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)

Setting the Stage

The Gilbert Islands consist of 16 scattered atolls lying along the equator in the Central Pacific. Tarawa Atoll is 2,085 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor and 540 miles southeast of Kwajalein in the Marshalls. Betio is the principal island in the atoll.

The Japanese seized Tarawa and Makin from the British within the first three days after Pearl Harbor. Carlson's brief raid in August 1942 caused the Japanese to realize their vulnerability in the Gilberts. Shortly after the raid, the 6th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force arrived in the islands. With them came Rear Admiral Tomanari Saichiro, a superb engineer, who directed the construction of sophisticated defensive positions on Betio. Saichiro's primary goal was to make Betio so formidable that an American assault would be stalled at the water's edge, allowing time for the other elements of the Yogaki ("Waylaying Attack") Plan to destroy the landing force.

The Yogaki Plan was the Japanese strategy to defend eastern Micronesia from an Allied invasion. Japanese commanders agreed to counterattack with bombers, submarines, and the main battle fleet. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet/Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas (CinCPac/CinCPOA), took these capabilities seriously. Nimitz directed Spruance to "get the hell in and get the hell out!" Spruance in turn warned his subordinates to seize the target islands in the Gilberts "with lightning speed." This sense of urgency had a major influence on the Tarawa campaign.

Japanese Special Naval Landing Force troops mount a British-made, Vickers eight-inch naval cannon into its turret on Betio before the battle. This film was developed from a Japanese camera found in the ruins while the battle was still on. Marine Corps Personal Papers, Boardman Collection

The Joint Chiefs of Staff assigned the code name Galvanic to the campaign to capture Tarawa, Makin, and Apamama in the Gilberts. The 2d Marine Division was assigned Tarawa and Apamama (a company-sized operation); the Army's 165th Regimental Combat Team of the 27th Infantry Division would tackle Makin.

By coincidence, each of the three landing force commanders in Operation Galvanic was a major general named Smith. The senior of these was a Marine, Holland M. "Howling Mad" Smith, commanding V Amphibious Corps. Julian C. Smith commanded the 2d Marine Division. Army Major General Ralph C. Smith commanded the 27th Infantry Division.

Spruance assigned Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly "Terrible" Turner, veteran of the Guadalcanal campaign, to command all amphibious forces for the operation. Turner, accompanied by Holland Smith, decided to command the northern group, Task Force 52, for the assault on Makin. Turner assigned Rear Admiral Harry W. "Handsome Harry" Hill to command the southern group, Task Force 53, for the assault on Tarawa. Julian Smith would accompany Hill on board the old battleship USS Maryland (BB 46). The two officers were opposites—Hill, out spoken and impetuous; Julian Smith, reserved and reflective—but they worked together well. Spruance set D-Day for 20 November 1943.

Colonel Shoup came up with an idea of how to tackle Betio's barrier reefs. He had observed the Marines new Landing Vehicle Tracked (LVT or "Alligator"), an amphibian tractor, in operation during Guadalcanal. The Alligators were unarmored logistic vehicles, not assault craft, but they were true amphibians, capable of being launched at sea and swimming ashore through moderate surf.

Shoup discussed the potential use of LVTs as assault craft with Major Henry C. Drewes, commanding the 2d Amphibian Tractor Battalion. Drewes liked the idea, but warned Shoup that many of his vehicles were in poor condition after the Guadalcanal campaign. At best, Drewes could provide a maximum of 75 vehicles, not nearly enough to carry the entire assault and following waves. Further, the thin hulls of the vehicles were vulnerable to every enemy weapon and would require some form of jury-rigged armor plating for minimal protection. Shoup encouraged Drewes to modify the vehicles with whatever armor plate he could scrounge.

General Julian Smith was aware that a number of LVT-2s were stockpiled in San Diego, and he submitted an urgent request for 100 of the newer models to the corps commander. Holland Smith endorsed the request favorably, but Admiral Turner disagreed. The two strong-willed officers were doctrinally equal during the planning phase, and the argument was intense. While Turner did not dispute the Marines' need for a reef-crossing capability, he objected to the fact that the new vehicles would have to be carried to Tarawa in tank landing ships (LSTs). The slow speed of the LSTs (8.5 knots max) would require a separate convoy, additional escorts, and an increased risk of losing the element of strategic surprise. Holland Smith reduced the debate to bare essentials: "No LVTs, no operation." Turner acquiesced, but it was not a complete victory for the Marines. Half of the 100 new LVT-2s would go to the Army forces landing at Makin against much lighter opposition. The 50 Marine vehicles would not arrive in time for either work-up training or the rehearsal landings. The first time the infantry would lay eyes on the LVT-2s would be in the pre-dawn hours of D-Day at Tarawa—if then.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division