One Square Mile of Hell: The Battle for Tarawa

One Square Mile of Hell by John Wukovits is a perfect example of great military history. It is a well-researched piece that brings the human factor into a brutal fight between the Americans and Japanese in World War II for the Tarawa atoll (specifically Betio Island).

Wukovits does a superb job retelling one the most crucial battles in the Pacific – possibly even the entire war. It is a gripping tale of death, heroism, and survival. Wukovits narrates the battle through the experiences of several men – “two corporals who had boyhood friends, three brothers, a colonel, a corpsman, a combat photographer, and a Medal of Honor winner”.

Warfare has always been a test of strength between two opponents, but Wukovits explains that the fighting for Betio was one of the supreme tests. The men who assaulted Betio were a special group. As Wukovits relates, many of the Marines had to wade through water for as far as seven hundred yards – all under machine gun and mortar fire. Hundreds of Marines were mowed down, yet astoundingly the Marines continued to press forward until they had a foothold on land. Once on land, hundreds more died as they fought sometimes hand-to-hand to wrench the island away from the fearless Japanese defenders.

Beyond doing an awesome job of retelling the battle, Wukovits puts the importance of the battle in the context of the war. Betio was the first amphibious assault on hostile beaches of the war – there was no opposition to the initial landings on Guadalcanal. The success or failure of Tarawa would influence future amphibious assaults in the Pacific and, even, the invasion of France. Wukovits contends that if the Tarawa assault failed, Allied planners in Europe may have scrubbed the assault on France – I don’t know about that, but I do know that Tarawa had a larger impact on strategy than previously thought by some historians.

This is an excellent book for anyone interested in reading about the brutality of the war in the Pacific during World War II.

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