We had conducted landings and fought ashore previously - Guadalcanal and New Georgia - but those campaigns in the Solomon Islands and vicinity were more defensive actions designed to protect the sea lanes between the United States and Australia. Up until the beginning of the Bougainville Campaign on November 1, 1943, the Japanese had always placed their defenses inland away from landing areas. The Bougainville landing at Cape Torokina saw our Marines met at the water's edge.
It would be a grim predictor of what landing on Tarawa would be like.
Tarawa Atoll comprises several islands surrounded by coral reefs. Tidal cycles can make it difficult to approach shore at times, as the reefs become dangerously shallow at low tide. The largest of the islands, Betio, was the site of the atoll's airfield, home to most of the Japanese defenders, and the primary point of attack for our Navy and Marine Corps.
Betio is barely a quarter-mile across at its widest point. The island is only about a mile-and-a-half long. The total land area is only 1.5 square kilometers, about six-tenths of a square mile. For comparison, that's 44 percent of the size of New York City's Central Park. Or, if you want another way to visualize, about the same footprint as that occupied by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Indiana.
Occupying Betio were 2,619 Japanese soldiers and about another 2,200 mixed Japanese and Korean construction laborers. The initial American assault force was primarily the reinforced 2nd Marine Regiment of the 2nd Marine Division. Elements of the 6th Marine Regiment would be landed and brought into action on the second day of the battle.
The United States had assembled an impressive armada for the attack: 17 aircraft carriers, 12 battleships, and 8 heavy cruisers, along with the entire host of other escorts, transports, and support ships. After an early gunnery duel with shore batteries and aerial bombardment, the invasion fleet commenced their pre-landing bombardment of Betio at 0610 on November 20, 1943.
The ships flung hundreds of tons of shells ashore at Japanese positions for almost three hours. The Marines waiting in their landing craft to head for shore assuredly thought the defenders would be smashed by naval artillery. Unfortunately, the planners had underestimated both the strength of the Japanese fortifications, and more importantly, the tidal cycles.
Twice a month, Tarawa doesn't have the high tide roll in. November 20, 1943 was one of those two days in the cycle, and that wasn't accounted for in the attack plan. The assault craft approaching the beaches needed a minimum of five feet of water to clear the reefs.
There was four feet of water or less covering the reefs.
Dozens of landing craft hung up on the coral. They were sitting ducks to enemy fire. Their cargoes of Marines and equipment were stranded around 500 yards from shore, and those aboard had no choice but to wade in under fire. The limited number of tracked landing vehicles the Marines had at the time could get across the reefs, but their very light armor protection didn't prevent them from being shot up and rendered unseaworthy.
It's estimated that fully one-half of the casualties suffered on the first day of GALVANIC were suffered by men who never reached the shore.
The three days of fighting that followed were some of the most intense yet seen by the United States in World War II. Casualty figures vary depending on source, but in the four days from November 20-23, 1943, approximately 1,696 Americans were killed and 2,101 wounded. For comparison, during the entire six months of the Guadalcanal Campaign, 7,100 Americans and Allied servicemen lost their lives.
The largest single loss of life was suffered on the morning of November 23 when the Japanese submarine I-175 got inside the defensive screens and fired a single torpedo at the escort aircraft carrier USS Liscome Bay (CVE-56). The torpedo caused one of Liscome Bay's magazines to explode and the ship sank in seconds, taking 644 of her 916 crew members with her. African-American sailor Dorie Miller, a hero of Pearl Harbor and recipient of the Navy Cross, was one of the lost.
Four courageous Marines received the Medal of Honor for their heroism at Tarawa:
- First Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman, Jr.
- Staff Sergeant William J. Bordelon
- First Lieutenant William D. Hawkins
- Colonel David M. Shoup
No fewer than 46 men received the Navy Cross and 248 the Silver Star for valor during the Battle of Tarawa.
In grim indication of the fighting and carnage yet to come during the advance across the Pacific, and the fanatic lengths to which the Japanese enemy would fight for every inch of ground, 4,690 of the Tarawa occupiers were killed. Just 17 Japanese soldiers and 129 of the laborers lived to surrender and be captured.
There are still over five hundred Americans killed or listed as missing in action at Tarawa who remain unaccounted for. It is still hoped that one day they may all be brought home. The moving documentary Until They Are Home (available on Netflix) details some of the efforts to locate and identify the missing.
I encourage you to watch the full documentary. It's only about an hour long, and hopefully you'll feel as much admiration as I do for those who to this day, seventy years later, are so dedicated to seeing that every American lost in battle overseas is one day identified and brought home.