JUST DOING HIS DUTY
SUMMARY: A note on a WWII veteran of Tarawa today.
By James Bradley, author of FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, a
spring 2000 publication.
I woke up this Thanksgiving morning thinking of Bob
Nelson and I don't know why.
I interviewed Bob in the DeKalb (Illinois) Hospital last
month. He's 75 and ailing, attached to oxygen and "some
days are better than others."
I came to ask him what Tarawa was like. I already knew
that the seizure of this spit of sand in the Pacific by
the Marines in 1944 was probably the most concentrated
battle of WWII. Tarawa was only 800 yards wide and the
Japanese were in bunkers that our bombs merely bounced
As a boy Bob loved to go to the target range and shoot
his gun. The Marines appreciated his marksmanship and
placed him in their sharpshooters unit, probably the best
bunch of deadeyes in the world at that time.
The Japanese had built a long pier out from the beach to
unload supplies from ships that couldn't make it into the
shallows. This pier was as wide and strong as a road,
trucks and tanks rumbled down it. In preparation for the
Marine landing, the Japanese had positioned machine gun
nests on the pier, protected by walls of sandbags. When
the waves of Marines in their boats approached shore,
these machine guns would pick them off from the side. It
would be a turkey shoot.
Bob and his fellow sharpshooters were told they would be
the first to land on Tarawa, that they would be unloaded
on that pier with only their rifles and they were
expected to take out these fortified machine gun
I asked Bob how he felt as a 20-year-old boy as he leapt
from his boat onto the pier. "Of course we were scared,"
he recalled, "but we had to do our duty."
I had a hard time keeping Bob on the subject. He didn't
want to talk about himself; he seemed somewhat
embarrassed by the attention I was focusing on him. He
kept repeating "we were just doing our duty" as if to
explain that he was just another ordinary kid doing what
he was told.
But I prodded him for details. He reluctantly told me
his story. About how he just did his duty.
Bob and his fellow sharpshooters raced along that pier
and killed every one of the enemy machinegunners. How
this is possible, I can't imagine. Bob modestly
explained it away as just doing what they were told to
do. That was the mission, and he just did his duty.
After silencing the threat from the pier, Bob jumped into
a boat headed for the beach. There was a foot of red
water in the bottom of the boat.
Parts of four dead Marines sloshed in the water. The
boat driver had been killed so another Marine took over
the wheel. A shell hit and cut him in half. Bob's boat
floated to shore. Bob jumped over the side, bullets
pinging off the metal. Machine gunners ashore saw how
Bob came off the boat and swiveled their sites. None of
the other guys made it onto the island.
"Then what did you do?" I asked, pen in hand. "Just what
we had to," Bob answered, perhaps hoping I'd accept that
answer and stop peppering him with questions. That I'd
finally realize that he had done nothing special, that he
was just doing his duty. But I pressed on.
Bob huddled against the coconut-log seawall as shells
exploded the corpses around him. He knew that the
machine-gunners who had just killed his boat-mates were
firing from a blockhouse just 10 yards from the seawall.
The blockhouse had walls three feet thick with tiny slits
for the machine guns to fire through. Weeks before the
Japanese commander of Tarawa, while examining these
blockhouses said, "This island won't be taken in a
thousand years." But that commander had never met Bob.
And he didn't know about Bob's duty.
"Cover me," Bob shouted to Marines on either side of him.
He grabbed an explosive charge, stood, leapt over the
seawall and ran towards the blockhouse. With bullets
dancing all around he calmly stuffed the charge into one
of the death-spewing slits. After the muffled explosion
Bob scooted around to the back, entered the door with his
pistol drawn and shot the stunned occupants to death.
Three Japanese, three bullets. Bob was a pretty good
There was a silence in the hospital room as I absorbed
what Bob had just told me. Finally I said, "So you were
just doing your duty . . ."
"Yea, that's it," Bob said quickly as he brushed some
lint off his bathrobe. He sounded relieved, like I
finally got it, that I understood now that he had done
nothing anyone else wouldn't do, relieved that his ordeal
of talking about himself was at an end.
I don't know why I woke up thinking of Bob this
Thanksgiving morning. Maybe it's because I am thankful
that I get to meet guys like him in the course of my
research. Or maybe I'm thankful for what Bob and his
generation did for all of us. Or maybe I'm thankful for
what the Bobs say about America on this national holiday.
I'm not sure.
But I thought you might want to know about Bob out there
in the DeKalb Hospital, who was just doing his duty.
Bob, I knew Bob's story for a month and couldn't
understand why I woke up crying as I thought of him on
Thanksgiving. I took a drive to shake it but just kept
thinking of him. I wrote that note to get him out of my
mind. Later I took my daughter to a movie but kept
daydreaming about Bob and lost track of the plot.
Last night at 10pm someone from DeKalb, Illinois called
to tell me something. In the two hours it took me to
wake up and write that note, Bob went into his final coma
and his wife and son are now by his side awaiting his
Semper Fidelis, James Bradley contributed by Fran Hughes