Durk Steed highlights the role of first-wave amtrac driver Don Crain during the 1943 Tarawa invasion.
Don Crain turned 17 in October 1941 and went straight to the local Marine Corps recruiter to celebrate. ‘My three brothers, all taller and stronger than me, couldn’t pass the Marine physical for one reason or another. I passed, but the Marines had a pre-war quota system accepting only 10 or so guys a month from Montana. I got turned down in October, November, and December.’ After Pearl Harbor the quota was dropped, and Don’s birthday wish granted. In January 1942 he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.
Six weeks of San Diego boot camp followed, and Don joined C Battery, Special Weapons Battalion, Second Marine Division. Don shipped out in October 1942 aboard the Monroe. Of his arrival in New Zealand, Don remarked, ‘We took one look, saw all the girls, and loved the place.’
Unknown to Don, in July 1943, the Joint Chiefs ordered the Second Marine Division to seize Tarawa atoll. Two formidable challenges surrounded Tarawa that would greatly impact Don’s near future: concentrated, fortified Japanese beach defenses, and a wide, shallow-fringing reef that could not guarantee enough depth for traditional landing craft.
Lieutenant-Colonel David Shoup had a bold idea: employ the Marines’ first generation amphibious tractor – primitive, thin-skinned, under-powered, and primarily used to haul supplies behind the lines – as the spearhead of the assault. Shoup’s daring idea would transform Don Crain’s life – and the Pacific war – forever.
While Don and the Marines drank deeply of Kiwi hospitality, planners assigned men to crew the amphibious craft in its daring new role. In August 1943 Don was transferred into C Company, 2nd Amphibious Tractor Battalion. Don had never seen an LVT-1, but sparks flew on his first encounter with the 23-foot-long, $35,000 craft. ‘I found the vehicle fascinating’, he remarked. Don embarked on a crash-course, training as an LVT-1 driver.
In late October, Don’s LVT-1, with nine other first-wave amtracs, was hoisted onto the assault transport Virgo’s weatherdeck. Don’s tractor was upgraded with three machine guns, ¼-inch steel to protect the cab, and a white ‘41’ painted on the stern and cab’s sides. Next came two days of invasion rehearsal in Efate, New Hebrides. On 14 November the assault Marines learned the name of their target. ‘None of us had heard of Tarawa. D minus two the lieutenants and captains gave us a pre-invasion talk. They said that after all the bombing and shelling there wouldn’t be a Jap[anese] left alive. If there were, they’d all be crying for their moms. They told us it would be a piece of cake.’
Shrouded in the early morning darkness of 20 November, Virgo arrived off Tarawa. ‘I still remember praying, trying to sleep, and having a meal of steak and eggs. LVT 41 was hoisted over the side. Don guided her to the open-water rendezvous point. There, 20 assault Marines of the 2nd Regiment cross-decked from Higgins boats into Don’s amtrac, packing in tight as sardines. The LVT’s low freeboard and the ocean swells’ plunging sway combined to soak the leathernecks.
At 6.48am Don guided LVT 41 into the long, single file line of 42 first-wave LVT-1s. Two lines of 24 and 21 LVT-2s composing the second and third waves scudded along port side.
Shepherded by the minesweeper Pursuit’s searchlight, Don fought a headwind and current to navigate through the lagoon passage. Hunkered for hours at the controls of LVT 41 (from Virgo to the Line of Departure was almost nine miles), Don had no idea of the fierce maelstrom of concentrated fire he was approaching.
Beginning predawn, navy battleships unleashed an apocalypse. For almost three hours, 16-inch shells, sounding like freight trains flying through the air, rained down on the little island exploding in eruptions of sand and flame. Sunrise lifted the curtain on a theater of destruction. Carrier aircraft strafed and bombed when the battleships took a rest. Don caught first sight of the island through the narrow slit of the cab’s appliqué armor. The navy’s promise to blast Tarawa into the sea seemed to be coming true, bolstering his spirits. Burning and smoking, Tarawa looked like a funeral pyre.
It seemed impossible that any Japanese remained alive. Yet Don’s trusty Springfield 1903 rifle was close by. Lieutenant Bonnie Little stood behind manning one of the cab’s .50 caliber machine guns. In a letter to his wife, Little wrote, ‘The Marines have a way of making you afraid – not of dying – but of not doing your job.’
Don stared as the tropic breeze blew the pall of smoke away. The island floated above the lagoon, defiant and menacing. Ashore, out of Don’s sight, Japanese Marines hid in their bunkers and pillboxes, staring down gunsights waiting for the Americans to come into range.
At 8.24am and 6,000 yards from shore, Don’s column of first-wave LVT-1s, white frothing wake spewing behind, executed a right turn and crossed the Line of Departure. A human shot put of US Marines was being thrown at Tarawa, and Don Crain was front and center. What remained to be determined was how far the throw would go and if and when the Japanese could stop it.
Don heard the command ‘Lock and load!’. In the cargo hold behind, riflemen slammed eight-round clips into Garands and pushed safeties forward. Lieutenant Little advanced the first round into the .50 Browning’s chamber.
Squeezing every bit of power out of the 150 hp Hercules engine, Don coaxed 3.5 knots out of LVT 41. He steered to the west of Tarawa’s long pier aiming for Red Beach 2. The current pulled him farther right.
For several minutes, the first-wave LVTs advanced shoreward under an uneasy calm. Both sides held their breath – and their triggers. The Japanese waited for the LVTs to come into range. American ships and planes stopped firing to avoid friendly fire accidents. The low-riding Marines had no visible targets.
As Don closed to within 3,000 yards of shore, Japanese air-bursts peppered the amtrac. Contact with the reef, the reason for the LVTs’ presence, was almost at hand.
In stunned amazement, the Japanese watched as the gangly amphibians did not stall at the reef but waddled out of the lagoon. The first wave of LVTs clawed onto the shallow reef’s sand and coral and churned forward. The Japanese had never seen such vehicles. ‘Little ships with wheels’, one Japanese survivor summarized. ‘Like dozens of spiders scattering over the surface,’ said another.
‘The reef was about 800 yards out. The pier was to our left. I could see bullets coming through our bow and a lot coming through the side. We were taking a lot of fire from the hulk of a ship aground to our right. The fire killed both the radio operator and the assistant driver.”
Pushing and pulling on the steering levers, Don piloted LVT 41 toward the cove separating Red Beaches 1 and 2. Directly ahead lay a pernicious point of resistance dubbed ‘The Pocket’. The Pocket was to withstand three days of Marine attacks and was the last position of organised Japanese resistance to succumb on Tarawa. Unknowingly, Don was driving LVT 41 into the eye of the Tarawa hurricane.
‘After Tarawa, maintenance officers told us that they had tested the armor plating installed on the amtrac cabs in New Zealand. An M1 Garand’s bullet could go right through it. We were never told that before the invasion. It would have been too demoralising.’
Marines in the cargo hold of the LVT did not even have the scant protection of the cab’s armoured plates. Lieutenant Little, who had written to his wife that he was afraid of not doing his job, died proving his conviction to his words. ‘He was firing one of the machine guns, but I was busy driving and couldn’t see what was going on behind me’ remembered Don.
With a dead crew member on each side, Don gripped the steering levers as LVT 41 churned across the reef and toward The Pocket. Every yard of the way, punishing hits from machine guns and near misses from 75mm dual-purpose guns pummeled the tractor.
‘We got about halfway across the reef; then, the amtrac’s engine just stopped. It was dead.’ So focused on his job of driving the LVT to the beach, Don was unaware when the other Marines in the cargo hold were killed. He did not know whether they died one by one or all at once. He only knew that when he crawled out between the cab’s two dead Marines, the macabre sight of eighteen more dead Marines met him in the cargo hold. Everything in the cargo hold, both humans and equipment, had been destroyed.
‘I was one of three to get out alive: the maintenance sergeant, one Marine rifleman – both wounded – and myself. We had no weapons. We jumped over the side and into the water and went to the tractor’s stern.’
Unwilling to abandon the two wounded Marines, Don kept them alive until dark and then got the pair to the seawall.
Ashore, Don joined the other Marines in wrestling the island from the Japanese. The brutal three-and-a-half-day brawl cost both sides immensely, practically annihilating the Japanese. ‘I can recall about six or seven percent of Tarawa,’ Don said. ‘I block out the rest. What I still remember is the incredible noise and awful stench from dead bodies. The island stunk and reeked. You just can’t forget that sort of thing. I also remember a Marine shot in the throat and unable to breathe. A corpsman cut an opening in his trachea and inserted a thermometer case to get him air and save his life.’
Don came ashore with only the clothes on his back. After the battle, his uniform in tatters, Don joined other Marines searching for fresh clothes and souvenirs. While some Marines found unissued white Japanese sailor shirts, Don found the pack of a dead Marine, Lieutenant A Bonnyman. ‘Inside was a clean pair of dungarees.’
Don put on the clothes, unaware of who Bonnyman was. At the flag raising ceremony, General Julian Smith ordered Marines to take off the Japanese clothing. An officer ordered Don to take off Bonnyman’s Lieutenant jacket since Don was a PFC. Afterwards, Don put it back on. Clad in Bonnyman’s clothes, Don remained on the island for a total of 19 days helping to salvage LVTs and unload garrison supplies.
Don eventually learned that the dungarees belonged to Alexander ‘Sandy’ Bonnyman who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1947 for his heroic role in the capture of Red Beach 3’s huge sand-covered bombproof shelter. Long after the war, Don spoke to Bonnyman’s daughter at a ceremony in Hawaii. ‘I told her about the clothes. She said she was thrilled that he was helping Marines even after he died.’
Don went on to survive the Pearl Harbor explosion of LSTs loading for Saipan, earned a Bronze Star with Combat V at Saipan for action in his LVT-2, and made 14 D-Day shuttle runs on Tinian. On one such run, a Japanese sniper put a bullet hole in Don’s LVT-2 just above his head.
This article is dedicated to the amtrac drivers of WWII who allowed freedom-loving people across the Pacific to hear the good news, ‘The Marines have landed!’
Durk Steed holds two postgraduate degrees and is currently writing a young adult novel based on the United States Marine Corps combat photographers on Tarawa.