ACROSS THE REEF: The Marine Assault of Tarawa
by Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret)
As replacement troops began to pour into New Zealand,
General Smith requested the assignment of Colonel Merritt A. "Red Mike"
Edson as division chief of staff. The fiery Edson, already a legend in
the Corps for his heroic exploits in Central America and Guadalcanal,
worked tirelessly to forge the amalgam of veterans and newcomers into an
effective amphibious team.
Intelligence reports from Betio were sobering. The
island, devoid of natural defilade positions and narrow enough to limit
maneuver room, favored the defenders. Betio was less than three miles
long, no broader than 800 yards at its widest point and contained no
natural elevation higher than 10 feet above sea level. "Every place on
the island can be covered by direct rifle and machine gun fire,"
The elaborate defenses prepared by Admiral Saichiro
were impressive. Concrete and steel tetrahedrons, minefields, and long
strings of double-apron barbed wire protected beach approaches. The
Japanese also built a barrier wall of logs and coral around much of the
island. Tank traps protected heavily fortified command bunkers and
firing positions inland from the beach. And everywhere there were
pillboxes, nearly 500 of them, most fully covered by logs, steel plates
The Japanese on Betio were equipped with eight-inch,
turret-mounted naval rifles (the so-called "Singapore Guns"), as well as
a large number of heavy-caliber coast defense, antiaircraft, antiboat,
and field artillery guns and howitzers. Dual-purpose 13mm heavy machine
guns were prevalent. Light tanks (mounting 37mm guns), 50mm "knee
mortars;" and an abundance of 7.7mm light machine guns complemented the
The 2d Marine Division at Tarawa
Troops of the 2d Marine Division debark down cargo nets
from a troop transport during amphibious training. Department of Defense
Photo (USMC) 63751
Major General Julian C. Smith's utmost concern when
he assumed command of the 2d Major Division on 1 May 1943 was the
physical condition of the troops. The division had redeployed to New
Zealand from Guadalcanal with nearly 13,000 confirmed cases of malaria.
Half the division would have to be replaced before the next campaign.
The infantry regiments of the 2d Marine Division were the 2d, 6th, and
8th Marines; the artillery regiment was the 10th Marines; and the
engineers, pioneers, and Naval Construction Battalion ("Seabees") were
consolidated into the 18th Marines. These were the principal commanders
as the division began its intensified training program leading to
CO, 2d Marines: Col William M. Marshall
CO, 1/2: Maj Wood B. Kyle
CO, 2/2: LtCol Herbert R. Amey, Jr.
CO, 3/2: Maj John F. Schoettel
CO, 6th Marines: Col Maurice G. Holmes
CO, 1/6: Maj William K. Jones
CO, 2/6: LtCol Raymond L. Murray
CO, 3/6: LtCol Kenneth F. McLeod
CO, 8th Marines: Col Elmer E. Hall
CO, 1/8: Maj Lawrence C. Hays, Jr.
CO, 2/8: Maj Henry P. "Jim" Crowe
CO, 3/8: Maj Robert H. Ruud
CO, 10th Marines: BGen Thomas E. Bourke
CO, 18th Marines: Col Cyril W. Martyr
Other officers who would emerge in key roles at
Tarawa included Brigadier General Leo D. Hermle, Assistant Division
Commander; Lieutenant Colonel Presley M. Rixey, commanding 1/0, a
pack-howitzer battalion supporting the 2d Marines; Lieutenant Colonel
Alexander B. Swenceski, commanding the composite 2d Tank Battalion;
Major Henry C. Drewes, commanding 2d Amphibian Tractor Battalion; Major
Michael P. Ryan, commanding Company L, 3/2; and First Lieutenant William
D. Hawkins, commanding the Scout Sniper Platoon in the 2d Marines.
Altogether, 18,088 Marines and sailors of the division participated in
the assault on Tarawa Atoll. About 55 percent were combat veterans.
Unlike Guadalcanal, the Marines at Tarawa carried modern infantry
weapons, including Garand M-1 semi-automatic rifles, Browning automatic
rifles, and portable flame throwers. Assault Marines landed with a
combat load consisting of knapsack, poncho, entrenching tool, bayonet,
field rations, and gas masks (quickly discarded). Many of those carrying
heavy weapons, ammunition, or radios drowned during the hectic
debarkation from landing craft under fire at the reef's edge.
The Japanese during August replaced Saichero with
Rear Admiral Meichi Shibasaki, an officer reputed to be more of a
fighter than an engineer. American intelligence sources estimated the
total strength of the Betio garrison to be 4,800 men, of whom some 2,600
were considered first-rate naval troops. "Imperial Japanese Marines,"
Edson told the war correspondents, "the best Tojo's got." Edson's 1st
Raider Battalion had sustained 88 casualties in wresting Tulagi from the
3d Kure Special Naval Landing Force the previous August.
Admiral Shibasaki boasted to his troops, "a million
Americans couldn't take Tarawa in 100 years." His optimism was
forgivable. The island was the most heavily defended atoll that ever
would be invaded by Allied forces in the Pacific.
An LVT-1 is lowered from a troop transport during
landing rehearsals. Some of the Marines shown here are wearing
camouflage utilities while the others are in the usual herring bone
twill. Note that the sea appears unusually calm. LtGen Julian C. Smith
Task Force 53 sorely needed detailed tidal
information for Tarawa. Colonel Shoup was confident that the LVTs could
negotiate the reef at any tide, but he worried about the remainder of
the assault troops, tanks, artillery, and reserve forces that would have
to come ashore in Higgins boats (LCVPs). The critical water depth over
the reef was four feet, enough to float a laden LCVP. Anything less and
the troops would have to wade ashore several hundred yards against that
panoply of Japanese weapons.
Major Frank Holland, a New Zealand reserve officer
with 15 years' experience sailing the waters of Tarawa, flatly
predicted, "there won't be three feet of water on the reef!" Shoup took
Holland's warnings seriously and made sure the troops knew in advance
that "there was a 50-50 chance of having to wade ashore."
In the face of the daunting Japanese defenses and the
physical constraints of the island, Shoup proposed a landing plan which
included a sustained preliminary bombardment, advance seizure of
neighboring Bairiki Island as an artillery fire base, and a decoy
landing. General Smith took this proposal to the planning conference in
Pearl Harbor with the principal officers involved in Operation Galvanic:
Admirals Nimitz, Spruance, Turner, and Hill, and Major General Holland
The Marines were stunned to hear the restrictions
imposed on their assault by CinCPac. Nimitz declared that the
requirement for strategic surprise limited preliminary bombardment of
Betio to about three hours on the morning of D-Day. The imperative to
concentrate naval forces to defend against a Japanese fleet sortie also
ruled out advance seizure of Bairiki and any decoy landings. Then
Holland Smith announced his own bombshell: the 6th Marines would be
withheld as corps reserve.
All of Julian Smith's tactical options had been
stripped away. The 2d Marine Division was compelled to make a frontal
assault into the teeth of Betio's defenses with an abbreviated
preparatory bombardment. Worse, loss of the 6th Marines meant he would
be attacking the island fortress with only a 2-to-1 superiority in
troops, well below the doctrinal minimum. Shaken, he insisted that
Holland Smith absolve him of any responsibility for the consequences.
This was done.
Major General Julian C. Smith, USMC
MajGen Julian C. Smith, USMC, right, commanding general,
2d Marine Division, escorts MajGen Holland M. Smith, USMC, commander, V
Amphibious Corps, on Betio. Department of Defense Photo (USMC)
The epic battle of Tarawa was the pinnacle of Julian
Smith's life and career. Smith was 58 and had been a Marine Corps
officer for 34 years at the time of Operation Galvanic. He was born in
Elkton, Maryland, and graduated from the University of Delaware.
Overseas service included expeditionary tours in Panama, Mexico, Haiti,
Santo Domingo, Cuba, and Nicaragua. He graduated from the Naval War
College in 1917 and, as did many other frustrated Marine officers, spent
the duration of World War I in Quantico. As were shipmates Colonel
Merritt A. Edson and Major Henry P. Crowe, Smith was a distinguished
marksman and former rifle team coach. Command experience in the Fleet
Marine Force (FMF) was limited. He commanded the 5th Marines in 1938,
and he was commanding officer of the FMF Training School at New River
until being ordered to the 2d Marine Division in May 1943.
Smith's contemporaries had a high respect for him.
Although unassuming and self-effacing, "there was nothing wrong with his
fighting heart." Lieutenant Colonel Ray Murray, one of his battalion
commanders, described him as "a fine old gentleman of high moral fiber;
you'd fight for him." Smith's troops perceived that their commanding
general had a genuine love for them.
Julian Smith knew what to expect from the neap tides
at Betio. "I'm an old railbird shooter up on the marshes of the
Chesapeake Bay," he said, "You push over the marshes at high tide, and
when you have a neap tide, you can't get over the marshes." His landing
boats were similarly restricted as they went in toward Tarawa.
Smith was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for
Tarawa to go with the Navy Cross he received for heroic acts in
Nicaragua a decade earlier. The balance of his career was unremarkable.
He retired as a lieutenant general in 1946, and he died in 1975, age 90.
To the end of his life he valued his experience at Betio. As he
communicated to the officers and men of the division after the battle:
"It will always be a source of supreme satisfaction and pride to be able
to say, 'I was with the 2d Marine Division at Tarawa.'"
David Shoup returned to New Zealand to prepare a
modified operations order and select the landing beaches. Betio, located
on the south western tip of Tarawa near the entrance to the lagoon, took
the shape of a small bird, lying on its back, with its breast facing
north, into the lagoon. The Japanese had concentrated their defenses on
the southern and western coasts, roughly the bird's head and back (where
they themselves had landed). By contrast, the northern beaches (the
bird's breast) had calmer waters in the lagoon and, with one deadly
exception (the "re-entrant"), were convex. Defenses in this sector were
being improved daily but were not yet complete. A 1,000-yard pier which
jutted due north over the fringing reef into deeper lagoon waters (in
effect, the bird's legs) was an attractive logistics target. It was an
easy decision to select the northern coast for landing beaches, but
there was no real safe avenue of approach.
Looking at the north shore of Betio from the line of
departure within the lagoon, Shoup designated three landing beaches,
each 600 yards in length. From right to left these were: Red Beach One,
from Betio's northwestern tip (the bird's beak) to a point just east of
the re-entrant; Red Beach Two, from that juncture to the pier; Red Beach
Three, from the pier eastward. Other beaches were designated as
contingencies, notably Green Beach along the western shore (the bird's
Julian Smith had intended to land with two regiments
abreast and one in reserve. Loss of the 6th Marines forced a major
change. Shoup's modified plan assigned the 2d Marines, reinforced by
Landing Team (LT) 2/8 (2d Battalion, 8th Marines), as the assault force.
The rest of the 8th Marines would constitute the division reserve. The
attack would be preceded by advance seizure of the pier by the
regimental scout sniper platoon (Lieutenant William D. Hawkins). Landing
abreast at H-Hour would be LT 3/2 (3d Battalion, 2d Marines) (Major John
F. Schoettel) on Red One; LT 2/2 (2d Battalion, 2d Marines) (Lieutenant
Colonel Herbert R. Amey, Jr.) on Red Two; and LT 2/8 (Major Henry P. Jim
Crowe) on Red Three. Major Wood B. Kyle's LT 1/2 (1st Battalion, 2d
Marines) would be on call as the regimental reserve.
(click on image
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General Smith scheduled a large-scale amphibious
exercise in Hawkes Bay for the first of November and made arrangements
for New Zealand trucks to haul the men back to Wellington at the
conclusion in time for a large dance. Complacently, the entire 2d Marine
Division embarked aboard 16 amphibious ships for the routine exercise.
It was all an artful ruse. The ships weighed anchor and headed north for
Operation Galvanic. For once, "Tokyo Rose" had no clue of the impending
Most of Task Force 53 assembled in Efate, New
Hebrides, on 7 November. Admiral Hill arrived on board Maryland.
The Marines, now keenly aware that an operation was underway, were more
interested in the arrival from Noumea of 14 new Sherman M4-A2 tanks on
board the dock landing ship Ashland (LSD 1). The division had
never operated with medium tanks before.
The landing rehearsals at Efate did little to prepare
the Marines for Betio. The fleet carriers and their embarked air wings
were off assaulting targets in the Solomons. The Sherman tanks had no
place to offload. The new LVT-2s were presumably somewhere to the north,
underway directly for Tarawa. Naval gun ships bombarded Erradaka Island,
well away from the troops landing at Mele Bay.
The Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces
Japanese garrison on Betio conducts pre-battle training. Photo courtesy of 2d
Marine Division Association.
Tarawa was the first large-scale encounter between
U.S. Marines and the Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces. The
division intelligence staff had forewarned that "naval units of this
type are usually more highly trained and have a greater tenacity and
fighting spirit than the average Japanese Army unit," but the Marines
were surprised at the ferocity of the defenders on Betio.
The Japanese "Imperial Marines" earned the grudging
respect of their American counterparts for their esprit, discipline,
marksmanship, proficiency with heavy weapons, small-unit leadership,
manifest bravery, and a stoic willingness to die to the last man. Major
William K. Jones, whose 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, engaged more of the
enemy in hand-to-hand combat on Betio than any other unit, said "these
[defenders] were pretty tough, and they were big, six-foot, the biggest
Japs that I ever saw." Major Lawrence C. Hays reported that "their
equipment was excellent and there was plenty of surplus found, including
large amounts of ammo."
The Japanese used Special Naval Landing Forces
frequently in the early years of the war. In December 1941, a force of
5,000 landed on Guam, and another unit of 450 assaulted Wake Island. A
small detachment of 113 men was the first Japanese reinforcing unit to
land on Guadalcanal, 10 days after the American landing. A 350-man SNLF
detachment provided fierce resistance to the 1st Marine Division
landings on Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo early in the Guadalcanal
campaign. A typical SNLF unit in a defensive role was commanded by a
navy captain and consisted of three rifle companies augmented by
antiaircraft, coast defense, antiboat, and field artillery units of
several batteries each, plus service and labor troops.
Japanese on Betio conduct field firing exercises before
the battle. The film from which this picture was developed came from a
Japanese camera captured during the assault. Photo courtesy of 2d Marine Division
The Japanese garrison on Betio on D-Day consisted of
the 3d Special Base Force (formerly the 6th Yokosuka Special
Naval Landing Force), the 7th Sasebo Special Naval Landing
Force (which included 200 NCOs and officers of the Tateyama Naval
Gunnery School), the 111th Pioneers, and the 4th
Construction Unit, an estimated grand total of 4,856 men.
All crew-served weapons on Betio, from 7.7mm light
machine guns to eight-inch naval rifles, were integrated into the
fortified defensive system that included 500 pillboxes, blockhouses, and
other emplacements. The basic beach defense weapon faced by the Marines
during their landings on the northern coast was the M93 13mm, dual
purpose (antiair, antiboat) heavy machine gun. In many seawall
emplacements, these lethal weapons were sited to provide flanking fire
along wire entanglements and other boat obstacles. Flanking fire
discipline was insured by sealing off the front embrasures.
Admiral Shibasaki organized his troops on Betio for
"an overall decisive defense at the beach." His men fought with great
valor. After 76 hours of bitter fighting, 4,690 lay dead. Most of the
146 prisoners taken were conscripted Korean laborers.
Only 17 wounded Japanese surrendered.
One overlooked aspect of the rehearsal paid
subsequent dividends for the Marines in the coming assault. Major
William K. "Willie K." Jones, commanding LT 1/6, took the opportunity to
practice embarking his troops in rubber rafts. In the pre-war Fleet
Marine Force, the first battalion in each regiment had been designated
"the rubber boat battalion. The uncommon sight of this mini-flotilla
inspired numerous cat calls from the other Marines. Jones himself was
dubbed "The Admiral of the Condom Fleet."
The contentious issue during the post-rehearsal
critique was the suitability of the naval gunfire plan. The target
island was scheduled to receive the greatest concentration of naval
gunfire of the war to date. Many senior naval officers were optimistic
of the outcome. "We do not intend to neutralize [the island], we do not
intend to destroy it," boasted one admiral, "Gentlemen, we will
obliterate it." But General Smith had heard enough of these boasts. In a
voice taut with anger he stood to address the meeting: "Even though you
naval officers do come in to about 1,000 yards, I remind you that you
have a little armor. I want you to know the Marines are crossing the
beach with bayonets, and the only armor they'll have is a khaki
David M. Shoup pictured in the field. The clenched cigar became a
trademark. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 87675
While at Efate, Colonel William Marshall, commanding
Combat Team Two and scheduled for the major assault role at Betio,
became too ill to continue. In a memorable decision, General Smith
promoted David Shoup to colonel and ordered him to relieve Colonel
Marshall. Shoup knew the 2d Marines, and he certainly knew the plan. The
architect was about to become the executor.
Once underway from Efate, Admiral Hill ordered the
various commanders of Task Force 53 to brief the troops on their
destination and mission. Tarawa came as a surprise to most of the men.
Many had wagered they were heading for Wake Island. On the day before
D-Day. General Julian Smith sent a message "to the officers and men of
the 2d Division. In it, the commanding general sought to reassure his
men that, unlike the Guadalcanal campaign, the Navy would stay and
provide support throughout. The troops listened attentively to these
words coming over the loudspeakers:
A great offensive to destroy the enemy in the Central
Pacific has begun. Our Navy screens our operation and will support our
attack tomorrow with the greatest concentration of aerial bombardment
and naval gun fire in the history of warfare. It will remain with us
until our objective is secured . . . . Garrison troops are already
enroute to relieve us as soon as we have completed our job . . . . Good
luck and God bless you all.
As the sun began to set on Task Force 53 on the
evening of D-minus-one, it appeared that strategic surprise had indeed
been attained. More good news came with the report that the small convoy
of LSTs bearing LVT-2s had arrived safely from Samoa and was joining the
formation. All the pieces seemed to be coming together.