A forgotten battle: 70th anniversary of Eniwetok

Photo by George Strock | Courtesy of Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Photo by George Strock | Courtesy of Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

On Feb. 17, 1944, the U.S. assault on a now-forgotten atoll in the Pacific begins. The battle for Eniwetok, a small northwest point of the Marshall Islands, forms part of the island-hopping strategy to overtake Japan. It’s north of Guadalcanal, won a year earlier, and due east of Guam, which would be retaken five months later.

Tiny Engebi island is key because it holds a Japanese airstrip that allows the enemy to refuel. After U.S. gunships pound the terrain, 15 Marines with the 22nd regiment and one photographer with Life magazine are the first ashore. George Strock is “actually … on the beach taking pictures of the initial assault and greeting the landing troops” as they arrive, reports Marine First Lt. John M. Popham of Brooklyn, a public relations officer.

Strock’s pictures are published in Life a month later, including this photo, an image not likely to be used by newspapers and magazines covering wars today. For two reasons:

1) It clearly shows a dead American. The March 13, 1944, caption in Life: “On the coral beach of Eniwetok’s Engebi Island, a Marine drags a dead comrade out of the surf.” Publications now shy away from gruesome photos in general, and especially of U.S. troops.

2) The photo was altered. Life magazine writer Richard Wilcox told his editors that a captain ordered that the dead Marine’s face “be blurred so it is unrecognizable.” (Click on the photo to see a larger image that shows how his face was scratched out.) His identity remains unknown, Ben Cosgrove, editor of Life.com, notes in a look back at the battle. If a news photo is altered in any way today, it’s cause for dismissal, as recently happened to a Pulitzer winner.

But the photo does let us remember the six days of hard fighting and heroism. Out of 2,677 Japanese forces on the atoll, only 64 survived. The Marines with the short-lived 22nd and members of the 106th Infantry Regiment, who  joined the assault, lost 195 men.

See the other Life photos of the battle here.

Watch an animation of the Pacific strategy and listen to a 1944 radio broadcast about the battle of Eniwetok here.