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Coordinates: 1°25′37.00″N 172°58′32.00″E / 1.42694°N 172.97556°E / 1.42694; 172.97556

Battle of Tarawa
Part of World War II, Pacific War
Lt Alexander Bonnyman (4th from right) and his assault party storming a Japanese stronghold. Bonnyman received the Medal of Honor posthumously.
Date November 20 – 23, 1943
Location Betio, Tarawa Atoll
Result United States victory
 United States Japan Empire of Japan
United States Julian C. Smith Japan Keiji Shibazaki 
35,000 troops 3,000 troops,
1,000 Japanese and 1,200 Korean laborers
Casualties and losses
U.S Marine Corps:
1,000 killed[1]
2,296 wounded[1]
U.S Navy:
687 killed[1]
All but 146 of 5,000 killed[2]
17 Japanese and 129 Koreans captured
Map of Tarawa Atoll
Map of Betio, Tarawa Atoll
Marines seek cover behind a sea wall on Red Beach 3, Tarawa.
A Marine from 1st Marine Division uses a flamethrower to clear a path through what was once a thick jungle.
A Marine fires on a Japanese pillbox.

The Battle of Tarawa was a battle in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, largely fought from November 20 to November 23, 1943. It was the second time the United States was on the offensive (the Guadalcanal Campaign had been the first), and the first offensive in the critical central Pacific region.

It was also the first time in the war that the United States faced serious Japanese opposition to an amphibious landing. Previous landings met little or no initial resistance. The 4,500 Japanese defenders were well-supplied and well-prepared, and they fought almost to the last man, exacting a heavy toll on the American Marines. Medals of Honor were awarded to 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman, Staff Sgt. William J. Bordelon, 1st Lt. William D. Hawkins, and Col. David M. Shoup.[3]



In order to set up forward air bases capable of supporting operations across the mid-Pacific, to the Philippines, and into Japan, the U.S. needed to take the Marianas Islands. The Marianas were heavily defended, and in order for attacks against them to succeed, land-based bombers would have to be used to weaken the defenses. The nearest islands capable of supporting such an effort were the Marshall Islands, northeast of Guadalcanal. Taking the Marshalls would provide the base needed to launch an offensive on the Marianas but the Marshalls were cut off from direct communications with Hawaii by a garrison on the small island of Betio, on the western side of Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands. Thus, to eventually launch an invasion of the Marianas, the battles had to start far to the east, at Tarawa.

The Japanese forces were well aware of the Gilberts' strategic location and had invested considerable time and effort fortifying the island. The 7th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Force of 2,619 men under the command of Commander Takeo Sugai was an elite Japanese marine unit. This unit possessed 14 Type 95 light tanks led by Ensign Ohtani. In order to bolster the defenses, the 1,247 men of the 111th Pioneers (similar to American Seabees) along with the 970 men of the Fourth Fleet's construction battalion were brought in; approximately 1,200 of the men in these two groups were Korean forced laborers. A series of fourteen coastal defense guns, including some 8-inch guns bought from the British before the war, were located around the island and placed in concrete bunkers. A total of 500 pillboxes, "stockades" built from logs, and forty artillery pieces were scattered around the island. An airfield was cut into the bush along the high point of the island. Trenches connected all points of the island, allowing troops to move where needed under cover. Kaigun Shōshō Keiji Shibazaki, who commanded the garrison, had boasted that "it would take one million men one hundred years" to conquer Tarawa.

Betio is shaped roughly like a long, thin triangle, with the point to the east and the base on the west. The lagoon of the atoll lies to the north and east, with the entire northern coast of the island in the shallow waters of the atoll, and the southern and western sides in deeper waters. An attack would almost certainly have to approach from the lagoon; the deeper waters on the south offered no reasonable landing areas. In order to prevent this, a huge wall was constructed across the lagoon just in from the high water mark, behind which a series of machine gun posts and pillboxes could fire on anyone trying to get over the wall. A long pier was constructed pointing north from the western end of the island, allowing cargo ships to be unloaded out past the reefs and shallow waters, while still allowing them to anchor in the protected waters of the shallow lagoon.

The battle


November 20

The American invasion force was the largest yet assembled for a single operation in the Pacific, consisting of 17 aircraft carriers (6 CVs, 5 CVLs, 6 CVEs), 12 battleships, 8 heavy and 4 light cruisers, 66 destroyers, and 36 transports. The force carried the 2nd Marine Division and a part of the Army's 27th Infantry Division, for a total of about 35,000 soldiers and Marines.

The naval forces opened fire on November 20, 1943, shelling continually for over an hour and a half, stopping only briefly to allow dive bombers from the carriers to operate against fixed positions. Most of the larger Japanese guns were knocked out during this period. The island was at most points only a few hundred yards wide and the bombardment turned much of it into rubble. By the time of the invasion it was thought that no one would remain to defend what was left of the tiny island.

The attack plan consisted of three major beaches, Red 1 through Red 3, along the northern coast of the island; Red 1 on the extreme west at the "toe" of the island and Red 3 to the east against the pier. Beaches Green and Black were the western base and southern shore respectively, and not considered suitable for initial landings. The airstrip, running roughly east-west, divided the island into north and south.

The Marines started their attack on the lagoon at 09:00, later than expected, and found themselves stuck on a reef some 500 yards (460 m) off shore. Marine battle planners had allowed for Betio's neap tide and expected the normal rising tide to provide a water depth of 5 feet (1.5 m) over the reef, allowing larger landing craft, with drafts of at least four feet (1.2 m), to pass with room to spare. But that day and the next, in the words of some observers, “the ocean just sat there,” leaving a mean depth of three feet (0.9 m) over the reef. (The neap tide phenomenon occurs twice a month when the moon is near its first or last quarter, because the countering tug of the sun causes water levels to deviate less. But for two days the moon was at its farthest point from earth and exerted even less pull, leaving the waters relatively undisturbed.)

When the supporting naval bombardment stopped to allow the Marines to land, the Japanese emerged from the deep shelters where they had sheltered from the naval gunfire and quickly manned their emplaced gun positions. The Navy boats caught on the reef were soon set on fire by the Japanese artillery and mortar fire. Troops jumped out of the boats and started making their way ashore, under machine gun fire the entire time. The small number of Amtrac amphibious tractors were able to make it over the reef, with some difficulty, but many were knocked out by larger guns as they climbed over the reef, and half of the Amtracs were out of action by the end of the day. The first assault wave was only able to land a few men, who were pinned down against the log wall on the beach.

Several early attempts to land tanks and break through the wall failed when the landing craft were hit on the run in and either sank or had to withdraw while taking on water. Two tanks eventually landed on the east end of the beach but were knocked out of action fairly quickly. Another three tanks were able to land on the western end and helped push the line in to about 300 yards (270 m) from shore, but one of these fell into a shell hole and another was taken out by a magnetic mine. The remaining tank was used as a portable machine gun pillbox for the rest of the day. A third platoon was able to land all four of their tanks on Red 3 around noon and operate successfully for much of the day, but by the end of the day only one tank was still operable.

By noon the Marines had successfully taken the beach as far as the first line of Japanese defenses. By 15:30 the line had moved inland in places but was still generally along the first line of defenses. The arrival of the tanks started the line moving on Red 3 and the end of Red 2 (the right flank, looking south towards the island), and by nightfall the line was about half-way across the island, only a short distance from the main runway.

During the later hours the Japanese defenders continued harassing fire. In one action, a Japanese Marine swam out to one of the disabled amtracs and brought its .50-caliber (12.7mm) M2 machine gun into action against the rear of the U.S. Marine lines. By the time U.S. forces retook the vehicle, several men had been injured or killed.

November 21

With the Marines holding a line on the island, the second day turned to cutting the Japanese forces in two, by expanding the bulge near the airfield until it reached the southern shore. Meanwhile the forces on Red 1 were instructed to secure Green beach, the entire western end of the island. A platoon of American war dogs was inserted into the conflict in order to help clear caves and bunkers. (There were no caves on Betio, which is barely 5 feet above see level).

In the end, taking Green proved somewhat easier than expected. With heavy resistance all through the area, the commander decided to avoid direct combat and instead called in naval fire from offshore. Inching their way forward during the day, the artillery spotters were able to take out machine gun posts and remaining defenses. After the fire stopped, the troops were able to take the positions in about an hour with few losses.

Operations along Red 2 and Red 3 were considerably more difficult. During the night the defenders had set up several new machine gun posts between the closest approach of the forces from the two beaches, and fire from those machine gun nests cut off the American forces from each other for some time. By noon the U.S. forces had brought up their own heavy machine guns, and the Japanese posts were put out of action. By the early afternoon they had crossed the airstrip and had occupied abandoned defensive works on the south side.

Around 12:30 a message arrived that some of the defenders were making their way across the sandbars from the extreme eastern end of the islet to Bairiki, the next islet over. Portions of the 6th Marines were then ordered to land on Bairiki to seal off the retreat path. They formed up, including tanks and pack artillery, and were able to start their landings at 16:55. They received machine gun fire, so aircraft were sent in to try to locate the guns and suppress them. The force landed with no further fire, and it was later found that only a single pillbox with 12 machine guns had been set up by the forces that had been assumed to be escaping. They had a small tank of gasoline in their pillbox, and when it was hit with fire from the aircraft the entire force was burned. Meanwhile other units of the 6th were sent onto Green north (near Red 1).

By the end of the day, the entire western end of the island was in U.S. control, as well as a fairly continual line between Red 2 and Red 3 around the airfield aprons. A separate group had moved across the airfield and set up a perimeter on the southern side, up against Black 2. The groups were not in contact with each other, with a gap of over 500 yards (460 m) between the forces at Red 1/Green and Red 2, and the lines on the northern side inland from Red 2/Red 3 were not continuous. Nevertheless it is at this point, as seen in retrospect, that the U.S. began to gain the advantage.

The atoll commander, Kaigun Shōshō Keiji Shibazaki, was killed in his concrete command post, complicating Japanese command issues.

November 22

1-6 battalion insignia.png

The third day of the battle consisted primarily of the consolidation of existing lines and the moving onshore of additional heavy equipment and tanks. During the morning the forces originally landed on Red 1 made some progress towards Red 2 but at some cost. Meanwhile the units of the 6th Marines landed on Green to the south of Red 1 formed up while the remaining battalion of the 6th landed.

By the afternoon the 1st Battalion 6th Marines was sufficiently organized and equipped to take the offensive. At 12:30 they started and were soon pursuing the Japanese forces across the southern coast of the island. By the late afternoon they had reached the eastern end of the airfield and formed a continuous line with the forces that had landed on Red 3 two days earlier.

By the evening the U.S. clearly had the upper hand. The remaining Japanese forces were either squeezed into the tiny amount of land to the east of the airstrip, or located in several pockets near Red 1/Red 2 or near the eastern edge of the airstrip.

Realizing this, the Japanese forces formed up for a counterattack, which started at about 19:30. Small units were sent in to infiltrate the U.S. lines in preparation for a full-scale assault but were beaten off by concentrated artillery fire, and the assault never took place. Another attempt was made at 23:00 and made some progress.

November 23

At 04:00 the expected Japanese assault finally took place, in the same location as the probe five hours earlier. When the battle ended about an hour later, 200 of the 300 attackers were found dead in front of the U.S. lines, the vast majority killed by artillery fire. The Japanese had little left with which to defend the atoll.

Disabled U.S. LVTs and a Japanese Ha-Go tank on Tarawa litter the beach after the battle.


For the next several days the 2nd Battalion 6th Marines landed on Bairiki, moved up the remaining islands in the atoll to clean up, completing this on November 28. Portions of the 2nd Marine Division started leaving soon after and were completely withdrawn by early 1944.

Only one Japanese officer, 16 enlisted men and 129 Koreans were alive at the end of the battle. Total Japanese and Korean casualties were about 4,713 dead. For the U.S. Marine Corps, 990 were killed and a further 2,296 wounded. A total of 687 U. S. Navy personnel also lost their lives in the landing attempts, giving a total of 1,677 American dead. Although the United States forces were seven times larger than the defending garrison, the Japanese were able to inflict substantial damage upon the U.S. force.

These heavy casualties sparked off a storm of protest in the United States, where the high losses could not be understood for such a tiny and seemingly unimportant island in the middle of nowhere. Writing after the war, Marine General Holland M. Smith asked,

"Was Tarawa worth it?" "My answer," he said, "is unqualified: No. From the very beginning the decision of the Joint Chiefs to seize Tarawa was a mistake and from their initial mistake grew the terrible drama of errors, errors of omission rather than commission, resulting in these needless casualties." Thought Smith, "[We] should have let Tarawa 'wither on the vine.' We could have kept it neutralized from our bases on Baker Island, to the east, and the Ellice and Phoenix Islands, a short distance to the southeast.[4]

The losses at Tarawa can be explained by the difficulty of coordinating combined amphibious operations, one of the most demanding military missions. At the time, Tarawa was the most heavily defended atoll invaded by Allied forces in the Pacific. But the lessons learned at Tarawa would be applied in the Battle of Iwo Jima.

See also



  1. ^ a b c Wright 2001, p. 93.
  2. ^ Wright 2001, p. 94
  3. ^ "Medal of Honor". Tarawa on the Web. 2005-04-18. Retrieved 2007-12-10. 
  4. ^ Smith 1949, pp. 111-112.


Further reading

External links


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