Bringing Battle to the Home Front: With the Marines at Tarawa

Who says Oscars are for Hollywood? Did you know that a number of films produced by the United States government were nominated or won Academy Awards? One such film is With the Marines at Tarawa, (Local Identifier: 80-MH-3527) which brought the experience of a major battle to the American public and consequently won the 1945 Academy Award for best documentary short.

The Unites States Marine Corps fought the Battle of Tarawa over four days in November, 1943. At the end of the battle, nearly a thousand Marines were dead, and over two thousand were wounded. Of those holding the island, there were nearly 4700 casualties. Only seventeen Japanese soldiers surrendered; of about a thousand Korean forced laborers, 129 survived the battle.

Beyond the strategic value of the victory, the battle is significant today because so much of it was caught on film by our combat cameramen. Seeing the footage made the experience real for those on the home front, and serves as a record of the horror of war for those of us who watch it now.

With the Marines at Tarawa was carefully crafted to bring viewers into the experience, from the somber mood during preparation, through the chaos of battle, the overwhelming sadness of counting and caring for the dead, and the sense of accomplishment as the American flag was raised on the island.

In addition, the film focuses on how lives were saved by competent medical personnel and the possibility of blood transfusions, a fact that would have provided hope to those with loved ones on the front lines. Viewers are left with a sense of grief, as well as patriotism in knowing that “our boys” were bravely fighting this “war we did not want.”

The story of the Battle of Tarawa was also told in the Army-Navy Screen Magazine, a newsreel series produced by the U.S. military and presented only to the troops. In comparison to With the Marines at Tarawa, “I Was There—Tarawa”, presents a more graphic view of the battle and a more upbeat tone in the conclusion. “I Was There” also focuses on the usually invisible combat cameramen, men who put their lives at risk to record the war for history.

In the newsreel story, combat cameraman Norman Hatch recounts the story of the battle as he shows the footage to other cameramen. Hatch “went in with the first wave on the landing at Tarawa, armed with a pistol and a hand-camera” It’s Hatch’s 35mm black and white footage that you see in With the Marines at Tarawa, starting at about 6:20.

22-year-old Staff Sgt. Norman Hatch (far right) tells other combat cameramen about filming during the first wave of the Battle of Tarawa. (Still from Army-Navy Screen Magazine #21)

When compared to what the public saw in 1944, the footage in the Screen Magazine story is unflinching and gruesome at points. The dead bodies of Japanese soldiers are hit with more bullets, and Hatch narrates as they are hit and brought down, action that was generally obscured or edited in the public version.

Toward the end of the piece, there is an abrupt switch to a light-hearted story about a kitten that Hatch found under a tank. The background music as the flag is raised is much brighter than in With the Marines at Tarawa. Unlike the public, the troops could not take the time to mourn losses; they needed to be ready to move on to the next battle.

In “I Was There—Tarawa”, we see a different element of the story of battle, one tailored for the men that were fighting the war. This is the story as the troops needed to see it.

I highly recommend that you to watch both films. When viewed as companion pieces, you will learn not just about the Battle of Tarawa, but about the experience of watching battle from the American home front.

With the Marines at Tarawa and the Army-Navy Screen Magazine newsreels are preserved at the National Archives. You can see this year’s nominated shorts at the National Archives’ McGowan Theater in Washington, D.C. Thanks go to Susan Strange for alerting me to the existence of the Screen Magazine story about Norman Hatch.