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Combat Photographer Recalls Bloodiest Battle

The horrific battle for the small Pacific island of Tarawa in 1943 was one of the bloodiest of World War II. U.S. Marine Sergeant Norman Hatch was there. But instead of a rifle, Hatch carried a camera and the film he shot helped to change Americans’ view of the war. The combat photographer reminisced about the fierce struggle for the island.

Documenting a war

"That is the picture of the photographers of the 2nd Marine division that landed on Tarawa. I am right here, at the top. They are all gone, all gone. I have never forgotten the battle at Tarawa. The Japanese lost about 4,000 people in that particular battle. We were about a little over 1,000 killed and about 2,200 somewhat wounded in 76 hours," he recalled.

Nearly 70 years later, those memories remain fresh for 91-year-old Norman Hatch.

“When you get into the battle, the blood begins to race and you do your job. My job was to take pictures," said Hatch. "I had to shoot the pictures the best way I could possibly shoot them."

In the midst of battle

Hatch carried a hand-cranked 35-millimeter movie camera. He waded in right beside machine gunners going ashore.

“Looking through the viewfinder and trying to frame the story that I was shooting, it was like what you were looking at a movie. And in a sense, I felt detached in a degree from what was happening around me,” he said.

Even when he saw his comrades get shot and fall, Hatch continued to document the battle.

“The troops who were on the so-called front line would say when you come up, 'What are you doing here, you don’t have to be here.' And I would say, 'Yes, I do, because the public has to know what we are doing," he noted. "And this is the only way they are really going to know is by seeing this film through the newsreels.'”

Special permission

President Franklin Roosevelt had to grant special permission for the public release of Hatch's film, which included gruesome and disturbing images.

“Nobody really had seen a down and dirty fight as the best way to describe it. Tarawa was really the first film that the public saw of in-close fighting. We had both our people and the Japanese in the same frame of film," Hatch stated.

Hatch’s footage is included in the documentary film With the Marines at Tarawa, which won an Academy Award in 1944.

It is also featured in director Steven C. Barber’s new documentary, Until They Are Home. The film chronicles efforts to find the remains of fallen Marines and bring them home, almost seven decades after the last shot was fired on the Pacific island.

"After the war, so many people would say to me something about 'How come you walked all over the battle field and never got hit?' I have no answers to why I wasn't shot," he said. "You take chances and hopefully you win. That is the way it goes."