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 north­eastern 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 enemy 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, April 26, 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 (!) and push Japan’s strongest advance base in the South Pacific over 800 miles north­wards to Truk (Chuuk) in the Central Pacific. How­ever, by the summer of 1943 the idea of “island hopping” (i.e., leap­frogging) past the Rabaul strong­hold 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 not only by the Japanese enemy but by para­sitic and viral dis­eases (mala­ria and dengue, typhoid, and yellow fevers), swamps, fungal infec­tions (jungle rot), and jungles infested with leeches, fire ants, and giant mosquitoes.

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.”

Some of the most vicious combat anywhere in World War II was waged in the Pacific. Of the many fine first­hand accounts by those who fought there I have three favor­ites: Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific, Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Oki­nawa, and Chuck Tatum’s Red Blood, Black Sand: Fighting Along­side John Basi­lone from Boot Camp to Iwo Jima. For those less keen on reading about com­bat in the Pacific than viewing it, I recom­mend HBO’s homage to the men and women who fought and died in the Pacific Theater. Pro­duced by Tom Hanks, Steven Spiel­berg, and Gary Goetz­man, The Pacific is a 10part mini­series that delivers a gritty and real­is­tic por­trait of the war’s island-hopping cam­paigns as seen through the inter­twined odys­seys of Marines Leckie, Sledge, and Medal of Honor recipi­ent John Basi­lone, who was trag­ically killed on Iwo Jima on Febru­ary 19, 1945, the first day of the island’s invasion.—Norm Haskett

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

Operation Cartwheel and Battle of Tarawa: Marines on Tarawa, late November 1943Operation Cartwheel and Battle of Tarawa: Marine with flamethrower, late November 1943

Left: U.S. Marines from the 2nd Marine Division seek cover among their dead and wounded behind the sea­wall on Red Beach 3, Betio Island in Tarawa Atoll, late November 1943. One out of five Marines who assaulted the beaches died. Half of Oper­a­tion Gal­vanic, the Battle of Tarawa, coor­di­nated with the bloody eastern phase of Oper­a­tion Cart­wheel, 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. One combat corre­spondent called Tarawa “the toughest battle in Marine Corps history.”

Right: The battle for Betio Island—an island half the size of New York’s Central Park—began to turn against the Japa­nese defenders around mid­after­noon on Novem­ber 21, 1943. Supplies came ashore, Marine artil­lery added close fire support, and Marines moved off their beach­heads as more Marines piled ashore. In this photo a Marine uses a flame­thrower to clear a path through what was once thick jungle. Enemy soldiers were burned alive in their fox­holes, bunkers, and caves or were picked off by rifle fire after first being set ablaze by flamethrowers in the savage fighting.

Operation Cartwheel and Battle of Tarawa: Marines climb over coconut-log barricade at beachhead, late November 1943Operation Cartwheel and Battle of Tarawa: Betio Island invasion beach, late November 1943

Left: Betio’s defenders deployed steel fortifications (tetrahedrons), mine­fields, and dense thickets of barbed wire. Walls of coco­nut logs and coral surrounded much of the island. Machine guns, rifle pits, and anti­tank ditches were often inte­grated into the bar­ri­cades, and many emplace­ments such as pill­boxes had con­verging fields of fire. Against the withering fire of numer­ous Japa­nese machine guns in pill­boxes, bunkers, and dug­outs, U.S. Marines climb over the coconut-log bar­ri­cade to attack from their beachhead.

Right: This was the scene on Betio Island after the 2nd Marine Division forced back the Japa­nese on Novem­ber 20–21, 1943. Many Marines had a hard time getting over the sea­wall on the beach. Dead bodies and wrecked amphib­ious tractors littered the battle­field. At the end of the first day, 5,000 men had made it across Betio’s coral reef, but 1,500 of them had fallen or were missing.

Operation Cartwheel and Battle of Tarawa: Two Japanese marines who committed suicide, late November 1943Operation Cartwheel and Battle of Tarawa: Japanese POWs, late November 1943

Left: Two marines of the Japanese navy’s Special Naval Landing Forces com­mitted sui­cide in their dugout by shooting them­selves rather than sur­ren­der to U.S. Marines. At Tarawa Amer­i­cans faced one of the best, most con­cen­tra­ted Japa­nese defenses encoun­tered in the Paci­fic War. The island’s 4,500 Japa­nese defenders—more than half of them first-rate troops—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 the casual­ties occurred in the first 76 hours. Marines moved on to other islands in the atoll, meeting tena­cious resis­tance. By Novem­ber 28, how­ever, the enemy, in the words of the com­man­der of the 2nd Marine Divi­sion, had been “wiped out.” Those not wiped out, meaning Japanese POWs, totaled a mere 146.

Right: Marines guard Japanese POWs dressed in rags on a Tarawa beach, late November 1943. Many of the POWs were strip naked or to their loin­cloths to make sure that they had no hidden weapons.

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