Tarawa at 75

November 20, 2018 marks the 75th anniversary of the assault on Tarawa, which precipitated one of the bloodiest and most intense battles of World War II in the Pacific. As America’s first amphibious landing in the face of prepared Japanese defenses, costly lessons learned served the United States well through the rest of the war. Victory here led to victories elsewhere.

Throughout the year following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States and its Allies were largely on the defensive, struggling to contain explosive Japanese advances through Southeast Asia and towards Australia. The tide began to turn with such grinding campaigns as Papua and Guadalcanal. The Allies then began to claw their way back up New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. As these battles raged in the jungles of the Southwest Pacific, the prospects of a Central Pacific drive beckoned.

Victorious at the Battle of Midway in June 1942, the U.S. Navy steadily built up its strength even as it supported operations in the Southwest Pacific. A drive across the Central Pacific would allow it to best exploit its “blue water” characteristics. It would also support the drive in the Southwest Pacific by forcing the Japanese to defend in two directions rather than one. The campaign envisioned “island hopping,” the seizing of islands to provide bases for ships and land-based aircraft but bypassing and logistically strangling other Japanese-held islands not necessary to support the advance.

The Americans chose Tarawa as the first atoll to seize. Located amidst the Gilbert Islands, it was on the outer perimeter of Japan’s Pacific conquests and thus accessible from Hawaii. Planes based on Tarawa could in turn range the Marshall Islands, which in turn could lead to the Marianas, the Bonins, the Ryukyus and Japan. Tarawa’s lagoon would offer sanctuary and harborage for ships.

The Japanese heavily fortified Tarawa, in particular its principal islet of Betio. This flat 2-by-1/2  mile triangle became an elaborate network of over 500 pill-boxes and firing pits connected by trenches. Excellent fields of fire extended across the open sea and the lagoon alike. Reefs complicated the approaches. A narrow airstrip ran down the center of the island. Over 2,600 highly trained Japanese marines and 2,200 construction troops manned the defenses.

An intense preliminary bombardment knocked out most of the Japanese big guns, but left the deeply entrenched infantrymen largely unscathed. Rather than land on the temperamental seaward sides of the island, the 2nd Marine Division entered the lagoon to assault Betio from the north. Here they encountered a coral reef covered by water too shallow to allow the passage of their Higgins landing craft. Because of the tide schedule, they had been warned of this possibility. Many set out on a long trek towards shore wading through chest-high water – either then or when the tide fell. Others relied on tracked LVT “Alligators” to clamber over the reef to come ashore. There were too few of these to be efficient, however, and over half were knocked out on the first day.

Delays getting ashore allowed the Japanese to recover from the preliminary bombardment, re-establish fighting positions, and shift forces from the south of the island to the north. The exposed Marines took horrific casualties as they struggled to close the distance with the entrenched defenders. Junior leaders took charge of fragments of shattered units, and pressed the attack. Heroic efforts got a few medium tanks ashore, and these helped.  The Japanese commander was killed by naval gunfire, and naval bombardment demolished Japanese communications lines. The battle disintegrated into brawls of uncoordinated small unit actions. By the end of the first day 5,000 Marines were on or near shore, of whom 1,500 were killed or wounded.

The second day saw more progress, with more troops coming ashore and chains of command being re-established. Perhaps most important, artillery observers developed effective communications with the ships off-shore and pin-pointed enemy positions for devastating fires. Demolitions and flamethrowers were used with better coordination and effect as well. The Marines clawed their way across the island position by position. Desperate in their shrinking perimeters, the Japanese launched wild banzai charges on the third and fourth days. These were annihilated by overwhelming American firepower. Of over 4,600 committed, 17 Japanese soldiers and 129 laborers survived the battle. The U.S. Marines lost over 1,000 dead and 2,000 wounded.

Planes flown from Tarawa did prove instrumental to success in the Marshall Islands 10 weeks later. These and subsequent amphibious operations benefitted from lessons learned on Tarawa. Underwater Demolition Teams (now SEALS) were established to avoid debacles like that encountered on the reef north of Betio. Amphibious craft improved with respect to capacity and flexibility. Ship to shore fire coordination and communications improved as well. Amphibious rehearsals drilled the lessons of Tarawa into expeditions that followed. Future victories built upon the price paid in this one.

Recommended Reading

Alexander, Joseph H., Utmost Savagery: the Three Days of Tarawa (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995)

Shaw, Henry I., Nalty, Bernard C. and Turnbladh, Edwin T., Central Pacific Drive: History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, Volume 3 (Washington DC: Historical Branch, U.S. Marine Corps, 1966)

Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York: Macmillan, 1985)