Tarawa, Battle of (1943)

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Tarawa, Battle of (1943). In June 1943, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas/Pacific Fleet, to invade the Japanese‐held Gilbert Islands with a target date of November 15. The immediate objective of the Fifth Fleet would be Tarawa Atoll, with the target Betio Island. The Fifth Amphibious Force, under Rear Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner, would carry and support the V Amphibious Corps (VAC) under Marine Maj. Gen. Holland M. Smith. The landing force would be the 2d Marine Division. Betio was two miles long, 500 yards wide at its broadest, and in no place more than 10 feet above sea level. Most of it was filled with an airstrip; the rest was comprised of fortifications and more than 200 guns including two British‐made eight‐inch naval rifles. The commander of the 5,000‐man island garrison was Rear Adm. Keichi Shibasaki. The United States decided to land three battalions abreast on the northern, or lagoon, side of the island. The transports would have to stand outside the atoll, there would be a long approach of ten miles for the landing craft, and it was questionable if there would be enough water over the reef to allow them to get to the beach. As a result, the Marines would have to depend on thin‐skinned amphibian tractors, or amtracs, barely tested at Guadalcanal. Just 100 were available, enough for the first three waves. In the assault was the 2d Marines, reinforced by the 8th Marines, also an infantry regiment. The 6th Marines, the third infantry regiment of the 2d Division, was held in corps reserve. H‐hour was 8:30, November 20. The first waves touched down ashore at 9:14. Behind them, ordinary landing craft were stopped at the edge of the reef and Marines on board had to wade in a half mile under heavy fire. By nightfall, Marines held a shallow box‐shaped perimeter with elements of four battalions, and another battalion held a tiny beachhead on the western end of the island. The remaining assault battalion was still afloat beyond the reef. On the morning of November 21, the Marines jumped off in the attack, and by evening reached the south side of the island. Sometime during the day, Admiral Shibasaki died in his bunker. On the west end of the island, a fresh battalion was landed. By the evening of November 22, the Marines held the western two‐thirds of Betio. The next day, another previously uncommitted battalion continued the attack eastward. Maj. Gen. Julian C. Smith, commander of the 2d Marine Division, declared the island secured. His division, which had begun the battle with 18,600 Marines, counted 990 dead and 2,391 wounded. Four Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor, three posthumously. The Tarawa operation was the first assault in the Pacific War against a heavily defended island, and many lessons were learned from it, including the need for many more amtracs. The operation was extensively recorded on 35mm news film, subsequently shown in theaters across the country. Shots of dead Marines floating along the Tarawa beaches brought the war home graphically to the American people.
[See also Marine Corps, U.S.: 1914–1945; World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


Joseph H. Alexander , Across the Reef: The Marine Assault of Tarawa, 1993.

Benis M. Frank