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)

The Significance of Tarawa

The costs of the forcible seizure of Tarawa were two-fold: the loss of Marines in the assault itself, followed by the shock and despair of the nation upon hearing the reports of the battle. The gains at first seemed small in return, the "stinking little island" of Betio, 8,000 miles from Tokyo. In time, the practical lessons learned in the complex art of amphibious assault began to outweigh the initial adverse publicity.

The final casualty figures for the 2d Marine Division in Operation Galvanic were 997 Marines and 30 sailors (organic medical personnel) dead; 88 Marines missing and presumed dead; and 2,233 Marines and 59 sailors wounded. Total casualties: 3,407. The Guadalcanal campaign had cost a comparable amount of Marine casualties over six months; Tarawa's losses occurred in a period of 76 hours. Moreover, the ratio of killed to wounded at Tarawa was significantly high, reflecting the savagery of the fighting. The overall proportion of casualties among those Marines engaged in the assault was about 19 percent, a steep but "acceptable" price. But some battalions suffered much higher losses. The 2d Amphibian Tractor Battalion lost over half the command. The battalion also lost all but 35 of the 125 LVT's employed at Betio.

Lurid headlines—"The Bloody Beaches of Tarawa"—alarmed American newspaper readers. Part of this was the Marines' own doing. Many of the combat correspondents invited along for Operation Galvanic had shared the very worst of the hell of Betio the first 36 hours, and they simply reported what they observed. Such was the case of Marine Corps Master Technical Sergeant James C. Lucas, whose accounts of the fighting received front-page coverage in both The Washington Post and The New York Times on 4 December 1943. Colonel Shoup was furious with Lucas for years thereafter, but it was the headline writers for both papers who did the most damage (The Times: "Grim Tarawa Defense a Surprise, Eyewitness of Battle Reveals; Marines Went in Chuckling, To Find Swift Death Instead of Easy Conquest.").

Nor did extemporaneous remarks to the media by some of the senior Marines involved in Operation Galvanic help soothe public concerns. Holland Smith likened the D-Day assault to Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. "Red Mike" Edson said the assault force "paid the stiffest price in human life per square yard" at Tarawa than any other engagement in Marine Corps history. Evans Carlson talked graphically of seeing 100 of Hays men gunned down in the water in five minutes on D+1, a considerable exaggeration. It did not help matters when Headquarters Marine Corps waited until 10 days after the battle to release casualty lists.

The atmosphere in both Washington and Pearl Harbor was particularly tense during this period. General MacArthur, still bitter that the 2d Marine Division had been taken from his Southwest Pacific Command, wrote the Secretary of War complaining that "these frontal attacks by the Navy, as at Tarawa, are a tragic and unnecessary massacre of American lives." A woman wrote Admiral Nimitz accusing him of "murdering my son." Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox called a press conference in which he blamed "a sudden shift in the wind" for exposing the reef and preventing reinforcements from landing. Congress proposed a special investigation. The Marines were fortunate to have General Alexander A. Vandegrift in Washington as the newly appointed 18th Commandant. Vandegrift, the widely respected and highly decorated veteran of Guadalcanal, quietly reassured Congress, pointing out that "Tarawa was an assault from beginning to end." The casualty reports proved to be less dramatic than expected. A thoughtful editorial in the 27 December 1943 issue of The New York Times complimented the Marines for overcoming Tarawa's sophisticated defenses and fanatical garrison, warning that future assaults in the Marshalls might result in heavier losses. "We must steel ourselves now to pay that price."

Marine being interviewd
A Marine combat correspondent assigned to the Tarawa operation interviews a Marine from the 18th Engineers, 2d Marine Division, during the course of the fighting. LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection

The controversy was stirred again after the war when General Holland Smith claimed publicly that "Tarawa was a mistake!" Significantly, Nimitz, Spruance, Turner, Hill, Julian Smith, and Shoup disagreed with that assessment.

Admiral Nimitz did not waver. "The capture of Tarawa," he stated, "knocked down the front door to the Japanese defenses in the Central Pacific." Nimitz launched the Marshalls campaign only 10 weeks after the seizure of Tarawa. Photo-reconnaissance and attack aircraft from the captured airfields at Betio and Apamama provided invaluable support. Of greater significance to success in the Marshalls were the lessons learned and the confidence gleaned from the Tarawa experience.

Henry I. Shaw, Jr., for many years the Chief Historian of the Marine Corps, observed that Tarawa was the primer, the textbook on amphibious assault that guided and influenced all subsequent landings in the Central Pacific. Shaw believed that the prompt and selfless analyses which immediately followed Tarawa were of great value: "From analytical reports of the commanders and from their critical evaluations of what went wrong, of what needed improvement, and of what techniques and equipment proved out in combat, came a tremendous outpouring of lessons learned."

All participants agreed that the conversion of logistical LVTs to assault craft made the difference between victory and defeat at Betio. There was further consensus that the LVT-1s and LVT-2s employed in the operation were marginal against heavy defensive fires. The Alligators needed more armor, heavier armament, more powerful engines, auxiliary bilge pumps, self-sealing gas tanks—and wooden plugs the size of 13mm bullets to keep from being sunk by the Japanese M93 heavy machine guns. Most of all, there needed to be many more LVTs, at least 300 per division. Shoup wanted to keep the use of LVTs as reef crossing assault vehicles a secret, but there had been too many reporters on the scene. Hanson W. Baldwin broke the story in The New York Times as early as 3 December.

Tarawa Today

Tarawa is one of the few Pacific battlefields that remained essentially unchanged for the half century that followed World War II. Visitors to Betio Island can readily see wrecked American tanks and LVTs along the beaches, as well as the ruins of Japanese gun emplacements and pill boxes. Admiral Shibasaki's imposing concrete bunker still stands, seemingly as impervious to time as it was to the battleship guns of Task Force 53. The "Singapore Guns" still rest in their turrets overlooking the approaches to the island. A few years ago, natives unearthed a buried LVT containing the skeletons of its Marine Corps crew, one still wearing dog tags.

General David M. Shoup was recalled from retirement to active duty for nine days in 1968 to represent the United States at the dedication of a large monument on Betio, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the battle. As Shoup later told The National Observer, "My first reaction was that Betio had shrunk a great deal. It seems smaller in peace than in war." As he toured the ruined fortifications, Shoup recalled the savage, desperate fighting and wondered "why two nations would spend so much for so little." Nearly 6,000 Japanese and Americans died on the tiny island in 76 hours of fighting.

Twenty years after Shoup's dedication ceremony, the American memorial had fallen into disrepair; indeed, it was in danger of being torn down to make room for a cold-storage plant for Japanese fishermen. A lengthy campaign by the 2d Marine Division Association and Long Beach-journalist Tom Hennessy raised enough funds to obtain a new, more durable monument, a nine-ton block of Georgia granite inscribed "To our fellow Marines who gave their all." The memorial was dedicated on 20 November 1988.

Betio is now part of the new Republic of Kirbati. Tourist facilities are being developed to accommodate the large number of veterans who wish to return. For now, the small island probably resembles the way it appeared on D-Day, 50 years ago. American author James Ramsey Ullman visited Tarawa earlier and wrote a fitting eulogy: "It is a familiar irony that old battlefields are often the quietest and gentlest of places. It is true of Gettysburg. It is true of Cannae, Chalons, Austerlitz, Verdun. And it is true of Tarawa."

Naval gunfire support got mixed reviews. While the Marines were enthusiastic about the response from destroyers in the lagoon, they were critical of the extent and accuracy of the preliminary bombardment, especially when it was terminated so prematurely on D-Day. In Major Ryan's evaluation, the significant shortcoming in Operation Galvanic "lay in overestimating the damage that could be inflicted on a heavily defended position by an intense but limited naval bombardment, and by not sending in the assault forces soon enough after the shelling." Major Schoettel, recalling the pounding his battalion had received from emplacements within the seawall, recommended direct fire against the face of the beach by 40mm guns from close-in destroyers. The hasty, saturation fires, deemed sufficient by planners in view of the requirement for strategic surprise, proved essentially useless. Amphibious assaults against fortified atolls would most of all need sustained, deliberate, aimed fire.

While no one questioned the bravery of the aviators who supported the Betio assault, many questioned whether they were armed and trained adequately for such a difficult target. The need for closer integration of all supporting arms was evident.

Communications throughout the Betio assault were awful. Only the ingenuity of a few radio operators and the bravery of individual runners kept the assault reasonably coherent. The Marines needed waterproof radios. The Navy needed a dedicated amphibious command ship, not a major combatant whose big guns would knock out the radio nets with each salvo. Such command ships, the AGCs, began to appear during the Marshalls campaign.

Other revisions to amphibious doctrine were immediately indicated. The nature and priority of unloading supplies should henceforth become the call of the tactical commander ashore, not the amphibious task force commander.

Betio showed the critical need for underwater swimmers who could stealthily assess and report reef, beach, and surf conditions to the task force before the landing. This concept, first envisioned by amphibious warfare prophet Major Earl "Pete" Ellis in the 1920s, came quickly to fruition. Admiral Turner had a fledgling Underwater Demolition Team on hand for the Marshalls.

assault vehicle
Themes underlying the enduring legacy of Tarawa are: the tide that failed; tactical assault vehicles that succeeded; a high cost in men and material; which in the end spelled out victory in the Central Pacific and a road that led to Tokyo. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 63843

The Marines believed that, with proper combined arms training, the new medium tanks would be valuable assets. Future tank training would emphasize integrated tank, infantry, engineer, and artillery operations. Tank-infantry communications needed immediate improvement. Most casualties among tank commanders at Betio resulted from the individuals having to dismount from their vehicles to talk with the infantry in the open.

The backpack flamethrower won universal acclaim from the Marines on Betio. Each battalion commander recommended increases in quantity, range, and mobility for these assault weapons. Some suggested that larger versions be mounted on tanks and LVTs, presaging the appearance of "Zippo Tanks" in later campaigns in the Pacific.

Julian Smith rather humbly summed up the lessons learned at Tarawa by commenting, "We made fewer mistakes than the Japs did."

Military historians Jeter A. Isely and Philip A. Crowl used different words of assessment: "The capture of Tarawa, in spite of defects in execution, conclusively demonstrated that American amphibious doctrine was valid, that even the strongest island fortress could be seized."

The subsequent landings in the Marshalls employed this doctrine, as modified by the Tarawa experience, to achieve objectives against similar targets with fewer casualties and in less time. The benefits of Operation Galvanic quickly began to outweigh the steep initial costs.

In time, Tarawa became a symbol of raw courage and sacrifice on the part of attackers and defenders alike. Ten years after the battle, General Julian Smith paid homage to both sides in an essay in Naval Institute Proceedings. He saluted the heroism of the Japanese who chose to die almost to the last man. Then he turned to his beloved 2d Marine Division and their shipmates in Task Force 53 at Betio:

For the officers and men, Marines and sailors, who crossed that reef, either as assault troops, or carrying supplies, or evacuating wounded I can only say that I shall forever think of them with a feeling of reverence and the greatest respect.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division