Sep 2

Tales from a Tarawa Marine

Friday, September 2, 2016 3:05 PM


Roy Elrod was a first lieutenant when he led his four-gun 37-mm antitank platoon ashore on Tarawa Atoll's Betio Island.

Roy Elrod was a first lieutenant when he led his four-gun 37-mm antitank platoon ashore on Tarawa Atoll’s Betio Island.

In the course of my duties as the oral historian for the U.S. Marine Corps History Division, I interviewed Marines, all ranks and all time periods. I was made aware of Lieutenant Colonel Roy H. Elrod in an unusual manner: through family friends from Muleshoe, Texas. This is where I grew up and, coincidentally, where Roy grew up, but about 30 years apart. Now Roy and I live within five miles of each other, but more than 1,500 miles from Muleshoe, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I was quite impressed when I met Roy. Here he was 93 years old; he lived in a modern, large brick home; and he drove his Hummer (!) where he needed to go. His wife of 63 years, Malda, had passed away in 2008.

I was simply amazed at his vitality and mental acuity. Spread out on his dining room table were scrapbooks, letters, photographs, and documents pertaining to his Marine Corps career. When he talked to me about his World War II experiences—including his command of a 37-mm antitank platoon in the Battle of Tarawa on Betio Island—I realized that his story had to be captured.

The first interview occurred in October 2012. We met on multiple occasions after. Most interviews were done at his dining room table where his personal archive lay. We talked about the war and combat in the Pacific, but also about his life growing up in Muleshoe and his life after the war and after he retired from the Marine Corps in 1961. The interviews were recorded; most were audio only, although a few sessions were videotaped at the Marine Corps History Division. This produced more than 30 hours of formal interviews. All the sessions were transcribed.

There were other times, at social events or dining at the Fredericksburg Country Club where he is a member, when we chatted informally, and he often recounted an experience that I had not heard in the interviews. I would jot it down to be added to the overall body of information. I must insert here my gratitude to the generosity and support extended this project by the History Division; Charles Neimeyer, the director; and others. This is no small matter considering the number of hours involved and transcription costs.

My article that appears in the October 2016 issue of Naval History“‘We Were Going to Win . . . or Die There’”—is a derivation of the interviews about Tarawa. I was particularly interested when Roy made the claim that he believed that his 37-mms were the only such guns to make it ashore. As an oral historian, one hears many claims that turn out to be less than factual. I investigated this claim. I had access to the official combat reports at the History Division, including official unit records, casualty cards, and other official materials.

What I discovered is as reported in the article: There is very little said about 37-mm guns being employed in combat except with his battalion. Of course, Roy was not able to survey the entire battlefield at all times, but the point is, from his perspective, there were no other guns in action—remember Betio is a very small island—and the official reports back up his claim. This is significant when one considers the historical significance of Tarawa and the need for supporting fires. Roy’s story testifies to another hindrance the Marines faced because of the notorious reef.

Roy’s claim is given more credibility when one considers his personality. He made deliberate plans and preparations to get his guns ashore, when others did not. Such action was not out of character for Roy. He often took the initiative to experiment and creatively act to accomplish a mission. While stationed in Samoa in 1942, Roy and his platoon of Marines unloaded a civilian cargo ship on their own when the ship’s crew refused to work because it was Saturday. Roy learned how to use the ship’s cranes and hoists to do it.

After the war, Roy and Malda were stationed at Quantico, where there was a tremendous housing shortage. Tired of living in a cramped, dirty, and bug-infested apartment, Roy decided to build a house. They bought a lot in nearby Triangle, Virginia, and built a nice house in which to live. Because the lot was a big one, he and Malda built another house and rented it out. Thereafter, they built homes at various bases where they were stationed and rented them out when they were not living in them. By the time he was retired, Roy was making more money from his rentals than his Marine Corps pay. He also was ready to move into his post–Marine Corps career in construction and development. The area where they built their first house became their first housing development. So, figuring out a way to get his 37-mm guns ashore at Tarawa was not out of character.

In sum, I believe his stories are valuable beyond recounting one Marine’s experiences. They carry a historical authenticity that perhaps other memoir-type accounts do not have. Through Lieutenant Colonel Roy Elrod’s experiences, the reader can learn of another aspect of one of the Corp’s most iconic battles. Most important to Roy, though, is that one learns about the heroic Marines who endured miserable conditions, maiming, and death to defeat a determined, skilled and merciless enemy.