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Infantry fighting on Tarawa .
Battle of Attu
In the Battle of Attu, the main conflict of the Aleutian Islands Campaign during World War II (1939-45), American and Japanese armies fought from May 11 to May 30, 1943, for control of Attu, a small, sparsely inhabited island at the far western end of Alaska’s Aleutian chain in the North Pacific. In June 1942, Japan had seized Attu and its neighbor Kiska, then established garrisons on the remote, U.S.-owned islands. The reason for taking Attu and Kiska, known for their barren, mountainous terrain and harsh weather, might have been to divert U.S. forces during Japan’s attack on Midway Island (June 4-7, 1942) in the central Pacific. It’s also possible the Japanese believed holding the two islands would prevent the U.S. from invading Japan via the Aleutians. Either way, the Japanese occupation was a blow to American morale. In May 1943, U.S. troops finally retook Attu and in August reclaimed Kiska.
Heavier Metal at Tarawa
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.
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.
After The War
After the war Eddie Albert continued his successful acting career. He appeared in over 100 movies before his death in 2005. He was awarded the NSFC award for his acting as well as a star on the walk of fame. Also in 1953 he had his own show called the Eddie Albert Show. Another more notable movie Eddie acted in is the original longest yard where he played the prison warden.
Eddie married Margo, a Mexican actress, in 1945. Margo was criticized by some because she was acquainted with members of the American Communist Party. Both Margo and Eddie where published in Red Channels, a pamphlet that tried to expose communist influences. They had one child Edward Jr. and later adopted a girl, Maria. Edward Jr. continued his dad’s legacy as an actor, winning a golden globe for new star of the year for is role in Butterflies Are Free. He also continued his dad legacy in environmental activism fighting for Native American rights. Maria became Eddies business manager.
Eddie Albert was also an activist in social and environmental issues. He was involved with Meals for Millions becoming a special envoy. Meals for Millions was a project that created nutritional means for about three cents per meal to be distributed to countries in need. 6.5 million pounds of food was given out to a total of 129 countries, and they are still going. He also founded the City Children’s Farms to try and make small farms for inner city children. Eddie fought against pollution as well especially DTT. DTT is toxic to many sea creatures and also effects the thickness of egg shells in birds such as the Bald Eagle. Eddie Albert also involved with the Boy Scouts of America, becoming the national chairman. He was also involved with the start of Earth Day, speaking at its opening ceremony in 1970.
Eddie Albert was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease late in his life. He died at age 99 on May 26, 2005 from pneumonia. He is buried at Westwood Vilage Memorial Park Cemetery next to his wife.
They may not have been the ones to make the sky blue, but Congress loved the infantry, too.
Between the time it was created in 1943 until 1948, recipients of the Combat Infantryman Badge (and eventually the Combat Medical Badge) were awarded an extra ten dollars a month pay. When adjusted for inflation, that’s about $146 a month.
Since infantrymen never change, we all know where that $10 went. (Image courtesy of the National Archive)
Infantry fighting on Tarawa - History
Unique among all the operations in the war in the Pacific, and with implications so broad and far-reaching as to affect all subsequent amphibious operations, Tarawa was much more than a successful battle. It was, in many ways, a departure from anything that had been done before.
For the first time in history, a sea-borne assault was launched against a heavily defended coral atoll, thus beginning an operation that was assault in nature from start to finish, that never once lost its amphibious flavor, and that depended for success upon the closest control and coordination of land, sea, and air forces.
Here was no large, or even limited, land mass where the attacker had merely to seize a beachhead in order to taste the first fruits of success. At Tarawa, success could only come when the island under attack was taken in entirety, for Betio was so small as to preclude the possibility of seizing a beachhead, in the classical sense of that term.
The small foothold held by the Marines on Betio on D-day, and the day following, could scarcely be called a beachhead. It had few of the characteristics normally associated with a beachhead there was no fairly secure area on the hostile shore in which to reorganize where it was possible to strengthen positions by moving intact units into the threatened zones. There was no beach free from enemy fire where reinforcements could be landed safely, where supporting weapons could be brought ashore and emplaced to support the attack. There was no opportunity to land supplies and equipment in the conventional manner.
Until the close of the second day of the fighting, entry to the island was no easier for reserve units than it had been for the initial assault waves, and in the meantime the sole vehicle capable of crossing the reef with troops was diminishing in numbers to the point of vanishing.
There was no weakly defended, or undefended, beach on Betio upon which to land. There was no jungle to screen or conceal a landing or subsequent operations ashore. Neither were there any ground forms to shield the attacker. From the reef all the way to the beach the enemy denied all approaches, forcing the Marines to ride their vehicles ashore--or wade in--without being able to fight back. Once ashore, the assault waves found themselves pinned down by withering enemy fire that came from carefully prepared emplacements, from almost every direction.
For two full days the defenders of Betio had all the advantages accruing to the defender. The attackers had to come to them, across fire-swept water, over a coral reef that barred the progress of everything but amphibian tractors, and these were few. The defenders had the protection of underground emplacements and positions bombs and shells had little effect upon them. The attacking marines, on the other hand, were forced to move in the open, with no protection, no cover, and no concealment. They came down fire-lanes covered by presited enemy guns.
Chief ally to the Japanese in this battle was the reef that fringed Betio. The reef prevented the continuous movement of troops, supplies, and equipment from ship to shore. Despite the reef, and intense and bitter resistance from the enemy, the 2d Marine Division fought and worked until it got enough men, supplies, and equipment ashore to carry the fight into the Japanese positions, and in the end annihilated all but 146 of the enemy's 4,836 men.
In just 76 hours, the 2d Marine Division had completed the capture of Betio, key island--and the only one with an airfield--in Tarawa atoll, and this, coupled with the capture of Makin by a regimental combat team of the 27th Infantry Division, gave the United States control of the entire Gilberts Islands archipelago, bases from which an attack could be launched against the highly strategic Marshalls.
Appraised in terms of the combined United States Navy, Marine, and Army forces employed in the Gilberts operation, losses in ships and personnel were relatively light. Tarawa, however, appeared extremely costly, on the basis of casualties sustained by one organization, the 2d Marine Division and, they occurred within the scant space of 76 hours.
To a people hungry for war news and word of victories, the announcement of casualties in United States papers following Tarawa came as a blow. Few people were prepared for the cost involved in pressing an amphibious assault against a strongly held enemy island. The initial public reaction which followed in the wake of Tarawa tended for some time to obscure the fact that here was an important, if hard-won victory an operation which was planned on the basis of exceptionally good intelligence information, with an unusually accurate and full estimate of the situation, and which was executed according to plan. When evaluated in terms of later operations, Tarawa finally achieved its proper perspective.
Actually, casualties to the assaulting troops at Tarawa amounted to approximately 20 percent, a figure well within the calculated amount that can be sustained in a successful amphibious assault against a strongly defended enemy island, and actually less than those sustained during corresponding periods of initial assault in several succeeding operations in which the Corps would participate.
Tarawa served two important purposes: It demonstrated clearly the soundness of our doctrines of amphibious assault it pointed out inevitable weaknesses in technique. If Tarawa was not the finished product that many later operations were, it had a greater importance in that it paved the way for those operations.
Never before in the history of war had ships and planes been called upon to attempt the destruction of the enemy on a fortified coral atoll as a preliminary to landing troops. Betio offered a concentrated target which ordinarily would tend to multiply the effectiveness of air and surface bombardment, thus simplifying the destruction of the target.
For this to be absolutely true there would have to be a foreknowledge of the exact capabilities and limitations of air and surface bombardment as applied to a target of this precise nature, and equally important, a fully evolved technique in applying these weapons against such a target--something that could come only from actual experience.
Tarawa served to reduce to proportion the exaggerated concept of what surface and air bombardment could do to a heavily fortified, concentrated target. The results came as no surprise to the landing force.
One of the great lessons learned about naval gunfire, as used against a target such as Betio, was the need for destruction rather than neutralization. There had not been enough preliminary preparation by naval gunfire and air bombardment. Those who believed, before Tarawa, that planes and ships could destroy completely the enemy fortifications and personnel on a small coral island were quick to perceive their error.
It was concluded that the preparatory bombing and shelling to be delivered on enemy-defended islands similar to Betio would have to be increased in duration and weight, all of this with an eye toward the total destruction of accurately located weapons and fortifications.
Tarawa highlighted the necessity that timing of naval gunfire and air bombardment be made to conform with the movement of the landing craft of the first waves of assault troops. Until the landing force can get ashore and establish its own base of supporting fire, it has to rely heavily upon naval gunfire and air bombardment to render the support normally provided by organic weapons.
This is important because an amphibious assault is not a simple ferrying operation it is a tactical movement, an integral and vital part of the attack itself. Therefore, the landing force must be landed properly and with full support during its approach to the beach, a time when its effectiveness is potential, rather than kinetic.
Once ashore, the landing force depends upon a continuous ship-to-shore movement, the life line of the amphibious assault. Normally, troops, equipment, and supplies are boated according to prearranged plans which envisage a successful landing on selected beaches. This causes a tendency toward rigidity in executing the ship-to-shore movement.
At Tarawa the reef, and the volume and accuracy of hostile fire resulted in the flow of troops and supplies (subsequent to the initial landing) being stopped short of the beach. Furthermore, the order of equipment and supplies moving toward the beach was not the order in which they were required. In this case, the loaded landing craft were committed by the forces afloat to a movement which did not conform to the tactical situation ashore.
It is difficult to change the ship-to-shore movement plan when the assault is pinned down at the beach. Then, if ever, there has to be a great flexibility to offset the inherent rigidity. Tarawa showed that better regulation and control could help to provide this flexibility that the landing force must be able to exert control over the movement of supply and reinforcements in accordance with the situation on the beaches.
At Tarawa, the amphibian Tractor--the LVT--came into its own as an assault troop carrier. In the words of Admiral Nimitz:
The ideal defensive barrier has always been the one that could not be demolished, which held up assaulting forces under the unobstructed fire of the defenders and past which it was impossible to run, crawl, dig, climb, or sail. The barrier reef fulfills these conditions to the letter, except when sufficient amphibious tanks and similar vehicles are available to the attackers.
In the field of the LVT's, the main lesson learned at Tarawa was the need for having enough of the tractors available in future operations to carry ashore not only the first three assault waves, but the reserve waves to follow in addition to these, there needed to be spares to take the places of those tractors destroyed by enemy fire or mines, or which became inoperative due to mechanical failures. Also recognized was the need for amphibian tanks and LCI gunboats, not available in time for Tarawa.
The 2d Marine Division (which had initially realized the need for LVT's in the assault of Tarawa) had available to it in all only 125 amphibian tractors, too few to carry ashore more than the first 3 assault waves of troops, and even then too many for the 3 LST's provided to transport the tractors to the target. It was necessary that the division deck-load 50 tractors on troop transports in order to bring them along for the operation.
It is interesting to speculate as to what might have happened at Tarawa had the landing force been provided with more tractors and with the shipping to launch them. Their successful use in every-increasing numbers in later operations serves to point as a beacon toward Tarawa.
There were many other lessons learned at Tarawa. Reports submitted at the close of the operation are filled with them. Constructive criticism, comments, suggestions, and ideas provided a wealth of material that was quickly disseminated so that others might benefit.
There had to be a Tarawa. This was the inevitable point at which untried doctrine was at length tried in the crucible of battle. The lessons learned at Tarawa had to be learned somewhere in the course of the war, and it now seems providential that they were learned as early and at no greater cost than was involved.
Had there been no Tarawa to point the way, those lessons would have remained unlearned until they were driven home with even greater force in the Marshalls, in the Marianas, at Peleliu, or on Iwo Jima. The last operation, which occurred 14 months after Tarawa, parallels more closely than any other battle of the war the bitter fight on Betio, and it was there, if ever, that the experience of Tarawa sustained and facilitated victory.
Tarawa was the key to the Gilberts, which in turn was one of the keys that unlocked the Marshalls. The key to victory at Tarawa, however, in the last analysis, was the individual Marine. His disciplined fighting ability and courage came into sharper focus, perhaps, than ever before in World War II. His strength, however, important as an individual, found real effectiveness in the over-all collective effort, the effort of the task force.
For Tarawa was more than a battle of individuals and their strengths and frailties it was a battle of machines, of equipment, of planes, of ships, of sand and water and coral reefs. It was a battle of what the Marine Corps and Navy knew and had, as opposed to what the Japanese knew and had and in the end, it was the Japanese who were more than defeated--they were literally exterminated.
THIS SIMPLE CROSS WAS ERECTED at the western tip of Betio as a monument in memory of the 2nd Division Marines who were killed in the battle for Tarawa.
D-Day at Tarawa – “The 20 November 1943” scenario
One more session with fantastic series – D-Day – by John H. Butterfield. I had pleasure to play couple of times D-Day at Omaha Beach and now started exploration of D-Day at Tarawa. Both of those titles follow the well-established, procedural and card-driven bot management – no more complicated flowcharts, no more super difficult algorithms. You follow the procedure, use multi-functional cards and all of this allows for pretty flawless play.
While both titles use that proven mechanics, there are also distinctive differences. The Pacific Theater version brings usage of LVT (Landing Vehicle Tracked) to arrive at the beach, enemy actions from the onset of the game, close combat which significantly changes the flow of the game and many more. This is great to see such a refreshing additions!
Battle of Tarawa
Before moving forward with the report, I would like to provide historical context. For me thi sis as much important as playing the game itself.
Let me provide couple of words of historical background. The Battle of Tarawa was a battle in the Pacific Theater of World War II that was fought on 20–23 November 1943. It took place at the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands, and was part of Operation Galvanic, the U.S. invasion of the Gilberts. Nearly 6,400 Japanese, Koreans, and Americans died in the fighting, mostly on and around the small island of Betio, in the extreme southwest of Tarawa Atoll.
The Battle of Tarawa was the first American offensive in the critical central Pacific region. It was also the first time in the Pacific War that the United States had faced serious Japanese opposition to an amphibious landing. Previous landings met little or no initial resistance, but on Tarawa the 4,500 Japanese defenders were well-supplied and well-prepared, and they fought almost to the last man, exacting a heavy toll on the United States Marine Corps.
In my initial article I provided some information about the game, but for those of you who hear about the title for the first time, let me provide some needed details. It is based on John Butterfield’s D-Day at Omaha Beach system and presents the fighting at platoon and company scale in solitaire mode. You command the invading American forces against dug-in Japanese defenders, which are controlled by the game system. Tarawa covers the landings on Betio Island in November 1943, and the operations of the US 2nd Marine and 27th Infantry Divisions to clear it — the first heavily contested landing of the Pacific War. The battle for the tiny Island raged for four days and, when it was finally over, fewer than 200 of the 5,000 Japanese defenders remained alive.
So far I have played only the training set-up – The First Waves(three times, due to some errors in first two attempts!) so I moved to logically next in line – The 20 November 1943 – scenario. It covers whole first day of the invasion (Turns 1-15) and takes up to four hours to play. This scenario is great continuation for players already familiar with basics of D-Day at Tarawa and allows to use the experience from The First Waves.
So we start again? Yes, this time the whole day, 15 Turns! I knew initial landings will be crucial and in essence direct my arrays of attack. Let me present short session report in form of slide-show:
- Time to start – ready? Go!
- First landings are very promising – I amwinning 3 out of 4 resulting Close Combats!
- As I progress through turns,Japanese tanks start to counter-attack – above one o the greatest victories of the game – Tank + Depth marker destroyed by my engineers.
- When you think that next turn you will clean that costal line, enemy gets depth/reinforcements…
- That tank will not have an easy life… Actually, he will have no life in a moment…
- Mid-game situation on right flank – I moved too far and two reinforcing units (red rectangle) tookpreviously secured positions. What a mistake…
- Mid-game situation on left flank – no errors here and we are grinding the opposition steadily
- Turn 15 – end-scenario situation on the map
- Turn 15 – right flank close-up with fateful green F7 & F9 positions
- Turn 15 – left flank close up – situation here looksmuch better and the springboard for next day attack is ready
- Japanese losses
- US losses
For those interested in details, below two close-up maps. First, presenting the picture of the map after turn 15 – just open this in new window and watch the details:
For a better visibility of progress and objectives achieved, I am also presenting grey-scale map with clear extent of my forces penetration, marking the occupied positions – green giving VPs and red which are not (as they are in Field of Fire of enemy):Extent of American successes, with Green points secured (VPs), and Red ones in Field-of-Fire ofJapaneses positions (no VPs) – click to enlarge
I lost scenario as I did not managed to break through to southern beach but I had a lot of satisfaction anyhow with progress I made!
Fourth attempt, fourth failure. Sounds discouraging? It should not be! I am really eager to try one more time – the urge to play “just one more turn” is great in this game. There are some random factors, but their number is so large that it simply evens out from probabilistic perspective. The good example were my successful close combats, especially in initial part of the game. And let us be honest – that game is unforgiving as far as mistakes are concerned – never leave any hard-won territory unguarded!
Infantry fighting on Tarawa - History
By William E. Welsh
On the morning of Friday, February 18, 1944, fresh groups of German panzergrenadiers backed by tanks swept south from their defensive positions at Anzio and overran American forward positions at Aprilia, eight miles north of the landing beaches. Among the American units hardest hit in the German counterattack were the 179th and 180th Infantry Regiments, recently committed from the American reserve. Hundreds of American soldiers surrendered to the Germans when they found themselves surrounded. In the demoralizing aftermath, Maj. Gen. John Lucas, the 45th Infantry Division commander, sent U.S. Army Ranger force commander Lt. Col. William O. Darby to take command of the shattered 179th Infantry.
Darby arrived at the regimental headquarters that afternoon to restore order and, he hoped, the regiment’s morale. When a battalion commander asked if he was going to be relieved for losing his battalion, Darby had a ready response. “Cheer up, son,” he said. “I just lost three of them. But the war must go on.”
Darby was no stranger to the frustration, self-doubt, and heartache felt by the American troops at Anzio. The veteran commander was referring to the major losses suffered by three U.S. Army Ranger battalions, which he had raised and trained, in an ill-conceived attack against entrenched German positions at Anzio on January 30. Darby still had not fully reconciled himself to the devastating event, but he knew that duty required that he persevere.
Two years earlier, in late January 1942, then- Captain Darby had arrived in Belfast, Ireland, with Maj. Gen. Russell Hartle’s U.S. 34th Infantry Division. The 34th Infantry and the 1st Armored Division constituted the U.S. V Corps.
Darby served at the time as Hartle’s aide. The division had sailed to Ireland to train for the pending invasion of Vichy French-controlled North Africa.
Darby was born in 1911 in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Ruggedly handsome with a square jaw, bright blue eyes, and a wide grin, his innate enthusiasm compelled U.S. Representative Otis Wingo to nominate Darby as a second alternative candidate to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. When the principal and first alternative nominees were unable to attend, Darby filled the void.
Darby, wearing the distinctive British helmet, trained with British commandos alongside his men at Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, during the Fall of 1942.
Darby graduated from West Point in 1933 with a commission as a second lieutenant in the artillery. He ranked 177 out of 346. He reported to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he was assigned to the 82nd Field Artillery of the 1st Cavalry Division. After eight years of service in the artillery unit, he was promoted to captain in 1940. On January 15, 1942, he sailed for Belfast with the first elements of the 34th Infantry Division to land in Northern Ireland.
The soldiers of the V Corps who had reached Ireland first had to sit relatively idle while the rest of the division arrived over the next four months. Darby yearned for activity so much that he put in a request for transfer, but it was denied. In the meantime, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall issued orders to Colonel Lucian Truscott, one of the most promising officers the infantry division possessed, to arrange for training with the British forces.
Truscott subsequently arranged for Lord Louis Mountbatten, chief of combined operations for the British Commandos, to give a select group of Americans training alongside experienced soldiers. Truscott conceived the idea of a U.S. Ranger force modeled after the British Commandos. When Hartle offered Darby the chance to lead the nascent Ranger force, the Arkansan leaped at the offer.
The U.S. Army planned to initially establish five Ranger battalions for service. Four would serve in the North African and European Theaters and one in the Pacific Theater. More would be raised later if necessary. Each volunteer Army Ranger battalion was to have six 63-man rifle companies led by a captain or lieutenant, in addition to one headquarters company.
The Army promoted Darby to major on June 1. He and a staff officer from V Corps personally interviewed and selected the officers for the new unit. The officers who were selected then visited each unit to interview the enlisted volunteer candidates.
Training for the provisional Ranger battalion took place at Camp Sunnyland in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. Almost immediately, a real-life mission developed in which a few of the volunteers would have the chance to get actual combat experience. From the several hundred trainees, Darby sent a small number of officers and enlisted men to train with the British Commandos and 2nd Canadian Division forces slated for a raid within Normandy, France. When the Allied forces arrived at Dieppe on August 19, a dozen of the Rangers landed on the beach while the rest observed from the safety of the fleet. The Germans killed three of the 12 and captured several others.
American Ranger battalions, training under British Naval instructors, practice an opposed landing operation within the United Kingdom. Live ammunition and trench mortar bombs were used to create a realistic atmosphere and prepare the men for combat conditions.
The training at Camp Sunnyland was arduous. It consisted of rapid marches, obstacle courses, and weapons training. The Rangers had to learn to overcome the difficulties and challenges inherent in amphibious landings and nighttime raids.
For their first missions in North Africa, as part of Operation Torch, the U.S. Army Rangers were equipped with weapons associated with both stealth and heavy firepower. Each company initially had four .45-caliber Thompson sub-machine guns. These were to be given to the lead scouts on an operation. In addition, each company had eight Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs). Every Ranger also carried a British Fairbairn–Sykes fighting knife.
Darby decided that the headquarters company would do double duty as the weapons company and that mortars, bazookas, and antitank rifles would be concentrated there. Darby also decided that the company light machine guns would be replaced by additional BARs.
In November 1942, to reduce pressure on Allied forces in Egypt and eventually open a second European front through Italy, the Allies undertook amphibious landings against Vichy- French forces in Morocco and Algeria.
Darby’s Rangers conducted key raids during Operation Torch. The first involved knocking out two forts on November 8, 1942, at the port of Arzew in Algeria to pave the way for regular Army forces. Two Ranger companies silenced the 75mm guns of Fort de la Point, while the other four companies captured a larger installation called Fort du Nord, which mounted four 105mm guns. “Their initial mission was accomplished with great dash and vigor,” said Maj. Gen. Terry Allen, commander of the 1st Infantry Division.
Colonel William Darby on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle speaking to a Ranger officer in North Africa. His M1903 Springfield rifle is slung on the motorcycle.
The U.S. Army Rangers also played a pivotal role in the landings at Sicily during Operation Husky in July 1942. Maj. Gen. Terry Allen, commander of the 1st Infantry Division, tasked Darby with leading a battle group known as Force X. In addition to the 1st and 4th Ranger Battalions, Darby’s ad-hoc force included a 4.2-inch chemical mortar company and a battalion of engineers. The attack was scheduled for the predawn hours of July 10.
Force X’s objectives were to seize the high ground, eliminate Italian artillery positions, and help secure nearby airfields for Allied fighter aircraft. The 1st Ranger Battalion, mortar teams, and engineers assaulted the beach in west Gela, while the 4th Ranger Battalion stormed ashore in east Gela. Gela was defended by the Italian 429th Coastal Battalion.
The Ranger companies landed in waves. The men of the 1st and 4th Battalions first had to cut their way through a maze of beach obstacles that included layers of wire and antipersonnel and antitank mines. The 1st Battalion knocked out a number of enemy machine-gun nests and makeshift bunkers in house-to-house fighting. One of their most important objectives was to silence two naval gun batteries positioned on the western outskirts of the city.
In the course of the fighting, the 4th Battalion found itself in a heated firefight with Italians who had barricaded themselves in a schoolhouse. Darby observed the action in which the Rangers cleared the schoolhouse, inflicting 50 casualties on the Italians in the process. For the rest of Operation Husky, the Rangers covered the flank of Army forces advancing on Palermo and stood guard over Axis prisoners. Shortly afterward, the Army promoted Darby to lieutenant colonel.
The U.S. Army Rangers’ next mission occurred during the Salerno landings on mainland Italy, when they secured the Sorrento Peninsula, which divided the Gulfs of Naples and Salerno. U.S. Fifth Army commander General Mark Clark assigned Darby a staff, which allowed him to establish a formal Ranger headquarters. The Rangers established positions for artillery forward observers, secured key mountain passes, and blew up bridges and railroad trestles to thwart German movement. “The terrain was in our favor, and we quickly developed strongpoints, covering the gaps with machine-gun fire,” recalled Darby. He was promoted to full colonel on December 11.
German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring’s brilliant defensive campaign in Italy forced the Allies to undertake another major landing in an effort to outflank the formidable German defenses of the Gustav Line. Clark entrusted Darby’s Rangers with securing the port of Anzio, a mission they successfully accomplished on January 22, 1944. The Allies initially put ashore 50,000 troops, but Kesselring shifted his forces to contain the new threat. The German panzer and motorized troops were backed by heavy artillery on the Alban Hills.
Major General John Lucas, commander of the U.S. VI Corps, planned a two-pronged attack against the Germans at Cisterna for January 30. The weaker right prong of the attack consisted of elements of the 3rd U.S. Division, the 504th Parachute Regiment of the elite 82nd Airborne, and Darby’s three Ranger battalions. Allied planners tasked two battalions of Rangers with infiltrating Cisterna during the night preceding the attack, while the other battalion secured the road leading to the town for American armor.
Moving through a half-dry irrigation ditch, the Rangers stealthily passed by German positions. Loaded down with extra ammunition, the men slogged their way through knee-deep water. When the Rangers emerged from the ditch at the first light of dawn, the Germans opened fire on them from every direction. They fought back fiercely, breaking into small groups as their casualties mounted. The situation worsened when a German panzer column overran them. Those who were not killed outright were forced to surrender.
The 4th Battalion was sent forward to reinforce the 1st and 3rd Battalions, but the Germans mauled it, too. Only 500 of the 1,500-strong Ranger force survived the ordeal. The U.S. infantry units closest to the Army Rangers were pinned down by German machine-gun fire and so were unable to come to their rescue.
Back at U.S. Army Ranger headquarters, Colonel Darby was helpless to prevent the disaster. After informing his superiors of the fate of the Rangers, he asked his staff to leave the room. He then put his head down and sobbed quietly.
Darby speaks to a Ranger officer in Chiunzi Pass above Salerno, September 1943.
Lucas gave Colonel Darby command of the 179th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. 45th Infantry Division on February 18, and Darby led it through the Rome-Arno campaign. After a return stateside in mid-1944, where Darby served briefly in a desk job at the War Department, the 34-year-old colonel returned to Italy as an assistant commander of the 10th Mountain Division.
On April 23, Darby replaced the wounded assistant division commander of the 10th Mountain Division. He subsequently led a task force that spearheaded the Fifth Army’s breakout from the Po River Valley bridgehead and the pursuit into northern Italy of withdrawing German forces.
It was in that capacity that he was killed on April 30, 1945. On that fateful day, Colonel Darby was issuing orders for an attack on German forces near Trento when he was killed by shrapnel from an artillery shell. Just two days after the incident, all German forces in Italy surrendered. Darby was posthumously promoted to brigadier general on May 15.
Darby’s legacy was synonymous with his Rangers. His West Point obituary sang his praises. “Whether enlisted men or generals, they applauded Darby’s leadership, his insights into men’s hearts, and his desire to have his men trained to the highest pitch,” read the obituary.
by Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret)
In August 1943, to meet in secret with Major General Julian C. Smith and his principal staff officers of the 2d Marine Division, Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, commanding the Central Pacific Force, flew to New Zealand from Pearl Harbor. Spruance told the Marines to prepare for an amphibious assault against Japanese positions in the Gilbert Islands in November.
The Marines knew about the Gilberts. The 2d Raider Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson had attacked Makin Atoll a year earlier. Subsequent intelligence reports warned that the Japanese had fortified Betio Island in Tarawa Atoll, where elite forces guarded a new bomber strip. Spruance said Betio would be the prime target for the 2d Marine Division.
General Smith's operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel David M. Shoup, studied the primitive chart of Betio and saw that the tiny island was surrounded by a barrier reef. Shoup asked Spruance if any of the Navy's experimental, shallow-draft, plastic boats could be provided. "Not available" replied the admiral, "expect only the usual wooden landing craft" Shoup frowned. General Smith could sense that Shoup's gifted mind was already formulating a plan.
The results of that plan were momentous. The Tarawa operation became a tactical watershed: the first, large-scale test of American amphibious doctrine against a strongly fortified beachhead. The Marine assault on Betio was particularly bloody. Ten days after the assault, Time magazine published the first of many post-battle analyses:
Last week some 2,000 or 3,000 United States Marines, most of them now dead or wounded, gave the nation a name to stand beside those of Concord Bridge, the Bon Homme Richard, the Alamo, Little Big Horn and Belleau Wood. The name was "Tarawa."
Setting the Stage
The Gilbert Islands consist of 16 scattered atolls lying along the equator in the Central Pacific. Tarawa Atoll is 2,085 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor and 540 miles southeast of Kwajalein in the Marshalls. Betio is the principal island in the atoll.
The Japanese seized Tarawa and Makin from the British within the first three days after Pearl Harbor. Carlson's brief raid in August 1942 caused the Japanese to realize their vulnerability in the Gilberts. Shortly after the raid, the 6th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force arrived in the islands. With them came Rear Admiral Tomanari Saichiro, a superb engineer, who directed the construction of sophisticated defensive positions on Betio. Saichiro's primary goal was to make Betio so formidable that an American assault would be stalled at the water's edge, allowing time for the other elements of the Yogaki ("Waylaying Attack") Plan to destroy the landing force.
The Yogaki Plan was the Japanese strategy to defend eastern Micronesia from an Allied invasion. Japanese commanders agreed to counterattack with bombers, submarines, and the main battle fleet. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet/Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas (CinCPac/CinCPOA), took these capabilities seriously. Nimitz directed Spruance to "get the hell in and get the hell out!" Spruance in turn warned his subordinates to seize the target islands in the Gilberts "with lightning speed." This sense of urgency had a major influence on the Tarawa campaign.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff assigned the code name G ALVANIC to the campaign to capture Tarawa, Makin, and Apamama in the Gilberts. The 2d Marine Division was assigned Tarawa and Apamama (a company-sized operation) the Army's 165th Regimental Combat Team of the 27th Infantry Division would tackle Makin.
By coincidence, each of the three landing force commanders in Operation G ALVANIC was a major general named Smith. The senior of these was a Marine, Holland M. "Howling Mad" Smith, commanding V Amphibious Corps. Julian C. Smith commanded the 2d Marine Division. Army Major General Ralph C. Smith commanded the 27th Infantry Division.
Spruance assigned Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly "Terrible" Turner, veteran of the Guadalcanal campaign, to command all amphibious forces for the operation. Turner, accompanied by Holland Smith, decided to command the northern group, Task Force 52, for the assault on Makin. Turner assigned Rear Ad-
Japanese Special Naval Landing Force troops mount a British-made, Vickers eight-inch naval cannon into its turret on Betio before the battle. This film was developed from a Japanese camera found in the ruins while the battle was still on.
Marine Corps Personal Papers, Boardman Collection
miral Harry W. "Handsome Harry" Hill to command the southern group, Task Force 53, for the assault on Tarawa. Julian Smith would accompany Hill on board the old battleship USS Maryland (BB 46). The two officers were opposites--Hill, outspoken and impetuous Julian Smith, reserved and reflective--but they worked together well. Spruance set D-Day for 20 November 1943.
Colonel Shoup came up with an idea of how to tackle Betio's barrier reefs. He had observed the Marines' new Landing Vehicle Tracked (LVT or "Alligator"), an amphibian tractor, in operation during Guadalcanal. The Alligators were unarmored logistic vehicles, not assault craft, but they were true amphibians, capable of being launched at sea and swimming ashore through moderate surf.
Shoup discussed the potential use of LVTs as assault craft with Major Henry C. Drewes, commanding the 2d Amphibian Tractor Battalion. Drewes liked the idea, but warned Shoup that many of his vehicles were in poor condition after the Guadalcanal campaign. At best, Drewes could provide a maximum of 75 vehicles, not nearly enough to carry the entire assault and following waves. Further, the thin hulls of the vehicles were vulnerable to every enemy weapon and would require some form of jury-rigged armor plating for minimal protection. Shoup encouraged Drewes to modify the vehicles with whatever armor plate he could scrounge.
General Julian Smith was aware that a number of LVT-2s were stockpiled in San Diego, and he submitted an urgent request for 100 of the newer models to the corps commander. Holland Smith endorsed the request favorably, but Admiral Turner disagreed. The two strong-willed officers were doctrinally equal during the planning phase, and the argument was intense. While Turner did not dispute the Marines' need for a reef-crossing capability, he objected to the fact that the new vehicles would have to be carried to Tarawa in tank landing ships (LSTs). The slow speed of the LSTs (8.5 knots max) would require a separate convoy, additional escorts, and an increased risk of losing the element of strategic surprise. Holland Smith reduced the debate to bare essentials: "No LVTs, no operation." Turner acquiesced, but it was not a complete victory for the Marines. Half of the 100 new LVT-2s would go to the Army forces landing at Makin against much lighter opposition. The 50 Marine vehicles would not arrive in time for either work-up training or the rehearsal landings. The first time the infantry would lay eyes on the LVT-2s would be in the predawn hours of D-Day at Tarawa - if then.
As replacement troops began to pour into New Zealand, General
The 2d Marine Division at Tarawa
- CO, 1/2: Maj Wood B. Kyle
CO, 2/2: LtCol Herbert R. Amey, Jr.
CO, 3/2: Maj John F. Schoettel
- CO, 1/6: Maj William K. Jones
CO, 2/6: LtCol Raymond L. Murray
CO, 3/6: LtCol Kenneth F. McLeod
- CO, 1/8: Maj Lawrence C. Hays, Jr.
CO, 2/8: Maj Henry P. "Jim" Crowe
CO, 3/8: Maj Robert H. Ruud
An LVT-1 is lowered from a troop transport during landing rehearsals. Some of the Marines shown here are wearing camouflage utilities while the others are in the usual herringbone twill. Note that the sea appears unusually calm.
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
The Japanese during August replaced Saichero with Rear Admiral Meichi Shibasaki, an officer reputed to be more of a fighter than an engineer. American intelligence sources estimated the total strength of the Betio garrison to be 4,800 men, of whom some 2,600 were considered first-rate naval troops. "Imperial Japanese Marines," Edson told the war correspondents, "the best Tojo's got." Edson's 1st Raider Battalion had sustained 88 casualties in wresting Tulagi from the 3d Kure Special Naval Landing Force the previous August.
Admiral Shibasaki boasted to his troops, "a million Americans couldn't take Tarawa in 100 years." His optimism was forgivable. The island was the most heavily defended atoll that ever would be invaded by Allied forces in the Pacific.
Task Force 53 sorely needed detailed tidal information for Tarawa. Colonel Shoup was confident that the LVTs could negotiate the reef at any tide, but he worried about the remainder of the assault troops, tanks, artillery, and reserve forces that would have to come ashore in Higgins boats (LCVPs). The critical water depth over the reef was four feet, enough to float a laden LCVP. Anything less and the troops would have to wade ashore several hundred yards against that panoply of Japanese weapons.
Major Frank Holland, a New Zealand reserve officer with 15 years' experience sailing the waters of Tarawa, flatly predicted, "there won't be three feet of water on the reef!" Shoup took Holland's warnings seriously and made sure the troops knew in advance that "there was a 50-50 chance of having to wade ashore."
In the face of the daunting Japanese defenses and the physical constraints of the island, Shoup proposed a landing plan which included a sustained preliminary bombardment, advance seizure of neighboring Bairiki Island as an artillery fire base, and a decoy landing. General Smith took this proposal to the planning conference in Pearl Harbor with the principal officers involved in Operation G ALVANIC : Admirals Nimitz, Spruance, Turner, and Hill, and Major General Holland Smith.
The Marines were stunned to hear the restrictions imposed on their assault by CinCPac. Nimitz declared that the requirement for strategic surprise limited preliminary bombardment of Betio to about three hours on the morning of D-Day. The imperative to concentrate naval forces to defend against a Japanese fleet sortie also ruled out advance seizure of Bairiki and any decoy landings. Then Holland Smith announced his own bombshell: the 6th Marines would be withheld as corp's reserve. All of Julian Smith's tactical options had been stripped away. The 2d
Major General Julian C. Smith, USMC
Marine Division was compelled to make a frontal assault into the teeth of Betios defenses with an abbreviated preparatory bombardment. Worse, loss of the 6th Marines meant he would be attacking the island fortress with only a 2-to-1 superiority in troops, well below the doctrinal minimum. Shaken, he insisted that Holland Smith absolve him of any responsibility for the consequences. This was done.
David Shoup returned to New Zealand to prepare a modified operations order and select the landing beaches. Betio, located on the southwestern tip of Tarawa near the entrance to the lagoon, took the shape of a small bird, lying on its back, with its breast facing north, into the lagoon. The Japanese had concentrated their defenses on the southern and western coasts, roughly the bird's head and back (where they themselves had landed). By contrast, the northern beaches (the bird's breast) had calmer waters in the lagoon and, with one deadly exception (the "reentrant"), were convex. Defenses in this sector were being improved daily but were not yet complete. A 1,000-yard pier which jutted due north over the fringing reef into deeper lagoon waters (in effect, the bird's legs) was an attractive logistics target. It was an easy decision to select the northern coast for landing beaches, but there was no real safe avenue of approach.
Looking at the north shore of Betio from the line of departure within the lagoon, Shoup designated three landing beaches, each 600 yards in length. From right to left these were: Red Beach One, from Betio's northwestern tip (the bird's beak) to a point just east of the re-entrant Red Beach Two, from that juncture to the pier Red Beach Three, from the pier eastward. Other beaches were designated as contingencies, notably Green Beach along the western shore (the bird's head).
Julian Smith had intended to land with two regiments abreast and one in reserve. Loss of the 6th Marines forced a major change. Shoup's modified plan assigned the 2d Marines, reinforced by Landing Team (LT) 2/8 (2d Battalion, 8th Marines), as the assault force. The rest of the 8th Marines would constitute the division reserve. The attack would be
Intelligence Map of Betio Island
preceded by advance seizure of the pier by the regimental scout sniper platoon (Lieutenant William D. Hawkins). Landing abreast at H-Hour would be LT 3/2 (3d Battalion, 2d Marines) (Major John F. Schoettel) on Red One LT 2/2 (2d Battalion, 2d Marines) (Lieutenant Colonel Herbert R. Amey, Jr.) on Red Two and LT 2/8 (Major Henry P. Jim Crowe) on Red Three. Major Wood B. Kyle's LT 1/2 (1st Battalion, 2d Marines) would be on call as the regimental reserve.
General Smith scheduled a large-scale amphibious exercise in Hawkes Bay for the first of November and made arrangements for New Zealand trucks to haul the men back to Wellington at the conclusion in time for a large dance. Complacently, the entire 2d Marine Division embarked aboard 16 amphibious ships for the routine exercise. It was all an artful ruse. The ships weighed anchor and headed north for Operation G ALVANIC . For once, "Tokyo Rose" had no clue of the impending campaign.
Most of Task Force 53 assembled in Efate, New Hebrides, on 7 November. Admiral Hill arrived on board Maryland. The Marines, now keenly aware that an operation was underway, were more interested in the arrival from Noumea of 14 new Sherman M4-A2 tanks on board the dock landing ship Ashland (LSD 1). The division had never operated with medium tanks before.
The landing rehearsals at Efate did little to prepare the Marines for Betio. The fleet carriers and their embarked air wings were off assaulting targets in the Solomons. The Sherman tanks had no place to offload. The new LVT-2s were presumably somewhere to the north, underway directly for Tarawa. Naval gun ships bombarded Erradaka island, well away from the troops landing at Mele Bay.
One overlooked aspect of the rehearsal paid subsequent dividends for the Marines in the coming assault. Major William K. "Willie K." Jones, commanding LT 1/6, took the opportunity to practice embarking his troops in rubber rafts. In the prewar Fleet Marine Force, the first battalion in each regiment had been designated "the rubber boat battalion." The uncommon sight of this mini-flotilla inspired numerous catcalls from the other Marines. Jones himself was dubbed "The Admiral of the Condom Fleet."
The contentious issue during the post-rehearsal critique was the suitability of the naval gunfire plan. The target island was scheduled to receive the greatest concentration of naval gunfire of the war to date. Many senior naval officers were optimistic of the outcome. "We do not intend
The Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces
The Japanese garrison on Betio conducts pre-battle training.
Photo courtesy of 2d Marine Division Association
detachment provided fierce resistance to the 1st Marine Division landings on Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo early in the Guadalcanal campaign. A typical SNLF unit in a defensive role was commanded by a navy captain and consisted of three rifle companies augmented by antiaircraft, coast defense, antiboat, and field artillery units of several batteries each, plus service and labor troops.
The Japanese garrison on Betio on D-Day consisted of the 3d Special Base Force (formerly the 6th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force), the 7th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Force (which included 200 NCOs and officers of the Tateyania Naval Gunnery School), the 111th Pioneers, and the 4th Construction Unit, an estimated grand total of 4,856 men. All crew-served weapons on Betio, from 7.7mm light machine guns to eight-inch naval rifles, were integrated into the fortified defensive system that included 500 pillboxes, blockhouses, and other emplacements. The basic beach defense weapon faced by the Marines during their landings on the northern coast was the M93 13mm, dual purpose (antiair, antiboat) heavy machine gun. In many seawall emplacements, these lethal weapons were sited to provide flanking fire along wire entanglements and other boat obstacles. Flanking fire discipline was insured by sealing off the front embrasures.
Admiral Shibasaki organized his troops on Betio for "an overall decisive defense at the beach." His men fought with great valor. After 76 hours of bitter fighting, 4,690 lay dead. Most of the 146 prisoners taken were conscripted Korean laborers.
Col David M. Shoup pictured in the field. The clenched cigar became a trademark.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 87675
manders of Task Force 53 to brief the troops on their destination and mission. Tarawa came as a surprise to most of the men. Many had wagered they were heading for Wake Island. On the day before D-Day, General Julian Smith sent a message "to the officers and men of the 2d Division." In it, the commanding general sought to reassure his men that, unlike the Guadalcanal campaign, the Navy would stay and provide support throughout. The troops listened attentively to these words coming over the loudspeakers:
A great offensive to destroy the enemy in the Central Pacific has begun. Our Navy screens our operation and will support our attack tomorrow with the greatest concentration of aerial bombardment and naval gunfire in the history of warfare. It will remain with us until our objective is secured . . . . Garrison troops are already enroute to relieve us as soon as we have completed our job . . . . Good luck and God bless you all.
As the sun began to set on Task Force 53 on the evening of D-minus one, it appeared that strategic surprise had indeed been attained. More good news came with the report that the small convoy of LSTs bearing LVT-2s had arrived safely from Samoa and was joining the formation. All the pieces seemed to be coming together.
D-Day at Betio,20 November 1943
The crowded transports of Task Force 53 arrived off Tarawa Atoll shortly after midnight on D-Day. Debarkation began at 0320. The captain of the Zeilin (APA 3) played the Marines Hymn over the public address system, and the sailors cheered as the 2d Battalion, 2d Marines, crawled over the side and down the cargo nets.
At this point, things started to go wrong. Admiral Hill discovered that the transports were in the wrong anchorage, masking some of the fire support ships, and directed them to shift immediately to the correct site. The landing craft bobbed along in the wake of the ships some Marines had been halfway down the cargo nets when the ships abruptly weighed anchor. Matching the exact LVTs with their assigned assault teams in the darkness became haphazard. Choppy seas made crossdeck transfers between the small craft dangerous.
Few tactical plans survive the opening rounds of execution, particularly in amphibious operations. "The Plan" for D-Day at Betio established H-Hour for the assault waves at 0830. Strike aircraft from the fast carriers would initiate the action with a half-hour bombing raid at 0545. Then the fire support ships would bombard the island from close range for the ensuing 130 minutes. The planes would return for a final strafing run at H-minus-five, then shift to inland targets as the Marines stormed ashore. None of this went according to plan.
The Japanese initiated the battle. Alerted by the pre-dawn activities offshore, the garrison opened fire on the task force with their big naval guns at 0507. The main batteries of the battleships Colorado (BB 45) and Maryland commenced counterbattery fire almost immediately. Several 16-inch shells found their mark a huge fireball signalled destruction of an ammunition bunker for one of the Japanese gun positions. Other fire support ships joined in. At 0542 Hill ordered "cease fire," expecting the air attack to commence momentarily. There was a long silence.
The carrier air group had changed its plans, postponing the strike by 30 minutes. Inexplicably, that unilateral modification was never transmitted to Admiral Hill, the amphibious task force commander. Hill's problems were further compounded by the sudden loss of communications on his flagship Maryland with the first crashing salvo of the ship's main battery. The Japanese coastal defense guns were damaged but still dangerous. The American mix-up provided the defenders a grace period of 25 minutes to recover and adjust. Frustrated at every turn, Hill
A detailed view of Division D-2 situation map of western Betio was prepared one month before the landing. Note the predicted position of Japanese defenses along Green Beach and Red Beach One, especially those within the "re-entrant" cove along the north shore. Intelligence projections proved almost 90 percent accurate and heavy casualties resulted.
Marine Corps Personal Papers
ordered his ships to resume firing at 0605. Suddenly, at 0610, the aircraft appeared, bombing and strafing the island for the next few minutes. Amid all this, the sun rose, red and ominous through the thick smoke.
The battleships, cruisers, and destroyers of Task Force 53 began a saturation bombardment of Betio for the next several hours. The awesome shock and sounds of the shelling were experienced avidly by the Marines. Staff Sergeant Norman Hatch, a combat photographer, thought to himself, "we just really didn't see how we could do [anything] but go in there and bury the people . . . this wasn't going to be a fight." Time correspondent Robert Sherrod thought, "surely, no mortal men could live through such destroying power . . . any Japs on the island would all be dead by now." Sherrod's thoughts were rudely interrupted by a geyser of water 50 yards astern of the ship. The Japanese had resumed fire and their targets were the vulnerable transports. The troop ships hastily got underway for the second time that morning.
For Admiral Hill and General Julian Smith on board Maryland, the best source of information throughout the long day would prove to be the Vought-Sikorsky Type OS2U Kingfisher observation aircraft
LVT-2 and LVT(A)2 Amphibian Tractors
vehicle in the lead waves of a landing. The armored amphibian vehicle provided excellent service when it was introduced to Marine operations on New Britain.
More than 3,000 LVT-2s and LVT(A)2s were manufactured during World War II. These combat vehicles proved to be valuable assets to Marine Corps assault teams throughout the Pacific campaign, transporting thousands of troops and tons of equipment. The overall design, however, left some operational deficiencies. For one thing, the vehicles lacked a ramp. All troops and equipment had to be loaded and unloaded over the gunwales. This caused problems in normal field use and was particularly hazardous during an opposed landing. This factor would lead to the further development of amphibian tractors in the LVT family during the war.
launched by the battleships. At 0648, Hill inquired of the pilot of one float plane, "Is reef covered with water?" The answer was a cryptic "negative." At that same time, the LVTs of Wave One, with 700 infantrymen embarked, left the assembly area and headed for the line of departure.
The crews and embarked troops in the LVTs had already had a long morning, complete with hair-raising cross-deck transfers in the choppy sea and the unwelcome thrill of eight-inch shells landing in their proximity. Now they were commencing an extremely long run to the beach, a distance of nearly 10 miles. The craft started on time but quickly fell behind schedule. The LVT-1s of the first wave failed to maintain the planned 4.5-knot speed of advance due to a strong westerly current, decreased buoyancy from the weight of the improvised armor plating, and their overaged power plants. There was a psychological factor at work as well. "Red Mike" Edson had criticized the LVT crews for landing five minutes early during the rehearsal at Efate, saying, "early arrival inexcusable, late arrival preferable." Admiral Hill and General Smith soon realized that the three struggling columns of LVTs would never make the beach by 0830. H-Hour was postponed twice, to 0845, then to 0900. Here again, not all hands received this word.
The destroyers Ringgold (DD 500) and Dashiell (DD 659) entered the lagoon in the wake of two minesweepers to provide close-in fire support. Once in the lagoon, the minesweeper Pursuit (AM 108) became the Primary Control Ship, taking position directly on the line of departure. Pursuit turned her searchlight seaward to provide the LVTs with a beacon through the thick dust and smoke. Finally, at 0824, the first wave of LVTs crossed the line, still 6,000 yards away from the target beaches.
A minute later the second group of carrier aircraft roared over Betio, right on time for the original H-Hour, but totally unaware of the new times. This was another blunder. Admiral Kelly Turner had specifically provided all players in Operation G ALVANIC with this admonition: "Times of strafing beaches with reference to H-Hour are approximate the distance of the boats from the beach is the governing factor." Admiral Hill had to call them off. The planes remained on station, but with depleted fuel and ammunition levels available.
The LVTs struggled shoreward in three long waves, each separated by
Troops of the 2d Battalion, 2d Marines, 2d Marine Division, load magazines and clean their weapons enroute to Betio on board the attack transport Zeilin (APA 3).
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
a 300-yard interval: the 42 LVT-1s of Wave One, followed by 24 LVT-2s of Wave Two, and 21 LVT-2s of Wave Three. Behind the tracked vehicles came Waves Four and Five of LCVPs. Each of the assault battalion commanders were in Wave Four. Further astern, the Ashland ballasted down and launched 14 LCMs, each carrying a Sherman medium tank. Four other LCMs appeared carrying light tanks (37mm guns).
Shortly before 0800, Colonel Shoup and elements of his tactical command post debarked into LCVPs from Biddle (APA 8) and headed for the line of departure. Close by Shoup stood an enterprising sergeant, energetically shielding his bulky radio from the salt spray. Of the myriad of communications blackouts and failures on D-Day, Shoup's radio would remain functional longer and serve him better than the radios of any other commander, American or Japanese, on the island.
Admiral Hill ordered a ceasefire at 0854, even though the waves were still 4,000 yards off shore. General Smith and "Red Mike" Edson objected strenuously, but Hill considered the huge pillars of smoke unsafe for overhead fire support of the assault waves. The great noise abruptly ceased. The LVTs making their final approach soon began to receive long-range machine gun fire and artillery air-bursts. The latter could have been fatal to the troops crowded into open-topped LVTs, but the Japanese had overloaded the projectiles with high explosives. Instead of steel shell fragments, the Marines were "doused with hot sand." It was the last tactical mistake the Japanese would make that day.
The previously aborted air strike returned at 0855 for five minutes of noisy but ineffective strafing along the beaches, the pilots again heeding their wristwatches instead of the progress of the lead LVTs.
Two other events occurred at this time. A pair of naval landing boats darted towards the end of the long pier at the reef's edge. Out charged First Lieutenant Hawkins with his scout-sniper platoon and a squad of combat engineers. These shock troops made quick work of Japanese machine gun emplacements along the pier with explosives and flame throwers. Meanwhile, the LVTs of Wave One struck the reef and crawled effortlessly over it, commencing their final run to the beach. These parts of Shoup's landing plan worked to perfection.
But the preliminary bombardment, as awesome and unprecedented as it had been, had failed significantly to soften the defenses. Very little ships' fire had been directed against the landing beaches themselves, where Admiral Shibasaki vowed to defeat the assault units at the waters edge. The well-protected defenders simply shook off the sand and manned their guns. Worse, the near-total curtailment of naval gunfire for the final 25 minutes of the assault run was a fateful lapse. In effect, the Americans gave their opponents time to shift forces from the southern and western beaches to reinforce northern positions. The defenders were groggy from the pounding and stunned at the sight of LVTs crossing the barrier reef, but Shibasaki's killing zone was still largely intact. The assault waves were greeted by a steadily increasing volume of combined arms fire.
For Wave One, the final 200 yards to the beach were the roughest, especially for those LVTs approaching Red Beaches One and Two. The vehicles were hammered by well-aimed fire from heavy and light machine guns and 40mm antiboat guns. The Marines fired back, expending 10,000 rounds from the .50-caliber machine guns mounted forward on each LVT-1. But the exposed gunners were easy targets, and dozens were cut down. Major Drewes, the LVT battalion commander who had worked so hard with Shoup to make this assault possible, took over one machine gun from a fallen crewman and was immediately killed by a bullet through the brain. Captain Fenlon A. Durand, one of Drewes' company commanders, saw a Japanese officer standing defiantly on the sea wall
waving a pistol, "just daring us to come ashore."
On they came. Initial touchdown times were staggered: 0910 on Red Beach One 0917 on Red Beach Three 0922 on Red Beach Two. The first LVT ashore was vehicle number 4-9, nicknamed "My Deloris," driven by PFC Edward J. Moore. "My Deloris" was the right guide vehicle in Wave One on Red Beach One, hitting the beach squarely on "the bird's beak." Moore tried his best to drive his LVT over the five-foot seawall, but the vehicle stalled in a near-vertical position while nearby machine guns riddled the cab. Moore reached for his rifle only to find it shot in half. One of the embarked troops was 19-year-old Private First Class Gilbert Ferguson, who recalled what happened next on board the LVT: "The sergeant stood up and yelled 'everybody out'. At that very instant, machine gun bullets appeared to rip his head off . . ." Ferguson, Moore, and others escaped from the vehicle and dispatched two machine gun positions only yards away. All became casualties in short order.
Very few of the LVTs could negotiate the seawall. Stalled on the beach, the vehicles were vulnerable to preregistered mortar and howitzer fire, as well as hand grenades tossed into the open troop compartments by Japanese troops on the other side of the barrier. The crew chief of one vehicle, Corporal John Spillane, had been a baseball prospect with the St. Louis Cardinals organization before the war. Spillane caught two Japanese grenades barehanded in mid-air, tossing them back over the wall. A third grenade exploded in his hand, grievously wounding him.
The second and third waves of LVT-2s, protected only by 3/8-inch boiler plate hurriedly installed in Samoa, suffered even more intense fire. Several were destroyed spectacularly by large-caliber antiboat guns. Private First Class Newman M. Baird, a machine gunner aboard one embattled vehicle, recounted his ordeal: "We were 100 yards in now and the enemy fire was awful damn intense and getting worse. They were knocking [LVTs] out left and right.
Marines and sailors traveling on board a troop transport receive their initial briefing on the landing plan for Betio.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 101807
A tractor'd get hit, stop, and burst into flames, with men jumping out like torches." Baird's own vehicle was then hit by a shell, killing the crew and many of the troops. "I grabbed my carbine and an ammunition box and stepped over a couple of fellas lying there and put my hand on the side so's to roll over into the water. I didn't want to put my head up. The bullets were pouring at us like a sheet of rain."
On balance, the LVTs performed their assault mission fully within Julian Smith's expectations. Only eight of the 87 vehicles in the first three waves were lost in the assault (although 15 more were so riddled with holes that they sank upon reaching deep water while seeking to shuttle more troops ashore). Within a span of 10 minutes, the LVTs landed more than 1,500 Marines on Betio's north shore, a great start to the operation. The critical problem lay in sustaining the momentum of the assault. Major Holland's dire predictions about the neap tide had proven accurate. No landing craft would cross the reef throughout D-Day.
Shoup hoped enough LVTs would survive to permit wholesale transferline operations with the boats along the edge of the reef. It rarely worked. The LVTs suffered increasing casualties. Many vehicles, afloat for five hours already, simply ran of gas. Others had to be used immediately for emergency evacuation of wounded Marines. Communications, never good, deteriorated as more and more radio sets suffered water damage or enemy fire. The surviving LVTs continued to serve, but after about 1000 on D-Day, most troops had no other option but to wade ashore from the reef, covering distances from 500 to 1,000 yards under well-aimed fire.
Marines of Major Schoettel's LT 3/2 were particularly hard hit on Red Beach One. Company K suffered heavy casualties from the re-entrant strongpoint on the left. Company I made progress over the seawall along the "bird's beak", but paid a high price, including the loss of the company commander, Captain William E. Tatom, killed before he could even debark from his LVT. Both units lost half their men in the first two hours. Major Michael P. "Mike" Ryan's Company L, forced to wade ashore when their boats grounded on the reef, sustained 35 percent casualties. Ryan recalled the murderous enfilading fire and the confusion. Suddenly, "one lone trooper was spotted through the fire and smoke scrambling over a parapet on the beach to the right," marking a new landing point. As Ryan finally reached the beach, he looked back over his shoulder. "All [I] could see was heads with rifles held over them," as his wading men tried to make as small a target as possible. Ryan began assembling the stragglers of various waves in a relatively sheltered area along Green Beach.
Major Schoettel remained in his boat with the remnants of his fourth wave, convinced that his landing team had been shattered beyond relief. No one had contact with Ryan. The fragmented reports Schoettel received from the survivors of the two other assault companies were disheartening. Seventeen of his 37 officers were casualties.
In the center, Landing Team 2/2 was also hard hit coming ashore over Red Beach Two. The Japanese strong-
'The Singapore Guns'
point in the re-entrant between the two beaches played havoc among troops trying to scramble over the sides of their beached or stalled LVTs. Five of Company E's six officers were killed. Company F suffered 50 percent casualties getting ashore and swarming over the seawall to seize a precarious foothold. Company G could barely cling to a crowded stretch of beach along the seawall in the middle. Two infantry platoons and two machine gun platoons were driven away from the objective beach and forced to land on Red Beach One, most joining "Ryans Orphans."
When Lieutenant Colonel Amey's boat rammed to a sudden halt against the reef, he hailed two passing LVTs for a transfer. Amey's LVT then became hung up on a barbed wire obstacle several hundred yards off Red Beach Two. The battalion commander drew his pistol and exhorted his men to follow him into the water. Closer to the beach, Amey turned to encourage his staff, "Come on! Those bastards can't beat us!" A burst of machine gun fire hit him in the throat, killing him instantly. His executive office, Major Howard Rice, was in another LVT which was forced to land far to the west, behind Major Ryan. The senior officer present with 2/2 was Lieutenant Colonel Walter Jordan, one of several observers from the 4th Marine Division and one of only a handful of survivors from Amey's LVT. Jordan did what any Marine would do under the circumstances: he assumed command and tried to rebuild the disjointed pieces of the landing team into a cohesive fighting force. The task was enormous.
The only assault unit to get ashore without significant casualties was Major "Jim" Crowe's LT 2/8 on Red Beach Three to the left of the pier. Many historians have attributed this good fortune to the continued direct fire support 2/8 received throughout its run to the beach from the destroyers Ringgold and Dashiell in the lagoon. The two ships indeed provided outstanding fire support to the landing force, but their logbooks indicate both ships honored Admiral Hill's 0855 ceasefire thereafter, neither ship fired in support of LT 2/8 until at least 0925. Doubtlessly, the preliminary fire from such short range served to keep the Japanese defenders on the eastern end of the island buttoned up long after the ceasefire. As a result, Crowe's team suffered only 25 casualties in the first three LVT waves. Company E made a significant penetration, crossing the barricade and the near taxiway, but five of its six officers were shot down in the first 10 minutes ashore. Crowe's
Heywood (APA 6) lowers an LVT-1 by swinging boom in process of debarking assault troops of the 2d Battalion, 8th Marines, on D-Day at Betio. The LVT-1 then joined up with other amphibian tractors to form up an assault wave.
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
LT 2/8 was up against some of the most sophisticated defensive positions on the island three fortifications to their left (eastern) flank would effectively keep these Marines boxed in for the next 48 hours.
Major "Jim" Crowe--former enlisted man, Marine Gunner, distinguished rifleman, star football player--was a tower of strength throughout the battle. His trademark red mustache bristling, a combat shotgun cradled in his arm, he exuded confidence and professionalism, qualities sorely needed on Betio that long day. Crowe ordered the coxswain of his LCVP "put this goddamned boat in!" The boat hit the reef at high speed, sending the Marines sprawling. Quickly recovering, Crowe ordered his men over the sides, then led them through several hundred yards of shallow water, reaching the shore intact only four minutes behind his last wave of LVTs. Accompanying Crowe during this hazardous effort was Staff Sergeant Hatch, the combat photographer.
LVT-1s follow wave guides from transport area towards Betio at first light on D-Day.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 63909
Hatch remembers being inspired by Crowe, clenching a cigar in his teeth and standing upright, growling at his men, "Look, the sons of bitches can't hit me. Why do you think they can hit you? Get moving. Go!" Red Beach Three was in capable hands. The situation on Betio by 0945 on D-Day was thus: Crowe, well-established on the left with modest penetration to the airfield a distinct gap between LT 2/8 and the survivors of LT 2/2 in small clusters along Red Beach Two under the tentative command of Jordan a dangerous gap due to the Japanese fortifications at the re-entrant between beaches Two and One, with a few members of 3/2 on the left flank and the growing collection of odds and ends under Ryan past the "bird's beak" on Green Beach Major Schoettel still afloat, hovering beyond the reef Colonel Shoup likewise in an LCVP, but beginning his move towards the beach residual
LVT-1s in the first assault wave enter the lagoon and approach the line of departure. LVT-2s of the second and third waves proceed on parallel courses in background.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 65978
members of the boated waves of the assault teams still wading ashore under increasing enemy fire the tanks being forced to unload from their LCMs at the reef's edge, trying to organize recon teams to lead them ashore.
Communications were ragged. The balky TBX radios of Shoup, Crowe, and Schoettel were still operational. Otherwise, there was either dead silence or complete havoc on the command nets. No one on the flagship knew of Ryan's relative success on the western end, or of Amey's death and Jordan's assumption of command. Several echelons heard this ominous early report from an unknown source: "Have landed. Unusually heavy opposition. Casualties 70 percent. Can't hold." Shoup ordered Kyle's LT 1/2, the regimental reserve, to land on Red Beach Two and work west.
This would take time. Kyle's men were awaiting orders at the line of departure, but all were embarked in boats. Shoup and others managed to assemble enough LVTs to transport Kyle's companies A and B, but the third infantry company and the weapons company would have to wade ashore. The ensuing assault was chaotic. Many of the LVTs were destroyed enroute by antiboat guns which increasingly had the range down pat. At least five vehicles were driven away by the intense fire and landed west at Ryan's position, adding another 113 troops to Green Beach. What was left of Companies A and B stormed ashore and penetrated several hundred feet, expanding the "perimeter". Other troops sought refuge along the pier or tried to commandeer a passing LVT. Kyle got ashore in this fashion, but many of his troops did not complete the landing until the following morning. The experience of Lieutenant George D. Lillibridge of Company A, 1st Battalion, 2d Marines, was typical. His LVT driver and gunners were shot down by machine gun fire. The surviving crewman got the stranded vehicle started again, but only in reverse. The stricken vehicle then backed wildly though the entire impact zone before breaking down again. Lillibridge and his men did not get ashore until sunset.
The transport Zeilin, which had launched its Marines with such fanfare only a few hours earlier, received its first clear signal that things were going wrong on the beach when a derelict LVT chugged close astern with no one at the controls. The ship dispatched a boat to retrieve the vehicle. The sailors discovered three dead men aboard the LVT: two Marines and a Navy doctor. The bodies were brought on board, then buried with full honors at sea, the first of hundreds who would be consigned to the deep as a result of the maelstrom on Betio.
Communications on board Maryland were gradually restored to working order in the hours following the battleship's early morning duel with Betio's coast defense batteries. On board the flagship, General Julian Smith tried to make sense out of the intermittent and frequently conflicting messages coming in over the command net. At 1018 he ordered Colonel Hall to "chop" Major Robert H. Ruud's LT 3/8 to Shoup's CT Two. Smith further directed Hall to begin boating his regimental command group and LT 1/8 (Major
Three hundred yards to go! LVT-1 45 churns toward Red Beach Three just east of the long pier on D-Day. Heavy fighting is taking place on the other side of the beach.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 64050
LVT-1 49 ("My Deloris"), the first vehicle to reach Betio's shore, lies in her final resting place amid death and destruction, including a disabled LVT-2 from a follow-on assault wave. This photo was taken after D-Day. Maintenance crews attempted to salvage "My Deloris" during the battle, moving her somewhat eastward from the original landing point on "the bird's beak," but she was too riddled with shell holes to operate. After the battle, "My Deloris" was sent to the United States as an exhibit for War Bond drives. The historic vehicle is now at the Tracked Vehicle Museum at Camp DelMar, California.
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
Lawrence C. Hays, Jr.), the division reserve. At 1036, Smith reported to V Amphibious Corps: "Successful landing on Beaches Red Two and Three. Toe hold on Red One. Am committing one LT from Division reserve. Still encountering strong resistance throughout."
Colonel Shoup at this time was in the middle of a long odyssey trying to get ashore. He paused briefly for this memorable exchange of radio messages with Major Schoettel.
When Shoup's LCVP was stopped by the reef, he transferred to a passing LVT. His party included Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson, already a media legend for his earlier exploits at Makin and Guadalcanal, now serving as an observer, and Lieutenant Colonel Presley M. Rixey, commanding 1st Battalion, 10th Marines, Shoup's artillery detachment. The LVT made three attempts to land each time the enemy fire was too intense. On the third try, the vehicle was hit and disabled by plunging fire. Shoup sustained a painful shell fragment wound in his leg, but led his small party out of the stricken vehicle and into the dubious shelter of the pier. From this position, standing waist-deep in water, surrounded by thousands of dead fish and dozens of floating bodies, Shoup manned his radio, trying desperately to get organized combat units ashore to sway the balance.
For awhile, Shoup had hopes that the new Sherman tanks would serve to break the gridlock. The combat debut of the Marine medium tanks, however, was inauspicious on D-Day. The tankers were valorous, but the 2d Marine Division had no concept of how to employ tanks against fortified positions. When four Shermans reached Red Beach Three late in the morning of D-Day, Major Crowe simply waved them forward with orders to "knock out all enemy positions encountered." The tank crews, buttoned up under fire, were virtually blind. Without accompanying infantry they were lost piecemeal, some knocked out by Japanese 75mm guns, others damaged by American dive bombers.
Six Shermans tried to land on Red Beach One, each preceded by a dismounted guide to warn of underwater shell craters. The guides were shot down every few minutes by Japanese marksmen each time another volunteer would step forward to continue the movement. Combat engineers had blown a hole in the seawall for the tanks to pass inland, but the way was now blocked
Aerial photograph of the northwestern tip of Betio (the "bird's beak") taken from 1,400 feet at 1407 on D-Day from a Kingfisher observation floatplane. Note the disabled LVTs in the water at left, seaward of the re-entrant strongpoints. A number of Marines from 3d Battalion, 2d Marines, were killed while crossing the sand spit in the extreme lower left corner.
Marine Corps Personal Papers
with dead and wounded Marines. Rather than run over his fellow Marines, the commander reversed his column and proceeded around the "bird's beak" towards a second opening blasted in the seawall. Operating in the turbid waters now without guides, four tanks foundered in shell holes in the detour. Inland from the beach, one of the surviving Sherma.ns engaged a plucky Japanese light tank. The Marine tank demolished its smaller opponent, but not before the doomed Japanese crew released one final 37mm round, a phenomenal shot, right down the barrel of the Sherman.
By day's end, only two of the 14 Shermans were still operational, "Colorado" on Red Three and "China Gal" on Red One/Green Beach. Maintenance crews worked through the night to retrieve a third tank, "Cecilia," on Green Beach for Major Ryan. Attempts to get light tanks into the battle fared no better. Japanese gunners sank all four LCMs laden with light tanks before the boats even reached the reef. Shoup also had reports that the tank battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander B. Swenceski, had been killed while wading ashore (Swenceski, badly wounded, survived by crawling atop a pile of dead bodies to keep from drowning until he was finally discovered on D+1).
Shoup's message to the flagship at 1045 reflected his frustration: "Stiff resistance. Need halftracks. Our tanks no good." But the Regimental Weapons Company's halftracks, mounting 75mm guns, fared no better getting ashore than did any other combat unit that bloody morning. One was sunk in its LCM by long-range artillery fire before it reached the reef. A second ran the entire gauntlet but became stuck in the loose sand at the water's edge. The situation was becoming critical.
Amid the chaos along the exposed beachhead, individual examples of courage and initiative inspired the scattered remnants. Staff Sergeant William Bordelon, a combat engineer attached to LT 2/2, provided the first and most dramatic example on D-Day morning. When a Japanese shell disabled his LVT and killed most of the occupants enroute to the beach, Bordelon rallied the survivors and led them ashore on Red Beach Two. Pausing only to prepare explosive charges, Bordelon personally knocked out two Japanese positions which had been firing on the assault waves. Attacking a third emplacement, he was hit by machine gun fire, but declined medical assistance and continued the attack. Bordelon then dashed back into the water to rescue a wounded Marine calling for help. As intense fire opened up from yet another nearby enemy stronghold,
the staff sergeant prepared one last demolition package and charged the position frontally. Bordelon's luck ran out. He was shot and killed, later to become the first of four men of the 2d Marine Division to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
In another incident, Sergeant Roy W. Johnson attacked a Japanese tank single-handedly, scrambling to the turret, dropping a grenade inside, then sitting on the hatch until the detonation. Johnson survived this incident, but he was killed in subsequent fighting on Betio, one of 217 Marine Corps sergeants to be killed or wounded in the 76-hour battle.
On Red Beach Three, a captain, shot through both arms and legs, sent a message to Major Crowe, apologizing for "letting you down." Major Ryan recalled "a wounded sergeant I had never seen before limping up to ask me where he was needed most." PFC Moore, wounded and disarmed from his experiences trying to drive "My Deloris" over the seawall, carried fresh ammunition up to machine gun crews the rest of the day until having to be evacuated to one of the transports. Other brave individuals retrieved a pair of 37mm antitank guns from a sunken landing craft, manhandled them several hundred yards ashore under nightmarish enemy fire, and hustled them across the beach to the seawall. The timing was critical. Two Japanese tanks were approaching the beachhead. The Marine guns were too low to fire over the wall. "Lift them over," came the cry from a hundred throats, "LIFT THEM OVER!" Willing hands hoisted the 900-pound guns atop the wall. The gunners coolly loaded, aimed, and fired, knocking out one tank at close range, chasing off the other. There were hoarse cheers.
Time correspondent Robert Sherrod was no stranger to combat, but the landing on D-Day at Betio was one of the most unnerving experiences in his life. Sherrod accompanied Marines from the fourth wave of LT 2/2 attempting to wade ashore on Red Beach Two. In his words:
No sooner had we hit the water than the Japanese machine guns really opened up on us . . . . It was painfully slow, wading in such deep water. And we had seven hundred yards to walk slowly into that machine-gun fire, looming into larger targets as we rose onto higher ground. I
"D-Day at Tarawa," a sketch by Kerr Eby. This drawing captures the desperation of troops wading ashore from the reef through barbed wire obstacles and under constant machine gun fire. The artist himself was with the invading troops.
U.S. Navy Combat Art Collection
Maj Henry P. "Jim" Crowe (standing, using radio handset) rallies Landing Team 2/8 behind a disabled LVT on Red Beach Three on D-Day. Carrying a shotgun, he went from foxhole to foxhole urging his troops forward against heavy enemy fire.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 63956
was scared, as I had never been scared before . . . . Those who were not hit would always remember how the machine gun bullets hissed into the water, inches to the right, inches to the left.
Colonel Shoup, moving slowly towards the beach along the pier, ordered Major Ruud's LT 3/8 to land on Red Beach Three, east of the pier. By this time in the morning there were no organized LVT units left to help transport the reserve battalion ashore. Shoup ordered Ruud to approach as closely as he could by landing boats, then wade the remaining distance. Ruud received his assault orders from Shoup at 1103. For the next six hours the two officers were never more than a mile apart, yet neither could communicate with the other.
Ruud divided his landing team into seven waves, but once the boats approached the reef the distinctions blurred. Japanese antiboat guns zeroed in on the landing craft with frightful accuracy, often hitting just as the bow ramp dropped. Survivors reported the distinctive "clang" as a shell impacted, a split second before the explosion. "It happened a dozen times," recalled Staff Sergeant Hatch, watching from the beach, "the boat blown completely out of the water and smashed and bodies all over the place." Robert Sherrod reported from a different vantage point, "I watched a Jap shell hit directly on a [landing craft] that was bringing many Marines ashore. The explosion was terrific and parts of the boat flew in all directions." Some Navy coxswains, seeing the slaughter just ahead, stopped their boats seaward of the reef and ordered the troops off. The Marines, many loaded with radios or wire or extra ammunition, sank immediately in deep water most drowned. The reward for those troops whose boats made it intact to the reef was hardly less sanguinary: a 600-yard wade through withering crossfire, heavier by far than that endured by the first assault waves at H-Hour. The slaughter among the first wave of Companies K and L was terrible. Seventy percent fell attempting to reach the beach.
Seeing this, Shoup and his party waved frantically to groups of Marines in the following waves to seek protection of the pier. A great number did this, but so many officers and noncommissioned officers had been hit that the stragglers were shattered and disorganized. The pier itself was a dubious shelter, receiving intermittent machine-gun and sniper fire from both sides. Shoup himself was struck in nine places, including a spent bullet which came close to penetrating his bull neck. His runner crouching beside him was drilled between the eyes by a Japanese sniper.
Captain Carl W. Hoffman, commanding 3/8's Weapons Company, had no better luck getting ashore than the infantry companies ahead. "My landing craft had a direct hit from a Japanese mortar. We lost six or eight people right there." Hoff-
man's Marines veered toward the pier, then worked their way ashore.
Major Ruud, frustrated at being unable to contact Shoup, radioed his regimental commander, Colonel Hall: "Third wave landed on Beach Red 3 were practically wiped out. Fourth wave landed . . . . but only a few men got ashore." Hall, himself in a small boat near the line of departure, was unable to respond. Brigadier General Leo D. ("Dutch") Hermle, assistant division commander, interceded with the message, "Stay where you are or retreat out of gun range." This added to the confusion. As a result, Ruud himself did not reach the pier until mid-afternoon. It was 1730 before he could lead the remnants of his men ashore some did not straggle in until the following day. Shoup dispatched what was left of LT 3/8 in support of Crowe's embattled 2/8 others were used to help plug the gap between 2/8 and the combined troops of 2/2 and 1/2.
Shoup finally reached Betio at noon and established a command post 50 yards in from the pier along the blind side of a large Japanese bunker, still occupied. The colonel posted guards to keep the enemy from launching any unwelcome sorties, but the approaches to the site itself were as exposed as any other place on the flat island. At least two dozen messengers were shot while bearing dispatches to and from Shoup. Sherrod crawled up to the grim-faced colonel, who admitted, "Were in a tight spot. We've got to have more men." Sherrod looked out at the exposed waters on both sides of the pier. Already he could count 50 disabled LVTs, tanks, and boats. The prospects did not look good.
The first order of business upon
Captain and crew of Zeilin (APA 3) pause on D-Day to commit casualties to the deep. The three dead men (two Marines and a Navy surgeon), were found in a derelict LVT drifting through the transport area, 10 miles away from the beaches.
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
Shoup's reaching dry ground was to seek updated reports from the landing team commanders. If anything, tactical communications were worse at noon than they had been during the morning. Shoup still had no contact with any troops ashore on Red Beach One, and now he could no longer raise General Smith on Maryland. A dire message came from LT 2/2: "We need help. Situation bad." Later a messenger arrived from that unit with this report: "All communications out except runners. CO killed. No word from E Company." Shoup found Lieutenant Colonel Jordan, ordered him to keep command of 2/2, and sought to reinforce him with elements from 1/2 and 3/8. Shoup gave Jordan an hour to organize and rearm his assorted detachments, then ordered him to attack inland to the airstrip and expand the beachhead.
Shoup then directed Evans Carlson to hitch a ride out to the Maryland and give General Smith and Admiral Hill a personal report of the situation ashore. Shoup's strength of character was beginning to show. "You tell the general and the admiral," he ordered Carlson, "that we are going to stick and fight it out." Carlson departed immediately, but such were the hazards and confusion between the beach and the line of departure that he did not reach the flagship until 1800.
Matters of critical resupply then captured Shoup's attention. Beyond the pier he could see nearly a hundred small craft, circling aimlessly. These, he knew, carried assorted supplies from the transports and cargo ships, unloading as rapidly as they could in compliance with Admiral Nimitz's stricture to "get the hell in, then get the hell out." The indiscriminate unloading was hindering prosecution of the fight ashore. Shoup had no idea which boat held which supplies. He sent word to the Primary Control Officer to send only the most critical supplies to the pier-
Sherman Medium Tanks at Tarawa
ashore. Time and again, Japanese emplacements of reinforced concrete, steel, and sand were reduced by direct fire from the tanks' main guns, despite a "prohibitive ammunition expenditure." Shoup also reported that "the so-called crushing effect of medium tanks, as a tactical measure, was practically negligible in this operation, and I believe no one should place any faith in eliminating fortifications by running over them with a tank."
head: ammunition, water, blood plasma, stretchers, LVT fuel, more radios.
Shoup then conferred with Lieutenant Colonel Rixey. While naval gunfire support since the landing had been magnificent, it was time for the Marines to bring their own artillery ashore. The original plan to land the 1st Battalion/10th Marines, on Red One was no longer practical. Shoup and Rixey agreed to try a landing on the left flank of Red Two, close to the pier. Rixey's guns were 75mm pack howitzers, boated in LCVPs. The expeditionary guns could be broken down for manhandling. Rixey, having seen from close at hand what happened when LT 3/8 had tried to wade ashore from the reef, went after the last remaining LVTs. There were enough operational vehicles for just two sections of Batteries A and B. In the confusion of transfer-line operations, three sections of Battery C followed the LVTs shoreward in their open boats. Luck was with the artillerymen. The LVTs landed their guns intact by late afternoon. When the trailing boats hung up on the reef, the intrepid Marines humped the heavy components through the bullet-swept waters to the pier and eventually ashore at twilight. There would be close-in fire support available at daybreak.
Julian Smith knew little of these events, and he continued striving to piece together the tactical situation ashore. From observation reports from staff officers aloft in the float planes, he concluded that the situation in the early afternoon was desperate. Although elements of five infantry battalions were ashore, their toehold was at best precarious. As Smith later recalled, "the gap between Red 1 and Red 2 had not been closed and the left flank on Red 3 was by no means secure."
Smith assumed that Shoup was
U.S. Navy LCM-3 sinks seaward of the reef after receiving a direct hit by Japanese gunners on D-Day. This craft may have been one of four carrying M-3 Stuart light tanks, all of which were sunk by highly accurate coastal defense guns that morning.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 64142
still alive and functioning, but he could ill afford to gamble. For the next several hours the commanding general did his best to influence the action ashore from the flagship. Smith's first step was the most critical. At 1331 he sent a radio message to General Holland Smith, reporting "situation in doubt" and requesting release of the 6th Marines to division control. In the meantime, having ordered his last remaining landing team (Hays' 1/8) to the line of departure, Smith began reconstituting an emergency division reserve comprised of bits and pieces of the artillery, engineer, and service troop units.
General Smith at 1343 ordered General Hermle to proceed to the end of the pier, assess the situation and report back. Hermle and his small
SSgt William J. Bordelon, USMC, was awarded the Medal of Honor (posthumously) for his actions on D-Day.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 12980
staff promptly debarked from Monrovia (APA 31) and headed towards the smoking island, but the trip took four hours.
In the meantime, General Smith intercepted a 1458 message from Major Schoettel, still afloat seaward of the reef: "CP located on back of Red Beach 1. Situation as before. Have lost contact with assault elements." Smith answered in no uncertain terms: "Direct you land at any cost, regain control your battalion and continue the attack." Schoettel complied, reaching the beach around sunset. It would be well into the next day before he could work his way west and consolidate his scattered remnants.
At 1525, Julian Smith received Holland Smith's authorization to take control of the 6th Marines. This was good news. Smith now had four battalion landing teams (including 1/8) available. The question then became where to feed them into the fight without getting them chewed to pieces like Ruud's experience in trying to land 3/8.
At this point, Julian Smith's communications failed him again. At 1740, he received a faint message that Hermle had finally reached the pier and was under fire. Ten minutes later, Smith ordered Hermle to take command of all forces ashore. To his subsequent chagrin, Hermle never received this word. Nor did Smith know his message failed to get through. Hermle stayed at the pier, sending runners to Shoup (who unceremoniously told him to "get the hell out from under that pier!") and trying with partial success to unscrew the two-way movement of casualties out to sea and supplies to shore.
Throughout the long day Colonel Hall and his regimental staff had languished in their LCVPs adjacent to Hays' LT 1/8 at the line of departure, "cramped, wet, hungry, tired and a large number . . . . seasick." In late afternoon, Smith abruptly ordered Hall to land his remaining units on a new beach on the northeast tip of the island at 1745 and work west towards Shoup's ragged lines. This
Getting ashore on D-Day took great courage and determination. Attacking inland beyond the relative safety of the seawall on D-Day required an even greater measure.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 63457
"Tawara, H-Hour, D-Day, Beach Red." Detail from a painting in acrylic colors by Col Charles H. Waterhouse, USMCR.
Marine Corps Historical Center Combat Art Collection
This aerial photograph, taken at 1406 on D-Day, shows the long pier on the north side of the island which divided Red Beach Three, left, from Red Beach Two, where "a man could lift his hand and get it shot off" in the intense fire. Barbed wire entanglements are visible off both beaches. A grounded Japanese landing craft is tied to the west side of the pier. Faintly visible in the right foreground, a few Marines wade from a disabled LVT towards the pier's limited safety and shelter.
Marine Corps Personal Papers
Marines try to drag a wounded comrade to safety and medical treatment on D-Day.
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
was a tremendous risk. Smith's overriding concern that evening was a Japanese counterattack from the eastern tail of the island against his left flank (Crowe and Ruud). Once he had been given the 6th Marines, Smith admitted he was "willing to sacrifice a battalion landing team" if it meant saving the landing force from being overrun during darkness.
Fortunately, as it turned out, Hall never received this message from Smith. Later in the afternoon, a float plane reported to Smith that a unit was crossing the line of departure and heading for the left flank of Red Beach Two. Smith and Edson assumed it was Hall and Hays going in on the wrong beach. The fog of war: the movement reported was the beginning of Rixey's artillerymen moving ashore. The 8th Marines spent the night in its boats, waiting for orders. Smith did not discover this fact until early the next morning.
On Betio, Shoup was pleased to receive at 1415 an unexpected report from Major Ryan that several hundred Marines and a pair of tanks had penetrated 500 yards beyond Red Beach One on the western end of the island. This was by far the most successful progress of the day, and the news was doubly welcome because Shoup, fearing the worst, had assumed Schoettel's companies and the other strays who had veered in that direction had been wiped out. Shoup, however, was unable to convey the news to Smith.
Ryan's composite troops had indeed been successful on the western end. Learning quickly how best to operate with the medium tanks, the Marines carved out a substantial beachhead, overrunning many Japanese turrets and pillboxes. But aside from the tanks, Ryan's men had nothing but infantry weapons. Critically, they had no flamethrowers or demolitions. Ryan had learned from earlier experience in the Solomons that "positions reduced only with grenades could come alive again." By late afternoon, he decided to pull back his thin lines and consolidate. "I was convinced that without flamethrowers or explosives to clean them out we had to pull back . . . to a perimeter that could be defended against counterattack by Japanese troops still hidden in the bunkers."
The fundamental choice faced by most other Marines on Betio that day was whether to stay put along the beach or crawl over the seawall and carry the fight inland. For much of the day the fire coming across the top of those coconut logs was so intense it seemed "a man could lift his hand and get it shot off." Late on D-Day, there were many too demoralized to advance. When Major Rathvon McC. Tompkins, bearing messages from General Hermle to Colonel Shoup, first arrived on Red Beach Two at the foot of the pier at dusk on D-Day, he was appalled at the sight of so many stragglers. Tompkins wondered why the Japanese "didn't use mortars on the first night. People were lying on the beach so thick you couldn't walk."
Conditions were congested on Red Beach One, as well, but there was a difference. Major Crowe was everywhere, "as cool as ice box lettuce." There were no stragglers. Crowe constantly fed small groups of Marines into the lines to reinforce his precarious hold on the left flank. Captain Hoffman of 3/8 was not displeased to find his unit suddenly integrated within Crowes 2/8. And Crowe certainly needed help as darkness began to fall. "There we were," Hoffman recalled, "toes in the water, casualties everywhere, dead and
Col Michael P. Ryan, USMC, wears the Navy Cross awarded to him at Tarawa. Ryan, the junior major in the Division, was instrumental in securing the western end of Betio, thereby enabling the first substantial reinforcements to land intact.
Marine Corps Historical Collection
"The Hard Road to Triumph," a sketch by Kerr Eby. The action shows Maj Crowe's LT 2/8 trying to expand its beachhead near the contested Burns-Philp pier.
U.S. Navy Combat Art Collection
wounded all around us. But finally a few Marines started inching forward, a yard here, a yard there." It was enough. Hoffman was soon able to see well enough to call in naval gunfire support 50 yards ahead. His Marines dug in for the night.
West of Crowe's lines, and just inland from Shoup's command post, Captain William T. Bray's Company B, 1/2, settled in for the expected counterattacks. The company had been scattered in Kyle's bloody landing at mid-day. Bray reported to Kyle that he had men from 12 to 14 different units in his company, including several sailors who swam ashore from sinking boats. The men were well armed and no longer strangers to each other, and Kyle was reassured.
Altogether, some 5,000 Marines had stormed the beaches of Betio on D-Day. Fifteen hundred of these were dead, wounded, or missing by nightfall. The survivors held less than a quarter of a square mile of sand and coral. Shoup later described the location of his beachhead lines the night of D-Day as "a stock market graph." His Marines went to ground in the best fighting positions they could secure, whether in shellholes inland or along the splintered seawall. Despite the crazy-quilt defensive positions and scrambled units, the Marines' fire discipline was superb. The troops seemed to share a certain grim confidence they had faced the worst in getting ashore. They were quietly ready for any sudden banzai charges in the dark.
Offshore, the level of confidence diminished. General Julian Smith on Maryland was gravely concerned. "This was the crisis of the battle," he recalled. "Three-fourths of the island was in the enemy's hands, and even allowing for his losses he should have had as many troops left as we had ashore." A concerted Japanese counterattack, Smith believed, would have driven most of his forces into the sea. Smith and Hill reported up the chain of command to Turner, Spruance, and Nimitz: "Issue remains in doubt." Spruance's staff began drafting plans for emergency evacuation of the landing force. The expected Japanese counterattack did not materialize. The principal dividend of all the bombardment turned out to be the destruction of Admiral Shibasaki's wire communications. The Japanese commander could not muster his men to take the offensive. A few individuals infiltrated through the Marine lines to swim out to disabled tanks and LVTs in the lagoon, where they waited for the morning. Otherwise, all was quiet. The main struggle throughout the night of D-Day was the attempt by Shoup and Hermle to advise Julian Smith of the best place to land the
Marines of Landing Teams 2/8 and 3/8 advance forward beyond the beach.
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
Situation 1800 D-Day
reserves on D+1. Smith was amazed to learn at 0200 that Hall and Hays were in fact not ashore but still afloat at the line of departure, awaiting orders. Again, he ordered Combat Team Eight (-) to land on the eastern tip of the island, this time at 0900 on D+1. Hermle finally caught a boat to one of the destroyers in the lagoon to relay Shoup's request to the commanding general to land reinforcements on Red Beach Two. Smith altered Hall's orders accordingly, but he ordered Hermle back to the flagship, miffed at his assistant for not getting ashore and taking command. But Hermle had done Smith a good service in relaying the advice from Shoup. As much as the 8th Marines were going to bleed in the morning's assault, a landing on the eastern end of the island would have been an unmitigated catastrophe. Reconnaissance after the battle discovered those beaches to be the most intensely mined on the island.
D+1 at Betio,21 November 1943
The tactical situation on Betio remained precarious for much of the 2d day. Throughout the morning, the Marines paid dearly for every attempt to land reserves or advance their ragged beachheads.
The reef and beaches of Tarawa already looked like a charnel house. Lieutenant Lillibridge surveyed what he could see of the beach at first light and was appalled: " . . . a dreadful sight, bodies drifting slowly in the water just off the beach, junked amtracks." The stench of dead bodies covered the embattled island like a cloud. The smell drifted out to the line of departure, a bad omen for the troops of 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, getting ready to start their run to the beach.
Colonel Shoup, making the most of faulty communications and imperfect knowledge of his scattered forces, ordered each landing team commander to attack: Kyle and Jordan to seize the south coast, Crowe and Ruud to reduce Japanese strongholds to their left and front, Ryan to seize all of Green Beach. Shoup's predawn request to General Smith, relayed through Major Tompkins and Gener-
"The Wave Breaks on the Beach," a sketch by Kerr Eby. The scene represents the unwelcome greeting received by LT 1/8 off Red Beach Two on the morning of D+1.
U.S. Navy Combat Art Collection
al Hermle, specified the landing of Hays' LT 1/8 on Red Beach Two "close to the pier." That key component of Shoup's request did not survive the tenuous communications route to Smith. The commanding general simply ordered Colonel Hall and Major Hays to land on Red Two at 0615. Hall and Hays, oblivious of the situation ashore, assumed 1/8 would be making a covered landing.
The Marines of LT 1/8 had spent the past 18 hours embarked in LCVPs. During one of the endless circles that night, Chaplain W. Wyeth Willard passed Colonel Hall's boat and yelled, "What are they saving us for, the Junior Prom?" The troops cheered when the boats finally turned for the beach.
Things quickly went awry. The dodging tides again failed to provide sufficient water for the boats to cross the reef. Hays' men, surprised at the obstacle, began the 500-yard trek to shore, many of them dangerously far to the right flank, fully within the beaten zone of the multiple guns firing from the re-entrant strongpoint. "It was the worst possible place they could have picked," said "Red Mike" Edson. Japanese gunners opened an unrelenting fire. Enfilade fire came from snipers who had infiltrated to the disabled LVTs offshore during the night. At least one machine gun opened up on the wading troops from the beached inter-island schooner Niminoa at the reef's edge. Hays' men began to fall at every hand.
The Marines on the beach did everything they could to stop the slaughter. Shoup called for naval gunfire support. Two of Lieutenant Colonel Rixey's 75mm pack howitzers (protected by a sand berm erected during the night by a Seabee bulldozer) began firing at the blockhouses at the Red 1/Red 2 border, 125 yards away, with delayed fuses and high explosive shells. A flight of F4F Wildcats attacked the hulk of the Niminoa with bombs and machine guns. These measures helped, but for the large part the Japanese caught Hays' lead waves in a withering crossfire.
Correspondent Robert Sherrod watched the bloodbath in horror. "One boat blows up, then another. The survivors start swimming for shore, but machine-gun bullets dot the water all around them . . . . This is worse, far worse than it was yesterday." Within an hour, Sherrod could count "at least two hundred bodies
Readily disassembled and reassembled, the 75mm pack howitzers of 1st Battalion, 10th Marines, were ideal for Tarawa's restrictive hydrography. The battalion manhandled its guns ashore under heavy fire late on D-Day. Thereafter, these Marines provided outstanding fire support at exceptionally short ranges to the infantry.
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
Navy medical personnel evacuate the wounded from the beachhead on D-Day. This was difficult because there were few places anywhere that Marines could walk upright. The shortage of stretchers compounded the problems of the landing force.
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
which do not move at all on the dry flats."
First Lieutenant Dean Ladd was shot in the stomach shortly after jumping into the water from his boat. Recalling the strict orders to the troops not to stop for the wounded, Ladd expected to die on the spot. One of his riflemen, Private First Class T. F. Sullivan, ignored the orders and saved his lieutenant's life. Ladd's rifle platoon suffered 12 killed and 12 wounded during the ship-to-shore assault.
First Lieutenant Frank Plant, the battalion air liaison officer, accompanied Major Hays in the command LCVP. As the craft slammed into the reef, Plant recalled Hays shouting "Men, debark!" as he jumped into the water. The troops that followed were greeted by a murderous fire. Plant helped pull the wounded back into the boat, noting that "the water all around was colored purple with blood." As Plant hurried to catch up with Major Hays, he was terrified at the sudden appearance of what he took to be Japanese fighters roaring right towards him. These were the Navy Wildcats aiming for the nearby Niminoa. The pilots were exuberant but inconsistent: one bomb hit the hulk squarely others missed by 200 yards. An angry David Shoup came up on the radio: "Stop strafing! Bombing ship hitting own troops!"
At the end, it was the sheer courage of the survivors that got them ashore under such a hellish crossfire. Hays reported to Shoup at 0800 with about half his landing team. He had suffered more than 300 casualties others were scattered all along the beach and the pier. Worse, the unit had lost all its flamethrowers, demolitions, and heavy weapons. Shoup directed Hays to attack westward, but both men knew that small arms and courage alone would not prevail against fortified positions.
Shoup tried not to let his discouragement show, but admitted in a message to General Smith "the situation does not look good ashore."
The combined forces of Majors Crowe and Ruud on Red Beach Three were full of fight and had plenty of weapons. But their left flank was flush against three large Japanese bunkers, each mutually supporting, and seemingly unassailable. The stubby Burns-Philp commercial pier, slightly to the east of the main pier, became a bloody "no-mans land" as the forces fought for its possession. Learning from the mistakes of D-Day, Crowe insured that his one surviving Sherman tank was always accompanied by infantry.
Crowe and Ruud benefitted from intensive air support and naval gun
Marines under fire along Red Beach Three near the Burns-Philp pier hug the ground as Navy planes continually pound the enemy strongpoints in front of them.
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
1stLt William Deane Hawkins, USMC, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for sustained bravery throughout the first 24 hours ashore at Betio. Hawkins commanded the 2d Marines' Scout-Sniper Platoon, which seized the long pier to begin the assault.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 12448
fire along their left flank. Crowe was unimpressed with the accuracy and effectiveness of the aviators ("our aircraft never did us much good"), but he was enthusiastic about the naval guns. "I had the Ringgold, the Dashiell, and the Anderson in support of me . . . . Anything I asked for I got from them. They were great!" On one occasion on D+1, Crowe authorized direct fire from a destroyer in the lagoon at a large command bunker only 50 yards ahead of the Marines. "They slammed them in there and you could see arms and legs and everything just go up like that!"
Inland from Red Beach Two, Kyle and Jordan managed to get some of their troops across the fire-swept airstrip and all the way to the south coast, a significant penetration. The toehold was precarious, however, and the Marines sustained heavy casualties. "You could not see the Japanese," recalled Lieutenant Lillibridge, "but fire seemed to come from every direction." When Jordan lost contact with his lead elements, Shoup ordered him across the island to reestablish command. Jordan did so at great hazard. By the time Kyle arrived, Jordan realized his own presence was superfluous. Only 50 men could be accounted for of LT 2/2's rifle companies. Jordan organized and supplied these survivors to the best of his abilities, then--at Shoup's direction--merged them with Kyle's force and stepped back into his original role as an observer.
The 2d Marines' Scout Sniper Platoon had been spectacularly heroic from the very start when they led the assault on the pier just before H-Hour. Lieutenant Hawkins continuously set an example of cool disdain for danger in every tactical situation. His bravery was superhuman, but it could not last in the maelstrom. He was wounded by a Japanese mortar shell on D-Day, but shook off attempts to treat his injuries. At dawn on D+1 he led his men in attacking a series of strongpoints firing on LT 1/8 in the water. Hawkins crawled directly up to a major pillbox, fired his weapon point blank through the gun ports, then threw grenades inside to complete the job. He was shot in the chest, but continued the attack, personally taking out three more pillboxes. Then a Japanese shell nearly tore him apart. It was a mortal wound. The division mourned his death. Hawkins was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. Said Colonel Shoup, "It's not often that you can credit a first lieutenant with winning a battle, but Hawkins came as near to it as any man could."
It was up to Major Mike Ryan and his makeshift battalion on the western end of Betio to make the biggest contribution to winning the battle on D+1. Ryan's fortunes had been greatly enhanced by three developments during the night: the absence of a Japanese spoiling attack against his thin lines, the repair of the medium tank "Cecilia," and the arrival of Lieutenant Thomas Greene, USN, a naval gunfire spotter with a fully functional radio. Ryan took his time organizing a coordinated attack against the nest of gun emplacements, pillboxes, and rifle pits concentrated on the southwest corner of the island. He was slowed by another failure in communications. Ryan could talk to the fire support ships but not to Shoup. It seemed to Ryan that it took hours for his runners to negotiate the gauntlet of fire back to the beach, radio Shoup's CP and return with answers. Ryan's first message to Shoup announcing his attack plans received the eventual response,
Working parties ignore sniper and artillery fire to unload 75mm ammunition delivered by LCVPs from Biddle (APA 8) at the head of the long Burns-Philp pier.
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
Navy hospital corpsmen attend a critically wounded Marine on Betio. The 2d Marine Division's organic medical personnel paid a high price while administering aid to fallen Marines: 30 Navy doctors and corpsmen were killed another 59 wounded.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 63492
"Hold up--we are calling an air strike." It took two more runners to get the air strike cancelled. Ryan then ordered Lieutenant Greene to call in naval gunfire on the southwest targets. Two destroyers in the lagoon responded quickly and accurately. At 1120, Ryan launched a coordinated tank-infantry assault. Within the hour his patchwork force had seized all of Green Beach and was ready to attack eastward toward the airfield.
Communications were still terrible. For example, Ryan twice reported the southern end of Green Beach to be heavily mined, a message that never reached any higher headquarters. But General Smith on board Maryland did receive direct word of Ryan's success and was overjoyed. For the first time Smith had the opportunity to land reinforcements on a covered beach with their unit integrity intact.
General Smith and "Red Mike" Edson had been conferring that morning with Colonel Maurice G. Holmes, commanding the 6th Marines, as to the best means of getting the fresh combat team ashore. In view of the heavy casualties sustained by Hays' battalion on Red Beach Two, Smith was reconsidering a landing on the unknown eastern end of the island. The good news from Ryan quickly solved the problem. Smith ordered Holmes to land one battalion by rubber rafts on Green Beach, with a second landing team boated in LCVPs prepared to wade ashore in support.
At this time Smith received reports that Japanese troops were escaping from the eastern end of Betio by wading across to Bairiki, the next island. The Marines did not want to fight the same tenacious enemy twice. Smith then ordered Holmes to land one battalion on Bairiki to "seal the back door." Holmes assigned Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray to land 2/6 on Bairiki, Major "Willie K." Jones to land 1/6 by rubber boat on Green Beach, and Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth F. McLeod to be prepared to land 3/6 at any assigned spot, probably Green Beach. Smith also ordered the light tanks of Company B, 2d Tank Battalion, to land on Green Beach in support of the 6th Marines.
These tactical plans took much longer to execute than envisioned. Jones was ready to debark from Feland (APA 11) when the ship was suddenly ordered underway to avoid a perceived submarine threat. Hours passed before the ship could return close enough to Betio to launch the rubber boats and their LCVP tow craft. The light tanks were among the few critical items not truly combat loaded in their transports, being carried in the very bottom of the cargo holds. Indiscriminate unloading during the first 30 hours of the landing had further scrambled supplies and equipment in intervening decks. It took hours to get the tanks clear and loaded on board lighters.
Shoup was bewildered by the long delays. At 1345 he sent Jones a message: "Bring in flamethrowers if possible . . . . Doing our best." At 1525 he queried division about the estimated landing time of LT 1/6. He wanted Jones ashore and on the attack before dark.
Meanwhile, Shoup and his small staff were beset by logistic support problems. Already there were teams organized to strip the dead of their ammunition, canteens, and first aid pouches. Lieutenant Colonel Carlson helped organize a "false beachhead" at the end of the pier. Most progress came from the combined efforts of Lieutenant Colonel Chester J. Salazar, commanding the shore party Captain John B. McGovern, USN, acting as primary control officer on board the minesweeper Pursuit (AM 108) Major Ben K. Weatherwax, assistant division D-4 and Major George L. H. Cooper, operations officer of 2d Battalion, 18th Marines. Among them, these officers gradually brought some order out of chaos. They assumed strict control of supplies unloaded and used the surviving LVTs judiciously to keep the shuttle of casualties moving seaward and critical items from the pierhead to the beach. All of this was per-
This desperate scene hardly needs a caption. The Marine is badly hurt, but he's in good hands as his buddies lead him to safety and shelter just ahead for treatment.
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
formed by sleepless men under constant fire.
Casualty handling was the most pressing logistic problem on D+1. The 2d Marine Division was heroically served at Tarawa by its organic Navy doctors and hospital corpsmen. Nearly 90 of these medical specialists were themselves casualties in the fighting ashore. Lieutenant Herman R. Brukhardt, Medical Corps, USN, established an emergency room in a freshly captured Japanese bunker (some of whose former occupants "came to life" with blazing rifles more than once). In 36 hours, under brutal conditions, Brukhardt treated 126 casualties only four died.
At first, casualties were evacuated to troopships far out in the transport area. The long journey was dangerous to the wounded troops and wasteful of the few available LVTs or LCVPs. The Marines then began delivering casualties to the destroyer Ringgold in the lagoon, even though her sickbay had been wrecked by a Japanese five-inch shell on D-Day. The ship, still actively firing support missions, accepted dozens of casualties and did her best. Admiral Hill then took the risk of dispatching the troopship Doyen (APA 1) into the lagoon early on D+1 for service as primary receiving ship for critical cases. Lieutenant Commander James Oliver, MC, USN, led a five-man surgical team with recent combat experience in the Aleutians. In the next three days Oliver's team treated more than 550 severely wounded Marines. "We ran out of sodium pentathol and had to use ether," said Oliver, "although a bomb hit would have blown Doyen off the face of the planet."
Navy chaplains were also hard at work wherever Marines were fighting ashore. Theirs was particularly heartbreaking work, consoling the wounded, administering last rites to the dying, praying for the souls of the dead before the bulldozer came to cover the bodies from the unforgiving tropical sun.
The tide of battle began to shift perceptibly towards the Americans by mid-afternoon on D+1. The fighting was still intense, the Japanese fire still murderous, but the surviving Marines were on the move, no longer gridlocked in precarious toeholds on the beach. Rixey's pack howitzers were adding a new definition for close fire support. The supply of ammunition and fresh water was greatly improved. Morale was up, too. The troops knew the 6th Marines was coming in soon. "I thought up
Some seriously wounded Marines were evacuated from the beachhead by raft.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 63926
Colonel David M. Shoup, USMC
Shoup was modest about his achievements. Another entry in his 1943 notebook contains this introspection. "I
Col David M. Shoup, here as he appeared after the battle, was the fourth and only living Marine awarded a Medal of Honor from the Tarawa fighting.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 310552
realize that I am but a bit of chaff from the threshings of life blown into the pages of history by the unknown winds of chance."
until 1300 today it was touch and go," said Rixey, "then I knew we would win."
By contrast, a sense of despair seemed to spread among the defenders. They had shot down the Marines at every turn, but with every fallen Marine, another would appear, rifle blazing, well supported by artillery and naval guns. The great Yogaki plan seemed a bust. Only a few aircraft attacked the island each night the transports were never seriously threatened. The Japanese fleet never materialized. Increasingly, Japanese troops began committing suicide rather than risk capture.
Shoup sensed this shift in momentum. Despite his frustration over the day's delays and miscommunications, he was buoyed enough to send a 1600 situation report to Julian Smith, which closed with these terse words that became a classic: "Casualties: many. Percentage dead: unknown. Combat efficiency: We are winning."
At 1655, Murray's 2/6 landed against light opposition on Bairiki. During the night and early morning hours, Lieutenant Colonel George Shell's 2d Battalion, 10th Marines, landed on the same island and began registering its howitzers. Rixey's fire direction center on Betio helped this process, while the artillery forward observer attached to Crowe's LT 2/8 on Red Beach One had the unusual experience of adjusting the fire of the Bairiki guns "while looking into their muzzles:" The Marines had practiced this earlier on New Zealand. Smith finally had artillery in place on Bairiki.
Meanwhile, Major Jones and LT 1/6 were finally on the move. It had been a day of many false starts. At one point, Jones and his men had been debarking over the sides in preparation for an assault on the eastern end of the Betio when "The Word" changed their mission to Green Beach. When Feland finally returned to within reasonable range from the island, the Marines of LT 1/6 disembarked for real. Using tactics developed with the Navy during the Efate rehearsal, the Marines loaded on board LCVPs which towed their rubber rafts to the reef. There the Marines embarked on board their
Light tanks debark at the reef from LCMs launched by Harris (APA 2) and Virgo (AKA 20) to begin the 1,000-yard trek towards Green Beach the evening of D+1.
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
rafts, six to 10 troops per craft, and began the 1,000-yard paddle towards Green Beach.
Major Jones remarked that he did not feel like "The Admiral of the Condom Fleet" as he helped paddle his raft shoreward. "Control was nebulous at best . . . the battalion was spread out over the ocean from horizon to horizon. We must have had 150 boats." Jones was alarmed at the frequent appearance of antiboat mines moored to coralheads beneath the surface. The rubber rafts passed over the mines without incident, but Jones also had two LVTs accompanying his ship-to-shore movement, each preloaded with ammo, rations, water, medical supplies, and spare radio equipment. Guided by the rafts, one of the LVTs made it ashore, but the second drifted into a mine which blew the heavy vehicle 10 feet into the air, killing most of the crew and destroying the supplies. It was a serious loss, but not critical. Well covered by Ryan's men, the landing force suffered no other casualties coming ashore. Jones' battalion became the first to land on Betio essentially intact.
It was after dark by the time Jones' troops assumed defensive positions behind Ryan's lines. The light tanks of Company B continued their attempt to come ashore on Green Beach, but the high surf and great distance between the reef and the beach greatly hindered landing efforts. Eventually, a platoon of six tanks managed to reach the beach the remainder of the company moved its boats toward the pier and worked all night to get ashore on Red Beach Two. McLeod's LT 3/6 remained afloat in LCVPs beyond the reef, facing an uncomfortable night.
That evening Shoup turned to Robert Sherrod and stated, "Well, I think we're winning, but the bastards have got a lot of bullets left. I think we'll clean up tomorrow."
After dark, General Smith sent his chief of staff, "Red Mike" Edson, ashore to take command of all forces on Betio and Bairiki. Shoup had done a magnificent job, but it was time for the senior colonel to take charge. There were now eight reinforced infantry battalions and two artillery battalions deployed on the two islands. With LT 3/6 scheduled to land early on D+2, virtually all the combat and combat support elements of the 2d Marine Division would be deployed.
Edson reached Shoup's CP by 2030 and found the barrel-chested warrior still on his feet, grimy and haggard, but full of fight. Edson assumed command, allowing Shoup to concentrate on his own reinforced combat team, and began making plans for the morning.
Years later, General Julian Smith looked back on the pivotal day of 21 November 1943 at Betio and admitted, "we were losing until we won!" Many things had gone wrong, and the Japanese had inflicted severe casualties on the attackers, but, from this point on, the issue was no longer in doubt at Tarawa.
The Third Day:D+2 at Betio,22 November 1943
On D+2, Chicago Daily News war correspondent Keith Wheeler released this dispatch from Tarawa: "It looks as though the Marines are winning on this blood-soaked, bomb-hammered, stinking little abattoir of an island."
Colonel Edson issued his attack orders at 0400. As recorded in the division's D-3 journal, Edson's plan for D+2 was this: "1/6 attacks at 0800 to the east along south beach to establish contact with 1/2 and 2/2. 1/8 attached to 2dMar attacks at daylight to the west along north beach to eliminate Jap pockets of resistance between Beaches Red 1 and 2. 8thMar (-LT 1/8) continues attack to east." Edson also arranged for naval gunfire and air support to strike the eastern end of the island at 20-minute interludes throughout the morning, beginning at 0700. McLeod's LT 3/6, still embarked at the line of departure, would land at Shoup's call on Green Beach.
The key to the entire plan was the eastward attack by the fresh troops of Major Jones' landing team, but Edson was unable for hours to raise the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, on any radio net. The enterprising Major Tompkins, assistant division operations officer, volunteered to deliver the attack order personally to Major Jones. Tompkins' hair-raising odyssey from Edsons CP to Green Beach took nearly three hours, during which time he was nearly shot on several occasions by nervous Japanese and American sentries. By
Situation 1800 D+1
quirk, the radio nets started working again just before Tompkins reached LT 1/6. Jones had the good grace not to admit to Tompkins that he already had the attack order when the exhausted messenger arrived.
On Red Beach Two, Major Hays launched his attack promptly at 0700, attacking westward on a three-company front. Engineers with satchel charges and Bangalore torpedoes helped neutralize several inland Japanese positions, but the strongpoints along the re-entrant were still as dangerous as hornets' nests. Marine light tanks made brave frontal attacks against the fortifications, even firing their 37mm guns pointblank into the embrasures, but they were inadequate for the task. One was lost to enemy fire, and the other two were withdrawn. Hays called for a section of 75mm halftracks. One was lost almost immediately, but the other used its heavier gun to considerable advantage. The center and left flank companies managed to curve around behind the main complexes, effectively cutting the Japanese off from the rest of the island. Along the beach, however, progress was measured in yards. The bright spot of the day for 1/8 came late in the afternoon when a small party of Japanese tried a sortie from the strongpoints against the Marine lines. Hays' men, finally given real targets in the open, cut down the attackers in short order.
On Green Beach, Major Jones made final preparations for the assault of 1/6 to the east. Although there were several light tanks available from the platoon which came ashore the previous evening, Jones preferred the insurance of medium tanks. Majors "Willie K." Jones and "Mike" Ryan were good friends Jones prevailed on their friendship to "borrow" Ryan's two battle-scarred Shermans for the assault. Jones ordered the tanks to range no further than 50 yards ahead of his lead company, and he personally maintained radio contact with the tank commander. Jones also assigned a platoon of water-cooled .30-caliber machine guns to each rifle company and attached his combat engineers with their flame throwers and demolition squads to
CP scene, Betio, D+2: Col Shoup, center, with map case, confers with Maj Thomas Culhane, 2d Marines R-3, while Col Merritt A. Edson, Division chief of staff, stands in left background (hands on hips). Col Evans Carlson, an observer from the 4th Marine Division used as high-priced courier by Shoup, rests in the foreground.
Department of Detense Photo (USMC) 63505
the lead company. The nature of the terrain and the necessity for giving Hays' battalion wide berth made Jones constrain his attack to a platoon front in a zone of action only 100 yards wide. "It was the most unusual tactics that I ever heard of," recalled Jones. "As I moved to the east on one side of the airfield, Larry Hays moved to the west, exactly opposite . . . . I was attacking towards Wood Kyle who had 1st Battalion, 2d Marines."
Jones' plan was sound and well executed. The advantage of having in place a fresh tactical unit with integrated supporting arms was immediately obvious. Landing Team 1/6 made rapid progress along the south coast, killing about 250 Japanese defenders and reaching the thin lanes held by 2/2 and 1/2 within three hours. American casualties to this point were light.
At 1100, Shoup called Jones to his CP to receive the afternoon plan of action. Jones' executive officer, Major Francis X. Beamer, took the occasion to replace the lead rifle company. Resistance was stiffening, the company commander had just been shot by a sniper, and the oppressive heat was beginning to take a toll. Beamer made superhuman efforts to get more water and salt tablets for his men, but several troops had already become victims of heat prostration. According to First Sergeant Lewis J. Michelony, Tarawa's sands were "as white as snow and as hot as red-white ashes from a heated furnace."
Back on Green Beach, now 800 yards behind LT 1/6, McLeod's LT 3/6 began streaming ashore. The landing was uncontested but nevertheless took several hours to execute. It was not until 1100, the same time that Jones' leading elements linked up with the 2d Marines, before 3/6 was fully established ashore.
The attack order for the 8th Marines was the same as the previous day: assault the strongpoints to the east. The obstacles were just as daunting on D+2. Three fortifications were especially formidable: a steel pillbox near the contested Burns-Philp pier a coconut log emplacement with multiple machine guns and a large bombproof shelter further inland. All three had been designed by Admiral Saichero, the master engineer, to be mutually supported by fire and observation. And notwithstanding Major Crowe's fighting spirit, these strong
"March Macabre," a sketch by combat artist Kerr Eby, reflects the familiar scene of wounded or lifeless Marines being pulled to shelter under fire by their buddies.
U.S. Navy Combat Art Collection
Col William K. Jones, USMC, a major during the battle of Tarawa, commanded Landing Team 1/6, the first major unit to land intact on Betio. The advance of 1/6 eastward on D+2 helped break the back of Japanese resistance, as did the unit's repulse of the Japanese counterattack that night. Jones' sustained combat leadership on Betio resulted in a battlefield promotion to lieutenant colonel.
Marine Corps Historical Collection
points had effectively contained the combined forces of 2/8 and 3/8 since the morning of D-Day.
On the third day, Crowe reorganized his tired forces for yet another assault. First, the former marksmanship instructor obtained cans of lubricating oil and made his troops field strip and clean their Garands before the attack. Crowe placed his battalion executive officer, Major William C. Chamberlin, in the center of the three attacking companies. Chamberlin, a former college economics professor, was no less dynamic than his red-mustached commander. Though nursing a painful wound in his shoulder from D-Day, Chamberlin was a driving force in the repetitive assaults against the three strongpoints. Staff Sergeant Hatch recalled that the executive officer was "a wild man, a guy anybody would be willing to follow."
At 0930, a mortar crew under Chamberlin's direction got a direct hit on the top of the coconut log emplacement which penetrated the bunker and detonated the ammunition stocks. It was a stroke of immense good fortune for the Marines. At the same time, the medium tank "Colorado" maneuvered close enough to the steel pillbox to penetrate it with direct 75mm fire. Suddenly, two of the three emplacements were overrun.
The massive bombproof shelter, however, was still lethal. Improvised flanking attacks were shot to pieces before they could gather momentum. The only solution was to somehow gain the top of the sand-covered mound and drop explosives or thermite grenades down the air vents to force the defenders outside. This tough assignment went to Major Chamberlin and a squad of combat engineers under First Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman. While riflemen and machine gunners opened a rain of fire against the strongpoint's firing ports, this small band raced across the sands and up the steep slope. The Japanese knew
Against the still potent and heavily defended, entrenched Japanese positions the 6th Marines advanced eastward on D+2.
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
Attack of the 1st BN, 6th Marines
they were in grave danger. Scores of them poured out of a rear entrance to attack the Marines on top. Bonnyman stepped forward, emptied his flamethrower into the onrushing Japanese, then charged them with a carbine. He was shot dead, his body rolling down the slope, but his men were inspired to overcome the Japanese counterattack. The surviving engineers rushed to place explosives against the rear entrances. Suddenly, several hundred demoralized Japanese broke out of the shelter in panic, trying to flee eastward. The Marines shot them down by the dozens, and the tank crew fired a single "dream shot" canister round which dispatched at least 20 more.
Lieutenant Bonnyman's gallantry resulted in a posthumous Medal of Honor, the third to be awarded to Marines on Betio. His sacrifice almost single-handedly ended the stalemate on Red Beach Three. Nor is it coincidence that two of these highest awards were received by combat engineers. The performances of Staff Sergeant Bordelon on D-Day and Lieutenant Bonnyman on D+2 were representative of hundreds of other engineers on only a slightly less spectacular basis. As an example, nearly a third of the engineers who landed in support of LT 2/8 became casualties. According to Second Lieutenant Beryl W. Rentel, the survivors used "eight cases of TNT, eight cases of gelatin dynamite, and two 54-pound blocks of TNT" to demolish Japanese fortifications. Rentel reported that his engineers used both large blocks of TNT and an entire case of dynamite on the large bombproof shelter alone.
At some point during the confused, violent fighting in the 8th Marines' zone--and unknown to the Marines--Admiral Shibasaki died in his blockhouse. The tenacious Japanese commander's failure to provide backup communications to the above-ground wires destroyed during D-Day's preliminary bombardment had effectively kept him from influencing the battle. Japanese archives indicate Shibasaki was able to transmit one final message to General Headquarters in Tokyo early on
The 8th Marines makes its final assault on the large Japanese bombproof shelter near the Burns-Philp pier. These scenes were vividly recorded on 35mm motion picture film by Marine SSgt Norman Hatch, whose subsequent eyewitness documentary of the Tarawa fighting won a Motion Picture Academy Award in 1944.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 63930
1stLt Alexander Bonnyman, Jr., USMC, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for extreme bravery during the assault on the Japanese bombproof shelter on D+2. Two of the four Marines awarded the Medal of Honor for Tarawa were combat engineers: Lt Bonnyman and SSgt Bordelon.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 310213
D+2: "Our weapons have been destroyed and from now on everyone is attempting a final charge . . . . May Japan exist for 10,000 years!"
Admiral Shibasaki's counterpart, General Julian Smith, landed on Green Beach shortly before noon. Smith observed the deployment of McLeod's LT 3/6 inland and conferred with Major Ryan. But Smith soon realized he was far removed from the main action towards the center of the island. He led his group back across the reef to its landing craft and ordered the coxswain to make for the pier. At this point the commanding general received a rude introduction to the facts of life on Betio. Although the Japanese strongpoints at the re-entrant were being hotly besieged by Hays' 1/8, the defenders still held mastery over the approaches to Red Beaches One and Two. Well-aimed machine-gun fire disabled the boat and killed the coxswain the other occupants had to leap over the far gunwale into the water. Major Tompkins, ever the right man in the right place, then waded through intermittent fire for half a mile to find an LVT for the general. Even this was not an altogether safe exchange. The LVT drew further fire, which wounded the driver and further alarmed the occupants. General Smith did not reach Edson and Shoup's combined CP until nearly 1400.
"Red Mike" Edson in the meantime had assembled his major subordinate commanders and issued orders for continuing the attack to the east that afternoon. Major Jones' 1/6 would continue along the narrowing south coast, supported by the pack howitzers of 1/10 and all available tanks. Colonel Hall's two battalions of the 8th Marines would continue their advance along the north coast. Jump-off time was 1330. Naval gunfire and air support would blast the areas for an hour in advance.
Colonel Hall spoke up on behalf of his exhausted, decimated landing teams, ashore and in direct contact since D-Day morning. The two landing teams had enough strength for one more assault, he told Edson, but then they must get relief. Edson promised to exchange the remnants of 2/8 and 3/8 with Murray's fresh 2/6 on Bairiki at the first opportunity after the assault.
Jones returned to his troops in his borrowed tank and issued the necessary orders. Landing Team 1/6 continued the attack at 1330, passing through Kyle's lines in the process. Immediately it ran into heavy opposition. The deadliest fire came from heavy weapons mounted in a turret-type emplacement near the south beach. This took 90 minutes to overcome. The light tanks were brave but ineffective. Neutralization took sustained 75mm fire from one of the Sherman medium tanks. Resistance was fierce throughout Jones' zone, and his casualties began to mount. The team had conquered 800 yards of enemy territory fairly easily in the morning, but could attain barely half that distance in the long afternoon.
The 8th Marines, having finally destroyed the three-bunker nemesis, made good progress at first, but then ran out of steam past the eastern end of the airfield. Shoup had been right the night before. The Japanese defenders may have been leaderless, but they still had an abundance of bullets and esprit left. Major Crowe pulled his leading elements back into defensive positions for the night. Jones halted, too, and placed one company north of the airfield for a direct link with Crowe. The end of the airstrip was unmanned but covered by fire.
On nearby Bairiki, all of 2/10 was now in position and firing artillery missions in support of Crowe and Jones. Company B of the 2d Medical Battalion established a field hospital to handle the overflow of casualties from Doyen. Murray's 2/6, eager to enter the fray, waited in vain for boats to arrive to move them to Green Beach. Very few landing craft were available many were crammed with miscellaneous supplies as the transports and cargo ships continued general unloading, regardless of the needs of the troops ashore. On Betio, Navy Seabees were already at work repairing the airstrip with bulldozers and graders despite enemy fire. From time to time, the Marines would call for help in sealing a bothersome bunker, and a bulldozer would arrive to do the job nicely. Navy beachmasters and shore party Marines on the pier continued to keep the supplies coming in, the wounded going out. At 1550, Edson requested a working party "to clear bodies around pier . . . hindering shore party operations." Late in the day the first jeep got ashore, a wild ride along the pier with every remaining Japanese sniper trying to take out the driver. Sherrod commented, "If a sign of certain victory were needed, this is it. The jeeps have arrived."
The strain of the prolonged battle began to take effect. Colonel Hall
South side of RAdm Shibasaki's headquarters on Betio is guarded by a now-destroyed Japanese light tank. The imposing blockhouse withstood direct hits by Navy 16-inch shells and 500-pound bombs. Fifty years later, the building stands.
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
reported that one of his Navajo Indian code-talkers had been mistaken for a Japanese and shot. A derelict, blackened LVT drifted ashore, filled with dead Marines. At the bottom of the pile was one who was still breathing, somehow, after two and a half days of unrelenting hell. "Water," he gasped, "Pour some water on my face, will you?"
Smith, Edson, and Shoup were near exhaustion themselves. Relatively speaking, the third day on Betio had been one of spectacular gains, but progress overall was maddeningly slow, nor was the end yet in sight. At 1600, General Smith sent this pessimistic report to General Hermle, who had taken his place on the flagship:
Situation not favorable for rapid clean-up of Betio. Heavy casualties among officers make leadership problems difficult. Still strong resistance . . . . Many emplacements intact on eastern end of the island . . . . In addition, many Japanese strong points to westward of our front lines within our position that have not been reduced. Progress slow and extremely costly. Complete occupation will take at least 5 days more. Naval and air bombardment a great help but does not take out emplacements.
General Smith assumed command of operations ashore at 1930. By that time he had about 7,000 Marines ashore, struggling against perhaps 1,000 Japanese defenders. Updated aerial photographs revealed many defensive positions still intact throughout much of Betio's eastern tail. Smith and Edson believed they would need the entire 6th Marines to complete the job. When Colonel Holmes landed with the 6th Marines headquarters group, Smith told him to take command of his three landing teams by 2100. Smith then called a meeting of his commanders to assign orders for D+3.
Smith directed Holmes to have McLeod's 3/6 pass through the lines of Jones' 1/6 in order to have a fresh battalion lead the assault eastward. Murray's 2/6 would land on Green
Beach and proceed east in support of McLeod. All available tanks would be assigned to McLeod (when Major Jones protested that he had promised to return the two Shermans loaned by Major Ryan, Shoup told him "with crisp expletives" what he could do with his promise). Shoup's 2d Marines, with 1/8 still attached, would continue to reduce the re-entrant strongpoints. The balance of the 8th Marines would be shuttled to Bairiki. And the 4th Battalion, 10th Marines would land its "heavy" 105mm guns on Green Beach to augment the fires of the two pack howitzer battalions already in action. Many of these plans were overcome by events of the evening.
The major catalyst that altered Smith's plans was a series of vicious Japanese counterattacks during the night of D+2/D+3. As Edson put it, the Japanese obligingly "gave us very able assistance by trying to counterattack." The end result was a dramatic change in the combat ratio between attackers and survivors the next day.
Major Jones sensed his exposed forces would be the likely target for any Banzai attack and took precautions. Gathering his artillery forward observers and naval fire control spotters, Jones arranged for field artillery support starting 75 yards from his front lines to a point 500 yards out, where naval gunfire would take over. He placed Company A on the left, next to the airstrip, and Company B on the right, next to the south shore. He worried about the 150-yard gap across the runway to Company C, but that could not be helped. Jones used a tank to bring a stockpile of grenades, small arms ammunition, and water to be positioned 50 yards behind the lines.
The first counterattack came at 1930. A force of 50 Japanese infiltrated past Jones' outposts in the thick
Attack of the 2nd BN, 8th Marines
Destruction along the eastern end of Red Beach Three leads toward the long pier in the distant background. Japanese gunners maintained a deadly antiboat fire in this direction, as witnessed by these two wrecked LVTs and the various sunken craft.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 63640
vegetation and penetrated the border between the two companies south of the airstrip. Jones' reserve force, comprised of "my mortar platoon and my headquarters cooks and bakers and admin people," contained the penetration and killed the enemy in two hours of close-in fighting under the leadership of First Lieutenant Lyle "Spook" Specht. An intense fire from the pack howitzers of 1/10 and 2/10 prevented the Japanese from reinforcing the penetration. By 2130 the lines were stabilized. Jones asked Major Kyle for a company to be positioned 100 yards to the rear of his lines. The best Kyle could provide was a composite force of 40 troops from the 2d Marines.
The Japanese struck Jones' lines again at 2300. One force made a noisy demonstration across from Company As lines--taunting, clinking canteens against their helmets, yelling Banzai!--while a second force attacked Company B with a silent rush. The Marines repulsed this attack, too, but were forced to use their machine guns, thereby revealing their positions. Jones asked McLeod for a full company from 3/6 to reinforce the 2d Marines to the rear of the fighting.
A third attack came at 0300 in the morning when the Japanese moved several 7.7mm machine guns into nearby wrecked trucks and opened fire on the Marine automatic weapons positions. Marine NCOs volunteered to crawl forward against this oncoming fire and lob grenades into the improvised machine gun nests. This did the job, and the battlefield grew silent again. Jones called for star shell illumination from the destroyers in the lagoon.
At 0400, a force of some 300 Japanese launched a frenzied attack against the same two companies. The Marines met them with every available weapon. Artillery fire from 10th Marines howitzers on Red Beach Two and Bairiki Island rained a murderous crossfire. Two destroyers in the lagoon, Schroeder (DD 501) and Sigsbee (DD 502), opened up on the flanks. The wave of screaming attackers took hideous casualties but kept coming. Pockets of men locked together in bloody hand-to-hand fighting. Private Jack Stambaugh of B Company killed three screaming Japanese with his bayonet an officer impaled him with his samurai sword another Marine brained the officer with a rifle butt. First Lieutenant Norman K. Thomas, acting commander of Company B, reached Major Jones on the field phone, exclaiming "We're killing them as fast as they come at us, but we can't hold out much longer we need reinforcements!" Jones' reply was tough, "We haven't got them you've got to hold!"
Jones' Marines lost 40 dead and 100 wounded in the wild fighting, but hold they did. In an hour it was all over. The supporting arms never stopped shooting down the Japanese, attacking or retreating. Both destroy-
Marines use newly arrived jeeps to carry machine gun ammunition, demolitions, and other ordnance forward from the beach to troops fighting in the front lines.
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
Situation 1800 D+2
ers emptied their magazines of 5-inch shells. The 1st Battalion, 10th Marines fired 1,300 rounds that long night, many shells being unloaded over the pier while the fire missions were underway. At first light, the Marines counted 200 dead Japanese within 50 yards of their lines, plus an additional 125 bodies beyond that range, badly mangled by artillery or naval gunfire. Other bodies lay scattered throughout the Marine lines. Major Jones had to blink back tears of pride and grief as he walked his lines that dawn. Several of his Marines grabbed his arm and muttered, "They told us we had to hold, and by God, we held."
Completing the Task:23-28 November 1943
"This was not only worse than Guadalcanal," admitted Lieutenant Colonel Carlson, "It was the damnedest fight I've seen in 30 years of this business."
The costly counterattacks during the night of 22-23 November effectively broke the back of the Japanese defense. Had they remained in their bunkers until the bitter end, the defenders probably would have exacted a higher toll in American lives. Facing inevitable defeat in detail, however, nearly 600 Japanese chose to die by taking the offensive during the night action.
The 2d Marine Division still had five more hours of hard fighting on Betio the morning of D+3 before the island could be conquered. Late in the morning, General Smith sent this report to Admiral Hill on Maryland:
Decisive defeat of enemy counterattack last night destroyed bulk of hostile resistance. Expect complete annihilation of enemy on Betio this date. Strongly recommend that you and your chief of staff come ashore this date to get information about the type of hostile resistance which will be encountered in future operations.
Meanwhile, following a systematic preliminary bombardment, the fresh troops of McLeod's LT 3/6 passed through Jones' lines and commenced their attack to the east. By now, Marine assault tactics were well refined. Led by tanks and combat engineers with flamethrowers and high explosives, the troops of 3/6 made rapid progress. Only one bunker, a well-armed complex along the north shore, provided effective opposition.
"Tarawa No. 11," a sketch by combat artist Kerr Eby, reflects the difficulty in landing reinforcements over the long pier throughout the battle. As Gen Julian Smith personally learned, landing across Green Beach took longer but was much safer.
U.S. Navy Combat Art Collection
McLeod took advantage of the heavy brush along the south shore to bypass the obstacle, leaving one rifle company to encircle and eventually overrun it. Momentum was maintained the remaining Japanese seemed dispirited. By 1300, McLeod reached the eastern tip of Betio, having inflicted more than 450 Japanese casualties at the loss of 34 of his Marines. McLeod's report summarized the general collapse of the Japanese defensive system in the eastern zone following the counterattacks: "At no time was there any determined defensive . . . . We used flamethrowers and could have used more. Medium tanks were excellent. My light tanks didn't fire a shot."
The toughest fight of the fourth day occurred on the Red Beach One/Two border where Colonel Shoup directed the combined forces of Hays' 1/8 and Schoettel's 3/2 against the "re-entrant" strongpoints. The Japanese defenders in these positions were clearly the most disciplined--and the deadliest--on the island. From these bunkers, Japanese antiboat gunners had thoroughly disrupted the landings of four different battalions, and they had very nearly killed General Smith the day before. The seaward approaches to these strongpoints were
Marines fire a M-1919A4 machine gun from an improvised "shelter" in the battlefield.
Department of Defense Photo 63495
A Marine throws a hand grenade during the battle for the interior of the island.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 63455
littered with wrecked LVTs and bloated bodies.
Major Hays finally got some flamethrowers (from Crowe's engineers when LT 2/8 was ordered to stand down), and the attack of 1/8 from the east made steady, if painstaking, progress. Major Schoettel, anxious to atone for what some perceived to be a lackluster effort on D-Day, pressed the assault of 3/2 from the west and south. To complete the circle, Shoup ordered a platoon of infantry and a pair of 75mm halftracks out to the reef to keep the defenders pinned down from the lagoon. Some of the Japanese committed hara-kari the remainder, exhausted, fought to the end. Hays' Marines had been attacking this complex ever since their bloody landing on the morning of D+1. In those 48 hours, 1/8 fired 54,450 rounds of .30-caliber rifle ammunition. But the real damage was done by the special weapons of the engineers and the direct fire of the halftracks. Capture of the largest position, a concrete pillbox near the beach, enabled easier approaches to the remaining bunkers. By 1300, it was all over.
At high noon, while the fighting in both sectors was still underway, a Navy fighter plane landed on Betio's airstrip, weaving around the Seabee trucks and graders. Nearby Marines swarmed over the plane to shake the pilot's hand. A PB2Y also landed to take out press reports and the haggard observers, including Evans Carlson and Walter Jordan.
Admiral Hill and his staff came ashore at 1245. The naval officers marveled at the great strength of the Japanese bunker system, realizing immediately the need to reconsider their preliminary bombardment policies.
Attack of the 1st BN, 8th Marines
3d BN, 2d Marines
Incident on D+3
The Marines stared numbly at the desolation that surrounded them. Lieutenant Colonel Russell Lloyd, executive officer of the 6th Marines, took a minute to scratch out a hasty note to his wife, saying "I'm on Tarawa in the midst of the worst destruction I've ever seen." Chaplain Willard walked along Red Beach One, finally clear of enemy pillboxes. "Along the shore," he wrote, "I counted the bodies of 76 Marines staring up at me, half in, half out of the water." Robert Sherrod also took the opportunity to walk about the island. "What I saw on Betio was, I am certain, one of the greatest works of devastation wrought by man." Sherrod whistled at the proliferation of heavy machine guns and 77mm antiboat guns along the northwest shore. As he described one scene:
Amtrack Number 4-8 is jammed against the seawall barricade. Three waterlogged Marines lie beneath it. Four others are scattered nearby, and there is one hanging on a two-foot high strand of barbed wire who does not touch the coral flat at all. Back of the 77mm gun are many hundreds of rounds of 77mm ammunition.
Other Japanese forces in the Gilberts exacted a high toll among the invasion force. Six Japanese submarines reached the area during D+2. One of these, the I-175, torpedoed the escort carrier Liscome Bay just before sunrise on 24 November off Makin. The explosion was terrific--Admiral Hill saw the flash at Tarawa, 93 miles away--and the ship sank quickly, taking 644 souls to the bottom.
The Marines on Betio conducted a joint flag-raising ceremony later that same morning. Two of the few surviving palm trees were selected as poles, but the Marines were hard put to find a British flag. Finally, Major Holland, the New Zealand officer who had proved so prophetic about the tides at Tarawa, produced a Union Jack. A field musician played the appropriate bugle calls Marines all over the small island stood and saluted. Each could reckon the cost.
At this time came the good news from Captain James Jones (brother to Major "Willie K" Jones) at Apamama. Jones' V Amphibious Corps Reconnaissance Company had landed by rubber rafts from the transport submarine Nautilus during the night of 20-21 November. The small Japanese garrison at first kept the scouts at bay. The Nautilus then surfaced and bombarded the Japanese positions with deck guns. This killed some of the defenders the remainder committed hara-kiri. The island was deemed secure by the 24th. General Julian Smith sent General Hermle and McLeod's LT 3/6 to take command of Apamama until base defense forces could arrive.
General Smith kept his promise to his assault troops at Tarawa. Amphibious transports entered the lagoon on 24 November and backloaded Combat Teams 2 and 8. To Lieutenant Lillibridge, going back on board ship after Betio was like going to heaven. "The Navy personnel were unbelievably generous and kind . . . . we were treated to a full-scale tur-
One of the few Japanese prisoners taken on Betio this man was captured late in the battle.
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
Navy Seabees managed to get their first bulldozer ashore on D-Day. With it, and the ones that followed, the Seabees built artillery revetments, smothered enemy positions, dug mass graves, and rebuilt the damaged runway--all while under fire.
Marine Corps Personal Papers, LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
key dinner . . . . The Navy officers helped serve the food." But Lillibridge, like many other surviving troop leaders, suffered from postcombat trauma. The lieutenant had lost over half the members of his platoon, and he was consumed with guilt.
With the 2d Marines and 8th Marines off to Hawaii, McLeod's 3/6 enroute to Apamama, and Murray's 2/6 beginning its long trek through the other islands of the Tarawa Atoll, Major Jones' 1/6 became the last infantry unit on Betio. Its work was tedious: burying the dead, flushing out die-hard snipers, hosting visiting dignitaries.
The first of these was Major General Holland Smith. The V Amphibious Corps Commander flew to Betio on 24 November and spent an emotional afternoon viewing the carnage with Julian Smith. "Howling Mad" Smith was shaken by the experience. In his words: "The sight of our dead floating in the waters of the lagoon and lying along the bloodsoaked beaches is one I will never forget. Over the pitted, blasted island hung a miasma of coral dust and death, nauseating and horrifying."
Major Jones recalled that Holland Smith had tears in his eyes as he walked through the ruins. Robert Sherrod also accompanied the generals. They came upon one sight that moved all of them to tears. It was a dead Marine, leaning forward against the seawall, "one arm still supported upright by the weight of his body. On top of the seawall, just beyond his upraised hand, lies a blue and white flag, a beach marker to tell succeeding waves where to land." Holland Smith cleared his throat and said, "How can men like that ever be defeated?"
Company D, 2d Tank Battalion, was designated as the scout company for the 2d Marine Division for the Tarawa operation. Small elements of these scouts landed on Eita and Buota Islands while the fighting on Betio still raged, discovering and shadowing a sizeable Japanese force. On 23 November, Lieutenant Colonel Manley Curry's 3d Battalion, 10th Marines, landed on Eita. The battalion's pack howitzers were initially intended to augment fires on Betio when that island finally fell, the artillerymen turned their guns to support the 2d Battalion, 6th Marines, in clearing the rest of the islands in the atoll.
Lieutenant Colonel Murray's LT 2/6 boarded boats from Betio at 0500 on 24 November and landed on Buota. Murray set a fierce pace, the Marines frequently wading across the sandspits that joined the succeeding islands. Soon he was out of range of Curry's guns on Eita. Curry detached Battery G to follow Murray in trace. The Marines learned from friendly natives that a Japanese force of about 175 naval infantry was ahead on the larger island of Buariki, near the northwest point of the atoll. Murray's lead elements caught up with the ene-
"Ebb Tide -Tarawa," a sketch by Kerr Eby, evokes the tragic view of the beachhead.
U.S. Navy Combat Art Collection
my at dusk on 26 November. There was a sharp exchange of fire in very thick vegetation before both sides broke contact. Murray positioned his forces for an all-out assault in the morning.
The battle of Buariki on 27 November was the last engagement in the Gilberts, and it was just as deadly as each preceding encounter with the Special Naval Landing Forces. Murray attacked the Japanese defensive positions at first light, getting one salvo of supporting fire from Battery G before the lines become too intermingled in the extended melee. Here the fighting was similar to Guadalcanal: much hand-to-hand brawling in tangled underbrush. The Japanese had no elaborate defenses as on Betio, but the Imperial sea soldiers took advantage of cover and concealment, made every shot count, and fought to the last man. All 175 were slain. Murray's victory was dearly bought: 32 officers and men killed, 59 others wounded. The following day, the Marines crossed to the last remaining islet. There were no more Japanese to be found. On 28 November, Julian Smith announced "remaining enemy forces on Tarawa wiped out."
Admirals Nimitz and Spruance came to Betio just before Julian Smith's announcement. Nimitz quickly saw that the basic Japanese defenses were still intact. He directed his staff to diagnose the exact construction methods used within a month an identical set of bunkers and pillboxes was being built on the naval bombardment island of Kahoolawe in the Hawaiian Islands.
Admiral Nimitz paused to present the first of many combat awards to Marines of the 2d Marine Division. In time, other recognition followed. The entire division was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. Colonel David Monroe Shoup received the Medal of Honor. Major "Jim" Crowe and his executive officer, Major Bill Chamberlin, received the Navy Cross. So did Lieutenant Colonel Herb Amey (posthumously), Major Mike Ryan, and Corporal John Spillane, the LVT crewchief and prospective baseball star who caught the Japanese hand grenades in mid-air on D-Day before his luck ran out.
Some of the senior officers in the division were jealous of Shoup's Medal of Honor, but Julian Smith knew full well whose strong shoulders had borne the critical first 36 hours of the assault. Shoup was philosophical. As he recorded in his combat notebook, "With God and the U.S. Navy in direct support of the 2d MarDiv there was never any doubt that we would get Betio. For several hours, however, there was considerable haggling over the exact price we were to pay for it."
MajGen Julian C. Smith, wearing helmet liner at center, describes the nature of the recently completed conquest of Betio to Adm Chester Nimitz, facing camera, and Army LtGen Robert Richardson during their visit to the island on 27 November 1943. An exhausted Col Edson looks on at right. While they talked, the smell of death pervaded over the island.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 65437
The Significance of Tarawa
The costs of the forcible seizure of Tarawa were two-fold: the loss of Marines in the assault itself, followed by the shock and despair of the nation upon hearing the reports of the battle. The gains at first seemed small in return, the "stinking little island" of Betio, 8,000 miles from Tokyo. In time, the practical lessons learned in the complex art of amphibious assault began to outweigh the initial adverse publicity.
The final casualty figures for the 2d Marine Division in Operation G ALVANIC were 997 Marines and 30 sailors (organic medical personnel) dead 88 Marines missing and presumed dead and 2,233 Marines and 59 sailors wounded. Total casualties: 3,407. The Guadalcanal campaign had cost a comparable amount of Marine casualties over six months Tarawa's losses occurred in a period of 76 hours. Moreover, the ratio of killed to wounded at Tarawa was significantly high, reflecting the savagery of the fighting. The overall proportion of casualties among those Marines engaged in the assault was about 19 percent, a steep but "acceptable" price. But some battalions suffered much higher losses. The 2d Amphibian Tractor Battalion lost over half the command. The battalion also lost all but 35 of the 125 LVT's employed at Betio.
Lurid headlines--"The Bloody Beaches of Tarawa"--alarmed American newspaper readers. Part of this was the Marines' own doing. Many of the combat correspondents invited along for Operation G ALVANIC had shared the very worst of the hell of Betio the first 36 hours, and they simply reported what they observed. Such was the case of Marine Corps Master Technical Sergeant James C. Lucas, whose accounts of the fighting received front-page coverage in both The Washington Post and The New York Times on 4 December 1943. Colonel Shoup was furious with Lucas for years thereafter, but it was the headline writers for both papers who did the most damage (The Times: "Grim Tarawa Defense a Surprise, Eyewitness of Battle Reveals Marines Went in Chuckling, To Find Swift Death Instead of Easy Conquest.").
Nor did extemporaneous remarks to the media by some of the senior Marines involved in Operation G ALVANIC help soothe public concerns. Holland Smith likened the D-Day assault to Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. "Red Mike" Edson said the assault force "paid the stiffest price in human life per square yard" at Tarawa than any other engagement in Marine Corps history. Evans Carlson talked graphically of seeing 100 of Hays men gunned down in the water in five minutes on D+1, a considerable exaggeration. It did not help matters when Headquarters Marine Corps waited until 10 days after the battle to release casualty lists.
The atmosphere in both Washington and Pearl Harbor was particularly tense during this period. General MacArthur, still bitter that the 2d Marine Division had been taken from his Southwest Pacific Command, wrote the Secretary of War complaining that "these frontal attacks by the Navy, as at Tarawa, are a tragic and unnecessary massacre of American lives." A woman wrote Admiral Nimitz accusing him of "murdering my son." Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox called a press conference in which he blamed "a sudden shift in the wind" for exposing the reef and preventing reinforcements from landing. Congress proposed a special investigation. The Marines were fortunate to have General Alexander A. Vandegrift in
A Marine combat correspondent assigned to the Tarawa operation interviews a Marine from the 18th Engineers, 2d Marine Division, during the course of the fighting.
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection
defended position by an intense but limited naval bombardment, and by not sending in the assault forces soon enough after the shelling." Major Schoettel, recalling the pounding his battalion had received from emplacements within the seawall, recommended direct fire against the face of the beach by 40mm guns from close-in destroyers. The hasty, saturation fires, deemed sufficient by planners in view of the requirement for strategic surprise, proved essentially useless. Amphibious assaults against fortified atolls would most of all need sustained, deliberate, aimed fire.
While no one questioned the bravery of the aviators who supported the Betio assault, many questioned whether they were armed and trained adequately for such a difficult target. The need for closer integration of all supporting arms was evident.
Communications throughout the Betio assault were awful. Only the ingenuity of a few radio operators and the bravery of individual runners kept the assault reasonably coherent. The Marines needed waterproof radios. The Navy needed a dedicated amphibious command ship, not a major combatant whose big guns would knock out the radio nets with each salvo. Such command ships, the AGCs, began to appear during the Marshalls campaign.
Other revisions to amphibious doctrine were immediately indicated. The nature and priority of unloading supplies should henceforth become the call of the tactical commander ashore, not the amphibious task force commander.
Betio showed the critical need for underwater swimmers who could stealthily assess and report reef, beach, and surf conditions to the task force before the landing. This concept, first envisioned by amphibious warfare prophet Major Earl "Pete" Ellis in the 1920s, came quickly to fruition. Admiral Turner had a fledgling Underwater Demolition Team on hand for the Marshalls.
The Marines believed that, with proper combined arms training, the new medium tanks would be valuable assets. Future tank training would emphasize integrated tank, infantry, engineer, and artillery operations. Tank-infantry communications needed immediate improvement. Most casualties among tank commanders at Betio resulted from the individuals having to dismount from their vehicles to talk with the infantry in the open.
The backpack flamethrower won universal acclaim from the Marines on Betio. Each battalion commander recommended increases in quantity, range, and mobility for these assault weapons. Some suggested that larger versions be mounted on tanks and LVTs, presaging the appearance of "Zippo Tanks" in later campaigns in the Pacific.
Julian Smith rather humbly summed up the lessons learned at Tarawa by commenting, "We made fewer mistakes than the Japs did."
Military historians Jeter A. Isely and Philip A. Crowl used different words of assessment: "The capture of Tarawa, in spite of defects in execution, conclusively demonstrated that American amphibious doctrine was valid, that even the strongest island fortress could be seized."
The subsequent landings in the Marshalls employed this doctrine, as modified by the Tarawa experience, to achieve objectives against similar targets with fewer casualties and in less time. The benefits of Operation G ALVANIC quickly began to outweigh the steep initial costs.
In time, Tarawa became a symbol of raw courage and sacrifice on the part of attackers and defenders alike. Ten years after the battle, General Julian Smith paid homage to both sides in an essay in Naval Institute Proceedings. He saluted the heroism of the Japanese who chose to die almost to the last man. Then he turned to his beloved 2d Marine Division and their shipmates in Task Force 53 at Betio:
For the officers and men, Marines and sailors, who crossed that reef, either as assault troops, or carrying supplies, or evacuating wounded I can only say that I shall forever think of them with a feeling of reverence and the greatest respect.
Themes underlying the enduring legacy of Tarawa are: the tide that failed tactical assault vehicles that succeeded a high cost in men and material which in the end spelled out victory in the Central Pacific and a road that led to Tokyo.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 63843
Much of this history is based on first-hand accounts as recorded by the surviving participants. One rich source is contained in the USMC archives maintained by the Washington National Records Group in Suitland, Maryland. Of special value are the 2d Marine Divisions Operations Order 14 (250ct43) and Special Action Report (6Jan44). Other useful documents in the archives include the combat reports of 2d Tank Battalion and 2d Amphibian Tractor Battalion the Division D-3 Journal for 20-24Nov43 the D-2 POW Interrogation Reports "comments on equipment and procedures" by the battalion commanders and the exhaustive intelligence report, "Study of Japanese Defenses on Betio Island" (20Dec43). The Marine Corps Historical Center's Personal Papers Collection contains Colonel Shoup's combat notebook, as well as his after-action report, comments during the Pearl Harbor conference on LVTs, comments on draft histories in 1947 and 1963, and his remarks for the record at various anniversaries of the battle. A lengthy account of the Betio assault is found in the transcript of Colonel Merritt Edson's briefing to the staff officers of the Marine Corps Schools after the battle (6Jan44). The Personal Papers Collection also includes worthwhile Tarawa accounts by General Julian C. Smith, 2dLt George D. Lillibridge, 1stLt Frank Plant, and LtCol Russell Lloyd, used herein.
Other useful Tarawa information can be gleaned from the MCHC's Oral History Collection, which contains recollections by such participants as General Smith Eugene Boardman Major Henry P Crowe Staff Sergeant Norman Hatch Brigadier General Leo Hermle Admiral Harry Hill, USN Captain Carl Hoffman Major Wood Kyle Major William K. Jones and Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray. Other contemporary accounts include newspaper essays written by war correspondents on the scene, such as Robert Sherrod, Richard Johnston, Keith Wheeler, and Earl Wilson.
The author also benefitted from direct correspondence with four retired Marines who served with valor at Tarawa: Lieutenant General William K. Jones Major General Michael P Ryan Sergeant Major Lewis J. Michelony, Jr. and Master Sergeant Edward J. Moore. Further, the author gratefully acknowledges the donation of two rare photographs of the Japanese garrison on Betio by the 2d Marine Division Association.
About the Author
Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret), served 29 years on active duty as an assault amphibian officer, including two tours in Vietnam. He earned an undergraduate degree in history from the University of North Carolina and masters' degrees in history and government from Georgetown and Jacksonville. He is a distinguished graduate of the Naval War College, a member of the Society for Military History, and a life member of the Marine Corps Historical Foundation. Colonel Alexander, an independent historian, is the author of military essays published in Marine Corps Gazette, Naval Institute Proceedings, Naval History, Leatherneck, Amphibious Warfare Review, and Florida Historical Quarterly. He is co-author (with Lieutenant Colonel Merrill L. Bartlett) of "Sea Soldiers in the Cold War" (Naval Institute Press, accepted).
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