As much at the HBO miniseries "The Pacific" brings overdue recognition to the "other" theater in World War Two, military historians and enthusiasts will be disappointed that it bypasses the most brutal battle of the war against Japan - the Battle of Tarawa.
It's not an oversight on the part of the producers. The miniseries is based on the experiences of three U.S. Marines whose combat tours included the battles of Guadalcanal, New Britain, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, but not Tarawa. There was terrible carnage on all of those battlefields, but Tarawa was its own special corner of hell. The main battle was fought on the tiny island of Betio, which is half a mile wide at its widest point and not quite three miles long. For three days in November 1943 on that puny scrap of coral in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, nearly five thousand well-entrenched Japanese defenders took on an American invasion force of 35 thousand, with catastophic consequences for both sides. Fewer than two dozen Japanese survivors surrendered. American dead totaled nearly 1,700. There were bloodier battles from a numbers standpoint, but for sheer savagery at close quarters, Tarawa was in a league of its own, which makes it all the more surprising that it has never been the subject of a major motion picture.
Maybe that's because even Hollywood would be hard-pressed to out-do the actual combat film footage taken on Betio and packaged into a 20 minute film called "With the Marines at Tarawa." It's not very slick by today's production standards, and the music and narration has a propaganda feel to it that reflects the times, but the images are so compelling and graphic that it required presidential permission to be released to the public. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt granted that permission so that people on the home front would be under no illusions about the sacrifices their brothers, sons and fathers were making on the other side of the world.
"With the Marines at Tarawa" won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short in 1945. It can't match The Pacific for production value, but for gritty realism and historical merit, it stands alone.