There were a lot of big name winners at the 17th Annual Academy Awards in 1945, Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman, and… the United States Marine Corps. That’s right, USMC Combat Cameramen won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short for their coverage of the Battle of Tarawa in 1943. Tarawa was unique because of the coverage COMCAM operators were able to give the battle.
November 20-23 1943 saw a thousand Marines die fighting to take the tiny, two mile wide island of Tarawa from Imperial Japanese forces during World War II. Two thousand more Marines were injured. 4,700 Japanese died defending the island with only 17 surrendering to U.S. forces. Hundreds of Korean slave laborers also died.
Combat Camera Marines with the 2nd Marine Division were along for the ride and after the battle, edited With the Marines at Tarawa, a twenty minute short film designed to bring the story of the battle to Americans on the home front. The goal was to give people as close to a first hand experience of the horrors of war as film could get them.
In an eleven minute newsreel from the Army-Navy Screen Magazine designed to be viewed by servicemen, Marine Corps Combat Cameraman Norm Hatch narrates the footage he filmed during the battle of Tarawa.
The narration was clearly written by a screenwriter (this is WWII propaganda, after all), and it includes a short skit as a premise for the story, but the combat footage is heavy and graphic at times.
The end may seem out of place, but the quick construction of the airfield at Tarawa is a reminder of the importance of the battle and the need for the island’s strategic position. It’s also a good reminder of what Marines can do when called upon: The Japanese admiral commanding Tarawa boasted the Marines couldn’t take Tarawa with a million men in a hundred years.
It took 18,000 Marines only 76 hours.