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)

Assault Preparations

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," observed Edson.

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 and sand.

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 defensive weaponry.

The 2d Marine Division at Tarawa

2nd Marine Division
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 Operation Galvanic:

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.

2nd Marine Division
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 Collection

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 Smith.

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

Major General Julian C. Smith
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) 70729

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 head).

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.

map of Betio Island
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

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 campaign.

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
The 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 field training excerise
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 Association.

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 shirt!"

Col David M. Shoup
Col 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.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division