A Web site allows Tarawa veterans to add their stories, creating a 'living book.'
By WILLIAM K. ALCORN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
BOARDMAN -- What started as a fascination with Tarawa for veterinarian Dr. Donald K. Allen became a driving desire to tell the story of the remote Pacific island group, site of one of World War II's bloodiest battles, before the veterans who fought there all die.
Allen's book, "Tarawa -- The Aftermath," chronicles life on Tarawa atoll, part of the Gilbert Islands before the Nov. 20, 1943, Marine assault on Betio Island there. The book also details events after Nov. 23, the day the atoll was declared secure.
In three days of often hand-to-hand fighting on Betio, more than 1,000 Marines and 4,690 Japanese soldiers and their Korean laborers were killed.
Allen said he concentrated on the events and island inhabitants and soldiers before and after the battle because many excellent and extensive books have already been written on the battle itself.
He said his interest in World War II goes back to junior high school, when he first remembers reading about the war while living in Rockford, Ill., where he graduated from high school in 1965.
The Boardman veterinarian said he is uncertain why he began focusing on Tarawa, one of 33 atolls and islands that now form the Republic of Kiribati. Possibly, he said, because it was Japan's most heavily defended island at the time; and it was the first Marine assault against a fortified island and the beginning of the Navy's drive to take the Pacific away from the Japanese.
Betio is one of some 70 islands and islets that form the atoll.
"No quarter was given on Betio. It was kill or be killed. It woke up the Marines and Navy and the country as to how difficult the war in the Pacific was going to be," he said.
The battle taught the Marines how best to take an island. It was really the first place an amphibious tractor was used, and some of the 40 illustrations in the book picture their rusted hulks still visible around the island.
Allen said he read all about the battle of Tarawa, after which the Marines went to Hawaii to regroup for upcoming Pacific battles.
"I began to wonder, if the island was so important, what did they do with it afterward?" he said, and decided to write that story.
To do the job properly, Allen has visited Tarawa twice: Once in August 1997, when he spent a week exploring Betio and its many fortifications; and a second time, in April 1999, when he had a guide who was able to show him things he would not have found on his own.
He also researched U.S. National Archives and Republic of Kiribati's Tarawa Archives to gather information. And in 2003, the 60th anniversary of the battle on Tarawa, he plans to return for a third visit and to attend the ceremony.
"One thing that impressed me about Betio is all the battle debris that is still visible 50 years after the battle. In my opinion, the island of Betio is a cemetery. There are hundreds of Marines and thousands of Japanese unaccounted for," Allen said.
There is tremendous overpopulation on this tiny island. Betio was relatively developed because of the war, and jobs, electricity and motion pictures were huge magnets for the Gilbertese people. Pollution and disease followed, he said.
Allen decided he needed to learn more, so he and his wife, Paula, went through 32 one-cubic-foot boxes of uncataloged materials on the Marshall Islands and Gilberts at the National Archives in College Park, Md., They found maps and official orders, and a lot of interesting facts started to come together, said Allen.
A former Air Force military journalist, Allen tells the story after the three-day battle, when Navy and Army Air Force personnel moved onto Tarawa to build two airstrips for the next battle in the Pacific, the Marshall Islands.
In addition to searching through archives in the United States and Tarawa, Allen conducted numerous interviews, including more than 100 with veterans, with people who were there -- from Marines who searched for stragglers to a Japanese admiral's houseboy, to an Australian who was 5 years old living on Tarawa when the war arrived there.
One of the most interesting and unusual aspects of his book is that it is linked to a Web site that allows Tarawa veterans to add their stories, thereby making it what Allen calls a "living book."
He sent inquiries to veterans organizations and received a "tremendous response from Seabees and Marines and Navy personnel that served on Tarawa. They gave me personal accounts that I think are gems in the books."
"My desire is to tell the stories that have gone untold ... to show the importance of all the people who served in WWII," he said. "As a former serviceman myself, sometime you feel your job is unimportant. But all jobs are important for the success of the missions."
The guys serving on "the Rock" after the war moved on felt less and less important. They were bored and felt their jobs were totally irrelevant, he said.
Allen published the book himself after spending a year looking for a publisher.
"I had five leads, but a year ago last January, my wife said, 'Why not publish it yourself?'" Allen said.
Jim Berkey of Niles set up Allen's Web site -- www.tarawatheaftermath.com -- where veterans and others can read or submit stories about Tarawa. "I know there are local guys who were there. I'd love to hear from them. That's why I created the Web site."
Allen received the book April 2, 2001, and sent copies to the veterans and others he interviewed.
"My big hope is not to sell 100,000 copies. But I really would like Tarawa vets out there to be aware of the Web site and add their stories. I want to keep the Web site alive for at least five years. Maybe somewhere down the road there will be a compilation. The important thing is to get the stories down," he said.
"We have heroes all around us, the WWII vets. They did save our world. I was driven to get this book out before these guys died," he said.
Allen graduated from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in 1980 and moved to Youngstown in 1984 where he worked for Crago Veterinary Clinic for several years. He started his own practice 10 years ago at 4501 Market St.
He is on the board of Angels for Animals and is a major in the Air Force Reserve, assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in its public health office.
He and his wife, who is also his office manager, have four adult children, Dana and Daniel in Illinois and Amber and Ashley in Ohio.
The 263-page book can be ordered directly from the author at 4501 Market St. or from www.tarawatheaftermath.com. The cost is $29.95.