Tilghman Smith
Tilghman Smith
Tilghman Smith

Tilghman Smith

Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan

Newspaper article stirs memories of beach landings of WWII

By Mary Kay Gominger

He heard about the article in the November 2008 Stars and Stripes before he saw it. Upon reading the headline, “Remains found on Pacific Island likely to be those of 139 WWII Marines,” the memories, buried but always just below the surface, returned. And he pictured quite clearly the masses of bodies laid out in a long line, down in a six-foot trench. He stood on the bank of the trench, watching, as the young Marines were buried on the tiny island of Tarawa in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

“It was a very bitter battle,” AFRH resident Tilghman Smith recalled. “There was total devastation at Tarawa, everywhere you looked. The island looked as if someone had taken a tractor and plowed the whole place down. Giving up was never an option though and we ultimately got the island but it was a deadly battle, for both sides.”

Tilghman joined the Marines in September of 1940. His specialty was radio communications and at the height of WWII, he took part in three historic beach landings - Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Saipan.

“One of the things about Tarawa, that made it so difficult, was that the island was surrounded by coral reefs, sometimes as far as a mile out. On the day we went in, the tide was so low that landing craft could not cross the reef. Most of us were forced to debark at the end of the reef and wade in to the beach under heavy enemy fire. They were waiting for us, well entrenched with concrete bunkers and pill boxes to hide their weapons. We were definitely at a disadvantage,” he said. “You see men dropping all around you and you hope you are going to make it but… let's put it this way, I was 21 years old and really never expected to see 22.”

While American forces were victorious in the three-day battle at Tarawa in November 1943, nearly 1,700 Marines and sailors were killed and thousands more injured. Tilghman, though, left the island unscathed. It was a different story in Saipan, however. There, Tilghman's luck ran out. He was hit by artillery shell shrapnel which ripped through his left forearm. After ten months of treatment involving several surgeries, Tilghman was finally able to come home. The war was over and it was time for him to do something with the rest of his life.

Using the GI Bill, Tilghman enrolled in an electronics school and soon after graduation landed a job with Voice of America, an international broadcasting service, funded by the U.S. government. For the next nine years, Tilghman traveled to countries all over the world building relay stations with high power transmitters and antennas so radio stations could pick up intercontinental broadcasts with high class receiving equipment. Voice of America first went on the air in 1942 and today broadcasts about 1,500 hours of news, information, educational and cultural programming every week to an estimated worldwide audience of 134 million people. Tilghman's pioneer efforts laid the foundation for the first transmittals of worldwide communications as we know it today.

After 25 years in broadcasting, Tilghman bought a 300-acre cattle ranch in southern Indiana and later, he owned and operated a feed store. In 2005, he was packed and heading south to Gulfport to join his fellow veterans when Hurricane Katrina barreled in and changed his plans. He made a U turn and arrived at the AFRH-W about the same time the evacuees did. He's been here ever since.

“This is the best place in the world to go for a walk,” Tilghman said about the AFRH-W campus.

“I use the Metro and can go anywhere I want to go in the DC area. I'm always taking trips to the museums, malls and stores around town.”

As for the article in the Stars and Stripes about the possible remains of Marines still at Tarawa, Tilghman says it is time for them to come home.

“We (Marines) were always faithful to each other,” he said. “That's what Semper Fi, our motto, is all about. We don't leave anyone behind.”