Tarawa, Gilbert Islands November 23, 1943

On this date in 1943 the first U.S. offensive in the Central Pacific region was declared won after 76 hours of fierce fighting. The 4,800 Japa­nese defenders (soldiers, marines, and Jap­anese and Korean construc­tion workers) on Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands were well-supplied and well-prepared, and they fought prac­ti­cally to the last man: just 17 enemy sol­diers and 129 laborers were captured. The mili­tary impor­tance of the small spits of enemy-held land lay in their stra­te­gic loca­tion at the gate­way of the U.S. drive through the Cen­tral Pacific to the Marshall and Mariana Islands and beyond that to the Japanese Home Islands (see map). The effort, how­ever, to retake the 12‑sq.-mile coral atoll exacted a heavy toll on U.S. Marines: more than one thou­sand leather­necks lost their lives and over twice that many were wounded. Four Marines were awarded Medals of Honor for valor. The U.S. Navy counted 687 dead—644 being the victims of a Japa­nese torpedo attack on the escort carrier Liscome Bay off Makin, the northernmost of the Gilbert Islands.

A parrot-shaped islet in the extreme south­west of the Tarawa Atoll, Betio was the main stage of the Battle of Tarawa (Novem­ber 20–23, 1943). Besides being Tarawa’s main port with a long pier extending into the lagoon, Betio possessed an air­strip, which U.S. bombers had twice attacked, in April and Septem­ber, inflicting severe damage on the instal­la­tion. Thus, between April and the Marines’ amphib­ious assault on Betio on Novem­ber 20, the Japa­nese had had months to string barbed wire across the exposed coral reefs about 800 yards off shore, pre­pare a laby­rinth of inter­con­necting coco­nut log and sand tunnels, and blan­ket prac­tically every square yard of Betio in trip­wire mines, con­cealed rifle and machine-gun nests, artil­lery emplace­ments, con­crete pill­boxes, and a 10‑ft-high ven­ti­lated con­crete block­house cap­able of accom­mo­dating 150 enemy defenders who could stymie the invaders’ advance into the interior. As night fell on the first day, the initial wave of Marines were confined to a thin strip of beach.

From Day 2 on the assault Marines were rein­forced in number, artil­lery, flame­throwers, and M4 Sher­man tanks as they pushed off their deadly beach­heads for Betio’s inte­rior. Flushing out and shooting the defenders of one enemy redoubt after another allowed the Marines to roll up Japa­nese posi­tions until all resis­tance had ceased on Novem­ber 23, 1943. The so-called “Pocket” between Red Beaches 1 and 2, with 75mm dual-purpose (surface and air) guns, was the last posi­tion of orga­nized resis­tance to fall. Six thou­sand decom­posing bodies of U.S. and Japa­nese service­men, reeking an awful stench in the sweltering 110°F heat, every ori­fice of theirs covered in thick mats of black flies, were placed in unmarked com­mon graves and covered with sand by a Navy Sea­bee bull­dozer. The dead were part of the 541 Marines whose bodies were never recovered, some prob­ably buried under an air­strip hastily built for the next assault on the next island chain lining up with the Japanese homeland.

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

Pacific Theater Command Areas, August 1942

Above: Pacific Theater Command Areas, August 1942. Clock­wise from top: North Pacific and Cen­tral Paci­fic (under Adm. Chester Nimitz), South Pacific (under Vice Adm. Robert Ghormley, who was succeeded by Adm. William Halsey, Jr. in mid-October 1942), and South­west Paci­fic (under Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur). The North, Central, and South Pacific theater com­mands were sub­ordi­nate com­mands of Pacific Ocean Areas under Adm. Nimitz through­out the war. Tarawa Atoll’s Betio Islet at 0.59 sq. mile—half the size of New York City’s Cen­tral Park—and the Gilbert Islands straddle the dashed lines dividing the Central Pacific and South Pacific areas. Tarawa is located roughly 2,400 miles southwest of the Hawaiian Islands.

Battle of Tarawa: Marines on Betio Islet, Tarawa Atoll, November 1943Battle of Tarawa: Marine with flamethrower, Betio, Tarawa Atoll, November 1943

Left: Wading slowly through neck- and waist-deep water under withering enemy fire, Marine rifle­men take cover among their dead and wounded behind a low sea wall on Red Beach 3, Betio Islet, Novem­ber 1943. (There were six Betio inva­sion beaches.) The large bomb­proof concrete bunker and the sand-covered redoubt were within sight of Red Beach 3. 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. The com­mander of the Japa­nese garri­son called Betio an impreg­nable for­tress, which thank­fully turned out to be a hollow boast. But Betio was also not a “piece of cake” that Marines were told about in preinvasion briefings.

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

Battle of Tarawa: Two Japanese Marines who committed suicide, Betio, Tarawa Atoll, November 1943Battle of Tarawa: Japanese POWs, Betio, Tarawa Atoll, 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—for Japa­nese, the ulti­mate dis­grace—to U.S. Marines, Betio, Tawara Atoll, November 1943. Else­where Jap­anese dead lay in heaps in the sand after the 3‑1/2-day slug­fest on Betio had sub­sided. The enemy’s willing­ness to fight to the last man was an awful omen of the ferocity and countless deaths in island fighting to come.

Right: Field-stripped after their capture by U.S. Marines, these POWs, possibly Korean construc­tion workers enslaved by the Japa­nese, sit on a Tarawa beach in rags and bare feet, November 1943.

Battle of Tarawa: Betio, Tarawa Atoll wounded evacuated to offshore vesselsBattle of Tarawa: Dead Marines on a Tarawa Atoll beach

Left: Wounded Marines are floated for hun­dreds and hun­dreds of yards over razor-sharp coral to waiting trans­ports for even­tual shipboard treatment, Betio, Tarawa Atoll, November 1943.

Right: Macabre photograph of dead Marines cut down by volleys of concen­trated auto­matic weapons fire, Betio, Tarawa beach, November 1943. In the middle ground is a dis­abled 23‑ft-long amtrac (officially LVT, or landing vehicle, tracked), which the Japa­nese had never seen before. The shore­line shows the devas­tating effects of both one-ton shell­fire hurled from battle­ships and heavy cruisers and tons of bombs launched from U.S. Navy dive and torpedo bombers on the morning of the inva­sion. Indeed, the pre­in­va­sion bom­bard­ment had to be halted for 30 minutes to allow the flames, smoke, and dust to dissipate. Assaulting Marines were stunned that the enemy had survived the morning hellhole.

Marines at Battle of Tarawa, U.S. Government Film (1944)

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