“The Camera Tells the Truth”: Camera Rolls from the Battle of Tarawa

Five days before Thanksgiving 1943, American forces bombarded a tiny, Japanese-held island in the Tarawa Atoll. Eighteen thousand Marines would land on the shores of Betio, and over 1,000 would lose their lives there. On November 23rd, the United States claimed victory.

Recording the Battle

Three men of the 2nd Marine Division landed on Betio with a different mission than the rest. Cameramen Staff Sgt. Norman Hatch, Staff Sgt. John Ercole, and Pfc. William “Kelly” Kelliher filmed the events of the Battle of Tarawa. The footage from those days was used to produce With the Marines at Tarawa, a film that played in theaters on the home front and won the 1945 Oscar for best documentary short.

In addition, thousands of feet of raw footage was saved as a historical record and is preserved at the National Archives. Today we’ll look at some of the 35mm camera rolls to see how the battle looked before it was edited into a slick production, and consider the role of the cameraman in creating a record of the battle.

Still from 127-G-470. In an interview, Norman Hatch identified this shot as the only time that both sides of the combat were in the same frame.

By “camera roll,” I mean the roll of unexposed 35mm black and white negative stock that was loaded into the camera. In a 2008 interview with Naval History, Norman Hatch explained that he and John Ercole were carrying 35mm Eyemo cameras. The cameras took 100 ft rolls, which equals about a minute of footage. It likely took longer to carefully remove the exposed film and load a fresh roll than the total run time available in a roll. As Hatch said in the interview, “We had to be very careful about how we shot.” Hatch and Ercole were trained in “how to tell a story with cameras” in a photographic school for military personnel at the newsreel producer March of Time.

In the Army-Navy Screen Magazine story “I Was There–Tarawa” (see the clip at the bottom of this post), Staff Sgt. Hatch describes how he got the battle footage. When another cameraman asks what equipment they took with them, Hatch says that he didn’t shoot all the film they had. In answer to the other man’s surprise, Hatch says, “I pick my shots.” By looking at the camera rolls, we can get a better sense of how Hatch picked his shots.


The Camera Rolls

The following clips are distinct camera rolls. The camera rolls were compiled into larger reels, so I used printed-in splices and other visual cues to identify and pull out individual rolls as clips.

Clips from 127-G-470

In these rolls, we see the chaos of battle. At times it is hard to make out what is happening as smoke from flame-throwers, exploding hand grenades, and rounds fired obscure the action.





Here, a lighter moment is shown, when Staff Sgt. Hatch discovered a kitten and gave it water. The kitten scene was featured in “I Was There.” The second half of the roll is a much more tense scene, as Marines crawl along the beach toward an enemy soldier.



Clips from 127-G-472

In this roll, Hatch filmed activities on the shore, and used the last twelve seconds of the footage to record Marines running toward battle.



Here, the wounded are evacuated and treated in battle conditions. These scenes were used in With the Marines at Tarawa.



As the battle raged on around Hatch, we can see the effects of the chaos. Some scenes are out of focus, and others flash white, an indication that the already-shot negative was exposed to light before it was processed.






Norman Hatch passed away this year at the age of 96. Heidi Holmstrom and I were fortunate to meet him and had an opportunity to hold a 35mm Eyemo camera in our hands. The title for this post comes from a statement by Staff Sgt. Norman Hatch in “I Was There.” I encourage everyone to watch the story and read the Naval History interview to get Hatch’s story in his own words. Many thanks go to Susan Strange, who arranged for us to meet Mr. Hatch, and who suggested the topic for this post while discussing the Tarawa footage.

For more on the filming of the Battle of Tarawa, see “With the Marines at Tarawa,” Proceedings Magazine, April 1999.

“I Was There” From Army-Navy Screen Magazine No. 21 (1943)


8 thoughts on ““The Camera Tells the Truth”: Camera Rolls from the Battle of Tarawa

  1. My father was there & Survived! He went in 2nd wave. Brutal & bloody was the attack! Thanks to all those brave Marines

  2. In Dallas, Texas, I worked with a man named Jack Frost who had been a Marine combat photographer on Pacific islands. I have been searching for a record of him. Somewhere there must be an accounting of all the brave men who served in this position, but I have yet to find a comprehensive archive that honors their legacy.

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