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Pacific FrontNovember 1943

US Marine, Tarawa

Michael Witowich
Michael Witowich was a US Marine who fought on the island of Tarawa and then on Saipan. He describes in graphic terms the appalling brutality of the fighting.

Michael Witowich’s words are read by Colin Stinton.

Testimony Transcript

Laurence Rees: Michael Witowich joined the United States Marine Corps early in the war. And he remembers what he was taught to feel about the Japanese, from almost the first day of his training.

Words of Michael Witowich: They showed us the Japanese fighting the Chinese - showed us how they threw the children up and bayoneted them. And they put that hate in us. In other words, you can’t kill sweetly, you have to have that hate. Well, after that training, you have a lot of hate. I hated the Japs. But it was something that I just loved to do - kill, day in and day out. I thought they were very cruel, they were sadistic. They wanted to die for the Emperor and we had to go out there and help them die for the Emperor. I would have described myself as a professional killer, United States Marine, that was sent out, thousands of miles from home, to die for an ideal so that we’d have a better world to live in. And because of the Japs, what they did to Pearl Harbour, we had to go and defend our freedom.

Laurence Rees: In November 1943 Michael Witowich took part in the American assault on the tiny Pacific atoll of Tarawa.

Words of Michael Witowich: I felt awful. I was, like, paralysed, going in – going in to die, you know - ‘cos you see so many of your buddies are dying, and you’ve got to keep on going, that’s a funny feeling. But the prayers helped, talk to the man upstairs. ‘Do unto others as others do unto you,’ I guess, you know. War is hell, so we were in hell. As we were going in the boat got hooked on the coral because the tide was going out. Two of us went out and then a shell hit the boat. Bodies just blew all over – parts of bodies, heads, legs. And we started swimming, waist deep, to the beach. I blew a lot of them out of the caves. We put gasoline in the slits of the pill boxes and lit it with a flame thrower and we shot the hell out of them as they were going out. You can imagine the smell that was there on Tarawa. It’s like cat manure. It’s horrible. Makes you want to puke. I put some cotton in my nose but the smell was horrible, with the maggots crawling over the bodies, over their eyes and mouth. And we sat there eating our rations – a dead Jap here, a dead Marine there. I was very bitter about losing my buddies. Seeing them lying there, burying them, leaves an awful feeling in your heart. Fellas that you trained with, went on liberty with – young kids, sixteen, seventeen. Sometimes it’s even hard to think about the horrors of the war. The screaming, the ‘Help! Help!’ I used to have that in my battle dreams, you know. I re-lived that in my dreams.

Laurence Rees: From the horrors of Tarawa, Michael Witowich moved on the next year to fight on the island of Saipan in the Marianas. And here he and his fellow Marines continued to face fierce Japanese resistance.

Words of Michael Witowich: How I ever went through the twenty five days and twenty five nights on Saipan, I don’t know. Day in day out, day in day out, no sleep. Only God would know the suffering you’ve got to go through. I can’t forget my buddies, the horror, seeing them dying and screaming: ‘Help! Help!’ There’s nothing you can do. Guys that are screaming and yelling. Horrible. You can see pictures, you can read about them, but you have to be there to listen to the death rattle and the feeling that you get by seeing what’s happening. It’s horrible.

Laurence Rees: And almost more horrible for Michael Witowich was the sight of many of the civilians on Saipan choosing to commit suicide rather than be captured by the Americans.

Words of Michael Witowich: They would get the child in their arms, and they’d bend over and jump off the cliff. They’d jump and you could hear the screaming of the children on the coral. I used to shoot the children as they went down so they wouldn’t suffer when they hit the coral. I used to think in my dreams whether it was right for me to do that, so they wouldn’t have to suffer when they went down. ‘Cos when they hit the coral they’d still be alive and have a horrible death, so it’s like shooting a horse that breaks its leg – and this is a human being.

Laurence Rees: Michael Witowich, like many of his comrades, also succumbed to the brutalizing effect of this war. Even taking gold teeth from the mouths of dead Japanese.

Words of Michael Witowich: I shot him in the head with a .45 and automatically the mouth opens up. Man! All them gold teeth staring at me. And I didn’t knock them out with a rifle, but I used pliers. I had a whole canteen of gold teeth. That’s kind of cannibalistic, but during the war everything is horrible. I guess I just had so much hate while I was doing that, you know. There are a lot of atrocities in war on both sides. Not only on one side, on both sides. Call it revenge. Call it what you will.

Laurence Rees: And as he looked back on the war, Michael Witowich struggled in many ways to make sense of what he had been through.

Words of Michael Witowich: I feel good about myself, you know, trying to forget, but it’s so easy to remember, so hard to forget. It’s hard. You try but your subconscious mind, you know, is there. You have feelings, thoughts run through your head about the things that you’ve been through. And the after effects of the things that happened, you know. The mind is something else.