The Battle of Tarawa was a World War II battle which took place in the Pacific Theatre. It was fought between the US Marines and the Japanese Imperial Troops, from November 20 to November 23, 1943 on the Tarawa Atoll. After the Battle of Guadalcanal, it was the second time the United States was on the offensive. The Battle of Tarawa was one of the bloodiest battle in the Pacific as the 3,800 Japanese troops fought almost to the last man and 7 out 10 marines were killed in action.
The U.S. needed to take the Marianas Islands to stablish forward air bases capable of supporting operations across the mid-Pacific, to the Philippines, and into Japan. As the Marianas were heavily defended, land-based bombers would have to be used to destroy 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.
The Betio island of Tarawa Atoll was defended by a force of 3,800 Japanese marines, under the command of Takeo Sugai, plus 1,200 Korean workers. These troops were deeply entreched in bunkers and holes as the island bristled with about 500 machine gun pillboxes, which had been built from logs. Forty artillery pieces were scattered around the island.
The American force selected to carry out the task of taking Tarawa was the US 2nd Marine Division, which had fought alongside the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal. It was made up of five regiments, three of which were infantry regiments, 2nd, 6th and 8th, one was an artillery regiment (10th) and a Combat Support regiment (18th) with combat engineers, pioneers and Seabees (from CB – construction battalion). A Marine infantry regiment (approximately 3,500 men) had three rifle battalions. The US force was under the command of Julian C. Smith. This military operation code name was "Galvanic".
The Battle of Tarawa began on the morning of November 20, 1943, when the American naval forces opened fire on the Japanese positions. The naval artillery barrage lasted an hour and a half, then stopped only briefly to allow dive bombers from the carriers to operate against fixed positions. Most of the larger Japanese guns on the island were knocked out during the bombardment. The island was at most points only a few hundred yards wide and the bombing turned much of it into rubble.
The Marines sailed into the lagoon on their landing craft at 09:00 hours, later than expected, and found themselves stranded on a reef some 500 yards (460 m) off shore due to a miscalculation of the waters depth. Without naval bombardment to cover the Marines, the Japanese emerged from the deep pillboxes and foxholes where they had sheltered from the naval gunfire and quickly manned their emplaced gun positions. The Navy boats stuck on the reef were soon set on fire by the Japanese artillery and mortar fire as troops jumped out of the boats and began wading ashore under machine gun fire. A small number of Amtrac amphibious tractors were able to make it over the reef, with some difficulty, but about half of them were knocked out by larger guns as they climbed over the reef. The first assault wave was only able to land a few men, who were pinned down against the log wall on the beach.
At 12:00 hours, the Marines had successfully taken the beach as far as the first line of Japanese defenses, but they were still being pinned down by Japanese mortar and machine gun fire. The arrival of the tanks relieved the situation and the line started to move on Beach Red 3 and the end of Red 2, which was the right flank, looking south towards the island. 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 troops kept shooting at the Marines. In one action, a Japanese Marine swam out to one of the disabled amtracs and brought its .50-caliber M2 machine gun into action against the rear of the Marine lines. By the time U.S. forces retook the vehicle, several men had been mown down.
On November 21, the Marines cut the Japanese forces in two, by expanding the bulge near the airfield until it reached the southern shore. Meanwhile the forces on Beach Red 1 secured their sector, Green beach, and the entire western end of the island.
Taking Green proved 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 bombing, the American troops were able to take the positions in about an hour with few losses.
On November 22, the Marines consolidated of existing lines, allowing additional heavy equipment and tanks be landed on the island. During the morning the forces originally landed on Red 1 made some progress towards Red 2 but at some cost. By the afternoon the 1st Battalion 6th Marines got organized and equipped to take the offensive. At 12:30 they started 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 squeezed into the tiny amount of land to the east of the airstrip.
On November 23, 1943, as the Marines advanced towards the other end of Betio island, the remainder of the Japanese forces launched a desperate counteroffensive. When the battle finally ended, at 17:00 hours, 200 of the 300 attackers were found dead in front of the U.S. lines, most of them killed my machine gun and rifle fire. Only one Japanese officer, 16 enlisted men and 129 Koreans were alive at the end of the Battle of Tarawa.