Operation Galvanic (1): The Battle for Tarawa November 1943
The battle for Tarawa came almost two years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7th December 1941. It is a wonder that the attack was such a surprise as the United States had been planning and carrying out exercises in accordance with its 'Plan Orange' which recognised that Japan was, in reality, the only country that could launch an attack on the United States and its bases around the Pacific of such magnitude as to seriously threaten the United States' position in the region. The attack brought the United States into World War Two, but inflicted substantial damage on the US Pacific Fleet. The first year of the war was, for the most part, a catalogue of disasters for the Allies as the Japanese attacked and occupied huge portions of the Southwest Pacific and Southeast Asia including the Philippines, Singapore, Guam, Wake Island, Burma, the Dutch East Indies and much of New Guinea. However, as 1942 progressed, the tide started to turn in the Allies favour with the Battle of the Coral Sea (losses were even but the battle forced the Japanese task force bound for Port Moresby to turn back), the Battle for Midway and the conquest of Guadalcanal (in early 1943). The stage was set for the start of the Allied fight back in the Pacific.
The Casablanca Conference reaffirmed the Allies' 'Germany first' strategy but it also decided to step up offensive operations in the Pacific. General MacArthur and Admirals King and Nimitz favoured different options: the former wanting a north to south strategy, advancing towards Japan in a gentle curve through New Guinea and the Philippines, the latter favouring an 'island hopping' campaign in the Central Pacific, focusing on island groups such as the Solomon Islands, Gilbert Islands and Marshall Islands. As it happened, both received tacit approval from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and so Nimitz, with the help of Admiral Spruance, began planning for an amphibious assault in the November of that year on the outer defence ring that Japan had built using a number of the atolls and islands that had been acquired after the First World War and captured in their operations earlier in the war. These included the Palau Islands in the west, the Marianas, the Carolines and the Marshalls in the east. An assault on Makin Island in August 1942 by a Marine Raider battalion had alerted the Japanese to the vulnerability of the Gilbert Islands and so they reinforced the garrison and started construction of an airfield on the island of Betio, part of the Tarawa atoll, in September 1942.
Tarawa lay some 2,500 miles (4,000km) southwest of Hawaii and 1,300 miles (2,100km) southeast of Truk (the principal Naval base in the outer ring of defences) in the Carolines. Tarawa was in an important position vis-à-vis the Allied lines of communication to Australia and New Zealand from the USA and as most of the operations in late 1942 and early 1943 had been conducted with a view to rolling back the Japanese from their forward positions that threatened Australia, it was logical that an island in the Gilberts be attacked, as this was to be the Marines' first major amphibious assault. Also, the Marshall islands were believed to have strong defences with a large garrison and were relatively close to Truk. Additionally, the United States was still in the process of rebuilding the Pacific Fleet after Pearl Harbor and the Marines would have to rely on older and less capable equipment for support. At a conference in Hawaii in September 1943, the decision was taken to attack Tarawa, Makin (Operation Kourbash) and the small island of Apamama (Operation Boxcloth) in an operation, the overall codename of which was Galvanic.
In planning the attack on Tarawa, Nimitz urged Spruance to attack Tarawa, occupy it and to withdraw again as quickly as possible, fearing a major Japanese naval retaliation against this, the first major US amphibious assault. Spruance in turn had emphasised speed on the 2nd Marine Division commander, Major General Julian C Smith. Fortunately, a series of US attacks in the Solomon Islands had caused the Japanese to divert forces to counter what they perceived to be a developing threat to their major base at Rabaul, which included naval assets from the Marshall Islands. The Gilbert Islands had been a British protectorate since 1915, and the Marines could draw upon the knowledge of a number of British, Australian and New Zealand expatriates, despite the maps of the area dating from the turn of the century, and the USS Nautilus having surveyed the area and taken photographs.
Betio Island is surrounded by a reef that extends to a maximum of 1,200 yards out to sea. The first three waves of Marines would be carried in amtracs and so the depth of water would be irrelevant, but the following waves would be carried by Higgins Boats (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel - LCVP), which drew three to four feet of water when fully laden. Opinions among the expatriates varied as to whether the landing craft would make it across the reef, but there was one consistently dissenting voice - that of Major Frank Holland who had lived in the Gilberts for fifteen years and made a study of the tidal patterns around the islands. He was extremely worried when he heard that the Marines were going to attack on the 20th November. He knew there would be 'dodging' tides at that point, and it was likely that the second wave of Higgins Boats would ground, stranding the Marines.
Julian Smith had intended to attack with two regiments abreast and one in reserve but Holland M Smith (V Amphibious Corps commander) decided that the 6th Marines would be held as a corps reserve. This meant that the Marines would be attacking with a force ratio of 2:1, significantly less than desired minimum. On top of this, Nimitz declared that the pre-invasion bombardment would be limited to three hours to achieve strategic surprise. In view of this, it was decided that the 2nd Marine Division would attack from the lagoon side of the island where the defences were marginally less formidable and offered calmer waters for the amphibious assault craft. The Marines would disembark the transports west of the atoll and the landing craft move to a rendezvous area just before the entrance in the western reef and move in waves to the line of departure about 7,000 yards (6.37km) inside the lagoon from where the assault waves would be unleashed towards the beaches 6,000 yards (5.46km) away. The three beaches were designated Red 1, 2 and 3 (west to east). The 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines (3/2) under Major John Schoettel would land on Red 1; 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines (2/2) under Lt Colonel Herbert Amey would attack Red 2; and 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (2/8) under Major Henry Crowe would assault Red 3.
The US Marine Corps has a long history going back to the American War of Independence but by 1943 had only a relatively small amount of experience in conducting amphibious assaults. The techniques and logistic support strategy had been developed during the inter-war years but had only been moderately tested in the recent battles on New Britain, New Guinea and Guadalcanal. At Tarawa, the Marines would be assaulting a heavily defended objective, and the result would determine the future of the Navy's 'island-hopping' strategy. The Gilbert Islands were an essential jumping off point for operations against Japanese bases in the Marshall Islands and the experience gained would be valuable for future assaults.
The force selected for the task of capturing Tarawa was the US 2nd Marine Division, that had fought alongside the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal and had been transported back to Wellington, New Zealand for rest and refit in March 1943. The division was made up of five regiments, three of which were infantry (2nd, 6th and 8th), an artillery regiment (10th) and a Combat Support regiment (18th) with combat engineers, pioneers and Seabees (from CB - construction battalion). A Marine infantry regiment (approximately 3,500 men) had three rifle battalions, each having a Headquarters company, three rifle and one heavy weapons companies (that were identified alphabetically). A rifle company had three rifle platoons (of forty men in three twelve-man squads and a four-man Headquarters) and one heavy weapons platoon while the heavy weapons company had three 0.30in (7.6mm) machine gun platoons (six guns each) and a 3.2in (81mm) mortar platoon with six mortars. The artillery regiment had three, twelve-gun 3in (75mm) pack howitzer battalions, one 4in (105mm) medium howitzer battalion and one 6in (155mm) howitzer battalion. The division also had other integral assets such as a tank battalion of three companies, each of three platoons; a medical battalion; and an amphibian tractor battalion (the first to use the improved LVT-2 tractor), which had become known as the amtrac. The vehicle was originally intended to serve as a rescue vehicle in the Florida Everglades but was ordered by the US Navy to transport supplies from ship to shore and was eventually adapted to serve as an assault vehicle.
The US Navy would transport the Marines to the objective and Task Force 54 was divided into two groups: the Northern Attack Force (Task Force 52) under Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, which was to assault Makin and the Southern Attack Force (Task Force 53) under Rear Admiral Harry Hill, which was to seize Tarawa. Hill's task force was made up of Transport Group 4 with thirteen transports - Zeilen, Haywood, Middleton, Biddle, Lee, Monrovia, Sheridan, LaSalle, Doyen, Harris, Bell, Ormsby and Feland as well as three cargo ships, Thuben, Bellatrix and Virgo. The fire support group was under the command of Rear Admiral H F Kingman and consisted of the battleships Tennessee, Maryland and Colorado; the heavy cruisers Portland and Indianapolis; the light cruisers Mobile, Birmingham and Santa Fe; and the destroyers Bailey, Fraser, Gansevoort, Meade, Anderson, Russell, Ringgold, Dashiell and Schroeder. The three battleships had been salvaged from the destruction of Pearl Harbor, and while they were too slow for the faster task forces now roaming the Pacific, they were ideal for providing offshore support with their 16in (406mm) and 14in (356mm) guns. Finally, three aircraft carriers had been provided to supply air support - Essex, Bunker Hill and Independence under Rear Admiral A E Montgomery. The invasion force sailed to Efate in the New Hebrides from Wellington and conducted last minute rehearsals in Mele Bay. It then refuelled and set sail on the 13th November, rendezvousing with the convoy carrying elements of the US Army's 27th Infantry Division heading for Makin on the 17th.
The battle for Tarawa would herald the first confrontation between United States Marines and soldiers from Japan's Special Naval Landing Force, also known as 'Imperial Marines' (rikusentai). While they could trace their origins back to the beginnings of the Imperial Japanese Navy, they were originally formed as small parties of infantry that were attached to ships. Over time however, they had evolved into large units of highly trained, motivated and specialised amphibious assault troops. On Betio Island, the Japanese had deployed the 3rd Special Base Defence Force (formerly the 6th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF)), the 7th Sasebo SNLF, the 111th Construction Unit and a small group from the 4th Fleet Construction Department - all under the command of Rear Admiral Shibasaki. An astute commander, Shibasaki realised that as soon as a major American force showed up, he and the garrison on Tarawa would be left to their fate. The airfield on Betio took up quite a large area of the island, so Shibasaki concentrated on designing its defences so as to defeat an invader at the water's edge. He relied on both natural defences in the form of the shelf-like reef that surrounded most of the island and man-made ones in the form of the log barricade that surrounded much of the island, as well as concrete gun emplacements, bunkers, pillboxes, trenches, fire pits and machine gun nests. There were four 8in (203mm) naval guns at Temakin Point and near Takorongo Point. For many, many years they were referred to as 'Singapore' guns as it was assumed they were the Vickers guns taken when the Japanese captured Singapore but a United Nations official, William Bartsch, examined the guns in 1974 and made a note of their identification numbers. These were identified with the help of Vickers as being part of an order supplied to Japan in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. All along the coastline were pillboxes, bunkers, machine gun nests, infantry trenches and rifle pits with interlocking fields of fire, many of which were encased in concrete and coral sand which provided resilient protection against shell and bomb hits. There were also multiple lines of barbed wire, tetrahedrons along the waterline and a number of antitank ditches across the island. Most of the defences however were orientated towards the southern shore where Shibasaki expected the American assault to come.
By dawn on the 20th November, the task force had reached Betio and prepared to attack. An air strike by US Air Force B-24 Liberator bombers that was planned to hit the island just before disembarkation never materialised (the first of a number of mistakes that would see the Marines pay dearly for their assault on Tarawa). The Marines began loading at 03.00 and a single red star shell was launched from the middle of the island at 04.41, confirming the Japanese were still there. A Kingfisher spotter plane was launched from the USS Maryland and the Japanese 8in gun at Temakin Point opened fire, just missing the ship. The battleships and cruisers took evasive action and opened fire. The broadsides from Maryland's 16in (406mm) guns caused electrical and communication problems throughout the ship and would impede Admiral Harry Hill's command during the battle. A strong southerly current had caused the troopships to move out of position and some time was taken in moving them to their correct destinations. By this time, Admiral Shibasaki was fully aware that the Americans were attacking from the north and that they would face considerable problems with the coral reef and low tide that morning. When the bombardment stopped, he began to shift men and equipment from the southern shore to the north as sentries had warned of enemy landing craft approaching the opening in the reef that led to the lagoon.
Carrier aircraft struck the island just before 06.00 while the minesweepers Pursuit and Requisite swept the entrance to the lagoon, coming under fire from one of the shore batteries. The destroyers Ringgold and Dashiell entered the lagoon and engaged the enemy. Ringgold was hit by two 5in shells that luckily failed to go off. Pursuit took up station at the line of departure to guide the landing craft through the smoke and the main bombardment started with the battleships and cruisers pounding the island from end to end. While a number of defensive positions were hit and destroyed, most survived intact as the ships were too close and the low trajectory of the shells meant that some bounced off into the sea. By this time dawn was breaking and the temperature started to rise quickly, Tarawa being only 80 miles north of the equator, while the Marines would have to endure water shortages as the drinking water was being carried in former oil drums, some of which had not been cleaned properly.
The landing craft were taking a long time to get ready for the assault and so Admiral Hill decided to put the H-Hour back to 09.00. Admiral Hill ordered the bombardment to stop, as he was worried that the smoke and dust might affect the accuracy of the guns and accidentally hit the landing craft. Julian Smith protested but the Japanese were allowed a precious ten minutes to reorganise themselves to meet the coming assault. The first three waves of amtracs continued on, followed by Higgins Boats. The amtracs failed to ground on the reef but climbed over and kept on coming. The Higgins Boats would not be so lucky as Lt Cdr MacPherson realised in the Kingfisher spotter plane. He dived low and saw that the tide was so low in places that coral was drying in the sun. Unfortunately, Major Holland's warnings had been ignored. The first Americans to land on Betio were Lt William Hawkins and his team of specially trained snipers who were to disembark on a long wooden pier and clear the general area of any Japanese who could fire on the landing craft as they passed by. They accomplished their task and started to make their way towards the beaches.
Red Beach 1: The 3/2 started towards Red Beach 1 and soon came under intense fire from the defenders. As Red Beach was actually a small cove, the fire came from the sides as well as in front. The Japanese had 3in (75mm) and 1.4in (37mm) guns to the east along with a number of machine gun posts. A number of amtracs veered west, coming ashore at the junction of Red Beach 1 and Green Beach, where they encountered a five-foot high seawall. Amtrac No. 49 came ashore first, driven by Pfc Ed Moore. The first wave got off reasonably lightly but the second and third waves suffered badly with Company K being severely mauled by a series of strongpoints and Company I being reduced to fifty percent effective strength. Company L (Major Michael Ryan) had to wade ashore as their Higgins Boats grounded and suffered thirty-five percent casualties.
Red Beach 2: The 2/2 were the last to land and faced a hail of defensive fire from the Japanese defenders. The amtracs that made it to the beach unloaded their Marines, who found shelter behind a log barricade and watched the following Higgins Boats ground on the reef, their Marines jump out and start to wade for the shore. The commander, Lt Colonel Amey was killed as he waded ashore after his amtrac was put out of action. F Company suffered fifty percent casualties as it made it to the log barrier and advanced slightly inland. E Company landed at the junction of Red Beaches 1 and 2 and managed to put one Japanese strongpoint out of action before consolidating their position. G Company took heavy losses before reaching the barrier and attempted to find the location of the strongpoint immediately in front of them in the collection of palm trees and small huts.
Red Beach 3: The destroyers Ringgold and Dashiell provided invaluable support to the 2/8 (Major Henry 'Jim' Crowe) who landed with lighter casualties. E and F Companies landed first (with G to follow up and clear the beach) but were pinned down. A small group with two amtracs managed to advance inland as far as the taxiway on the airfield but were soon outflanked and were in danger of being cut off. On the eastern end of the beachhead, the executive officer, Major Chamberlain made some ground and it appeared that here was the best chance for making any headway. When G Company landed, it was sent to reinforce this flank against any Japanese counterattack.
The regimental commander for the 2nd Marines, Colonel David M Shoup, despite being desperate to get ashore, had had great difficulty in getting to the beach, and when he did finally get there was wounded by shrapnel in the legs. Communications onshore were just as uncertain as they had been on the Maryland and his attempts to use runners met with only partial success (the manpack radios still being unusable due to most of them being submerged in seawater). The commander of the 3rd Battalion, Major Schoettel, had managed to hold back the fourth and fifth waves upon seeing the carnage inflicted on the first three. He managed to contact Shoup by radio and informed him that they were receiving heavy fire all along the beach, they were unable to land (the boats were stuck on the right flank of Red Beach 1) and that the landings were still in doubt. Shoup sent back instructions to land on Red Beach 2 and work their way west. Lt Colonel Jordan also managed to contact Shoup and was told to retain command of the 2nd Battalion (most of whom were huddled behind the seawall). Shoup then ordered the 1st Battalion under Major Wood B Kyle to land on Red Beach 2 and work their way westwards onto Red Beach 1. There was a delay in getting enough amtracs to house the Marines, and once they were under way, the Japanese put up such a concentrated fire that many of the landing craft veered west to the extreme end of Red Beach 1 where they were absorbed by Major Ryan's L Company, 3/2.
As the 6th Marines were not to be committed without V Corps approval, Julian Smith had only the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 8th Marines (1/8 and 3/8) in reserve. He decided to send the 3rd Battalion, under Major Robert Ruud to the line of departure, should Shoup need them. Just before midday, Shoup ordered the 3rd Battalion to land on Red Beach 3, to support Major 'Jim' Crowe. Once again, they had to come ashore the hard way. At this point Major Ruud advised that no more troops be landed, a decision backed by the regimental commander, Colonel Elmer E Hall. This left Julian Smith with a single battalion in reserve, the 1/8 under Major Lawrence Hays. They too were ordered to the line of departure to stand ready. At 13.30 Julian Smith asked permission for the release of the 6th Marines, permission coming at 14.30. He tried to ask Shoup where he wanted Hays to land but his message never got through, neither did the message to Hays to land at the eastern end of Betio and move northwest to link up with Shoup. The 1st Battalion thus spent the rest of D-Day embarked in their landing craft.
On Red Beach 1, Major Ryan found that he had quite a mixture of men under his command, having not only the remains of three rifle companies, but a machine gun platoon, elements of Major Kyle's 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines (1/2) and a large number of amtrac drivers, support weapons teams, engineers, signallers and medics. The Japanese defences on the eastern side of the cove were still intact so Ryan decided that the greatest chance of advancing was to the south along Green Beach. He advised Shoup of his situation and proceeded to expand the beachhead by knocking out some enemy pillboxes. Ryan then consolidated his positions for the night as he only had limited heavy weapons with which to knock out the Japanese positions.
On Red Beaches 2 and 3, the Marines had managed to forge a toehold, but at a high cost. Ruud's I and L Companies were absorbed by 'Jim' Crowe's 2/8 as a composite unit as their losses were so severe. The Marines still received plenty of artillery and air support which prevented Japanese reinforcements moving about freely, but their own artillery support (10th Marines) were badly delayed in coming ashore, as were M4A2 Sherman tanks that had been specially prepared to drive ashore with extensions to the exhausts and air intakes and a tar-like substance waterproofing the chassis below the expected waterline. They were guided in by specially trained reconnaissance platoons that suffered heavy casualties doing their job. Seven tanks made it ashore on Red Beach 3 to support 'Jim' Crowe and his men, while two successfully made it ashore on Red Beach 1 (Chicago and China Gal). Confusion continued to reign at the top of the command chain with the result that Shoup stayed in command on D+1.
The Japanese defenders had put up a stern resistance and had caused the Marines serious casualties and disrupted their assault. Admiral Shibasaki's intensive training had paid off, but a lack of time and manpower had resulted in a defence that was less than for what he had hoped (some 3,000 mines remained unlade for example, as did many tetrahedrons). On the afternoon of D-Day, a sharp-eyed Marine spotted a group of Japanese officers moving in the open and called down a barrage from the destroyers Ringgold and Dashiell who put down a salvo of 5in shells. The entire group, who happened to Admiral Shibasaki and his command staff (who had given up their command bunker so that it could be used as a hospital), were killed. The importance of this incident cannot be overestimated, for if he had lived, it is likely that Shibasaki would have launched a vicious counterattack at night which could have spelled disaster for the Marines who had a precarious beachhead at best.
The American hold on Betio was tenuous, but the death of Admiral Shibasaki meant that the night was fairly uneventful with only a few sporadic contacts. When daylight came, so did the heat, and with it the awful smell coming from the scores of unburied dead bodies that had been washed up on the shore. It would be reinforced as the death toll climbed steadily over the next few days of continued fighting.
The 1/8 under Major Hays were still embarked on their Higgins Boats and having spent almost twenty-four hours without food, drink or amenities they were not impressed with their situation. At about 06.15 they finally received the order to head for Red Beach 2 and when the Higgins Boats again grounded on the reef, the Japanese put up another intense welcoming barrage of fire - nothing had been learned from the previous day. Two Navy lieutenants, John Fletcher and Eddie A Heimberger, became aware that some 150 wounded Marines were stranded on the reef. Working independently, they started to rescue the men and take them back to the tank lighters for transportation to hospital ships. Heimberger had to commandeer an LCVP after his boat was damaged and repeatedly came under fire from a lone Japanese sniper who had swum out to a wrecked LCVP and the Niminoa, an old wreck lying west of the main pier. Heimberger disposed of the sniper and the guns of the Maryland and Colorado were used to reduce the Niminoa to tangled metal. Heimberger continued his task of retrieving the wounded and even collected the regimental surgeon from the 8th Marines to help with the wounded. Heimberger was receive the Navy Cross for his actions and resumed his acting career after the war under his first two names - Eddie Albert.
Fortunately, Colonel Rixey had managed to bring some of his artillery ashore and sent two howitzers to the eastern end of Red Beach 2, where they began pounding the Japanese defences there, easing the landing of the 1/8. By 08.00 Hays could report to Shoup with what remained of his battalion, but a lot of the heavier equipment had been lost in the water. As the day wore on and the tide rose, heavier equipment started to flow into the beachheads, but the Marines could make few inroads into the Japanese defences. The Japanese for their part had used the hours of darkness to consolidate their defensive positions and the Marines who had made it over the western taxiway of the airfield (A and B Companies from Major Kyle's 1/2) now found themselves trapped in a triangle formed by the taxiways and the main runway. After a concentrated sea and air bombardment Shoup sent these Marines to occupy the ground between the airfield and the sea, effectively cutting the garrison in half. They resisted a viscous Japanese counterattack at a high cost and dug in, where they were eventually reinforced by Colonel Jordan and his 2/2. The attempts to break out by 'Jim' Crowe's 2/8 on Red Beach 3 were being frustrated by a complex of pillboxes and a large bombproof shelter, despite killing a large number of the enemy.
On Green Beach, Major Ryan and his assorted force were reinforced by the arrival of China Gal (minus her 3in gun) and another M4A2 Sherman tank, Cecilia. At 10.00 a bombardment of enemy positions all along the beach commenced with the Marines following up. This well co-ordinated attack (for which Ryan would receive the Navy Cross) took the entire beach in a short space of time and so allowed the delayed arrival of the 6th Marines to commence on an uncontested beach. Major William Jones' 1st Battalion, 6th Marines (1/6) started landing but Colonel Raymond Murray's 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines (2/6) were diverted to deal with a number of enemy troops who had moved to the next island in the chain, Bairiki. Ryan was prepared to move eastwards but was told to consolidate his position. By the end of the afternoon on D+1, Shoup was able to give Julian Smith the following assessment of the Marines position on Betio: Ryan and his men held the whole of Green Beach to a depth of 100 - 150 yards; 1/8 (Hays) held Red Beach 2 as far as the strongpoint at the edge of the cove; 3/8 (Ruud) were deployed near the Burns-Philp warf on Red Beach 3; 2/8 had pushed inland to the edge of the main runway; and elements of 1/2 and 2/2 had a 200 yard enclave on the southern shore. At the end of D+1, Colonel Merritt Edson (divisional chief of staff) arrived to take over from Shoup, who continued as his assistant after getting his leg wounds treated.
Edson and Shoup decided to attack on D+2 in three phases. Jones' 1/6 would pass through Ryan's force and attack eastwards along the southern edge of the airfield to link up with the elements holding the southern shoreline. Hays' 1/8 would attack westwards from Red Beach 2 to reduce the stubborn pocket of resistance at the junction of the two beaches. Finally, the 2/8 and 3/8 (under 'Jim' Crowe) would advance eastward from the Burn-Philp wharf. The plan was audacious, particularly as only the 1/6 were fresh, although the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines (3/6) under Lt Colonel Kenneth McLeod were finally allowed to land on Green Beach after being kept at sea by a series of contradictory orders.
The 1/6 attacked at 08.00 with C Company and some light tanks in the lead. Resistance was fairly light and they had reached the southern pocket by mid-afternoon. With support from carrier aircraft, the 1/6 pressed eastwards, clearing a cluster of pillboxes and bunkers. Hays' 1/8 attacked at 07.00 on the formidable stronghold between Red Beaches 1 and 2. They were supported by M3A1 (Stuart) light tanks but had advanced only some 100 yards when they met stiff opposition from a complex of pillboxes made from palm logs and covered with sand who had mutually supporting fields of fire. The Stuart tanks attempted to clear a path but while they met with some success, their 37mm guns did not really have the firepower to do any serious damage. They were replaced with two SPMs (M3 half-tracks with 75mm guns), which were more successful but did not have the armour protection of the tanks and had to be withdrawn. By the end of the day, the pocket had not been cleared and would in fact be the last position on the island to fall.
Major 'Jim' Crowe's force started to push east towards the end of the runway but came up against a major obstacle, that of a steel pillbox, a coconut log machine gun emplacement and a concrete bunker. All three were mutually supporting. The Marines attacked with a mortar barrage, one shell of which landed in an ammunition dump and devastated the machine gun emplacement. A Sherman tank then assaulted the pillbox, which was finished off by engineers with grenades and explosive charges. The bunker held out much longer and it eventually fell to a group of engineers who used demolition charges and flamethrowers to clear it out. With this, Crowe's men advanced rapidly and joined Jones' 1/6 at the end of the runway. The majority of the western two-thirds of the island now lay in American hands. With this the task of clearing up the large number of dead bodies began with Marines being buried in temporary graves while the Japanese dead being put in mass graves or buried at sea.
The Marines settled into defensive positions for the night and were subjected to two counterattacks, the first starting at 19.30 with a small group of around fifty Japanese probing the front of 1/6, a move that developed into a fierce hand-to-hand fight. The other came at 03.00 with a large group of rikusentai attacking 1/6 and the Marines only fighting this off with the support of naval gunfire from the destroyers Schroeder and Sigsbee.
D+3 dawned with McLeod's 3/6 passing through Jones' 1/6 and the remains of the 'banzai' charge. After a preliminary air strike, the 3/6 started its advance along the 'tail' of the island with L Company on the left and I Company on the right, supported by Sherman and Stuart tanks. It was only after 3/6 had passed the anti-tank ditch that ran across nearly the width of the island that they encountered serious resistance. I Company was left with a few tanks to clear the pocket of emplacements, trenches and pillboxes and McLeod continued on with L Company. Only moderate resistance was met and by 13.00, the Marines had reached the far end of Betio. The only other sizeable pocket of resistance was the complex of pillboxes and emplacements at the junction of Red Beaches 1 and 2. 1/8 (Hays) and 3/2 (which was now under the command of Major John F Shoettel) were committed for a final assault with fire support from the half-tracks. The Marines gradually wore the defenders down and by 13.00 the pocket had fallen, enabling Shoup to notify Julian Smith that the island was theirs. Messages confirming this were passed to Harry Hill and Raymond Spruance, as well as Holland Smith and Kelly Turner off Makin. Mopping up operations continued for several days but at noon on 24th November, Julian Smith and Holland Smith witnessed a simple flag raising ceremony where the Stars and Stripes, as well as the Union Jack (the Gilbert Islands were a British possession) were raised. Colonel Raymond Murray's 2/6 hopped from island to island along the rest of the Tarawa atoll and finally fought a decisive engagement with the remaining Japanese on Buariki at which 175 Japanese were killed and the Marines suffered 91 casualties. With no enemy being found on the small island of Na'a, by the 27th November, Tarawa atoll had been secured, as had Makin and Apamama.
The 2nd and 8th Marines were the first to be shipped back to Hawaii, with the 6th Marines staying on as a garrison until early December. Back at CINCPAC Headquarters the review of the operation started immediately as the next major amphibious assault was to be attempted in February 1944, the target of which would be the Marshall Islands and it was vital that lessons be learnt and implemented quickly. The main lessons were:
The Japanese for their part had fought well, but after the death of Admiral Shibasaki, their command structure had began to crumble. They had inflicted serious casualties on the assault force from superbly sited and constructed defensive fortifications and had he lived, Shibasaki would have no doubt subjected the Marines to a vicious counterattack. The image of the Japanese soldier as a myopic, ignorant, buck-toothed midget (as shown in many of the Hollywood war movies after Pearl Harbor) was completely destroyed after Tarawa. The newsreel footage of Marine bodies floating in the lagoon or washed up on the beaches of Betio brought the reality of war to the American public. Despite the errors and omissions, the US Marines had captured the island after 76 hours of some of the most violent and savage fighting of the Pacific War and the battle validated the concept of amphibious assault while providing important lessons for improving the conduct of future operations.
- Communications - the use of warships as communications centres was criticised as the first salvo of 16in guns from the Maryland had seriously disrupted ship-to-shore communications. The manpack radios were also felt to be inadequately waterproofed as many had failed to operate after the Marines had had to wade ashore from the Higgins Boats.
- Amtracs - The amtrac had come into its own on Tarawa as serious casualties had been inflicted in the opening assault to the waves of Marines who were in Higgins Boats that had become stranded on the reef and been forced to wade ashore. Had more amtracs been available, the casualties in the opening assault would have been substantially reduced. After Galvanic, all the major amphibious assaults took place with wave upon wave of amtracs leading the assault.
- Naval bombardment - despite the naval gunfire support being plentiful and sustained, there was criticism in that many pillboxes, bunkers and emplacements had remained undamaged despite the bombardment. The assumption that saturating the Japanese defences would automatically silence them proved to be a myth (as was the assumption in the First World War that larger and more prolonged barrages would destroy the German defences on the Western Front).
- Tides - Almost fifty percent of casualties had been sustained by men wading ashore in waist high water after the Higgins Boats had grounded on the reef. More amtracs would have helped the situation but the decision to stay with a pre-arranged timetable over the warnings of Major Holland had been a major blunder. Admiral Harry Hill recalled a meeting between himself, Holland Smith, Julian Smith, Kelly Turner, Spruance and Nimitz on October 12th where all phases of the battle were discussed in detail and little or no concern for the consequences of a dodging tide was shown.
- Miscellaneous - grievances were also aired about the use of rubber boats, the co-ordination of airstrikes (particularly with regard to the Air Force) and the tainted water supplies.
The casualty figures for both sides are as follows: the US Marine Corps
suffered a total of 3,301 casualties (990 killed). The Japanese garrison of
4,836 was wiped out almost to a man with only 17 Japanese and 129 Korean
labourers being taken prisoner.
Four Medals of Honor, three of them posthumous, were won by Staff Sergeant
William J Bordelon, Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman, 1st Lieutenant William D
Hawkins and Colonel David M Shoup
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Eagle Against The Sun, Spector, Ronald, Cassell Military, London, 2001.
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'Welcome to Marine Corps History' Website, part of the official US Marine Corps Website
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'The Battle for Tarawa - Operation Galvanic'
How to cite this article:
Antill, Peter (22 January 2002), Operation Galvanic (1): The Battle for Tarawa November 1943, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_tarawa.html