SWPA HQ, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia · April 26, 1943

By January 1943, as the six-month campaign for Guadal­canal in the South­west Pacific Solo­mon Islands was winding down (the Japa­nese aban­doned the island on Febru­ary 7), it became clear that the Allies lacked suffi­cient resources to swiftly dis­lodge the Japa­nese from heavily fortified Rabaul, 650 miles to the west. Rabaul, sitting on the northern end of New Britain island, was Japan’s main for­ward oper­ating base for naval and air units in the South­eastern Pacific, having fallen to an inva­sion force of 20,000 men the previous January. Rabaul’s huge bay—actually the cal­dera of a vol­cano—accom­mo­dated dozens of large war­ships and aux­il­iary vessels. Ashore, Japanese con­struc­tion workers even­tually exca­vated 350 miles of tun­nels and caves into the vol­canic soil around the town and installed under­ground bar­racks, clinics, maintenance facilities, and ammunition dumps.

In recog­ni­tion of these develop­ments the Allies announced on this date in 1943 a slower, more deli­ber­ate plan for Rabaul’s capture, code­named Opera­tion Cart­wheel. It super­seded a plan by Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur, Supreme Com­mander of the South­west Pacific Area, who had pro­posed imme­diately after the Japa­nese naval defeat at Mid­way (June 1942) a quick cam­paign against Rabaul that would result in the capture of that bastion in less than three weeks (!). How­ever, by the summer of 1943 the idea of “island hopping” past Rabaul was floated, gaining strength at the end of the year when Ameri­can soldiers and Marines landed on the oppo­site side of New Britain from Rabaul, at Cape Glou­cester, and found them­selves tied down by disease and swamps as much as by the Japanese.

Eventually the Allies abandoned Rabaul as an objec­tive. They cut off and by­passed Japanese strong­holds to attack more lightly defended islands. The crite­rion became not how many Japa­nese troops and arma­ments they could defeat or destroy, but how to obtain islands to use as aerial launching pads en route north to Japan with the least risk of casual­ties. That said, seizing Japa­nese-held islands in a series of amphib­i­ous assaults was rendered costly by the fana­tical determi­nation of the Japa­nese defenders. In the Marines’ campaign to capture Tarawa Atoll in the Central Pacific Gilbert Islands (Novem­ber 20–23, 1943), out of a modest-size garri­son of 3,000 enemy troops, 1,000 con­struc­tion workers, and 1,200 Korean forced laborers, just 17 Japa­nese (one officer and 16 enlisted men) and 129 Koreans survived the battle. Adm. Chester Nimitz, comman­der in chief of the North, Central, and South Pacific theater areas, acknow­ledged the stra­te­gic impor­tance of the U.S. victory at Tarawa. “The capture of Tarawa,” he stated, “knocked down the front door to the Japanese defenses in the Central Pacific.”

Battle of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands, November 20–23, 1943

Pacific Theater Areas, August 1942

Above: Pacific Theater Command Areas, August 1942. Clock­wise from top: Cen­tral Paci­fic and South Paci­fic (under Adm. Chester Nimitz), and South­west Paci­fic (under Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur). Tarawa Atoll’s Betio Is­land—an is­land half the size of New York’s Cen­tral Park—and the Gil­bert Is­lands straddle the dashed lines dividing the Central Pacific and South Pacific areas.

Marines on Tarawa, November 1943Marine with flamethrower, Tarawa, 1943

Left: Marines seek cover among their dead and wounded behind the sea wall on Red Beach 3, Tarawa, Gilbert Islands in the South Pacific, November 1943. The Battle of Tarawa was the first American offensive in this critical Pacific region, and it was also the first time in the war that the U.S. faced serious Japanese opposition to an amphibious landing.

Right: A Marine from 1st Marine Division uses a flamethrower to clear a path through what was once a thick jungle on Tarawa, 1943.

Two Japanese Marines who committed suicide, Tarawa, November 1943Japanese POWs, Tarawa, 1943

Left: Two Japanese Imperial Marines who com­mitted sui­cide by shooting them­selves rather than sur­ren­der to U.S. Marines, Tarawa, 1943. At Tarawa Amer­i­cans faced one of the best, most con­cen­tra­ted Japa­nese defenses en­coun­tered in the Paci­fic War. The is­land’s 4,500 Japa­nese defenders were well supplied and well pre­pared, and they fought al­most to the last man, exacting a heavy toll on U.S. Marines (1,009 killed and 2,101 wounded) and sailors (687 killed). Nearly all of the casualties occurred in the first 76 hours.

Right: Marines guard Japanese POWs dressed in rags on a Tarawa beach, November 1943.

With the Marines at Tarawa, U.S. Government Film (1944)