Future Marine Corps Commandant David M. Shoup was not supposed to be heading toward the north shore of Betio Island on 20 November 1943. Until a mere ten days earlier, he had been serving as a lieutenant colonel and operations and training officer (D-3) of the 2d Marine Division. Yet now the success of the Marine Corps’ first major amphibious assault against a fortified position rested on his shoulders. The first 36 hours of a 76-hour ordeal—soon to be known as the Battle of Tarawa—would reveal Shoup to be so courageous and effective that he would earn the Medal of Honor.
By the time Tarawa was targeted, the Axis powers were on the retreat in most major theaters around the globe. In the Central Pacific, however, their forces had yet to experience a defeat on land. Operation Galvanic, the U.S. assault on the Gilbert Islands, would begin the long process of ousting the Japanese from the theater commanded by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Galvanic was designed not simply to maintain pressure on the Japanese, but also to inaugurate amphibious assaults against beaches they were determined to defend at all costs.