CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- Earl Tatum survived hell on Earth. The Chesterfield man is one of only a few veterans still living who witnessed two of the bloodiest battles in American history.
“It was unbelievable," Tatum said. "We knew it was going. We just didn’t know when."
The 95-year-old man was part of the 2nd Marine Division which fought the Japanese across the Pacific in World War II.
The high school dropout from Alabama joined the Marines when he was just 16. A few months later, in August 1942, Tatum found himself on the island of Guadalcanal.
"(I was a) stretcher bearer and message carrier," he said.
Earl carried wounded Marines away from the frontlines under withering fire.
“I felt them whizzing by," he recalled. “Well, the first thing you do is take that Red Cross off your shoulder. Because it is too good a target.”
There were too many close calls to count.
“One tried putting a bayonet in me. I pulled the trigger on my rifle," he said.
The battle 8,000 miles away from Virginia raged for five months.
In late 1943, Tatum waded ashore on Tarawa in chest-deep water.
“We lost about one-third of our people going in the first day," he said.
Dead Marines bloodied the water.
“They were floating around like leaves," he recalled. “I told my guys in my group to take the rope out of my pack. Tie it to the floaters and walk at least one to shore with you. We got a lot ashore. There were already dead. We carried them ashore anyway. Didn't want to leave anybody behind."
Four days later more than 1,000 Marines and more than 4,000 Japanese were dead.
“Nobody had seen anything like it," he said. “Left a lot of good friends I won’t ever see again.”
Tatum returned to Hawaii.
He survived the fighting but barely lived through bouts with disease-carrying mosquitos.
“I had 12 visits to the hospital for malaria," he said.
Jim Treisler, with the Virginia War Memorial, called Tatum a rare breed who should be celebrated.
"He is a true American hero. It is a miracle that Earl is with us today. What he saw and experienced is so different than anybody that is alive today," Treisler said.
Seventy-five years after the official end of WWII, Earl Tatum reflects on his service.
“That is a long time," he said.
The boy who joined the war effort as a teenager is thankful to have played a small role in America’s victory.
“I’m very happy that I became a Marine," Tatum said.
Earl Tatum wrapped up his service with the Marine Corp and returned home to earn his high school diploma. He then went on to work for a tobacco company in Petersburg.
Greg McQuade features local heroes in a weekly “Heroes Among Us” segment. Watch Greg’s reports Thursdays on CBS News at 6 or here on WTVR.com. If you would like to nominate someone to be featured on “Heroes Among Us,” click here to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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