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The savage battle for Tarawa taught planners of U.S. amphibious operations several costly lessons.
By Kenneth P. Czech

To the U.S. Marines clustered in amphibious landing craft that November day, the bombardment of Betio Island was awesome. Warships and aircraft pounded the Japanese fortifications. Thick clouds of smoke boiled from the 2-mile-long strip of land, part of the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands of the Central Pacific. Some naval experts even predicted that the Marines would have a “cakewalk”–that nothing could survive the pre-assault bombardment.

Tarawa Atoll, and Betio Island in particular, were of immense concern to Allied strategists in 1943. Betio boasted an airfield that the Japanese could use to attack nearby sea lanes and threaten the vital Marshall Islands. Air reconnaissance and photos taken by patrolling submarines also revealed the island to be a veritable fortress, manned by crack troops backed by an impressive and deadly array of firepower. Betio would have to be carried by a frontal amphibious assault, made even more hazardous by unpredictable tides. When the Marines hit the beach on November 20, 1943, the neap tide played havoc with their landing craft. Even worse, they found that the Japanese defenders had been barely affected by the bombardment. Manning the fortifications on Betio were thousands of imperial rikusentai, skilled marines under the command of Rear Adm. Keiji Shibasaki. The result was a perilous attempt to wade ashore in the teeth of murderous fire. The horrific struggle for the atoll is well chronicled by Colonel Joseph H. Alexander in Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 1995, $29.95).

The 2nd Marine Division had undergone a variety of training exercises in preparation for the assault. Amphibious landing craft, notably the LVT-1 (landing vehicle, tank) Alligators, had to be modified with additional armor so that they could carry the assault teams to the difficult beachhead. New LVT-2 Water Buffaloes were shipped from San Diego, but they didn’t arrive until most of the preparation was over and the Marines were ready to storm the island.

Marine General Julian Smith had studied the hazards of the amphibious assault code-named “Galvanic.” He selected an approach from the north through Tarawa Atoll’s encircling reef. A 600-yard pier jutted from Betio’s north beach, splitting the landing zones, named Red Beaches 1, 2 and 3. Reconnaissance photos had revealed that many Japanese obstacles and guns were directed toward an expected southerly attack.

Bombarding Betio proved to be no easy task. The Japanese defenders were well-concealed, offering few targets. U.S. Navy bombing proved ineffective, while strafing fighter pilots reported that “[the] only way to spot targets was by gun-flashes.” Salvos from supporting battleships and cruisers were often miscalculated in terms of trajectory, range and deflection. One observer noted that “half the projectiles ricochet out to sea and explode in the ocean.”

To the Marines aboard the amtracs, it seemed as if everything had gone wrong. The tide failed to rise, forcing many soldiers to wade hundreds of yards to shore under a galling fire. Alligators and Water Buffaloes that did hit the beach came up against a half-constructed sea wall menaced by enemy artillery fire. Communications broke down, and scores of assault teams died in the water.

By nightfall on November 20, the exhausted Marines clung to a fingernail’s breadth of beach and jungle. Although fighting continued, the Japanese did not counterattack–a tactical error, considering the precarious position of the invaders. The author submits that such an attack may not have been carried out because Admiral Shibasaki had been killed and Japanese communications had been destroyed.

On the beach, Marine Colonel David M. Shoup faced many tasks–regaining attack momentum, restoring communications, bringing in badly needed reinforcements and supplies, and evacuating the incredible number of casualties. Over the next three days, more of Shoup’s Marines arrived with much-needed tanks, flamethrowers and demolition equipment, and the tide of battle began to turn. Blockhouses were demolished one by one, and the surviving rikusentai retreated to the narrow tail of southeast Betio, where they fought to the death.

As Colonel Alexander notes, the battle for Betio was a Pyrrhic victory of sorts. More than 3,000 Marines and Navy personnel were killed or wounded in the violent contest, most casualties occurring at close range from small-arms and machine-gun fire. Mistakes were made, including an inadequate pre-attack bombardment and a shortage of men and materiel in the early stages of the campaign. Communications needed to be improved, and future landings would include more medium tanks and flamethrowers, both of which were sorely lacking at Tarawa.

Americans on the home front were shocked by photos of dead Marines floating along Betio’s beaches. Initially there was anger over the heavy casualties suffered for what seemed such a trivial piece of coral. But as the true picture of the battle was unveiled, the public began to realize the Japanese would fight to the end, and the war in the Pacific would be one of virtual extermination.