1943: A Moment of Regret

Noah Muhs, guest writer


Gunfire erupted from the heavens as the Japanese soldiers mercilessly advanced toward our position. Hundreds of dead men lay scattered across the dirty beaches of Tarawa, which was “the most fortified atoll America would invade during the Pacific Campaign” (History). As I leaped into a small trench, a grenade whizzed past my head towards a large ditch behind me. Skin and bone exploded from the spot and covered my face with blood. Instinctively, I crawled to the other trench and peered below to see if anyone was alive. I saw a man with his legs missing, and immediately, I recognized who it was.

“Captain Coleman!” I whispered. “Are you still alive?”

A low grunt came from the man as he slowly opened his eyes. He tried to sit up and almost instantly fell back down. Glancing down at his legs, the captains’s face was filled with sorrow.

“I’m going to get you out of here,” I told him.

“Don’t bother,” he replied with a weak tone. “It’d be better off to just leave me here to die. Go . . . save yourself!”

“But . . .”

“Seargent, I SAID GO! That’s an order.”

*  *  *

My legs carried me swiftly along the sand as I made my way back to base. After I safely escaped from the area of gunfire, my mind began to drift back to my decision. The guilt became overwhelming. Glancing behind, I knew in my heart that Captain Coleman could still be alive. I was about 400 feet away from base, so I decided to ask my older brother, John Russel, for help. John is four years older than me, and he is also the staff sergeant of our unit. No matter what the situation entangles, he always knows what to do.

“John!” I yelled.

“Shh! Over here, Anthony” he responded. “We don’t want to give our position away.”

“John,” I whispered. “Captain Coleman is wounded and he can’t make it back to base without our help. We need to go back there to help him. He told me to run, and . . .”

“Hold up there, Anthony. We can’t go back there, the Japs will kill us for sure.”

“We have to do something; he’ll die out there if we leave him.”

“It’s risky. Listen . . . you hear that?


“All the gunfire and screams surrounding us. The battle is still raging.”

“I know it’s sounds bad, but Captain Coleman would definitely help us. You and I both know that he’s the best leader among us. We have to try.”

“Fine,” John muttered. “But I have a bad feeling about this.”

“Alright, we better hurry before it’s too late.”

*  *  *

As I snuck up behind some palm trees, the sound of gunfire ceased. I stopped and held my breath, waiting for a bullet to slice me down. Nothing happened. The smoke began to clear, and I detected several Japs walking across the field. In a flash, John was on them. He loaded his Thompson submachine gun and sprayed a round of bullets. They looked back, but it was too late. John shot them all down within a second. In the distance, I observed the trench where Captain Coleman had been hit. I signaled to John for us to advance 40 degrees to the west. He understood and immediately started to trudge through the mud in the direction of my finger.

I knew the Japs were close as the sound of unfamiliar voices lingered in the distance. Thankfully, the clouds turned black, and the sky began to pour down rain. It was just enough noise to mask our footsteps and provide a safe haven in case of danger. As we inched closer to the trench, I spotted a platoon of Japs about 40 feet away. I gripped John’s submachine gun from off his shoulders and dove into a small pit. Courage took ahold of me as I placed my finger on the trigger. An explosion of bullets roared toward the unsuspecting soldiers. In a flash, the men dropped to the floor as their lives ended without comprehension. John glared at me in amazement; he had always considered me to be a poor shot.

“When did you learn to shoot like that?” he whispered.

“I’ve been closely watching you over the past year.”

“I’m impressed. Your aim was dead on.”

“Thanks! Well then, are you ready to rescue Captain Coleman?

“Yeah, let’s go.”

*  *  *

As I stepped over a dead body, a muddy hand reached out and clutched my leg. Instantly, I bolted around and noticed a Jap struggling to stop me. I attempted to free myself, but he wouldn’t let go. The man yanked my leg harder, and I tripped face-first into the mud. John kicked him in the stomach, and the man coughed and sputtered. Meanwhile, I pulled my leg out and rolled backward a few feet. I picked myself up and wiped my eyes with a handkerchief. John and I sped out of there quickly; we were determined to watch out for “dead” soldiers in the future. As John and I progressed, the hole with Captain Coleman came into view.

I slowly walked up to the trench and peered below. The captain was laying there with his legs wrapped up in a few elastic bandages. He must have wrapped them to prevent bleeding after I had abandoned him. His eyes were closed, and he appeared to be at peace. Wind blew his golden locks back and forth. I desperately hoped he was still alive; John’s face showed that he wanted the Captain to be alive too.

“Captain?” I exclaimed. “Are you still alive?”

He quickly opened his eyes and whispered, “Shh! The Japs are here. Get down now!”

“Where? I don’t see any Japs.”

“Trust me. Get down!”

From behind a large hill 100 meters away, about a hundred Japs appeared. Immediately, I ducked down in the trench with John by my side. It was too late; the Japs started running towards us.

“Get on my back!” I yelled to Captain Coleman.

“Are we making a run for it?” he yelled back.

“Yes! We have to hurry.”

Captain Coleman climbed on my back. Shots fired through the air as he struggled to hang on. John and I crawled a few feet across the mud and stood up. We ran fast, faster than our legs had ever ran before. A grenade sailed past John’s head as he tripped over a small root. It exploded right in front of him, launching a mud glob across his face.  He wiped his eyes and attempted to stand up. This gave the Japs a perfect chance to shoot at us. Time slowed down as I watched a bullet pierce through John’s right thigh. A scream echoed in the air as he roared in pain.

“Nooo, John! You have to keep moving!” I cried out.

“I can’t. My leg hurts to bad.”

“I’ll drag you. Take my hands.”

“What about Captain Coleman?”

“I got him too. Grab on!”

As I pulled with all my strength, we slowly started to move away from the Japs. Bullets buzzed past my head with every step. Death was approaching quickly. I prayed a quick prayer, and asked God to send something to help us. Then I saw it; tears formed in my eyes as I watched a miracle take place. In the distance, American reinforcements charged out to protect us. The Japs backed off, and I knew in my heart that we were going to survive.

At this time, my mind drifted back to my home in White Plains, Virginia. Right now, I could be sitting on our leather sofa watching the New York Yankees win the World Series. I desperately missed my wife, Katherine, who was probably listening to Frank Sinatra on the radio as she swept the floor. Katherine sent me interesting letters all the time, but I could only write a few back with the constant location changes. She always told me about the little details, like a new pair of leather heels, and the big events, like the completion of the Pentagon. As I thought about my life at home, I remembered Captain Coleman on my back.

“Are you okay back there?” I asked.

“I’ll live,” he replied. “That was intense! You do know you’re a hero, right?”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“You saved us both. We wouldn’t have survived without you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

After we got to base, John exclaimed, “I’m proud of you, little brother. You saved my skin today!”

“Thank you,” I replied. “I’ve been waiting to hear those words all my life. You’ve always been better than me in every aspect, but now I see that I’m finally catching up.”

“You’ve always been my equal, Anthony. I know we have some tough battles in front of us, but I trust you with my life.”

At that moment, I felt a sense of importance. I felt appreciated. However, my previous hesitance robbed me of a sense of accomplishment. Had I acted correctly by helping Captain Coleman, I would have spared John from being shot. I could have been more content in life without the lingering regret of putting myself ahead of the Captain. As I continually thought back on the incident, a quote I once heard rang through my ears: “Never do today what you can do tomorrow. Something may occur to make you regret your premature action” (Burr). Everyone in my squadron considered me a hero, but honestly the real heroes were the soldiers who never made it back safely.


Works Cited

Burr, Aaron. “Aaron Burr Quotes.”brainyquote.com, 13 April 2017.

History.com Staff. “Battle of Tarawa.”history.com, 13 April 2017.


O’Neill, William. World War II. Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Sickels, Robert. The 1940s. Greenwood Press, 2004. Print.

“Timeline-The 1940s.”americasbesthistory.com, 27 March 2017.