Though the battles of World War II have been over for nearly 65 years, the struggle for the proper posthumous treatment of American soldiers still rages on. The South Pacific Island of Tarawa and its history have finally been brought to light by Santa Monican filmmaker Steven C. Barber. The film, Return to Tarawa, narrated by Ed Harris, actually began in the 1980s. Barber, an aspiring film producer, got the opportunity to meet and hear the story of Eddie Albert, (star of the hit TV show Green Acres) and the gruesome battle that took place on the small south Pacific island of Tarawa. Albert, a veteran of WWII, had told Barber an incredible story of death, courage, and victory. Little did he know that many years later, he would encounter a witness to these horrors of war at of all places, a UCLA bookfair. Leon Cooper, a veteran of the Battle of Tarawa, not only knew the story of Eddie Albert, but had witnessed it firsthand. After hearing Coopers firsthand experience, Barber suggested that they revisit the site of the battle together, and create a documentary that portrays not only what happened then, but what is happening now. Leon Cooper is one of the last WWII veterans still actively pursuing the rights of the families of those who perished in this tragic battle. He decided it was finally time, some 65 years later, to revisit the beach that scarred him so deeply, and took the lives of so many. Upon seeing the graves of his brothers in arms marred and desecrated by dirty diapers, piles of garbage, and decades old ammunitions, Leon was distraught and angry. Is this really the extent of how they honored his fallen comrades? Mass graves covered by trash and debris? The film has since motivated concerned war historians and Hollywood personalities to do something about it. This documentary is an avenue for people to learn the consequences of WWII outside the European battlefields. It is also an opportunity to thank and honor those that gave their lives in the fight for freedom.The Japanese had set up their gunnery units to shoot in a cross shot pattern, riddling the American invaders with shells from all directions, and causing severe amounts of casualties. One man was seen doing the unthinkable. Trolling the seas back and forth in the line of fire, Eddie Albert bravely disregarded the incoming gunfire as he rescued wounded soldiers from the water, taking them back to the main battleship for medical treatment. He made several trips into the line of fire, saving seventy wounded men who most certainly would have perished. More than six thousand people died in the first three days of fighting on Tarawa. A mix of Japanese, Korean prisoners, and allied forces all perished during what was referred to by soldiers in the film as the real life version of Dante’s Inferno. Once the fighting had subsided, the island was no more than a littered acreage of dead bodies, spent shells, and tattered machinery. Though widely unknown by the majority, Allied casualties from the battle are estimated at over 6,000. Comparatively, the Allied casualties from D-Day are estimated at just over 6,600. Although Tarawa is less well known than that icon of WWII battles, the D-Day invasion, the fatalities incurred are on a par with the events on the beaches of Normandy, and should be recognized and honored as such.The United States did little to rebuild the island following the war and subsequently left a remarkable number of questions for those affected. The soldiers who survived, as well as the families of those who perished, still have questions surrounding the fate of their loved ones. Many of the bodies were never returned to their families, and still remain buried throughout Tarawa. An estimated 250-300 American bodies still remain on the island. Although photos of their gravestones clearly show the dates of their deaths and locations of numerous burial sites, officially, many of the fallen soldiers of Tarawa are still listed as missing in action. The documentary film Return to Tarawa will premiere April 24 at 7 p.m. on the Discovery channel.
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