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World War II: Battle of Tarawa

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World War II: Battle of Tarawa

View of the beach of Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands, after the U.S. invasion in November 1943.

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Battle of Tarawa - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Tarawa was fought November 20-23, 1943, during World War II (1939-1945).

Forces & Commanders

Allies

  • Major General Julian C. Smith
  • Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance
  • approx. 35,000 men

    Japanese

  • Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki
  • approx. 3,000 soldiers, 1,000 Japanese laborers, 1,200 Korean laborers

  • Battle of Tarawa - Background:

    Following the victory at Guadalcanal in early 1943, Allied forces in the Pacific began planning for new offensives. While General Douglas MacArthur's troops advanced across northern New Guinea, plans for an island hopping campaign across the central Pacific were developed by Admiral Chester Nimitz. This campaign intended to advance towards Japan by moving from island to island, using each as a base for capturing the next. Beginning in the Gilbert Islands, Nimitz sought to next move through the Marshalls to the Marianas. Once these were secure, the bombing of Japan could commence prior to a full-scale invasion (Map).

    Battle of Tarawa - Preparations for the Campaign:

    The starting point for the campaign was the small island of Betio on the west side of Tarawa Atoll. Located in the Gilbert Islands, Tarawa blocked the Allied approach to the Marshalls and would impede communications and supply with Hawaii if left to the Japanese. Aware of the island's importance, the Japanese garrison, commanded by Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki, went to great lengths to turn it into the fortress. Leading around 3,000 soldiers, his force included Commander Takeo Sugai's elite 7th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Force. Working diligently, the Japanese built an extensive network of trenches and bunkers.

    In addition, fourteen coastal defense guns were mounted around the island along with forty artillery pieces. Supporting the fixed defenses were 14 Type 95 light tanks. To crack these defenses, Nimitz dispatched Admiral Raymond Spruance with the largest American fleet yet assembled. Consisting of 17 carriers of various types, 12 battleships, 8 heavy cruisers, 4 light cruisers, and 66 destroyers, Spruance's force also carried the 2nd Marine Division and part of the US Army's 27th Infantry Division. Totaling around 35,000 men, the ground forces were led by Marine Major General Julian C. Smith.

    Battle of Tarawa - The American Plan:

    Shaped like a flattened triangle, Betio possessed an airfield running east to west and bordered Tarawa lagoon to the north. Though the lagoon water was shallower, it was felt the beaches on the north shore offered a better landing location than those on the south where the water was deeper. On the north shore, the island was bordered by a reef that extended around 1,200 yard offshore. Though there were some initial concerns as to whether landing craft could clear the reef, they were dismissed as planners believed the tide would be high enough to allow them to cross.

    Battle of Tarawa - Going Ashore:

    By dawn on November 20, Spruance's force was in place off Tarawa. Opening fire, the Allied warships began pounding the island's defenses. This was followed at 6:00 AM by strikes from carrier aircraft. Due to delays with the landing craft, the Marines did not move forward until 9:00 AM. With the end of the bombardments, the Japanese emerged from their deep shelters and manned the defenses. Approaching the landing beaches, designated Red 1, 2, and 3, the first three waves crossed the reef in Amtrac amphibious tractors. These were followed by additional Marines in Higgins boats (LCVPs).

    As the landing craft approached, many grounded on the reef as the tide was not high enough to allow passage. Quickly coming under attack from Japanese artillery and mortars, the Marines aboard the landing craft were forced to enter the water and work their way towards shore while enduring heavy machine gun fire. As a result, only a small number from the first assault made it ashore where they were pinned down behind a log wall. Reinforced through the morning and aided by the arrival of a few tanks, the Marines were able to push forward and take the first line of Japanese defenses around noon.

    Battle of Tarawa - A Bloody Fight:

    Through the afternoon little ground was gained despite heavy fighting all along the line. The arrival of additional tanks bolstered the Marine cause and by nightfall the line was approximately half-way across the island and nearing the airfield (Map). The next day, the Marines on Red 1 (the westernmost beach) were ordered to swing west to capture Green Beach on Betio's west coast. This was accomplished with the aid of naval gunfire support. The Marines on Red 2 and 3 were tasked with pushing across the airfield. After heavy fighting, this was accomplished shortly after noon.

    About this time, sightings reported that Japanese troops were moving east across a sandbar to the islet of Bairiki. To block their escape, elements of the 6th Marine Regiment were landed in the area around 5:00 PM. By the end of the day, American forces had advanced and consolidated their positions. In the course of the fighting, Shibasaki was killed causing issues among the Japanese command. On the morning of November 22, reinforcements were landed and that afternoon the 1st Battalion/6th Marines began an offensive across the southern shore of the island.

    Driving the enemy before them, they succeeded in linking up with the forces from Red 3 and forming a continuous line along the eastern part of the airfield. Pinned into the eastern end of the island, the remaining Japanese forces attempted a counterattack around 7:30 PM but were turned back. At 4:00 AM on November 23, a force of 300 Japanese mounted a banzai charge against the Marine lines. This was defeated with the aid of artillery and naval gunfire. Three hours later, artillery and air strikes commenced against the remaining Japanese positions. Driving forward, the Marines succeeded in overrunning the Japanese and reached the eastern tip of the island by 1:00 PM. While isolated pockets of resistance remained, they were dealt with by American armor, engineers, and air strikes. Over the next five days, the Marines moved up the islets of Tarawa Atoll clearing the last bits of Japanese resistance.

    Battle of Tarawa - Aftermath

    In the fighting on Tarawa, only one Japanese officer, 16 enlisted men, and 129 Korean laborers survived out of the original force of 4,690. American losses were a costly 978 killed and 2,188 wounded. The high casualty count quickly caused outrage among Americans and the operation was extensively reviewed by Nimitz and his staff. As a result of these inquiries, efforts were made to improve communications systems, pre-invasion bombardments, and coordination with air support. Also, as a significant number of the casualties had been sustained due to the landing craft beaching, future assaults in the Pacific were made almost exclusively using Amtracs. Many of these lessons were quickly employed in the Battle of Kwajalein two months later.

    Selected Sources

  • History of War: Operation Galvanic
  • History.com: Battle of Tarawa
  • World War II Database: Battle of Tarawa

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