This was our first atoll attack and the sort of operation we have always been planning, and your success is therefore particularly gratifying." Thus, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Thomas Holcomb, commented on the battle of Tarawa (Pronounced by the natives: "TAH-rah-wah.") ten years ago.
Tarawa was a battle of firsts. It was the first time a landing had been made across a reef in the face of opposition, the first time amphibious tractors had been used in battle as troop carriers, the first time that tanks were used in a landing operation, and the first time air and naval gunfire were used together in supporting a landing attack, with the fire controlled by radio from the beach.
After the war it has been said that Tarawa was an unnecessary battle, that the atoll could have as well been by-passed. I do not agree with that, and neither do Admirals Nimitz, Spruance or Hill. Tarawa in the hands of the Japanese was a menace to our communications with New Zealand, Australia, and MacArthur's forces in the South Pacific, as well as to those in the Central Pacific as the war advanced westward. In our hands it was a base from which Japanese Positions in the Marshalls and Carolinas could be bombed and photographed. It is true that taking it was a costly operation, but the lessons learned there saved many lives in the taking of other islands from Kwajalein to Okinawa. Quoting Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz: "The capture of Tarawa knocked down the door to the Japanese defenses in the Central Pacific."
While much had to be learned concerning the effect of naval gunfire and aerial bombing against the Japanese type fortifications, there were no major errors in the planning or tactics. It was learned that fortified strong points can be destroyed only by deliberate fire delivered with pinpoint accuracy over a considerable length of time, that. this destruction cannot be accomplished in a few hours on D-day, no matter how heavy the concentration may be. It was demonstrated that armored amphibious tractors were essential for carrying troops across reefs; that they should be accompanied by amphibious tanks armed with at least 3-inch guns, and that smaller vessels lying close in should be at hand to deliver neutralizing fire up to the very moment the troops hit the beach. The necessity for control of boats carrying reserves and supplies at or near the line of departure was clearly indicated. It demonstrated the need for better communications equipment and for a command ship other than a fire support ship. All these lessons would have had to be learned later at greater cost if Tarawa had not been fought.
On the positive side, Tarawa proved that reefs could be crossed at any stage of the tide, that with reliable communications, naval ships and carrier-based planes can successfully support ground troops and that even the most strongly fortified islands can be taken by well trained, hard fighting troops when effectively supported from the sea and air. In later battles there was great improvement in equipment and technique, but the principles of the strategy and tactics of Tarawa were proved sound and followed throughout the remainder of the war.
Tarawa was a battle that had to be won. For years the seizure and defense of advanced bases for the Navy, or amphibious operations, as they had come to be called, had been considered the prime war mission of the Marine Corps. They had been the principal subjects of study in our tactical schools. In cooperation with the Navy, maneuvers had been held testing the theories developed in our schools. A text on the subject had been prepared by Marine Officers, and published by the Navy Department, which became the basic doctrine, not only of American Forces, but of our Allies as well.
The landing boats (LCPs) and amphibious tractors (LVTs) were the result of experimental work by boards of naval and Marine officers.
The past history of amphibious operations was a discouraging one. It recounted more failures than successes. The memory of Gallipoli, a heroic effort with a tragic ending, was ever present. Examples of failure through lack of understanding between the sea and land force commanders were numerous.
If the first all-out landing against a defended island, based on theories developed over the years had proved a failure, it would have seemed that the Marine Corps could not fulfill its most essential wartime mission. It would have made it necessary to begin again at our beginnings, and the progress of the war would have been materially delayed while new plans were devised and a fresh start made.
After Tarawa the advance across the Central Pacific could be continued with confidence and, as the Japanese fleet became weaker from attrition, with every assurance of ultimate success. There have been many larger and better known battles than Tarawa, but few with greater influence on the future course of a war. Just as it showed us that the Japanese-held islands could be taken by amphibious assault, so it showed the Japanese that their strongest outposts would surely fall and expose their homeland to invasion by forces based on the very strongholds they had considered invulnerable.
Previous to World War II the Marine Corps had been performing many types of duties, mainly in the small politically unsettled countries of Central America and the West Indies. Men still in the Corps, themselves heirs to its great traditions, had been protecting American interests in China and other parts of the world, had participated in the first World War as part of the AEF, and had seen their share of hard fighting there. They had served on ships of the Navy, guarded Navy Yards and Naval Stations, acted as Mail Guards and performed with efficiency and under rigid discipline many "such other duties as the President of the United States may direct."
While performing these multifarious duties, Marines had never been allowed to forget that their primary mission was service with the Navy, and the seizure and defense of advanced bases for the fleet. The tactics of these operations were taught in our schools. They were always looked upon as difficult and costly. We were taught that at least a three-to-one superiority in combat troops would be necessary and that heavy casualties must be accepted. It was from the studies, training, and previous duties performed by small numbers of professional Marines, officers and enlisted men who made the service their career and life work, that the Marine Corps developed the idealism, the esprit de corps, the morale, the stamina and the will to win that made the victory at Tarawa possible.
In our small "Banana Wars" Marines went through tropical jungles, fought their way out of ambushes, stormed fortifications, took towns and cities, always against great numerical odds. In World War I Marines took the measure of Germany's best troops. In Shanghai and Pekin a few faced many and their presence alone kept peace. Many of these old professionals were marvelously proficient rifle shots, having been members of winning Marine Corps rifle teams.
When the war came the Corps expanded rapidly, filled at first with reserves and volunteers. Old timers who had gone into the reserve returned as instructors and drill masters. The new men were taught by masters of their profession. They were first and foremost trained infantrymen, and any shore party man could drop his box of IC-rations, or a truck driver jump out of his truck, grab a rifle, and fight with the best of them. They associated with the veterans who had survived many campaigns against what seemed to be overwhelming odds. They were indoctrinated with the ideals and spirit of the Old Corps, no danger daunted them and no difficulty was too great to be overcome. This spirit carried them ashore through half a mile of waist deep water spattered by a hail of machine gun and rifle bullets, and kept them fighting until the last strongpoint was taken and the last enemy killed or captured.
The first intimation I had that there was an atoll named Tarawa came in August, 1943. A message was received that Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, with his Chief of Staff, Captain Moore, was arriving In New Zealand by plane. I hastened out to the air field to meet them, and returned with them to my office. Upon arrival there Admiral Spruance unfolded charts and plans for the capture of Tarawa and the Island of Nauru as the first step in an offensive across the Central Pacific. He asked if the Second Marine Division could take these two objectives.
I had been in command of the Second Division less than four months. In May, when I relieved Major General John Marston, surveyed home with malaria, the bulk of the Division had recently returned from the Guadalcanal area with 12,500 diagnosed cases of malaria. Many of these cases had been evacuated to the United States, the hospitals were still crowded beyond capacity, and there were hundreds of men convalescing in camp. Replacements were beginning to arrive, but the Division could by no stretch of imagination be considered fit to undertake an offensive campaign. Hence my first question was: "When do you expect to begin these operations?" Admiral Spruance said, "In November."
I replied that if expected replacements arrived on time the Division would be in first-class condition and ready to go by that time, but before committing myself further I would like to make a study of the information and plans. He stated that he was leaving the next morning and would like to have an answer before he left. He and Captain Moore went for a walk before dinner. My staff was summoned and we began an intensive preliminary study of the intelligence information, the charts, aerial photos, etc.
The next morning I was able to tell Admiral Spruance that the Second Marine Division could take Tarawa and Nauru, but I would not recommend that it attempt both at the same time, as I felt that Tarawa alone was a full-time job for one division and would require the use of all the infantry organizations.
We then discussed Nauru and I remarked that it presented an especially difficult landing problem, which Admiral Spruance recognized. I suggested that unless it was necessary to the advance across the Pacific that it be by-passed. Admiral Spruance indicated that he felt the same way about it and that he would probably so recommend on his return to Pearl Harbor. His recommendations were evidently accepted as when our orders came the plan called for the Second Marine Division to take Tarawa, Apamama, and adjacent small atolls. The Twenty-seventh Army Division was to take Makin, 105 miles to the north. Apamama was lightly held, but Tarawa was known to be strongly garrisoned and heavily fortified.
Admiral Spruance left with us intelligence reports, aerial photographs, and charts of the Gilbert Islands, of which Tarawa was one, and our intelligence section began an immediate study of the problem. The staff which had been living in camp at Paekakariki was assembled in Wellington, a room was set aside for the top secret documents, guarded night and day by an armed sentry. No one was allowed to enter without showing a pass signed by the Chief of Staff, and I found that included. the Commanding General, as the sentry definitely held me up on each occasion until I showed my pass. Of course an order from me would supersede one from the Chief of Staff, but the sentry was adamant. No one entered that room without showing his pass, even though recognized as Commanding General, in whose name the order was issued. I was so pleased with this demonstration of discipline that I never asserted my authority to overrule the sentry, but dutifully showed my pass whenever entering the room.
Further intelligence reports were received from time to time. Major Holland, who had been a school teacher on Tarawa and escaped when it was captured by the Japanese, was located, as were several British merchant ship captains who had taken ships into the Tarawa Lagoon. They were commissioned in the New Zealand Naval Reserve and assigned to us for the operations. They furnished valuable information concerning the tides, hydrographical and navigational hazards, and reefs surrounding Tarawa.
Tarawa is a triangular shaped atoll with two sides twelve and seventeen miles long respectively, each consisting of a chain of small islands. The third side, or base of the triangle, is a barrier reef enclosing the lagoon with an entrance approximately in the center of the reef. The island sides of the triangle beginning at Betio run approximately east to the apex and thence north to the base where it joins the barrier reef. The Islands all sit on the top of a flat fringing reef which extends on an average of 800 yards on each side of the shore line. At normal low tide it is possible to walk between the islands and out to the edge of the reef. During spring tide periods the water covers the reef to a depth of six or more feet at high tide, and at low tide the reef is bare. However, during neap tide periods the depth of the water over the reef is unpredictable, the time of rise and fall is irregular and the depth may remain about half way between that of high and low tide for two or three days at a time. All this information was furnished early in September and confirmed by Major Holland, who for years had recorded the tidal data for the British Hydrographical Office. Since the date selected by higher authority for the landing was during a neap tide period, the depth of the water to be expected over the reef was of great importance to us, as at least four feet was necessary to float our landing boats.
There were some one hundred amphibious tractors (LVTs) with the Division; they had, however, been designed as cargo carriers and were not armored. They had been used at Guadalcanal and many of them had already outlived their expected useful lives. Strenuous efforts were at once started to put them in the best condition possible and experiments were begun with them as troop carriers. Light armor was secured in New Zealand and placed on them for the protection of the crews. Eventually enough were put in condition to carry the two leading waves of three battalions across the reef. Later fifty more were secured from the United States, not however in time to reach us before we left New Zealand. They were sent to Samoa where trained crews from the Division took them over. They joined us in time to participate in the attack, but not in any training rehearsals. Meantime the Second Marine Division, which had been built up from regimental combat teams and thrown into action in Guadalcanal piecemeal, had been completely reorganized into a Division team, and training was begun with a view to meeting the problems expected at Tarawa.
The intelligence information indicated that Betio was strongly held, but there were no indications of fortifications or artillery installations on the other islands. Betio literally bristled with coast defense guns of 8-inch and 6-inch caliber and down to 3 inch. There were anti-aircraft guns and dual purpose 51 caliber guns in addition to the mobile artillery and infantry weapons of the garrison of about 4,500 men. It was surrounded by a sea wall of coconut logs, loop-holed for machine guns and rifle fire. The reef contained many boat obstacles and mines, and the shores were lined with barbed wire entanglements.
There were three possible approaches to Betio. Those from the west and south were through the open sea. Both were covered by obstacles flanked by shore batteries. An air field ran through the center of the western half of the island. Since it afforded absolutely no cover and its coral surface could not be dug into with hand tools, it would split the advance of a landing force from the west into two parts each with a narrow frontage. The south side of the island was shaped like the inside of a crescent so that guns placed along the beaches would enfilade lines of boats coming in. Neither of these approaches was considered practicable. That left only the north side which must be approached through the lagoon. This side presented generally the outline of the outside of a crescent with the western edge and the center projecting, making rounded salient separated by an indentation. From the center salient a wharf extended across the reef 800 yards to deep water. The construction of obstacles on the north, or the lagoon side, had not been completed, as had such work on the west and south sides. The wharf gave some protection from the cross fire of the beach machine guns, and the general contour of the beach with the exception of the re-entrant sector rendered such fire less effective than on the southern beach. The next islet, Bairiki, was about 5,000 yards from Betio, well within effective range of the 75-mm. pack howitzers with which the Division was equipped, while the next islet beyond was Within range of the 105-mm. howitzers of Which the Division had one battalion. From the viewpoint of the landing troops it seemed that the problem called for preliminary landings, and establishing artillery on these two islets for the support of the main attack on Betio.
However, the Navy plan handed the Division called for a landing on the west beach of Betio which did have the undoubted advantage of better naval gunfire support during the fighting ashore after the landing. The Navy plan also called for a simultaneous occupation of Betio and the next islet, Bairiki.
After an extensive study of the problem it became necessary to consult with higher authority- and receive definite orders before making final plans. At my request, with members of my staff, I was ordered to report to Cincpac Headquarters in Hawaii for conference with the Commanding General V Amphibious Corps, Major General Holland Smith, and the Naval Assault Force Commander, Rear Admiral Kelly Turner. These conferences soon developed the fact that time factors would not permit of preliminary landings and the emplacement of artillery on adjacent islets, and further that one regimental combat team, one-third of the fighting strength of the Division, was to be held in Corps reserve and could not be counted upon for use on Tarawa unless specifically released by the Corps Commander. Therefore, the only alternative was a direct assault on Betio. Even a simultaneous landing on Bairiki was ruled out by lack of troops at the disposal of the Division.
A direct frontal assault is the most costly and dreaded of military operations, and Betio with its reef impassable to landing boats as an obstacle and its fortified and defended beaches offered a particularly difficult position to take by frontal assault. I discussed the matter fully with the Corps Commander and when informed that the decision to make the attack directly on Betio was final and must be accomplished by the Second Division less the combat team assigned to Corps reserve, I requested that my orders be so worded as I did not feel that that plan should be my responsibility. This request was granted and the orders were to seize Betio first and then occupy the remainder of the atoll.
When Tarawa was planned the Japanese fleet was about equal to our naval forces in the Pacific and there was grave danger of an attack, especially by submarines and planes on our transport group. Therefore the risk of a frontal assault was considered less than the risk of losing transports lying in the area while the preliminary landing; were being made and artillery emplaced. This decision certainly was sound at the time; however before the landing was made, the Japanese fleet had sustained heavy losses, especially from the daring raids by carrier-based planes at Rabaul, and its ability to interrupt the Tarawa operation had been greatly curtailed. Even had the 'enemy losses been correctly evaluated at the time, they came too late to permit any alteration of plans.
The wisdom of retaining such a large Corps reserve I still question.
The conferences in Pearl Harbor brought a thorough discussion of the reef as an obstacle and the possibility that it could not be crossed by landing boats even at high tide, as the date selected for the landing was during the period of neap tides. To help meet this situation 50 amphibious tractors (LVTs) were ordered from the United States to join the Division at Samoa. Arrangements were also made for one company of medium tanks to join the Division. The general ships' gunfire and aerial bombing support plans were discussed at length and decision reached that there would be three days of pre-D-day bombardment by planes and ships, with scheduled counter-battery, neutralization, and close support by ships' gunfire and aerial bombing on D-day. Upon the completion of the scheduled bombardment, planes were to fly .constantly over Betio during daylight hours ready to strafe and bomb whenever and wherever requested, and the ships of the attack force were to deliver concentrations on call from the ground troops as needed during the battle. Both the Corps Commander and the Assault Force Commander approved the Division plan to attack through the lagoon and assault the north side of Betio.
Upon our return to New Zealand with these points settled, we began intensive training for the problem at hand. Transports were sent for practice in landing; the work of armoring the amphibious tractors was completed. Medium tanks and amphibious tractors were sent to the Fiji Islands, where reef conditions were similar to those at Tarawa, for experimental work in crossing the reefs at various stages of the tide. Every effort was made to condition the troops both mentally and physically for the work at hand. Problems of supply were studied and command post exercises held to iron out the problems of command. There was a constant inflow of intelligence information and aerial photos from the Joint Intelligence Center (JIC) at Pearl Harbor, including an excellent map of Betio marked off into numbered squares all fowarded via V Amphibious Corps. This information was collected and evaluated by the Division Intelligence Section.
The problem of maintaining secrecy was serious as it was impossible to keep from the Marines and the people of New Zealand the fact that the Division was preparing for an important operation. In order to preserve the necessary secrecy the whole operation was given the name of Galvanic; Tarawa was named Longsuit and Betio was called Helen. Top secret maps of "Longsuit" and "Helen" were issued to key personnel in order that the training might be pointed up for the task ahead, but the actual names and location of the atolls involved were known only to a few members of the Division Staff.
As October came around the Transport Group commanded by Captain H. B. Knowles arrived in Wellington to take the troops to Tarawa. One full scale amphibious landing was made on New Zealand beaches, which proved invaluable training for both the Marines and the naval personnel of the transports. The troops were re-embarked and returned to their camps. Then all equipment was overhauled and put in the best possible condition. Motor equipment was waterproofed, all amphtracs armored and the men were given their final conditioning exercises.
The Staff then prepared a complete plan for another amphibious landing exercise at Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. The New Zealand military authorities were officially informed, and they detailed officers of their armed forces to observe it. The New Zealand Air Force was briefed on air coverage. The orders included a plan to return to Wellington at the end of two weeks. Arrangements were made and invitations issued for a dance on our ordered return to Wellington. Even the regimental Commanders were not informed that the order was a phony and they protested in a body against further loss and damage to their equipment which another landing through the surf would entail. They were told that the Division was carrying out "orders from higher authority."
The day before sailing, I went, rather shamefacedly, to General Puttick, Chief of Staff of the New Zealand armed forces, and told him of the deception and advised him in top secret confidence that we were leaving for good and all and that our destination was Tarawa. Like the good sport he was, he congratulated me on our success in maintaining secrecy and said he would not countermand the orders to his observers but let them proceed to Hawkes Bay in order to impress upon them a lesson in military security. With regard to the dance, which of course was never held, one of the Division wits remarked that maybe we didn't leave many broken hearts in New Zealand but we certainly left a lot of broken dates.
The Gilbert Islands operation, or Galvanic, was conducted by the Central Pacific Force (TG 51.1) under command of Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance. This force included the Assault Force (TF 54), Rear Admiral R. K. Turner; Headquarters V. Amphibious Corps, Major General Holland M. Smith; Carrier Force (TF 50), Rear Admiral C. A. Pownall; and Defense Forces and Shore Based Air (TF 57), Rear Admiral J. H. Hoover.
TF 54 included the Northern Attack Force (TF 52) for the capture of Makin, under' !direct command of Admiral Turner, and the Southern Attack Force (TF 53) for the capture of Tarawa, Rear Admiral W. H. Hill.
TF 53 was composed of transports, mine sweepers, gunfire support ships, and the Landing Force (the Second Marine Division Reinforced) the Carrier Group, Landing Ships Tank, and garrisons for Tarawa and Apamama.
For transportation and landing purposes the Division organization of infantry, artillery, engineer regiments, medical, tank and amphibious tractor battalions was changed to Regimental Combat Teams, each composed of Regimental Headquarters and three Battalion Landing Teams. Each Battalion Landing Team was a Battalion of Infantry with a battery of artillery, engineer, medical, tank and amphibious tractor detachments attached, and loaded as far as practicable on one transport.
As is usual, there was not enough troop or cargo space on the transports for the ideal loading plan of one Battalion Combat Team with its equipment to a transport, with all material combat loaded, that is, loaded so that the things needed first would be placed aboard last where they could be unloaded in the order needed; with other transports for Division Headquarters troops, the support groups, and supplies.
It is truthfully said that no Commander ever has everything he wants when he goes into battle. Generalship consists largely of making the best use of what you have. So, the Second Division Staff in close cooperation with Captain Knowles and his transport commanders worked out the loading plans following the principles of combat loading and approaching as near as possible to the ideal.
Meanwhile Admiral Hill and his Chief of Staff, Captain Thomas J. Ryan, arrived in Wellington. We soon learned that our attack Force Commander was forceful, optimistic, active, and a pleasant personality to work under. His presence alone was a boost to the morale of the Division. He brought with him the plans for putting us ashore, for the gunfire and aerial support of our landing and seizure of the atoll. We Marines, all of whom had studied, and some had seen in actual combat, the effect of land artillery fire, ships gunfire, and aerial bombardment, found the naval officers unduly optimistic as to the results to be obtained from the bombardment, but never any lack of willingness on their part to listen to our problems and to cooperate most fully in assisting in their solution.
With an amphibious landing operation there will always be two viewpoints. The Naval viewpoint sees the navigational hazards, and the possibility of enemy attacks on the transports and their escorts; while the landing forces will see the difficulties involved in getting their forces ashore, the land fighting afterward, and the supply of the troops. Both viewpoints are equally vital. There will be no landing if the Navy does not take the Marines safely to the objective, and the operation will fail unless the Marines win their fight on shore. The coordination of these viewpoints requires tact, patience, and mutual understanding on the part of both the naval and Marine Commanders. Even at best, there are many opposing interests that must be compromised.
At last the day came to leave New Zealand. The men and officers were crowded aboard the transports, with the Division Staff the last to embark. We moved out of Wellington Harbor, the destroyers formed their protective anti-submarine screen, and all set sail for Efate in the New Hebrides. Rear Admiral H. F. Kingman had brought his battleships, cruisers, and destroyers down from Pearl Harbor and was awaiting our arrival.
As the Maryland, which was to be our Flag and Command ship, steamed slowly to meet us with a slight wisp of smoke drifting behind, Captain Ryan, Chief of Staff, jokingly called out: "Tell her to stop smoking."
Admiral Hill and the Second Division Headquarters quickly transferred to the Maryland and prepared for the final troop rehearsals in Mele Bay. These rehearsals were made as realistic as possible, with each unit given a mission simulating its employment in the capture of Betio. At the same time, fire support ships held bombardment practice on Erradoka Island. Individual ships, usually destroyers, were designated to deliver "on call" fire support to various battalion landing teams after the scheduled bombardment was completed. Officers from these ships, equipped with radios tuned to communicate directly with their ships, were assigned to accompany the respective battalions. Their mission was to call for and spot the fire from their ships. This procedure insured quick, effective, close support of troops after the landing. It marked an important step forward in the coordination of the naval gunfire support of a landing attack. Heavy concentrations and "on call" aerial bombing and strafing were arranged for by communication through the command ship. Conferences and critiques were held, and Command Post exercises set up to check the communications plan.
These rehearsals and conferences were invaluable, as many details were worked out and a greatly improved understanding reached concerning the missions of the various elements of the Attack Force. The carriers with our supporting aircraft were absent carrying out bombing missions at Rabaul.
Each Marine landing team was thoroughly briefed on its task, so that in case of communication failure there would be no loss of momentum while waiting for orders. Officers and men were thoroughly indoctrinated in carrying on the offensive under the leadership of any officer or non-commissioned officer in case their tactical units were broken up, or their own leaders lost in the landing. They were briefed in the Japanese custom of Banzai night attacks with feints to draw our fire and reveal the location of our lines. They were definitely instructed "not to shoot at anything that moved at night," but to form groups of two or more with fixed bayonets and fire only when there was something to shoot at, then only one man at a time to empty his piece. While he reloaded the next one was to take up the fire so that a continuing fire could be kept up if such was necessary.
The countersign was the name of any state in the Union. Upon order to "repeat," the name of another state was given. The men were also mentally prepared, as far as possible, to wade across the reef when the landing boats grounded.
One painful problem faced the Division Commander. Colonel Wm. McN. Marshall, the Regimental Commander of the Second Marines, selected to lead the assault on Betio, became ill and showed unmistakable signs of breaking under the strain, though he refused to give up, continued in the harness and wanted to remain with his regiment, which he had trained. It was not believed that the risk of his being physically unable to carry the burden imposed upon him was justifiable; hence he was relieved and Lt. Col. David M. Shoup placed in command of the Second Regiment Combat Team. Colonel Marshall was hospitalized and eventually retired for physical disability.
One conference at Efate which was much misunderstood in early reports of the battle seems worthy of mention. Major Holland, who was with us, became very much perturbed when he found that we were landing during a neap tide period. He felt a great responsibility for the success of the landing, as he had furnished much of the tidal data. He was convinced, correctly as it turned out, that our landing boats would not be able to cross the reef. At his urgent request all the seafaring men assigned to us as pilots were summoned and questioned. With the notable exception of Major Holland, all were in accord in their belief that our boats could cross the reef at any high tide. This conference actually produced no surprises or changes in our plans but only gave us the added hope that our boats might be able to cross the reef after all. However, it has been several times incorrectly reported that Major Holland's information came as a bombshell in our midst and caused great consternation.
After leaving Efate for Tarawa the Division's operations orders were opened on the various ships, the maps issued, and men of all organizations thoroughly instructed in their duties. The movement to Tarawa was made on schedule with only a hostile submarine reported "probably sunk," and a Japanese reconnaissance plane shot down.
On D— 1 the Division Commander published the following Order of the Day:
HEADQUARTERS, SECOND MARINE DIVISION, FLEET MARINE FORCE, IN THE FIELD
TO THE OFFICERS AND MEN OF THE SECOND MARINE DIVISION:
A great offensive to destroy the enemy in the Central Pacific has begun. American air, sea and land forces, of which this Division is a part, initiate this offensive by seizing Japanese held atolls in the Gilbert Islands which will be used as bases for future operations. The task assigned to us is to capture the atolls of Tarawa and Apamama. Army units of our Fifth Amphibious Corps are simultaneously attacking Makin, 105 miles North of Tarawa.
For the past three days Army, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft have been carrying out bombardment attacks on our objectives. They are neutralizing and will continue to neutralize other Japanese air bases adjacent to the Gilbert Islands. Early this morning combatant ships of our Navy bombarded Tarawa. Our Navy screens our operations and will support our attack tomorrow morning with the greatest concentration of aerial bombardment and naval gunfire in the history of warfare. It will remain with us until our objective is secured and our defenses are established. Garrison forces are already en route to relieve us as soon as we have completed our job of clearing our objectives of Japanese forces.
This Division was specially chosen by the high command for the assault of Tarawa because of its battle experience and its combat efficiency. Their confidence in us will not be betrayed. We are the first American troops to attack a defended atoll. What we do here will set a standard for all future operations in the Central Pacific area. Observers from other Marine Divisions and from other branches of our armed services, as well as those of our Allies, have been detailed to witness our operations. Representatives of the press- are present. Our people back home are eagerly awaiting news of our victories.
I know that you are well trained and fit for the tasks assigned to you. You will quickly overrun the Japanese forces; you will decisively defeat and destroy the treacherous enemies of our country; your success will add new laurels to the glorious traditions of our Corps.
Good luck and God bless you all.
JULIAN C. SMITH
Major General, U. S. Marine Corps, Commanding
Meanwhile the Navy and the Seventh Army Air Force, under Major General Willis A. Hale had been busy "softening up" the target islands and all Japanese occupied bases within striking distance of them. Betio received 184 tons of bombs from Navy planes alone and heavy cruisers and destroyers fired 250 tons of high capacity projectiles, mostly 8-inch, on the same target. The effect of these bombardments on the fortifications was slight, and caused but little loss of life. However, they did cause the Japanese to expend large quantities of antiaircraft ammunition that would have been used against the landing forces.
On the morning of 20th November, by the light of a waning moon, the attack force approached Tarawa. The day before our arrival the Landing Ships Tank (LSTs) carrying the fifty amphibious tractors joined us, much to our satisfaction, as it meant just that many more landing craft which could cross the reef. No really accurate charts of the atoll existed and reconnaissance was necessary to locate exactly the transport areas and the stations for the fire support ships. Two minesweepers entered the lagoon, added their bit to the naval gunfire and rendered valiant aid not only during the approach to the beach, but during all stages of the attack.
The use of the Corps Reserve for a feint to make a simulated landing on the south side of Betio and Bairiki to distract attention from the real landing had been requested, but found impractical due to the lack of destroyers to screen two transport areas.
The landing time, H-hour, had been set at 0830; W-hour, the ending of the first phase of the naval bombardment and end of first air strike, was scheduled for 0545. At W— 15 naval gunfire was to begin and carry on until W— 30, when carrier planes were to take over for 30 minutes, to be followed by neutralizing and supporting gunfire until H— 5, when the planes were to strafe and bomb until the troops reached the beach. This schedule was thrown off by the Japanese batteries opening fire on the Maryland and the transports. Fire was promptly returned and the batteries were silenced. The plane strike, however, was late, and due to tidal currents and other unforeseen events, the amphtracs could not make their schedule, necessitating two postponements of H-hour. The planes came in somewhat too soon for the newly set H-hour and the gunfire was lifted sooner than necessary. How much advantage the Japanese gained from these intervals when there was no gunfire is not known. However, it was probably slight, as they were aware of the impending attack in plenty of time to assume their battle stations before the bombardment began. In fact, they opened fire first, and there were but few of their beach defense positions that were not fully protected with ample overhead cover. In spite of the early lifting of the gunfire, and behind-schedule arrival of the amphtracs, the first three waves landed without undue losses; it was the later waves that suffered heavy casualties while crossing the reef.
The landing order attached the Second Battalion 8th Marines to the Second Marine Regimental Combat Team and held the 8th Marine Regimental Combat Team, less the Second Battalion, in Division reserve. The Sixth Marine Regimental combat Team was the Corps reserve. The Second Battalion 8th, and the Second and Third Battalions Second Marines, formed the assault waves, with the First Battalion Second Marines in Regimental reserve. Colonel David M. Shoup, promoted by special order for the occasion, commanded the assault.
The leading waves landed in the following order: 3rd Bn. Second Marines on Red Beach 1 at 0910; 2nd Bn. Eighth Marines on Red Beach 3 at 0917; and 2nd Bn. Second Marines on Red Beach 2 at 0922. The Reconnaissance Detachment of the Second Marines, led by Lt. William Hawkins, landed on the pier between Beaches Red 2 and Red 3, mopped up the Japanese on it, and fought its way to the Beach. Shoup reached the Beach at about 1100 and immediately ordered his reserve battalion ashore on Red 2.
From the flagship the landings were observed, but little could be made of the situation except from the meager reports of Shoup's command post near the base of the pier, intercepted messages between elements of the Attack Force, and the reports of reconnaissance planes from the Maryland. It was obvious that the situation of the troops ashore was desperate as the lines were stopped a few yards inland from the beach and there was a gap in the line completely separating the Second and Third Battalions on Red Beaches 2 and 1. The Commander of the Third Battalion was unable to reach Red Beach 1 with his battalion, and the elements ashore had no means of communicating with either Shoup or Division Headquarters. The Medium Tank Company had landed one platoon in support of each assault battalion. At 1018 the Third Battalion 8th Marines was passed to control of Colonel Shoup, who ordered it ashore on Red Beach 3. This left only one uncommitted organized battalion in our Division Reserve.
A message was sent to V Amphibious Corps outlining the situation and requesting the release of the Corps Reserve to Division Command. This request was promptly granted. Meanwhile consideration was being given to a plan to organize the support group into provisional battalions. As the day passed there seemed little change in the situation. The operation map showed five battalions ashore on the Three Red Beaches, with no reports from Red 1, although the reconnaissance planes reported Marines ashore there, and heavy fighting. The gap between Red 1 and Red 2 had not been closed and the left flank on Red 3 was by no means secure. The Battalion Commanders of two Infantry battalions, the Commanders of the Amphibious Tractors and the Tank Battalion were reported killed or missing. The pier was in our possession. The tide seemed neither to rise or fall, but to remain at a height that made it difficult to wade and too shallow to float the landing boats. This greatly complicated the supply problem. Boats filled with ammunition, water, food, and much needed medical supplies were lying off the reef, unable to get ashore. So many Amphibious Tractors had been disabled that those left were insufficient to shuttle supplies ashore as rapidly as needed. The Assistant Division Commander, Brig. General L. H. Hermle, had been sent to the head of the pier to report on the situation. Lieut. Com. Fabian, USN, commanded the Beach Party, and Major Salazar commanded the Shore Party. These three, together with Captain John S. McGovern, USN, boat control officer, aboard the Pursuit, somehow managed to bring order out of chaos and by nightfall supplies were flowing to the beach, some by carrying parties along the pier and some by the few remaining amphibious tractors; and the wounded were being evacuated.
As the situation was viewed aboard the flagship, the night of D-day was the time for an enemy attack to roll up the left flank of our shallow beach head. This was the greatest danger to our landing forces. At night in the existing situation support from the air was impractical and effective support from ships, gunfire next to impossible because of the extreme difficulty of distinguishing our front lines, and the proximity of the enemy to them. Three-fourths of the Island was in enemy's hands, and even allowing for his losses he should have had as many troops left as we had ashore. In fact it seemed that this was his one and only opportunity to annihilate or drive off the beach the bulk of our force on shore. I considered then, and still consider, that this was the crisis of the battle, and it was here the Japanese failed to avail themselves of their one opportunity to win.
In order to forestall such an attack, I ordered Colonel Elmer Hall with his Regimental Headquarters and the 1st Battalion Eighth Marines to land on the eastern tip of Betio. I felt that his landing would either cause the enemy troops available for a counterattack to concentrate against it, or, if they had already been assembled and begun their attack, it could move west and fall upon their rear. At the same time General Hermle was ordered ashore to take command.
As the fortunes of war would decide, these orders never reached Colonel Hall or General Hermle. Hall with his Regimental Headquarters, was in a boat accompanying the 1st Battalion, and the order, while acknowledged from the ship on which he had been embarked, never was delivered. Luckily, no Japanese counterattack was made that night.
Meanwhile Lt. Colonel P. M. Rixie, Jr., was taking his 1st Battalion 10th Marines (75-mm. Pack Howitzers) ashore, and the aerial observers mistakenly reported them as Colonel Hall's troops landing on Red Beach 2. The error was discovered in the morning, and since there had been no counterattack, the improved situation on shore caused a change in plan. Orders were issued for Colonel Hall to land on Red Beach 2.
The most cheering news of D-1-1 came from Major "Mike" Ryan. In the absence of the Battalion Commander, who failed to get ashore on Red Beach 1, he had collected the disorganized units of the 3rd Battalion, Second Marines, together with fragments of the other battalions separated from their own organizations by the intense enfilading fire from the re-entrant between Red Beaches 1 and 2, and was making substantial progress. Through his Naval Gunfire Control Officer, who succeeded in getting his radio set working, he asked for and was given a concentration on the southwest tip of the Island. Shortly after the gunfire lifted came the message that he had reached the south coast and all of Green Beach was in his possession. Thus, for the first time during the battle it became possible to land troops without opposition and with their organizations intact.
At about the same time, Shoup was reporting progress, and the aerial observers stated that Japanese stragglers were fleeing from Betio to Bairiki.
These reports came when a study was under way to determine the best use for the Sixth Marine Combat Team under Colonel Maurice G. Holmes. It was quickly decided to land one battalion on Bairiki and follow it with the Second Battalion 10th Marines (75-mm. Pack Howitzers) and the 6th Marines, less one battalion, reinforced by light tanks, on Green Beach, Betio. This was accomplished by nightfall. Meanwhile slow but steady progress had been made by all the forces ashore. D+1 was definitely a favorable day.
General Hermle reported aboard the Maryland and Colonel Merritt Edson, my Chief of Staff, was sent ashore to command all the troops.
There was little change in the situation during the night. The next morning D+2, after a heavy naval gunfire concentration on the eastern end of the Island, the Sixth Marines attacked east along the south coast in column of battalions. The Division Commander with his Staff and artillery officer, Brigadier General Thomas E. Burke, landed on Green Beach, visited the Battalion command posts, and then moved by amphibious tractor to Shoup and Edson's headquarters, and from thenceforward conducted the battle from ashore, leaving General Hermle on the Maryland to coordinate the air and naval gunfire support.
D+2 showed steady progress so that by nightfall all the western half of Betio, with the exception of the re-entrant between Red Beaches 1 and 2 was in our hands.
Early that evening the Japanese made a desperate counterattack, penetrating a gap in the line left as the Sixth Marines were taking over from the Second Battalion Eighth Marines. They were thrown out by a bayonet charge and in their later attempts met with complete failure and heavy losses.
These counterattacks caused a unique use of artillery. The 1st Battalion Tenth Marines on Betio fired over our front lines at minimum range. From Bairiki the Second Battalion Tenth Marines fired directly toward our front lines with its fire controlled by radio from Betio, while the two destroyers in the lagoon poured their shells into the Japanese assembly areas from the flank. The net result was devastating to the Japanese, and their attacks were broken up with heavy loss before they could get under way.
D+3 saw the complete occupation of Betio with the exception of some mopping up of stragglers in strong points and dugouts which continued for several days.
With appropriate ceremonies, the American flag was raised over Betio, on a coconut palm stripped of its foliage by the shell fire. A marine who somehow had kept his bugle with him during the entire battle, blew "To the Colors" while the troops stood at attention in formation and saluted.
In view of the fact that Tarawa was British territory, Lt. Colonel Vivian Fox-Strangways, who had come along representing the British Civil Government of the Gilbert Islands, was invited to raise the British flag.
The two Allied flags flew side by side as long as American troops occupied the Atoll. Both the original flags were flown aboard the U.S.S. Tarawa when she was commissioned, and are now preserved in the Naval Academy Museum.
On D+4 Lt. Colonel Ray Murray, with the Second Battalion Sixth Marines, began the clean up of the remainder of the Atoll, a task which took several days and some severe fighting before all the enemy troops were finally eliminated.
Tarawa taken, Brig. Gen. Hermle, with the Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, was sent to Apamama which had already fallen to the V Corps Reconnaissance Company. Later both atolls were turned over to the garrison forces.
To give a list of those whose heroism was outstanding would be to print a roster of the Second Marine Division. Medical personnel shared the front lines, gave first aid under fire, saving many lives, and furnished their share of casualties. Ordnance men repaired and replaced weapons from the dubious shelter of shallow shell craters. The shore party manhandled ammunition and food on the pier and through the water, taking their losses but never quitting. The Seabees were repairing the airfield before the firing stopped. 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.
For the heroism of the Japanese, the defenders of Tarawa, we cannot speak too highly. Only 17 Japanese and 129 Koreans were taken prisoner; the remainder died at their posts. They had been told that Tarawa was impregnable, that a million men could not take it. The one officer captured stated that they withstood the bombing and the bombardment, but none of them believed the reef could be crossed in the face of their fire. When it was, they knew there was no hope for them. Even so, they fought to the last man and sold their lives dearly.
A joint Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish memorial service, in which all the remaining troops took part, was held for those Americans who gave their lives on Tarawa. This inscription was placed in the field cemetery that contained our honored dead:
"So there let them rest on their sun-scoured atoll,
The wind for their watcher, the wave for their shroud,
Where palm and pandanus shall whisper forever
A requiem fitting for Heroes so proud."
The Second Division was evacuated as rapidly as possible to Hawaii, where it went into camp and began training for its next mission. There appeared to be some concern at Marine Headquarters about the morale of the men after their losses at Tarawa. There was no need for such concern. I visited the hospitals in Hawaii, and saw most of the wounded. They were well cared for and cheerful, not a word of complaint from any. I was especially touched when I went into the ward where several blinded men were. When told who I was, each man as I spoke to him reached up and groped for my hands.
The unwounded invariably had one question—"When do we go again, General?" They said: "We've whipped the toughest they've got and we might as well finish it up."
Commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1909, General Smith had thirty-four years of service behind him when he led the 2nd Marine Division against Tarawa. In 1944 he was Deputy Commandant, Fleet Marine Force, and that same year commanded the expeditionary troops of the Third Fleet in the Palau campaign. Previous to his retirement in 1946, he had served as Commanding General, Department of the Pacific.