ACROSS THE REEF: The Marine Assault of Tarawa
by Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret)
In August 1943, to meet in secret with Major General
Julian C. Smith and his principal staff officers of the 2d Marine
Division, Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, commanding the Central
Pacific Force, flew to New Zealand from Pearl Harbor. Spruance told the
Marines to prepare for an amphibious assault against Japanese positions
in the Gilbert Islands in November.
The Marines knew about the Gilberts. The 2d Raider
Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson had attacked Makin
Atoll a year earlier. Subsequent intelligence reports warned that the
Japanese had fortified Betio Island in Tarawa Atoll, where elite forces
guarded a new bomber strip. Spruance said Betio would be the prime
target for the 2d Marine Division.
Artist Kerr Eby, who landed at Tarawa as a participant,
entitled this sketch "Bullets and Barbed Wire." U.S. Navy Combat Art
General Smith's operations officer, Lieutenant
Colonel David M. Shoup, studied the primitive chart of Betio and saw
that the tiny island was surrounded by a barrier reef. Shoup asked
Spruance if any of the Navy's experimental, shallow-draft, plastic boats
could be provided. "Not available," replied the admiral, "expect only
the usual wooden landing craft." Shoup frowned. General Smith could
sense that Shoup's gifted mind was already formulating a plan.
The results of that plan were momentous. The Tarawa
operation became a tactical watershed: the first, large-scale test of
American amphibious doctrine against a strongly fortified beachhead. The
Marine assault on Betio was particularly bloody. Ten days after the
assault, Time magazine published the first of many post-battle
Last week some 2,000 or 3,000 United States Marines,
most of them now dead or wounded, gave the nation a name to stand beside
those of Concord Bridge, the Bon Homme Richard, the Alamo, Little
Big Horn and Belleau Wood. The name was "Tarawa."