In order to establish forward air bases that were capable of supporting land operations across the Pacific to the Philippines and Japan itself, it was necessary that the United States seize the Mariana Islands, which were heavily defended by the Japanese. To achieve this, war planners in Hawaii determined that they would require land-based aircraft to help weaken Japanese defenses and protect the naval invasion forces. The nearest islands suitable for land-based aircraft were in the Marshall Islands, which were also held by the Japanese. Standing in the way was one island in particular. They called it Betio, on the western side of an atoll named Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. In order to seize the Marianas, Marines would first have to snatch Tarawa away from the Japanese.
After Guadalcanal, the 2nd Marine Division was withdrawn to New Zealand for rest and refit. In July, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington directed Admiral Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, to prepare plans for an offensive operation in the Gilbert Islands. Within a few weeks, Admiral Spruance flew to New Zealand to meet with the new commander of the 2nd Marine Division, Major General Julian Smith. The Battle of Tarawa would involve the V Amphibious Corps (Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith), which at the time included both the 2nd Marine Division and the US 27th Infantry Division. The 2nd Marine Division (18,000 men) would attack Betio; the US 27th Infantry Division would seize Makin Island.
Holding Tarawa was the Japanese 3rd Special Base Defense Force (formerly designated 6th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force) and the 7th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Force [Note 2]. In total, the US Marines would face off against 2,636 Japanese troops, 14 tanks, 40 artillery pieces, 14 naval guns, and they would encounter an additional 2,200 construction laborers.
Betio Island is located about 2,400 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It is the largest island in the atoll, positioned at the southernmost area of its lagoon. Most of the Japanese defenders were located at Betio. The Island is two miles long, and at its widest point, 800 yards.
In August 1942, Lieutenant Evans Carlson [Note 3] led his Marine Raiders in a diversionary assault at Makin Island. The unforeseen consequences of this operation was that the raid made the Japanese aware of the vulnerability and strategic significance of the Gilbert Islands. Accordingly, the Japanese began a vigorous effort to reinforce the Gilberts and assigned Rear Admiral Tomonari Saichiro (an experienced engineer) to direct the construction of defensive structures at Betio. Admiral Tomonari’s plan was to stop any attackers at the water or pin them down on the beaches. Accordingly, he constructed a series of pill boxes at locations that afforded the Japanese defenders with exceptional fields of fire over the water and across the sandy shoreline. Tomonari’s construction efforts lasted for over a year. Admiral Tomonari was eventually replaced by Rear Admiral Keiji Shibazaki, who boasted that it would take one-million men one-hundred years to conquer Tarawa.
Once the 2nd Marine Division received replacement arms and munitions, a series of training exercises were begun to get the Marines back in shape and to integrate replacements. This training did not begin until September 1943, however. What was needed was to transition the Marines from experienced jungle fighters into amphibious assault troops. The code name for the upcoming operation was GALVANIC [Note 4].
During mid-September 1943, 2nd Marine Division was assigned to the operational control of the V Amphibious Corps and tasked with supplying the assault force for GALVANIC. Holland M. Smith and Julian C. Smith (not related) anticipated that wresting the island of Betio away from the Japanese would be a difficult task. The division commander had to place his operation together with only two regiments, since the 6th Marines had been removed from the 2nd Marine Division and placed under V Amphibious Corps as its reserve force. Both of these Marine Corps generals realized that Betio was a fortress; they both realized that they would be facing a vicious and determined enemy.
On 7 November 1943, the men of the 8th Marines were riding at anchor off the New Hebrides Islands. When the departed New Zealand, no one knew anything about where they were going; now, however, the Marines knew what they were getting ready to do, and why. Landing exercises were completed by 13 November; the next day, the Marines were on their way to hell on earth.
The American invasion force arrived off Betio before dawn on 20 November. At 0500, the Japanese welcomed them with their shore batteries; the US battleships Colorado and Maryland answered. The battle had begun. As the navy battled with Japanese artillery, the Marines began to board their landing craft. The initial unit to land at Red Beach 3 would be 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (2/8), then commanded by Major Henry Pierson Crowe [Note 5] (formerly the commander of Weapons Company, 8th Marines). Two additional assault battalions were 2/2 and 3/2. The three battalions formed Combat Team 2 with Colonel David M. Shoup [Note 6] (Commanding 2nd Marines) in overall command. The landing force bobbed around in the sea for four hours while naval gunfire and aviators bombed and staffed Japanese positions.
The initial landing force were loaded into the new Landing Vehicle Track (LVT). As these were in short supply, follow-on units were landed by Higgins boats (Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel, or LCVPs). As the LCVPs drew three feet of water, getting Marines over the offshore reefs was a concern, but the Marines, in planning the operation, did not have adequate knowledge of tidal conditions off Betio Island. The Marines designated for the LCVPs were advised that they may have to exit the craft and wade into shore. This is, in fact, what happened. As a consequence, many Marines never reached the shore line; the Japanese cut them to pieces with automatic weapons.
The first wave went ashore at approximately 0900. The preselected landing sites were on the lagoon side of the island for two reasons: (1) the heaviest concentration of enemy weapons was on the sea side, and (2) because of heavy swells rolling in from the ocean. 2/8 landed east of a long pier that jutted out into the lagoon near the tail of the island. 1/8 and 3/8 were placed in reserve. 2/2 and 3/2 went ashore west of the pier.
2/8 landed at approximately 0917 and were immediately engaged by Japanese defenders. Up until that point, casualties had been light, but once the Marines exited their LVTs, and struggled to get beyond the beach, losses increased dramatically. E/2/8 [Note 7] lost five of its six officers within minutes of landing. Devastating enemy fire prevented Major Crowe from seizing the air strip; his Marines were forced to dig in and hold their positions. The Marines realized that the navy’s four-hour long preparatory fires had little to no effect on the Japanese defenses.
Shortly after coming ashore, two Japanese tanks rumbled toward the 2/8 position. Major Crowe braved enemy fire to direct his men to move two 37mm guns into position to confront the tanks. The Marines fired these weapons at point blank range, killing one tank as the other scurried back to wherever it had come from.
Holding the beach head on Betio rested in good measure with Major Crowe and 2/8 because his battalion landed in organized formations. In contrast to this, 2/2 and 3/2 had both sustained a substantial number of killed and wounded in their movement to shore. Among those killed was the Battalion Commander 2/2, Lieutenant Colonel Herbert R. Amey. Shoup had to rely on 2/8 to defend the beach head, but also expand its perimeter. Four hundred yards separated 2/8 from the 2nd Marines. In the struggle to get past the Japanese obstacles, one platoon from F/2/8 was completely wiped out.
Major General J. C. Smith realized that it was time to send in additional Marines. When 3/8 came ashore, its survivors were attached to Crowe’s battalion. 2/8 still could not push past the pier. Four tanks came to the aid of 2/8 but three of these were destroyed. By nightfall, the Marines of 2/8 and 3/8 were dying, not for yards, but for inches of Betio sand. Shoup and Crowe fully expected a Japanese counter-attack after sundown, but such an assault never took place. Apparently, the Japanese were unaware of how precarious the Marine positions were.
Smith had intended to land the rest of the 8th Marines on the afternoon of 20 November (consisting of the Regimental headquarters and 1/8), and while the Marines were ready to execute their assault, the regimental commander, Colonel Elmer E. Hall, never received the order to proceed ashore. As a result, these Marines bobbed at sea for more than 12 hours. Many of these Marines were sea sick and so nauseous as to make them ineffective for combat. The delay in receiving the order to land was later attributed to the fog of war when the Division’s staff were unsure of where any of the 8th Marine’s units were located. Moreover, Colonel Hall and his first battalion were confused with elements of the 10th Marines. Finally, Hall received his landing instructions: land west of the pier and attack westward toward the 2nd Marines sector.
The first wave of 1/8 reached the reef at 0615 on 21 November and were immediately taken under fire by Japanese defense with automatic weapons and artillery. Casualties again were high. By 1400, the majority of the Marines had reached the shore line and were in the thick of the fighting. Major Hays, commanding 1/8, was able to report that his men had succeeded in destroying several Japanese positions, and had isolated several groups of Japanese defenders.
Meanwhile, 2/8 continued in its slug-fest with the enemy at the base of the pier. Shoup ordered Crowe to make another effort to reduce the Japanese fortifications. Fox company advanced against two fortifications (a pillbox to its immediate front, and a bunker to its right-front). Japanese reinforcing fires halted the Marines. Additional support from Golf Company proved fruitless. 3/8, on Fox company’s right, could not advance. Colonel Shoup’s doubt about the success of the assault continued into the second day. His message to Smith was, “Casualties many. Percentage of dead not known. Combat efficiency—we are winning.”
1/6 under the command of Major William K. Jones, was ordered ashore with instructions to land on the east side of Betio along a beach that had been cleared by 3/2. 1/6 went ashore at 1855 with little Japanese opposition. Jones did not advance that night, but waited until the next morning’s scheduled general attack.
At 0700 on 22 November, 1/8 struck westward against strong enemy fortifications, supported by three tanks, but not even point-blank firing could penetrate enemy pill boxes and barricades. Additional support to 1/8 was provided by Weapons Company, 2nd Marines: two 75mm pack howitzers quickly reduced to only one. 1/8 remained thwarted by Japanese defenses. While Bravo company applied pressure to the Japanese positions, Alpha and Charlie companies moved to outflank the Japanese. Succeeding, the Japanese attempted a counter-attack, but it was quickly defeated. With nightfall, Major Hays had his battalion deployed in a semi-circle around the Japanese strongpoint—thereby establishing a blocking force to prevent Japanese escape.
At this point three Japanese strongholds stood in the way of the 2/8 and 3/8: a steel pillbox, a coconut log emplacement, and a large bombproof shelter. As preparations were underway for a continuation of the attack, supporting mortars lobbed shells at the entrenched enemy. One of these shells detonated a supply of ammunition, which blew the bunker apart. Concurrently, a Marine tank took the pillbox under fire with 75mm rounds. Fox and Kilo companies began their advance. Bitter fighting evolved with Marines employing flame throwers and satchel charges on the Japanese bombproof structure. The Japanese then launched a counter-attack and fell to overwhelming Marine fire. Within a few moments, more than 100 Japanese soldiers had been killed.
2/8 forged ahead with its attack until it reached the enemy airfield and halted, not want to be come under the fire of 1/6. Crowe ordered his Marines to dig in and await the possibility of an enemy counter-attack, which did occur in the evening. Their assault was mainly focused on the 6th Marines, but artillery and naval gunfire destroyed the Japanese.
On the morning of 23 November, the fourth day, the 8th Marines (less 1/8) stood down and were moved to the nearby island of Bairiki which had previously been secured by the 6th Marines. On Betio, the Marine advance continued. 1/8 engaged Japanese forces on the northern shore. Augmented with flame throwers, the battalion made good progress and linked up with 3/2 at 1000. 1/8 and 3/2 surrounded the pillboxes and the Japanese occupants were defeated.
A half hour later, Major General Julian C. Smith declared the island was in American hands and there being no further Japanese resistance. Nevertheless, a mopping up operation lasted through 24 November. Betio Island was a shambles; American and Japanese dead littered the landscape; the stench was overwhelming and it was necessary to inter the American and Japanese dead as soon as possible. Currently, an effort is underway to recover the American dead, identify them, and return their remains to their loved ones/descendants —76 years later.
Of the total Japanese military assigned to the garrison at Betio (2,636), and the civilian construction workers (2,200—of which included 1,200 Koreans and 1,000 Japanese), 4,690 were killed (either by lethal American military action, or their own hand). Only 146 enemy soldiers/construction workers allowed themselves to be captured. Of the Marines, 1,100 were killed in action and 3,000 others received wounds from enemy action. Though American casualties were high, Admiral Nimitz was convinced that the action at Tarawa had the effect of knocking down Japan’s front door in the mid-Pacific.
Following this operation, the 2nd Marine Division was withdrawn to Hawaii leaving 2/8 behind to help clear the battlefield of unexploded ordnance, provide security for the Seabees, and aid in the burial of the dead. As a result of this battle, the Navy established the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT), the forerunner of the U. S. Navy Seals.
Tarawa was unlike any previous campaign. For the first time in history, a seaborne assault had been launched against a strongly defended enemy position. Mistakes were made (there are always costly mistakes in war) but the feasibility of Marine Corps’ doctrine of amphibious warfare was confirmed and refinement and improvement was immediately undertaken.
Next week: Saipan
- Santelli, J. S. A Brief History of the 8th Marines. Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1976
- Rottman, G. L. U. S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle, 1939-45. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002
- Johnson, R. Follow Me: The Story of the 2nd Marine Division in World War II. Canada: Random House, 1948.
- Potter, E. B. And Chester Nimitz. Sea Power: A Naval History. Prentice Hall, 1960.
- Alexander, J. H. Utmost Savagery: Three Days of Tarawa. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
- Hammel, E. And John Lane. Bloody Tarawa. Zenith Press, 1998.
- Smith was a 35-year veteran and holder of the Navy Cross from service in Corinto, Nicaragua. He served as Commanding Officer, 5th Marines, as naval attache at the US Embassy, London, Director of the Fleet Marine Force Training Schools, and assumed command of the 2nd Marine Division in May 1943. General Smith passed away in 1975.
- The Japanese did not have a “Marine Corps” organization, but organized Army units to serve as naval infantry. In mission and prestige, however, they were more or less equivalent to marines.
- See also: Marine Raiders.
- The American military began using coded designations for military operations during World War I. They were used to conceal upcoming military operations, the details of which are always highly classified. In some instances, the code name or words themselves are classified. The expression that evolved during World War II was, “Loose lips sink ships.”
- Crowe was born in 1899 and enlisted in the Marine Corps shortly after World War I. In all, he served on active duty for forty years, retiring as a colonel in 1960. In those 40 years, Crowe served fourteen years as an enlisted man, 7 years as a Chief Warrant Officer, and 19 years as a commissioned officer. For some reason, Crowe picked up the nickname “Jim,” which when combined with his last name has a distinctly southern ring to it. Colonel Crowe passed away on 27 June 1991, aged 92-years.
- Shoup was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage under withering fire at Betio. He was later selected by President Kennedy to serve as the Commandant of the Marine Corps. He retired on 31 December 1963, shortly after Kennedy’s assassination. General Shoup was a vocal opponent of US involvement in the Viet Nam War, objecting to its poor strategy and the undue influence of US corporations and military officials in the development of foreign policy. Shoup passed away on 13 January 1983.
- I served with E/2/8 at Camp Lejeune, NC (1963-64). Sergeant Major Mason, our battalion sergeant major, had served with the regiment during this battle.