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

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.

Division D-2 situation map of western Betio
A 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 departure.

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 cleaning weapons
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 Collection

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 guns).

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 island.

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. Department of 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 throughout D-Day.

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.

sketch of Marines
"Down the Net," a sketch by Kerr Eby. U.S. Navy Combat Art Collection

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 casualties.

'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 D-Day.

Vickers guns
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.

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