World War Two: Gilberts and Marshalls (9); Tarawa

The seizure of Makin by the Northern Attack Force had proceeded with relative ease. The Southern Attack Force, commanded by Admiral Hill, which had the mission of capturing Tarawa, was faced with a numerically stronger and far better prepared enemy. The landing force consisted of the 2nd Marine Division less the 6th Marine Regiment, the latter originally being held in corps reserve for employment at either Makin or Tarawa. The division was commanded by General Julian Smith. His plan of attack called for the original assault landings to be made on the three westernmost beaches of the northern (lagoon) shore of Betio Island at the southwestern corner of the atoll. These landing beaches were designated, from west to east, Red Beaches 1, 2, and 3. The attack was to be made by three battalion landing teams under command of Colonel David M. Shoup, commander of the 2nd Marine Regimental Combat Team. The first three assault waves were to be carried from ship to shore in amphibian tractors, of which 125 had been made available to the division. Tanks would be boated in the fourth wave in LCM’s, and the successive waves of infantry would be carried by standard personnel landing craft (LCVP’s). One battalion of the 2nd Marines was to be held in regimental reserve, and two battalions of the 8th Marines would be in division reserve.

The Americans were opposed at Tarawa by an enemy garrison whose combat strength ran upward of 3,000 well-trained men. Most of these troops were concentrated on Betio Island. For about nine months fortifications along the island’s perimeter and obstacles in the water approaches had been in process of construction. By 20 November 1943, the date of the invasion, Betio bristled with guns of all calibers, well protected in emplacements of steel, concrete, and thick coconut logs.

Preliminaries to the Invasion

On 7 November most of the ships of Admiral Hill’s Southern Attack Force (Task Force 53) had assembled at Efate for last minute rehearsals. The 2nd Marine Division had arrived in transports from Wellington, New Zealand, and Rear Admiral Howard F. Kingman had brought the supporting combat ships from Pearl Harbor. Following rehearsals and critiques, the force sailed for Betio on 13 November. Shortly after 2330 on 19 November the convoy entered the seventeen-mile-wide channel between Maiana and Tarawa Atolls and, on reaching the open sea west of the atolls, swung north. The ships now moved directly to assume their station west of Betio. At 0356 the first transport began to lower its boats; the others followed within a few minutes. With the approach of daylight at 0550, it became apparent that the transports were too far to the south. The error, made because of a heavy southward current and the inaccuracy of the charts, brought the transports within range of the enemy’s coastal guns on Betio.

Japanese patrol planes had spotted the convoy on the 19th if not earlier, and therefore by D Day the enemy had had time to man his defensive positions. Shortly after 0200 on 20 November the approaching convoy had been detected, evidently by radar, and the Japanese had made their final preparations for defense. They held fire until the vessels halted and preparations for landing were begun. At 0441 the island commander, Admiral Shibasaki, ordered a red star cluster fired over Betio Island, the signal for the garrison to prepare to fire. Twenty-six minutes later a coastal battery on the western end of Betio opened up.

The first Japanese shells landing in the midst of the American transports caused little damage. American warships returned fire immediately. The first salvo from the battleship Colorado was away at 0507, followed almost at once by shells of other support vessels including Admiral Hill’s flagship Maryland. Within a short time one enemy gun was reported destroyed and its magazine exploded in a great cloud of fire. Other direct hits were believed scored soon afterwards. As U.S. naval gunfire grew in intensity, the Japanese were forced to take cover with resultant lack of accuracy.

By 0542 the action of the naval gunfire support ships had neutralized, to some extent, Japanese attempts to halt the debarkation. The warships then ceased in order to allow the planes to begin their dawn air strike as planned. The planes, however, failed to arrive on schedule and with no naval gunfire to harass them, the enemy batteries resumed full fire and for thirty minutes peppered the transport area with shells. One transport after another reported near misses. Finally, at 0605, Admiral Hill ordered the fire support ships to reopen fire. Eight minutes later the planes arrived over the target for the scheduled air strike on the beaches. This lasted until 0622.

Meanwhile, it had become apparent that the transports would have to move north out of range of the coastal batteries and the move was undertaken at 0619, being carried out during the period of the resumed naval gunfire and the air strikes. At approximately the same time Admiral Hill announced that W Hour, the scheduled time for the pre-landing naval bombardment, would be at 0620.

While the transports were making their way to safer berths, two mine sweepers, Pursuit and Requisite, moved toward the entrance of the Tarawa lagoon. Close astern came two escorting destroyers, Ringgold and Dashiell, which were to take up fire support positions inside the lagoon once the entrance had been swept for mines. Following closely behind the destroyers were several small landing craft equipped with smoke pots designed to conceal the movements of the first waves as they crossed the line of departure. As Pursuit, which was in the lead, neared the lagoon entrance, shore batteries turned their attention to this little vessel. Waterspouts rose in the air as shells landed nearby. Aboard the mine sweeper, machine guns and heavier weapons returned fire, and Ringgold and Dashiell joined with their 5-inch guns. At 0646 Pursuit pushed through the entrance channel. No mines were found, and at 0715 the mine sweeper took position as control vessel at the line of departure inside the lagoon. Still returning fire, the vessel swung to face the lagoon entrance. Behind it dense clouds of dust and smoke obscured the island and hung low over the water. To make certain that the line of departure would be clearly marked, Pursuit turned on her searchlight. The vessel still had suffered no serious damage.

[NOTE 1010-TA Ibid.; 2nd Marine Div Special Action Rpt Tarawa, 13 Jan 44, pp. 4-5. Admiral Turner has offered as a possible explanation for the delay in the air strike the following: According to the original Air plan issued on 23 October, the dawn air strikes at both Makin and Tarawa were to begin at 0545 and end at 0615. Later, the Air representatives on the various naval staffs objected to such an early strike because their experience had demonstrated that shortly before sunrise airplane pilots, themselves high up in sunshine and thus good targets, could not distinguish their own individual targets hidden in the darkness below. Hence, on 5 November it was agreed by all the principal commanders present at the rehearsals of Task Force 52 in the Hawaiian area that the air strike should be postponed from 0545 until 0610. Admiral Pownall, in command of the carrier task force, was informed of this change of plan and in fact his pilots came in at Tarawa only three minutes late according to the revised schedule. Admiral Hill was at Efate when the revised plan was decided upon, and it is apparent that he was not aware of the change. Admiral Turner suggests one of three possibilities to explain the failure of co-ordination of the dawn strike at Tarawa: (a) either Turner’s staff did not send the change in plan to Hill; or (b) due to a failure in fast mail or radio communications, Hill did not receive the change; or (c) having received the change, Hill’s staff failed to act on it. (Ltr, Admiral Turner to General Ward, 12 Feb 52, Incl 1, p. 12.) When interviewed, Admiral Hill was unable to throw further light on this subject (Interv, Philip A. Crowl with Vice Admiral Harry W. Hill, 9 Apr 52), nor do the records consulted help to solve the mystery. At any rate, if Admiral Turner’s conjecture is sound, the aviators of Task Force 50 must be absolved from blame in delivering their dawn strike later than was expected.]

The two destroyers pushed into the lagoon a few minutes behind the mine sweepers and immediately came under heavy fire. Ringgold started firing with all batteries as soon as she was inside the reef line. At 0711 she suffered a direct hit from a 5-inch gun, the shell entering the after engine room, completely disrupting the water, steam, and electricity supply to the after part of the ship. Moments later another shell glanced off the barrel of a forward torpedo tube, passing through sick bay and into the emergency radio room. The ship continued to maneuver in spite of the damage, trying to locate the larger weapons that were firing on the ships inside the lagoon.

While the fire support vessels were moving to the lagoon, the first waves of amphibian tractors and landing craft began their move from the rendezvous areas toward the line of departure inside the lagoon. It soon became apparent that they would be late in arriving. The LVT’s had to contend with choppy seas, a strong head wind, and a receding tide. Furthermore, many of the vehicles were in poor mechanical condition.

Pursuit, which had begun to track the landing waves by radar, reported that they were approximately forty minutes behind schedule. Fifteen minutes later, further reports showed that only a little over 500 yards had been traversed. In the air above, observation planes gave various estimates of the distance to be traveled to the beaches and the probable times of landing. There were many discrepancies in the reports, but all agreed that the landings would be late. As a result, Admiral Hill notified all vessels and troop commanders at 0803 that H Hour would be delayed until 0845.

Twenty minutes later it was changed once more—to 0900. These messages, however, failed to reach the fighter planes that were scheduled to strafe the beaches immediately before the first troops landed. Operating on the assumption that H Hour was still 0830 the planes started their strafing mission at 0825, and naval fire had to lift until the planes had cleared from the area.

Even this much of a delay proved overly optimistic. In fact, the first amphibian tractor to touch the beach did not arrive until 0910. Although the mine sweeper Pursuit and one observation plane had already reported that 0900 was too early by at least fifteen minutes to expect the first touchdown, Admiral Hill nevertheless ordered all naval gunfire, except for that of two destroyers, to cease by 0855.

He reasoned that to continue naval fire through the heavy smoke that lay over the lagoon was too risky to the assault troops as they moved toward shore. Planes came in again for a five-minute strike at 0855, but from 0900 until 0910, except on Red Beach 3 at which two destroyers were still firing, the Japanese were left unhampered to reinforce their beach positions and direct accurate fire of all types on the approaching vehicles.

What had been the effect of all this terrible pounding of Betio from air and ship on the morning of the landing? A total of about 3,000 tons of naval projectiles alone had been thrown against the enemy in the four hours before the first troops touched down. From the point of view of one observer, Admiral Kingman, who commanded the fire support group responsible for the island’s bombardment, “it seemed almost impossible for any human being to be alive on Betio.”

This of course proved to be an illusion, as the marines ashore were soon to discover to their sorrow. Yet certain concrete results can be attributed to the preliminary bombardment. At least one 8-inch coast defense battery and two 120-mm. antiaircraft batteries were silenced by naval gunfire after receiving direct hits. Everything above ground or in open pits, such as personnel, bombs, and trucks, was probably destroyed. Camouflage screens over dugouts and bombproof shelters were wiped away. Most important was the fact that Shibasaki’s network of telephone wire, most of which was laid above ground, was to all intents and purposes obliterated, and his system of signal communications was completely paralyzed.

However, even this destruction was not enough. Along the beaches there were many pillboxes of concrete, coconut logs, and steel, most of which were not destroyed. On Red Beaches 2 and 3 there were at least five machine guns manned and firing at the troops as they advanced over the reef toward the shore. As Admiral Hill put it, “that was five too many.” To the marines who led the assault on Betio without any armor heavier than their helmets and the shirts on their backs, this was a gross understatement.

The Landings on Red Beach 1

The 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, which was to land on Red Beach 1, had placed two companies in the first three waves of LVT’s. Company K was to land on the left of the battalion zone, while Company I, on the right, was to touch down on the extreme northwest corner of the island. Each was to be supported by elements of the heavy weapons unit, Company M. The third rifle company of the battalion, Company L, was boated in the fourth and fifth waves along with the mortar platoon of Company M. Major John F. Schoettel, battalion commander, was with the fourth wave.

Red Beach 1 presented the only irregular shore line on Betio Island, a deep cove indenting the island just east of its western tip. The boundary between the zone of action of the 3rd Battalion and the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, just east of it, lay almost at the point where the shore line straightened out to sweep in a fairly regular line toward the island tail. All along the reaches of Red Beach 1 lay a coconut log barricade, erected as an obstacle over which invading troops must crawl. The barricade was separated from the water on the western half of the beach by approximately twenty yards of coral sand. On the east the beach was much narrower, and in most places the water lapped at the base of the logs. High tide would cover all of the beach strip within the cove.

The amphibian tractors of the 3rd Battalion were the first by two or three minutes to land on Betio Island. As they reached the reef and clambered over it they met heavy fire from machine guns and anti-boat weapons. The LVT’s had been under scattered fire since leaving the line of departure, but the volume that fell upon the tractors as they waddled over the reef toward the beach was so heavy that it caused considerable disorganization in the three waves. The principal source of enemy fire seemed to be one large emplacement at the left extremity of Red Beach 1, between it and Red Beach 2. The Japanese here were in a position to rake the entire approach formation. By the time the initial wave climbed out of the water at 0910, casualties in Company K were already so great as to make it extremely doubtful whether that unit could establish a foothold on the shore.

In Company I, which was farther away from the troublesome strong point, casualties were less heavy at the outset, though by 1100 both companies had sustained 50 percent casualties. The movement toward the island had been steady. Here and there, a tractor, hit and burning, was stopped dead in the water. If its occupants were alive and able to do so, they climbed over the sides and tried to wade ashore. From those vehicles that pulled up before the log barricade, the marines jumped to seek whatever cover the barricade afforded.

Company K found itself under heavy machine gun fire from the strong position on its left and the bullets sweeping up the narrow sand shelf kept the men’s heads to the ground and forbade movement. Company I found the barricade offered some protection from the fire. Within a few minutes, the riflemen of this company began to infiltrate inland. As already indicated, during movement of the 3rd Battalion toward the beaches LVT’s had been hit and were either destroyed or burning. As the fourth wave, including some tanks, approached the beach, the men could see, ahead of them through the smoke and dust from the island, the disabled vehicles.

Everywhere the lagoon was marked with the telltale splashes of bullets and larger caliber shells. The first LCM’s and LCVP’s discovered there was not enough water to float their landing craft beyond the reef line. Coxswains of some of the tank lighters turned their craft away, seemingly in search of another more favorable landing site. The command boat came up just as the LCM’s were turning, and Major Schoettel immediately ordered them to the beach. Company L, under the command of Major Michael P. Ryan, arrived at the reef at this critical moment and the company commander ordered his men into the water to wade ashore.

On the beach most of Company K and part of Company I were drawn up before the log barricade. To the left of Red Beach 1 the formidable emplacement at the battalion boundary had a clear field of fire all along the narrow strip of sand between the water and the sea wall. Company K, which had already suffered heavily during the landing, now had to lie in the exposed area under constant fire, incurring further casualties.

Company I, which had had fewer losses during the ship-to-shore movement and on the beach, had pushed inland for fifty yards. Until 1100 there was little if any communication between the two assault companies. Company K, after being pinned down to the narrow sand beach, had finally managed to push a few men over the coconut barrier and to a point fifty yards inland from the shore, about the same distance as that reached by the unit on the right.

More than half of Red Beach 1 was still in the hands of the enemy. Along the eastern half, particularly at the main emplacement on the Red Beach 2 boundary, the Japanese were still active and causing considerable damage to troops trying to get ashore. Company L was severely hit while wading in, losing about 35 percent of its strength before reaching the beach on the west end of the island.

The platoon of medium tanks attached to the 3rd Battalion had been ordered by Major Schoettel to debark and the tanks were put into the water at the reef line, about 1,200 yards from dry land, while Company L was still struggling through the water toward shore. In front of them went the tank reconnaissance men to place guide flags in the potholes offshore.

As soon as the guides entered the water, they were subjected to fierce fire from the enemy. Although the tanks came in safely in spite of this fire, most of the guides were killed or wounded. The vehicles came ashore on the left half of Red Beach 1, in the area swept most severely by Japanese fire. The sand was covered with the bodies of dead or wounded marines who could not yet be moved because of the intense fire. Rather than run the heavy tanks over these inert forms, the platoon commander decided to go back into the water, around to the extreme right flank of the beach, and then move inland from there. As the tanks executed this maneuver, four of them fell into potholes in the coral reef and were drowned out. Only two were able to make shore and these were shortly knocked out by 40-mm. gun fire.

Major Schoettel had returned to the reef after rounding up the tank lighters and dispatching them to the reef’s edge. The scene confronting him was extremely confused. The men of Company L were in the water and Schoettel could see most of them wading ashore. The heavy fire from the beaches was readily apparent. It was obviously coming from the position on the boundary between the two beaches, and when the battalion commander and his group began to debark from their landing craft they were brought under the same fire. Faced with the choice of wading ashore and probably losing all of his command group or remaining on the reef where he could direct fire against the enemy position, Schoettel chose the latter.

Having established his command post on the reef and made contact with Company K by radio, Major Schoettel reported to Colonel Shoup, commander of the 2nd Marine Regimental Combat Team, who was located on Red Beach 2, and explained the situation to him. Colonel Shoup ordered the major to land with the fourth wave on Red Beach 2 and work from there onto Red Beach 1. Major Schoettel, however, was unable to get ashore until late afternoon. During the morning several requests were made for air strikes against the main beach position. One air strike was eventually delivered at approximately 1120, but immediately brought complaints from Company K that friendly troops were being strafed and was accordingly discontinued.

Operations at Red Beach 2

The 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, was scheduled to land at Red Beach 2 with Company F on the left and Company E on the right and Company G in support. Red Beach 2 extended from the eastern curve of the cove to Central Pier. As on Red Beach 1, a four-foot-high log barricade had been constructed to form a sea wall. For the most part the barricade lay about twenty yards from the water’s edge, thus leaving a narrow open strip of deep coral sand over which the marines would have to move after leaving the water. The enemy had constructed pillboxes and shelters along the barricade at intervals, and the defenders in these positions could keep the narrow sand strip and its approaches under heavy fire.

As the three original landing waves headed for Red Beach 2 they were subjected to heavy concentrated fire from all along the beach, the heaviest coming from the same positions on the boundary that were causing the 3rd Battalion so much trouble on the right.

There was no possibility of side slipping out of range of the enemy’s guns, although troops that were not mounted on LVT’s could find some protection by wading ashore under Central Pier. As soon as the first LVT’s climbed over the reef on their way to shore, the scene in the 2nd Battalion zone became one of almost indescribable confusion. LVT’s were hit by all types of gunfire. Some of them were disabled and lay helpless in the water. Crews and assault troops climbed over the side and waded toward shore. When their vehicles were hit, the drivers of some LVT’s lost control and veered off course. Others, seeking vainly to escape the direct frontal fire, eventually landed on Red Beach 1. Even before the first waves had landed on Red Beach 2, reserve elements coming to the reef in LCVP’s found that there was not enough water to float the small craft over the shelf. The men in the boats without hesitation leaped into the water for the long trek to shore.

Company F landed on the left half of the beach, near the base of the pier. This unit, decimated on the way to shore, could do little more than take possession of the sand strip in its immediate area. Some of the men pushed over to the coconut log barrier and took cover behind it. A few others were able to crawl over the barrier and move inland, but at no point did the hold on the beach extend more than fifty yards inland. For the time being everyone was forced to dig in and hold the small area gained in landing. From hidden dugouts on either flank, from pillboxes just behind the barrier, and from trees just inland, the Japanese poured a merciless fire into the men lying in the coral sand.

Once ashore, the units on Red Beach 2 found it impossible to establish firm physical contact. One platoon of Company E had landed on Red Beach 1 in an isolated position. The other two platoons had established a toe hold comparable to that seized by Company F, but so far toward the western end of Red Beach 2 as to prevent coordination of the efforts of the two companies. When Company G, the reserve, landed in the center of Red Beach 2, it was also immediately pinned down on the narrow coral strip and was unable to move forward over the sea wall. There was no opportunity for the men to organize when they reached the beach. In little groups of two and three, sometimes even as individuals, they dug foxholes in the sand or sought shelter beneath the log barricade. The few men who were able to crawl over the retaining wall were isolated and cut off.

Companies G and E made physical contact soon after reaching the beach, but it was not until late in the day that a firm line was formed by all three companies of the battalion. The complete disorganization of the troops on Red Beach 2 may be seen from the composition of Company F in the late afternoon. At that time the company commander had under his control six men from Company F, sixteen from Company E, ten from Company C, and fifteen from Company H.

The 2nd Battalion lost its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Herbert R. Amey, during the landing. Approaching the reef in an LCM in the fourth wave, which included half of the battalion headquarters group and a few observers, and discovering that there was not enough water to float the lighter beyond that point, Colonel Amey hailed two passing LVT’s on their return from the beach. The headquarters group scrambled into the tracked vehicles and started toward shore. While still 200 yards from land, the tractor containing Colonel Amey was stopped by barbed wire. Rather than spend time circling to look for a passage the battalion commander ordered his men over the side to wade ashore. As the group waded toward the barbed wire, a burst of machine gun fire killed Colonel Amey and wounded three others. The remainder of the headquarters immediately splashed to cover behind an abandoned boat. Since Major Howard J. Rice, the battalion executive, had landed on Red Beach 1, Lieutenant Colonel Walter I. Jordan, an observer from the 4th Marine Division, assumed command of the 2nd Battalion until Major Rice could rejoin his men. The command post was eventually set up in a shell hole in the middle of Red Beach 2. Salt water or enemy machine gun fire had rendered the battalion’s radios useless, and communication with the widely scattered elements, except by runner, was impossible. It was not until well after 1000 that a runner system began functioning on Red Beach 2. Even then, no attempt could be made to expand the area seized by the first landing waves. Each of the companies and the command post group had to give full attention to survival. Huddled along the coconut log barrier, moving only when necessary, the battalion turned its efforts to eliminating the enemy positions that jutted out onto the beach itself. Groups from the 18th Marines (Engineers) that had landed with the first waves moved up and down the narrow beach area blowing up dugouts and emplacements with demolitions. Behind the battalion the water was filled with amphibian tractors and debris. Troops still struggled to get ashore, some wading, others approaching gingerly in commandeered landing tractors. Practically all the marines who came ashore in this area had chosen the relative shelter of Long Pier and were trying to push toward the beaches by threading their way along the piling.

Unlike the situation at Red Beach 1, where ship-to-shore movement all but ceased during the period immediately following the original assault, attempts to get troops ashore on Red Beach 2 were continuous. Command groups and reserve elements landed through the lagoon in amphibian tractors or waded in beside Central Pier throughout the day. During the whole period, the approaches to Red Beach 2 were under constant heavy machine gun and anti-boat fire.

The Landings at Red Beach 3

The original landings on the extreme left were scheduled to be made by the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, under Major Henry P. Crowe. The battalion had been attached to the 2nd Marines for the operation. The two assault companies were E and F, supported by one platoon of Company G. One reason that this landing was considerably more successful than the others was the longer period of naval bombardment before the landing. The fire from the two destroyers in the Red Beach 3 area lasted until seven minutes before the first LVT reached shore. Although heavy fire of all types greeted the first waves, it was not as effective as that on the other beaches. One LVT received a direct hit and was stopped in the water, and a few casualties were inflicted on other landing craft. The number of men lost in the battalion totaled under twenty-five. Five of these casualties, officers of Company E, were hit as they debarked from their respective landing craft on the beach next to Central Pier.

Two of Company E’s LVT’s found a hole in the coconut log barricade and drove through, continuing as far inland as the triangle formed by the main airstrip and taxiways. The rest of Company E lost no time in following on foot, and within a few minutes after the first wave was ashore a substantial beachhead extending to the airfield had been established. Company F, on the extreme left flank of Red Beach 3, had less success but did establish a hold with its left flank anchored on the short pier known as Burns-Philp Wharf. Before this company could expand its hold to reach the inland line of Company E, it was met by serious counterfire from a strong Japanese position a few yards to its left front. The supporting platoon of Company G landed without incident, moved along in the wake of Company E, mopping up several enemy positions, and eventually extending the left flank of the assault back toward Company F. No firm physical contact between the left and right companies was established, however, until late in the day.

Reinforcing the Beachhead

Colonel Shoup and the command group of the 2nd Marines had followed close behind the assault waves in an LCVP and arrived at the reef a few minutes after the first wave reached the beach. When it became apparent that the landing craft in which he was boated could not get over the reef, the regimental commander hailed an LVT that was ferrying casualties back from the beach. The wounded men were transferred to the LCVP and Colonel Shoup and his party started for Red Beach 2. After three separate attempts to reach shore, all of which were halted by heavy gunfire, the party was forced to debark when the tractor’s engine stopped. By 1030 the whole group was wading ashore along Central Pier. Shortly afterwards the command post was established ashore on Red Beach 2.

Colonel Shoup had maintained constant radio communication with all three of his landing team commanders until Colonel Amey was killed. Shoup later regained contact with Colonel Jordan through the radio of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines. Information from Red Beach 1 was scanty, owing to the failure of Major Schoettel to get ashore.

In addition to the three companies of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, other scattered units of the assault force had come ashore on Red Beach 1, principally from the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, originally scheduled for Red Beach 2. The landing craft carrying these battalion units had been driven to the right, either by the heavy fire from the strong point between the two beaches or by mechanical failures of the LVT’s. One platoon of Company E, one platoon of Company G, two platoons of Company H, the 2nd Battalion executive officer, Major Rice, and a portion of the battalion headquarters company landed at the northwestern corner of the island on Red Beach 1. Immediately upon landing, Major Rice attempted to rejoin his own battalion on Red Beach 2, but because of the strong point between the two beaches his attempts were to prove unsuccessful.

While still afloat, Colonel Shoup decided to commit his reserve. The reports from the 2nd Battalion, at this time principally from Major Rice who described his unit as isolated and pinned on the beach, and the absence of information from Red Beach 1, seemed to indicate to the regimental commander that the situation was more precarious on the two right-hand beaches. At 0958 he therefore ordered Major Wood B. Kyle, commander of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, to land on Red Beach 2 and work to the west toward Red Beach 1 in an attempt to assist the 3rd Battalion in that area.

Major Kyle moved at once to the reef but found, as others had before him, that the landing craft in which he was boated could not negotiate the shallow water between there and shore. By this time, approximately 1030, more LVT’s from the original landing waves were returning to the reef line. Major Kyle set about at once to secure as many of these as possible. At 1100 he had commandeered enough of them to boat Companies A and B. Company C remained at the reef until additional vehicles could be procured and did not land until after 1300.40 Meanwhile, during the transfer of the two assault companies of the battalion, enemy fire had continued heavy throughout the lagoon. Three of the 1st Battalion’s boats were sunk by direct hits during the debarkation. When the LVT’s turned and started again for the beach they were met by the same intense fire that had greeted the units landing earlier. In the ensuing twenty minutes many of the tractors received hits from large-caliber shells or were riddled with bullets. As in the case of the early assault waves, many marines were forced to take to the water and wade ashore with resultant heavy casualties. The tractors on the right were forced off course. A total of one officer and 110 men thus landed on Red Beach 1 and eventually joined the 2nd and 3rd Battalions.

The orders committing the reserve battalion had been intercepted aboard the flagship Maryland and at 1018 General Julian Smith ordered Colonel Elmer E. Hall, commander of the 8th Marine Regimental Combat Team, to release one battalion landing team of his regiment, which was in division reserve, to Colonel Shoup at the line of departure. The 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, at this time debarking from its transport, was designated for the job. The landing craft bearing this battalion left the line of departure at 1200 for Red Beach 3. The battalion, boated in LCVP’s, found it impossible to proceed farther than the reef line and, like others before them, debarked to wade ashore. At the particular point of debarkation the water was deep, and a few of the heavily laden marines drowned. The others were taken under heavy fire from the beaches as they waded their way to shore. Within the space of a few minutes severe casualties had been suffered by the battalion, and the survivors gravitated to Central Pier to make their way inland. It was late afternoon before elements of the battalion were able to take an effective part in the action.

Development of the Situation on 20 November

By early afternoon of D Day five battalions of marines had been committed at Tarawa. All but one had sustained heavy casualties and were in a badly disorganized state. On Red Beach 1 elements of three battalions supported by two medium tanks were fighting virtually separate actions. On Red Beach 2 elements of two battalions struggled to hold the ground they had seized in the landings and fought to clear out the positions from which fire was being placed on the narrow beach area. Some attempt was made to expand the beachhead, but with little success. On Red Beach 3 the early successes of Company E, 8th Marines, were consolidated, and the major effort was directed toward the reduction of the troublesome enemy positions near Burns-Philp Wharf.

The Action Along the Western End of the Island

As already related, Major Ryan, the commander of Company L, had assumed command of all elements of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, ashore on Red Beach 1 shortly after his arrival there. For two hours after the two assault companies had established firm physical contact, Major Ryan sought to organize the battalion’s remnants for a drive across the island.

With the arrival of the two medium tanks early in the afternoon, this aggressive officer was finally able to drive forward toward the south shore of Betio. Working from shelter to shelter, small detachments made steady progress. The support of the two tanks was extremely valuable, but midway in the engagement one was disabled by a direct hit from an enemy gun and the other was damaged in a duel with an enemy tank. By that time Major Ryan’s force had moved to within 300 yards of the south shore of the island, and the commander was anxiously trying to reach higher headquarters with the information that part of Green Beach, on the west coast of Betio, was available for landing reserves.

Major Ryan’s reports of the conditions on Red Beach 1 failed to reach their destination, and the suitability of Green Beach for landings was not yet realized. Neither General Julian Smith nor Colonel Shoup was optimistic about the situation on Red Beach 1. Both officers, who had received their information during the morning from reports of Major Schoettel, were under the impression that the position of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, was extremely tenuous. It was only at 1800, when Colonel Shoup finally succeeded in establishing radio contact with Major Ryan, that the real situation became known. Major Ryan, in the meantime, had withdrawn his lines into a more compact defensive position and reported that the 3rd Battalion held a beachhead approximately 300 yards deep and 150 yards wide.

Elsewhere in the Red Beach 1 area little progress had been made. Throughout the afternoon the units under Major Rice’s command had fought to destroy the positions separating the western beach from Red Beach 2. Many of the marines who had landed near the northwestern tip of the island continued to be pinned down on the narrow coral sand strip between the water’s edge and the coconut barricade that had been erected twenty yards inland. The stubborn system of Japanese defensive positions at the boundary between beaches continued to pour fire into this confined space. As darkness fell, several hundred yards still separated the landing forces on the two beaches.

Completion of the Action on D Day

Elsewhere on Betio Island the situation of the troops improved only slightly during the day. On Red Beach 3, Major Crowe’s battalion bent its efforts toward eliminating the strong steel-reinforced position on its left flank. In vicious fighting throughout the afternoon, the Japanese resisted efforts to destroy the position. Buildings near it were set on fire by marines, tanks and flame throwers were brought into play, and one section of 37-mm. guns was lifted above the sea wall to take the position under direct fire. The 1st Platoon of Company F, nearest the beach, was pinned down most of the afternoon by a constant shower of grenades and machine gun fire. Late in the afternoon the 2nd Platoon of Company F was virtually wiped out while trying to circle the emplacement on its inland side. The action of the tanks and guns did succeed in breaking up one tank-supported Japanese counterattack.

On the right of Major Crowe’s line, Companies E and G, supported and reinforced by elements of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, consolidated their hold on the area between the beach and the airstrip triangle. The advanced positions, however, were under constant rifle and machine gun fire from bypassed Japanese defenders who had utilized every conceivable hiding place from which to harass the invaders.

The most confused situation on the island at nightfall was on Red Beach 2 where the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, had been unable to organize a sustained attack from the narrow toe hold originally established on the beach. Some small detachments had penetrated 125 yards inland from the sea wall, while others still remained pinned down on the narrow sand strip at the water’s edge. Units were disorganized and scrambled, and large gaps existed in the lines throughout the zone of action. The 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, had bolstered the 2nd Battalion at various places, but there was no organized line. One company commander later described the situation as “impossible to control.” No officer knew where all the component elements of his command were, nor did he have the necessary communications to control those he could not see.

Supply, Communications, and Command

Original supply plans of the 2nd Division had called for a routine discharge of cargo from the transports into available lighterage following debarkation of assault troops. These barges were to follow the landing waves ashore, at first in waves and later, as dumps were established ashore, moving as directed by the control boat as fast as the beach could handle them. Attempts to follow this plan soon failed. Discharge of cargo from transports was effected rapidly, but the supply barges, when they arrived at the reef line, found it impossible to reach the beaches. During the earlier part of the day LVT’s were kept busy ferrying reserve troops ashore and had little time for transporting supplies. In this situation many of the small craft loaded with supplies returned to the line of departure and waited there for further orders. By early afternoon a confused jam of boats had concentrated near the entrance to the lagoon. Some supply craft did move to the end of Central Pier and there discharged their loads, but the movement of supplies along the pier to the beaches was as difficult from that point as it was from the reef itself.

This was partly because a section of the log structure had been burnt out by earlier American action and partly because of the intense fire that the enemy placed along the pier. In many cases the reserve troops that worked their way shoreward along the pier throughout the day carried some of the more vitally needed supplies, such as water, ammunition, and plasma, ashore with them. By nightfall several carrying parties had been organized under the direction of Brigadier General Leo D. Hermle, assistant division commander, and Major Stanley E. Larsen, executive officer of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines. The carrying parties worked throughout the night to get supplies ashore. Some supplies were also ferried ashore in LVT’s on D Day, but the amount was negligible.

The supply situation brought into sharp focus another pressing problem of the Tarawa invasion force—that of communications. Colonel Shoup had radioed to the transports intermittently throughout the day asking for more ammunition, water, and medical supplies. As these calls reached the ships they heightened the confusion there. The transport commanders had been dispatching boatloads of cargo since early morning, under the impression that they were arriving safely at the beaches. Because no accurate picture of the situation between the transports and the beach was available, the transport group commander, Captain Henry B. Knowles, USN, sent Major Ben K. Weatherwax, assistant supply officer of the division, ashore to determine the exact status of supplies there. This mission, begun at 2100, took until dawn to complete. Major Weatherwax found that Colonel Shoup had received virtually none of the supplies dispatched to him and that the majority of boats containing the badly needed materials was still at the line of departure. One of the ironical features of Major Weatherwax’s mission came when he tried to transmit this information back to Captain Knowles by radio. Two different attempts to reach the naval commander failed, and eventually the supply officer had to make the long, tortuous trip back along the pier to a landing boat and report to the transport in person.

The failure of communications had other serious consequences. Aboard Maryland, the only information that the division commander, General Julian Smith, had, came from the reports of observers in planes, intercepted radio messages, and a few direct reports from Colonel Shoup. At 1343 General Smith ordered General Hermle to proceed at once to the end of the pier, form an estimate of the situation ashore, and relay the estimate to Maryland.

The assistant division commander reported at 1710 that he was at the pier, but subsequent efforts to forward information to General Smith from that point proved unsuccessful. The messages had to be sent by hand to the nearest ship for relay to Maryland, with the result that they did not arrive at the command post for some time. For two hours General Hermle was able to talk to Colonel Shoup and Major Crowe and to assist in organizing supply and evacuation procedure at the pier. At 1930 all radio communications with the shore ceased, and General Hermle sent two officers along the pier to Colonel Shoup’s command post on the beach. They returned at 0345 with an estimate of the situation ashore. To transmit this to General Smith, General Hermle had to go to the destroyer Ringgold. Even then General Smith never received the message which included, among other things, a recommendation that the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, be committed on Red Beach 2.

Meanwhile, General Smith had ordered General Hermle to take command of troops ashore. This order, issued at 1750 on D Day, was never received by the assistant division commander. Colonel Carlson, veteran of the Makin raid and now an observer who had landed with the assault troops, had left the beach at 1230 at the request of Colonel Shoup. He eventually reached Maryland with the first complete picture of Colonel Shoup’s situation. The absence of a detailed estimate had not prevented General Smith from acting vigorously to relieve what he understood to be a precarious situation ashore. After releasing one battalion (the 3rd) of the 8th Marines to Colonel Shoup, he ordered, at 1130, all the remaining elements of the 8th Marines to be boated. Next, he sent an inquiry to Shoup asking whether these elements were needed ashore. The answer, received an hour and a half later, was a succinct “Yes.”

At 1625 General Smith ordered Colonel Hall, commander of the 8th Marines, to land on the eastern beaches. Colonel Hall was already afloat, waiting at the line of departure with the 1st Battalion for orders to land. General Smith’s message was never received by him, and the remainder of the 8th Marines stayed afloat throughout the night waiting for the orders that never came. At division headquarters a message was received at 2019 that Colonel Hall had landed at Red Beach 2, and so no further orders were issued. This erroneous report came from an air observer who had mistakenly identified the landing craft of the 1st Battalion, 10th Marines (Artillery), then heading for the shore as those belonging to the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines.

The waves of the three assault battalions and the elements of the two reserve battalions had spent the day on or near the beaches with little or no resupply and very little in the way of support. Only two medium tanks had joined the force on Red Beach 1. Another platoon of mediums managed to get three vehicles ashore on Red Beach 2. These were eventually ordered by Colonel Shoup to move across the front to support the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, on Red Beach 1. As they approached the formidable Japanese position between Red Beach 1 and Red Beach 2, however, they were halted by marines who told them they could not get through. The tanks were eventually put to work by the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, and aided materially in eliminating several of the pillboxes and reinforced emplacements behind Red Beach 2. Two of the three vehicles were put out of action during the first day. Four medium tanks of the 3rd Platoon, Company C, 2nd Tank Battalion, landed on Red Beach 3 shortly after the first waves had landed. Three were put out of action during the first two hours. The other, although set afire early on D Day, continued to operate in support of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, throughout the engagement.

Most of the support afforded the men ashore on D Day was furnished by warships and carrier-based aircraft. It had been planned to land artillery on Red Beach 1 as soon as a sufficient beachhead had been established. The battalion selected for this mission was the 1st Battalion, 10th Marines (75-mm. pack howitzers), under Lieutenant Colonel Presley M. Rixey, USMC. Colonel Rixey landed on Tarawa as a member of Colonel Shoup’s command group and took an active part in the direction of the landing operations. The artillery was held at the line of departure, however, until conditions ashore improved. Later in the afternoon it was decided to bring the howitzers ashore on Red Beach 2, rather than Red Beach 1 where the situation was still obscure. By the end of the day five gun sections of the battalion had been brought ashore either in LVT’s or by boat and hand-carry. This completed the build-up of assault forces on D Day.

Consolidating the Beachhead: D plus 1

As night fell on Betio, the 2nd Division faced its most critical period—everyone expected the Japanese to counterattack. At every point on the beachhead the hold was precarious. At 1911 General Smith had radioed Colonel Shoup, “Hold what you have.” Efforts to expand the beachhead were to be discontinued until morning. Under cover of darkness, however, the task of resupply and reinforcement was to proceed.

Activities during the night proved anticlimactic. Instead of making vicious attempts to drive the marines back into the sea, the Japanese allowed the hours of darkness to pass in relative quiet. Here and there small infiltrating groups of the enemy wandered into American lines. Some detachments even managed to swim out into the lagoon and man machine guns on old hulks west of Central Pier or to occupy burnt-out LVT’s from which they could place fire on the approaches to the beaches. One Japanese unit attempted to recapture Burns-Philp Wharf, but was driven off by a patrol of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines.

As the second day on Betio dawned, the furious battle was renewed. The first American effort of the morning was aimed at landing the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, which had remained afloat at the line of departure throughout the night. Division headquarters had not learned the whereabouts of this battalion until after midnight when Colonel Hall was finally reached through the radios on Pursuit. First plans envisioned the landing of the remainder of the 8th Marines at the eastern end of the island. At 0513, however, division headquarters was notified that Colonel Shoup would prefer to have the battalion on Red Beach 2. Accordingly, at 0615 the commander of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, Major Lawrence C. Hays, Jr., and his men clambered out of their landing craft at the reef line, just to the west of Central Pier. An hour later the first four waves were ashore, having suffered heavy casualties while wading to the beach. Colonel Shoup immediately ordered Major Hays to reorganize and take up a position on the right flank of the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines. When ready, he was to launch an attack against the stubbornly defended position at the juncture of the two right hand beaches in an effort to re-establish contact with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines.

Earlier, a serious attempt to eliminate the blockhouses on the battalion boundary had been made. During the landing of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, Colonel Rixey had put the pack howitzers of his 10th Marines in position to fire directly upon these emplacements. Using delay fuzes in order to penetrate the coral and log shelters, the howitzers succeeded in silencing the enemy’s guns in this area, though only temporarily.

Coincident with the attempt to bolster the men ashore with reinforcements, was the effort to straighten out the supply situation. The key to this seemed to lie in the assembly of landing craft and amphibian tractors that had been near the line of departure throughout most of the first night. Early on the morning of 21 November, Captain John B. McGovern, USN, commander of Transport Group 4, was sent to Pursuit to take control of the ship-to-shore movement of supplies. By 1000 Captain McGovern had commandeered eighteen LVT’s with which, in conjunction with Marine Corps supply officers, he instituted a ferrying system in which the amphibian tractors shuttled supplies to shore and evacuated wounded from the beaches to the control vessel.

Colonel Shoup from dawn until 1000 on D plus 1 sought to launch a drive to expand the narrow beachhead held during the night. On Red Beach 3 the primary objective of Major Crowe’s battalion was the reduction of the strong system of emplacements near Burns-Philp Wharf. Although virtually all of the attention of the U.S. troops in this zone was centered on the position, little progress was made in reducing it or in eliminating the heavy fire that poured along the beach from it.

In the center of Betio, with support from Colonel Rixey’s artillery, the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, soon consolidated a line just short of the taxiway on the airfield and began to move men into the triangle formed by the taxiway and airstrip where a few isolated individuals had spent the night. Between the airfield and the northern beach, demolition groups moved against Japanese stragglers. One by one the stubborn positions that had harassed landing operations for twenty-four hours were reduced and some freedom of movement was at last achieved by the marines on and near the water’s edge. Also on Red Beach 2, the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, concentrated first on removing enemy machine guns that interdicted the approaches to the airstrip and then began a drive toward the south shore of Betio. On Red Beach 1 Major Ryan by 1100 had organized a drive that was to carry all the way across the island and to secure Green Beach—the western coast of Betio—so that it could be freely used for subsequent landings. Close gunfire support by two destroyers paved the way for this advance.

The attacks launched on the fronts during the afternoon were successful on all but the left zone of action, where no advance was made. On Red Beach 2 and Red Beach 1 elements of three battalions drove all the way across the island to the opposite shore. Shortly after 1700 Colonel Shoup, in the first encouraging message to division headquarters, ended by adding the hopeful words “We are winning.”

About mid-afternoon on D Day, when the situation ashore was most confused and precarious and while reports of extremely heavy casualties were reaching Maryland, Admiral Hill had radioed Admiral Turner, at Makin, asking for the release of the Expeditionary Troop Reserve for use at Tarawa. As a result Colonel Maurice G. Holmes, commanding officer of the 6th Marine Regimental Combat Team, was notified some two hours later that his regiment had been released from corps reserve to 2nd Marine Division control. The next morning (21 November), at a conference aboard Maryland, General Smith and Colonel Holmes discussed several possibilities for the employment of the reserve regiment. No decision was made at the conference but shortly after noon it was decided to land one battalion over Green Beach on the western coast of Betio. Colonel Holmes directed his 1st Battalion, commanded by Major William K. Jones, to prepare to go ashore. This was accomplished at 1640. The battalion landing team was followed about two hours later by a platoon of light tanks—the 3rd Platoon, Company B, 2nd Tank Battalion.

Shortly after noon, Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, received orders to land on Bairiki Island, less than three and a half miles to the southeast of Betio. The movement, designed to intercept enemy troops that might be escaping across the reef between the two islands and thence into the far reaches of the atoll, was accomplished later in the afternoon following an intensive naval and aerial bombardment. No live Japanese was discovered.

Tarawa Is Secured

The afternoon of D plus 1, 21 November, was the turning point in the battle for Tarawa. At the close of the day there were seven battalions of Marine infantry ashore on Betio, the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, having landed at 1840 over Green Beach, supported by a company of light tanks.

Early the next morning, a battalion of Marine artillery (2nd Battalion, 10th Marines) went ashore on Bairiki. Troops on Red Beaches 1 and 2 had driven to the south coast of Betio, although the stubborn pocket on the boundary between the two beaches still defied all attempts to destroy it and continued to harass, to some extent, landing activities at both Red Beaches and on Central Pier. At 2030 Colonel Merritt A. Edson, Chief of Staff, 2nd Division, established an advance command post on Red Beach 2, for the first time providing a centralized headquarters ashore that would not be subject to the vagaries of communication failures. Colonel Edson immediately assumed the burden of command until General Smith could come ashore.

Plans for the Third Day

Colonel Edson spent virtually the entire night of 21-22 November in consultation with Colonels Shoup and Hall before issuing the orders for the co-ordinated attack of the next morning. Two of the great deficiencies of the 21 November operations were provided for during the conference.

The first, air and naval gunfire support, which had been present but in large measure ineffective because of the inaccurate knowledge of American positions, was now co-ordinated to provide thorough and complete coverage of all target areas in front of the proposed attack. In addition, at 0330, Colonel Edson ordered that the 2nd Battalion, 10th Marines (Artillery), less one battery, be landed on Bairiki Island to provide supporting fire for the advance. To overcome many of the communications difficulties, the radios of the separate landing teams of the 6th Marines were brought into the command net of the 2nd Division. Added precaution was taken by sending information of the attack by officer courier to the units on Red Beach 1 and Green Beach.

The attack of 22 November was to have two objectives. The first was to advance to the east along the south shore of the island. This movement was to be made by the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, attacking from Green Beach through the lines then held by the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines. The advance was to continue through the area of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 2nd Marines, tying in eventually with the right flank of the 8th Marines, which was to change its direction of attack from south to east. This latter change was actually only a formality inasmuch as Major Crowe’s full attention since shortly after landing had been centered on the position just inland from the base of Burns-Philp Wharf, which was to the east. This main attack was to be reinforced in the zone of the 6th Marines by the 3rd Battalion of that regiment, which was held in reserve just off Green Beach. Two battalions of the 8th Marines, the 2nd and 3rd, were to make the main effort on the left (north).

The second objective of the day was to be the reduction of the pocket between Red Beaches 1 and 2. This attack was to be made by the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines. The battalion was to pivot on the beach, swing to the west, and move toward Red Beach 1 through the pocket, which would be contained on the opposite side by the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines.

Gains on 22 November

The 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, jumped off at 0800. Moving with two companies abreast down the narrow hundred-yard strip of heavily fortified ground between the airfield and the south shore, Major Jones and his men progressed rapidly and by 1100 had reached the area held by the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines. An estimated 250 Japanese were killed and only light casualties were incurred by the marines. During the forenoon the rest of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, landed over Green Beach and began moving up in the rear of the assault.

Upon completion of the first phase of the attack new orders were issued for a continuation of the advance up the island as far as the eastern end of the airfield. This advance began about 1300 and continued in the face of stronger resistance until the objective was reached late in the afternoon.

Elsewhere on Betio gains had also been made during the day against heavier resistance and with less evident results. Company F, 8th Marines, aided by Company K of the same regiment and detachments of the 18th Marines (Engineers), finally succeeded in reducing the steel pillbox just inland from Burns-Philp Wharf, together with two strong supporting positions. One of the positions, a large blockhouse, was counterattacked by the Japanese shortly after it had been captured, but the attempt to retake it was broken up. It was the successful completion of this action during the morning that brought about the issuance of the new orders for the afternoon of the third day. Once the evidently strong enemy positions there had been reduced, the 8th Marines would be relieved while the relatively fresh battalions of the 6th Marines continued to the eastern tip of the island.

The attack on the strong point between the westernmost beaches proceeded slowly. The two companies farthest inland made some gains, but Company B, 8th Marines, nearest the shore, met firm resistance and was little nearer to the reduction of the position at nightfall than it had been in the morning. During the afternoon the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, was relieved by the advance of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines.

At nightfall on the third day Americans were in possession of all the western end of Betio Island as far east as the eastern end of the airfield, except for the pocket between Red Beaches 1 and 2. General Julian Smith came ashore on Green Beach shortly before noon and then moved to Red Beach 2 by LVT and assumed command ashore. Despite the relatively substantial gains, it was estimated that at least five days of heavy fighting remained before the atoll would be completely subdued.

Events of the Third Night

General Julian Smith had already begun the preparation of the attack order for the fourth day when this pessimistic prediction was made. On the next morning Colonel Holmes was to assume command of the final drive to the eastern tip of Betio Island. The two battalions of the 6th Marines already on Betio were to be joined by the 2nd Battalion, which would be moved from Bairiki. This plan for further reinforcement was to be rendered unnecessary before it could be executed, for, as the order was being prepared, events were already transpiring that were to end Japanese resistance. Throughout the battle the enemy had shown little inclination to counterattack and seemed un-co-ordinated and lacking in offensive leadership, apparently because of the breakdown in communications caused by the preliminary aerial and naval bombardment. By the evening of 22 November most of the remaining enemy, approximately 1,000 in number, were squeezed east into the narrow tail of the island. There, although unable to maneuver, they could effect a closer-knit organization than had heretofore been possible. The Japanese leaders seemed to have determined, therefore, on an offensive action against the invaders, and this move they planned carefully. At approximately 1930 a group of about fifty Japanese attacked American positions established only a short time before.

The 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, had already assumed responsibility for the whole cross island line, and Major Jones had placed all three of his rifle companies in position with his weapons company, just in the rear, in reserve. The Japanese succeeded in finding a small gap between two of the front-line units, but the battalion moved in to close the hole and helped destroy the attacking force without sustaining serious damage. One significant feature of this action was the employment of grenades, bayonets, and literally hand-to-hand action by the marines. The reliance on close-in methods of defense defeated the whole purpose of the enemy’s infiltration attempt, which seems to have been to secure accurate information as to American positions. The Japanese were forced to risk a second probing attack later in the evening with the consequent attrition of their already dwindling strength. Artillery was brought within seventy-five yards of the Marine front lines and acted as an effective screen before the infantry. The second Japanese attack was a two-pronged movement, one group striking at Company B on the right of the line and another group of about the same size against the left center of the line in the Company A sector. Both enemy groups were destroyed—that attacking Company A was annihilated by artillery fire and the one in front of Company B by a combination of close-in artillery fire and hand-to-hand infantry fighting.

The final and heaviest counterattack was launched by the enemy at 0300 after an hour of intense enemy machine gun fire all along the line. Several of the Japanese guns were destroyed by American grenades and counter-fire from heavy machine guns. The final attack, when it came, was launched by about 300 enemy troops and hit both Company A and Company B. It was repulsed within an hour. Within an area fifty yards deep in front of the Marine positions, over 200 Japanese were found dead next morning, while in the impact area of the artillery, somewhat farther removed, another 125 badly mangled bodies were found.

Betio Island Secured

While the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, was repulsing the counterattack, preparations were made for the fourth day’s action. The 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, had been moved before 2300 into position directly behind the front line. At the time of the second counter-attack one company was already in position there and before morning the whole battalion had formed a secondary line. At 0800 the 3rd Battalion passed Companies I and L through the 1st Battalion and attacked to the east down the narrow tail of Betio. Only at one time during the morning did the demoralized remnants of the Japanese garrison offer any resistance. At a point 350 yards beyond the eastern end of the airfield a concentration of pillboxes and fire trenches held up the advance of Company I. On the left Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth F. McLeod, the battalion commander, immediately moved Company L around the right of the strong point, leaving the position to be mopped up by Company I, and proceeded with only one company in the advance. At 1310 the battalion reached the island’s tip. Four hundred and seventy-five Japanese were reported killed during the advance.

The last organized Japanese resistance on Betio was to cease a few minutes later. By 1000 on the fourth day, the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, and the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, had joined to form a semicircular attack upon the position on the boundary between Red Beaches 1 and 2. To accomplish the juncture, a platoon of marines, under the command of Major Hewitt D. Adams and supported by two 75-mm. guns, waded out onto the reef in front of the emplacement and made a direct frontal assault on the strong point, eliminating completely the positions that faced the lagoon. The 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, then advanced toward the beach. One last pillbox had to be destroyed, and the weary marines moved to mop up the stragglers still holding out in holes and shelters. Major Schoettel then notified division headquarters that the task was complete.

At 1330 the same afternoon, General Smith announced the end of organized resistance on Betio. Three jobs still remained, however, before the Gilberts operation could be considered completed: the rest of the islands of Tarawa Atoll had to be taken; Apamama Atoll must be captured; and Abaiang, Marakei, and Maiana Atolls occupied.

Conclusion of the Operation

During the afternoon of 23 November, the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, which had moved from Bairiki to Betio during the morning, learned that it was to mop up the remaining islands of Tarawa Atoll. At 0500 on 24 November it embarked for Buota Island to begin the northward march up the atoll. It was expected that approximately a hundred Japanese would be found somewhere along the eastern leg of the atoll. A thorough search on 24 November failed to reveal the enemy, however, and a continued march on 25 November brought the battalion to Buariki, the northernmost island of the atoll, where enemy troops were at last encountered. Here, on the evening of 26 November and throughout the following day, a sharp engagement was fought in which approximately 150 Japanese were killed at a cost of 32 American dead and 60 wounded in action.

Abaiang, Maiana, and Marakei Atolls lie respectively north, south, and northeast of Tarawa. On 29 November Company D, 2nd Tank Battalion, was dispatched aboard the mine sweeper Pursuit to reconnoiter these atolls on the assumption that they might be sheltering Japanese coastwatchers. On Abaiang, five Japanese were flushed out but managed to escape by boat. On the other two atolls only natives were discovered.

Apamama, an atoll lying seventy-six miles south of Tarawa, was captured by the V Amphibious Corps Reconnaissance Company, less one platoon. Carried to their destination aboard the submarine Nautilus, the company landed on the atoll in rubber boats in the early morning of 21 November. Aided by naval gunfire from their submarine as well as from an escorting destroyer, the marines were able to complete the occupation of the atoll by 24 November. The operation yielded twenty-three Japanese dead, mostly by their own hands. Next day General Hermle, in command of a landing force built around the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, relieved the reconnaissance company and completed the organization of the atoll’s defenses. Thus from Makin southward 180 miles to Apamama the whole island chain constituting the northern Gilberts was captured or occupied by the American forces. The capture of Tarawa yielded an estimated 4,690 Japanese killed, and 17 Japanese and 129 Korean prisoners of war. Marine Corps casualties, including killed, wounded, and missing in action, came to 3,301.

This was a high price to pay for a few hundred acres of coral. Yet in the minds of most American military planners and strategists the cost of the capture of the Gilberts was justified both in the terms of the strategic gains realized and the tactical lessons learned.

SOURCE: Seizure of the Gilberts and Marshalls: BY; Philip A. Crowl, & Edmund G. Love (United States Army Center of Military History)

World War Two: Gilberts and Marshalls(10); Strategic Consequences

World War Two: Gilberts and Marshals (8); Makin Taken


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