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November 20th 1943 Battle of Tarawa - History

November 20th 1943 Battle of Tarawa - History

Marines in Tarawa

Tarawa Island in the Gilberts was one the first islands in the Central Pacific to be invaded by the Americans. In a four day battle that cost over 2,000 American dead the island was captured.


Tarawa Atoll located in the Gilbert Islands blocked the American planned offensive in the central Pacific. In order to capture the Marshall Islands and from there the Marianas Islands Tarawa had to be captured. The Japanese had heavily fortified the island and had 2,636 troops and 2,200 construction workers on the Island.

The Allies sent the largest armada to date in the Pacific to attack the island. 17 aircraft carriers, 12 battleships, 8 heavy cruisers, 4 light cruisers, 66 destroyers and 36 transportation ships made there way to the Island. In total 1 US Marine division of 18,000 men plus another 18,000 army troops prepared to attack.

In the predawn hours of November 20th the American fleet began to bombard the island. It quickly destroyed 3 out of 4 of the Japanese heavy guns. After a three hour bombardment minesweepers entered the lagoon and cleared it of mines. Landing craft were guided into the lagoon ready to land. The first serious problem that developed was that the daily high tide that the navy was anticipating to allow the landing crafts to float over the reef did not materialize. As a result only smaller LVT’s could make it over the reef, limiting the numbers of troops that could make it ashore.

Those marines that eventually landed were forced to seek shelter at the sea wall. Despite strong Japanese resistance the overwhelming numbers of the American forced together with their strong air and sea support allowed them to slowly advance. By noon the Marines had reached the first line of Japanese defensive positions. In the afternoon the first American tanks were able to make it ashore and slowly the American forces advanced. By nightfall they had advanced halfway across the narrow island.

It took three more days to complete the capture of the island. Whenever the marines or army troops were pinned down by a Japanese defensive position a naval gun would successfully eliminate the obstacle. Fighting remained fierce but the outcome was never in doubt. The cost was high. On the fourth day the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay was sunk by a Japanese submarine. 687 sailors went down with the ship. A total of 1,689 American service men lost their lives and2,101 were wounded. All of the casualties , occurred in four day of intensive fighting.


Introduction war that took place between Americans

The battle of Tarawa refers to a war that occurred from 20th to 23rd November of 1943 during the Second World War in the Pacific Ocean. This is the second time the United States of America seriously provoked people and the peace in the central pacific areas. This was also the first time ever the United States was wagging a war against Japan’s opposition to a cold ending.

The initial attempt by the United States to take over Japan was fruitless as the Japanese solders were well equipped and well trained so much so that they overpowered the American marine solders and won the battle. The battle was so fierce that hundreds of American solders were injured and seriously wounded during the war and many more bodies could not be sent back to their homeland. The images of the bodies taken when the film of this war was taken way back in 1994 were said to be distressing according to the people’s views. For this film to be availed to the public view the film maker had to obtain permission from the then president Franklin Roosevelt. This film to this very moment is considered the only film that has been given the most horrific pictures of the dead American solders. This paper discusses the war that took place between Americans and Japanese at the island of Tarawa. It explains every undertaking of both the groups involved, the type of weapons they used and the mode of attack.

The paper provides details on how the war went on for the four days as well as the events that took place during the operations of the days and nights.


Tarawa, Battle of (1943)

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� World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course.]

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

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November 20th 1943 Battle of Tarawa - History

Setting the Stage

The Gilbert Islands consist of 16 scattered atolls lying along the equator in the Central Pacific. Tarawa Atoll is 2,085 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor and 540 miles southeast of Kwajalein in the Marshalls. Betio is the principal island in the atoll.

The Japanese seized Tarawa and Makin from the British within the first three days after Pearl Harbor. Carlson's brief raid in August 1942 caused the Japanese to realize their vulnerability in the Gilberts. Shortly after the raid, the 6th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force arrived in the islands. With them came Rear Admiral Tomanari Saichiro, a superb engineer, who directed the construction of sophisticated defensive positions on Betio. Saichiro's primary goal was to make Betio so formidable that an American assault would be stalled at the water's edge, allowing time for the other elements of the Yogaki ("Waylaying Attack") Plan to destroy the landing force.

The Yogaki Plan was the Japanese strategy to defend eastern Micronesia from an Allied invasion. Japanese commanders agreed to counterattack with bombers, submarines, and the main battle fleet. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet/Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas (CinCPac/CinCPOA), took these capabilities seriously. Nimitz directed Spruance to "get the hell in and get the hell out!" Spruance in turn warned his subordinates to seize the target islands in the Gilberts "with lightning speed." This sense of urgency had a major influence on the Tarawa campaign.

Japanese Special Naval Landing Force troops mount a British-made, Vickers eight-inch naval cannon into its turret on Betio before the battle. This film was developed from a Japanese camera found in the ruins while the battle was still on. Marine Corps Personal Papers, Boardman Collection

The Joint Chiefs of Staff assigned the code name Galvanic to the campaign to capture Tarawa, Makin, and Apamama in the Gilberts. The 2d Marine Division was assigned Tarawa and Apamama (a company-sized operation) the Army's 165th Regimental Combat Team of the 27th Infantry Division would tackle Makin.

By coincidence, each of the three landing force commanders in Operation Galvanic was a major general named Smith. The senior of these was a Marine, Holland M. "Howling Mad" Smith, commanding V Amphibious Corps. Julian C. Smith commanded the 2d Marine Division. Army Major General Ralph C. Smith commanded the 27th Infantry Division.

Spruance assigned Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly "Terrible" Turner, veteran of the Guadalcanal campaign, to command all amphibious forces for the operation. Turner, accompanied by Holland Smith, decided to command the northern group, Task Force 52, for the assault on Makin. Turner assigned Rear Admiral Harry W. "Handsome Harry" Hill to command the southern group, Task Force 53, for the assault on Tarawa. Julian Smith would accompany Hill on board the old battleship USS Maryland (BB 46). The two officers were opposites—Hill, out spoken and impetuous Julian Smith, reserved and reflective—but they worked together well. Spruance set D-Day for 20 November 1943.

Colonel Shoup came up with an idea of how to tackle Betio's barrier reefs. He had observed the Marines new Landing Vehicle Tracked (LVT or "Alligator"), an amphibian tractor, in operation during Guadalcanal. The Alligators were unarmored logistic vehicles, not assault craft, but they were true amphibians, capable of being launched at sea and swimming ashore through moderate surf.

Shoup discussed the potential use of LVTs as assault craft with Major Henry C. Drewes, commanding the 2d Amphibian Tractor Battalion. Drewes liked the idea, but warned Shoup that many of his vehicles were in poor condition after the Guadalcanal campaign. At best, Drewes could provide a maximum of 75 vehicles, not nearly enough to carry the entire assault and following waves. Further, the thin hulls of the vehicles were vulnerable to every enemy weapon and would require some form of jury-rigged armor plating for minimal protection. Shoup encouraged Drewes to modify the vehicles with whatever armor plate he could scrounge.

General Julian Smith was aware that a number of LVT-2s were stockpiled in San Diego, and he submitted an urgent request for 100 of the newer models to the corps commander. Holland Smith endorsed the request favorably, but Admiral Turner disagreed. The two strong-willed officers were doctrinally equal during the planning phase, and the argument was intense. While Turner did not dispute the Marines' need for a reef-crossing capability, he objected to the fact that the new vehicles would have to be carried to Tarawa in tank landing ships (LSTs). The slow speed of the LSTs (8.5 knots max) would require a separate convoy, additional escorts, and an increased risk of losing the element of strategic surprise. Holland Smith reduced the debate to bare essentials: "No LVTs, no operation." Turner acquiesced, but it was not a complete victory for the Marines. Half of the 100 new LVT-2s would go to the Army forces landing at Makin against much lighter opposition. The 50 Marine vehicles would not arrive in time for either work-up training or the rehearsal landings. The first time the infantry would lay eyes on the LVT-2s would be in the pre-dawn hours of D-Day at Tarawa—if then.


Heavy Toll On The Beaches Of Tarawa

A sizable force of 4,700 Japanese soldiers was stationed on Betio protecting an airfield and on November 20, destroyers and battleships from the U.S. staged a heavy assault on the three mile long island. As the battle progressed a US landing craft moved in on the island and got stuck on a reef because of the low-tide. This left the craft only 500 feet from shore and sitting in open Japanese fire. Out of the 800 Marines attempting to breach the island only 450 made it to shore. The enemy had sat quiet waiting for opportune moments and many of the Marines left wading to shore were struck down by gunfire.

More reinforcements were brought in by the Americans and the battle started to tilt in their direction with this and the loss of communication the Japanese felt. The Japanese were taught to fight or commit suicide so they turned all their attention to attacking the Marines over the next day. The Marines asked for reinforcements they didn’t get but managed to stand the attack and win.


The Battle of Tarawa would be the first of many amphibious landings made by the United States Marine Corps during World War 2. One of the greatest factors to arise out of the Tarawa Campaign, was that it helped convince the American public that they had a long, and bloody road ahead of them before victory would be achieved over the Japanese. The photographs of the numerous, dead Americans on the water’s edge would take back the public who had not been exposed to the gruesome details of many of the battles in the war. In just 4 days, there were almost 1,000 Marines who would lose their lives with a long way to go to get to Tokyo. As the main Atoll in the Gilbert Islands, Tarawa would mark the first step across the Pacific on America’s offensive in the Pacific Theater of war.

Alexander, Joseph H. (1995). Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa. Naval Institute Press.

“Battle of Tarawa,” Wikipedia Entry. Accessed March 9th, 2013.


Landing on Betio

The 2 nd Marines, who would head the landings on the 20th of November, believed that the mission was going to be a piece of cake. They could not have been more wrong.

On the night of the 19th of November, things started going wrong. Strong currents created chaos as troops transferred to their landing craft. Overnight air raids had not taken out the shore batteries as they were expected to. On the command ship, the USS Maryland, vibrations from the ship’s guns took out the communications equipment, disrupting coordination between the naval and air attacks and reducing their effectiveness.

Rear-Admiral Hill had calculated that the Amtracs would reach the shore in forty minutes, but this proved optimistic. As the bombardment of the shore stopped to avoid hitting the troops, they were still out at sea and exposed.

Marines at Tarawa

At ten past nine in the morning, the first troops reached the island. Facing little resistance, they ran up the beaches to the barrier of the log wall. All bombardment had ended ten minutes before, and the Japanese had had time to recover. Now facing ready defenders, most of the Americans became pinned down outside the wall.

Reefs surrounded many of the beaches 800 to 1,200 yards out. The water above them was shallower than the Americans had hoped, and most of the Amtracs became stuck. The soldiers had to disembark and wade ashore under enemy fire, some of them vanishing into holes in the reef and drowning. Officers and NCOs led the way and most were killed, leaving the troops leaderless. Communications equipment became waterlogged and failed. Troops became scattered by Japanese fire.

One of the problems with the operation was a lack of sufficient transports. Even as the second wave of men was landing, and with them the first tanks, the Amtracs were being sent back for more men. The numbers that should have given the Americans a huge advantage were not in place until late on.


Heavy Toll On The Beaches Of Tarawa

A sizable force of 4,700 Japanese soldiers was stationed on Betio protecting an airfield and on November 20, destroyers and battleships from the U.S. staged a heavy assault on the three mile long island. As the battle progressed a US landing craft moved in on the island and got stuck on a reef because of the low-tide. This left the craft only 500 feet from shore and sitting in open Japanese fire. Out of the 800 Marines attempting to breach the island only 450 made it to shore. The enemy had sat quiet waiting for opportune moments and many of the Marines left wading to shore were struck down by gunfire.

More reinforcements were brought in by the Americans and the battle started to tilt in their direction with this and the loss of communication the Japanese felt. The Japanese were taught to fight or commit suicide so they turned all their attention to attacking the Marines over the next day. The Marines asked for reinforcements they didn’t get but managed to stand the attack and win.


Tarawa is an old Gilbertese form for Te Rawa, meaning "The Passage" (of the Lagoon), because Tarawa is quite a unique atoll in Kiribati with a large ship passage or channel to the lagoon. [6] But in the popular etymology, due to Kiribati mythology, Nareau, the God-spider, distinguished Karawa, the sky, from Marawa, the Sea, from Tarawa, the land.

Tarawa has a large lagoon, widely open to Ocean, with a large ship pass, 500 square kilometres (193 square miles) in total area, and a wide reef. Although naturally abundant in fish and shellfish of all kinds, marine resources are being strained by the large and growing population. Drought is frequent, but in normal years rainfall is sufficient to maintain breadfruit, papaya and banana trees as well as coconut and pandanus.

North Tarawa consists of a string of islets from Buariki in the north to Buota in the south. The islets are separated in places by wide channels that are best crossed at low tide, and there is a ferry service between Buota and Abatao. [7] Only Buota is connected by road to South Tarawa, via a bridge.

On South Tarawa, the construction of causeways has now created a single strip of land from Betio in the west to Tanaea in the northeast. [8]

Climate Edit

Tarawa features a tropical rainforest climate (Af) under the Köppen climate classification. The climate is pleasant from April to October, with predominant northeastern winds and stable temperatures close to 30 °C (86 °F). From November to March, western gales bring rain and occasional cyclones. [2] [9] [10]

Precipitation varies significantly between islands. For example, the annual average is 3,000 mm (120 in) in the north and 500 mm (20 in) in the south of the Gilbert Islands. [9] Most of these islands are in the dry belt of the equatorial oceanic climatic zone and experience prolonged droughts. [10]

Climate data for Tarawa Airport (South Tarawa)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °C (°F) 35.0
(95.0)
33.0
(91.4)
35.0
(95.0)
34.5
(94.1)
34.5
(94.1)
33.5
(92.3)
34.5
(94.1)
34.5
(94.1)
34.5
(94.1)
35.0
(95.0)
35.0
(95.0)
35.0
(95.0)
35.0
(95.0)
Average high °C (°F) 30.7
(87.3)
30.6
(87.1)
30.7
(87.3)
30.7
(87.3)
30.8
(87.4)
30.8
(87.4)
30.9
(87.6)
31.0
(87.8)
31.1
(88.0)
31.2
(88.2)
31.3
(88.3)
30.9
(87.6)
30.9
(87.6)
Daily mean °C (°F) 28.2
(82.8)
28.1
(82.6)
28.1
(82.6)
28.2
(82.8)
28.4
(83.1)
28.3
(82.9)
28.2
(82.8)
28.3
(82.9)
28.4
(83.1)
28.6
(83.5)
28.5
(83.3)
28.2
(82.8)
28.3
(82.9)
Average low °C (°F) 25.3
(77.5)
25.3
(77.5)
25.2
(77.4)
25.3
(77.5)
25.5
(77.9)
25.3
(77.5)
25.1
(77.2)
25.2
(77.4)
25.3
(77.5)
25.4
(77.7)
25.4
(77.7)
25.3
(77.5)
25.3
(77.5)
Record low °C (°F) 21.5
(70.7)
22.5
(72.5)
22.5
(72.5)
22.5
(72.5)
21.0
(69.8)
21.0
(69.8)
21.0
(69.8)
21.5
(70.7)
22.5
(72.5)
22.0
(71.6)
22.5
(72.5)
22.0
(71.6)
21.0
(69.8)
Average precipitation mm (inches) 271
(10.7)
218
(8.6)
204
(8.0)
184
(7.2)
158
(6.2)
155
(6.1)
168
(6.6)
138
(5.4)
120
(4.7)
110
(4.3)
115
(4.5)
212
(8.3)
2,052
(80.8)
Average precipitation days (≥ 0.3 mm) 15 12 14 15 15 14 16 18 15 11 10 17 172
Average relative humidity (%) 81 80 81 82 81 81 80 79 77 77 79 81 80
Mean monthly sunshine hours 220.1 192.1 207.7 201.0 229.4 219.0 229.4 257.3 243.0 260.4 240.0 189.1 2,688.5
Mean daily sunshine hours 7.1 6.8 6.7 6.7 7.4 7.3 7.4 8.3 8.1 8.4 8.0 6.1 7.4
Source: Deutscher Wetterdienst [11]

Tarawa atoll has three administrative subdivisions: Betio Town Council (or BTC), on Betio Islet Teinainano Urban Council [it] (or TUC), from Bairiki to Tanaea and Eutan Tarawa Council (or ETC), for North Tarawa or Tarawa Ieta, consisting of all the islets on the east side from Buota northwards. [12] The meaning of Teinainano is "down of the mast", alluding to the sail-shape of the atoll. [ citation needed ]

South Tarawa hosts the capital of the Republic of Kiribati and was also the central headquarters of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands since 1895. The House of Assembly is in Ambo, and the State House is in Bairiki. The offices of the various ministries of the government range from Betio at the south-west extreme to Nawerewere (in an easterly island in its chain), close to Bonriki (International Airport) and Temwaiku. Settlements on North Tarawa include Buariki, Abaokoro, Marenanuka and Taborio.

Diplomatic missions Edit

Three resident diplomatic missions exist: the embassy of China (closed in 2003, re-opened in 2020), and the high commissions of Australia and New Zealand.

In Kiribati mythology, Tarawa was the earth when the land, ocean and sky had not been cleaved yet by Nareau the spider. Thus after calling the sky karawa and the ocean marawa, he called the piece of rock that Riiki (another god that Nareau found) had stood upon when he lifted up the sky as, Tarawa. Nareau then created the rest of the islands in Kiribati and also Samoa.

Gilbertese arrived on these islands thousands of years ago, and there have been migrations to and from Kiribati since antiquity. [13]

Evidence from a range of sources, including carbon dating and DNA analyses, confirms that the exploration of the Pacific included settlement of the Gilbert Islands by around 200 BC. The people of Tungaru (native name of the Gilbertese) are still excellent seafarers, capable of making ocean crossings in locally made vessels using traditional navigation techniques. [14]

Thomas Gilbert, captain of the East India Company vessel Charlotte, was the first European to describe Tarawa, arriving on 20 June 1788. He did not land. He named it Matthew Island, after the owner of his ship Charlotte. He named the lagoon, Charlotte Bay. [15] Gilbert's 1788 sketches survive.

The island was surveyed in 1841 by the US Exploring Expedition. [16]

Charles Richard Swayne, the first Resident Commissioner decided to install the central headquarters of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands protectorate in Tarawa in 1895. Tarawa Post Office opened on 1 January 1911. [17]

Sir Arthur Grimble was a cadet administrative officer based at Tarawa (1913–1919) [18] and became Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony in 1926. [19]

During World War II, Tarawa was occupied by the Japanese, and beginning on 20 November 1943 it was the scene of the bloody Battle of Tarawa. On that day United States Marines landed on Tarawa and fought Japanese soldiers occupying entrenched positions on the atoll. The Marines captured the island after 76 hours of intense fighting that killed 6,000 people on both sides.

The fierce fighting was the subject of a documentary film produced by the Combat Photographers of the Second Marine Division entitled With the Marines at Tarawa. It was released in March 1944 at the insistence of President Roosevelt. It became the first time many Americans viewed American servicemen dead on film. [ citation needed ]

The Kiribati Government commenced a road restoration project funded in part by the World Bank in 2014 to re-surface the main road between Betio in the West to Bonriki in the East, [20] upgrading the main road that transits Tarawa from a dirt road. As of 2018, all that remained to be completed of this project was the sealing of Japanese Causeway, connecting Bairiki and Betio, done in 2019.


Attack on Kwajalein, Roi and Namur

On January 30, 1944, after a massive air and naval bombardment lasting some two months, a U.S. Marine and Army amphibious assault force of 85,000 men and some 300 warships) approached the Marshall Islands. On February 1, the 7th Infantry (Army) Division landed on Kwajalein Island, while the 4th Marine Division landed on the twin islands of Roi and Namur, 45 miles to the north. A single Marine regiment captured Roi on that first day, while Namur fell by noon of the second day. The battle for Kwajalein would prove more difficult, as the 7th Infantry pounded the Japanese garrison there for three days until the island was declared secure on February 4.

Though greatly outnumbered from the start (by more than 40,000 on Kwajalein) the Japanese chose to fight until the bitter end. Japanese casualties on Roi and Namur numbered more than 3,500 killed and around 200 captured, with less than 200 Marines killed and some 500 more wounded. On Kwajalein, close to 5,000 Japanese defenders were killed and only a handful captured the 7th Infantry counted 177 soldiers killed and 1,000 wounded.