The bloody battle of Tarawa, 1943
Grand Junction Sentinel, CO

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Tarawa is an atoll about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. It consists of a series of coral islets that stretch through the ocean in a hook-like fashion. The military importance of Tarawa to the United States in World War II was in its strategic location at the gateway of the U.S. drive through the central Pacific toward the Philippines. The Battle of Tarawa was largely fought from Nov. 20 to Nov. 23, 1943. It was only the second time the United States was on the offensive in the critical central Pacific region, (the Battle of Guadalcanal had been the first).

The Battle for Tarawa was designed to seize an airfield the Japanese had constructed on Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, in the Gilbert Islands. The 4,000-foot landing strip was destined to become one of the first steps in the long and bloody march across the Pacific toward the Japanese home islands. But the price paid in dead and wounded shocked the nation.

The Second Marine Division (Reinforced) had been training for the assault for months on the beaches of Australia. The Marines were to be pitted against a Japanese force of some 5,000 seasoned troops who had dug into the island’s 300-acres of sand fortified with palm logs and concrete. By the end of the battle, some 990 Marines had been killed and another 2,296 were wounded. Among the casualties were 76 sailors, corpsmen and doctors assigned to the Marines. The Japanese lost 4,690 of their force.

Off-shore, a flotilla of some 200 U.S. Navy ships had converged on the Tarawa atoll and Makin Island, another Japanese-held pile of sand some 140 miles to the north. The aircraft carriers in the U.S. fleet bore some 900 aircraft. They had been pounding Japanese positions throughout the Gilberts and the Marshall Islands to the north, shattering any forces the Japanese might have tried to send to the aid of their comrades on Betio. Hundreds of American sailors lost their lives in these side engagements; 644 sailors died when the USS Liscome Bay (CVE-46) was torpedoed near Makin Island. The full tally of the dead and wounded at sea closely matched the losses on the beaches. When the battle was over and the fleet dispersed, the wounded Marines were taken to Hawaii for recovery, their watery path strewn with the bodies of the wounded who died en route.

On Nov. 20, 1943, the Marines went ashore in an abnormal low tide that stranded many of their landing craft on reefs hundreds of yards from the beach. The first waves of Marines in amphibious tractors made it in and established a foothold on the narrow stretch of sand behind a log seawall, in some places only 20 feet from the water. Hundreds of Marines in the Higgins boats grounded on the reefs, went over the side and waded directly into enemy fire. It was later estimated that half of the Marine casualties were suffered before they ever reached shore. Hundreds of bodies were exposed as the tide receded. This first major assault from the sea on a strongly fortified position was beset by a whole series of blunders, hard lessons paid by the Marines at Tarawa. Later, amphibious assaults would profit from their sacrifice.

Battleships and cruisers pounded Betio in hopes of softening the objectives for the oncoming Marines. But they were not firing armor-piercing shells so most of their hits did little damage to the defenders. The naval bombardment ended 20 minutes before it was supposed to, giving the Japanese time to man their defenses while the Marines were still far from their assigned points of attack. The withering fire from the Japanese not only kept the Marines pinned down at the seawall, but it also kept them from being resupplied; they were soon scavenging ammunition and drinking water from the dead.

Robert Sherrod, a reporter who went ashore with the fifth wave, wrote about what he saw on the morning of the second day. “As the long lines of Marines jumped out of the boats and began wading in waist-high water, thousands of bullets plowed among them. Within five minutes, I saw six men fall mortally wounded in front of our position, others simply disappearing beneath the surface. Some were killed 300 to 400 yards away; others made it within 50 feet of the beach before they died. It was a ghastly, yet splendid picture no man who ever saw it will ever forget. This is the reason Tarawa may truly be called a victory of spirit; many were killed, but more came on.”

Four Marines were awarded Medals of Honor, the nation’s highest honor; only one of the four survived the battle, Col. David M. Shoup. He was wounded, and he later served as the 22nd commandant of the Marine Corps.

In the aftermath of the battle, the furor over the high casualties subsided. The lessons learned at Tarawa, costly as they were, proved invaluable to the success of later amphibious operations as the Allied forces surged north to ultimate victory.