By Leon Cooper

“Permission to come aboard, sir?” I asked one of the two officers standing at the quarterdeck, as I boarded the ship that would be my home for the next three years. “Granted. Your name?” Handing him the envelope containing my orders, I replied, “Leon Cooper, sir.” The two officers looked at each other, knowingly. “More fresh meat,” said one. The look on my face showed my curiosity at what seemed to me to be a left-handed attempt at a joke. Then the same officer announced cheerily, “Welcome to the meat grinder, Cooper. You’re in the boat group, aren’t you? Yeah, I see by your orders you are…” after a pause, “Welcome aboard, Leon. I’m Tom Fowler.” Motioning to a sailor standing by, he said, “Take Mr. Cooper and his gear to Officers Country.” I would learn soon enough that the boat division I had been assigned to had a high casualty rate compared to the other ships’ divisions, hence its nickname “Meat Grinder.”

I would share my cramped room in Officers Country with Frank Farrell, the ship’s communications officer, a lucky break for me because he shared “classified information” with me, including advance word about upcoming invasions. That’s how I learned before most on the ship that our next invasion, my first, would be the Battle of Tarawa. “Why there?” I asked Farrell. “The Japs have an airstrip there,” was the reply. “For chrissakes,” I exclaimed in amazement, “that’s 6,500 miles to Tokyo!” Farrell shrugged his shoulders and left the room.

Tarawa would also be the first battle experience of the Pacific War for the 2nd Division Marines. We had picked up several battalions of the division during our brief stay in Wellington, New Zealand in November 1943. The trip north from Wellington to our destination on the Equator became more humid and more uncomfortable with the passing of each day. The Marines by now had found it almost impossible to sleep in their assigned quarters below deck. Nearly all found relief by sleeping on the weather decks of the ship, even during the heavy tropical downpours, which became more frequent as we approached our final destination. I had to walk sometimes among the sleeping Marines, watching my step so as not to disturb their sleep. I looked down at them as I walked, wondering sadly how many would survive the upcoming battle. By now, I had learned from Farrell, my roommate that recently updated aerial reconnaissance revealed much heavier Japanese defenses than previous photos had shown. For the first time, I began to worry about myself, thinking more about the “meat-grinder” nickname of my boat division.

There were daily briefing sessions in the Wardroom for the officers, mostly about our assignments on D-Day and afterwards. We learned nothing new; the briefings simply repeated each day what we had heard before. Occasionally, the ship’s captain would drop by to tell us, with seeming relish, “There’ll be blood running in the scuppers.” Once a Marine Corps colonel came by to tell us, “The Japs would be blasted to Kingdom Come. We’ll just walk ashore like a walk in the park – no resistance.” I sometimes watched the briefing sessions on deck among the Marines, who were hunched around a mockup of an island, not yet identified. The island was shaped like a pork chop. It would be identified, just before the invasions, as Betio, in the Tarawa atoll. I remember thinking at the time why the big, dumb secret? Were there spies on the ship who would somehow be able to forward this information to the enemy?

I had been promoted to “watch officer underway” and would stand regular watches, as “officer of the deck” on the ship’s Navigation Bridge. The Officer of the Deck is literally in command of the ship when he says to the officer he’s relieving, “I’ve got the duty” or words to that effect. I went through the ritual one night, assuming command from the officer I was relieving, when he told me, “There’s a report that some Jap bombers have been spotted heading toward us.” We had radar, of course, but our ship was equipped with ‘surface” radar not with the “air” type.