The “Stories Behind the Stars” is a project to document the lives of all the 405,399 U.S. military fallen of WWII. Though I could never write their complete life stories, these tributes are a glimpse into the lives, and deaths, of the best of the Greatest Generation. They are formed from a compilation of documented eyewitness accounts, military reports, newspaper articles, books, and sometimes information from families of the fallen.
Second Lieutenant Mark Tomlinson
Company A, 1st Battalion 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division
Killed in Action on 22 November 1943 during the battle of Tarawa
The son of Cleve and Doris Chambers Tomlinson, Mark, was born March 1, 1921 in Poynette, Wisconsin. Seven days later, Doris died, leaving him in the care of his grandmother, Amanda Tomlinson. Mark’s dad, Cleve, died when Mark was 13. After that, Tomlinson spent a couple summers in Canada with his grandmother, heading to Portage to attend school in the fall with a sister and his stepmother. He later moved to Columbus, graduating from Columbus High School in 1939. After graduation, Tomlinson moved to Minneapolis to find work, but ended up joining the Marine Corps instead.
Tomlinson enlisted in the Marine Corps on 11 December 1939 in Minneapolis. He was sent to San Diego where he completed basic training. He was briefly assigned to the 6th Marines but joined A Company 1st Battalion 8th Marines in the summer of 1940, where he would remain. In January 1942, Tomlinson deployed to American Samoa.
Sergeant Tomlinson landed on Guadalcanal with A Company, 1st Battalion 8th Marines on 4 November 1942. The landing was unopposed, but the battalion was quickly thrown into the fight. After three months of combat on Guadalcanal, Tomlinson had been worn down by a bought of malaria and was wounded on Nov. 25th. The wound came in the form of shrapnel in his left arm and both legs. He wrote home that his father's watch he wore on his wrist may have saved his life by taking a shrapnel hit. 2nd Lt. Tomlinson left Guadalcanal in January 1943. A couple of months later, Tomlinson was given a commission on 6 March 1943.
While regrouping and retraining in New Zealand, Lt. Tomlinson met a local woman, Lillian Josephine Helliwell. They had a whirlwind romance and were married on 26 June 1943. The last time he would see her was on 2 November, the day Mark and the 8th Marine Regiment boarded their ships to assault Tarawa.
The 2nd Marine Division’s assault on Tarawa began on the 20th of November 1943. Casualties were horrendous and communication was sporadic at best. Lt. Tomlinson and the 1st Battalion 8th Marines were initially held in reserve but were ordered ashore the evening of the first night of the battle. Due to the chaos and poor communications, they never received word and spent the night circling offshore in their landing craft. After nearly 18 hours in the landing craft, the men of 1/8 were finally committed to the battle. Tomlinson’s A Company led the assault toward Red Beach 2. In another communication failure, the men of the battalion didn’t receive the message from shore to land in file along the pier; instead, they landed on-line. This meant that the casualties were as high as the initial assault waves the previous day. A miscalculation in the tides and depth of the reef forced the men to wade through waist-deep water for 500 yards while being swept back and forth with murderous machine-gun fire from Japanese emplacements.
Half of Tomlinson’s Company A didn't even make it to the shore. They were killed, wounded, and drowned, without firing a shot. Meanwhile, survivors from his unit reported that Tomlinson was everywhere, returning several times to the surf to rescue drowning, wounded, colleagues, and shoring up the unsteady beachhead. Once ashore, 2nd Lt. Tomlinson and the rest of 1/8 were ordered to link up to their sister battalion, 2/8, and begin pushing westward. The fighting and dying continued throughout the day.
The morning of 22 November began with more close quarters fighting at first light. In the chaos, Tomlinson jumped on top of tanks, screaming out enemy locations below to the crew and personally directing fire. The tanks would often pull right up to the entrances of enemy bunkers, firing point-blank into the openings.
By 10 o'clock, three U.S. tanks had been knocked out of action or set on fire while Tomlinson was still atop them. When a fourth tank was running low on ammunition, it withdrew to replenish its supply, and Tomlinson got out to pass much-needed munitions into the tank.
As he was climbing back into the tank, a burst of machine-gun fire hit him, three bullets passing through his side. After assuring his buddies he could get back up to the tank, he was shot through the heart by a nearby Japanese soldier, killing him instantly as he fell into the open tank hatch.
Tomlinson's body was removed by the men of his platoon and buried nearby, as a chaplain said a few words as the men wept openly over the loss of their brave, beloved, lieutenant. He wouldn’t be the last to die on Betio as the fighting continued through the 23rd until the tiny atoll was secured.
For his actions, Tomlinson was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the second-highest award for valor, as well as two Purple Hearts, and two Presidential Unit Citations. At the request of his family, his body was disinterred in 1948 and was reburied at Hillside Cemetery in Poynette in January 1949. Locals said at the time that it looked like the entire village and surrounding community was on hand to honor their fallen son. Mark is survived by his wife, his foster mother, Mrs. John Humphreys, two sisters, Mrs. Robert Schroeder, and Mrs. Leon Schuster, and one brother, Joseph C.
*Note* His award citation and grave marker erroneously state the 20th. The 1st Battalion 8th Marines did not land on Betio Island until the morning of the 21st.
For more information:
Stories Behind the Stars project: https://www.storiesbehindthestars.org/