Gilbert Islands: Makin, Tarawa

Almost two years after the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Allies were shifting from the defensive to the offensive in the Central Pacific. In the Southwest Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur was gaining ground in New Guinea while in the Solomon Islands, Operation Cartwheel under MacArthur and Admiral William F. Halsey moved from Guadalcanal northwest up the island chain toward the major Japanese base at Rabaul.

Col. David Monroe Shoup, center, with map case, confers with Maj. Thomas Culhane, 2d Marines R-3, on Betio, 22 November 1943.  Col. Shoup was the fourth and only living Marine awarded a Medal of Honor from the Tarawa fighting.  later General Shoup served as the twenty-second Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1 January 1960 until his retirement from active service, 31 December 1963
Col. David Monroe Shoup, center, with map case, confers with Maj. Thomas Culhane, 2d Marines R-3, on Betio, 22 November 1943. Col. Shoup was the fourth and only living Marine awarded a Medal of Honor from the Tarawa fighting. later General Shoup served as the twenty-second Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1 January 1960 until his retirement from active service, 31 December 1963.

Today in WW II: 30 Nov 1939 Soviet Union invades Finland.   

Strategy in the Central Pacific

Building on the success in the other subtheaters of the Pacific Theater, by late 1943 it was time to push the Japanese back in the Central Pacific as well.

The first Central Pacific target was the Gilbert Islands, a group of 16 atolls on the equator, 2,000 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor, southeast of the Marshall Islands and 1,200 miles northeast of the Solomons. The great circle route from Hawaii to New Guinea passes through the Gilberts on the way to the Solomons and Port Moresby. The Gilbert Islands had been seized by Japan immediately after Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and had been heavily reinforced by the Japanese after the Marine raid on Makin Atoll in August 1942. Invading the Gilberts had the same objectives as the 7 August 1942 invasion of Guadalcanal in the Solomons: eject the Japanese from island bases, then use those same bases for further island operations, moving ever closer to Japan itself.

Preparations for the Invasion of the Gilbert Islands

While the landings at Vella Lavella (18 September 1943) and Bougainville (1 November 1943) took place in the Solomons, the invasion of the Gilbert Islands in the Central Pacific was staged, an early experience in amphibious operations and the first atoll operation in the Central Pacific Area. The assault was planned against the Tarawa and Makin atolls where the Japanese had augmented their forces and strengthened positions in anticipation of such an assault.

Operation Galvanic, the landings in the Gilberts, marked the first time that the Pacific landing forces faced a strongly defended beach. On the small atolls there was no undefended place to land due to the narrowness of the beaches. This made the capture difficult and costly in terms of casualties.

About 200 vessels were assembled to carry 27,600 assault troops, 7,600 garrison troops, 6,000 vehicles, and 117,000 tons of cargo. The ships were organized into three main groups, the Assault Force, the Carrier Force, and the Defense Force. The Assault Force was further divided into a Northern Attack Force to assault Makin and a Southern Attack Force to attack Tarawa. The 5th Amphibious Corps under Marine Major General Holland M. "Howlin' Mad" Smith provided the troops, consisting of the 2nd Marine Division, assigned to take Tarawa, and the Army's 27th Infantry Division, assigned to take Makin Atoll.

Landing at Makin Atoll

On triangular shaped Makin Atoll, the Japanese had fortified only one island, the largest island named Butaritari. The island hosted a seaplane base, but the defenses were incomplete and the garrison small with about 300 combat troops and 500 Korean construction workers defending the island. The average width of the beach was less than a mile, difficult for an assault.

On 20 November 1943, the invasion force transports hove to about 6,000 yards offshore and the beaches were subjected to a heavy bombardment. Carrier planes and battleships blasted Japanese positions before the landing craft reached the two beaches selected for landings at about 0830: Red beach on the western side and Yellow beach in the lagoon. 27th Infantry Division Landing Team, with attached units, went ashore in Coast Guard, Navy and Marine manned craft.

The coral reef surrounding the island complicated the landings on Yellow beach where the water was only 12-18 inches deep at low tide. This required the landing forces to come in on small LVTs (Landing Vehicle, Tracked aka Alligators). Eight waves of larger landing craft were unable to get over the coral causing confusion, delay, and the abandonment of landing craft at the coral edge. Many of the troops had to wade 250 yards to the beach in waist-deep water. Fortunately the Japanese had organized their defense on the interior of the island rather than the beachhead and few casualties were inflicted on wading troops.

Japanese resistance on Makin was weak and disorganized. The main problem in capturing the atoll was coordinating the attacking force in the cramped space of Butaritari. Flat terrain and limited area made control of fire abnormally difficult; artillery spotting had to be done from the air. Japanese resistance was mopped up in four days of fighting and Makin was secured on 23 November.

The Assault on Bloody Tarawa

The Tarawa beach, 20 November 1943
The Tarawa beach, 20 November 1943.

Tarawa, 100 miles south of Makin, is a roughly triangular atoll that includes about 20 small islands and coral reefs extending 500 to 1,000 yards offshore. The principal target was an airfield on Betio, the only defended island, on the southern side of the coral formation. Betio comprised a mere 291 acres, three miles long by 600 yards wide, every inch contested by the Japanese.

About 4,800 Japanese, more than half combat troops, were dug in with well-prepared, strong defenses, including hundreds of pillboxes with interlocking fields of fire, covered with concrete and roofed with coconut logs tied together with iron bars. The Japanese had spent two years positioning coastal defense guns, antiaircraft guns, anti-boat guns, light and heavy machine guns, as well as their combat airstrip. Sunken ships and other metal objects created obstacles blocking approach from the sea. The beaches were laced with barbed wire, log barriers, and concrete obstacles in addition to antipersonnel mines and anti-vehicle mines in the surrounding reefs. Japan's Rear Admiral Shibasaki Meichi said that it would take the American forces "a million men and a hundred years" to capture the atoll.

Just before 0400 on 20 November 1943, the Southern Attack force carrying 2nd Marine Division troops deployed off Betio. In a preparatory bombardment for two hours before the landings, American ships and planes dumped tons of ordnance on Tarawa's fortifications, and from a distance it appeared nothing could survive the inferno. After the bombing and shelling, still before dawn, the first wave of Marines headed ashore. The small tracked LVTs had no difficulty crossing the reefs: 95% reached the reef and 85% reached the beach. The assault plan also called for a landing inside the lagoon on the north side of the island but the deeper-drafted LCVPs and LCMs could not get over the shallow reefs and the troops had to be unloaded into the water, onto rafts, on a pier that ran out beyond the reef, or onto the LVTs on their return trips. Many of the Marines just jumped into the water and waded ashore under fire.

The first day was brutal as the Japanese fired from their pillboxes, apparently little affected by the bombardment. The beaches were subjected to withering fire and many Marines never reached dry sand. Those ashore had to go from one pillbox to another with hand carried weapons, explosives and flame throwers to eradicate the defenders. One company of 14 M-4A2 Sherman medium tanks was landed on D-day, but some foundered offshore while most others were employed without infantry support and were quickly knocked out.

By the morning of 21 November the Marines established better control of the beaches. The fighting continued inland and proved to be some of the fiercest of the war, described as "unprecedented savagery". From 21-23 November, air and naval gunfire, and artillery brought ashore, assisted the Marines as they pushed the Japanese to the eastern end of the three mile long island. Sherman tanks were cannibalized to get a small number operational and they proved very effective when properly used. Hour by hour the Americans inched forward, while the defiant Japanese defenders were slowly crushed at great cost. "Bloody Tarawa," as it soon was known, required 76 hours before a final "Banzai" suicide charge of the Japanese ended the battle mid-afternoon on 23 November.

Approximately one thousand of the 5,600 American Marines that rushed the beaches of Tarawa gave their lives and another 2,000 were wounded. At least another 100 carrier plane pilots, as well as Navy, Coast Guard and Army personnel were also lost in the landing and support operations. Only 146 of the 4,800 Japanese defenders survived.

Aftermath of the Campaign in the Gilberts

The capture of Makin and Tarawa atolls, and nearby Apamama seized without opposition, the victories in the Solomon Islands, and the landings on New Guinea, marked a turning point for the Allies. They were now on the offensive and in each successive battle they drove the Japanese further west towards their home islands.

For the expenditure of lives in the Gilberts, the American forces obtained the anticipated strategic advantages. Shorter lines to the Southwest Pacific could now be maintained and Japanese interference with them could be more readily neutralized. A base was gained for operations against the Marshall Islands. The experience in taking a Pacific atoll taught valuable lessons regarding the use of preliminary bombardment, the coordination of Navy, Coast Guard, Army and Marine units and methods of eradicating entrenched fortifications manned by fanatical defenders. As the battle ended, the Seabees immediately began turning Tarawa into a forward base for the next campaign, against the Marshall Islands.

The American public was alarmed by the cost. Alerted by war correspondents about the horrific battle, headlines and editorials complained of the tragedy, the bloody losses, and the inevitable mismanaged elements of the campaign. But the lessons learned were priceless and would pay dividends in the hard fighting still in the future of island warfare in the Pacific.

Recommended Books about Tarawa and Makin

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