Tarawa wreath laying commemorates one of Marine Corps' bloodiest battles

29 Aug 2000 | SSgt. Stephen Gude 13 MEU(SOC) Public Affairs Chief

More than 1,000 Marines and Sailors died in a seminal battle on a sickle-shaped atoll in the Pacific called Tarawa.  December 7, 1941 may have been a "day which will live in infamy," in United States history, but the Tarawa battle of Nov. 20-23, 1943, was a battle which changed Marine Corps amphibious warfare and the course of World War II.

Nearly 100 Marines and Sailors from 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) and ships of Tarawa Amphibious Ready Group visited the scene of the battle Aug. 29, conducting a wreath-laying ceremony at a battle memorial.

The Tarawa atoll was the southeastern-most expansion of the Japanese empire during WW II.  In military terms, it was strategically located on the eastern approaches to the Marshall Islands and was a threat to Allied communication between the central and south Pacific.

The Japanese realized the importance of the atoll.  Upon the two-mile long island of Betio were 2,600 Imperial marines, along with 1,000 Japanese construction workers and 1,200 Korean laborers who were pressed into service.  Besides an airstrip, these men built bunkers, pillboxes, an array of tunnels connecting these emplacements and a four-foot seawall made of coconut logs, guarded with 100 machine gun emplacements.  The garrison was commanded by Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki, who boasted "A million men cannot take Tarawa in 100 years."

It took the Marines only 76 hours.

Any doubts of American resolve to take the atoll were quickly dispelled, given the force unleashed against the 4,700 Japanese defenders: 17 aircraft carriers, 12 battleships, 12 cruisers (heavy and light) and 66 destroyers.  Huge numbers of landing ships carried the 2nd Marine Division and elements of the Army's 27th Infantry Division.  All told, 35,000 Marines and soldiers were available for the assault.

Mistakes were commonplace at Betio November 20.  Air and naval bombardment should have continued until the Marines had reached shore.

Compounding that problem was the tide, which was low and caused the Higgins boats to become stuck on the coral reef.  Marines on these 36x10 foot craft had to wade ashore, and were easy targets for the Japanese machine guns and mortars.  The amtracs also found it rough going over the tough coral reef, making large targets for the Japanese machine gunners, whose bullets tore through the lightly armored vehicles. 

By 10 p.m. on D-day, the toll was terrible.  Casualties among the first wave of attackers reached as much as 75 percent.  However, the heavy bombardment before the landing did sever Japanese communication lines, so the few Marines who had established a beachhead were safe from a Japanese counterassault and waited for reinforcements to arrive.

Even these reinforcements fell prey to Japanese guile and ingenuity.  Some Japanese defenders swam to the wrecked craft the night before and set up machine guns, delivering fire on the Marines on the beach and the Marines wading through the coral to shore.  Not only did the reinforcements have trouble getting to the beach because of this harrassing fire, but the tides were low, causing the Higgins boats to get stuck again and causing the amtracs problems as well. 

Despite these problems, the Marines finally cut a swath across the half-mile wide island, and established a beachhead.  More men and supplies poured in, including tanks, which helped turn the tide of battle even more in favor of the Marines. 

Betio was officially declared secure at 1:10 p.m., November 23.  The small patch of land brought immediate dividends, as planes began landing on its airstrip that same day, but the dividends came at a high price: more than 1,000 Marines and Sailors killed, and more than 3,000 wounded.  Of the 4,850 Japanese defenders, only 150 survived.

The lessons learned from the battle were profound, causing wide-ranging changes to American amphibious tactics.  These changes included:

* Amtracs being strengthened with thicker armor and more powerful weaponry.

* Intelligence increased and refined to provide accurate data on water depth and tidal conditions.

* It became understood among American war planners that enemies behind bunkers and deeply entrenched could withstand massive aerial and naval bombardment.

* Precision bombing, rocket or naval attacks was needed to destroy heavily fortified positions.

* Underwater demolition teams were organized to destroy natural and artificial obstacles before future atoll landings.

The impact of these changes was demonstrated by the success of the remainder of the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific, but the lessons of courage, valor and the sheer will of man demonstrated on "Tarawa, bloody Tarawa" were ingrained into the collective conscious of the Marine Corps.

13th Marine Expeditionary Unit