Richard W. Courtleigh was born in New York August 3, 1924. His parents were William Courtleigh, a Canadian actor, and Edna Courtleigh. Richard had three older brothers: Stephan, John and Robert. His family were members of the Church of the Resurrection and they resided at 390 Forest Avenue, Rye. He attended Rye High School and was active in the schools theatre productions and played on the basketball team. The family left Rye after Mr. Courtleigh's death. But Richard stayed and lived here with Mr. and Mrs. George Ames of Milton Road. He enlisted in 1942 and served in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II.
Service Time: Richard W. Courtleigh enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corp. on January 17, 1942. He achieved the rank of Private First Class. He was assigned to the 2nd Marine Division, 8th Marines, 1st Battalion, Headquarters Company.
On November 21, 1943, the Marines invaded the tiny island of Betio in the atoll of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. Tarawa was heavily fortified and fiercely defended by 4,500 Japanese soldiers. On the second day of what later was called the Battle of Tarawa the tactical situation on Betio remained precarious. Throughout the morning, the Marines paid dearly for every attempt to land reserves or advance their ragged beachheads. The smell of battle and death drifted out to the line of departure, a bad omen for Richard Wilson Courtleigh and the troops of 1st Battalion, 8th Marines 1/8, getting ready to start their run to the beach.
The commanding general simply ordered Colonel Hall and Major Hays of the 1/8 to land on the part of beach designated as Red Two at 0615. Hall and Hays, oblivious of the situation ashore, assumed 1st Battalion, 8th Marines 1/8 would be making a covered landing. Things quickly went awry. The dodging tides failed to provide sufficient water for the boats to cross over the coral reef.
Hays's men, surprised at the obstacle, began the 500-yard trek wading to shore, many of them dangerously far to the right flank, fully within the beaten zone of the multiple guns firing from the re-entrant strong point. It was the worst possible place they could have picked, said Red Mike Edson. Japanese gunners opened an unrelenting fire. Enfilade fire came from snipers who had infiltrated to the disabled LVTs offshore during the night. At least one machine gun opened up on the wading troops from the beached inter-island schooner Niminoa at the reefs edge. Hays men began to fall at every hand.
The Marines on the beach did everything they could to stop the slaughter. They called for naval gunfire support. Two of 75mm pack howitzers protected by a sand berm erected during the night by a Seabee bulldozer began firing at the block houses at the Red 1/Red 2 border, 125 yards away, with delayed fuses and high explosive shells.
A flight of F4F Wildcats attacked the hulk of the Niminoa with bombs and machine guns. These measures helped, but for the large part the Japanese caught Hays lead waves in a withering crossfire.
Correspondent Robert Sherrod watched the bloodbath in horror. "One boat blows up, then another. The survivors start swimming for shore, but machine-gun bullets dot the water all around them . . . .
This is worse, far worse than it was yesterday.
" Within an hour, Sherrod could count at least two hundred bodies which do not move at all on the dry flats.
The final casualty figures for the 2d Marine Division were 997 Marines and 30 sailors dead; 88 Marines missing and presumed dead; and 2,233 Marines and 59 sailors wounded. Total casualties: 3,407. The Guadalcanal campaign had cost a comparable amount of Marine casualties over six months; Tarawas losses occurred in a period of 76 hours.
Pfc. Richard W. Courtleigh, 2nd Marine Division, 8th Marines, 1st Battalion 1/8 was killed in action on November 21, 1943, during the 2nd day of the invasion of the tiny island of Betio in the atoll of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands.
Richard was just 19 years old. He was reportedly soon buried on Betio Island - a temporary location chosen by his fellow Marines, the survivors of the battle, until the Fallen could be recovered and returned to their families.
Having a loved one away from home during the holidays is always trying; however, having a son or husband off fighting in the war left the whole family on edge. The fact that this battle took place just before Thanksgiving meant that most of the families, who had unknowingly earned their Gold Star, would receive their heart-wrenching telegrams on Christmas Eve – some Christmas Day or even New Years Day.
For his service and sacrifice, Richard’s family accepted his awards and decorations, including:
- Purple Heart
- Combat Action Ribbon
- World War II Victory Medal
- American Campaign Medal
- Marine Corps Presidential Unit Citation
- Asiatic-Pacific Theater Campaign Medal
- Marine Corp Expeditionary Medal
- Gold Star Lapel Button.
Despite the heavy casualties suffered by U.S. forces, military success in the battle of Tarawa was a huge victory for the U.S. military because the Gilbert Islands provided the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet a platform from which to launch assaults on the Marshall and Caroline Islands to advance their Central Pacific Campaign against Japan.
In the immediate aftermath of the fighting on Tarawa, U.S. service members who died in the battle were buried in a number of battlefield cemeteries on the island. In 1946 and 1947, the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company conducted remains recovery operations on Betio, but PFC Courtleigh’s remains were not recovered. On February 8, 1949, a military review board declared Richard “non-recoverable”.
On January 7, 2014, Jennifer Morrison, an independent volunteer forensic genealogist, found the family of PFC Courtleigh and put them in contact with the Marine Corps POW/MIA Section. This (re)established lines of communication with Richard’s family regarding the ongoing recovery and repatriation efforts, and offered his cousin the opportunity to provide a Family Reference DNA Sample, should it be necessary for Richard's identification.
Marine Corps Private First Class Richard Wilson Courtleigh is memorialized among the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific's Honolulu Memorial. His name shall remain permanently inscribed within Court 2 of the "Courts of the Missing".