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Heavier Metal at Tarawa

By Eric Hammel
7/24/2017 • World War II Magazine

When the Marines hit Tarawa, the punch included Sherman medium tanks—a Pacific Theater first.

The battle for Tarawa marked not only the start of the Central Pacific Campaign but also the debut of Marine Corps medium tanks in the Pacific. Though the M4 Sherman’s introduction was haphazard and lacked the doctrine needed to mesh armor and infantry on the battlefield, it proved that heavier and deadlier tanks than those previously deployed were capable of overcoming the strong defensive emplacements common in island combat.

The United States began its drive into the Central Pacific with Tarawa and nearby Makin because those atolls in the Gilbert Islands were the easternmost Japanese holdings on a direct route from Hawaii to the empire’s home islands. Makin was needed for its anchorage; Tarawa, for its airfield.

The invasion of Tarawa began on November 20, 1943, with a blunt-force assault by the 20,000-man 2nd Marine Division on Betio, the low-lying coral island where the airfield was located, at the southwestern tip of the atoll. Approximately two miles long east to west, the island stretched 500 yards south from the base of a Japanese-improved central pier that itself extended 500 yards to the edge of the lagoon-side reef. Upgrading another existing structure, the Japanese built a sturdy coconut-log seawall around the island that incorporated numerous rugged camouflaged defensive positions and fronted many others.

Following a brief bombardment by U.S. Navy warships and carrier-based aircraft, the 2nd Marine Division’s reinforced 2nd Marine Regiment (the 2nd Marines) approached the island’s three invasion beaches at about 8 a.m. Confident that shelling and bombing had dramatically reduced Japanese defenses, landing force commanders expected a walkover.

They were wrong.

Three reinforced assault battalions of the 2nd Marines, each assigned its own beach on Betio’s northwestern shore, met a fierce, largely intact, and brilliantly executed defense all along that milelong stretch. The Japanese pinned the regiment’s 3rd Battalion on the westernmost quarter of Beach Red 1, forced its 2nd Battalion to a halt behind the seawall on the eastern half of Red 2, and hammered the 8th Marines’ 2nd Battalion into taking cover behind the portion of the seawall at the western half of Red 3. Shortly after the leading assault battalions landed, the regimental reserve—1st Battalion, 2nd Marines—was ordered to land on the center beach, Red 2, and mount an immediate advance.

Into the cauldron of shock and disbelief boiling around the lead assault battalions, M4 Sherman medium tanks—the first the Marine Corps ever sent into combat—started toward the landing beaches. To help the infantry quickly overrun the island, the 16 diesel-powered M4A2 Shermans of Company C, I Marine Amphibious Corps Tank Battalion, had been carried toward the shore in landing craft from the USS Ashland, a new type of transport ideal for moving medium tanks across oceans and sending them on their way to a hostile shore.

The Marines had been using M3 Stuart light tanks since mid- 1942, albeit with scant doctrinal training and little success. But the Marines were still new to armor, and medium tanks were new to the Pacific. Although the Sherman was by then a staple against the Wehrmacht in Italy, few men in the 2nd Marine Division had ever seen one—or knew anything about its assets and liabilities. And hardly anyone in the 2nd Marines knew that a medium tank company would be in on the Betio assault.

The medium tank vexed the U.S. Navy for very good reason. It was all a standard transport or cargo ship’s equipment could do to lift a 26,000- pound light tank from a hold, sway it over the side, and lower it into a landing craft bobbing beside the ship. A 66,000-pound medium tank could not even be stowed aboard a standard transport or cargo ship, much less lifted on existing cargo-handling equipment.

To overcome the challenge, the navy adopted the Landing Ship, Tank—a mechanical marvel able to load and unload medium tanks and other big equipment through a clamshell bow and a strong steel ramp. The first LSTs were cargo vessels repurposed by the British, tested, then perfected and purpose-built in a joint Anglo-American effort. The standard LST, first used in the July 1943 invasion of Sicily, could cross an ocean with a load of medium tanks and land them on a beach by running aground, opening the bow doors, and dropping the ramp.

But there was a catch: the beachhead. To disgorge tanks or other cargo, an LST needed a spot in friendly hands behind a deep defensive cordon. If the infantrymen developing the cordon had to have tank support to carve out a perimeter, the assault force had a serious chicken/egg problem.

Solving that problem meant getting each medium tank to shore during an assault in a smaller, faster, more maneuverable Landing Craft, Mechanized. To deliver tanks in LCMs en masse, the navy embraced another British invention: the Landing Ship, Dock, which could cross an ocean carrying a full company of tanks, and get close enough to send them ashore. The key to the LSD was its well deck, which provided a controllable body of water in which a landing craft could be floated.

Built at Oakland, California, and commissioned in June 1943, the first LSD, USS Ashland, sailed west in late September to drop cargo at an island on the air route linking Hawaii to Australia, then set out with U.S. Army troops and equipment for New Caledonia. At Nouméa, the Ashland took aboard combat cargo— including Company C’s 16 Shermans—bound for Tarawa.

Company C, commanded by First Lieutenant Edward Bale, was divided into three platoons of five Shermans each. Bale’s command Sherman was to lead the 1st Platoon to Beach Red 1; the 2nd and 3rd Platoons would land on Red 2 and Red 3, respectively. The first problem they encountered was a particularly low tide that kept any landing craft from crossing a reef 50 yards wide and lying about 500 yards from shore. The Shermans, forced to disembark at the reef, could ford a depth of up to 40 inches without the engines swamping, but the crews expected to encounter deep shell holes from the pre-landing bombardment. The holes would be invisible from inside the tanks, so Company C’s back-up plan was for volunteers with signal flags to guide the tank drivers through the hip- to chest-deep water.

The landing craft bearing Bale’s six Shermans were circling off the reef, all hands searching for a way in, when orders came to land on the point at the west edge of Red 1. The tanks exited the landing craft at the reef and flag teams led the crews across hundreds of yards of pitfalls. The flaggers worked diligently under heavy fire; many were shot, but others sprang to replace them. All six Shermans made it in.

As Bale’s tanks approached the beach—giving the embattled infantrymen on shore their first inkling that the Marine Corps even owned medium tanks—it became clear that the only gap in the thigh-high seawall wide enough for a Sherman was choked with injured Marines, many unable to be moved. To advance beyond the strand, the tankers would have to flank the seawall on the left, which meant driving several hundred yards, parallel to the beach, through the surf. During that swing, deep shell holes trapped three tanks. The survivors were Chicago, China Gal, and Bale’s command tank, Cecilia (all 16 Shermans were given names beginning with “C” for Company C).

It was 11:10. As soon as the three Shermans reached dry land, several haggard riflemen signaled the crews to stop. An infantry lieutenant asked Bale to knock out Japanese emplacements endangering his isolated platoon’s left flank. The targets stood where Red 1 met Red 2, a heavily built-up area along the east side of the U shape that defined Red 1. The Shermans blotted out one particularly dangerous bunker with a lengthy barrage of 75mm rounds. Perhaps reasoning that all aircraft overhead were friendly, Bale stripped two tanks of their .50-caliber machine guns and gave them to the infantry platoon, then ordered his unit back toward the main Red 1 beachhead. On the way, Chicago fell into deep water and its electrical system shorted out.

The infantry of 3rd Battalion, who had been forced mostly by intense Japanese fire to land on the western quarter of Red 1, were fortunate to have even two medium tanks covering their renewed advance inland. A pair of Shermans could accomplish only so much, but their presence gave the riflemen a huge morale boost.

But luck was not with the American tankers. After advancing nearly 400 yards beyond the seawall without infantry support, Cecilia dueled with a smaller Japanese tank, one of 14 on Tarawa. When an enemy round crippled the Sherman’s main gun, Bale ordered his driver to make for the beach, leaving the fight to China Gal, which demolished its foe with a direct hit.

In little more than an hour, the number of usable Marine tanks assigned to Red 2 and Red 3 would shrink from 10 to 2. The landing craft started toward Red 2 via a small- boat channel on the west side of the main pier. One craft carrying a 2nd Platoon Sherman was sunk, but the nine remaining Shermans successfully debouched on the reef and made for the beach through shallow water.

The 3rd Platoon commander, First Lieutenant Louis Largey, was jockeying Cannonball toward Red 3 when a shrieking explosion rocked his Sherman. A medium-caliber round had hit the frontal armor. The driver quickly reversed and slewed around. When Largey saw that his command tank was responding well to the rough handling, he ordered his driver to turn back for the beach. Largey’s other tanks—Charlie, Condor, Commando, and Colorado—made it ashore without further mishap, as did 2nd Platoon’s four surviving tanks, which regrouped to drive westward.

Under orders from the Red 3 beach commander, Cannonball led the way for Colorado, Charlie, Commando, and Condor in an attempt to cross the island without infantry support. During the action, Condor fell victim to a U.S. Navy divebomber whose pilot had heard there was Japanese armor on Red 3—but not that friendly tanks would land. Condor’s crew bailed. Charlie lost a duel with Japanese antitank gunners. That enemy gun crew, or one nearby, scored a hit on Cannonball, whose rattled driver steered onto a camouflaged underground fuel dump. Flames erupted beneath the tank, but Lieutenant Largey and his crew escaped. A Japanese firebomb set Colorado ablaze; the driver plunged his tank into the surf, quenching the flames. Commando ranged the farthest inland, taking out two Japanese antitank guns and several fighting positions before armor-piercing rounds disabled it. Largey gathered the 14 surviving tankers and began the trek hundreds of yards back to secure lines.

The 2nd Platoon, on Red 2, fared no better. By the foot of the main pier, one tank sank into a shell hole up to the top of its turret, drowning the five-man crew. When two more 2nd Platoon Shermans moved to the front to support the infantry, a shell hole claimed one of them within minutes; a Japanese infantryman disabled the other by slapping a magnetic mine onto the hull. The last 2nd Platoon tank withdrew behind the seawall. From there its crew supported the infantry with long-range 75mm fire.

Of the 16 Shermans launched from the Ashland, four were still in the fight, but only three had intact 75mm main guns.

At 10:45, 15 minutes after reaching shore, assault regiment commander Colonel David Shoup had reported to division command:“Stiff resistance. Need halftracks. Our tanks no good.” Two 2nd Special Weapons Battalion halftrack tank destroyers— called Self-Propelled Mounts by the Marines and M3s by the army—were ordered to the beach from their transport offshore.

Japanese fire sank the landing craft carrying one of the halftracks as it neared the reef. Upon reaching the beach, the other halftrack bogged down in the loose sand. The platoon leader ordered his crew to dig out the vehicle, whose critically needed 75mm gun would be out of commission for hours. Colonel Shoup waved off other landing craft carrying halftracks before they could reach the reef. The armored vehicles might get ashore, but there was no point losing them to machine-gun fire, which could penetrate the light armor surrounding their engines.

Besides halftracks and Shermans, the Betio landing force also included a battalion of Stuart light tanks, a company of which was aboard LCMs in the lagoon. A six-Stuart platoon of Company C, 2nd Tank Battalion, had been assigned to land on Red 1, but heavy enemy fire and the risky reef-to-beach run got the platoon rerouted to Red 3 early on D-day. Pushing in along the east side of the pier, four landing craft fell prey to uncannily accurate fire, taking their Stuarts to the bottom. Two surviving craft withdrew to try again another day.

A few Stuarts did reach Red 2. Using their 37mm guns and .30-caliber machine guns, they supported small infantry drives south of the seawall. Communicating through a field phone fixed to one buttoned-up Stuart’s rear fender, infantrymen from the 2nd Marines’ 1st and 2nd Battalions guided the tank through intense fire to the south shore, using it for cover and support. They were the first Marines to cross Betio and hold their position.

Lieutenant Largey and the crew of Colorado, the last Sherman on Red 3, would spend the night making ready. Crewmen took turns guiding Colorado to and from a Sherman hung up at the reef to scavenge fuel, ammunition, and parts.

On Red 1, Lieutenant Bale moved his command from the wounded Cecilia to China Gal. Although Cecilia’s engine and .30- caliber bow gun worked, its 75mm gun was wrecked and Bale had given away its .50-caliber antiaircraft machine gun. China Gal was 100 percent intact. In fact, the 75mm main gun on Bale’s new command vehicle was the heaviest weapon on Red 1.

Following a barrage by a navy destroyer at dawn on day two of the invasion, a Sunday, troops on Red 1 attacked south along Betio’s west shore, dubbed Beach Green. The plan was to clear Green so reinforcements could land in relative safety as soon as possible. With China Gal and Cecilia bucking up morale and boosting firepower, infantrymen leapfrogged south in small groups, taking on a series of bunkers and pillboxes.

At first, blinkered inside their tank, China Gal’s crew endangered the infantry with inaccurate 75mm fire. In a flash of inspiration—and at considerable risk to himself—a Browning automatic rifleman, Private First Class James Goldman, climbed behind the Sherman’s turret and crouched near an open hatch. As fellow riflemen guided the driver through thick smoke and debris, Goldman called shots by shouting to the tank gunner. The improvisation worked like a charm. Everyone was heartened and the advance kicked up a few notches. By just after noon, Marines were digging in around the island’s southwest corner. The cordon around Beach Green was 200 yards deep.

On Red 3, Colorado had been preparing to move inland when a Japanese infiltrator appeared, an hour after sunrise. As he tried to stuff a hand grenade into the tank’s wheel assembly, Marines gunned him down.

Around the same time, attackers hit the Marine company on the east side of Red 3. Groups of Japanese, positioned just south of the wharf at the eastern limit of Marine holdings on Betio, loosed sheets of rifle and machine gun fire, inflicting heavy casualties on rifle platoons that had been cobbled together from the survivors of multiple badly hurt units. Within moments the position became untenable; the Marines withdrew 30 yards and abandoned the area between the sea and the seawall. Colorado rolled up behind; Lieutenant Largey directed its 75mm gun at the Japanese, then for good measure shelled the wharf.

Off Red 2, the 8th Marines’ fresh 1st Battalion offloaded at the reef, only to be butchered by Japanese machine gunners firing from the strongpoint where Red 1 met Red 2. As the survivors rested and reassembled into their tactical units, a platoon of Stuart light tanks waded ashore on Red 2. The fresh troops and tanks attacked westward to cordon off and reduce the beach boundary strongpoint. A halftrack joined the assault, in which a Stuart was blown up. In an ad hoc effort to control the advance, Marine infantry officers rode in the turrets of several of the Stuarts.

When heavy Japanese fire stalled the assault, the surviving 2nd Platoon Sherman advanced from behind the seawall to clear obstructions with its 75mm gun. Grateful infantrymen formed a supply chain, salvaging 75mm rounds from disabled tanks and bucket-brigading them to the Sherman. When that source ran dry, the scroungers got an artillery unit to hand over 75mm howitzer rounds. The foot troops ran out of steam and the advance stalled, but the effort had contained the Japanese strongpoint.

That afternoon, the 2nd Marine Division’s reserve regiment, the 6th Marines, was ordered to land its 2nd Battalion on Bairiki Island, adjacent to Betio, to block an enemy retreat. Its two remaining battalions were directed to land on Beach Green, with instructions to prepare to attack in a column along the length of Betio from west to east. Stuarts of B Company, 2nd Tank Battalion, were to land on Green right behind the Marines’ 1st Battalion and support the assault. When the Marines on Green warned of obstacles along the strand’s southern half, the Stuarts were ordered onto what came to be called Green North.

Problems arose immediately. The requested Stuarts were in the holds of three ships, covered by tons of gear. It would take hours to get them onto landing craft. To save time, the transport division commander ordered all available LCMs to stop what they were doing and stand by. By the time the 6th Marines reached Green North, it was too late in the day to attack.

After hours of waiting for its Stuarts to emerge from ships’ holds, the 3rd Platoon of Company B had trouble as the reef off Green North proved treacherous. Only two Stuarts landed before the fading light made it too risky to put more vehicles in the water there. The division commander ordered the rest of Company B to Red 2, west of the main pier, where the armor endured more delays and finally gave up for the night.

When Marines began the broad west- to-east assault down Betio’s long axis the morning of the third day of the battle, four tanks were at the forefront—two of the four usable Shermans on Betio, China Gal and Cecilia, and the two Company B Stuarts—with infantrymen gamely covering and guiding them. After crossing rough ground, the assault reached Betio’s vast coral-topped main runway. Groups of Japanese and Marines sparred in the coconut grove between the taxiways and runway. The going, while not entirely contested, was cautious. Marines from Red 2 crisscrossed ahead of the assault, augmenting or resupplying troops holding the center southern beach, Black 2, opposite Red 2.

The tanks, especially China Gal, proved invaluable for taking ground. They cleared a path through Japanese emplacements, staying 50 yards ahead of the riflemen—far enough away to reduce danger to the infantry but close enough to receive support from the riflemen.

While waiting for the west-to-east assault to reach them, men from the 2nd Marines’ 1st and 2nd Battalions tried to extend their holdings along Black 2. A determined Japanese defense held these Americans to minimal gains until China Gal arrived and used its 75mm gun to cut through all opposition. The 37mm guns of two Stuarts enhanced the impact when they arrived soon after. As the assault line passed immediately to the north, westbound tankers lent their fire to the mayhem along Black 2. By the time they had passed, at about 11 a.m., the only task left along Black 2 was mopping up holdouts.

Except for the stubborn defenders at the beach boundary strongpoint, by early afternoon the western half of Betio had fallen to the broad assault. South of Red 3, though, the eastern end of the airfield was vulnerable to intense hostile fire from organized Japanese forces on three sides.

Throughout the afternoon, opposition at the beach boundary strongpoint became more concentrated and, if anything, more determined. Through the day, Stuarts of Company B, 2nd Tank Battalion, straggled into Red 2. Several of the Stuarts flooded out as they moved from reef to beach; a few others were sent south across Betio to Black 2, but most were fed into the line fighting to contain the strongpoint.

Soon after going into action, one Stuart blew up, apparently done in by a magnetic mine; Japanese mortar fire immobilized a second. A third toppled into a shell hole so deep it trapped the vehicle. A fourth quit the fight when its ignition burned out.

Although the Stuarts boosted morale among infantrymen fighting in these close quarters, the light tanks were virtually useless during this phase. The crews were game, but their 37mm guns were too puny to reduce the enemy’s steel-and-concrete defenses, so a pair of halftracks armed with 75mm antitank guns from Weapons Company, 2nd Marines, arrived to replace them.

Moving up behind the infantry, the halftracks liberally dosed the front with armor-piercing and high explosive rounds. As they approached lines of pillboxes, each moved to within about 20 yards of the defenses. As their guns slowly described a 60-degree arc, the halftracks fired a dozen rounds in quick succession at such short range that firing report and contact detonation were indistinguishable. One blast blew an enemy soldier 50 feet into the air. The corpse, sword flapping at its side, pinwheeled skyward, paused, and crashed headfirst to the earth.

Out of ammunition, the halftracks withdrew to resupply. In the meantime, the riflemen worked their way in with grenades. When the halftracks returned, enemy machine-gun fire pierced one vehicle’s radiator and its crew retired. The surviving halftrack led the way slowly westward along the beach.

On Red 3, while the 6th Marines attacked west to east, remnants of the 8th Marines’ 2nd and 3rd Battalions coordinated a set of assaults against several vexing Japanese positions. While the infantry prepared to attack, the lone surviving Sherman there, Colorado, gingerly advanced among the riflemen huddled on the beach. One steel pillbox had frustrated all efforts to destroy it. Squaring up at the east end of the seawall line, Lieutenant Largey had his 75mm gun deliver a tattoo of direct hits that neutralized the pillbox, giving the infantrymen free rein. Colorado next supported the rush to clear stretches of the island to the east and south.

The day ended with Red 3 in Marine hands. Infantrymen there were in direct touch with the 6th Marines’ 1st Battalion, which had come abreast and dug in around the eastern end of the airfield. That night, nearly all of Betio’s remaining defenders died in a suicidal assault against the Marine front line south of Red 3.

In the morning, Colorado and China Gal—which had survived the fighting down Betio’s long axis—and seven Stuarts from Company C, 2nd Tank Battalion, took part in the final attack to the east, the imagined walkover finally made real. The tanks helped to reduce the last resistance, ending a 76-hour battle whose ferocity would become legendary. Betio was declared secure at 1:05 p.m. on Tuesday, November 23, 1943.

The U.S. military was not prepared for the strength or sophistication of the defenses at Tarawa, or its defenders’ skill and steadfastness. Nor were U.S. forces well equipped to overcome Tarawa-like defenses in the immediate future. After Tarawa, Sherman tanks saw use at Cape Gloucester and in the Marshall Islands. All three campaigns were launched between November 1943 and February 1944; because time was short between them, the insights gained and lessons learned among Marine tank units weren’t shared effectively. But American planners minutely analyzed Betio’s defenses and the many failures of their own ground, naval, and air bombardment tactics, including the complete absence of a tank-infantry tactical doctrine. That knowledge helped pave the way for many doctrinal and technical improvements, and hammered home the need to build island-hopping campaigns that put mutually supportive tank-infantry teams at the forefront. While the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps prepared to face—and overwhelm—Tarawa-like defenses across the Pacific, the Japanese failed to duplicate the steadfastness of Betio’s defenders or the solidity of Betio’s defenses until late 1944 at Peleliu and early 1945 at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. This gave the United States ample time to train and equip its assault forces for the hard battles upon which the Pacific War culminated. Without the lessons gleaned from near defeat at Tarawa—particularly those that led to providing powerful, integrated armored support ashore—America’s victory in the Pacific might have taken longer and cost more in blood and treasure than it did.

 

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.

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