History in Focus: William McGuffin — Ghost of Tarawa
March 8, 2018
At a little more than 2 1/2 miles long and only 1/2-mile wide, Betio Island is a tiny pin prick of land in the South Pacific, part of the Tarawa Atoll. Tarawa belongs to the Gilbert Islands, a group of 16 atolls and islands 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. In November 1943, 18,000 Marines descended on Betio to control the all-important air strip and begin the "island hopping" campaign back to Japan.
William McGuffin's journey to Betio started in 1924, in Harriet, Oklahoma. In 1940, Wayne McGuffin brought his wife and four children to Craig to work as a mechanic for the Two-Bar Civilian Conservation Corps camp near Sunbeam. In 1941, when William was a senior in high school, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Only three days after Pearl Harbor, a headline in the Craig Empire Courier screamed "Craig Goes to War!" stating, "The entire United States was stirred as it has never been stirred before." Filled with patriotic fervor and righteous anger, William had already quit school. According to the same article, he and four other men were already in Denver for induction into the Navy. By the end of 1941, "Billy" McGuffin was already training in San Diego, and his time in Craig amounted to all of one year.
As Pharmacist's Mate, Second Class, McGuffin was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment of the 2nd Division. It was McGuffin's job to give life-saving emergency care to wounded Marines.
On Nov. 20, the Marines attacked Betio. Waiting among the swaying coconut and palm trees were 4,500 Japanese troops in well fortified pillboxes and trenches. Due to low tides, landing vehicles got stuck in the outer reefs. The attack bogged down, and the Marines were forced to wade the final 500 to 600 yards into shore while facing a deadly barrage of machine guns and mortars. By nightfall, they had gained a mere 150 yards on "Green" Beach.
On day 2, Billy was sent in with the reserve troops. Landing craft brought the troops to the outer reef. Dumped into rubber landing boats, this wave of men were forced to paddle their way to shore. McGuffin's rubber boat sprung a leak and began to sink. Spied by the pilot of a tracked landing vehicle, William and seven others gladly hitched a ride toward the beach.
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Other Marines jeered at the luck of the seven men, but war can quickly turn lady luck into a heartless bitch. As the landing vehicle plowed forward, it struck a mine 200 yards offshore. The 47-pound explosive flipped the vehicle, and seven men were killed, including McGuffin.
Back in Craig, his parents received few details about their eldest son's death.
"It is probable he was killed in the attack on the Gilbert Islands, where the Marines sustained such heavy losses, although this is only speculation" reported the Craig Empire Courier. Worst of all, McGuffin's corpse was never recovered. He was either buried at sea, pulled away by the tides or possibly buried on the island.
After the battle, construction crews quickly and completely razed the island to expand the runway, and in the rush and confusion of war, the location of hundreds of shallow graves were lost and forgotten. More than 500 Tarawa dead are still missing.
Today, the eerie, rusting remnants of the battle still litter the beaches of Tarawa, including the broken hulk of McGuffin's landing vehicle. Eventually, even these ghost-like monuments will be claimed by the unrelenting ocean tides. Fortunately, William's name is etched on the Courts of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial. His fleeting year in Craig as a passionate and patriotic teenager is carved into the granite on the World War II Memorial behind the VFW.