Recovering Remains of Marines From “one square mile of hell” – Tarawa Atoll

Photo source by Carter Family
Photo source by Carter Family

Private Robert Carter’s remains were buried under crushed coral at an old shipyard for 72 years. Because his fellow Marines refused to leave him behind, his remains have finally come home.

Carter was killed on the first day of fighting in the Battle of Tarawa in November of 1943. Because of the heat and the chaos of the battle, the Pentagon has considered Carter’s remains to be unrecoverable.

Marines called the atoll off Tarawa a “square mile of hell.” A Japanese commander bragged that one million men would need 100 days to conquer it. The Marines actually took it in three days, but it cost them 1200 soldiers’ lives.

Carter, 18 years old and in the service for less than a year, was most likely either killed while wading ashore or when an artillery shell hit his landing craft.

“I remember him picking me up out of the snow playing with me when he was home on leave. I do remember that,” said his sister, Joan Marie Nusbaum. 78 now, she was just five years old when Carter died. “I think Marines came to our door and told mom and dad he was gone,” she said.

History Flight, a charity that works to bring home the remains of U.S. soldiers, found Carter and 34 other Marines in a long row around Red Beach One. John Frye of History Flight, a retired Green Beret medic who helped recover the men, said, “I wouldn’t want to be left behind. I wouldn’t want my buddies to be left behind.”

Carter’s mom and dad passed away before getting to see him come home. Four of his brothers and sisters have also died. His sister, Jean Marie Nusbaum, though, flew in from Oregon to attend the ceremony where Carter was buried with full military honors.

There are still around 500 missing Marines on Tarawa. There are still 500 families waiting for their loved ones to come home. History Flight has just recovered another group of remains from Tarawa; the Department of Defense is working to identify them so that they can go home again too.

With the Marines at Tarawa (1944)

With the Marines at Tarawa is a 1944 short film directed by Louis Hayward. It used authentic footage taken at the Battle of Tarawa to tell the story of the American servicemen from the time they get the news that they are to participate in the invasion to the final taking of the island and raising of the Stars and Stripes.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE