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Tadao Onuki, a Japanese Tanker On Tarawa

Discussion in 'The War In The Pacific' started by Jim, May 7, 2012.

  1. Jim

    Jim New Member

    Sep 1, 2006
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    via War44
    Tadao Onuki, a Japanese Naval Chief Petty Officer attached to No. 3 Yokosuka Special Base, found himself preparing for battle on the island of Tarawa, having asked to move to a tank unit. From a mood of confident optimism, his comrades' morale was to receive a heavy blow. The arrival of overwhelming numbers of US Marines and constant bombardment would finally take their toll and leave him stranded.

    Tadao Onuki


    "I went back to Japan from our base at Rabaul, and in June 1943 I was transferred to Tarawa after expressing a wish to serve in a tank unit. Tarawa is the main island of the Gilbert Islands, and is surrounded by many other islands, large and small, such as Makin.

    Our unit was called No. 3 Yokosuka Special Base Unit, and we spent day after day busy with constructing positions and in battle drill. Air-raids by large enemy aircraft were a daily occurrence, but they never hindered us in any way. We were once raided for 24 hours, by a combined force of fighters and bombers, but they didn't do us any harm, in fact, they very effectively raised our morale. Here and there on the island we built some really tough positions making skilful use of the natural features of the terrain. The construction went on without a break, night and day. Our tank unit was completely combat-ready and preparations for the encounter battle went ahead.

    At dawn on 21st November, a great fleet of enemy ships appeared on the distant line of the horizon. So the time had finally come, the enemy's destroyers naval guns soon began to fire simultaneously, and their shells rained down on the Japanese positions. One of the shells scored a bull's-eye on our magazine and started a huge blaze. This in turn offered a prime target to the enemy guns. In addition, bombers and aircraft from the ships attacked us from the air, setting ablaze the food dumps and other key installations, one after the other. Soon the entire island was covered in flames and black smoke.

    The enemy's naval gunfire and aerial bombing went on for several hours, while we waited in the airraid trenches like sheep in a sheep-fold, expecting the order to attack. Soon, under a full-scale covering fire, hordes of enemy landing craft approached the shore. They looked likely to swamp the Japanese forces completely.

    In the face of fierce, ear-splitting small-arms fire, the enemy landing-craft began to run aground, and the US soldiers began to fall into the sea. I think we damped their ardour, but they had guts and although they received the full impact of our small-arms fire, they crossed the shallows to the shore, and then trod over the bodies of their fallen comrades, one after the other, until they finally managed to install themselves at one end of the island.

    Inside my tank, I poured out shot until the barrel of my gun was red-hot, but it was impossible not to be aware of the threat of the enemy's numbers. Our men had seen our magazine and food dumps go up in flames, and from the material point of view, they were already no match for the Americans. But we moved here and there on the island and gave the Americans something to think about. Hunting for tanks. I burst into the enemy positions and ended up by penetrating deep into them, almost before I knew what was happening. I tried to withdraw, but for some reason, the engine refused to budge. I was frantic, and couldn't find the cause of the stoppage. There were signs from outside that enemy troops had begun to gather round the tank. I thought I'd had it, then I kicked my foot down on the axle in sheer desperation and the motor sputtered into life, to my intense joy! As if in a dream, I scattered the Americans who were swarming around my tank, knocked them out of the way and put on speed until I got back to our own position.

    Smoke rises from burning Japanese installations as US Marines charge and take a Japanese pillbox on Tarawa after the beach landing.


    It wasn't long before the battle turned against us, and Major-General Shibasaki and his HQ moved from No. 1 Command Post to No. 2. Our tank unit was ordered to give them covering fire. At the time, the tank unit couldn't move, because we hadn't enough fuel, so we acted as gun platforms. When we finished that assignment. I clambered down from the tank. In that instant, shells from one of the enemy's naval guns came down with a shattering roar and burst all round us. My two comrades who were just emerging from the tank were blown to pieces in a split second.

    On the 25th we separated into No. 1 and No. 2 troops and resolved to carry out one final attack. The report of our fight to the finish was sent off to Japan beforehand.

    At that time, the number of US troops who had come ashore was several hundred times greater than that of the Japanese who had survived, and hit by bit, they began to encircle us. We were no longer masters of the seas or the skies, we had no food or ammunition left, and there was no longer any hope of a force coming to relieve us. There was only one way ahead for the Japanese on Tarawa, a fight to the finish and total annihilation.

    We said goodbye to No. 1 troop as they moved off for their first attack, and those of us who belonged to No. 2 troop waited in the air-raid trenches until the evening hour when the attack was expected. But in the end we were spotted by a keen-eyed enemy pilot, who came in to the attack. In an instant, the inside of the trench was turned into an inferno by his bombs and the explosives hurled at us by US troops and by the flame-throwers which poured flame at us before the smoke from the bombing had cleared away. Everything was incinerated.

    In that burned out trench, where everything was totally destroyed, no human being could have survived other than by a miracle. As it happened, there was a miracle.

    I don't know how long it was before I was aware I was still alive. I could not move my hands or feet freely, and my body felt as if it were being pressed by something heavy. All I was sure of was the fact that I was still alive. Then I regained consciousness completely. I was lying under a heap of blackened corpses, and around me in the trench I could see hands and feet scattered all over. It was a scene of such disaster that, without thinking, I wanted to cover my eyes, even though I was quite battle-hardened by this time.

    Of the 15 of us who had sworn to live or die together, I was the only one left. There was no sign of any of the others, and my insignificant life had only been saved because I had been sheltered by the dead bodies of my comrades. I could feel there were burns on my face, but I was still not sure I was all in one piece and for a while, everything went blank. When I came to again, I tried to crawl out of the trench. It was already dark, and all round me everything had gone uncannily quiet. Tarawa felt exactly like an island of the dead. Apart from a few lights which seemed to be in the US positions, far off, the deep blackness stretched everywhere. The sound of guns which had made the whole island shake, had completely died away. Had the fighting come to an end? If that were the case, and I was on an island where the Japanese forces had been completely wiped out, and I was the sole survivor, what was I to do? There was no-one to give me orders. I was unarmed. I hadn't even a rifle to fight with. There were no comrades to give me comfort or spur me on. How was I going to stay alive on this island which was filled with enemy soldiers? And supposing I stayed alive, there was absolutely no hope of ever going back to Japan. When I thought about it, an indescribable feeling of loneliness pressed in on me, the terror of it almost stifled me.

    Then dawn came. If I can keep alive, then that's what I must do, I thought and at the same time. I became aware of the gnawing emptiness in my belly. I began to go round the island from then on looking for something to eat, prepared to take the risk of being captured by avoiding being spotted by the Americans and watching out for any signs of other Japanese. But I found nothing to eat, and there was no sign of any Japanese either. All I was left with was my empty stomach and a feeling of unbearable solitude.

    One night I crossed the sea channel secretly, and moved across to a small island nearby, about half a mile away. There should have been Japanese garrison troops there too but that island also had been occupied. Since I might be spotted by an American sentry, I hid during the day in deep foliage or under the shadow of rocks, and then at night-fall, I pottered along the shore in search of food. Small fish, prawns and crayfish which could be caught in the shallows were important articles of food. On rare occasions, there would be a feast, a coconut fallen from a palm tree. As the days went by in this fashion, I was joined by other survivors, Japanese soldiers who began to gather in ones and twos from the other islands. In the end, there were seven of us. In a way, that gave me strength and encouragement, but the way ahead was gloomy. We thought that if we were taken prisoner we would be killed, in which case, we preferred to take our own lives. So, all seven of us tried to hang ourselves, together. But the rope was weak and it snapped, so we ended up unable to kill ourselves.

    On this island, if you dug down about a foot, salt water came out. so there was no drinking water at all. I found thirst harder to bear than hunger, but I knew that if I drank the water I would pay for it. Of course, there was nothing to eat, and every day rather than look for food in order to live, we lived in order to look for food. The seven of us had come together with great difficulty, but in the end we split up and went off to different parts of the island in the search for food. In the end, I was left on my own again.

    An abandoned Japanese tank, used in the defence of the Marshall Islands, 8 February 1944, stands in the wreckage of the tropical island.


    This miserable existence went on for three weeks, until one day. being unable to endure my parched throat which felt as usual, as if it were on fire, I went out along the beach, by the water's edge, almost without knowing what I was doing. US troops on patrol found me. By that time, I had absolutely no physical or spiritual strength to resist left in me.

    After they had captured me, the US troops seemed to begin a search of the whole island, every nook and cranny, and one by one, my six comrades were taken. Once again, our seven faces were brought together but this time we were no longer free men, we were prisoners of war.

    The destruction on Tarawa at an end, the seven of us who had secretly survived but were weak enough to drop, were soon transferred to a US Navy destroyer. We were helped and looked after at first, rather than interrogated, and they gave us food. However, since we had resolved that we would be killed sooner or later, when the next day dawned we said to ourselves, 'This is our last day', and then when the sun went down, we thought, 'We've lived one more day today', with some surprise. It was a complicated feeling. Although for the past three weeks we'd had no fear of dying at all, we began to think we'd been lucky, and as we continued to stay alive, life began to seem a desirable thing.

    The Americans treated us with amazing politeness, giving us injections to give us strength, and masses of food to eat, which restored us. It was perhaps a bit late in the day. but we were gradually made to feel the enormous gap in combat strength between the US forces which could have enough food like this, even in the midst of a battle, and our army which depended on hard tack and dried bonito. Our weakened bodies were restored to health but the wound in our hearts would not heal.

    Afterwards, the six of us were split up and I was sent by ship to a camp in Hawaii, then to New York, then again to a camp in Wisconsin and finally one in Texas. That was where I heard the war was over. It was a pitiful defeat. But the fact that the earth of my mother country still remained was a consolation for me. If the war had gone on any longer, I might have become a man with no mother country at all."

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