WWII Combat Cameraman: 'The Public Had To Know' During Word War II, Norman Hatch was a combat cameraman who witnessed — and filmed — some of the most bitter fighting in the Pacific theater. His efforts ended with, of all things, an Academy Award — for footage so brutal that it took special permission from President Franklin Roosevelt to allow the film to be shown as a newsreel.

WWII Combat Cameraman: 'The Public Had To Know'

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HBO has been showing a 10-part series on the Marines in the Second World War. "The Pacific" dramatizes the brutality and the hardships of the campaign to defeat Japan. This morning, we're going to meet a man who filmed the war in the Pacific as it was happening. His name is Norman Hatch. He is a Marine and a combat cameraman who witnessed some of the bitter fighting and also helped shoot one of the most important films of the war, "With the Marines at Tarawa."

NPR's Tom Bowman met with Hatch recently, and he has this profile.

TOM BOWMAN: Norman Hatch's basement den in Alexandria, Virginia is cluttered with canisters of film, movie posters, stacks of newspapers. He points to a dusty footlocker.

Mr. NORMAN HATCH (Marine, Combat Cameraman): Oh, I've had that, you know, ever since the war.

BOWMAN: Then he picks up an old 16-millimeter movie camera.

How would you work that? You would just...

Mr. HATCH: Hand crank.

BOWMAN: Just...

Mr. HATCH: She's running - rather silent, but...

(Soundbite of song, "Marines' Hymn")

BOWMAN: We sat down with Hatch in his den, to watch his film about the Marines at Tarawa, the flickering black and white images he took six decades ago. What he and the other cameramen did there was unique. They captured on film an entire battle from start to finish.

(Soundbite of movie, "With the Marines at Tarawa")

Unidentified Man: Suddenly, we're met by heavy machine gun and mortar fire. Takes a heavy toll of our boats and men. It doesn't stop us.

(Soundbite of explosion)

Unidentified Man: We fight our way onto the beach.

Mr. HATCH: This is my footage here. Guys are just on the beach wondering what to do next. There's heavy fire coming over the top of the seawall.

BOWMAN: It was November 1943. Hatch and thousands of Marines had just waded through hundreds of yards of water toward Tarawa.

Mr. HATCH: Everybody in the boat went down to sort of a dog paddle and all you could see were helmets going in. It looked like a herd of turtles going back to the shore.

BOWMAN: That tiny island, with its airfield, was held by the Japanese. It had to be captured before the Marines could move on, island by island, toward Japan.

On the beach, for those who made it ashore alive, it was chaos. Some Marines had lost their rifles. Hatch remembers seeing Marines cowering under a pier and he spotted an officer smoking a cigar and screaming at his men to get off the beach and into the fight.

Mr. HATCH: And then he'd walk up in front of them and he'd tell them, now, God (bleep) it, you go over this wall and you fight. That's what you do. That's why you're here.

BOWMAN: The fight would go on for three days.

(Soundbite of movie "With the Marines at Tarawa")

Unidentified Man: It isn't easy knocking those Japs out of their positions. They're hidden in trees, behind revetments, buried pillboxes, bomb proofs, bunkers.

BOWMAN: The Marines crept from bunker to bunker, under fire the whole time, using flamethrowers and grenades to force the Japanese out into the open.

Mr. HATCH: I was standing there photographing the Marines going up to the top of that big sand blockhouse, and somebody said, here come the Japs. Two squads of Japanese came out - it looked like about 12 men - and they were mowed down. And, of course, I had the machine gunner right down in front of me, and it's the only time in the Pacific war that the enemy and our forces were in the same frame.

(Soundbite of movie, "With the Marines at Tarawa")

Unidentified Man: The enemy breaks from cover.

BOWMAN: Hatch was filming all this under extraordinary conditions. He carried a pistol - he fired it just once - he would crouch in a bomb crater and turn his camera toward the action. What Hatch remembers most about Tarawa was the overwhelming stench of the dead.

(Soundbite of movie, "With the Marines at Tarawa")

Unidentified Man: These are Marine dead.

Mr. HATCH: And just as they lay - and this was the first time this type of death was shown. They were floating in the water and things like that. And this was just before Thanksgiving Day, too, which made it even worse.

BOWMAN: More than 1,000 Marines had been killed. That's more American dead in three days than in almost nine years of fighting in Afghanistan. The film of American casualties at Tarawa was too gruesome for some military officials. The question of whether to show the footage to the American people went all the way to the White House.

President Franklin Roosevelt agreed to the film's release after being persuaded by his friend, the journalist Robert Sherrod.

Mr. HATCH: Sherrod said you've got to let the public know what's going on or you won't have any support. And so Roosevelt said okay.

BOWMAN: "With the Marines at Tarawa" was shown in theaters in 1944 - months after the battle. A year later, the film won an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary. And all these years later, Norman Hatch still remembers the other Marines during the battle shaking their heads and asking why he was carrying a camera but no rifle.

Mr. HATCH: I was often told by guys up there in the frontline that I didn't have to be there. And I would quietly tell them that I did. The public had to know what we were doing and this was the only way they'd find out.

BOWMAN: Norman Hatch never suffered a scratch during his time in the Pacific. There was Tarawa; later he was at Iwo Jima, serving with the Marines and filming their war.

(Soundbite of movie, "With the Marines at Tarawa")

Unidentified Man: These are the Marines who took Tarawa.

BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: You can watch the Academy Award-winning documentary, "With the Marines at Tarawa," at our Web site, NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)


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