Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
Setting the Stage
Assault Preparations
D-Day at Betio, 20 November 1943
D+1 at Betio, 21 November 1943
The Third Day: D+2 at Betio, 22 November 1943
Completing the Task: 23-28 November 1943
The Significance of Tarawa
Maj. Gen. Julian C. Smith
Col. David M. Shoup
Special Subjects
The 2nd Marine Division at Tarawa
The Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces
LVT-2 and LVT(A)2 Amphibian Tractors
The Singapore Guns
Sherman Medium Tanks at Tarawa
Incident on D+3
Tarawa Today

ACROSS THE REEF: The Marine Assault of Tarawa
by Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret)

D-Day at Betio, 20 November 1943 (continued)

The only assault unit to get ashore without significant casualties was Major "Jim" Crowe's LT 2/8 on Red Beach Three to the left of the pier. Many historians have attributed this good fortune to the continued direct fire support 2/8 received throughout its run to the beach from the destroyers Ringgold and Dashiell in the lagoon. The two ships indeed provided outstanding fire support to the landing force, but their logbooks indicate both ships honored Admiral Hill's 0855 cease fire; thereafter, neither ship fired in support of LT 2/8 until at least 0925. Doubtlessly, the preliminary fire from such short range served to keep the Japanese defenders on the eastern end of the island buttoned up long after the cease fire. As a result, Crowe's team suffered only 25 casualties in the first three LVT waves. Company E made a significant penetration, crossing the barricade and the near taxiway, but five of its six officers were shot down in the first 10 minutes ashore. Crowe's LT 2/8 was up against some of the most sophisticated defensive positions on the island; three fortifications to their left (eastern) flank would effectively keep these Marines boxed in for the next 48 hours.

Heywood (APA 6) lowers an LVT-1 by swinging boom in process of debarking assault troops of the 2d Battalion, 8th Marines, on D-Day at Betio. The LVT-1 then joined up with other amphibian tractors to form up an assault wave. Julian C. Smith Collection

Major "Jim" Crowe—former enlisted man, Marine Gunner, distinguished rifleman, star football player—was a tower of strength throughout the battle. His trademark red mustache bristling, a combat shotgun cradled in his arm, he exuded confidence and professionalism, qualities sorely needed on Betio that long day. Crowe ordered the coxswain of his LCVP "put this god damned boat in!" The boat hit the reef at high speed, sending the Marines sprawling. Quickly recovering, Crowe ordered his men over the sides, then led them through several hundred yards of shallow water, reaching the shore intact only four minutes behind his last wave of LVTs. Accompanying Crowe during this hazardous effort was Staff Sergeant Hatch, the combat photographer. Hatch remembers being inspired by Crowe, clenching a cigar in his teeth and standing upright, growling at his men, "Look, the sons of bitches can't hit me. Why do you think they can hit you? Get moving. Go!" Red Beach Three was in capable hands.

LVT-1s follow wave guides from transport area towards Betio at first light on D-Day. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 63909

The situation on Betio by 0945 on D-Day was thus: Crowe, well established on the left with modest penetration to the airfield; a distinct gap between LT 2/8 and the survivors of LT 2/2 in small clusters along Red Beach Two under the tentative command of Jordan; a dangerous gap due to the Japanese fortifications at the re-entrant between beaches Two and One, with a few members of 3/2 on the left flank and the growing collection of odds and ends under Ryan past the "bird's beak" on Green Beach; Major Schoettel still afloat, hovering beyond the reef; Colonel Shoup likewise in an LCVP, but beginning his move towards the beach; residual members of the boated waves of the assault teams still wading ashore under increasing enemy fire; the tanks being forced to unload from their LCMs at the reef's edge, trying to organize recon teams to lead them ashore.

LVT-1s in the first assault wave enter the lagoon and approach the line of departure. LVT-2s of the second and third waves proceed on parallel courses in background. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 65978

Communications were ragged. The balky TBX radios of Shoup, Crowe, and Schoettel were still operational. Otherwise, there was either dead silence or complete havoc on the command nets. No one on the flagship knew of Ryan's relative success on the western end, or of Amey's death and Jordan's assumption of command. Several echelons heard this ominous early report from an unknown source: "Have landed. Unusually heavy opposition. Casualties 70 per cent. Can't hold." Shoup ordered Kyle's LT 1/2, the regimental reserve, to land on Red Beach Two and work west.

This would take time. Kyle's men were awaiting orders at the line of departure, but all were embarked in boats. Shoup and others managed to assemble enough LVTs to transport Kyle's companies A and B, but the third infantry company and the weapons company would have to wade ashore. The ensuing assault was chaotic. Many of the LVTs were destroyed enroute by antiboat guns which increasingly had the range down pat. At least five vehicles were driven away by the intense fire and landed west at Ryan's position, adding another 113 troops to Green Beach. What was left of Companies A and B stormed ashore and penetrated several hundred feet, expanding the "perimeter." Other troops sought refuge along the pier or tried to commandeer a passing LVT. Kyle got ashore in this fashion, but many of his troops did not complete the landing until the following morning. The experience of Lieutenant George D. Lillibridge of Company A, 1st Battalion, 2d Marines, was typical. His LVT driver and gunners were shot down by machine gun fire. The surviving crewman got the stranded vehicle started again, but only in reverse. The stricken vehicle then backed wildly though the entire impact zone before breaking down again. Lillibridge and his men did not get ashore until sunset.

The transport Zeilin, which had launched its Marines with such fanfare only a few hours earlier, received its first clear signal that things were going wrong on the beach when a derelict LVT chugged close astern with no one at the controls. The ship dispatched a boat to retrieve the vehicle. The sailors discovered three dead men aboard the LVT: two Marines and a Navy doctor. The bodies were brought on board, then buried with full honors at sea, the first of hundreds who would be consigned to the deep as a result of the maelstrom on Betio.

Communications on board Maryland were gradually restored to working order in the hours following the battleship's early morning duel with Betio's coast defense batteries. On board the flagship, General Julian Smith tried to make sense out of the intermittent and frequently conflicting messages coming in over the command net. At 1018 he ordered Colonel Hall to "chop" Major Robert H. Ruud's LT 3/8 to Shoup's CT Two. Smith further directed Hall to begin boating his regimental command group and LT 1/8 (Major Lawrence C. Hays, Jr.), the division reserve. At 1036, Smith reported to V Amphibious Corps: "Successful landing on Beaches Red Two and Three. Toe hold on Red One. Am committing one LT from Division reserve. Still encountering strong resistance throughout."

LVT-1 45
Three hundred yards to go! LVT-1 45 churns toward Red Beach Three just east of the long pier on D-Day. Heavy fighting is taking place on the other side of the beach. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 64050

LVT-1 49
LVT-1 49 ("My Deloris"), the first vehicle to reach Betio's shore, lies in her final resting place amid death and destruction, including a disabled LVT-2 from a follow-on assault wave. This photo was taken after D-Day. Maintenance crews attempted to salvage "My Deloris" during the battle, moving her somewhat eastward from the original landing point on "the bird's beak," but she was too riddled with shell holes to operate. After the battle, "My Deloris" was sent to the United States as an exhibit for War Bond drives. The historic vehicle is now at the Tracked Vehicle Museum at Camp DelMar, California. LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection

Colonel Shoup at this time was in the middle of a long odyssey trying to get ashore. He paused briefly for this memorable exchange of radio messages with Major Schoettel.

0959: (Schoettel to Shoup) "Receiving heavy fire all along beach. Unable to land all. Issue in doubt."

1007: (Schoettel to Shoup) "Boats held up on reef of right flank Red 1. Troops receiving heavy fire in water."

1012: (Shoup to Schoettel) "Land Beach Red 2 and work west.

1018: (Schoettel to Shoup) "We have nothing left to land."

When Shoup's LCVP was stopped by the reef, he transferred to a passing LVT. His party included Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson, already a media legend for his earlier exploits at Makin and Guadalcanal, now serving as an observer, and Lieutenant Colonel Presley M. Rixey, commanding 1st Battalion, 10th Marines, Shoup's artillery detachment. The LVT made three attempts to land; each time the enemy fire was too intense. On the third try, the vehicle was hit and disabled by plunging fire. Shoup sustained a painful shell fragment wound in his leg, but led his small party out of the stricken vehicle and into the dubious shelter of the pier. From this position, standing waist-deep in water, surrounded by thousands of dead fish and dozens of floating bodies, Shoup manned his radio, trying desperately to get organized combat units ashore to sway the balance.

For awhile, Shoup had hopes that the new Sherman tanks would serve to break the gridlock. The combat debut of the Marine medium tanks, however, was inauspicious on D-Day. The tankers were valorous, but the 2d Marine Division had no concept of how to employ tanks against fortified positions. When four Shermans reached Red Beach Three late in the morning of D-Day, Major Crowe simply waved them forward with orders to "knock out all enemy positions encountered." The tank crews, buttoned up under fire, were virtually blind. Without accompanying infantry they were lost piecemeal, some knocked out by Japanese 75mm guns, others damaged by American dive bombers.

Six Shermans tried to land on Red Beach One, each preceded by a dismounted guide to warn of underwater shell craters. The guides were shot down every few minutes by Japanese marksmen; each time another volunteer would step forward to continue the movement. Combat engineers had blown a hole in the seawall for the tanks to pass inland, but the way was now blocked with dead and wounded Marines. Rather than run over his fellow Marines, the commander reversed his column and proceeded around the "bird's beak" towards a second opening blasted in the seawall. Operating in the turbid waters now without guides, four tanks foundered in shell holes in the detour. Inland from the beach, one of the surviving Shermans engaged a plucky Japanese light tank. The Marine tank demolished its smaller opponent, but not before the doomed Japanese crew released one final 37mm round, a phenomenal shot, right down the barrel of the Sherman.

aerial photo of Betio
Aerial photograph of the northwestern tip of Betio (the "bird's beak") taken from 1,400 feet at 1407 on D-Day from a King fisher observation floatplane. Note the disabled LVTs in the water at left, seaward of the re-entrant strongpoints. A number of Marines from 3d Battalion, 2d Marines, were killed while crossing the sand spit in the extreme lower left corner. Marine Corps Personal Papers

By day's end, only two of the 14 Shermans were still operational, "Colorado" on Red Three and "China Gal" on Red One/Green Beach. Maintenance crews worked through the night to retrieve a third tank, "Cecilia," on Green Beach for Major Ryan. Attempts to get light tanks into the battle fared no better. Japanese gunners sank all four LCMs laden with light tanks before the boats even reached the reef. Shoup also had reports that the tank battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander B. Swenceski, had been killed while wading ashore (Swenceski, badly wounded, survived by crawling atop a pile of dead bodies to keep from drowning until he was finally discovered on D+1).

Shoup's message to the flagship at 1045 reflected his frustration: "Stiff resistance. Need half tracks. Our tanks no good." But the Regimental Weapons Companys halftracks, mounting 75mm guns, fared no better getting ashore than did any other combat unit that bloody morning. One was sunk in its LCM by long-range artillery fire before it reached the reef. A second ran the entire gauntlet but became stuck in the loose sand at the water's edge. The situation was becoming critical.

Amid the chaos along the exposed beachhead, individual examples of courage and initiative inspired the scattered remnants. Staff Sergeant William Bordelon, a combat engineer attached to LT 2/2, provided the first and most dramatic example on D-Day morning. When a Japanese shell disabled his LVT and killed most of the occupants enroute to the beach, Bordelon rallied the survivors and led them ashore on Red Beach Two. Pausing only to prepare explosive charges, Bordelon personally knocked out two Japanese positions which had been firing on the assault waves. Attacking a third emplacement, he was hit by machine gun fire, but declined medical assistance and continued the attack. Bordelon then dashed back into the water to rescue a wounded Marine calling for help. As intense fire opened up from yet another nearby enemy stronghold, the staff sergeant prepared one last demolition package and charged the position frontally. Bordelon's luck ran out. He was shot and killed, later to become the first of four men of the 2d Marine Division to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

In another incident, Sergeant Roy W. Johnson attacked a Japanese tank single-handedly, scrambling to the turret, dropping a grenade inside, then sitting on the hatch until the detonation. Johnson survived this incident, but he was killed in subsequent fighting on Betio, one of 217 Marine Corps sergeants to be killed or wounded in the 76-hour battle.

On Red Beach Three, a captain, shot through both arms and legs, sent a message to Major Crowe, apologizing for "letting you down." Major Ryan recalled "a wounded sergeant I had never seen before limping up to ask me where he was needed most." PFC Moore, wounded and disarmed from his experiences trying to drive "My Deloris" over the seawall, carried fresh ammunition up to machine gun crews the rest of the day until having to be evacuated to one of the transports. Other brave individuals retrieved a pair of 37mm antitank guns from a sunken landing craft, manhandled them several hundred yards ashore under nightmarish enemy fire, and hustled them across the beach to the seawall. The timing was critical. Two Japanese tanks were approaching the beach head. The Marine guns were too low to fire over the wall. "Lift them over," came the cry from a hundred throats, "LIFT THEM OVER!" Willing hands hoisted the 900-pound guns atop the wall. The gunners coolly loaded, aimed, and fired, knocking out one tank at close range, chasing off the other. There were hoarse cheers.

Time correspondent Robert Sherrod was no stranger to combat, but the landing on D-Day at Betio was one of the most unnerving experiences in his life. Sherrod accompanied Marines from the fourth wave of LT 2/2 attempting to wade ashore on Red Beach Two. In his words:

No sooner had we hit the water than the Japanese machine guns really opened up on us . . . . It was painfully slow, wading in such deep water. And we had seven hundred yards to walk slowly into that machine-gun fire, looming into larger targets as we rose onto higher ground. I was scared, as I had never been scared before . . . . Those who were not hit would always remember how the machine gun bullets hissed into the water, inches to the right, inches to the left.

sketch of D-Day at Tarawa
"D-Day at Tarawa," a sketch by Kerr Eby. This drawing captures the desperation of troops wading ashore from the reef through barbed wire obstacles and under constant machine gun fire. The artist himself was with the invading troops. U.S. Navy Combat Art Collection

Maj. Crowe
Maj Henry P "Jim" Crowe (standing, using radio handset) rallies Landing Team 2/8 behind a disabled LVT on Red Beach Three on D-Day. Carrying a shotgun, he went from foxhole to foxhole urging his troops forward against heavy enemy fire. Department of Defense (USMC) 63956

Colonel Shoup, moving slowly towards the beach along the pier, ordered Major Ruud's LT 3/8 to land on Red Beach Three, east of the pier. By this time in the morning there were no organized LVT units left to help transport the reserve battalion ashore. Shoup ordered Ruud to approach as closely as he could by landing boats, then wade the remaining distance. Ruud received his assault orders from Shoup at 1103. For the next six hours the two officers were never more than a mile apart, yet neither could communicate with the other.

Ruud divided his landing team into seven waves, but once the boats approached the reef the distinctions blurred. Japanese antiboat guns zeroed in on the landing craft with frightful accuracy, often hitting just as the bow ramp dropped. Survivors reported the distinctive "clang" as a shell impacted, a split second before the explosion. "It happened a dozen times," recalled Staff Sergeant Hatch, watching from the beach, "the boat blown completely out of the water and smashed and bodies all over the place." Robert Sherrod reported from a different vantage point, "I watched a Jap shell hit directly on a [landing craft] that was bringing many Marines ashore. The explosion was terrific and parts of the boat flew in all directions." Some Navy coxswains, seeing the slaughter just ahead, stopped their boats seaward of the reef and ordered the troops off. The Marines, many loaded with radios or wire or extra ammunition, sank immediately in deep water; most drowned. The reward for those troops whose boats made it intact to the reef was hardly less sanguinary: a 600-yard wade through withering crossfire, heavier by far than that endured by the first assault waves at H-Hour. The slaughter among the first wave of Companies K and L was terrible. Seventy percent fell attempting to reach the beach.

Seeing this, Shoup and his party waved frantically to groups of Marines in the following waves to seek protection of the pier. A great number did this, but so many officers and noncommissioned officers had been hit that the stragglers were shattered and disorganized. The pier itself was a dubious shelter, receiving intermit tent machine-gun and sniper fire from both sides. Shoup himself was struck in nine places, including a spent bullet which came close to penetrating his bull neck. His runner crouching beside him was drilled between the eyes by a Japanese sniper.

Captain Carl W. Hoffman, commanding 3/8's Weapons Company, had no better luck getting ashore than the infantry companies ahead. "My landing craft had a direct hit from a Japanese mortar. We lost six or eight people right there." Hoffman's Marines veered toward the pier, then worked their way ashore.

Major Ruud, frustrated at being unable to contact Shoup, radioed his regimental commander, Colonel Hall: "Third wave landed on Beach Red 3 were practically wiped out. Fourth wave landed . . . but only a few men got ashore." Hall, himself in a small boat near the line of departure, was unable to respond. Brigadier General Leo D. ("Dutch") Hermle, assistant division commander, interceded with the message, "Stay where you are or retreat out of gun range." This added to the confusion. As a result, Ruud himself did not reach the pier until mid-afternoon. It was 1730 before he could lead the remnants of his men ashore; some did not straggle in until the following day. Shoup dispatched what was left of LT 3/8 in support of Crowe's embattled 2/8; others were used to help plug the gap between 2/8 and the combined troops of 2/2 and 1/2.

Shoup finally reached Betio at noon and established a command post 50 yards in from the pier along the blind side of a large Japanese bunker, still occupied. The colonel posted guards to keep the enemy from launching any unwelcome sorties, but the approaches to the site it self were as exposed as any other place on the flat island. At least two dozen messengers were shot while bearing dispatches to and from Shoup. Sherrod crawled up to the grim-faced colonel, who admitted, "We're in a tight spot. We've got to have more men." Sherrod looked out at the exposed waters on both sides of the pier. Already he could count 50 disabled LVTs, tanks, and boats. The prospects did not look good.

The first order of business upon Shoup's reaching dry ground was to seek updated reports from the landing team commanders. If anything, tactical communications were worse at noon than they had been during the morning. Shoup still had no contact with any troops ashore on Red Beach One, and now he could no longer raise General Smith on Maryland. A dire message came from LT 2/2: "We need help. Situation bad." Later a messenger arrived from that unit with this report: "All communications out except runners. CO killed. No word from E Company." Shoup found Lieutenant Colonel Jordan, ordered him to keep command of 2/2, and sought to reinforce him with elements from 1/2 and 3/8. Shoup gave Jordan an hour to organize and rearm his assorted detachments, then ordered him to attack inland to the airstrip and expand the beachhead.

memorial ceremony
Captain and crew of Zeilin (APA 3) pause on D-Day to commit casualties to the deep. The three dead men (two Marines and a Navy surgeon), were found in a derelict LVT drifting through the transport area, 10 miles away from the beaches. LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection

Shoup then directed Evans Carlson to hitch a ride out to the Maryland and give General Smith and Admiral Hill a personal report of the situation ashore. Shoup's strength of character was beginning to show. "You tell the general and the admiral," he ordered Carlson, "that we are going to stick and fight it out." Carlson departed immediately, but such were the hazards and confusion between the beach and the line of departure that he did not reach the flagship until 1800.

Matters of critical resupply then captured Shoups attention. Beyond the pier he could see nearly a hundred small craft, circling aimlessly. These, he knew, carried assorted supplies from the transports and cargo ships, unloading as rapidly as they could in compliance with Admiral Nimitz's stricture to "get the hell in, then get the hell out." The indiscriminate unloading was hindering prosecution of the fight ashore. Shoup had no idea which boat held which supplies. He sent word to the Primary Control Officer to send only the most critical supplies to the pier-head: ammunition, water, blood plasma, stretchers, LVT fuel, more radios.

Shoup then conferred with Lieutenant Colonel Rixey. While naval gunfire support since the landing had been magnificent, it was time for the Marines to bring their own artillery ashore. The original plan to land the 1st Battalion/10th Marines, on Red One was no longer practical. Shoup and Rixey agreed to try a landing on the left flank of Red Two, close to pier. Rixey's guns were 75mm pack howitzers, boated in LCVPs. The expeditionary guns could be broken down for manhandling. Rixey, having seen from close at hand what happened when LT 3/8 had tried to wade ashore from the reef, went after the last remaining LVTs. There were enough operational vehicles for just two sections of Batteries A and B. In the confusion of transfer-line operations, three sections of Battery C followed the LVTs shoreward in their open boats. Luck was with the artillerymen. The LVTs landed their guns intact by late afternoon. When the the trailing boats hung up on the reef, the intrepid Marines humped the heavy components through the bullet-swept waters to the pier and eventually ashore at twilight. There would be close-in fire support available at daybreak.

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