JACKSONVILLE, N.C. -- “I was hit with a grenade in the leg. While I was down lying on the beach, a Japanese officer – I think he was a warrant officer – came. We looked at each other, and I saw he had his sword. So I put my arm over my head and rolled. He got my arm, and I grabbed it (his sword) and got him.” – John L. L’Abbe
John L. L’Abbe enlisted as a rifleman in 1942.
“Well, hell, the war was on and everyone and his brother were joining it in one way or another,” said L’Abbe.
So he did; he was 19 years old.
After graduating boot camp, Pvt. L’Abbe executed orders to Samoa and linked up with 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division.
“I joined the Reg. in Samoa going to Guadalcanal where I, like all the rest, got malaria,” L’Abbe wrote in a letter to 2nd Bn., 8th Marines, dated Nov. 18, 2014.
He wasn’t exaggerating. According to the U.S. Army Office of Medical History, “Malaria was the single most serious health hazard to Allied troops in the South Pacific area during World War II; it caused more than five times as many casualties as did combat.”
The disease took a toll on the troops. To counter it, L’Abbe and the men he served with went to New Zealand for nine months to recoup and prepare for their next objective – Tarawa.
Tarawa, the main atoll in the Gilbert Islands, served as the gateway of the U.S. drive through the central Pacific toward the Philippines during World War II. The island, roughly the size of Central Park, served as the site of the first U.S. offensive in the central Pacific region.
The Battle of Tarawa was one of the most tenacious and bloodiest battles in Marine Corps History. Nearly 6,400 Japanese, Koreans and U.S. service members died in the three-day battle, Nov. 20 through Nov. 23, 1943. Countless others, including then Pvt. L’Abbe, were wounded-in-action.
L’Abbe recounted, “I was hit with a grenade in the leg. While I was down lying on the beach, a Japanese officer – I think he was a warrant officer – came. We looked at each other, and I saw he had his sword. So I put my arm over my head and rolled. He got my arm, and I grabbed it (his sword) and got him.”
The grenade inflicted more damage to L’Abbe than what would be expected from a man who was able to seize the enemy’s weapon and kill him with it. Following the battle, L’Abbe was sent to Naval Hospital San Diego for care and released with 50 percent disability. Private First Class L’Abbe finished his service at a military base in Rhode Island through 1945.
L’Abbe is now 93 years old and residing in Boise, Idaho. “I recovered alright. My balance is a little off, but I feel okay in every way I can now.” To the Marines and sailors currently serving, he says, “Thank you for your service.”
Sources: "The Bloody Battle of Tarawa, 1943" EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2003).
"Malaria Problem 1942-1945" Office of Medical History, U.S. Army Medical Department, http://history.amedd.army.mil/booksdocs/wwii/Malaria/chapterVIII (2009).