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If judged by the measure of the Second World War’s epic clashes and campaigns — Stalingrad, the Battle of the Bulge, Guadalcanal, Anzio — the Battle of Eniwetok was a relatively minor engagement. It lasted barely a week; American casualties numbered in the low hundreds (Japanese casualties were in the low thousands); the entire operation was not an end in itself, but established a stepping stone in the Marshall Islands for a later, critical assault on the Mariana Islands to the north.
But for the American troops who landed on tiny Engebi Island in the Eniwetok Atoll in February 1944, after air strikes and naval gunfire had poured hundred of tons of ordnance on to the beaches, the minor engagement held all the violence and danger of a far larger, more “historic” clash. As LIFE magazine put it to its readers in an article published two weeks after the battle had been won: “No matter how devastating the bombardment, it remained for Army and Marine assault troops to go in and pry the enemy out of the smoking ruins by hand.”
(NOTE: Since 1974, the more widely accepted spelling of the atoll is Enewetak.)
Here, on the 70th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Eniwetok, LIFE.com presents photographs by George Strock — a number of which were never published in LIFE — made in the thick of the struggle for the atoll. In fact, Strock was one of the very first men to land on the beach during the initial assault (see the story written about this by Marine First Lt. John M. Popham of Brooklyn, in slide #9 above) and was “decorated” for his efforts — albeit with a Japanese medal and ribbon he scooped from the sand after diving for cover in the face of withering enemy fire. It’s difficult to see these pictures — especially those made in the surf, under fire — and not immediately think of Robert Capa’s handful of far more famous D-Day photos, made a year earlier, and half a world away, under similar circumstances.
And yet, as remarkable as these pictures are, one of the most fascinating aspects of Strock’s work from Eniwetok involves the first photograph in this gallery, and the first image that appeared in the March 13, 1944, article in LIFE.
The caption that accompanied the picture when it ran in the magazine read: “On the coral beach of Eniwetok’s Engebi Island, a Marine drags a dead comrade out of the surf.” But that description doesn’t quite capture the entirety of what LIFE’s readers encountered when they looked at Strock’s picture — because the picture itself had been altered before it was published.
[See the altered photo in question in more detail by clicking on the cropped version above.]
In writer Richard Wilcox’s notes, sent with Strock’s film to LIFE’s stateside editors, Wilcox states that a Marine captain ordered that “the face [of the dead Marine] must be blurred so it is unrecognizable.” To this day — to our knowledge, at least — the identity of the Marine in that picture remains unknown.
Wilcox also writes (see slide #7) that, in his opinion, Strock’s work from Engebi includes “more authentic pictures of Pacific warfare than I have ever seen.” Coming from a reporter of Wilcox’s experience — and in light of the astonishing images that LIFE photographers filed every week, from every theater of war, throughout the long conflict — that’s saying something.
Finally, it’s worth noting that, in several pictures in this gallery, Strock is clearly taking pictures while literally in the surf at the very edge of the beach; more evidence, if any were needed, that the photographer went ashore not only right beside, but in the very midst of, the first wave of troops to land, while the Japanese defenders were firing at them with everything they had.
Take your time with the pictures in this gallery — this is war photography, and photojournalism, of the highest order.
Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com