Battle of Tarawa

From Academic Kids

Template:Battlebox The Battle of Tarawa was a battle in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. It was the second time the United States was on the offensive (the Battle of Guadalcanal 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 opposition to an amphibious landing. Previous landings met little or no initial resistance; Tarawa was to be different.



In order to set up forward air bases capable of supporting operations across the mid-Pacific, the Philippines, and into Japan itself, the US 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 "soften up" the defenses. However the nearest islands capable of supporting such an effort were the Marshall Islands, northwest of Guadalcanal. Taking the Marshalls would provide the base needed to launch an offensive on the Marianas, but was itself 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, in order to eventually launch an invasion of the Marianas, the battles had to start far to the east, at Tarawa.

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Map of Kiribati

The Japanese forces were well aware of the Gilberts' strategic location, and had invested considerable time and effort fortifying the island. The garrison consisted primarily of 2,600 Imperial Marines, the elite of the Japanese forces. In order to bolster the defenses, 1,000 Japanese and 1,200 Korean workers were brought in as well. A series of fourteen coastal defense guns, including some 8-inch guns taken from the defenses at Singapore, were located around the island and placed in concrete bunkers. A total of 500 pillboxes, "stockades" build 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 some sort of cover. Rear-Admiral Shibasaki Keiji, who commanded the garrison, had boasted that it would take one-million men one hundred years to conquer Tarawa.

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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 lagoon.

November 20th

The American invasion force was the largest yet put together for a single operation, consisting of 17 aircraft carriers, 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 37th Infantry Division, for a total of about 35,000 soldiers.

The naval forces opened fire on 20 November, 1943, shelling continually for over an hour and a half, stopping only briefly to allow dive bombers from the carriers to operate against the 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 a moonscape. By the time of the invasion, it was thought that no one would be left to defend what was left of the tiny island.

The attack plan consisted of three major beaches along the northern coast of the island, Red 1 through 3, 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 off shore. The Japanese, hiding in deep shelters during the bombardment, quickly manned their guns when the naval fire stopped to allow the Marines to unload. Japanese fire from the island soon started up, and the boats caught on the reef were soon burning. Troops jumped out and started making their way ashore, under machine gun fire the entire time. The small number of amphtrack amphibious tractors were able to make it over the reef, with some difficultly, but many were knocked out by larger guns as they climbed over, and half were out of action by the end of the day. The first 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. Three were able to land on the western end and helped push the line in to about 300 yards 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 was down to a single tank as well.

By noon the Marines had successfully taken the beach as far as the first line of Japanese defences. 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 one of the Japanese Marines swam out to one of the disabled amphitracks and brought its .50 caliber machine gun into action into the rear of the Marine lines. By the time the US forces retook the ship, several units had been injured or killed.

November 21st

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.

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 one by one. 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 cut them off from each other for some time. By noon the US 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 13:00 a message arrived that some of the defenders were making their way across the sandbars from the extreme eastern end of the island to the next island over, Bairiki. 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 when firing on them they went up in flames. 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).

The situation as a whole was not much better at the end of the second day than the first. The entire western end of the island was now in US control, as well as a fairly continual line between Red 2 and 3 around the airfield taxiways. 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 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 US gained momentum of the battle.

November 22nd

The battle for the third day consisted primarily of consolidation of existing lines, and moving onshore of additional heavy equipment and tanks. During the morning the forces originally landed on Red 1 made some progess towards Red 2, but at some cost. Meanwhile the units of the 6th 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 of the 6th was sufficiently organized and equipped to start an offensive. At 12:30 they started off, 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 US 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 US 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 23rd

At 04:00 the expected assault finally took place, in the location of the earlier probe at 23:00 the night before. After the battle ended about 1 hour later, 200 of the 300 men involved were found dead in front of the US lines, the vast majority due to artillery fire. By this point the Japanese had little left to defend the island with.

When the battle opened again the next morning, the US had little trouble forming up. The pockets remaining in the western end were gone by noon, while the 6th Marines continued their advance and reached the eastern tip of the island just past 13:00. A pocket remained near the eastern end of the runway until the afternoon.

The battle was essentially over by sunset, with the entirety of the island now a single continuous line. Nevertheless, small numbers of individual Japanese soldiers still came out of hiding during the night to continue the fight.


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

In the end only 17 Japanese and 129 Koreans were alive at the end of the battle. Total Japanese and Korean casualties are about 4,690 killed in action. For the United States, about 1,000 were killed in action, and a further 2,200 wounded. The 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 strategically unimportant island.

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