The Battle of Tarawa

Discussion in 'War Against Japan' started by jacobtowne, Sep 9, 2006.

  1. jacobtowne

    jacobtowne Senior Member

    I'm unsure where to post this brief account, since the Pacific island campaigns comprised elements of land, sea, and air warfare.

    Tarawa was the opening curtain on a series of central Pacific island campaigns that would last almost two years and be witness to some of the fiercest and most brutal fighting of the war.
    From this springboard would follow the Marshall Islands, Truk in the Carolines, the Palau Islands, Tinian and Saipan in the Marianas and the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, Iwo Jima, and the final battle at Okinawa.
    At almost the same time, battles continued in the South Pacific from Guadalcanal and Bougainville in the Solomons to New Guinea and the Philippines.

    The Battle of Tarawa in November of 1943, the first major US amphibious assault, was an eye-opener for military planners in the Pacific Theater.

    Tarawa is located in the Gilbert Islands approximately 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. It isn't an island but a series of barren islets formed by the exposed tips of a submerged mountain sticking above the waters of the blue sea. The military importance of Tarawa lay in its strategic location at the gateway of the US drive through the central Pacific towards the Philippines.

    The largest of Tarawa's islets is Betio measuring less than 3 miles in length and 1/2 mile in width. Here, the Japanese built an airstrip defended by 4,700 troops dug into a labyrinth of pillboxes and bunkers interconnected by tunnels and defended by wire and mines. The task of dislodging this force fell to the Marines of the 2nd Division. The resulting struggle produced one of the bloodiest battles in Marine history

    In planning the attack on Tarawa, Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief Pacific, urged Fifth Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance to attack Tarawa, occupy it and to withdraw again as quickly as possible, fearing a major Japanese naval retaliation against this assault. Spruance in turn had emphasized speed on the 2nd Marine Division commander, Major General Julian C. Smith. Fortunately, a series of US attacks in the Solomon Islands had caused the Japanese to divert forces to counter what they perceived to be a developing threat to their major base at Rabaul, which included naval assets from the Marshall Islands. The Gilbert Islands had been a British protectorate since 1915, and the Marines could draw upon the knowledge of a number of British, Australian and New Zealand expatriates, despite the maps of the area dating from the turn of the century, and the USS Nautilus having surveyed the area and taken photographs.

    Betio Island is surrounded by a reef that extends to a maximum of 1,200 yards out to sea. The first three waves of Marines would be carried in amtracs, so the depth of water would be irrelevant, but the following waves would be carried by Higgins Boats (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel - LCVP), which drew three to four feet of water when fully laden. Opinions among the expatriates varied as to whether the landing craft would make it across the reef, but there was one consistently dissenting voice - that of Major Frank Holland who had lived in the Gilberts for fifteen years and made a study of the tidal patterns around the islands. He was extremely worried when he heard that the Marines were going to attack on the 20th November. He knew there would be 'dodging' tides at that point, and it was likely that the second wave of Higgins Boats would ground, stranding the Marines.

    Julian Smith had intended to attack with two regiments abreast and one in reserve but Gen. Holland M. Smith (V Amphibious Corps commander) decided that the 6th Marines would be held as a corps reserve. This meant that the Marines would be attacking with a force ratio of 2:1, significantly less than desired minimum. On top of this, Nimitz declared that the pre-invasion bombardment would be limited to three hours to achieve strategic surprise. In view of this, it was decided that the 2nd Marine Division would attack from the lagoon side of the island where the defenses were marginally less formidable and offered calmer waters for the amphibious assault craft. The Marines would disembark the transports west of the atoll and the landing craft move to a rendezvous area just before the entrance in the western reef and move in waves to the line of departure about 7,000 yards (6.37km) inside the lagoon from where the assault waves would be unleashed towards the beaches 6,000 yards (5.46km) away. The three beaches were designated Red 1, 2 and 3 (west to east). The 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines (3/2) under Major John Schoettel would land on Red 1; 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines (2/2) under Lt. Colonel Herbert Amey would attack Red 2; and 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (2/8) under Major Henry Crowe would assault Red 3.

    The landings began on November 20 and immediately ran into trouble. Coming in at low tide, the assault boats were forced to disgorge their men far from shore. Wading through waist-deep water over piercing, razor-sharp coral, many were cut down by enemy gunfire yards from the beach. Those who made it ashore huddled in the sand, hemmed in by the sea to one side and the Japanese to the other.

    The next morning, reinforcements made the same perilous journey bringing with them tanks and artillery. By the end of the day the Marines were able to break out from the beach to the inland. Combat continued for another two days.
    The cost of victory was high for the Marines who suffered nearly 3,000 casualties, with almost 1,000 dead. The toll was even higher for the Japanese. Of the 4,700 defenders, only 17 survived. Their willingness to fight to the last man foreshadowed the fierceness of the battles to come.

    First, I'll try to post a link to some footage taken by those very brave men known as combat photographers. It shows precisely the kind of close quarters combat typical of battles in the Pacific.

    Well, it worked. Here are a couple of photos. One is of fallen marines at water's edge, another some grim humor, and a third shows enemy dead.

  2. spidge


    As you can see by my avatar I am well aware of the battle for Tarawa.

    I cannot load your movie however I have a war footage VHS which shows all the pre-op on board the carriers with all the "war room" maps and tactics and a similar one for all the island preparations made by the Japanese which have been merged.

    I have been in all of those bunkers. The shore defence guns are still there albeit a little rusted. Still impressive and ominous though.
  3. jacobtowne

    jacobtowne Senior Member

    Sorry the film doesn't work for you. It's at some sort of host site I suspect. I found the link at another forum.

  4. von Poop

    von Poop Adaministrator Admin

    Excellent colour footage, I'm almost thankful the more graphic segments are in black and white. Took an age to buffer through my connection but worth the wait, in my case especially for the footage of waterbourne LVT's, never realised they were that fast.
  5. jacobtowne

    jacobtowne Senior Member

    I'll bet the marines wished that the landing craft were even faster. It's no place to dilly-dally.

    Yes, the black and white is a bit merciful compared to color. That's a grisly business.

  6. Owen

    Owen -- --- -.. MOD

    Excellent footage.
    The Flamethrower looked more dangerous to their own men than the enemy.
    Still can't get used to seeing WW2 in colour.
  7. Cpl Rootes

    Cpl Rootes Senior Member

    Poor guys, it is really weird looking at it in colour.
  8. Gerard

    Gerard Seelow/Prora

  9. machine shop tom

    machine shop tom Senior Member

    A good book to read about Tarawa is "tarawa, a story of a battle" by Robert Sherrod.

  10. Mike L

    Mike L Very Senior Member

    Read a book about this many years ago, believe Tarawa was known as 'hell's little half acre' by USMC.
    Often wondered if some costly assaults could have been avoided by 'isolating' some Japanese Pacfic bases and moving on to next target. I do understand that the scale of the Pacific and developments in air warfare, aircraft ranges etc dictated assaults to some extent. Aircraft Carrier War was still a fairly new concept and many losses meant land bases were also necessary. Carriers can't launch B29s.

  11. spidge


    Read a book about this many years ago, believe Tarawa was known as 'hell's little half acre' by USMC.
    Often wondered if some costly assaults could have been avoided by 'isolating' some Japanese Pacific bases and moving on to next target. I do understand that the scale of the Pacific and developments in air warfare, aircraft ranges etc dictated assaults to some extent. Aircraft Carrier War was still a fairly new concept and many losses meant land bases were also necessary. Carriers can't launch B29s.


    Rabaul was isolated and the Japanese waited for an attack that never came.

    Tarawa (Betio) was to be the first "Island" where the US was to attack a fully entrenched enemy who had nearly two years to get ready for the attack they knew would eventually come as it was the outer rim of the Japanese sphere in the Central Pacific.

    The preparatory bombing of Betio was thought to have virtually obliterated all defences - How wrong they were.

    Marines and the top brass (with all the bombing) thought they would just walk in and that would be it. There were many mistakes made which assisted them in future island assaults however the closer they got to Japan the greater the resistance.

    At Tarawa (Betio) they had problems with the tides which resulted in most Marines having to wade towards the beach and being mowed down by horrendous machine gun crossfire which resembled the trench warfare of ww1.

    I have seen the defences first hand as much still exists.

    When they moved on to The Marshall Islands, isolation was their plan of attack. They just bombed the island strongholds and starved them out however at the same time they starved the local population. The Marshalls had been a Japanese "possession" since ww1 so there knowledge of these islands was second to none.

  12. Mike L

    Mike L Very Senior Member

    Cheers for that Geoff.
    Bombardment (aerial, artillery or Naval) never obliterates all defences. Surely the lessons of WW1 can't have been forgotten in WW2?
    Just noticed your RAAF headstone/memorial project. Any pictures required in Essex?

  13. spidge


    Hi Mike,

    I do have a couple remaining - one from each conflict.

    Hope they are close to you.

    READING, EDGAR GEORGE Flight Sergeant 421463 14 O T U 24/10/1943 20 Royal Australian Air Force Australian Grave 462. (Screen Wall, Panel 3). ILFORD CEMETERY UK Essex

    TALBOT , ARTHUR SYDNEY Lieutenant 48th Squadron Royal Flying Corps 27/09/1917 27 RFC United Kingdom ROCHFORD (ST. ANDREW) CHURCHYARD UK Essex

    Although the WW1 is listed as UK he was born in Sydney.


  14. Old Git

    Old Git Harmless Curmudgeon

    It's a very interesting battle Tarawa. Before Tarawa the allies only previous experience of an opposed landing was Gallipolli, (Dieppe was a raid not a landing) if you read over the memoirs of the guys involved in the planning they all pretty much say that Gallipolli was uppermost in their minds during the planning.

    From the outset the radio comms were up the spout, the only navy TBY radios just didn't survive the trip in. But more importantly there was no dedicated radio ship in the invasion fleet and pretty much every ship in the fleet had unleashed everything it had on the island, the result of all this percussion meant that very many of the ships radios were also out of action. After Tarawa every invasion fleet had a dedicated radio ship to route comms.

    Given that Tarawa occured just 7 months before the invasion of the European mainland you can see just how much they were actually learning on the job, as it were. Both the Germans and the Japanese had pervious experience of staging opposed landings and so knew what to expect and how best to counteract it.

    At that time, November 1943, Tarawa was the most heavily defended place on the planet. The 17 survivors on the Japanese side were mostly Koreans, I believe there was only one Japanese survivor, a warrant officer.

    The situation on the first day was so bad that at one stage they did receive a message from shore saying "issue in doubt", I believe it was sent a Major Shoop, who said that their grasp on the beachhead was so tenuous that a little old lady with a broom could have swept them of that beach like flys. What saved them was that there was no organised counter attack by the end of the first day and for a long time no-one understood why the Japanese had failed to counter-attack.

    A few years ago Joe Alexander (a retired Marine Colonel) wrote a book on Tarawa in which he laid out his theory that Admiral Shirabashi (sp) and his staff were killed on the first day when re-locating their HQ from the solid concrete bunker so it could be used as hospital for the wounded. His theory was based on an eye-witness account by a Marine who claimned he spotted a group of what looked like high-ranking officers standing in the open and as luck would have it his radio started working so he called in a barrage on that map ref, taking out the group of officers. Good Kill! Alexander believes that this was the Japanese Admiral his staff (taken out on the very first day) and without any effective leadership there was no-one left to organise the counter-attack that would have been so costly that first night.

    It makes you wonder, what would have happened to both the Island hopping campaign and the Normandy Invasions if those Marines had been 'swept off that beach like flies'. With the diaster of Gallipoli on everyones mind during the planning and execution a disaster at Tarawa may well have set planning for the other assaults back by several months. In many ways Tarawa could be said to be one of the most important allied battles of WWII, yet today so few people have heard of it.

    Incidentally, they took miles of footage (both colour and black & white on Tarawa). The head of the FPU on Tarawa was a Hollywood actor (called Hayward I think). Out in the Amtracs Lt Eddie Albert (movie and TV star) was busy winning the Navy Cross for the very many rescues of wounded men from the reef.

    Meanwhile a hero of Pearl Harbor, Doris 'Dorie' Miller (ships cook third class) who had won the Navy Cross for his actions on the USS West Virginia, (saved his Captain and took him to the first aid post then manned a .50 cal he had not been trained on and shot down at least one Japanese Zero) had been transferred to the USS Liscombe bay, now part of the Tarawa fleet. It was sunk on November 24th by a topedoe from a Japanese sub with the loss of 646 men from a complement of 948. Dorie Miller was one of those lost. Tarawa was a costly battle all over!
  15. machine shop tom

    machine shop tom Senior Member

    BTW, my copy of Sherrod's book has some sand from Tarawa glued inside the front cover page. Kinda touching knowing the blood that was shed there so long (maybe NOT so long) ago............
  16. Smudger Jnr

    Smudger Jnr Our Man in Berlin

    It wasn't called "Bloody" Tarawa for nothing.

  17. Mike L

    Mike L Very Senior Member

    Ilford isn't too far, Rochford is near Southend but still doable. Do you have any indicators for plot number etc? If not it's not a problem, CHURCHYARD as opposed to cemetery usually defines a fairly small area. Give me a few days, a week or 2, and I will see what I can do.
    After all I am a bit closer than you mate!!!!!

  18. Mike L

    Mike L Very Senior Member

    Old Git,
    Great post, thanks. Very interesting. Must see if I still have that book I read so many years ago.

  19. Cheers for that Geoff.
    Bombardment (aerial, artillery or Naval) never obliterates all defences. Surely the lessons of WW1 can't have been forgotten in WW2?
    Just noticed your RAAF headstone/memorial project. Any pictures required in Essex?


    No they were not forgotton. They were misinterpreted and so were tests of cannon ammunition from the 1920s & later. Circumstances where artillery fires & air strikes were effective were assumed to carry over to other situations. Another miscalcualtion was the ability or williningness of the Japanese soldier to endure fire that would render most other military units ineffective. After the assualt started the naval gun fire was effective. One specific mission may have crippled the Japanese defense. A few hours after the first assualt the Japanese commander moved his comand group out of the well protected CP bunker. The group was caught in a trench by a salvo of 5 inch shells from a destroyer. It is suspected the Japanese commander was moving to a location from where he could direct a large scale counter attack during the first afternoon. In any case the loss of the command group seems to have paralyzed the Japanese defense for a critical 24 hours. The few Japanese prisoners told their interrogaters about a absence of offensive action for a day. Similarly the Marines described only local small counter attacks & no large scale attacks until the last night.

    Aside from the Sherrod book recommended earlier in this thread there are books by Eric Hammel - ‘Bloody Tarawa’ and Col Alexander ‘Utmost Savagery’.

    The Marines & US military in general had adjusted much of their thinking about the Japanese soldier, and amphibious operations during he previous fifteen months, but there were still many things to learn. I dont know what the Marines and US Army in the Pacifc learned from the previous amphibious ops in the Mediterrainian. Operations Torch (Nov.42), Husky (Jul 43), Avalanche (Sept 43), Baytown (Sept 43), Brimstone (Oct 43) all preceeded the Tarawa campaign, and the After Action Reports must have forwarded to the PTO. The earlier amphibious operations in the Solomons, New Guiniea, Bouganville,... had brought some valuabe lessons to the US military. Most of these were unexciting but important things like: better organizing boat groups for beach assualts, improving navigation for the boat groups to the correct beach, supplying ammunition to the assualt force on the beachhead, better organized loading of supplies on the cargo ships, ect...

    The Marines had learned to increase the firepower of their rifle companies. The rifle companys that went ashore had 18 BAR per company, vs the current standard of nine, and the number of medium machineguns per company was four or double the two then standard in the US Army. Another bitter and most important lesson was the paramount importance of fire support comunications. By the time of Tarawa they were coming to understand no excuses could be allowed for a failure to communicate with the naval gun fire suport. Every radio & radio operator was liable to be used by the NGF teams no matter who their nominal owner was. The result was that while the command and administrative communications had severe problems during the first 36 hours the NGF comm links functioned well enough that the necessary fire support effectively continued. Fifty years later the Marines were still fanatic on this point. In the 1980s & 1990s I saw the careers of officers effectively ended because they failed to manage sucessfully the comm links for fire support and fire control.

    The use of the LVT vehicals in the assualt ws not quite a first. It had been done on small scale in the South Pacific. Until then the unarmored LVT had been considered a logistics vehical. The decision to use them to carry the first assualt wave ashore caused a hasty program to install armored shields for the crew compartment.

    A few other notes: There were 17 Japanese survivors & 103 Korean construction laborers surviving the battle on Betio. The books mention none survivng on Makin island or the other islets.

    US dead on Betio were just a little short of 1000. Over 200 were killed on Makin & the lesser island of the Tarawa Atoll. At sea the aircraft carrier Liscombe Bay was torpdoed by a Japanese submarine. The ships magazine apprently detonated as it sank quickly & over 600 more US men were lost. This was the only sucesfull part of the counter attacks the Japanese navy planned in the defense of the Tarawa Atoll. The other submarines failed to hit any ships, the surface and air attacks were aborted as the forces were unprepared or nonexistant. So, nearly 2,000 US military lost their lives securing the Atoll.
  20. Mike L

    Mike L Very Senior Member

    Brilliant summary. I must read more on this topic.
    I have always wondered why 'Buffaloes' were not used on D-Day when they clearly were in crossing the Rhine. (I built an Airfix model of one when I was a kid).
    Guess it was due to time taken to transport?


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