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  • James Houser

November 23, 1943 - The Battle of Tarawa

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

November 23, 1943. After four days of intense combat, the small Central Pacific islands of Tarawa Atoll fall silent. 6,400 American, Japanese, and Korean combatants, including a thousand United States Marines, lie dead after 76 hours of combat. Tarawa is only the first of many tiny Pacific islands that will have their names written in blood in American memory as the Stars and Stripes begin to island-hop on the way to Tokyo.

It would be hard for Americans to understand why a thousand young men should die for a place that no one had ever heard of. Tarawa Atoll is a chain in what were once called the Gilbert Islands, and today is one of the 32 atolls that make up the Republic of Kiribati, one of the world’s smallest nations. In 1943, though, Tarawa was under the control of the Japanese, and these tiny landmasses – barely more than sandbars in the middle of the blue Pacific – were squarely in the American crosshairs.

The final victory at Guadalcanal in February 1943 had left the American commanders in the Pacific with a choice: what next? The Pacific is staggeringly, stupendously enormous, but even still there were two main courses of action open to the United States. There was the option to advance from Guadalcanal up the Solomon Islands chain and along the northern coast of New Guinea, clawing through dense jungle and fighting against Japanese army and land-based air forces. Thanks to American attrition of the Japanese fleet during the Guadalcanal operations, the Japanese Navy had ceased to be a major threat in the South Pacific. The main issue was that this course of action did not strike directly at Japan itself. This was the “Southern Pacific” option, and was favored by the American commander in the South Pacific – General Douglas MacArthur.

On the flipside, the Navy had its own ideas about how to win the war against Japan. After losing the Battle of Midway, Japan had retreated to a defensive ring of fortified islands that stretched in a wide arc across the Central Pacific. This outer shield encompassed naval bases and airstrips located on these tiny specks in the wide ocean, all able to sustain long-term resistance to any U.S. Navy strike within the perimeter. The Navy couldn’t just charge headlong for Japan or the Philippines, or it would be swarmed by Japanese aircraft and submarines from every angle and eventually run out of supplies. To bring the great American war machine within striking distance of Japan itself, it would be necessary to undertake land-sea-air assaults – “island hopping” - of a certain number of these little islands, even though it would obviously be difficult. In contrast to the “South Pacific” plan, the island-hopping strategy brought American forces as close to Japan as possible. Call this the “Central Pacific” option, favored by commander of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester A. Nimitz.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, when confronted with an “either-or” scenario, chose “both.” Nimitz and MacArthur would launch dual strikes, though MacArthur’s would have earlier priority due to the fact that most forces were already concentrated there. Nimitz had the all-clear to begin assembling his battle fleet and expeditionary force, though, and throughout much of 1943 began to prepare plans and forces for the Navy’s bulldozer drive across the Central Pacific. This was the great naval campaign that would carry America’s forces from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay.

It would be carried by the largest naval force in terms of tonnage ever assembled on the high seas. Nimitz’s vast armada brought battleships, aircraft carriers, along with hordes of smaller warships; this was in addition to the enormous flotilla of transport, supply, and service ships that always followed. The Pacific Fleet was almost a floating city, with one ship existing solely to make ice cream for the sailors, soldiers, Marines, and airmen that rode along. It was the most dramatic exercise of joint operations in human history, since every branch of service participated fully, even a handful of Coast Guardsmen. Though Army troops had perhaps the smallest voice in the operations, Army divisions served in almost every campaign of the long trek across the Pacific. The United States had assembled a truly massive armada to blast its way across island after island to Japan.

A good dozen or so dreadful little battles awaited them. While none of the land battles of the island-hopping campaign ever equaled the big slugfests in Europe in terms of scale or square mileage, they were unremitting contests of savagery, firepower, brutality, and human endurance. Names like Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa would be burned deeply into American memories, alongside Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Tinian, Guam, New Georgia, Bougainville, and of course the first and to some the worst: Tarawa.

The Japanese had been preparing for defensive warfare for some time now, and Tarawa Atoll was no exception. An atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef that encloses a lagoon and usually consists of a few small islands. Tarawa’s largest island is Betio, a long, thin island of just over a half square mile that is basically a rocky, sandy outcropping of the coral reef. Betio was two miles long and only 800 yards across at its widest point. In addition to the Japanese airfield on the island, there was also a long pier that jutted off the northern edge.

In the months leading up to the American attack, the Japanese had fortified the island to the teeth. They built hundreds of log and sand bunkers, some reinforced by concrete, and ringed the island with machine guns, trenches and light artillery. Due to the island’s near flat surface and high water table, the Japanese were not able to dig into the rock like they would on later islands. The defenders also brought 14 light Type 95 tanks to assist in the defense of Betio. Many of the laborers who built Betio’s defenses were not Japanese at all, but Korean slave labor conscripted to construct Pacific defenses. Many of these helpless Koreans would be killed in the crossfire at Tarawa.

Rear Admiral Keji Shibazaki commanded the 2,600 troops and 2,200 Japanese and Korean laborers who would defend Betio against the American assault. His defenses were engineered to stop the Americans in the water or on the beach, and were not designed for defense in depth – fair, because there was very little depth to defend. The Japanese were prepared to defend their tiny strip of Pacific island to the death, with Shibazaki declaring that “it will take one million men one hundred years” to take Tarawa.

Nimitz had started preparing for an offensive against the Gilbert Islands in July 1943, and this meant Tarawa. To breach Japan’s outer defensive ring, it was believed that the outpost on Tarawa had to be eliminated. The task would fall to the 2nd Marine Division of General Julian C. Smith. The 2nd Division had taken part in the tail end of the Guadalcanal Campaign, but it was augmented by some units that had fought for the whole duration of that long struggle and numbered 18,000 strong. It wasn’t an unbloodied, inexperienced division that would be going ashore on Tarawa Atoll, but nothing they had seen before could prepare them for what they would encounter. The Marines were escorted by the mighty U.S. Navy, including 17 aircraft carriers, 12 battleships, and numerous smaller craft, which would provide shore bombardment and air superiority.

To attack Tarawa, the Marines would have to take their landing craft across a high reef that ringed the entire island. It was predicted that the rising tide would allow for five feet of clearance on the start date of the battle. This would enable the Marines’ landing craft, mainly the “Higgins Boats” with their frontal drop-ramps (famously portrayed in Saving Private Ryan), to negotiate the whole reef and make it to shore. In addition to these vessels, though, the Marines had a new contraption called the LVT or “Landing Vehicle, Tracked.” These were amphibious tracked vehicles that could grind their way across obstacles on their way from the big ships to the shoreline. It would be the LVTs that would save the day at Tarawa.

On the morning of November 20, 1943, the Pacific Fleet unleashed a shattering barrage of shells and rockets. Beginning at about 6:30 in the morning, the big-gun ships pummeled Tarawa’s Japanese garrison with a staggering density of firepower, blazing away for almost three hours. In the course of this blasting, the battleships eliminated most of the Japanese heavy artillery, and their wreckage was only compounded by the darting, strafing planes of the carrier pilots. These men taxied from the big flattops in their F6F Hellcat fighters to punish the Japanese defenders of Tarawa. The Marines preparing to assault the island watched in awe and glee as Betio Island was turned into a great cloud of smoke. Surely no one could survive that.

The Marines pushed out in their landing craft at 9:00am, little motors churning through the surf as they approached the shattered island. There were three objective beaches: Red Beaches 2 and 3 on the northern central shore near the pier, and Red Beach 1 on the far western side. Green Beach 1 straddled the western side of Tarawa and was a reserve beach, only to be used if the initial landing force needed backup. American planners didn’t expect that backup would be needed; the opening bombardment and the first waves of Marines would be enough to take Tarawa.

With the bombardment lifted, it was only a matter of time before the Japanese recovered and manned their fighting stations, but as the Marines churned forward in their boats they discovered the awful truth: the tide was unexpectedly low on this day. Most of the Higgins boats were unable to cross the coral reef. For the Marines, this meant only one thing: they would have to disembark at the reef and wade ashore. For the lucky guys in the LVTs, the tracked amphibious vehicles were able to grind over the reef and continue making their way towards shore, but the bulk of the Marines had to dismount from the Higgins boats and wade through chest-high water towards the defended shore.

Then the nightmare began. The Japanese defenders began to unleash a withering hail of machine gun and light cannon fire into the advancing Marines. Bullets stitched through the surf as Marines struggled forward as if in slow motion, many falling dead with their feet barely touching the ground. The LVTs suffered as well, their lightly armored hulls soon riddled with holes, but they managed to deliver much of the first wave to the sea wall fronting the Japanese bunkers. The brave LVT operators started to serve as taxis, rushing back to the reef to grab more men and ferry them forward, but they paid a heavy price: almost half the LVTs were knocked out by the end of the day.

Colonel David Shoup of the 2nd Marine Regiment had taken command of those Marines who had made it onto Red Beach 2 and Red Beach 3. The plan had already broken down, and the Marines were on the verge of disaster, clinging to the lip of Betio Island and trying desperately to stay out of sight of the Japanese machine gunners. Shoup was wounded, but he managed to stay in command, and directed some surviving Marines to clear out the pier first – there were Japanese snipers and scouts all along the wooden structure taking potshots at his pinned-down leathernecks. Despite his wound, Shoup would remain the ground force commander for the rest of the battle, rallying his Marines in the face of the onslaught and pushing them inland against steep odds. Shoup would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his day on Tarawa, and would later serve as the Commandant of the Marine Corps, well-known for his open opposition to the Vietnam War.

The Marines’ 2nd and 3rd waves came in, and Shoup managed to get some sort of working command structure going in the chaos on Red Beach 2 and 3. To the west, on Red Beach 1, the Marines had gained more of a foothold. Tank support was supposed to be incoming, but almost no tanks had made it across the reef to Shoup’s position, and most of those that did were quickly knocked out. Only three M4 Shermans made it to Red Beach 1, but two of these were disabled and the third’s main gun was damaged by Japanese fire. The tiny handful of tanks that DID make it, though, proved decisive, and by evening the Marines had managed to push past the first line of Japanese defenses.

For the defenders, of course, it looked disastrous. Admiral Shibazaki had gambled his entire defense plan on stopping the Americans at the shoreline, and despite causing them immense casualties he had failed in his objective. His communications lines had been nearly ruined by the bombardment, leaving him unable to command his isolated units and reorganize a coherent resistance. As he tried to move to a different command post late on November 20, an American artillery shell exploded amidst the Admiral’s staff, killing him and many of his senior officers. The breakdown of Japanese command caused the defenders’ fight to disintegrate into isolated, disconnected battles without unity of purpose. The Japanese had already lost the Battle of Tarawa – but they were going to make the Americans pay dearly for their victory.

By nightfall, the Marines had a firm foothold on the island, but had lost 1,500 men out of their 5,000-man invasion force. Those still alive hunkered down to try and rest in the blood-soaked sand and debris of the tiny island, but there was no real sleep to be had. Shellfire, screams, and the paranoid fear of enemy attack kept everyone awake. They dug as best they could into the sand, hid in remnants of blown-out bunkers or behind ruined LVTs, gathered ammunition and rations from dead comrades, clutched their rifles, and waited for what the next day would bring.

It would be impossible to describe the rest of the battle with any real coherence. The Marines landed on the “backup” beach – Green Beach – on November 21 as a way of trying to overcome the Japanese resistance by outflanking them. This attack, too, soon bogged down in the network of bunkers, pillboxes and trenches that covered all of Tarawa. The Marines slugged forth on this tiny island hell, with the few operating tanks serving as their spearheads. 75mm light howitzers had been landed on the island overnight, and these light, mobile guns were used to crack pillboxes and the occasional Japanese tank. The very density of the fighting assisted the Japanese resistance, as they managed to hide in the debris and numerous shell holes. The humid and smoky air concealed movement but increased confusion. Through November 21 and 22, the Marines made inching, harrowing progress. For an island only a half square mile in size, it took 18,000 men a surprisingly large time to conquer it.

The morning of November 23 saw the last gasps of Japanese resistance, and it was in a furious form that few forgot. The famous “banzai” charges of hopeless Japanese last stands hit several Marine battalions, with the Japanese soldiers charging the Marines with their bayonetted rifles and the officers raising their katanas in homage. The “banzai” charge, while terrifying, was almost always futile, causing many more losses to its own side than it ever inflicted – but that was sort of the point. It was a last act of defiance, more a cultural act than a military one. Japanese units often undertook this action when other nations’ forces would have surrendered; it was their way of giving in to the inevitable.

November 23, 1943 saw the Marines finally clear the last Japanese resistance out of Tarawa root and branch. The two Sherman tanks “Colorado” and “China Gal” led the 6th Marines down to the very tip of the island, where “Colorado” blasted apart a final banzai charge with 75mm canister shells. Canister shot is like a shotgun shell on steroids, an exploding case loaded with ball bearings that turns anything in its path to hamburger. This barrage wreaked such a terrible carnage that it was hard to count the bodies afterwards since there were so many intermingled parts. Finally, brutally, unmistakably, the Battle of Tarawa was over.

The island was a tomb. Of almost 4,000 Japanese soldiers and laborers on the island, only 17 surrendered while the rest died in the struggle. Considerably more of the Korean laborers – 129 of the originally around 1,200 – survived, though it was obvious that they didn’t really want to be there. This evened out to around 4,700 dead defenders on this tiny strip of Pacific island. They had demanded a steep price for Tarawa, as the United States Marines lost around 1,000 dead and 2,100 wounded out of a total landing force of 12,000 men – 25% losses for four days of fighting. It was a high, high price for a bit of sandy, bloody beach.

The heavy casualties at Tarawa came as a shock to the United States public, especially when Marine General Holland Smith compared the toll to Pickett’s Charge. It wasn’t quite as bad as that, but it was pretty damn close. It was hard to justify the dead of Tarawa to a nation full of people who had never heard of the place and couldn’t understand why a thousand American boys gave their lives for this insignificant speck. This would be a recurring question as time went on, and more insignificant specks became all too familiar to a grieving nation.

But Tarawa was not insignificant. Not only did it, in Chester Nimitz’s words, “knock down the front door to the Japanese defenses,” it taught the Americans valuable lessons in amphibious warfare that would be applied not only to the Pacific but to D-Day as well. The unexpected problem of the reef would not occur again, as Navy frogmen would proof the landing sites before an attack. The importance of the LVTs was all too apparent, and tougher and better-armored versions would start popping up in 1944. The Marines refined their assault tactics and improved their operating procedures. All this was good, because compared to Peleliu, Iwo Jima, or Okinawa, Tarawa would look like an easy fight in retrospect. It was the first American assault on a heavily defended Pacific island, and the lessons learned may have saved far more lives than those lost at Tarawa.

But on November 23, the dead of Tarawa still lay face-down in the surf, bobbing against the shores of the island. Tarawa was important in more than just military strategy. For the first time, the cost of the Pacific War was brought home to the American people. 6,400 dead on the island were a hard pill to swallow, and Staff Sergeant Norman Hatch and his crew of Marine cameramen not only managed to film the landing and part of the combat, but they filmed those reams of dead Americans that washed ashore on Betio Island.

This footage would be released on March 2, 1944, as part of the documentary “With the Marines at Tarawa.” To many Americans, it was their first image of war on the big screen, and it was controversial and jarring. The filming of dead American bodies, unburied, was so graphic that it would almost never be repeated again in American documentary filmmaking. No such image ever emerged from Vietnam or Iraq – the government would never have allowed it. Franklin D. Roosevelt only demanded that it be released because he wanted the American people to understand the uncensored truth of the war.

The Marines at Tarawa had impressed one group of people above all else. When a Japanese prisoner of war was asked when he knew that they had lost the battle, he simply said, “When the dying Americans kept coming, one after the other.”

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