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It is early morning on November 20, 1943. An American fleet stands off Tarawa atoll in the Gilbert Islands, about halfway across the Pacific Ocean. The fleet’s arrival marks the start of the Central Pacific offensive, recently authorized by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The main objective is the Marianas archipelago some 2,000 miles to the west. Tarawa is just a steppingstone. The commander of the Pacific Ocean Area, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, considers it a relatively easy target that can serve as a dress rehearsal for the more demanding amphibious landings yet to come.

The specific target of the invasion is the tiny islet of Betio, barely 4,000 yards in length and 800 yards at its widest point; its importance derives from an airfield constructed by the Japanese. As warships and carrier air craft blast away at Betio’s 5,000-man garrison, swarms of landing craft and new-fangled “amtracs”—amphibious tractors—enter the Tarawa lagoon, carrying the Second Marine Division.

The first three waves of Marines, borne upon amtracs, cross the coral reef that separates Betio from the lagoon and reach the beach with fairly light casualties. Once ashore, however, withering fire from Japanese machine guns and artillery stops the Marines almost at the water’s edge. None get farther than a hundred yards inland. Most lie huddled behind a coconut-log sea wall.

For the men that follow it is worse. A tide that should have carried the landing craft safely over the coral reef is lower than expected. Most of the craft run aground. The Marines have no choice but to wade through 500 yards of chest- high water, helpless against the hail of Japanese artillery and machine gun fire.

As a pitiless tropical sun courses across the sky, the Marines on Betio claw their way forward, with limited success. By dusk, out of the 5,000 who have landed, at least 1,500 are dead, wounded, or missing. The survivors occupy a position no more than 400 yards wide and 300 deep, and are thinly spread in a jumble of improvised positions. As the sun goes down, everyone tenses for a near-certain counterattack by the Japanese.

When darkness comes, so does the attack. In a wild firefight punctuated by fierce hand-to-hand combat, the Japanese break through at several points, reach the waterline, and chop the Marine lodgment into small sec tors. At dawn, the few landing craft able to enter the lagoon and the handful of amtracs still in operation desperately try to evacuate the surviving Marines. A few hundred manage to escape, but the great majority are simply annihilated.

Most of the details in the above scenario are historically accurate. The only departure is the Japanese night counterattack. For decades that failure to attack seemed inexplicable. In recent years, however, evidence has surfaced indicating that the commander of Tarawa’s garrison, Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki, was not, as once believed, killed on the third day of the invasion, but on the first, so no counterattack could be organized.

Had one occurred, it would almost certainly have been disastrous for the United States. “Tarawa was the only landing in the Pacific the Japs could have defeated,” wrote a Marine major who took part in the invasion. Robert Sherrod, a war correspondent who was also on Tarawa, agreed: “It was the only battle which I ever thought we were going to lose.”

In the aftermath of a disaster at Tarawa, what would have occurred? It is possible that the Central Pacific drive would have continued; that the American high command, although shaken, would have absorbed the bitter lessons of the failed invasion and continued with its bid to seize the Marianas, highly prized as bases from which the fleet of B-29 Superfortresses, now coming into service, could attack the Japanese home islands. (Among the strongest advocates of a Central Pacific drive, in fact, was General Henry “Hap” Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces.) Certain other considerations would also have remained intact. The Central Pacific offered maximum scope for maneuver by the fast-growing U.S. carrier task forces, it was the most direct route to Japan, and it promised the best chance for a much sought after fight-to-the-finish battle with the Japanese fleet.

But by far the more likely sequel would have been the abandonment of the Central Pacific drive, almost before it began. Its only die-hard advocate was Admiral Ernest J. King, commander of the U.S. Navy. By 1943 the attention of King’s colleagues on the Joint Chiefs— Hap Arnold, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, and presidential adviser Admiral William D. Leahy, had become firmly fixed on Germany and the impending cross-Channel attack. And most Allied leaders, mindful of the need to maximize strength in the European Theater and aware of a critical worldwide shortage of landing craft, believed that General Douglas MacArthur’s offensive in the Southwest Pacific, underway since mid-1942, had already absorbed quite enough troops, ships, and aircraft. The Joint Chiefs therefore acceded to a Central Pacific offensive with reluctance. Even then, it did not specify which Pacific drive would receive priority. Its directive merely stated that “due weight would be given to the fact that operations in the Central Pacific promise more rapid advance.” A failed Tarawa landing would have destroyed that promise.

The historical dual offensive in both the Central and South Pacific would have been replaced by a single offensive in the South Pacific. Reinforced by troops and ships diverted from the Central Pacific, MacArthur’s offensive would have unfolded much as occurred historically, culminating in an invasion of the Philippines in late 1944. The chief difference would have been the deployment of the B-29 Superfortresses. Historically, Lieutenant General George C. Kenney, chief of air forces in the Southwest Pacific, urged Arnold to deploy them in his sector. Kenney conceded that from bases in Australia or New Guinea they could not strike Japan, but they could wipe out the oil fields and refineries in the Dutch East Indies on which the Japanese war effort depended. With scant prospect of bases in the Marianas, Arnold would surely have accepted this proposal.

And as the Philippine campaign progressed, northern Luzon might well have been a key objective. Airfields constructed there would have placed B-29s as close to Tokyo as airfields in the Marianas, making possible both the fire-bombing of Japanese cities and the eventual atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Philippines could also have served as a springboard for the seizure of Okinawa as a base for a possible invasion of Japan. The Pacific War would thus have played out very differently, but would have arrived at the same end game.


Originally published in the October 2011 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.