictions of the war in the Pacific. Rather, it is simply alien to the "Greatest Generation" mystique that has dominated media representations of the war in the United States since the 1990s. Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948), the finest participant novel to come out of the Pacific theater on the U.S. side, includes such a scene and this is recreated in the gritty but now all-but-forgotten 1958 feature film based on this book.

5. See Robert S. Burrell, "Breaking the Cycle of Iwo Jima Mythology: A Strategic Study of Operation Detachment," The Journal of Military History 68.4 (October 2004), 1143&ndash86. Operation Detachment was the codename for the Iwo Jima attack.

6. Kakehashi, xxii&ndashxxv her book takes its title from this poem.

7. Two classic examples of this are "The Story of Tank Commander Nishizumi" [Nishizumi Senshachō Den, 1940] and "The Most Beautiful" [Ichiban Utsukushiku, 1944]. The latter, about Japanese girls working in a military factory, was directed by Akira Kurosawa. Neither film is easily accessible in English versions, although copies were subtitled for a 1987 film festival sponsored by the Japan Society of New York and subsequently returned to the National Archives.