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)

Julian Smith knew little of these events, and he continued striving to piece together the tactical situation ashore. From observation reports from staff officers aloft in the float planes, he concluded that the situation in the early afternoon was desperate. Although elements of five infantry battalions were ashore, their toehold was at best precarious. As Smith later recalled, "the gap between Red 1 and Red 2 had not been closed and the left flank on Red 3 was by no means secure."

Smith assumed that Shoup was still alive and functioning, but he could ill afford to gamble. For the next several hours the commanding general did his best to influence the action ashore from the flagship. Smith's first step was the most critical. At 1331 he sent a radio message to General Holland Smith, reporting "situation in doubt" and requesting release of the 6th Marines to division control. In the meantime, having ordered his last remaining landing team (Hays' 1/8) to the line of departure, Smith began reconstituting an emergency division reserve comprised of bits and pieces of the artillery, engineer, and service troop units.

sunken watercraft
U.S. Navy LCM-3 sinks seaward of the reef after receiving a direct hit by Japanese gunners on D-Day. This craft may have been one of four carrying M-3 Stuart light tanks, all of which were sunk by highly accurate coastal defense guns that morning. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 64142

General Smith at 1343 ordered General Hermle to proceed to the end of the pier, assess the situation and report back. Hermle and his small staff promptly debarked from Monrovia (APA 31) and headed towards the smoking island, but the trip took four hours.

Sherman Medium Tanks at Tarawa

Sherman tank
M-4A2 Sherman tank ("Charlie") of 3d Platoon, Company C, Medium Tanks, was disabled inland from Red Beach. There by mutually supporting Japanese antitank guns firing from well-dug in positions not too far from the beaches. LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection

One company of M4-A2 Sherman medium tanks was assigned to the 2d Marine Division for Operation Galvanic from the I Marine Amphibious Corps. The 14 tanks deployed from Noumea in early November 1943, on board the new dock landing ship Ashland (LSD 1), joining Task Force 53 enroute to the Gilberts. Each 34-ton, diesel-powered Sherman was operated by a crew of five and featured a gyro-stablized 75mm gun and three machine guns. Regrettably, the Marines had no opportunity to operate with their new offensive assets until the chaos of D-Day at Betio.

The Shermans joined Wave 5 of the ship-to-shore assault. The tanks negotiated the gauntlet of Japanese fire without incident, but five were lost when they plunged into unseen shell craters in the turbid water. Ashore, they Marines' lack of operating experience with medium tanks proved costly to the survivors. Local commanders simply ordered the vehicles inland to attack targets of opportunity unsupported. All but two were soon knocked out of action. Enterprising salvage crews worked throughout each night to cannibalize severely damaged vehicles in order to keep other tanks operational. Meanwhile, the Marines learned to employ the tanks within an integrated team of covering infantry and engineers. The Shermans then proved invaluable in Major Ryan's seizure of Green Beach on D+1, the attacks of Major Jones and Major Crowe on D+2, and the final assault by Leiutenant Colonel McLeod on D+3. Early in the battle, Japanese 75mm antitank guns were deadly against the Shermans, but once these weapons were destroyed, the defenders could do little more than shoot out the periscopes with sniper fire.

Colonel Shoup's opinion of the medium tanks was ambivalent. His disappointment in the squandered deployment and heavy losses among the Shermans on D-Day was tempered by subsequent admiration for their tactical role ashore. Time and again, Japanese emplacements of reinforced concrete, steel, and sand were reduced by direct fire from the tanks' main guns, despite a "prohibitive ammunition expenditure." Shoup also reported that "the so-called crushing effect of medium tanks, as a tactical measure, was practically negligible in this operation, and I believe no one should place any faith in eliminating fortifications by running over them with a tank."

The Marines agreed that the advent of the Shermans rendered their light tanks obsolete. "Medium tanks are just as easy to get ashore, and they pack greater armor and firepower," concluded one battalion commanders. By the war's end, the American ordnance industry had manufactured 48,064 Sherman tanks for employment by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in all theaters of combat.

In the meantime, General Smith intercepted a 1458 message from Major Schoettel, still afloat seaward of the reef: "CP located on back of Red Beach 1. Situation as before. Have lost contact with assault elements." Smith answered in no uncertain terms: "Direct you land at any cost, regain control your battalion and continue the attack." Schoettel complied, reaching the beach around sunset. It would be well into the next day before he could work his way west and consolidate his scattered remnants.

SSgt William J. Bordelon
SSgt William J. Bordelon, USMC, was awarded the Medal of Honor (posthumously) for his actions on D-Day. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 12980

At 1525, Julian Smith received Holland Smith's authorization to take control of the 6th Marines. This was good news. Smith now had four battalion landing teams (including 1/8) available. The question then became where to feed them into the fight without getting them chewed to pieces like Ruud's experience in trying to land 3/8.

At this point, Julian Smith's communications failed him again. At 1740, he received a faint message that Hermle had finally reached the pier and was under fire. Ten minutes later, Smith ordered Hermle to take command of all forces ashore. To his subsequent chagrin, Hermle never received this word. Nor did Smith know his message failed to get through. Hermle stayed at the pier, sending runners to Shoup (who unceremoniously told him to "get the hell out from under that pier!") and trying with partial success to unscrew the two-way movement of casualties out to sea and supplies to shore.

Throughout the long day Colonel Hall and his regimental staff had languished in their LCVPs adjacent to Hays' LT 1/8 at the line of departure, "cramped, wet, hungry, tired and a large number . . . seasick." In late afternoon, Smith abruptly ordered Hall to land his remaining units on a new beach on the northeast tip of the island at 1745 and work west towards Shoup's ragged lines. This was a tremendous risk. Smith's overriding concern that evening was a Japanese counterattack from the eastern tail of the island against his left flank (Crowe and Ruud). Once he had been given the 6th Marines, Smith admitted he was "willing to sacrifice a battalion landing team" if it meant saving the landing force from being overrun during darkness.

Getting ashore on D-Day took great courage and determination. Attacking inland beyond the relative safety of the seawall on D-Day required an even greater measure. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 63457

sketch of D-Day
"Tarawa, H-Hour, D-Day, Beach Red." Detail from a painting in acrylic colors by Col Charles H. Waterhouse, USMCR. Marine Corps Historical Center Combat Art Collection

aerial photo
This aerial photograph, taken at 1406 on D-Day, shows the long pier on the north side of the island which divided Red Beach Three, left, from Red Beach Two, where "a man could lift his hand and get it shot off"" in the intense fire. Barbed wire entanglements are visible off both beaches. A grounded Japanese landing craft is tied to the west side of the pier. Faintly visible in the right foreground, a few Marines wade from a disabled LVT towards the pier's limited safety and shelter. Marine Corps Personal Papers

wounded Marine
Marines try to drag a wounded comrade to safety and medical treatment on D-Day. LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection

Fortunately, as it turned out, Hall never received this message from Smith. Later in the afternoon, a float plane reported to Smith that a unit was crossing the line of departure and heading for the left flank of Red Beach Two. Smith and Edson assumed it was Hall and Hays going in on the wrong beach. The fog of war: the movement reported was the beginning of Rixey's artillerymen moving ashore. The 8th Marines spent the night in its boats, waiting for orders. Smith did not discover this fact until early the next morning.

On Betio, Shoup was pleased to receive at 1415 an unexpected report from Major Ryan that several hundred Marines and a pair of tanks had penetrated 500 yards beyond Red Beach One on the western end of the island. This was by far the most successful progress of the day, and the news was doubly welcome because Shoup, fearing the worst, had assumed Schoettel's companies and the other strays who had veered in that direction had been wiped out. Shoup, however, was unable to convey the news to Smith.

Ryan's composite troops had indeed been successful on the western end. Learning quickly how best to operate with the medium tanks, the Marines carved out a substantial beachhead, overrunning many Japanese turrets and pillboxes. But aside from the tanks, Ryan's men had nothing but infantry weapons. Critically, they had no flamethrowers or demolitions. Ryan had learned from earlier experience in the Solomons that "positions reduced only with grenades could come alive again." By late afternoon, he decided to pull back his thin lines and consolidate. "I was convinced that without flamethrowers or explosives to clean them out we had to pull back . . . to a perimeter that could be defended against counterattack by Japanese troops still hidden in the bunkers."

The fundamental choice faced by most other Marines on Betio that day was whether to stay put along the beach or crawl over the seawall and carry the fight inland. For much of the day the fire coming across the top of those coconut logs was so intense it seemed "a man could lift his hand and get it shot off." Late on D-Day, there were many too demoralized to advance. When Major Rathvon McC. Tompkins, bearing messages from General Hermle to Colonel Shoup, first arrived on Red Beach Two at the foot of the pier at dusk on D-Day, he was appalled at the sight of so many stragglers. Tompkins wondered why the Japanese "didn't use mortars on the first night. People were lying on the beach so thick you couldn't walk."

Conditions were congested on Red Beach One, as well, but there was a difference. Major Crowe was every where, "as cool as ice box lettuce." There were no stragglers. Crowe constantly fed small groups of Marines into the lines to reinforce his precarious hold on the left flank. Captain Hoffman of 3/8 was not displeased to find his unit suddenly integrated within Crowe's 2/8. And Crowe certainly needed help as darkness began to fall. "There we were," Hoffman recalled, "toes in the water, casualties everywhere, dead and wounded all around us. But finally a few Marines started inching forward, a yard here, a yard there." It was enough. Hoffman was soon able to see well enough to call in naval gunfire support 50 yards ahead. His Marines dug in for the night.

Col Michael P Ryan
Col Michael P Ryan, USMC, wears the Navy Cross awarded to him at Tarawa. Ryan, the junior major in the Division, was instrumental in securing the western end of Betio, thereby enabling the first substantial reinforcements to land intact. Marine Corps Historical Collection

West of Crowe's lines, and just inland from Shoup's command post, Captain William T. Bray's Company B, 1/2, settled in for the expected counterattacks. The company had been scattered in Kyle's bloody landing at mid-day. Bray reported to Kyle that he had men from 12 to 14 different units in his company, including several sailors who swam ashore from sinking boats. The men were well armed and no longer strangers to each other, and Kyle was reassured.

Altogether, some 5,000 Marines had stormed the beaches of Betio on D-Day. Fifteen hundred of these were dead, wounded, or missing by nightfall. The survivors held less than a quarter of a square mile of sand and coral. Shoup later described the location of his beachhead lines the night of D-Day as "a stock market graph." His Marines went to ground in the best fighting positions they could secure, whether in shellholes inland or along the splintered sea wall. Despite the crazy-quilt defensive positions and scrambled units, the Marines' fire discipline was superb. The troops seemed to share a certain grim confidence; they had faced the worst in getting ashore. They were quietly ready for any sudden banzai charges in the dark.

Offshore, the level of confidence diminished. General Julian Smith on Maryland was gravely concerned. "This was the crisis of the battle," he recalled. "Three-fourths of the Island was in the enemy's hands, and even allowing for his losses he should have had as many troops left as we had ashore." A concerted Japanese counterattack, Smith believed, would have driven most of his forces into the sea. Smith and Hill reported up the chain of command to Turner, Spruance, and Nimitz: "Issue remains in doubt." Spruance's staff began drafting plans for emergency evacuation of the landing force.

The expected Japanese counterattack did not materialize. The principal dividend of all the bombardment turned out to be the destruction of Admiral Shibasaki's wire communications. The Japanese commander could not muster his men to take the offensive. A few individuals infiltrated through the Marine lines to swim out to disabled tanks and LVTs in the lagoon, where they waited for the morning. Otherwise, all was quiet.

sketch of invasion
"The Hard Road to Triumph," a sketch by Kerr Eby. The action shows Maj Crowe's LT 2/8 trying to expand its beachhead near the contested Burns-Philp pier. U.S. Navy Combat Art Collection

Marines of Landing Teams 2/8 and 3/8 advance forward beyond the beach. LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection

The main struggle throughout the night of D-Day was the attempt by Shoup and Hermle to advise Julian Smith of the best place to land the reserves on D+1. Smith was amazed to learn at 0200 that Hall and Hays were in fact not ashore but still afloat at the line of departure, awaiting orders. Again, he ordered Combat Team Eight (-) to land on the eastern tip of the island, this time at 0900 on D+1. Hermle finally caught a boat to one of the destroyers in the lagoon to relay Shoup's request to the commanding general to land reinforcements on Red Beach Two. Smith altered Hall's orders accordingly, but he ordered Hermle back to the flagship, miffed at his assistant for not getting ashore and taking command. But Hermle had done Smith a good service in relaying the advice from Shoup. As much as the 8th Marines were going to bleed in the morning's assault, a landing on the eastern end of the island would have been an unmitigated catastrophe. Reconnaissance after the battle discovered those beaches to be the most intensely mined on the island.

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