Bloody Tarawa: One Square Mile of Hell

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

There are some things that should not be forgotten, unfortunately many of them are lost to history. One of these events was the American assault against the Japanese fortress on Tarawa Atoll in November 1943. The battle was one of the bloodiest encounters of the Second World War and was waged for the control of a tiny coral atoll that only occupied one square mile of the earth’s s surface. Dug in on that atoll were about 4,000 Japanese defenders.

I hope that this small attempt to detail that battle helps you understand the sacrifice of the men who fought there.


Padre Steve+

The Decision: Operation Galvanic

USMC-M-Tarawa-3The Target: Betio Island at Tarawa Atoll

Following Guadalcanal and the shift of significant naval forces from the Solomons the focus of the US shifted to the thrust across the Central Pacific.  Unlike the Solomons which were initially a Navy and Marine Corps Operation and shifted to the Army under MacArthur as the campaign shifted to Borneo, the operations here would be an almost total Navy and Marine Corps operation. Operation Galvanic, the first offensive operation in the Central Pacific, came about as a result of the Joint U.S. Strategic Committee decision in April 1943 to favor an advance in the Central Pacific while maintaining the offensive in the South Pacific.[i] The driving force behind this strategy was Admiral King who fought for the plan and “insisted that any campaign should focus on the destruction of Japan’s overseas resources, which meant an offensive directed only toward the Western Pacific sea lanes.”[ii] The Joint Chiefs believed that a simultaneous attack by Nimitz in the Central Pacific and MacArthur in the South Pacific would “keep the Japanese guessing.”[iii] The decision was presented to the British at the TRIDENT meetings in May 1943 and though the British resisted the American plans a compromise was reached allowing the Americans to “simultaneously…maintain and extend unremitting pressure against Japan….”[iv]

japanese emplacing gunJapanese Emplacing 8″ Vickers Gun

The decision to begin operations in the Central Pacific meant that MacArthur’s priority in logistics and personnel would be reduced in order to launch the Central Pacific operation.  MacArthur protested, to no avail and the Joint Chief’s stood firm in their decision that the Central Pacific operation “would make it easier to isolate Japan from her domain in the south.”[v] MacArthur was allowed to continue OPERATION CARTWHEEL while Nimitz seized the Marshall and Caroline islands.[vi] Nimitz’s staff began preparations and decided on a conservative course to capture the Gilberts first before taking the more heavily defended Marshalls.[vii] This was in part due to the “need to minimize the risks to his untried amphibious forces against such heavily fortified enemy bases out of reach of air cover.”[viii]

japanese conducting firing exerciseJapanese conducting Live Fire Range prior to the Assault

Several factors were considered by Nimitz and his planners considerations in this choice.  Nimitz did not have enough troops to capture all of the vital heavily defended locations in the Marshalls without dividing his forces.[ix] Additionally the Gilbert operation could be supported by land based bombers.[x] A final consideration was the Joint Chief’s decision to allow MacArthur to retain control of 1st Marine Division which Nimitz had hoped would be available for operations in the Central Pacific.[xi] CINCPAC did a thorough photo reconnaissance of the Gilbert’s convinced the Joint Chiefs that Tarawa and Makin needed to be taken to provide air bases for the assault on the Marshalls.  Finally the order for Galvanic was issued on 20 July 1943 with its execution planned for November 1943.[xii]

Japanese Preparations

shibasakiAdmiral Shibasaki boasted that it would take a million men a thousand years to take Betio

The Japanese did little to prepare against potential American offensive operations against the Gilbert’s until Makin Island was raided by elements of 2ndRaider Battalion in August 1942.  The Makin raid shook the Japanese and at which time they reinforced Makin and occupied Betio.[xiii] The Japanese occupied Betio with the Yokosuka 6th Special Landing Force, essentially Naval Infantry or Marines[xiv] and the 111th Construction Battalion on 15 September 1942, over nine months after they attacked Pearl Harbor.[xv] These forces were commanded by Admiral Tomanari, who at once began to fortify Betio. Recognizing his need for more troops  Tomanari asked Tokyo for reinforcements.  The reinforcements came in the form of Commander Sugai’s 7thSasebo Special Naval Landing Force, which landed on 14 March.[xvi]Commander Sugai’s troops were the Rikusentai, the best of the Japanese Navy’s land forces.

USMC-M-Tarawa-p6Japanese Conducting Gunnery Exercises

The fortification of Betio proceeded slowly until the arrival of Rear Admiral Shibasaki, who relieved Tomanari who returned to Japan.[xvii] Shibasaki, a tough veteran of service at sea and ashore including 19 months as a Rikusentai[xviii] officer in China was chosen by Admiral Koga to instill a better fighting spirit on the island.  The Imperial General Headquarters “New Operations Plan” ordered the outer defensive islands, such as Tarawa, to “hold up any American advance while an inner line of fortresses was constructed….”[xix] Shibasaki drove the garrison hard, inspiring them to “extraordinary heights of labor that resulted in Betio’s superb defenses.”[xx]Betio mounted four 8” Naval guns[xxi], four 14 cm guns, four dual mount 5.5” dual purpose guns[xxii] six 80 mm anti-boat guns, eight 75 mm dual purpose guns, ten 75 mm mountain guns, six 70 mm guns and nine 37 mm anti-tank guns, numerous machine guns and light AA guns and 14 light tanks.[xxiii] These weapons were mounted in well camouflaged armored or reinforced pillboxes.[xxiv] In accordance with the directives of the high command Shibasaki ordered his troops “to defend to the last man all vital areas and destroy the enemy at the waters’ edge.”[xxv] The Japanese records note that Shibasaki “immediately began to strengthen morale and carried out advanced training, and as a result…the garrison remarkably enhanced its fighting capability and they were full of confidence.”[xxvi] Even the service troops were thoroughly trained to fight from their superb defensive positions.[xxvii] Shibasaki reportedly told his men that it would take a million men a thousand years to take Betio.

American Preparations

lvtLVT Amphibious Tractor

Nimitz organized his forces into three major commands, the 5th Fleet, commanded by Admiral Raymond Spruance, the 5th Amphibious Force under Admiral Richmond “Kelly” Turner and the V Amphibious Corps under Major General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, USMC.[xxviii] The 2nd Marine Division which would make the assault at Tarawa was commanded by Major General Julian Smith. The force that sustained in this operation and subsequent amphibious operations was the Service Force Pacific Fleet.[xxix] This was a collection of ships whose mission it was to sustain the fleet in mobile operations,[xxx] which greatly “increased the range and power of the Navy in amphibious operations.”[xxxi] The planned assault called for the Army’s 27th Division take Makin and the veteran 2nd Marine Division which had been blooded at Guadalcanal to take Tarawa supported by the carriers and battleships of 5thFleet.

This was the first application of new amphibious tactics developed for the Pacific war.[xxxii] Air and sea bombardment would precede the actual assault. The Marines would be transported ashore in a new vehicle called an LVT (Landing Vehicle Tracked) and other amphibious ships and craft including the LSD (Landing Ship Dock), LCM (Landing Craft Mechanized) and LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel).  The LVTs were absolutely vital, nicknamed “Amtracks” or “Amphtracks” they were essentially a tracked amphibious personnel carrier. They were developed from a commercial vehicle used by U.S. Forrest Service Rangers in the Florida Everglades and were capable of crossing coral reefs that would cause other craft to go aground.  The early LVTs had retrofitted armor and mounted a .50 cal. machine gun.  At Tarawa the Marines deployed 75 LVT-1s[xxxiii] and 50 LVT-2s. 93 LVTs would be part of the first wave of the Marine assault.[xxxiv] The LVTs were transported to Tarawa aboard LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks.)  Other innovations included the assignment of Naval Gunfire Support teams to the Marine Regiments and some battalions,[xxxv] and the first use of the M4 Sherman tank by the Marines.[xxxvi] Tarawa was a proving ground for the tactics and equipment which would be improved on and used in every subsequent amphibious operation in the Pacific.  Tarawa would also mark the last major use of rubber landing craft by the Marine Corps in an opposed landing.[xxxvii]

There were limitations to American preparations. First the size of the force meant that it could not be assembled in one place for rehearsals or to train as a team.[xxxviii] A second problem for the Americans was the assumption that high and low tides would be sufficient to get their landing craft across the reef in spite of warnings to the contrary.[xxxix] Likewise the Americans failed to completely anticipate the scope to which the Japanese had fortified the island. This was despite good intelligence that they had done so. In particular aerial photos taken by the air force and ULTRA intercepts provided good information on the Japanese units on the island and the layout of the defenses.[xl] Additionally some equipment shortages were not remedied. The Marine Bazooka’s did not arrive, and neither the 6th or 8th Marines had made an actual amphibious assault.  At Guadalcanal they made an administrative landing and few field-grade officers remained from the 2nd Marine Regiment who had landed at Tulagi.[xli] They were far from “amphibious experts” that they would become.[xlii] However, they made up for their lack of experience by their cohesiveness, high morale and esprit, being well armed and equipped, in top physical condition and knowing the basic tools of their trade: “weapons proficiency and field firing, close combat techniques, fire and maneuver, tactical leadership, fire discipline.”[xliii]

tarawa 8 inch gun8 Inch Gun Emplacement

The most critical aspect of the operation was to get across the reef onto the island.  There were few good landing sites and it was decided to make the landings from inside the atoll’s lagoon onto the Betio’s north shore.  This decision meant that transports embarking the Marines would unload outside of the lagoon and that the landing craft would have to make a 10 mile trip.[xliv]There was only one entrance into the lagoon and it was not deep enough for heavy ships to enter.[xlv]This meant that heavy ships such as battleships and cruisers would not be able to have direct fire on the Japanese positions best situated to disrupt the Marines.

The execution of the plan involved land based bomber strikes beginning on D minus 7. Carrier aircraft would begin their operations on D minus 2.  Cruisers and destroyers joined the cacophony of destruction on D minus 1 and the battleships on D Day itself.[xlvi] On D-Day itself Navy planned to bombard the island with 3,000 tons of shells in 2 ½ hours.[xlvii] The Navy was confident in the bombardment plans. Rear Admiral Kingman commanding the fire support group declared “We will not neutralize; we will not destroy; we will obliterate the defenses on Betio!”[xlviii] Four battalions of Marines would land in the first wave, the three battalions of the 2nd Marines and 2nd Battalion 8th Marines all commanded by Colonel David Shoup. Colonel Shoup who would win the Medal of Honor on Betio and later became the Commandant of the Marine Corps assumed command of 2nd Marines when its Regimental commander fell ill on the journey to Efate.[xlix] The division reserve was the remaining 8th Marine Regiment battalions. The 6th Marine Regiment served as the corps reserve.[l]The assault units would be reinforced by tanks and the 1st and 2nd Battalions 18thMarine Regiment, the division’s combat engineers.

Invasion: Day One

landing craft going to beachGoing Ashore

The naval gunfire bombardment commenced at 0542 on 20 November, and the assault waves began their trek to the beaches.  The transports were out of range of Japanese guns but ththat ensured boats would have to make a 10 mile trip.[li]At this point things began to go wrong.

lcm sinking at tarawaNavy LCT Sinking after Being Hit By Japanese Fire

The Navy had “badly miscalculated the amount of softening-up that could be done in two and a half daylight hours bombardment.” Although major coast defense guns were silenced not enough damage was done to the Japanese defenses.[lii] The Japanese helped the Marines by firing their larger guns at warships, identifying their positions to Navy gunners.[liii] The bombardment lifted to allow an attack by carrier based aircraft. However the aircraft were late to arrive and the ships did not resume fire, allowing the Japanese to emerge and re-train their weapons.[liv] Likewise the destroyers Ringgold and Dashiell inside the lagoon had to cease fire, knowing the Japanese gunners along the shore were still active.[lv] Some believe that an extra half hour of direct fire from the destroyers would have saved many lives.[lvi] The LVTs in the first three waves were delayed by heavy chop and did not make landfall until 0913 throwing off the landing schedule.[lvii] The expect and planned for rise in tides did not materialize and they remained unpredictably low for the first 48 hours. No landing boats could cross the reef and the Marines were forced to wade ashore from 600 to 1000 yards.[lviii]

marines wade ashore at tarawaMarines Wading Ashore

Shoup’s Marines landed on three beaches.  Red one and two lay to the west of a 500 yard long pier and Red three lay to the east.  3/2 landed on Red-1, 2/2 on Red-2, 2/8 on Red-3, elements of 1/18 and the scout snipers on the pier, with 1/2 in reserve to land behind the battalion making the best progress.[lix] As soon as the Amtracks hit the reef the Japanese began firing.  Every “working weapon along the north and west shorelines….blazed forth in fierce, interlocking fields of fire.”[lx] As they watched the Amtracks craw over the reef that Japanese knew they were in for a tough fight, one of Warrant Officer Ota’s men exclaimed “Heavens! The God of Death has come!”[lxi] The Marines of 3/2 on Red-1 received enfilade fire from Japanese guns emplaced in a U around the beach.  Before the Marines landed they began to take causalities, Amtracks were hit in the lagoon and most that were not sunk or destroyed were unfit for further use.[lxii] The 2000 Marines who landed in the first hour were badly disorganized, the commanding officer’s of 2/2 and the Amtracks were killed, 3/2’s commander was isolated on the reef and only 2/8’s commander was with his troops. 2/8 was the only battalion being to reach the shore relatively intact.[lxiii] 3/2 was down to 65% of its strength and K/3/2 had taken over 50% casualties.[lxiv] The Marines in the fourth to sixth waves were struggling to wade ashore from the reef. Landing craft “ran aground or milled about helplessly outside the reef, which was swept by crossfire from behind the beaches and from a grounded hulk northwest of the pier.”[lxv] Most of the tanks were put out of action either through accurate fire by Japanese guns or by sinking in deep areas of the lagoon, the Tank battalion commander was blown out of his Amtrack, wounded and survived 24 hours by clinging to a pile of dead bodies to keep from drowning.[lxvi]

Col_Shoup_on_TarawaColonel Shoup Directing Operations on Tarawa

Shoup himself landed at Red-2 and began directing operations on the beach.  He knew that he had to get more troops ashore to exploit the minimal gains his Marines had made.  The news from Red-1 and Two was bad; he decided to bring 1/2 in at Red-2 thought that 3/8 should go in at Red-3.[lxvii] At 1018 General Julian Smith ordered the 8th Marines to dispatch 3/8 to Red-3.[lxviii] 3/8 had to make their way across 700 yards through the water to get to the beach.  It was a slaughter, only 30 percent of the first wave got ashore, in the second less and the third “were practically wiped out.”[lxix]

taraw close combatClose Combat on Betio

As his Marines struggled ashore those who had gotten ashore engaged the Japanese at point blank range.  Lt. Hawkins of the 2nd Marine Scout and Sniper platoon and 5 of his men engaged the Japanese on the pier in vicious hand to hand fighting,[lxx] Sergeant Bordelon of the Engineers on Red-2 though grievously wounded knocked out four gun positions, some by lobbing dynamite charges into them and galvanizing survivors into action, finally being killed while taking on a Japanese position alone.  He would be awarded the Medal of Honor.[lxxi]

HD-SN-99-02572Wounded Marines Being Evacuated by Rubber Raft

By afternoon Julian Smith realized that he needed more troops, his last battalion, 1/8 waited to go ashore.[lxxii] Smith asked for the 6th Marines and had Admiral Hill send a message to Admiral Turner stating “Issue in doubt. I concur.” This sent a chill through the listening Naval Staff.[lxxiii] Ashore Shoup brought howitzers from 1st Battalion 10th Marines on surviving Amtracks to the eastern edge of Red-2 near the pier,[lxxiv] which landed in the early evening.[lxxv] He sent Lieutenant Colonel Carlson to make a personal report to General Smith that he would hold his beachhead no matter what happened. Shoup ordered his Catholic Chaplain to lay out a cemetery and begin burying the dead who were already decomposing in the tropical heat.[lxxvi] As this transpired 2/8 got two 37mm anti-tank guns into position to drive off Japanese tanks approaching the beachhead.[lxxvii] The Division Band assisted corpsmen in bringing back wounded Marines.[lxxviii] The rest of the day the Marines continued to eke out a beachhead; Shoup’s Marines on Red-2 and Red-3 managed to advance about halfway across the island, 3/2 and elements 1/2 and 2/2 was isolated and Major Ryan of Lima Company pulled them back to meet an expected Japanese counter-attack.[lxxix] The Marines had taken over 1500 casualties of 5000 men landed the first day.[lxxx] There is no evidence that Shoup considered withdraw that night.[lxxxi] No counterattack occurred due to Japanese command and control problems, Admiral Shibasaki and his staff were killed while shifting headquarters during the afternoon,[lxxxii] and their communications were in shambles. A counterattack would have been disastrous in their condition,[lxxxiii] yet they assembled over 1000 men to oppose the Marines on day two.[lxxxiv] Had Shibasaki lived and communications survived a counterattack might have had ramifications far beyond Tarawa.[lxxxv]

Day Two: D+1

marines advancingMarines Advancing

The second day began with 1/8 landing on Red-2 and the 6th Marines began to land on Green Beach at the far western tip of Betio.  1/8’s landing turned into a bloodbath, the tide fell even lower than the previous day and as they hit the reef and waded ashore drifted into some of the heaviest Japanese defenses. Japanese guns, including the dual 5.5” guns took direct aim at the boats, and Marines ashore watched helplessly, and correspondent Robert Sherrod noted: “This is worse, far worse than it was yesterday.”[lxxxvi] Only half of 1/8 reached the beach with none of their heavy weapons or equipment.  Shoup ordered the remnants of the battalion into line on his western flank in preparation for an advance inland.[lxxxvii] During five hours of landings on day two, the “Marine casualties reached a higher rate than that sustained on the first morning.”[lxxxviii]

Meanwhile, Shoup ordered Ryan’s “orphans” to make an attack down the right flank of the Japanese positions on Green beach and the “ultimate American victory at Betio evolved from the attack during one intense hour the second morning.”[lxxxix] Taking every available Marine, two surviving Shermans and some mortars, Ryan gathered his force and coordinated Naval Gunfire support.  The area contained a number of heavy guns including two of the 8” mounts.  A destroyer blanked the Japanese positions with 5” shells and fire from her light AA guns.[xc] Attacking behind the beach, Ryan’s Marines isolated and destroyed everyone and everything that looked hostile.[xci] Against minimal opposition Ryan’s Marines quickly seized the gun positions and the western end of the airfield.  Within an hour his Marines occupied the entire western side of Betio up to a 200 yard depth by 1200 and he radioed to let Shoup know the good news and that he intended to advance east against the airfield.[xcii] The attack allowed the Marines to be able to land intact battalions with supporting arms for the first time battle.[xciii]

To the east behind Red-2 and Red-3 The 8th Marines and survivors of 1/2 and 2/2 attacked against fierce Japanese opposition near Shibasaki’s former command bunker and two other large bunkers which were mutually supporting.  The attack by the 2nd Marine survivors eventually succeeded in getting completely across the south side of the island.[xciv] During the attack Lt. Hawkins of the Scout Snipers was mortally wounded.  He too would win the Medal of Honor.  The attack cut the island in two but the Japanese launched a counterattack on the Marine positions which was beaten back.[xcv] The 8thMarines faced a more difficult task going against what was now the heart of the Japanese defense, as its defenders had been reinforced by Lt. Minami and his third company of the 7th Special Naval Landing Force.  Vicious fighting ensued and by nightfall “the Marines had little to show for their heavy losses,[xcvi] but they did make significant inroads against the Japanese to warrant optimism for D+2.[xcvii] By evening the Marines on Red-1 and Red-2 had consolidated their beachhead so that reinforcements were landing, including jeeps, artillery and heavy equipment, and other Marines noted that Japanese defenders were beginning to commit suicide and they began to feel that Japanese morale had broken.  By late afternoon Shoup transmitted the message: “Casualties many. Percentage of dead unknown. Combat efficiency-We are winning.”[xcviii] By late afternoon Major Jones’ 1/6 landed on Green beach in their rubber boats, reinforcing Ryan’s orphans, it was the first of the 7 battalions landed to get ashore intact and the two officers coordinated their units for a night defense and an early attack the next morning.[xcix] 2/6 cleared the nearby island of Bairiki allowing 2/10 to land its howitzers on the island.  This in effect cut off any line of retreat for the defenders of Betio.[c] Colonel Edson came ashore during the evening to relieve Shoup[ci], who remained ashore to help coordinate the next day’s attack.  Again there were no coordinated Japanese counterattacks, the only senior officer, Sugai was isolated in the pocket between the Red and Green beaches and no senior officer could coordinate any attacks.[cii]

Day Three and Four: D+2 and D+3

tarawa wreckageWrecked LVY’s and Bodies on the Beach: The Marines Released Photos to Get the Public to Understand the Cost of the Battle

Day three began with attacks against Japanese strong points and the arrival of more reinforcements including 3/6 which landed on Green beach and three light tank platoons which landed on Red-2.[ciii] The Marines attacked off of Green beach sweeping east to join the 2nd Marines who had cut the island in two the day before.  The 8th Marines continued to attack the heavily fortified bunker complex eventually taking these heavily fortified and defended positions.  During the assault Lt Sandy Bonnyman of 1/18 won the Medal of Honor for leading the assault on these positions.[civ] Fighting remained fierce throughout the day and General Smith arrived to take command on shore.  The Marines attacked supported by tanks, artillery and naval gunfire.  By the evening they were established at the east end of the airfield.  The Japanese launched a series of Banzai charges which beginning about 1930 hours and ending about 0400 when the Marines annihilated the last attack with the assistance of artillery.[cv] The attack, which could have succeeded the first or early the second day, now aided the Marines by sacrificing strength that might have been used to exact a higher price for the tail of the island.[cvi] The next morning the Marines pushed forward and eliminated the last Japanese defenders and by 1200 Betio was secured.  Of about 5000 defenders only 17 Japanese and some Korean laborers were taken prisoner.[cvii] The Marines lost over 1000 killed and 2300 wounded.[cviii]

Tarawa prisonerOne of the 17 Japanese Who Survived the Battle being Interrogated by Marines, only one Chief Warrant Officer Ota was an Officer


The Marines paid a heavy price for Betio, but it was not to be a useless sacrifice, though it was a source of great controversy especially among politicians.[cix]Spector wonders if waiting for better tides or a full moon would have saved lives.[cx] Holland Smith later argued that Tarawa should have been bypassed, but Nimitz’s biographer Potter notes “if the lessons of the amphibious assault had not been learned at Tarawa, they would have to be learned elsewhere, probably at greater cost.”[cxi]The lessons learned alone aided all future amphibious operations in the Central Pacific and elsewhere.  Timing and coordination of naval gunfire support, air strikes and combat loading of transports were all refined in future operations. Large numbers of armored and up-gunned Amtracks would be part of every future operation.[cxii] Intelligence was emphasized and replicas of the Japanese fortifications were built and tested to determine the best way of destroying them.[cxiii] The Marines shocked the public by releasing photos and films of the carnage on Tarawa to awaken them to the challenges ahead.[cxiv]

Today the battle is remembered annually by the 2nd Marine Division at Camp LeJeune, an ever shrinking number of veterans of the battle attend the ceremonies.  Samuel Eliot Morison put it best: “All honor, then, to the fighting heart of the United States Marine. Let the battle for that small stretch of coral sand called Betio of Tarawa be remembered as terrible indeed, but glorious, and the seedbed for victory in 1945.”[cxv]

Appendix: Leaders on Tarawa

smith and smith at tarawaLieutenant General Holland Smith and Major General Julian Smith on Betio

General Holland M. “Howling Mad” Smith USMC: (1882-1967) Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith command V Amphibious Corps during the Gilberts operation.  Prior to the war he had worked extensively on amphibious warfare doctrine for both the Marine Corps and Navy. Unlike many senior officers Smith was not a Academy graduate having matriculated from the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) in 1903 and law school in 1903.  Smith served as Adjutant of the 4th Marine Brigade in the First World War and served in Panama and the Dominican Republic in addition to other Marine tours afloat and ashore.  He served well and had many key assignments between the wars culminating in as the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.  Subsequent to the Gilbert campaign he served as Commanding General of the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific and later commanded the Marines at Iwo Jima.  He retired in 1946.

Major General Julian Smith USMC: (1885-1975) Major General Julian Smith served as Commanding General 2nd Marine Division at Tarawa.  He graduated from the University of Delaware and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1909.  He served in Haiti, Santo Domingo and the Vera Cruz expedition. During the First World War he served as an instructor in the Marine Officer training camps at Quantico. After the war he served in Cuba, Nicaragua and various command and staff posts including the Army Command and General Staff College.  He commanded 5th Marines in 1938 and in 1942 was promoted the Major General serving as director of Fleet Marine Force Schools, New River, NC.  He took command of 2nd Marine Division in May 1943 and served there until April 1944 when he became Commanding General, Expeditionary Troops, Third Fleet and in December 1944 took command of the Military Department of the Pacific.  He retired in 1946.

shoupColonel Shoup After the Battle

Colonel David Shoup USMC: (1904-1983) Colonel David Shoup commanded the 2nd Marines at Tarawa, being appointed as commander when its commander fell ill.  Shoup won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on Tarawa.  A 1926 graduate of DePauw University, Shoup was commissioned a Second Lieutenant through the ROTC program that year.  He served in various assignments to include service in China, at sea on the battleship Maryland and Marine Barracks Puget Sound Navy Yard. He joined the staff of 6th Marines in October 1940 and assumed command of 2/6 in February 1942.  He was assigned as the Assistant Operations Officer for 2nd Marine Division in July 1942 and promoted the Lieutenant Colonel.   He went with the Division to New Zealand where he became the G-3 and from which he was fleeted up to command 2ndMarines at Tarawa.  After Tarawa he served as the Division Chief of Staff at Saipan and Tinian.  After the war Shoup continued to be assigned in key billets at the Pentagon and as commanding General, 1st Marine Division and then the Third Marine Division.  He became Chief of Staff, HQMC in 1958 and was appointed as the 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps by President Eisenhower, a post that he retained until his retirement in 1963.

Admiral Tomanari Sachiro IJN: (1887-?) Commander of Tarawa garrison until relieved by Rear Admiral Shibasaki.   Graduate Naval Academy 1910, initially a communications officer he held various commands including Heavy Cruiser Haguro and Battleship Kirishima and two smaller ships.  Assigned to Tarawa in February 1943 he helped design and supervised the initial construction of Tarawa Defenses until relieved by Admiral Shibasaki on 20 July1943.  He returned to Japan and served the remainder of the war on Navy Division of Imperial General Headquarters.  Tomonari survived the war though nothing is mentioned as to his postwar fate.

Rear Admiral Shibasaki Keiji IJN: (1894-1943) Commanded Tarawa Garrison until his death during the battle.  He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1915 and he was a skilled navigator and instructor.  Prior to the war he had served afloat and ashore and ashore and had commanded a ship and naval station and served as a naval attaché to a member of the Imperial Family.  Among his assignments was 19 month combat tour with the special Naval Landing Forces in China, where he served as Chief of Staff of Shanghai Special Naval Landing Force.  Shibasaki’s leadership helped the garrison improve their defensive capabilities and combat skills as he inspired them to great heights and executed an intense training program. He was killed in the battle.

A Personal Note

I have not been to Tarawa but feel that I know it well.  I served in Second Marine Division from April 1999 through December 2001.  Due to my prior service experience I was used to fill gaps where chaplains were needed and ended up serving in four different battalions.  I served in 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, the descendant of 1/18, the combat engineers.  We had a WWII Bulldozer outside our command post named after Sergeant Bordelon, the Medal of Honor Citations for Bordelon and Boonyman were prominently displayed.  I also served in 1/8 and 3/8.  I knew the accounts of the slaughter of these Marines as they attempted to land but as I re-read the accounts I was moved by their courage under fire.  The CPs of these battalions are also adorned with citations of their heroes lost at Tarawa.  Veterans would visit our units during Tarawa Days at Camp LeJeune, worn by the battle and the years they always made an impression. There is almost a mystical connection between the Second Marine Division and the Marines of Tarawa; it was a crucible that defined the division, whose motto is the same as the Army Infantry School. “Follow Me!”

Semper Fidelis,

Padre Steve

[i] Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan.  The Free Press, New York, NY 1985. p.253

[ii] Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2000. p.338

[iii] Ibid. Spector. p.253

[iv] Ibid. p.255 The conference also set a date for the invasion of France.

[v] Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. Random House, Inc. New York, NY 1970. p.468

[vi] Ibid. Spector. p.255

[vii] Costello, John. The Pacific War 1941-1945. Quill Publishing, New York, NY 1982. p.430

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Potter, E.B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1976, Third Printing with Revisions 1979. p.243. Nimitz’s forces would have had to seize 5 major Japanese bases and his staff was not sure that the Pacific carrier force would be strong or experienced enough to provide the necessary air cover for the operation.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid. pp.243-245

[xii] Morison, Samuel Elliott. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Little Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 1963. p.296.

[xiii] Hammell, Eric and Lane, John E. Bloody Tarawa: The 2nd Marine Division, November 20-23, 1943. The Zenith Press, St. Paul MN 2006.  Text copyright 1998 Eric Hammell and John E. Lane. p.4

[xiv] See Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa.Ivy Books, published by Ballantine Books, New York, NY. 1995. pp. 39-40.  This unit became the Third Special Base Unit on its deployment and was joined by the 111th Construction Battalion.

[xv] Ibid. Hammell. p.4

[xvi] See Alexander pp.39-40. This unit was basically a reinforced infantry battalion with 3 rifle companies, a weapons battery, anti-aircraft battery, a light tank company and support units numbering about1600 men.

[xvii] Ibid. Alexander. p.43

[xviii] Alexander p.27 The Rikusentai was the Japanese equivalent of Marines, who numbered about 50,000 men.  The officers attended Army schools and qualified enlisted men attended additional Army specialist training.

[xix] Ibid. Costello. p.431

[xx] Ibid. Hammell. p.22

[xxi] See Alexander p.77. While most writers say that these guns were brought from Singapore, Alexander notes that British writer William H Bartsch submitted proof (serial numbers) that the guns were sold by Vickers to Japan in 1905 as a legitimate business transaction.

[xxii] These are the same guns (127mm) mounted as the secondary armament of Nachi and Takao Class Heavy Cruisers and later mounted on light cruisers to replace the main battery with a more effective anti-aircraft armament.

[xxiii] Ibid. Hammell. p.22

[xxiv] Hammell notes that many of these bunkers and pillboxes were so well concealed that they could not be seen.

[xxv] Ibid. Toland. p.469.

[xxvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.43.

[xxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.28

[xxviii] Ibid. Morison. p.297

[xxix] Ibid. Costello. p.429

[xxx] At this point the force could provide everything except major permanent repairs to warships.

[xxxi] Liddell-Hart, B.H.  History of the Second World War. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY 1970. p.511

[xxxii] Ibid. Costello. p.431

[xxxiii] The older LVT-1s had boiler plate armor added as a field modification and were given a heavy machine gun. Prior to this they were unarmored and had two light machine guns.

[xxxiv] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[xxxv] Hammell includes a by name list of these officers in Appendix B.  Of note for today, each MEUSOC (Marine Expeditionary Unit, Special Operations Capable) has an assigned Naval Gunfire Support Team.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Alexander. pp. 61-62.  The Shermans had to be transported aboard pre-loaded LCM-3s carried in the well decks of the LSDs.

[xxxvii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.58-59

[xxxviii] Ibid. Morison. p.297.  As a sidebar discussion it should be noted that Galvanic helped provide the model for the organization of all further Marine Corps amphibious doctrine now known by the acronym PERMA; Planning, Embarkation, Rehearsal, Movement and Assault, which describes the 5 phases of a amphibious assault.

[xxxix] Ibid. Hammell details the intricacies of the particular tides seen at Tarawa and the knowledge that the Marines had from the former Resident Commissioner of the Island, Major Frank Holland who warned the division staff that he knew that there would not be enough water over the reef to get landing craft across it. (pp.18-20)

[xl] Ibid. Alexander. pp.75-77

[xli] Ibid. Alexander. pp.67-68.

[xlii] Ibid. p.70

[xliii] Ibid. p.71

[xliv] Ibid. Morison. p.302

[xlv] Ibid. Hammell. p.16

[xlvi] Johnston, Richard W. Follow Me! The Story of the Second Marine Division in world War II.  Copyright 1948 by the Second Marine Division History Board and published by Random House Publishers, New York, NY 1948. p.106

[xlvii] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. p.511  Johnson says 2,700 tons. (p.106)

[xlviii] Ibid. Johnston. p.106

[xlix] Ibid. Hammell. p.17

[l] Ibid.

[li] Ibid.. Hammell. 46-47

[lii] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[liii] Ibid. Alexander. p.113.  Alexander notes that the Japanese would have been better served by using these guns on the stalled out landing craft.

[liv] Ibid. Hammell. p.47.

[lv] Ibid. Hammell. p.58

[lvi] Ibid.

[lvii] Ibid. Morison. p.303

[lviii] Ibid. Alexander. p.79

[lix] Ibid. Hammell. p.17

[lx] Ibid. Alexander. p.121

[lxi] Wukovits, John. One Square Mile of Hell: The Battle for Tarawa. NAL Caliber, published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Group USA, New York NY, 2006. p.112

[lxii] Ibid. Johnston. p.116

[lxiii] Ibid.

[lxiv] Ibid. Wukovits. P.119  Other companies suffered as grievously, K/3/2 was not alone in its suffering.

[lxv] Ibid. Spector. pp.263-264

[lxvi] Ibid. Alexander. pp.136-138

[lxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.90

[lxviii] Ibid. p.95

[lxix] Ibid. Spector. p.264

[lxx] Ibid. Wukovits. p.114

[lxxi] Ibid. Alexander. pp.139-140

[lxxii] 1/8 did not arrive on the beach due to botched communications until D plus 1.

[lxxiii] Ibid. p.150  The last time this signal had been sent it was by Major Devereaux at Wake Isalnd

[lxxiv] Ibid. p.151

[lxxv] Ibid. Johnston. p.132

[lxxvi] Ibid. Hammell. p.112

[lxxvii] Ibid. p.130

[lxxviii] Ibid. Johnston. p.122

[lxxix] Ibid. Johnston. p.122

[lxxx] Ibid. Costello. p.436

[lxxxi] Ibid. Alexander. p.163

[lxxxii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.157-158  Hammell notes that Shibasaski was most likely killed by fire from Ringgold or Dashiell.

[lxxxiii] Ibid. Hammell.pp.139-140

[lxxxiv] Ibid. Alexander. p.162

[lxxxv] Ibid.  Wukovits. p.176. Wukovits notes how this could have affected the planning for the Normandy invasion.

[lxxxvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.173

[lxxxvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.160

[lxxxviii] Ibid. Costello. p.437

[lxxxix] Ibid. Alexander. p.170

[xc] Ibid. Hammell. p.163

[xci] Ibid. Hammell. p.166

[xcii] Ibid. Wukovits. p.178

[xciii] Ibid. Alexander. p.170 Ryan would be awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts.

[xciv] Ibid. Hammell. p.172

[xcv] Ibid. Alexander. p.179

[xcvi] Ibid. Alexander. p.181

[xcvii] Ibid. Hammell. p.178

[xcviii] Ibid.. Wukovits. p.194

[xcix] Ibid. Hammell. p.202

[c] Ibid. Hammell. p.212

[ci] Shoup would be awarded the Medal of Honor and eventually go on to be the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[cii] Ibid. Alexander. pp.191-192

[ciii] Ibid. Johnston. p.134  2 platoons landed on Red-2 and one on Green Beach.

[civ] Ibid. Alexander. pp.202-205

[cv] Ibid. Johnston. pp.145-146

[cvi] Ibid. Johnston. p.147

[cvii] Ibid. Toland. p.470

[cviii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.345

[cix] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. p.511

[cx] Ibid. Spector. p.266

[cxi] Ibid. Potter. P.264

[cxii] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.347  The Amtrack in improved forms has been part of the Marines ever since. The current model serves in a traditional amphibious role as well as a Armored Personnel Carrier for Marines involved in ground combat operations ashore.

[cxiii] Ibid. Costello. p.439. The method found to work best was long range plunging fire by heavy guns found on battleships and heavy cruisers.

[cxiv] Ibid. Murray and Millett. p.346

[cxv] Ibid. Morison. p.306


Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa. Ivy Books, published by Ballantine Books, New York, NY. 1995.

Costello, John. The Pacific War 1941-1945. Quill Publishing, New York, NY 1982

Morison, Samuel Elliott. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Little Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 1963

Hammell, Eric and Lane, John E. Bloody Tarawa: The 2nd Marine Division, November 20-23, 1943. The Zenith Press, St. Paul MN 2006.

Johnston, Richard W. Follow Me! The Story of the Second Marine Division in world War II.  Copyright 1948 by the Second Marine Division History Board and published by Random House Publishers, New York, NY 1948

Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2000

Potter, E.B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1976, Third Printing with Revisions 1979

Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan.  The Free Press, New York, NY 1985 Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. Random House, Inc. New York, NY 1970


Leave a comment

Filed under History, Military, world war two in the pacific

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s