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)

Completing the Task: 23—28 November 1943

"This was not only worse than Guadalcanal," admitted Lieutenant Colonel Carlson, "It was the damnedest fight I've seen in 30 years of this business."

The costly counterattacks during the night of 22-23 November effectively broke the back of the Japanese defense. Had they remained in their bunkers until the bitter end, the defenders probably would have exacted a higher toll in American lives. Facing inevitable defeat in detail, however, nearly 600 Japanese chose to die by taking the offensive during the night action.

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The 2d Marine Division still had five more hours of hard fighting on Betio the morning of D+3 before the island could be conquered. Late in the morning, General Smith sent this report to Admiral Hill on Maryland:

Decisive defeat of enemy counterattack last night destroyed bulk of hostile resistance. Expect complete annihilation of enemy on Betio this date. Strongly recommend that you and your chief of staff come ashore this date to get in formation about the type of hostile resistance which will be encountered in future operations.

Meanwhile, following a systematic preliminary bombardment, the fresh troops of McLeod's LT 3/6 passed through Jones' lines and commenced their attack to the east. By now, Marine assault tactics were well refined. Led by tanks and combat engineers with flamethrowers and high explosives, the troops of 3/6 made rapid progress. Only one bunker, a well-armed complex along the north shore, provided effective opposition. McLeod took advantage of the heavy brush along the south shore to bypass the obstacle, leaving one rifle company to encircle and eventually overrun it. Momentum was maintained; the remaining Japanese seemed dispirited. By 1300, McLeod reached the eastern tip of Betio, having inflicted more than 450 Japanese casualties at the loss of 34 of his Marines. McLeod's report summarized the general collapse of the Japanese defensive system in the eastern zone following the counterattacks: "At no time was there any determined defensive . . . . We used flamethrowers and could have used more. Medium tanks were excellent. My light tanks didn't fire a shot."

sketch of fighting
"Tarawa No. II," a sketch by combat artist Kerr Eby, reflects the difficulty in landing reinforcements over the long pier throughout the battle. As Gen Julian Smith personally learned, landing across Green Beach took longer but was much safer. U.S. Navy Combat Art Collection

The toughest fight of the fourth day occurred on the Red Beach One/Two border where Colonel Shoup directed the combined forces of Hays' 1/8 and Schoettel's 3/2 against the "re-entrant strongpoints. The Japanese defenders in these positions were clearly the most disciplined—and the deadliest—on the island. From these bunkers, Japanese antiboat gunners had thoroughly disrupted the landings of four different battalions, and they had very nearly killed General Smith the day before. The seaward approaches to these strongpoints were littered with wrecked LVTs and bloat ed bodies.

Major Hays finally got some flamethrowers (from Crowe's engineers when LT 2/8 was ordered to stand down), and the attack of 1/8 from the east made steady, if painstaking, progress. Major Schoettel, anxious to atone for what some perceived to be a lackluster effort on D-Day, pressed the assault of 3/2 from the west and south. To complete the circle, Shoup ordered a platoon of infantry and a pair of 75mm half tracks out to the reef to keep the defenders pinned down from the lagoon. Some of the Japanese committed hara-kari; the remainder, exhausted, fought to the end. Hays' Marines had been attacking this complex ever since their bloody landing on the morning of D+1. In those 48 hours, 1/8 fired 54,450 rounds of .30-caliber rifle ammunition. But the real damage was done by the special weapons of the engineers and the direct fire of the halftracks. Capture of the largest position, a concrete pillbox near the beach, enabled easier approaches to the remaining bunkers. By 1300, it was all over.

Marines fire a M-1919A4 machine gun from an improvised "shelter" in the battlefield. Department of Defense Photo 63495

A Marine throws a hand grenade during the battle for the interior of the island. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 63455

At high noon, while the fighting in both sectors was still underway, a Navy fighter plane landed on Betio's airstrip, weaving around the Seabee trucks and graders. Nearby Marines swarmed over the plane to shake the pilot's hand. A PB2Y also landed to take out press reports and the haggard observers, including Evans Carlson and Walter Jordan.

Admiral Hill and his staff came ashore at 1245. The naval officers marveled at the great strength of the Japanese bunker system, realizing immediately the need to reconsider their preliminary bombardment policies. Admiral Hill called Betio "a little Gibraltar;" and observed that "only the Marines could have made such a landing."

When Smith received the nearly simultaneous reports from Colonels Shoup and Holmes that both final objectives had been seized, he was able to share the good news with Hill. The two had worked together harmoniously to achieve this victory. Between them, they drafted a message to Admiral Turner and General Holland Smith announcing the end of organized resistance on Betio. It was 1305, about 76 hours after PFC Moore first rammed LVT 4-9 ("My Deloris") onto the seawall on Red Beach One to begin the direct assault.

The stench of death and decay was overwhelming. "Betio would be more habitable," reported Robert Sherrod, "if the Marines could leave for a few days and send a million buzzards in." Working parties sought doggedly to identify the dead; often the bodies were so badly shattered or burned as to eliminate distinction between friend and foe. Chaplains worked alongside burial teams equipped with bulldozers. General Smith's administrative staff worked hard to prepare accurate casualty lists. More casualties were expected in the mop-up operations in the surrounding islands and Apamama. Particularly distressing was the report that nearly 100 en listed Marines were missing and presumed dead. The changing tides had swept many bodies of the assault troops out to sea. The first pilot ashore reported seeing scores of floating corpses, miles away, over the horizon.

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The Japanese garrison was nearly annihilated in the fighting. The Marines, supported by naval gunfire, carrier aviation, and Army Air Force units, killed 97 percent of the 4,836 troops estimated to be on Betio during the assault. Only 146 prisoners were taken, all but 17 of them Korean laborers. The Marines captured only one Japanese officer, 30-year-old Kiyoshi Ota from Nagasaki, a Special Duty Ensign in the 7th Sasebo Special Landing Force. Ensign Ota told his captors the garrison expected the landings along the south and southwest sectors instead of the northern beaches. He also thought the reef would protect the defenders throughout periods of low tide.

Shortly before General Julian Smith's announcement of victory at Betio, his Army counterpart, General Ralph Smith, signalled "Makin taken!" In three days of sharp fighting on Butaritari Island, the Army wiped out the Japanese garrison at the cost of 200 American casualties. Bad blood developed between "Howling Mad" Smith and Ralph Smith over the conduct of this operation which would have unfortunate consequences in a later amphibious campaign.

The grimy Marines on Betio took a deep breath and sank to the ground. Many had been awake since the night before the landing. As Captain Carl Hoffman recalled, "There was just no way to rest; there was virtually no way to eat. Mostly it was close, hand-to-hand fighting and survival for three and a half days. It seemed like the longest period of my life." Lieutenant Lillibridge had no nourishment at all until the after noon of D+3. "One of my men mixed up a canteen cup full of hot water, chocolate, coffee, and sugar, and gave it to me, saying he thought I needed something. It was the best meal I ever had."

Incident on D+3

A small incident on the last day of the fighting on Betio cost First Sergeant Lewis J. Michelony, Jr. his sense of smell. Michelony, a member of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, was a former boxing champion of the Atlantic Fleet and a combat veteran of Guadalcanal. Later in the Pacific War he would receive two Silver Star Medals for conspicuous bravery. On D+3 at Tarawa, however, he every nearly lost his life.

First Sergeant Michelony accompanied two other Marines on a routine reconnaissance of an area east of Green Beach, looking for likely positions to assign the battalion mortar platoon. The area had been "cleared" by the infantry companies of the battalion the previous morning. Other Marines had passed through the complex of seemingly empty Japanese bunkers without incident. The clearing was littered with Japanese bodies and abandoned enemy equipment. The three Marines threw grenades into the first bunker they encountered without response. All was quiet.

"Suddenly, out of nowhere, all hell broke loose," recalled Michelony, "The front bunker opened fire with a machine gun, grenades hailed in from nowhere." One Marine died instantly; the second escaped, leaving Michelony face down in the sand. In desperation, the first sergeant drove into the nearest bunker, tumbling through a rear entrance to land in what he thought was a pool of water. In the bunker's dim light, he discovered it was a combination of water, urine, blood, and other material, "some of it from the bodies of the dead Japanese and some from the live ones." As he spat out the foul liquid from his mouth, Michelony realized there were live Japanese in among the dead, decaying ones. The smell, taste, and fear he experienced inside the bunker were almost overpowering. "Somehow I managed to get out. To this day, I don't know how. I crawled out of this cesspool dripping wet." The scorching sun dried his utilities as though they had been heavily starched; they still stank. "For months later, I could taste and smell, as well as visualize, this scene." Fifty years after the incident, retired Sergeant Major Michelony still has no sense of smell.

The Marines stared numbly at the desolation that surrounded them. Lieutenant Colonel Russell Lloyd, executive officer of the 6th Marines, took a minute to scratch out a hasty note to his wife, saying "I'm on Tarawa in the midst of the worst destruction I've ever seen." Chaplain Willard walked along Red Beach One, finally clear of enemy pillboxes. "Along the shore," he wrote, "I counted the bodies of 76 Marines staring up at me, half in, half out of the water." Robert Sherrod also took the opportunity to walk about the island. "What I saw on Betio was, I am certain, one of the greatest works of devastation wrought by man." Sherrod whistled at the proliferation of heavy machine guns and 77mm antiboat guns along the northwest shore. As he described one scene:

Amtrack Number 4-8 is jammed against the seawall barricade. Three waterlogged Marines lie beneath it. Four others are scattered nearby, and there is one hanging on a two-foot-high strand of barbed wire who does not touch the coral flat at all. Back of the 77mm gun are many hundreds of rounds of 77mm ammunition.

Other Japanese forces in the Gilberts exacted a high toll among the invasion force. Six Japanese submarines reached the area during D+2. One of these, the I-175, torpedoed the escort carrier Liscome Bay just before sunrise on 24 November off Makin. The explosion was terrific—Admiral Hill saw the flash at Tarawa, 93 miles away—and the ship sank quickly, taking 644 souls to the bottom.

The Marines on Betio conducted a joint flag-raising ceremony later that same morning. Two of the few surviving palm trees were selected as poles, but the Marines were hard put to find a British flag. Finally, Major Holland, the New Zealand officer who had proved so prophetic about the tides at Tarawa, produced a Union Jack. A field musician played the appropriate bugle calls; Marines all over the small island stood and saluted. Each could reckon the cost.

At this time came the good news from Captain James Jones (brother to Major "Willie K." Jones) at Apamama. Jones' V Amphibious Corps Reconnaissance Company had landed by rubber rafts from the transport submarine Nautilus during the night of 20-21 November. The small Japanese garrison at first kept the scouts at bay. The Nautilus then surfaced and bombarded the Japanese positions with deck guns. This killed some of the defenders; the remainder committed hara-kiri. The island was deemed secure by the 24th. General Julian Smith sent General Hermle and McLeod's LT 3/6 to take command of Apamama until base defense forces could arrive.

General Smith kept his promise to his assault troops at Tarawa. Amphibious transports entered the lagoon on 24 November and backloaded Combat Teams 2 and 8. To Lieutenant Lillibridge, going back on board ship after Betio was like going to heaven. "The Navy personnel were unbelievably generous and kind . . . we were treated to a full-scale turkey dinner . . . . The Navy officers helped serve the food." But Lillibridge, like many other surviving troop leaders, suffered from post-combat trauma. The lieutenant had lost over half the members of his platoon, and he was consumed with guilt.

Marines escorted Japanese prisoner
One of the few Japanese prisoners taken on Betio this man was captured late in the battle. LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection

With the 2d Marines and 8th Marines off to Hawaii, McLeod's 3/6 enroute to Apamama, and Murray's 2/6 beginning its long trek through the other islands of the Tarawa Atoll, Major Jones' 1/6 became the last infantry unit on Betio. Its work was tedious: burying the dead, flushing out die-hard snipers, hosting visiting dignitaries.

The first of these was Major General Holland Smith. The V Amphibious Corps Commander flew to Betio on 24 November and spent an emotional afternoon viewing the carnage with Julian Smith. "Howling Mad" Smith was shaken by the experience. In his words: "The sight of our dead floating in the waters of the lagoon and lying along the blood-soaked beaches is one I will never forget. Over the pitted, blasted island hung a miasma of coral dust and death, nauseating and horrifying."

Navy Seabees managed to get their first bulldozer ashore on D-Day. With it, and the ones that followed, the Seabees built artillery revetments, smothered enemy positions, dug mass graves, and rebuilt the damaged runway—all while under fire. Marine Corps Personal Papers, LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection

Major Jones recalled that Holland Smith had tears in his eyes as he walked through the ruins. Robert Sherrod also accompanied the generals. They came upon one sight that moved all of them to tears. It was a dead Marine, leaning forward against the seawall, "one arm still supported upright by the weight of his body. On top of the seawall, just beyond his upraised hand, lies a blue and white flag, a beach marker to tell succeeding waves where to land." Holland Smith cleared his throat and said, "How can men like that ever be defeated?"

Company D, 2d Tank Battalion, was designated as the scout company for the 2d Marine Division for the Tarawa operation. Small elements of these scouts landed on Eita and Buota Islands while the fighting on Betio still raged, discovering and shadowing a sizeable Japanese force. On 23 November, Lieutenant Colonel Manley Curry's 3d Battalion, 10th Marines, landed on Eita. The battalion's pack howitzers were initially intended to augment fires on Betio; when that island finally fell, the artillerymen turned their guns to support the 2d Battalion, 6th Marines, in clearing the rest of the is lands in the atoll.

sketch of dead Marines
"Ebb Tide—Tarawa," a sketch by Kerr Eby, evokes the tragic view of the beachhead. U.S. Navy Combat Art Collection

Lieutenant Colonel Murray's LT 2/6 boarded boats from Betio at 0500 on 24 November and landed on Buota. Murray set a fierce pace, the Marines frequently wading across the sandspits that joined the succeeding islands. Soon he was out of range of Curry's guns on Eita. Curry detached Battery G to follow Murray in trace. The Marines learned from friendly natives that a Japanese force of about 175 naval infantry was ahead on the larger island of Buariki, near the northwest point of the atoll. Murray's lead elements caught up with the enemy at dusk on 26 November. There was a sharp exchange of fire in very thick vegetation before both sides broke contact. Murray positioned his forces for an all-out assault in the morning.

The battle of Buariki on 27 November was the last engagement in the Gilberts, and it was just as deadly as each preceding encounter with the Special Naval Landing Forces. Murray attacked the Japanese defensive positions at first light, getting one salvo of supporting fire from Battery G before the lines become too intermingled in the extended melee. Here the fighting was similar to Guadalcanal: much hand-to-hand brawling in tangled underbrush. The Japanese had no elaborate defenses as on Betio, but the Imperial sea soldiers took advantage of cover and concealment, made every shot count, and fought to the last man. All 175 were slain. Murray's victory was dearly bought: 32 officers and men killed, 59 others wounded. The following day, the Marines crossed to the last remaining islet. There were no more Japanese to be found. On 28 November, Julian Smith announced "remaining enemy forces on Tarawa wiped out."

Admirals Nimitz and Spruance came to Betio just before Julian Smith's announcement. Nimitz quickly saw that the basic Japanese defenses were still intact. He directed his staff to diagnose the exact construction methods used; within a month an identical set of bunkers and pillboxes was being built on the naval bombardment island of Kahoolawe in the Hawaiian Islands.

Smith, Nimitz, Richardson, Edson
MajGen Julian C. Smith, wearing helmet liner at center, describes the nature of the recently completed conquest of Betio to Adm Chester Nimitz, facing camera, and Army LtGen Robert Richardson during their visit to the island on 27 November 1943. An exhausted Col Edson looks on at right. While they talked, the smell of death pervaded over the island. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 65437

Admiral Nimitz paused to present the first of many combat awards to Marines of the 2d Marine Division. In time, other recognition followed. The entire division was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. Colonel David Monroe Shoup received the Medal of Honor. Major "Jim" Crowe and his executive officer, Major Bill Chamberlin, received the Navy Cross. So did Lieutenant Colonel Herb Amey (posthumously), Major Mike Ryan, and Corporal John Spillane, the LVT crewchief and prospective baseball star who caught the Japanese hand grenades in mid-air on D-Day before his luck ran out.

Some of the senior officers in the division were jealous of Shoup's Me dal of Honor, but Julian Smith knew full well whose strong shoulders had borne the critical first 36 hours of the assault. Shoup was philosophical. As he recorded in his combat notebook, "With God and the U.S. Navy in direct support of the 2d MarDiv there was never any doubt that we would get Betio. For several hours, however, there was considerable haggling over the exact price we were to pay for it."

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division