On this day in 1943 the US Marines invaded the Tarawa atoll in the Gilbert Islands. For the Marines and Navy, this was the first great battle in the Central Pacific offensive.
Col. Joseph H. Alexander:
The main island, Betio, was heavily fortified. No larger than Central Park, the 4,500 defenders had constructed a dense network of pillboxes and trenches. As Alexander notes, “Yard for yard, Betio was the toughest fortified position the Marines would ever face." The Japanese commander, Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki announced to his men "A million men cannot take Tarawa in a hundred years"
The vast oceanic expanses of Micronesia also dictated a change in naval tactics. Most of the previous amphibious assaults in the Solomons and New Guinea had been executed against large land masses which offered penetration by surprise at undefended points. These scenarios featured relatively short distances between launch bases and target objectives, often short enough to enable a shore-to-shore landing without amphibious transports. After Guadalcanal, American commanders in the South and Southwest Pacific theaters conducted every amphibious landing fully within the protective umbrella of land-based air support.
These conditions were generally absent in the Central Pacific. Operation Galvanic, the campaign to seize the Gilberts, would feature unprecedented advancves in long-range, fast carrier strike forces; large-scale, self-sustaining amphibious expeditionary units; and mobile logistic squadrons designed to sustain the momentum of those new forces. Admiral Nimitz was forming the elements of a 'sea-going blitzkrieg' that would hold tremendous significance for the outcome of the Pacific War. But much would ride on the amphibious seizure of Tarawa.
The 2d Marines took Betio in four days.
It was no cake walk. One thousand Americans died and another 2,100 were wounded. The American public was shocked at the high cost of taking such a small speck of land.
Shocked, but not deterred. Alexander:
That resolution represented doom for Japan. Her war strategy was premised entirely on the idea the Americans would tire of the war and refuse to pay the price to roll back Tokyo’s conquests. This, in turn, would open the way to a negotiated settlement. Tarawa demonstrated that this premise was a pipe dream.
Once the American public came to deal with the shock of the bodies floating in the shallows along Red Beach, the national mood became one of grim determination.
Later invasions in the Marshalls and Marianas benefited greatly from the lessons learned at Tarawa. At those battles, the Navy and Marines went into action with better doctrine, better weapons, and superior numbers. On Betio, they depended on guts, courage, and the initiative of enlisted men and junior officers.
Two telling sketches from Robert Leckie. The first from the day of the invasion:
On 24 November, Marine Generals Holland Smith and Julian Smith toured Tarawa:
In another Amtrack was a stocky corporal named John Joseph Spillane, a youngster who had a big-league throwing arm and the fielding ability which had brought Yankee and Cardinal scouts around to talk to his father. The Old Lady and Corporal Spillane went into Betio in the first wave, a load of riflemen crouching below her gunwales, a thick coat of hand-fashioned steel armor around her unlovely hull. Then she came under the sea wall and the Japanese began lobbing grenades into her.
The first came in hissing and smoking and Corporal Spillane dove for it. He trapped it and pegged it in a single, swift practiced motion. Another. Spillane picked it off in mid-air and hurled it back. There were screams. There were no more machine-gun bullets rattling against The Old Lady's sides. Two more smoking grenades end-over-ended into the amtrack. Spillane nailed both and flipped them on the sea wall. The assault troops watched him in fascination. And then the sixth one came in and Spillane again fielded and threw.
But this one exploded.
Johnny Spillane was hammered to his knees. His helmet was dented. There was shrapnel in his right side, his neck, his right hip, and there was crimson spouting from the pulp that had been his right hand.
But the assault troops had vaulted onto the beach and were scrambling for the sea wall. Though Johnny Spillane's baseball career was over, he had bought these riflemen precious time, and he was satisfied to know it as he called, 'Let's get outta here,' to his driver and the squat gray amphibian backed out into the water to take him out to the transport where the doctor would amputate his right hand at the wrist.
The generals Smith began to tour the island. Even Julian Smith, who had been on Betio since November 22, was stunned by what he saw. Both generals understood at last why pillboxes and blockhouses which had withstood bombs and shells had eventually fallen. Within each of them lay a half-dozen or more dead Japanese, their bodies sprawled around those of three or four Marines. Julian Smith's men had jumped inside to fight it out at muzzle range.
Many of the pillboxes were made of five sides, each ten feet long, with a pair of entrances shielded against shrapnel by buffer tiers. Each side was made of two layers of coconut logs eight inches in diameter, hooked together with clamps and railroad spikes, with sand poured between each layer. The roof was built of two similar layers of coconut logs. Over this was a double steel turret, two sheathings of quarter-inch steel rounded off to deflect shells. Over this was three feet of sand.
'By God!' Howlin' Mad exclaimed. 'The Germans never built anything like this in France. No wonder these bastards were sitting back here laughing at us. They never dreamed the marines could take this island, and they were laughing at what would happen to us when we tried it'. Howlin' Mad shook his head in disbelief. 'How did they do it, Julian?', he began, and then, below and above the sea wall he found his answer.
Below it as many as 300 American bodies floated on that abundant tide. Above it, leaning against it in death, was the body of a young Marine. His right arm was still flung across the top of the sea wall. A few inches from his fingers stood a little blue-and-white flag. It was a beach marker. It told succeeding waves where they should land. The Marine had planted it there with his life, and now it spoke such eloquent reply to that question of a moment ago that both generals turned away from it in tears.
'Julian,' Howlin' Mad Smith went on in soft amendment-- 'how can such men be defeated?'