ACROSS THE REEF: The Marine Assault of Tarawa
by Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret)
D-Day at Betio, 20 November 1943
The crowded transports of Task Force 53 arrived off
Tarawa Atoll shortly after midnight on D-Day. Debarkation began at 0320.
The captain of the Zeilin (APA 3) played the Marines Hymn over
the public address system, and the sailors cheered as the 2d Battalion,
2d Marines, crawled over the side and down the cargo nets.
At this point, things started to go wrong. Admiral
Hill discovered that the transports were in the wrong anchorage, masking
some of the fire support ships, and directed them to shift immediately
to the correct site. The landing craft bobbed along in the wake of the
ships; some Marines had been halfway down the cargo nets when the ships
abruptly weighed anchor. Matching the exact LVTs with their assigned
assault teams in the darkness became haphazard. Choppy seas made
cross-deck transfers between the small craft dangerous.
Few tactical plans survive the opening rounds of
execution, particularly in amphibious operations. "The Plan" for D-Day
at Betio established H-Hour for the assault waves at 0830. Strike
aircraft from the fast carriers would initiate the action with a
half-hour bombing raid at 0545. Then the fire support ships would
bombard the island from close range for the ensuing 130 minutes. The
planes would return for a final strafing run at H-minus-five, then shift
to inland targets as the Marines stormed ashore. None of this went
according to plan.
The Japanese initiated the battle. Alerted by the
pre-dawn activities offshore, the garrison opened fire on the task force
with their big naval guns at 0507. The main batteries of the battleships
Colorado (BB 45) and Maryland commenced counterbattery
fire almost immediately. Several 16-inch shells found their mark; a huge
fireball signalled destruction of an ammunition bunker for one of the
Japanese gun positions. Other fire support ships joined in. At 0542 Hill
ordered "cease fire," expecting the air attack to commence momentarily.
There was a long silence.
The carrier air group had changed its plans,
postponing the strike by 30 minutes. Inexplicably, that unilateral
modification was never transmitted to Admiral Hill, the amphibious task
force commander. Hill's problems were further compounded by the sudden
loss of communications on his flagship Maryland with the first
crashing salvo of the ship's main battery. The Japanese coastal defense
guns were damaged but still dangerous. The American mix-up provided the
defenders a grace period of 25 minutes to recover and adjust. Frustrated
at every turn, Hill ordered his ships to resume firing at 0605.
Suddenly, at 0610, the aircraft appeared, bombing and strafing the
island for the next few minutes. Amid all this, the sun rose, red and
ominous through the thick smoke.
detailed view of Division D-2 situation map of western Betio was
prepared one month before the landing. Note the predicted position of
Japanese defenses along Green Beach and Red Beach One, especially those
within the "re-entrant" cove along the north shore. Intelligence
projections proved almost 90 percent accurate and heavy casualties
resulted. (click on image for an enlargement in a new
window) Marine Corps Personal Papers.
The battleships, cruisers, and destroyers of Task
Force 53 began a saturation bombardment of Betio for the next several
hours. The awesome shock and sounds of the shelling were experienced
avidly by the Marines. Staff Sergeant Norman Hatch, a combat
photographer, thought to himself, "we just really didn't see how we
could do [anything] but go in there and bury the people . . . this
wasn't going to be a fight." Time correspondent Robert Sherrod
thought, "surely, no mortal men could live through such destroying power
. . . any Japs on the island would all be dead by now." Sherrod's
thoughts were rudely interrupted by a geyser of water 50 yards astern of
the ship. The Japanese had resumed fire and their targets were the
vulnerable transports. The troop ships hastily got underway for the
second time that morning.
For Admiral Hill and General Julian Smith on board
Maryland, the best source of information through out the long day
would prove to be the Vought-Sikorsky Type OS2U Kingfisher observation
aircraft launched by the battleships. At 0648, Hill inquired of the
pilot of one float plane, "Is reef covered with water?" The answer was a
cryptic "negative." At that same time, the LVTs of Wave One, with 700
infantrymen embarked, left the assembly area and headed for the line of
LVT-2 and LVT(A)2 Amphibian Tractors
LVT-2 comes ashore on Green Beach on approximately
D+2. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 63646
The LVT-2, properly known as the Water Buffalo, was
built to improve upon shortcomings in the design of the Marine Corps'
initial amphibian vehicle, the LVT-1. The new vehicle featured a
redesigned suspension system with rubber-tired road wheels and torsion
springs for improved stability and a smoother ride. The power train was
standardized with that of the M3A1 Stuart light tank. This gave the
LVT-2 greater power and reliability than its predecessor and, combined
with new "W"-shaped treads, gave it greater propulsion on land and in
the water. The new vehicle also could carry 1,500 pounds more cargo
than the original LVT-1.
The LVT-2 entered production in June 1942, but did
not see combat until Tarawa in November 1943. The Marines used a
combination of LVT-1s and LVT-2s in the assault on Betio. The 50 LVT-2s
used at Tarawa were modified in Samoa just before the battle with
3/8-inch boiler plates installed around the cab for greater protection
from small arms fire and shell fragments. Despite the loss of 30 of
these vehicles to enemy fire at Tarawa, the improvised armor was
considered promising and led to a call for truly armored LVTS.
The LVT(A)2 ["A" for armored} requested by the U.S.
Army was a version which saw limited use with the Marine Corps. The
LVT(A)2 had factory-installed armor plating on the hull and cab to
resist heavy machine gun fire. The new version appeared identical to
the LVT-2 with the exception of armored drivers' hatches. With
legitimate armor protection, the LVT(A)2 could function as an assault
vehicle in the lead waves of a landing. The armored amphibian vehicle
provided excellent service when it was introduced to Marine operations
on New Britain.
More than 3,000 LVT-2s and LVT(A)2s were manufactured
during World War II. These combat vehicles proved to be valuable assets
to the Marine Corps assault teams throughout the Pacific campaign,
transporting thousands of troops and tons of equipment. The overall
design, however, left some operational deficiencies. For one thing, the
vehicles lacked a ramp. All troops and equipment had to be loaded and
unloaded over the gunwales. This caused problems in normal field use
and was particularly hazardous during an opposed landing. This factor
would lead to the further development of amphibian tractors in the LVT
family during the war.
Compiled by Second Lieutenant Wesley L. Feight, USMC.
The crews and embarked troops in the LVTs had already
had a long morning, complete with hair-raising cross-deck transfers in
the choppy sea and the unwelcome thrill of eight-inch shells landing in
their proximity. Now they were commencing an extremely long run to the
beach, a distance of nearly 10 miles. The craft started on time but
quickly fell behind schedule. The LVT-1s of the first wave failed to
maintain the planned 4.5-knot speed of advance due to a strong westerly
current, decreased buoyancy from the weight of the improvised armor
plating, and their overaged power plants. There was a psychological
factor at work as well. "Red Mike" Edson had criticized the LVT crews
for landing five minutes early during the rehearsal at Efate, saying,
"early arrival inexcusable, late arrival preferable." Admiral Hill and
General Smith soon realized that the three struggling columns of LVTs
would never make the beach by 0830. H-Hour was postponed twice, to 0845,
then to 0900. Here again, not all hands received this word.
The destroyers Ringgold (DD 500) and
Dashiell (DD 659) entered the lagoon in the wake of two
minesweepers to provide close-in fire support. Once in the lagoon, the
minesweeper Pursuit (AM 108) became the Primary Control Ship,
taking position directly on the line of departure. Pursuit turned
her searchlight seaward to provide the LVTs with a beacon through the
thick dust and smoke. Finally, at 0824, the first wave of LVTs crossed
the line, still 6,000 yards away from the target beaches.
A minute later the second group of carrier aircraft
roared over Betio, right on time for the original H-Hour, but totally
unaware of the new times. This was another blunder. Admiral Kelly Turner
had specifically provided all players in Operation Galvanic with this
admonition: "Times of strafing beaches with reference to H-Hour are
approximate; the distance of the boats from the beach is the governing
factor." Admiral Hill had to call them off. The planes remained on
station, but with depleted fuel and ammunition levels available.
Troops of the 2d Battalion, 2d Marines, 2d Marine Division, load
magazines and clean their weapons enroute to Betio on board the attack
transport Zeilin (APA 3). LtGen Julian C. Smith
The LVTs struggled shoreward in three long waves,
each separated by a 300-yard interval: the 42 LVT-1s of Wave One,
followed by 24 LVT-2s of Wave Two, and 21 LVT-2s of Wave Three. Behind
the tracked vehicles came Waves Four and Five of LCVPs. Each of the
assault battalion commanders were in Wave Four. Further astern, the
Ashland ballasted down and launched 14 LCMs, each carrying a
Sherman medium tank. Four other LCMs appeared carrying light tanks (37mm
Shortly before 0800, Colonel Shoup and elements of
his tactical command post debarked into LCVPs from Biddle (APA 8)
and headed for the line of departure. Close by Shoup stood an
enterprising sergeant, energetically shielding his bulky radio from the
salt spray. Of the myriad of communications blackouts and failures on
D-Day, Shoup's radio would remain functional longer and serve him better
than the radios of any other commander, American or Japanese, on the
Admiral Hill ordered a cease fire at 0854, even
though the waves were still 4,000 yards off shore. General Smith and
"Red Mike" Edson objected strenuously, but Hill considered the huge
pillars of smoke unsafe for overhead fire support of the assault waves.
The great noise abruptly ceased. The LVTs making their final approach
soon began to receive long range machine gun fire and artillery
air-bursts. The latter could have been fatal to the troops crowded into
open-topped LVTs, but the Japanese had overloaded the projectiles with
high explosives. Instead of steel shell fragments, the Marines were
"doused with hot sand." It was the last tactical mistake the Japanese
would make that day.
The previously aborted air strike returned at 0855
for five minutes of noisy but ineffective strafing along the beaches,
the pilots again heeding their wristwatches instead of the progress of
the lead LVTs.
Two other events occurred at this time. A pair of
naval landing boats darted towards the end of the long pier at the
reef's edge. Out charged First Lieutenant Hawkins with his scout-sniper
platoon and a squad of combat engineers. These shock troops made quick
work of Japanese machine gun emplacements along the pier with explosives
and flame throwers. Meanwhile, the LVTs of Wave One struck the reef and
crawled effortlessly over it, commencing their final run to the beach.
These parts of Shoup's landing plan worked to perfection.
But the preliminary bombardment, as awesome and
unprecedented as it had been, had failed significantly to soften the
defenses. Very little ships' fire had been direct ed against the landing
beaches themselves, where Admiral Shibasaki vowed to defeat the assault
units at the water's edge. The well-protected defenders simply shook off
the sand and manned their guns. Worse, the near-total curtailment of
naval gun fire for the final 25 minutes of the assault run was a fateful
lapse. In effect, the Americans gave their opponents time to shift
forces from the southern and western beaches to reinforce northern
positions. The defenders were groggy from the pounding and stunned at
the sight of LVTs crossing the barrier reef, but Shibasaki's killing
zone was still largely intact. The assault waves were greeted by a
steadily increasing volume of combined arms fire.
For Wave One, the final 200 yards to the beach were
the roughest, especially for those LVTs approaching Red Beaches One and
Two. The vehicles were hammered by well-aimed fire from heavy and light
machine guns and 40mm antiboat guns. The Marines fired back, expending
10,000 rounds from the .50-caliber machine guns mounted forward on each
LVT-1. But the exposed gunners were easy targets, and dozens were cut
down. Major Drewes, the LVT battalion commander who had worked so hard
with Shoup to make this assault possible, took over one machine gun from
a fallen crewman and was immediately killed by a bullet through the
brain. Captain Fenlon A. Durand, one of Drewes' company commanders, saw
a Japanese officer standing defiantly on the sea wall waving a pistol,
"just daring us to come ashore."
On they came. Initial touchdown times were staggered:
0910 on Red Beach One; 0917 on Red Beach Three; 0922 on Red Beach Two.
The first LVT ashore was vehicle number 4-9, nicknamed "My Deloris,"
driven by PFC Edward J. Moore. "My Deloris" was the right guide vehicle
in Wave One on Red Beach One, hitting the beach squarely on "the bird's
beak." Moore tried his best to drive his LVT over the five-foot seawall,
but the vehicle stalled in a near-vertical position while nearby machine
guns riddled the cab. Moore reached for his rifle only to find it shot
in half. One of the embarked troops was 19-year-old Private First Class
Gilbert Ferguson, who recalled what happened next on board the LVT: "The
sergeant stood up and yelled 'everybody out.' At that very instant,
machine gun bullets appeared to rip his head off . . ." Ferguson, Moore,
and others escaped from the vehicle and dispatched two machine gun
positions only yards away. All became casualties in short order.
Very few of the LVTs could negotiate the seawall.
Stalled on the beach, the vehicles were vulnerable to preregistered
mortar and howitzer fire, as well as hand grenades tossed into the open
troop compartments by Japanese troops on the other side of the barrier.
The crew chief of one vehicle, Corporal John Spillane, had been a
baseball prospect with the St. Louis Cardinals organization before the
war. Spillane caught two Japanese grenades barehanded in mid-air,
tossing them back over the wall. A third grenade exploded in his hand,
grievously wounding him.
The second and third waves of LVT-2s, protected only
by 3/8-inch boiler plate hurriedly installed in Samoa, suffered even
more intense fire. Several were destroyed spectacularly by large-caliber
antiboat guns. Private First Class Newman M. Baird, a machine gunner
aboard one embattled vehicle, recounted his or deal: "We were 100 yards
in now and the enemy fire was awful damn intense and getting worse. They
were knocking [LVTs] out left and right. A tractor'd get hit, stop, and
burst into flames, with men jumping out like torches." Baird's own
vehicle was then hit by a shell, killing the crew and many of the
troops. "I grabbed my carbine and an ammunition box and stepped over a
couple of fellas lying there and put my hand on the side so's to roll
over into the water. I didn't want to put my head up. The bullets were
pouring at us like a sheet of rain."
Marines and sailors traveling on board a troop transport
receive their initial briefing on the landing plan for Betio.
Defense Photo (USMC) 101807
On balance, the LVTs performed their assault mission
fully within Julian Smith's expectations. Only eight of the 87 vehicles
in the first three waves were lost in the assault (although 15 more were
so riddled with holes that they sank upon reaching deep water while
seeking to shuttle more troops ashore). Within a span of 10 minutes, the
LVTs landed more than 1,500 Marines on Betio's north shore, a great
start to the operation. The critical problem lay in sustaining the
momentum of the assault. Major Holland's dire predictions about the neap
tide had proven accurate. No landing craft would cross the reef
Shoup hoped enough LVTs would survive to permit
wholesale transfer-line operations with the boats along the edge of the
reef. It rarely worked. The LVTs suffered increasing casualties. Many
vehicles, afloat for five hours already, simply ran of gas. Others had
to be used immediately for emergency evacuation of wounded Marines.
Communications, never good, deteriorated as more and more radio sets
suffered water damage or enemy fire. The surviving LVTs continued to
serve, but after about 1000 on D-Day, most troops had no other option
but to wade ashore from the reef, covering distances from 500 to 1,000
yards under well-aimed fire.
"Down the Net," a sketch by Kerr Eby. U.S. Navy Combat Art
Marines of Major Schoettel's LT 3/2 were particularly
hard hit on Red Beach One. Company K suffered heavy casualties from the
re-entrant strongpoint on the left. Company I made progress over the
seawall along the "bird's beak," but paid a high price, including the
loss of the company commander, Captain William E. Tatom, killed before
he could even debark from his LVT. Both units lost half their men in the
first two hours. Major Michael P. "Mike" Ryan's Company L, forced to
wade ashore when their boats grounded on the reef, sustained 35 percent
casualties. Ryan recalled the murderous enfilading fire and the
confusion. Suddenly, "one lone trooper was spotted through the fire and
smoke scrambling over a parapet on the beach to the right," marking a
new landing point. As Ryan finally reached the beach, he looked back
over his shoulder. "All [I] could see was heads with rifles held over
them," as his wading men tried to make as small a target as possible.
Ryan began assembling the stragglers of various waves in a relatively
sheltered area along Green Beach.
Major Schoettel remained in his boat with the
remnants of his fourth wave, convinced that his landing team had been
shattered beyond relief. No one had contact with Ryan. The fragmented
reports Schoettel received from the survivors of the two other assault
companies were disheartening. Seventeen of his 37 officers were
'The Singapore Guns'
The firing on Betio had barely subsided before
apocryphal claims began to appear in print that the four eight-inch
naval rifles used as coastal defense guns by the Japanese were the same
ones captured from the British at the fall of Singapore. Many prominent
historians unwittingly perpetuated this story, among them the highly
respected Samuel Eliot Morison.
In 1977, however, British writer William H. Bartsch
published the results of a recent visit to Tarawa in the quarterly
magazine After the Battle. Bartsch personally examined each of
the four guns and discovered markings indicating manufacture by Vickers,
the British ordnance company. The Vickers company subsequently provided
Bartsch records indicating the four guns were part of a consignment of
12 eight-inch, quick-firing guns which were sold in 1905 to the Japanese
during their war with Russia. Further investigation by Bartsch at the
Imperial War Museum produced the fact that there were no eight-inch guns
captured by the Japanese at Singapore. In short, the guns at Tarawa came
from a far more legitimate, and older, transaction with the British.
The eight-inch guns fired the opening rounds in the
battle of Tarawa, but were not by themselves a factor in the contest.
Earlier bombing raids may have damaged their fire control systems. Rapid
counterbattery fire from American battleships took out the big guns in
short order, although one of them maintained an intermittent, if
inaccurate, fire throughout D+1. Colonel Shoup stated emphatically that
the 2d Marine Division was fully aware of the presence of eight-inch
guns on Betio as early as mid-August 1943. By contrast, the division
intelligence annex to Shoup's operation order, updated nine days before
the landing, discounts external reports that the main guns were likely
to be as large as eight-inch, insisting instead that "they are probably
not more than 6-inch." Prior knowledge notwithstanding, the fact remains
that many American officers were unpleasantly surprised to experience
major caliber near-misses bracketing the amphibious task force early on
Destruction of one of the four Japanese eight-inch
Vickers guns on Betio was caused by naval gunfire and air
strikes. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 63618
In the center, Landing Team 2/2 was also hard hit
coming ashore over Red Beach Two. The Japanese strongpoint in the
re-entrant between the two beaches played havoc among troops trying to
scramble over the sides of their beached or stalled LVTs. Five of
Company E's six officers were killed. Company F suffered 50 per cent
casualties getting ashore and swarming over the seawall to seize a
precarious foothold. Company G could barely cling to a crowded stretch
of beach along the seawall in the middle. Two infantry platoons and two
machine gun platoons were driven away from the objective beach and
forced to land on Red Beach One, most joining "Ryan's Orphans."
When Lieutenant Colonel Amey's boat rammed to a
sudden halt against the reef, he hailed two passing LVTs for a transfer.
Amey's LVT then became hung up on a barbed wire obstacle several hundred
yards off Red Beach Two. The battalion commander drew his pistol and
exhorted his men to follow him into the water. Closer to the beach, Amey
turned to encourage his staff, "Come on! Those bastards can't beat us!"
A burst of machine gun fire hit him in the throat, killing him
instantly. His executive office, Major Howard Rice, was in another LVT
which was forced to land far to the west, behind Major Ryan. The senior
officer present with 2/2 was Lieutenant Colonel Walter Jordan, one of
several observers from the 4th Marine Division and one of only a handful
of survivors from Amey's LVT. Jordan did what any Marine would do under
the circumstances: he assumed command and tried to rebuild the
disjointed pieces of the landing team into a cohesive fighting force.
The task was enormous.