Tarawa Beachhead (1958)




Director:     Paul Wendkos.

Starring:     Kerwin Mathews (Sgt. Thomas A. 'Tom' Sloan),  Julie Adams (Ruth Nelson Campbell),  Ray Danton (Lt. Joel Brady),  Karen Sharpe (Paula Nelson),  Onslow Stevens (General Nathan Keller). 

Black and white film. 

WWII, war in the Pacific, Battle of Tarawa, Nov. 20-23, 1943. 



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

1942.  The U. S. Marines land on Guadalcanal.  A unit heading inland runs into two Japanese machine gun nests set up in two caves in the rocks.   The Japanese open up on the marines.  Down goes the man on point.  A camouflaged Japanese soldier gets close to the Americans and tosses a hand grenade.  More Americans go down. 

Lt. Joel Brady calls in to ask for permission to take out the two machine gun nests.  He tells his superior officer that he and his men can take the caves.  When he gets off the phone, Sgt. Sloan expresses his disapproval.  The lieutenant says they have 18 men, but Sgt. Sloan corrects him that now it's only 15 men.  The lieutenant is not phased by this.  Sloan has been through a similar attack and they lost much more than 15 men.  He adds that men die in war, but at least the death should count for something.  The lieutenant says it's the unit's chance to show just how good they are.  Sloan replies:  "I'm not that ambitious."  Brady replies:  "No kidding."  He then goes on to say that if they make themselves heroes, they will have it made when they return to the United States.  But, if the sergeant keeps up his complaining, he will have to shoot the sergeant.  The sergeant, without saying anything, heads over to the men. 

The lieutenant calls the squad leaders together.  He tells them his plan of attack.  The squad leaders get their men in position.  They try a frontal assault.  Two more marines are hit and go down.  Lucky for the men, there are some rocks they can use as cover.  They reach the rocks and have some very good luck with throwing their grenades into the caves, but the machine guns keep shooting out lead.  Another marine bites the dust.  At least Brady takes the dangerous task of repelling down the rocks and throwing a satchel of explosives into one of the caves.  The two caves are connected to each other and the explosion clears out everyone from the caves. 

There are, however, other Japanese in the area.  They lob a mortar at the marines.  Then a machine gun opens up on the Americans.  Brady tells some of his men to fall back.  To make a long story short, the marines get clobbered.  There are now only three marines left: the lieutenant, the sergeant and an enlisted man named Joe Campbell.  The enlisted man is angry at Brady asking:  "All dead for what?"  The fellow even says he's getting away from the lieutenant, but the lieutenant orders him to stay put.  Brady says they did take the caves.  Sarge tells him:  "Sure, we took them."  Campbell bitterly says:  "For two big minutes."  He now accuses Brady of glory hunting saying the men died just to get Brady's picture into the newspapers.  The guy suddenly just bolts away from the lieutenant and the sergeant.  The lieutenant mows him down with his automatic weapon.  The sergeant is furious with Brady and says:  "You murdering maniac."  Brady makes up excuses for why he shot Joe.  The sarge doesn't believe a word of what he says.  The lieutenant warns the sergeant against saying anything about this incident to his superior officers or sarge will be the one in trouble.  The men now pull back as a Japanese machine gun opens up on them. 

Back at the encampment, a marine tells the lieutenant that a newspaper man wants to talk to him.  The newspaperman named Sam meets Brady as he is explaining how he lost all his men except for the sergeant to the enemy.  Sam comments that he heard the enemy gave Brady a really hard time out there.  Brady goes on with his report.  They captured the caves, but the Japs got them back.  The superior officers don't say anything, except:  "Well, you did your best."  The newspaperman has Brady write down his name and address on a piece of paper.  He asks Brady how many men did he start the fight with?  18.  How many survived?  2.  He shakes Brady's hand and then leaves. 

The two superior officers come back over to Brady and say they will find him a company to lead somewhere.  They then have the sergeant come into the tent.  Brady says he wants to recommend Sgt. Sloan for a battle field commission.  Sloan looks like he's in a trance.  They ask him if he wants to add anything to the report and he says no. 

Sloan sits in the jeep waiting for the driver to drive him to get his arm checked out. Brady comes over and tells Sloan that he did Sloan a favor back in the tent.  Now he'll be a lieutenant too.  Sloan tells him:  "I'm going to take those bars and cut you wide open with them."  The driver arrives and off they go. 

Sloan is promoted to Second Lieutenant of the United States Marine Corps Reserves.  He heads off to Wellington, New Zealand to see Gen. Nathan Keller, U.S.M.C., Commanding Officer, Pacific Area Command.   There he asks for a transfer.  The clerk asks Sloan if this request for a transfer is a bit premature?  Sloan says no and that they need their best men up on the front lines.  Gen. Keller tells him:  "You know, son.  We need a few more officers like you.  That way we could do all our fighting with second lieutenants." 

Sloan checks into his room.  His roommate is a very friendly fellow named Gideon.  He tries to be friendly, but Sloan is still thinking about what happened on Guadalcanal.  Gideon mentions that Sloan ain't much of a talker.  Sloan tells him he's going out and getting drunk.  Gideon says he wants to go with him, but Sloan says not this time. 

Sloan drives over to the home of Mrs. Joseph Campbell.  Ruth Campbell comes down and Sloan tells her that he was a friend of her husband.  Her father comes into the room and she introduces him to Lt. Sloan.  The lieutenant takes out the letters from her husband and gives them to her.  She immediately sits down and starts reading them.  She asks her father to take the lieutenant out onto the terrace and she will join them shortly. 

Dad tells Sloan that he had a son that was killed in the Libyan desert.  He asks Sloan if his son-in-law's death was a necessary one?  Did those caves have to be taken?   Sloan keeps avoiding the issue by saying things like he doesn't know.  He gets nervous and upset and wants to leave.  Dad tells him that he thought the lieutenant would at least stay for dinner.  Sloan says he can't, but when the pretty Ruth Campbell asks him to stay for dinner, he stays. 

She tells Sloan that her husband wrote that the sergeant was a good, honest man.  She asks him to come again.  Sloan jumps at the chance to come back.  Ruth smiles. 

On other days they go for a rowboat ride in the small lake on Ruth's property and take long walks on her large ranch.  He asks her to come to Wellington with him and she says yes.  They go inside.  She introduces Tom Sloan to her sister Paula.  Paula is very friendly to him.  She then says come see who she caught in town.  It's none other than Captain Brady.  Brady asks the women for some alone time so he can talk to Sloan.  The women leave. 

Sloan wants to know what Brady told the family about Johnny Campbell's death?  Brady told them that he was Johnny Campbell's friend. 

At the end of the evening Sloan tells Joan and Casey (the father) that he has to get going.  Dad says he was hoping that the two Americans would stay on here in New Zealand after the war is over.  Sloan makes no commitment.  He says good night and thank you and starts to leave.  He hears Paula giggling from somewhere on the second floor.  He decides to walk up the steps.  He sees Paula and Joel hugging and kissing.  She notices Sloan on the steps and starts laughing slightly.  Sloan says he wants to talk to Brady.  So, Ruth walks away from Brady. 

The two men go into a bedroom to talk.  Sloan talks about Brady riding Campbell's dead body right into the man's family.  Brady says he came for the same reason that Sloan came.  Sloan says there's one big difference:  Brady killed Campbell.  Brady say it was an "accident".  He says he let the family believe that Campbell died for something important.  And then he met Paula.  Sloan tells Brady to leave these people alone. 

Ruth tells Paula that she has really been seeing a lot of this Joel Brady.  She encourages Paula not to get too close to Joel right away.  She should try to stay young as long as she can. 

Gen. Keller comes into the briefing room to tell his officers what is the next big project.  They will be attacking in the Gilbert Islands.  More specifically they will hit the atoll of Tarawa.  Paula sees Sloan in the tavern waiting for her sister.  She comes over and talks with him a bit.  She says that Sloan doesn't really like Brady much.  Sloan says they had an incident.  He asks Paula if Brady has told her about it and she says not really. She then tells Sloan to be good to Ruth, because Ruth needs him.  Paula leaves and goes upstairs to talk with Brady.  She asks him what was the nature of the dispute between him and Sloan.  Brady just makes some general point that is of no use to Paula. 

Ruth arrives and sits down with Sloan.  Gideon brings their drinks to them.  Ruth asks him to sit down with them, but he says he has a date and has to pick her out.  It's so busy there with service men that the two decide to go somewhere more quiet.  Later they sit on a bench.  Ruth kisses him. 

Sloan works on his part of the big operation.  The planning right down to every man's mess-kit is not easy. 

Ruth and Sloan have a picnic by the ranch lake.  She says she doesn't want to make any commitments or promises to him.  She wants everything to be temporary so she wont have her heart-broken again.  Ruth also says that she won't fall in love, but she will enjoy every minute she's with Tom.  Tom asks her what if he gets her to fall in love with him?  She laughs and says that she will hate him for it.

Gen. Keller knows that Sloan prefers combat to planning, so he is going to be sent out on a night raid with a marine unit onto an island in the Loyalty Group.  The Japs have it.  The general wants a full account of the machine gun pillboxes being constructed by the Japanese.  Captain Brady's in charge.  In fact, Brady asked specifically for Sloan.  Sloan's heart sinks a bit. 

Sloan meets Ruth in a hotel room.  They kiss.  Tom can feel that she's a bundle of nerves.  She cries and tells him that she's just so afraid of what might happen to him.  He tells her that fear is just the admission price to be in a relationship these days.  He tells her he loves her and asks her to marry him.  They kiss. 

Sloan is on the ship ready to go.  He meets Sgt. Anderson, a photographer assigned to work with Sloan.  Anderson tells him that Capt. Brady wants to see the lieutenant as soon as he gets on board.  So Tom goes to see Brady.  Sloan is very suspicious of Brady's motives and asks what does he want from him?  Brady says:  "Well, I thought I might get myself killed on this trip and solve all your problems."  But then he thought that his buddy Sloan ought to have the same opportunity to get killed.  Brady's got some big news.  He and Paula were married today.  Sloan doesn't like that at all.  Brady says that Guadalcanal is over and remembers it's Johnny Campbell's death that gave Sloan all that time with his widow.  Sloan slugs Brady and leaves the room. 

In the evening Sloan and the men gets into two boats.  There are 30 or more marines involved in this raid.  A Japanese guard is killed.  A hand grenade is toss at a building.  Japanese rush to the attack and are mowed down by the marines.  A Japanese soldier laying on the ground grabs Sloan's ankles as the pass by him on the beach.  The soldier tries to kill him with his knife, but Sloan is bigger and stronger than the Japanese fellow.  Brady was going to shoot the enemy in the head for the lieutenant, but he decides not to.  The lieutenant strangles the enemy to death. 

Japanese tanks are coming up to repel the night raid.  Brady rushes into one of the boats with other soldiers and he tells them that the lieutenant is dead and they have to get going now.  When Brady gets back on the ship he goes to his room.  There waiting for him with a pistol in his hand is Lt. Sloan, who is talking about killing Brady.  Another officer comes into the room and is taken aback by seeing Sloan holding a pistol on Brady.  Brady tells the fellow not to worry, they were just playing  bad cop, good cop.  Sloan is wanted on the bridge. 

Sloan is now told that he has been ordered to Pearl Harbor.  Gen. Keller will meet him there.  A sea plane is going to land near the ship to take Sloan to Hawaii. 

Sloan gives a briefing for the top brass in Pearl Harbor about those pill boxes they saw on their night raid.  He says the walls were 3 feet thick.  A tank shell hit one of them and it just tore them up a little bit.  The top brass now realizes that these pill boxes are not going to be easy to destroy with naval guns.  How many direct hits can they count on during the Tarawa bombardment?  Gen. Keller says none.  That's why the Navy has the marines. 

After the meeting, the Gen. says they are rejoining the convoy.  Sloan says he thought they were going back to Wellington.  No.  Why?  Sloan says he was going to file some papers in Wellington.  What kind of papers? They are charges against a fellow officer for killing a marine during battle.  The general asks him if he knows what he's doing?  Combat can get awfully confusing and muddled.  Sloan says he's damn sure of what he saw.  Keller tells him that he better be sure, or it will be Sloan himself hanging on the hook. 

The naval ships open fire on the atoll of Tarawa.  Overhead airplanes drops bombs on the island.  The air report comes in saying that the Japanese coastal guns have been knocked out.  Keller is happy to hear that.  The first wave of marines goes into battle. 

This battle is the first one where the marines meet resistance right on the beach.  Previously, their landings were walk-ons.  The marines start taking heavy casualties.  Brady gets his men moving forward.  He wants to use the satchels to knock out some of the pill boxes.  The enemy fire is so great that he has to order his men to fall back.  Brady calls in for artillery fire on the pill boxes in his area.

Sloan tells Keller:  "They can't move. They're pinned down on the seawall all along red beach."  Some of the troops of the second wave made it but many of the boats got caught up in the coral rocks.  These marines are walking in to get to the beach and they are under heavy enemy fire.  Keller tells Sloan to tell them to keep going.

Brady gets his men together to make another attempt to knock out the pill boxes.  His men are not looking forward to the next attempt.  Brady himself throws a satchel into a pill box.  Then they get another one.  Sloan reports to Keller that Brady and his men are completely forward of the beach.  They took out two pill boxes.  D company led by Gideon is next to Brady, but Gideon is dead now.  Keller tells Sloan to get down to the beach and take over D company.  He wants to get another unit moving off the beach. 

Sloan arrives and tells Sgt. Ross to get him four grenade launchers and they will fire some white phosphorus grenades near the pill boxes.  This will give some amount of smoke screening, so D company doesn't get all shot up.  He also asks the sergeant to bring up a satchel for him.  Sloan has the radioman call Brady to tell him D company is moving up next to him.  Brady's company moves up and makes it to just below more pill boxes.  Brady throws a satchel into a pill box and the explosion knocks out the enemy gunners.  Brady is set to attack a second line of pill boxes, when a marine tells him to wait for D company which is quickly coming off the beach and to the pill boxes.

Keller is informed that Brady and D company are both off the beach now.  The general comments:  "Well, we got 50 yards, boy.  That's a day's work." 

Sloan decides to go out and look for Brady's people.  He reach what's left of the company, but Sloan learns Brady is still out there with some of the company.   Another marine tells Sloan to check the next pill box over there where he is pointing.  As Sloan runs over to find Brady, he is wounded in the leg.  When he arrives in the pill box Brady is just staring straight ahead.  Sloan tells him that his men are out of position.  So get out there and get them in position.  Brady just stares straight ahead. 

Sloan goes over to Brady and pulls his head back by Brady's hair and tells him to get out there and get his men in line.  Brady almost whispers that he can't.  Sloan mocks him:  "Brave Joel Brady finally ran out of steam."  Sloan himself gets a bit down-hearted too.  He falls asleep.  Brady goes over and tries to take the rifle from Sloan, but Sloan wakes up in time to stop him.  Brady now asks where are his men? 

The new order is for all units on red beach to move up.  Brady looks out a pill box window and sees that no one is getting up to try to move off the beach.  Brady thinks about leading the next charge.  Sloan tells him he has used up all his mileage now.   This makes Brady mad and he tells Sloan that he doesn't know anything about him.  He says:  "You don't even know that it's men like me that make this war."  Sloan says he won't make it past 20 yards.  Brady grabs a satchel and tells Sloan to keep watching the next pill box to them ". . . because I'm going to bust this battle wide open."

Brady runs as fast as he can to the next pill box.  He climbs up near the window and throws the satchel in.  The satchel explodes.  Brady is alive, but not for long.  A machine gunner in the next pill box over fires a long burst at Brady and takes him out of action. 

After a lot more fighting, Gen. Keller is able to get onto the beach.  He sees Sloan on a stretcher with his bad leg wound.  Keller tells him to tell him all about this Brady character.  He wants to present a posthumous Medal of Honor to him.  Sloan says who knows?:  "Maybe it's guys like him who win the wars.  Maybe they start them.  I don't know."  Stretcher bearers arrive to take Sloan back to his ship and the ship's hospital. 


I was glad to be able to get a film on Tarawa, since that was such an important battle for the Navy and the U.S. marines.  This battle taught them a lesson.  It taught them that this island hopping is going to be a lot worse than they had expected.  Within just 76 hours, nearly the full amount of the ultimate figure of 6,000 Japanese and American fighters were killed.  Only 17 Japanese soldiers were taken alive.  The Americans were shocked by the blood bath.  The number of casualties was close to the amount killed on Guadalcanal, but that was over a 6 month campaign.  "The lessons learned at Tarawa would be applied to all subsequent amphibious assaults as the United States worked its way across the Central Pacific."  The mistakes at Tarawa included:  "the inability of a brief naval bombardment to weaken the defenses of a well entrenched enemy; the miscalculation of the low tide and the height of the obstructing coral reefs; the operational short comings of the landing craft available; and the difficulties of coordinating and communicating between the different forces involved."

The film had a long warm-up period to the actual Battle of Tarawa.  The guys were first on Guadalcanal and then on a night raid on another island.  Then they head to Wellington, New Zealand where the two main male characters find love with two pretty sisters.  The main question becomes then will the two marines survive their next assault on an island?  They finally get to Tarawa and the fighting there is fierce and bloody.  The film ends when the battle is won.  I was disappointed that there was no follow-up with the love stories in Wellington with the two sisters.  Oh, well.  The film was good. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 




Historical Background:


November, 1943 -- assault on the Gilbert Islands: Makin and Tarawa, tiny strips of coral and sand.

Enemy was thoroughly entrenched. Tarawa was a fortress.

Started from airstrips on the Marshalls to soften up the islands. Bombed islands on both Marshall and Gilbert islands.

Nov 1943 -- Cairo was the setting for a major meeting between government leaders; Chiang Kai-shek, FDR, and Churchill were there.

China Nov 1943 -- Japanese armies driving ahead in Hunan province.

Two naval task forces headed to the Gilbert Islands, one from Hawaii and the other from New Zealand.

Nov 21, 1943 -- the assault on the atolls begin. 5 hour bombardment of Makin. 165th of the Army went in. Light resistance. The enemy had not planned a strong defense. There was only a small enemy garrison. It only took three days to take the island.

100 miles south Betio Island of Tarawa atoll was the target. Naval bombing and ship bombardment started, but these were not well coordinated and the navy only bombarded for three hours. No one knew what damage was being done to the island defenses. The first wave was brought in by amphibian tractors. Later they came in by landing boats. The tide was lower than expected and the boats were not able to clear the reefs. Many were stalled 500 yards from the beach. The amphibian boats had no problem. They had to go back and forth carrying the troops off the reefs.

Marines of the second division land. Tougher landing than expected; casualties were very heavy. This was the first invasion that was really opposed by the Japanese.

Japanese defenses were incredible, with coconut log bunkers. Had to flush the Japanese out.

Toughest single fight for the Marines in 167 years of corps history. The lessons learned at Tarawa would prove invaluable for further invasions.

Nov 24 -- only 76 hours after the invasion started, the island was declared secure.

Returned to British rule. The British flag raised. 1,000 marines from a single division were killed. 2,101 Americans wounded in action. 4,500 Japanese killed. Only 17 Japanese surrendered. 129 Koreans, used as laborers and doubling as riflemen, gave up.


Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)