THE INVASION OF TARAWA
By L.C. Kukral
Navy & Marine Corps World War II Commemorative Committee
In 1943, U.S. forces advanced through the Central Pacific, continuing the offensive thrust aimed ultimately at the Japanese home islands. The plan of attack called for them to take the Gilbert Islands, then the Marshalls and finally the Marianas.
For Operation Galvanic, the seizure of the Gilberts, the 5th Amphibious Corps under Marine Major General Holland M. "Howlin' Mad" Smith was chosen as the landing force. The corps consisted of the 2nd Marine Division under Major General Julian C. Smith and the Army's 27th Infantry Division, led by Major General Ralph C. Smith. The 2nd Marine Division would take Tarawa, and the 27th Infantry Division would take Makin Atoll, 100 miles north of Tarawa on a line to the Marshalls.
The Gilberts were a vital first step in the Central Pacific campaign. Without them, land-based reconnaissance and combat planes could not reach the Marshalls. Carrier-based planes, which had the reach, could not provide the integrated photo reconnaissance necessary for planning the Marshalls operation. The Gilberts also offered Japanese-constructed airstrips and a shortened supply route to the south and southwest areas of the Pacific.
Tarawa Atoll, specifically Betio Island, was selected as the target of the main assault because it contained an airfield and the bulk of the Japanese defenses. The atoll, at no point higher than 10 feet above sea level, is a triangular string of long, narrow coral islands with Betio at the southwest corner.Surrounded by a barrier reef, Betio presented a serious challenge to amphibious landing craft, which would hang up on the reef if there wasn't a sufficient tide depth to allow them to cross.
Once across the reef, the 2nd Division Marines assigned to Betio, which measured roughly 3 miles wide and 600 yards deep, would face formidable defenses. According to naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, the water around the island was rife with mines, barbed wire and barricades designed to divert landing craft into lanes that were heavily covered by artillery.
The Japanese had hundreds of guns, among them a system of heavy machine guns protected by coconut logs, sand, concrete and armored plate; 14 coast defense guns, all with underground ammunition storage and fire control systems; 25 37-mm and 75-mm field guns in shelters that were immune to direct hits from all but the largest guns; and an unknown number of anti-aircraft guns.
Japanese defenders on Betio also had built a system of bombproof shelters made of coconut logs braced with angle irons. The roofs of these shelters were at least 6 feet thick and covered over with sand, logs and corrugated iron. Only heavy-caliber armor-piercing or other delayed-action shells could penetrate them. These shelters were also compartmented, so that the defenders enjoyed protection from grenades and explosives hurled through the openings.
Altogether, the Japanese occupied 500 pillboxes, bunkers and other strong points on the small island. In the words of U.S. Army historians, "Tarawa was the most heavily defended atoll that would ever be invaded by Allied forces in the Pacific."
Planners of Operation Galvanic wanted to take Betio quickly, before the Japanese could bring what were believed to be powerful submarine and air forces into the arena. To preserve strategic surprise, they ruled out concentrated air and naval bombardment until immediately before the assault.
On Nov. 17-18, planes and ships from the Navy's Southern Carrier Group bombed islands throughout the Gilberts to keep the enemy confused about where the assault would come. While these raids took out some of Betio's guns, their most significant benefit was that they caused the Japanese to shoot off ammunition. On Nov. 20, Betio's defenders had only 4,800 rounds of 75-mm and 127-mm antiaircraft ammunition, and 15,000 rounds of 13-mm machine gun bullets.
The Marines landed Nov. 20, 1943, on Betio's northwest shore. The 2nd Marine Division came up with the innovative idea of using logistical support amphibian tractors (LVTs) as assault craft. LVTs would be effective in crossing the island's fringing reef and man-made obstacles. Unfortunately, there were only enough LVTs for the first three assault waves. After that, unless the tide was right, the Marines would have trouble getting the remaining waves across the reef in Higgins boats (LCVPs), which had a draft of 3-1/2 feet.
Betio's northwest shore was divided into Red Beach 1, 2 and 3, respectively, from west to east. A 500-yard pier marked the boundary between Red Beach 2 and Red 3 and extended north into the lagoon just beyond the fringing reef. The short western side of the island was designated as Green Beach. The Marines hoped to land a three-battalion front on the Red beaches, sweep across the island (a total distance of about 600 yards), capture the airfield and pin the enemy down on the island's west end.
Sustained naval bombardment and carrier-based bomber strikes preceded the Marines. Timing and communications problems made these less effective than needed, but Japanese gunners were stopped long enough to allow the first three assault waves to reach the beach relatively unscathed.
The 2nd Scout-Sniper Platoon led by 1st Lieutenant William D. Hawkins landed first, winning the pier from enemy snipers. Then, the first elements of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines came in on Red Beach 1. On the left of their beach, at the boundary with Red Beach 2, was a Japanese strong point that raked the Marines coming in on the west side of Red 1 with machine gun fire. Once landed, the Marines on Red 1 would take 35-50 percent casualties. Red 3 was the next beach reached, by the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines. Part of this group got as far inland as the airstrip before the Japanese recovered from naval bombardment. This group took only 25 casualties in landing.
The most violently opposed landing was that of 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines on Red 2. Some of these troops were driven off course by machine gun and anti-boat fire and forced to land on Red 1. The remainder, who reached Red 2, managed to carve out a beachhead only about 50 yards deep.
Once the first three assault waves were in, two waves of landing boats were set to follow. These carried additional troops, tanks and artillery. Unfortunately, the irregular tides in the Gilberts worked against the landing force, and there was not enough water depth over the reef for the landing boats to cross. Infantry and howitzer crews had to wade ashore with weapons and equipment.
These men suffered the worst casualties of D-day. The only cover from Japanese machine gunners and riflemen was the pier; many did not reach it. Many of those who did were separated from their units and chain of command, and were unable to move to their proper beaches. At this point, the momentum of the assault bogged down because the reef effectively barred the landing boats, the number of amphtracs was being rapidly reduced, units were disorganized and communications were spotty.
The fierce action on the beach did not stop to allow the Marines to regroup, establish command posts, move in supplies or carry out their wounded. In the words of Marine historians, only "the grim determination of individual Marines, who simply kept coming, in spite of all the enemy could hurl at them," offset the confusion.
By evening, the Marines' situation was tenuous at best. Of about 5,000 men who had gone ashore, 1,500 were either killed or wounded. Marines held a perimeter about 700 yards wide and 300 yards deep at the base of the pier, and an area about 150 yards by 500 yards at the northwest tip of the island. Most believed that a Japanese counterattack was bound to come during the night. If it had, it may well have succeeded. Julian Smith said that the Japanese commander lost the battle of Tarawa that night by failing to attack. Historians say the Japanese counterattack did not come because Japanese communications had been severely damaged by naval gunfire.
At nightfall, Navy ships cruised offshore for protection against air and submarine attack. Throughout D-day, the destroyers Ringgold, Dashiell, Frazier and Anderson had provided gunfire support on call to Marines ashore, a significant contribution to the course of the battle. Frazier continued this duty throughout the night.
Bombing and strafing had gone on all day--32 strikes in all, launched from carriers and escort carriers. Navy medical corpsmen continued working throughout the night to ferry the wounded over the reef in rubber rafts, while Marines carried water, pack howitzers, ammunition and medical supplies ashore.
D Plus 1 Day
Early on the morning of Nov. 21, the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, who had spent almost 20 hours in boats waiting to land, fought their way in to reinforce the beachhead on Red 1. Battalion casualties were severe: while wading ashore, the men took heavy machine-gun fire from strong points on the beach, as well as intense sniper fire from Japanese hiding in the hulks of sunken craft along the reef.
The second day of fighting on Betio was a yard-by-yard struggle. By noon, Marines fighting from Red Beach 2 gained the southern coast of the island, cutting the Japanese defenders into two groups. Third Battalion, 2nd Marines on the western end of the island, supported by close naval gunfire and Sherman medium tanks (in their first combat deployment in the Pacific), succeeded in clearing all of Green Beach. This provided a secure beach for landing reinforcements and equipment.
With both beachheads expanded and the movement of reinforcements and supplies brought under control, Colonel David M. Shoup, senior commander on the island, radioed Julian Smith in late afternoon that the Marines were winning. The unopposed landing of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines at dusk on Green Beach gave Shoup his first fully intact, fully equipped infantry unit to deploy inland.
Also on Nov. 21, reports said that the Japanese were crossing from the southeast end of Betio Island to Bairiki, a nearby islet. Julian Smith committed the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines to halt them and secure Bairiki. These Marines landed in late afternoon, unresisted. Naval gunfire supporting their landing had put a quick end to the small number of Japanese fighters. A strafing plane hit a can of gasoline near the Japanese machine gun nests. The can exploded and burned out the enemy. The Marines then set up artillery on Bairiki to help in winning Betio.
D Plus 2 Day
Early on the morning of Nov. 22, the Japanese defenders of Betio sent a final, desperate message. In part, the message said that their weapons had been destroyed, and they were attempting "a final charge." The charge did not come until nightfall. By that time the Japanese-held portion of Betio had diminished radically.
The Marines swept eastward. Sherman tanks, closely supported by infantry, demolition experts and flamethrowers, pounded enemy pillboxes and bomb shelters. At the end of the day, Japanese still held strong points inland from Red Beach 1, at the eastern end of the airfield and at the eastern end of the island. Three times during the night, Japanese counterattacks surged from the eastern end of the island against two companies of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines; three times they were fought off with artillery, grenades, machine guns, rifles and bayonets.
The destroyers Schroeder and Sigsbee also battered Betio's defenders. The next morning, 325 Japanese bodies were counted, but about 500 were believed still alive.
D Plus 3 Day
On the fourth day of battle, Nov. 23, the 3rd Battalion 6th Marines successfully stormed the eastern end of the island. The pocket of strong resistance behind Red Beach 1 was also eliminated. Of the estimated 2,800 members of the Japanese Special Naval Landing Force on Betio, only 17 survived to surrender. Of the additional 2,000 Korean construction troops, 129 survived.
While the goal of clearing the remaining Japanese strongholds was being accomplished, Marine engineers and Navy Seabees (construction battalions) worked to repair Betio's airstrip. At noon, a carrier-based plane landed there. Shortly after, Julian Smith declared the island secure.
Securing the Atoll
The 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines continued its sweep through the Tarawa Atoll, securing each island and islet. Other than the Japanese they found on Bairiki, only one island, Buariki, was occupied. On Nov. 26 in the Battle of Buariki, the entire Japanese force of 156 fought to the death. The Marines lost 34 killed, and 56 were wounded.
Strategically, the victory at Tarawa opened the way to the Marshall Islands. Tactically, it established the amphibious assault as the method used thereafter to defeat Japan in the Pacific campaign.
Tarawa was the first major amphibious assault in the Pacific in which U.S. troops faced sustained opposition on the beach. The American people were deeply disturbed by reports of high casualties suffered by the 2nd Marine Division (1,027 dead, 88 missing and 2,292 wounded). The high casualties were a result of making a direct assault against a determined, well-armed and deeply fortified enemy. Inadequate preliminary bombardment, communications problems and inexperienced boat handlers who missed their landing destinations played a part.
The Navy-Marine Corps team learned much from Tarawa and quickly applied this experience in seizing and defending atolls throughout the Central Pacific. Among the lessons learned at Tarawa were the need for naval gunfire of greater duration and accuracy, coordinated close air support, more LVTs and improved battle communications.
Crowl, Philip A. and Edmund G. Love. Seizure of the Gilberts and Marshalls. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1955.
Isely, Jeter A. and Philip A. Crowl. The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1951.
Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 7. Aleutians, Gilberts and Marshalls. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951.
Shaw, Henry I., et. al. History of the U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II. Vol. 3. Central Pacific Drive. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1966.
Sherrod, Robert. Tarawa: The Story of a Battle. Fredericksburg, Texas: Admiral Nimitz Foundation, 1973. Simmons,
Edwin H. The United States Marines: The First Two Hundred Years. New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1974.
Research for this fact sheet was also provided by Alexander Molnar U.S. Marine Corps/U.S. Army (Ret.).
PEARL HARBOR HERO DIES AT TARAWA
Messman 2nd Class Doris Miller, a black mess attendant serving on board the battleship West Virginia at the outbreak of the war with Japan, was one of the Navy's first World War II heroes.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, West Virginia was moored at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. The ship was bombed and torpedoed, and finally sunk. Miller came up from the mess deck to take his battle station on the signal bridge. Helping to move the injured, he found and carried his mortally wounded captain, Mervyn S. Bennion, to relative safety. Seeing an unmanned .50-caliber machine gun, "Dorie," who had had no training in the gun's operation, shot down at least two enemy planes.
For his courageous actions at Pearl Harbor, Miller received the Navy Cross, the Navy's second highest award, from Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet. He also was meritoriously promoted one grade, to messman 1st class.
Still a mess steward, Miller was assigned to the escort carrier Liscome Bay during the U.S. campaign to take the Gilbert Islands. During the Battle of Tarawa, Nov. 20-23, 1943, the Liscome Bay was sunk by enemy torpedoes, with a loss of 645 lives. Miller was among those lost.
As a mess attendant, Miller served in the only Navy rate open to blacks at the beginning of World War II, that of steward. (A steward served food and cleared tables.) This was in contrast to World War I, when blacks were eligible for all ratings.
Navy & Marine Corps World War II Commemorative Committee
Navy Office of Information (CHINFO)
The Pentagon, Room 2E352 Washington, DC 20350-1200
copyright 2000 Wheaton, Illinois
Created 13 April 2001
Return to Documents and Diaries