Tom Hennessy wrote this article, which appeared in the Long Beach Press-Telegram on Sunday, Nov. 23, 2003. Tom had been to Tarawa twice: in 1985, while doing a series of articles on Pacific battle sites, and again in 1988 for the dedication of the Tarawa Monument, which was financed largely by readers of his newspaper.
The story is about the 60th Anniversary Ceremony held on Tarawa Nov. 20, 2003.
When Tom and Mary Evans retired . . . he from chemical sales, she from teaching and school administration . . . they took up new careers. In the Peace Corps. That was how, a year ago, the Humble, Texas, grandparents found themselves on a remote Pacific atoll Tarawa.
Some of you know it as the place where, in November 1943, America fought a terrible battle. Some of you also know it through the Tarawa Monument, financed largely by our readers in 1988 and dedicated to the more than 1,100 Americans who died there.
After being displayed in Long Beach for 10 days, it was transported to Tarawa by the U.S. Marine Corps. For 15 years, it has stood near the beach where the U.S. invasion began.
There are 45 Peace Corps workers on Tarawa, seven in the area of the battle. But as a former infantry major in the U.S. Army Reserve, Evans is the only American military veteran living on Tarawa, which is part of Kiribati, a Third World island nation spread across half the South Pacific.
In an e-mail to me weeks ago, he wrote, ‘On arriving here, I found I was living on top of military history. I have walked the battle site many times and have made several visits to the monument.’ Through research on the Internet, Evans traced the background of the monument and learned of Long Beach's involvement.
‘I feel the people of your area and your paper did something very special to get that memorial erected here. I get a little choked up when I hear stories about people who care enough to do something.’
Earlier this year, aware that Nov. 20 would be the battle's 60th anniversary, Tom and Mary Evans, plus Peace Corps colleagues not even alive during World War II, decided the day should be remembered in a special way. Perhaps a memorial ceremony.
On Tarawa such an idea is easier said than executed. The atoll is remote, 90 miles from the equator. Conveniences we take for granted, such as telephones, are scarce or nonexistent. If you want to talk to a friend in the next village, you may have to walk there.
Nevertheless, the Peace Corps volunteers, at Evans' urging, dug in and went to work. ‘They really jumped in behind me on this,’ he says. ‘The young people, ages 23 to 35, seem to have had a firm conviction to make this special. And they know more about the history here than many know about any famous battlefield back in the United States.’
For starters, they caulked and cleaned the monument, although Evans says it is in ‘remarkably good shape.’
Next, they painted the metal poles and chains around the 9- ton memorial. They improved the landscape. They planted shrubs. They even graded the area.
To pay for all this, Evans tapped friends back in the States. The U.S. Embassy in Fiji kicked in, as did the Bank of Kiribati. The Second Marine Division Association, to which Tarawa veterans belong, gave $1,000.
‘We were pleased to do it,’ says Tarawa veteran and association member John O'Connor, of Long Beach. ‘Most of us are too old now to make the trip there, so it was gratifying to see the Peace Corps do the things we would liked to have done ourselves.’ Citizens of Kiribati helped with the preparations.
Next, the volunteers visited every department in the Kiribati government, telling of their plans. They interacted with the embassies of six nations, made hundreds of e-mail contacts, arranged for Kiribati women to weave floral wreaths, beautified a nearby Japanese memorial garden, and hand-delivered about 200 invitations to an anniversary program which took place at the monument Thursday.
The Peace Corps folks even arranged to wear similar new shirts on the day of the ceremony. ‘Clothing really takes a beating out here,’ says Evans.
There was more. Somehow, the volunteers arranged for a destroyer, the USS Hopper, to anchor off the atoll's lagoon on the day of the ceremony. Since the war, U.S. Navy ships seldom get to Tarawa. A Marine color guard and rifle detail came ashore from the ship. So did 50 crew members. Forty Peace Corps volunteers were joined at the monument by 100 expatriates living on Tarawa, plus 300 Kiribati citizens.
The president and vice president of Kiribati came. So did officials from the embassies of Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain. Gordon Ferris, director of the Peace Corps on Tarawa, gave a welcome address.
Harry Jackson, a well-known painter from Wyoming, read a letter from President George W. Bush. Jackson had a special reason for being present. He had fought at the battle. So had Joe Sobol, a Tarawa vet from La Quinta.
At day's end, Evans sent me an e-mail report which, in part, went like this:
’Several elderly Kiribati men and women were invited to sit in a place of honor. Each had been around Tarawa when the battle was fought, and had helped the Americans after the battle. A Peace Corps volunteer trainee sang `Amazing Grace,' which was especially appropriate because the ship was named for Grace Hopper, the Navy's first woman admiral. (The crew apparently refers to the ship as ‘Amazing Grace.’)
The Kiribati police band played the national anthem of both countries. Laying of wreaths on the monument was done by the president of Kiribati and the U.S. ambassador.
‘Many Kiribati people brought flowers and wreaths to the program, and were invited to lay them at the monument as well. It was probably one of the most touching moments of the morning. No one knew the Kiribati people, poor as they are, would come with flowers to remember the Americans. ‘They did so in overwhelming numbers. One young Marine, standing tall with his rifle, was seen with tears coming down his face.
‘A song, ‘Oh, Tarawa,’ had been composed by the Peace Corps country director, and was sung by Peace Corps volunteers. The 21-gun salute was fired by the Marines. A Peace Corps woman played taps. ‘Then the band struck up a march. The color guard moved out with the rifle detail behind. Everyone made the 5-minute walk to Red Beach 2 (the invasion site). We had another ceremony, with `America the Beautiful' sung by the Peace Corp volunteer. The U.S. ambassador introduced Commander Mike Selby, the ship's captain, who made remarks.’
Fine, full day
Artist Jackson talked about the importance of Tarawa and Betio island (scene of most of the fighting) in World War II. Wreaths were placed on the sea wall of Red Beach 2 by the president of Kiribati and the two Tarawa veterans. The police band played the Marine Corps Hymn.
’The most significant remark of the day was that of a young Kiribati man who attended the ceremony with his wife and small son. He pointed to the two veterans, and said, `They fought here for my family.''
About 200 people toured the Hopper. Most were Peace Corps workers and are cadets from the Kiribati Mariner Training Center. Sailors played soccer and basketball with local boys. A reception was held aboard the ship.
’The Australian high commissioner said the day was the high point of his time in Kiribati,’ notes Evans.
He expresses justifiable pride of the effort by his Corps colleagues. ‘They proudly stepped forward to take the lead in this anniversary event, plus the facelift of a distinguished memorial which was the centerpiece of the 60th anniversary.’
Evans also is mindful that the day was made possible not only by the Peace Corps, but by those who had a hand in creating the monument. He noted that in a recent e-mail, ending it with three simple, but heartfelt words. He said, ‘Thanks, Long Beach.’