American History

“So This Is War!”

Fellow U.S. Marines and military historians know Colonel Robert D. Taplett best for his valor during the Korean War. On September 15, 1950, Taplett, commanding the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment, led the initial landing of an amphibious assault at Inchon that resulted in victory for United Nations forces. Later that year, at the Chosin Reservoir, Taplett and the 3/5 Marines, often struggling against temperatures of -40o, fought nearly constantly for three weeks to keep open a road to the sea that 18,000 American personnel needed to execute a fighting withdrawal from a pursuing Chinese army of 120,000.

Taplett’s exploits in Korea came to overshadow his World War II service. As a neophyte gunnery officer, he sailed out of Pearl Harbor in late November 1941 aboard the heavy cruiser USS Salt Lake City in a task force accompanying aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, which was delivering warplanes to Wake Island; by happenstance the task force was not at Pearl on December 7, 1941. A few months later, Taplett and his Marine gunners, aboard Salt Lake City, sailed in another task force that accomplished the Doolittle Raid against Tokyo, Japan.

Born in 1918 in Tyndall, South Dakota, population 1,600, Robert Taplett attended the University of South Dakota, where he lettered in three sports. His football teammates included future fellow Marines John Ptak, Joe Trompeter, and Joe Foss, all of whom earned medals for valor during World War II. Upon graduating in 1940, Taplett resigned his ROTC commission and joined the Marines. He trained at the Basic School at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, later relocated to Quantico, Virginia.

In June 1941, the Navy assigned 2nd Lieutenant Taplett to Salt Lake City, the navy’s oldest commissioned vessel, nicknamed, invoking the Japanese for “ship,” both “Swayback Maru” and “Salty Maru.” Taplett commanded the cruiser’s Marine detachment and served as a gunnery officer. Captained by Commander Ellis Zacharias, Salt Lake City, with the rest of the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet, had taken up station in 1940 at Pearl Harbor, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Between June 1941, when he debarked west from California aboard seaplane tender USS Curtiss, and May 1942, when he was seeing combat in the Pacific, Robert Taplett kept a diary. His impressions of going to war appear here in print for the first time, edited for brevity and clarity.—Michael Dolan

June 15, 1941—Sailed from San Diego on USS Curtiss, about 90 passenger officers aboard. In the afternoon, we pulled into Long Beach. After a one-hour stop, we shoved off. In a few hours, the mainland faded. How long before I see it again?

June 16–21, 1941—At sea. An excellent trip and profitable from the poker standpoint.

June 22, 1941—Sailed into Pearl Harbor 9 a.m. The first view of the islands was impressive. There seems to be a constant rainbow.

June 23, 1941—Officers disembarked to their ships, except Cornnell and myself. We were sent to the Chester, then the San Francisco. Took the pistol team ashore to fire.

June 25, 1941—Transferred to the Indianapolis; Walter Cornnell also. Wonder where Salt Lake City is? And still no mail!

June 26, 1941—Salt Lake City is in. Reported on board to relieve Lieutenant Carl Larsen—a boy from South Dakota. Really a treat to talk to someone from your own state. He’s to leave Saturday on the [passenger liner] Matsonia—lucky stiff, going back to be married.

Monday, July 7, 1941—Diarrhea. Nearly everyone feeling awful.

Took sailors to the range for firing.

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