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
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
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
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 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
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 tanksand 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 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
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.
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)
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
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
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.