With the close of the campaign in the Solomon Islands, Admiral Nimitz’s Central Pacific Campaign is launched. The Gilbert Islands are the first objectives of this campaign. They
are the stepping stones that need to be taken so that the U. S. Pacific fleet can then take
the Marshall Islands, which contain the largest atoll in the world, Kwajalein, with it’s massive anchorage and wonderful airfields.
Before the U. S. forces could consider a move on the Marshall Islands, located five hundred miles to the north of the Gilberts, the tiny Tarawa atoll had to be taken. What made Tarawa so strategically important was that is was in the middle of the shipping route between Hawaii and Australia. The Tarawa atoll consisted of 38 very small islands formed in a loose triangle. The coming amphibious invasion of Tarawa would consist of mainly the assault of 2 of her larger isles Betio, (pronounced BAY-she-oh) and Makin, (pronounced MUG-rin). Betio contained a priceless airstrip and was the primary target.
Betio was almost 3 miles long and narrow. It is at it’s highest only 9 feet above sea level and at any time you are only about 300 yards from the sea. The Japanese had taken Betio from the British about 2 days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The British Administrator
Colonel Vivien Fox-Strangeways fled in a launch at the approach of the small Japanese detachment.
The Allies had no contact with the Gilbert Islands until Carlson’s Raiders led a small
raid on Makin. The raiders encountered little resistance and soon left the isle. The Japanese were now thoroughly alerted to Allied interest and set about fortifying every
square inch of Betio. Rear Admiral Keji Shibasaki was in command of the defenses of Tarawa. He had with him three thousand troops of Japan’s Special Naval Landing Force and about two thousand Korean laborers of little combat value. Shibasaki and his
forces turned Tarawa into one of the toughest fortified positions in the world. The isle was dotted from one end to another with machine gun nests and pillboxes so that each one provided cover fire for the other. The island was linked with an interconnecting series of underground bunkers covered by concrete, coconut logs, dirt, and sand. Strung along the outlying reef away from shore were barbwire, mines, and concrete obstacles. At the waters edge a log barricade ringed the beach. Backing up the man made defenses were numerous machine guns, mortars, artillery pieces, and eight-inch coastal guns imported from Singapore. Rear Admiral Shibasaki was so confident of these defenses that he proclaimed, “A million men cannot take Tarawa in a thousand years.” He didn’t take into consideration United States Marines.
The Tarawa defenses held a weapon that was almost the undoing of the invasion force.
The combination of reef and tide, as well as the American planners disregard for them, would greatly increase the death toll of the invaders. The reef surrounding the invasion
beach was roughly 500 to 1,000 yards from shore and was supposed to be covered by
5 feet of water at H-hour (based upon maps from 1841 maps). Amphibious tractors “amphtracs” could cross the reef at anytime but were in short supply. Most of the troops would be coming ashore using Higgins boats, which only drew 3-4 feet fully loaded with 20 marines and their equipment. The problem arose that Tarawa suffered from dodging tides and their depth would only be about 3 feet. Former residents of Tarawa, including the former British administrator, warned American planners of this possibility. However, Admiral Turner and his staff were not concerned with the dodging tide and believed that the tide would be deep enough. That was a comfortable decision decided by people not in the assault waves.
The forces the Americans had gathered to take Tarawa consisted of Task Force 53, part of the U.S. Fifth fleet, led by Admiral Harry Hill, escorting 18,600 men of the 2nd U.S. Marine division. In overall command of the amphibious forces was Rear Admiral
Richmond Kelly “Terrible” Turner. Turner had earned his reputation as a competent and tenacious commander during the Guadalcanal and Central Solomon’s campaigns. For a ground force commander, Major General Holland “Howlin Mad” Smith, who also had a reputation for being a tenacious commander, was chosen. Leading the invasion of Betio
and commander of the 2nd Marine division was Major General Julian Smith. Leading the
invasion of Makin was Major General Ralph Smith and his 27th Infantry Division.
On the morning of November 20th, 1943 the invasion forces of Operation Galvanic (invasion of Tarawa) were arrayed around Betio and Makin. The big guns of the battleships and cruisers opened up on the isles, covering them in a blanket of smoke.
In all over 3,000 tons of shells were fired wiping out the big artillery pieces on Betio.
The old battleships Maryland and Tennessee had been refloated and modernized and were doing their best to repay the Japanese for Pearl Harbor. The Maryland managed to drop one of her 16-inch shells into the ammunition bunker for the 8-inch guns on the western tip of the isle. The resulting explosion killed hundreds of Japanese and blew up thousands of tons of shells. The ships stopped the naval bombardment to allow the smoke to clear so the ensuing carrier plane strike could see their targets. However the air strike was delayed and the ships resumed firing until the carrier planes came roaring in, strafing and bombing.
Into this manmade hell came the Marines in the amphtracs. As they ploughed through the surf they began to draw fire. First long range machine gun bullets bounced off their steel hides but as they drew closer and the fire became more intense, the amphtracs began to suffer casualties and sink. Here and there marines jumped into the water and made for the sea wall. Several of the amphtracs made it to shore but most sank on the reef or when they got back to deeper water. The second through sixth waves were stopped at the reef by the lower than anticipated tides as they were in Higgins boats that could not traverse the reef. They disgorged their marines and the marines had to struggle one half mile with no cover taking casualties every step of the way. The tidewater around the beach turned red as the casualties mounted brought down by the hidden machine gunners, mortars, and snipers.
Here and there marines made their way on shore and started climbing over the sea wall led by surviving officers and NCOs. They made their way inshore using whatever weapon they had - guns, knives, grenades, and satchel charges, to assault the pillboxes and the snipers who had tied themselves to the trees. On they came, even as more and more of them fell wounded or dead.
Of the 5,000 troops who came ashore the first day over 1,500 of them were casualties. The shouts of “Corpsman! Corpsman!” were heard from one end of the beach to the other. Unused rifles stuck into the ground with plasma bottles taped to their stocks, literally fed life’s blood to the wounded awaiting evacuation. Due to the large number of casualties blood plasma, bandages, and morphine became in short supply. The corpsmen and the doctors on board the hospital ships grumbled and complained about sewing up the guts of marines full of steak and eggs from their last shipboard meal.
As night closed in the marines on shore expected a nocturnal attack, but it never came. Rear Admiral Shibasaki had indeed planned to strike, but the shelling from the big guns had taken out his communications to all parts of the island. On through the night casualties were taken off the beaches and fresh troops were brought in. The battle continued in earnest through out the second day and Colonel Shoup, the commander on shore, sent in his official report: “Casualties many; percentage dead unknown; combat efficiency; we are winning”.
By the end of the 3rd day the isle of Betio was taken. The 2nd Marine Division had 986 comrades KIA and over 2,000 wounded. Upon touring the isle and seeing the dead marines entwined with dead Japanese and upon looking out over the 300 bodies still floating in the surf, General Howlin’ Mad Smith exclaimed to General Julian Smith,
“How can such men be defeated?”