Originally an Army camp named Camp Waimea, when the population in town was about 400, it became the largest Marine training facility in the Pacific following the battle of Tarawa.
There were three ways to get to Camp Tarawa – by narrow-gage sugarcane freight train; by hard-axle truck or on foot.
Many arrived to sleep outdoors on rough lava beds until Seabee construction could catch up with the surge – all were appreciative of the shelter and the respite from war.
Pyramid tent cities and streets of long convoys of jeeps, trucks, half-tracks, tanks, artillery, amphibious ducks made up the formidable, but top secret, Camp Tarawa.
The town warmly received the Marines who:
• Bought all the goods from the farmers and storekeepers
• Brought in Bob Crosby’s (Bing’s brother) Band
• Set up outdoor movie theaters
• Played baseball with the locals
• Ate Thanksgiving dinner in Kohala homes
• Conducted live fire training
Marines and Sailors trained for what has been referred to as the toughest marine offensive of WWII.
1300 miles northeast of Guadalcanal, the Japanese had constructed a centralized stronghold force in a 20-island group called Tarawa.
RADM Shibasaki, the Japanese commander there, proclaimed, “a million men cannot take Tarawa in a hundred years.” Ultimately, the objective took 9,000 marines only four days – but not without a staggering 37% casualties.
The victories at Tarawa, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands marked a turning point in the war. The Marines would reconstitute at the Camp Tarawa camp site.
At Iwo Jima, Lt General Kuribayashi, Japanese ground forces commander, concentrated his forces in the northern two-thirds of the island. The miles of interlocking caves, concrete blockhouses and pillboxes proved to be one of the most impenetrable defenses in the Pacific.
While the 4th Marine Division defeated heavy opposition to take a Japanese strong-point called the quarry, the 28th Marines of 5th Marine Division seized Mount Suribachi.
The 36-day assault on Iwo Jima cost America more than 26,000 casualties, including 6,800 dead. Of the 20,000 Japanese defenders, only 1,083 survived.
Twenty-seven Medals of Honor were awarded to Marines and Sailors, many posthumously – more than for any other single operation during the war.
The camp closed in November 1945 as 5th Marine Division was transferred to Japan for occupation. The Army took over the camp and auctioned off the remaining assets.
Camp Tarawa memorial was erected on July 3rd 1984 – the large rock is symbolic of Mt Suribachi on Iwo Jima; the brass plaque is made from shell casings. The memorial has three panels.
The left panel is dedicated to 2nd Marine Division for the battle of Tarawa and their training here until they departed for Saipan and Tinian.
The center panel honors Richard Smart, Parker Ranch, the community of Waimea and the Big Island.
The right panel commemorates 5th Marine Division through the battle of Iwo Jima and occupation of Japan.