Battle of Tarawa Atoll

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The capture of the Pacific Atoll of Tarawa in November 1943 launched the Marshall Islands campaign, which initiated the U.S. drive across the central Pacific.

Tarawa is an atoll in the Gilbert Islands consisting of small islands, the largest of which, Betio, is no more than 2.5 miles in length. The main Japanese garrison of 4,500 troops was located on this island, extremely well dug into defensive positions. As garrison commander Shibasaki Keiji boasted to his men, the island could not be taken by a million soldiers in a hundred years. Indeed, the U.S. Navy unleashed huge amounts of ordnance in preparation for the landings, including naval gun bombardment and aerial bombardment, yet made distressingly little impact on the defenses—although the preparatory attacks did disrupt Japanese communications, thereby preventing a counterattack on the first night after the landings.

The Tarawa landings on November 20, 1943, used landing vehicles, tracked (LVTs) for the first time in amphibious warfare. These were true armored amphibians, which could be deployed from landing ships into the water, then driven directly up to the beach and driven well inland, so that troops did not have to wade or walk ashore. Unfortunately, a shortage of LVTs meant that second- wave assault troops had to be carried in conventionally on landing craft. Worse because of faulty calculation of tides, many of the landing craft ran up on coral reefs, obliging the marines to wade long distances ashore. This exposed them to enemy fire and created heavy casualties that greatly imperiled the landings on the first day. Nevertheless, under Maj. Gen. Julian Smith, the 2nd Marine Division managed to occupy positions on the southern shore of the island as well as on the western end, thereby forcing the Japanese garrison to divide. This ultimately proved fatal to the defenders, and although the enemy counterattacked with suicidal banzai charges, the marines held their positions and, by November 23, had overrun the small island.

The Central Pacific commander, U.S. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, decided to seize the Gilberts in a joint assault by the army and the Marines as the first test of offensive amphibious operations. V Amphibious Corps, commanded by Marine Major General Holland M. Smith, was responsible for the landing, code-named Operation GALVANIC. The 2nd Marine Division, led by Major General Julian C. Smith, would seize Tarawa, while the army’s 27th Infantry Division, commanded by Major General Ralph C. Smith, landed at Makin. V Corps staffers decided the portion of Betio that faced the lagoon was the least heavily defended terrain, and they designated landing areas there as Red Beaches 1, 2, and 3. A disadvantage to those sites was the precise navigation required for the landing craft to pass into the lagoon and then maintain formation as they approached the beaches. Amphibious doctrine called for landings at high tide so the landing craft could clear defensive obstacles. Unfortunately, however, the planners did not have reliable tide charts, and when Holland Smith designated 20 November 1943 as D day, the tides would not be favorable to the Marines. By then, U.S. aircraft had flown hundreds of sorties against Betio, saturating the island with bombs as ships of Fifth Fleet pounded the island’s defenses one last time. Faulty U.S. reconnaissance reports indicated that nothing was left alive on Betio.

At 9:00 A.M., almost two hours after the last bombardment began, Colonel David M. Shoup led three reinforced battalions of his 2nd Marine Regiment toward Red Beaches 1, 2, and 3. Japanese heavy guns then opened up, unleashing a deadly hail of fire into the tightly packed amphibious tractors (amphtracs) as they neared the reef, paused briefly to climb over it, and then landed on the beaches. However, the shallow-draft Higgins boats that followed could not get over the reef. A nightmare for the Marines began when they were forced to debark into the water about 600 yards from the shore. Withering Japanese machine-gun fire met the Marines, who were unable to return fire as they slowly waded toward shore laden with equipment. A small seawall afforded little cover from Japanese small-arms fire as navy corpsmen set up aid stations.

By afternoon, the Marines had penetrated no more than a few hundred feet in many places. Shoup, who was wounded, still directed the fight and requested that reserves be committed in a message that emphasized the precariousness of the situation, stating, “Issue in doubt.” Of the 5,000 Marines who landed that day, almost 1,500 became casualties. During the night, the Japanese threatened with counterattacks, snipers, and infiltrators. Many Marines had drained their canteens and emptied their cartridge belts. The wounded suffered and could only wait for evacuation in the morning.

The morning saw little improvement. Stiff resistance compelled the attackers to destroy each Japanese strong point at a heavy price as U.S. Navy destroyers provided fire support at dangerously close ranges. The day of 21 November ended with more of Betio in Marine hands, but the island was not yet secure. At mid-morning on 22 November, the Marines began their final assault on the Japanese command post, where they poured gasoline down air vents and then ignited it, killing those inside, including Shibasaki. Many Japanese committed suicide as the Marines cleared the western portion of the island and pushed the remaining defenders into a narrow tail of land in the east.

The final Japanese act entailed a series of nighttime banzai attacks, in which mobs of enemy soldiers charged Marine positions with drawn swords and bayonets. They were cut down by artillery and machine-gun fire from the exhausted Marines. Commanders declared the battle over on the morning of 23 November, after 76 hours of horrendous fighting. The Japanese had 4,690 men killed; only 17 prisoners were taken, along with 129 Korean laborers. The desperate Japanese defense of the island cost the Marines and the navy 1,027 dead, 88 missing, and 2,292 wounded. The casualties shocked an American public that viewed the fight on Tarawa as evidence there would be no cheap victories as the battles were carried to the Japanese homeland. The Battle of Tarawa brought many changes, including improved naval fire support and significant increases in firepower ashore, to include more automatic weapons, tanks, explosive charges, and flamethrowers.

Further reading: Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1995; Hammel, Eric. Bloody Tarawa: The 2d Marine Division, November 20–23, 1943. Osceola, Wis.: Zenith Press, 2006; Sherrod, Robert. Tarawa: The Story of a Battle. Fredericksburg, Tex.: Admiral Nimitz Foundation, 1993.


Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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