Nearing the end of the second year of the Pacific War, through hard fighting, tough decisions, and no small amount of luck, the Allies had survived Japan’s initial onslaught with just their pre-Pearl Harbor militaries, and began rolling back Japanese gains. But by November 1943, the losses at Pearl Harbor were replaced and the American economy was in full wartime production. Ships of all sizes, from the mighty Essex class aircraft carriers to the humble patrol torpedo (PT) boats were rolling off of America’s dry docks. In the Solomon Islands, Adm Halsey’s campaign to isolate Japan’s main base in the South Pacific, Rabaul, was about to come to fruition. On New Guinea, Gen MacArthur’s South West Pacific Area was battling across the island, aimed for his eventual return to the Philippines. Adm Chester Nimitz, who did not have a great working relationship with MacArthur, wanted to use America’s new found material superiority to open up a new front, with the objective of Japan itself. He would cut across the axis and beat MacArthur to Japan. The first target of the new Central Pacific Area was the Tarawa atoll, in the British Gilbert Islands, specifically the island of Betio.
The island of Betio was a small pork chop shaped mass of coral and sand about three miles long and a half mile wide. It was surrounded by a coral reef about 400 meters off shore. On it were 5000 elite Japanese marines of their Special Naval Landing Force, fourteen Type 95 tanks and dozens of coastal artillery pieces and machine guns. Up to this point in the war the Japanese generally would allow the Allies to land and then attack with a furious banzai charge as the Americans were organizing on the beach. Tarawa would be different.
The Japanese knew of Betio’s importance in the central Pacific and spent over a year fortifying the island. Eschewing the wasteful immediate banzai charge against the initial landing, they fought in bunkers and pillboxes while the Marines struggled exposed on the beach and in the heavy surf. Their heavy coastal artillery would sink the support ships while the Japanese marines swept the beaches clear with interlocking fields of fire and pre-sighted artillery and mortars. The tanks would counter attack any breakthrough. The Japanese aim was to transfer to the defense the qualities of surprise, tenacity, focus, and ferocity that made their attacks so formidable. It nearly worked.
The US Second Marine Division would lead Operation Galvanic, the assault on Betio. Over the last year the division recovered, and then were reinforced, refitted, and retrained after its eight month fight on Guadalcanal. At 0610, 20 November 1943, 200 ships of the US Navy shelled and bombed the tiny island to little effect. The Japanese were simply dug Into the coral too deep. At 0900, the initial landing force started toward the beaches and the Japanese finally responded with their coastal artillery which sank or severely damaged several ships. The casualties among the sailors were almost as large as the Marines’ over the next several days. The Marines’ assault unfortunately began 30 minutes late, which allowed the Japanese to get to their fighting positions after the bombardment. Even worse, the assault began during an abnormally low tide.
The “Alligator” amphibious tractors managed to make it over the reef and onto the beach, but the subsequent waves in Higgins boats could not. With the initial wave pinned down behind a sea wall, the follow on waves of Marines were forced to wade in waist deep water 400 meters through intense Japanese fire. The casualties were enormous. The seawall was scant cover and to climb over was to court instant death. Throughout the morning Marines were steadily massacred by the dug in Japanese. But nevertheless, they persisted. Fortunately, the Marines were the product of free men in an open society and had spent the last year living, working, training and fighting together. They didn’t lie there, blame others, and wait for their superiors to do something. The junior leaders would win this fight. Individually and in small groups, they hammered then cracked the Japanese defenses. Corporals, sergeants, and lieutenants chose, in defiance of all logic and safety, to rally what Marines they could, and painstakingly maneuvered to engage the Japanese with flamethrowers, satchel charges, grenades, bayonets, rifle butts, helmets and fists. An observant beachmaster used the abnormally low tide to move supplies and men to the beach underneath the long pier which stretched over the coral reef to the beach. Many contemporary accounts attribute the final breakout to the efforts of a single tank “Colorado” from Red Beach 3, which finally allowed the Marines to move inland.
Over the next 77 hours, 4760 Japanese and 1700 Marines and Sailors were killed, with 2000 more Americans wounded.
The initial outcry in America due to the losses was enormous. However, like the Colorado spewing fire and lead at bunkers overlooking the beach, Nimitz cracked the Japanese outer ring of defenses in the Central Pacific. His subsequent offensives over the next 21 months were like a lance aimed straight at the belly of Japan. Finally, the lessons learned from the landing on Tarawa would be invaluable and used to great effect in subsequent amphibious operations, particularly the landings in the Marshall and Palau Islands, and even Italy and France.