Ambassador Marie C. Damour’s Remarks
Commemoration of the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Tarawa
November 22, 2023
Betio, Tarawa Atoll, Kiribati
His Excellency, Te Beretitenti Teneti Maamau; honorable Ministers and members of Parliament, Colonel Brannen of the U.S. Marine Corps, colleagues from the diplomatic corps, distinguished leaders of civil society and business, ladies & gentlemen, Marines. Mauri and good morning to you all.
It is my privilege to join you here today as the official representative of the President and the people of the United States of America to commemorate the 80th anniversary of what has come to be known in the annals of our history as the Battle of Tarawa.
From the 20th to 23rd of November, 1943, over the course of 76 hours, 18,000 U.S. Marines of the 2nd Marine Division, supported by a fleet of battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and airplanes, would fight ferociously to dislodge approximately 4,800 well-entrenched, well supplied and prepared defenders from the Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces, in order to seize control of the airstrip here on Betio.
In the three days of that battle, nearly 6,400 Japanese, Koreans, and Americans died. 4 million pounds of explosives were hurled at this island measuring about 1 square mile in size. Pictures of the battle’s aftermath show the destruction it caused, which included the loss of almost every tree on the island – a loss that would have significant impact on the people of Betio in years to come.
The Battle of Tarawa looms large in the annals of U.S. history in part due to the devastating cost of the fighting that took place here. One documentary of the battle is entitled simply “Utmost Savagery”. Of the 18,000 Marines who fought, almost 20% were killed or wounded. The Japanese garrison on Betio was annihilated almost in its entirety. Only 17 Japanese wounded were even taken prisoner: one officer and 16 enlisted men. The rest died fighting or committed suicide to avoid capture.
The Battle of Tarawa is remembered also because it was remarkably well documented. Civilian journalists from Time and Life magazines and various press organizations accompanied the Marines in their assault on the beaches of Betio. Staff Sergeant Norman Hatch and other Marine cameramen filmed portions of the fighting from the front lines. Their footage would later become a documentary entitled “With the Marines at Tarawa” which contained scenes of the casualties so disturbing, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was asked to approve its release. The documentary won an Oscar.
But above all else, the Battle of Tarawa is remembered because of the extraordinary courage displayed by the U.S. Marines who fought here and the remarkable devotion of the Japanese defenders who died here.
If you talk to one of the U.S. Marines who have joined us today, they will tell you that they are taught by the Corps to embody three warrior ethos: Honor: to do the right thing at all times especially when nobody is looking; Courage: to stand in the face of adversity, no matter the odds, without backing down; and Commitment: to stay committed to your training, your discipline, and to the person to the left and right of you.
The Battle of Tarawa exemplifies that ethos. One of the journalists who accompanied the Marines into battle made a circuit of Betio Island after the third day and described the scenes of Marines dead outside the entrenched Japanese defenses, clearly having attacked the machine guns that were killing their comrades on the beach.
They were Marines such as Staff Sergeant William James Bordelon, First Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr., and First Lt. William Deane Hawkins, who were all awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously for valorous and gallant conduct above and beyond the call of duty. They were men who exemplified the Marine’s motto Sempre Fidelis, Always Faithful.
We have all gathered here this morning to honor the past; to remember those who fought in that battle 80 years ago and the tremendous sacrifice that was made to bring an honorable peace to the Blue Pacific.
It is a point of pride that the United States does not forget its honored dead. That we strive mightily to locate, identify, and return to their families the remains of those who sacrificed so much in pursuit of peace and freedom.
Just under one year ago, I arrived in Tarawa for the very first time to present my credentials as U.S. Ambassador to Kiribati to His Excellency. It was a memorable first trip. But the most lasting impression I have is from the final event of my visit – a tour of the excavation of the former Marine cemetery, and of the offices of History Flight, which is carrying out that accountability mission.
During the tour, archeologists showed me several artifacts that they had unearthed just that day – two sets of dog tags, bearing the names of lost Marines as well as a wedding ring. The walls of History Flight’s office are lined with the names and photographs of the Marines who died here on Betio, and the archeologist who guided me could tell me stories of them as individuals, as men, as Marines.
We are privileged to have with us today, family members of Marines who fought here in Tarawa. Thank you for joining us. Thank you for helping us commemorate the lives and the sacrifices of your family members. We shall never forget.
I also want to His Excellency Te Beretitenti Teneti Maamau, senior Kiribati government officials, and the members of the community here in Betio, who have also joined our commemoration today. Your presence here reminds us that it was not only Americans and Japanese who suffered here before, during, and after the battle. I am very grateful to the Tourism Authority of Kiribati who released a series of videos recording personal accounts and interviews with i-Kiribati survivors of the battle as part of the 77th anniversary commemoration.
Survivors such as Teuea, whose father was Nawaia and mother was Borau, who recounted her childhood memory of machine gun fire, and the bodies of soldiers lying on the beach and floating in the water. Survivors such as Tiemwane, whose father was Ten Nakauki, who remembers hearing the sound of the airplanes overhead at night and seeing the searchlights that hunted them.
Tiemwane goes on to tell the story of visiting Tarawa six years after the battle, when Betio Island was still recovering from the terrible impact of the war – how few coconut trees she could see, and how small they were, causing a shortage of food and important nutrition. She describes the subsequent measles outbreak that claimed more lives because the i-Kiribati who survived did not have that vital food source.
These are vital voices, telling important stories that should be heard beyond Kiribati, because they remind us of the many innocent victims of war. Victims who have no say when their land becomes the battleground. Today we honor their sacrifices too. We shall never forget.
I wish also to thank my colleagues from the diplomatic corps in Kiribati who have joined us this morning, particularly the Chargé of the Embassy of Japan, Mr. IKEDA Hirotsugu. Your presence here today assists us not only to honor our past, but to celebrate our present, and create our future.
Because the Battle of Tarawa was not the end of the story.
On September 8, 1951, less than eight years after forces of the U.S. and Japan strove so mightily to kill each other, our two nations signed the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, creating a formal alliance between the two previous adversaries. In the words of President Barack Obama, “The United States and Japan have forged not only an alliance but a friendship that has won far more for our people than we could ever claim through war.”
We who are gathered here today should celebrate our present because we honor those whose sacrifice bought an honorable peace. All that blood shed by i-Kiribati, by Americans, Koreans, and Japanese has led us to this present where the U.S. and Japan are critical allies, working together to create a safe, secure, healthy, resilient, and prosperous future. And we’re forging ahead bolstering our relationships with Kiribati and other Pacific Island countries to ensure the values we fought to uphold all those years ago endure well into our shared future.
The U.S. is committed to demonstrating we are a good partner to Pacific Island countries to build sustainable, inclusive economies that deliver dignified livelihoods for all our citizens. We’ve signed a 10-year, $600 million agreement to support Pacific Island Fisheries. We’ve increased our climate assistance, including more than $20 million for new investments to prepare for climate and natural hazards, including a new wharf on Kanton Island in Kiribati.
We’re investing more than $11 million in bringing cutting-edge maritime domain awareness technology to help the Big Ocean States of the Blue Pacific protect their resources for the benefit of their people.
I am particularly excited by the opportunities we have now to create that prosperous future with our friends right here in Kiribati. As work commences on the East Micronesia Cable, we look forward to working with our Australian colleagues in bringing reliable, secure internet infrastructure to Tarawa. His Excellency President Maamau just signed a Millennium Challenge Corporation Threshold compact valued at $29.1 million. This grant will fund English language and job mobility programs for I-Kiribati from every island.
All these lines of effort and more are intended to support Kiribati and the other nations of the Blue Pacific Continent to achieve our shared vision for a region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion, and prosperity, where individuals can reach their potential, the environment can thrive, and democracy can flourish. A region where nations and people control their own destiny and make their own choices as sovereign countries.
That is what so many people gave their lives to achieve 80 years ago. That is what we strive for today. We face so many challenges now, so many threats to peace and prosperity, whether it’s climate change, a global pandemic, or disruption of food supply chains. But we can take courage from the example of sacrifice that was set for us 80 years ago.
Standing here today on this hallowed ground, I think of the unofficial motto of the U.S. Marines: God, Country, Corps. It is brief and simple statement of their priorities; of what Marines think of before ever thinking of themselves. It enables them to succeed, to overcome any obstacle, to achieve victory in the face of seemingly inevitable defeat.
Thank you to everyone for joining us here today to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Tarawa. May we all draw inspiration from the sacrifices of the men who fought here to succeed, to overcome the obstacles before us, and to achieve victory in the challenges we face today.
Ko Rabwa, thank you, and may God bless the United States of America and the Republic of Kiribati.