OPERATION GALVANIC: THE INVASION OF TARAWA
Harris, Russell L
Termed the toughest fight in Marine Corps history, the taking of Tarawa taught the Navy valuable lessons in amphibious warfare
In the second year of the war in the Pacific, the enemy was beginning to regard the map in terms of territory lost. It was a new and distressing experience. No Japanese warrior had felt it for a thousand years.
At the other end of the Axis the picture was just as cheerless. But, while the Allies were indubitably deep in Italy, so far none of the prewar territory of Germany had been lost, and the Japanese could boast the same of their infinitely fartherflung empire. all the ground they had lost amounted to only a fraction of the territory snatched from the United States, The Netherlands, Great Britain, Australia, France, and China. And it was the least desirable fraction – coconut country, coral heaps.
That was one way of looking at it, but not the way any Naval strategist, Japanese or American, contemplated the charts.
What he could see was a long arm curling up through the Bismarck Sea to gather in the Micronesian islands, a flexing arm that could lash out against the Philippines or Japan itself, in a staggering backhander.
Remember, the American strategy was – and for nearly another year would be – based on the expectation of continuing on the northwestern drive commenced at Buna and Guadalcanal, to enter the Philippines from the south, through Davao.
Part ofthat strategy, both to straighten out the dogVleg line of communications from the United States (and Hawaii) and to remove the menace on the right flank, called for the conquest of the Gilbert, Marshall, and Caroline archipelagoes – hundreds of islands commanding many thousands of square miles of ocean between Pearl Harbor and New Guinea and the southern Philippines.
Armchair strategists complained about “island hopping” and other critics, for reasons of their own, called loudly for less emphasis on the European theater and the diversion of the armies to MacArthur. How the armies would be adequately housed, fed, and kept equipped over 6000 miles or more of hostile ocean in trackless, disease-ridden jungles, and how they were to be deployed in an area more water than ground, were questions ignored – usually out of ignorance, it is to be charitably supposed.
Meanwhile in the farthest corner of the Pacific combat area the military and Naval commands went ahead with their plans, which called for (in essence) the capture of key Japanese positions and by-passing their dependencies, leaving them to wither unnourished on the severed vine of supply.
On New Britain, the Southwest Pacific Forces (MacArthur-Kinkaid) and the South Pacific Forces (Halsey-vice Nimitz) had merged. Now their paths were to separate again, MacArthur’s air-land-sea forces to hack their way to the northwest tip of New Guinea and the Philippines’ back door, while the sea-airpower of the South Pacific Forces was to head northeast and, with the Central Pacific team, range westward in an enveloping sweep of the islands that Japan had readied for 25 years against her day of reckoning with the Occident.
But let an expert state the problem: Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, in the words he addressed to the Royal United Service Institution in London, October 1946.
“In the late spring of 1943 it began to look as if sufficient resources would be available, not only to continue the offensive that was gaining momentum in the SolomonsNew Guinea area, but, in addition, to open up a front in the Central Pacific. The purpose of this second front was to wrest from the Japanese the control which they exercised over the great belt of ocean lying approximately west of longitude 180° and north of latitude 5° south. This control was maintained by the main Japanese fleet, based on Truk in the Carolines and supported by a series of air bases strategically located on islands throughout the area. These air bases were, as far as geography would permit, mutually supporting, and they had air pipe lines extending back to Japan, along which reinforcements of all types of aircraft could be flown to them. The Japanese air empire had no such breaks in it as we had in our 2100 miles between San Francisco and Honolulu.
“So long as the Japanese fleet could operate from Truk, any amphibious operations of ours to the northward of New Guinea-New Britain were exposed to enemy Naval attack, unless we ourselves furnished adequate fleet support. Truk would continue as a secure base so long as the surrounding screen of islands remained firmly in Japanese hands. It was therefore decided that our first major objective in the Central Pacific must be to gain control of the Marshall Islands. Six of the Marshall atolls were strongly held by the Japanese, five of them having airfields and the sixth a seaplane base. To the northward, 600 miles distant, they held Wake, well defended and with sea- and landplane facilities. To the southward they controlled the Gilberts, with their main strength on Tarawa, which had an airstrip, and with less strength on Makin, which had seaplane facilities only. To the westward of the Gilberts they had occupied and fortified Nauru and Ocean Islands, and had built an airstrip on Nauru. These outposts, north and south, were an essential part of the defenses of the Marshall Islands.
“At this time we had never attacked and captured a strongly held atoll. We knew, however, that a thorough and continued photographic reconnaissance would be required to show up the details of the enemy defenses if our attack was to be successful and our losses kept within acceptable limits. Carrier aircraft were not as well suited to obtain the necessary photographs as were the regular land-based photographic aircraft. Unfortunately, we had no airfields then that were in range of the Marshalls, nor could our patrol seaplanes reach them. Our nearest landing fields were at Funafuti in the Ellice Islands, 1300 miles, and at Canton, nearly 1600 miles from Kwajalein in the center of the Marshalls.
“After rejecting a proposal to make a simultaneous assault on five of the six Japanese-held atolls in the Marshalls, and after consideration of an approach from the north by first taking Wake, or an approach from the south through the Gilberts, the southern flank was decided upon as our first step toward taking the Marshalls.
“This had many advantages. We would be coming from our main line of communications to the South and Southwest Pacific, with a number of fairly well-established bases along that line. In the Gilberts we could be taking atolls with islands on which excellent airfields could be built quickly. These airfields would be useful as bases from which our land-based aircraft could be operated throughout the Marshalls in connection with our next move. The scope of the operation would, we thought, be kept safely within the capacity of the resources allocated to its accomplishment. We would have an opportunity to test our amphibious equipment and methods against positions on the perimeter before attacking the center.
“As a preliminary to taking the Gilberts, we built additional airstrips suitable for heavy bombers on Nukufetau and Nanomea in the Ellice Islands and on Baker Island, which is 350 miles northwest of Canton. These fields enabled us to operate more aircraft, and they gave us positions closer to the Gilberts and the Marshalls, which extended the range of our aircraft. We also commenced, on a small scale, the formation in the lagoon at Funafuti of a Mobile Service Squadron to furnish our advanced base logistic support.
“The Gilberts operation was important to us in that our plans for it established, basically, the organization and the pattern that were used thereafter as a basis for future operations in the Central Pacific. Our task organization gave us – A Fast Carrier Force; a Joint Expeditionary Force; and a force which had the operational control of the shore-based aircraft and shore bases within the area of operations and, of the Mobile Service Squadron which was to furnish our advanced base logistic support.”
FIRST APPEARANCE OF THE FIFTH FLEET
It was early morning of the 19th of November 1943. In the leading plane of three bombers winging homeward from a 600-mile predawn scouting patrol, Lt. Kichi Yoshuyo of the Imperial Japanese Navy nervously tuned his high-frequency transmitter: “Enemy contact report.. .fleet sighted.. .several carriers and other types too numerous to mention…”
The rest of the story was told when the Japanese patrol landed at Tarawa, its home base. In hurried conference with Cmdr. Goro Matsuura, 17 years in the Imperial Japanese Navy, the pilots told how they had visually contacted (for their planes had no radar) a vast armada of American ships on a course that would bring them within point-blank range of where they were standing within 24 hours.
Commander Matsuura broadcast the tragic news to Kwajalein, to Truk, and on to Tokyo. The little men from Nippon faced quite a dilemma. According to plans from Tokyo, an invasion of the Gilberts would be repelled as follows: “Long-range aircraft would attack from the Bismarcks.” (There were none left.) “Short-range planes would be staged through Truk from the Marianas.” (It would take four days for short-range aircraft to get into an attack position.) “Warships would sortie from Truk and destroy surface forces. Submarines operating around Rabaul also would be available.”
Those were the plans, but – the Americans had amended them.
The price Japan paid in fruitless defense of the Solomons and the Bismarck Archipelago during the last few weeks had killed her chances of repelling any large-scale invasion in the Central Pacific. The umbrella of aircraft that had existed to protect their surface forces had been blown to tatters in the South Pacific. The carriers were afloat, but with naked decks. The cruisers and destroyers had been badly mauled at Rabaul.
By all information, the Allied Naval forces had been hit just as hard. Then what was this fleet of ships “too numerous to mention?”
What those pilots had actually seen was the silky silhouette of a newly formed and powerful Fifth Fleet, steaming at standard speed, outward bound on Operation Galvanic, seizure of the key atolls of the Gilbert group: Makin, Tarawa, and Apemama. Its orders were being issued from the cruiser Indianapolis by Adm. Spruance, who had proved himself as commander of a task force in the Battle of Midway.
Makin was the northernmost target; Tarawa, 100 miles to the southeast, was the central objective; another 100 miles southward, Apemama (the land Robert Louis Stevenson once described as a “treasure trove of South Sea Island beauty,” but strategically only a good lookout post), was the third – and least important.
Although spread out over an area considerably larger than Texas, the combined land mass of the Gilberts is only 166-sq mi – less than 1/6 the size of Rhode Island. Despite the limited space, these islands support normally 26,000 copper-colored natives. Not much spécifie information was had of this group of islands except what geographic description of lagoons, reefs, and channels and data on wind and currents could be remembered by Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji Naval Reserve officers who had either lived in the islands or had sailed among them as shipmasters.
The sea was fairly calm that night of 19 November 1943. A light breeze was whipping a fine spray across the blunt closed bows of the landing ships. In front of the landing ships, the fighting men-of-war were cutting glittering paths through fluorescent water. It was D-minus-1-day. All lookouts had been alerted aboard the destroyer Ringgold, on picket duty for R/Adm. Harry W. Hill’s Tarawa attack force, TF 53.
“Land dead ahead, sir,” shouted the starboard lookout. In code over TBS came the news that all hands had tensely awaited. “CTF 53 FROM RINGGOLD. WE NOW HAVE TARAWA ATOLL IN SIGHT.”
But no sooner had their message been acknowledged when Ringgold suddenly opened up again over the Naval equivalent of walkie-talkie:
2130 CTF 54 FROM RINGGOLD:
SKUNK (Unidentified surface target) BEARING 278 DEGREES TRUE DISTANCE 7 MILES – OVER.
2132 RINGGOLD FROM CTF 53:
ROGER – SANTA FE AND GANSEVOORT PROCEED TO INVESTIGATE SKUNK PICKED UP BY RINGGOLD).
2134 RINGGOLD FROM CTF 53:
MAINTAIN CONTACT BUT DO NOT FIRE TORPEDOES.
Admiral Hill was in a tough spot. he knew that friendly submarines were in the area, but he had no information of friendly subs in the position of the target. he weighed the odds. An enemy suicide ship could cause ghastly damage, not only to ships and lives but to the mission of the Task Force. Hill decided the risk was too great, and issued the message:
RINGGOLD FROM CTF 53: TORPEDO HIM IF YOU HAVE FAVORABLE OPPORTUNITY BUT AVOID GUNFIRE. SOME OF OUR SMALL BOYS (submarines) MAY be IN THE VICINITY.
he was advised that the three ships having the target under observation were sure it was a surface vessel, estimating its speed at 20-kts. So, a few seconds later, the postscript was sent:
all RESTRICTIONS ON USE OF YOUR OFFENSIVE WEAPONS ARE REMOVED.
The Ringgold’s skipper, Cmdr. Thomas F. Conley, Jr., was all set to attack. he fired two “fish” at flank speed. One exploded at approximately the correct time to have reached the target. The other went wild, a not infrequent failure in those days, and Cmdr. Conley had to maneuver to avoid being hit by his own crazily circling torpedo. The target appeared to slow down. At 2159 – one minute before 10:00 p.m. – the Ringgold slowed to 20 kts and came around to a course where all her main battery 5-in guns would bear on the target, and opened fire. The cruiser Santa Fe joined in, and exactly nine minutes after the action began the target disappeared below the surface.
RINGGOLD FROM CTE 53: WELL DONE.
The excitement was over.
But it wasn’t over for 78 Marines and the crew of the US submarine Nautilus, on their way to occupy Apemama atoll. For them, all hell had broken loose and had followed them down 50 fathoms deep. Water was gushing through the conning tower where she had been hit by the cruiser and destroyer’s shell fire. One Marine yelled, “Foxholes were never like this.”
NAUTILUS CAUGHT IN FRIENDLY FIRE
According to the log of the Nautilus, “at 2154, three surface targets sped up to approximately 25 knots and headed for us. We were in a bad way. We believed the ships were friendly but they were acting very belligerent. Our batteries were low and without air supply. We were about two miles off a reef toward which the current was setting at about two knots. If we submerged, we would be in for a nasty time. If we didn’t we weren’t sure we could properly identify ourselves in time.
“2159 – We fired our recognition signals [seen by neither Ringgold nor Santa Fe]. The ships were closing us and opened fire. Their first salvo landed. Perfect shooting! The Executive Officer, Lt.Cmdr. Richard B. Lynch, was just leaving the bridge when one projectile exploded nearby. Our diving was disturbed and we forgot to close the outer voice tube valve. The conning tower was hit and damaged. Sparks spurted from the conning tower bilges. Salvos could be heard landing all around us as we went deeper.
“2200 – We went to test depth and went to depth charge battle stations. We had decided they were Japs. Water in torrents streamed down the conning tower hatch. We were 310 feet deep. We felt time was running out fast; we had an important date at Apemama which we were going to keep, even if we had to surface and fight our way through. The 78 Marines were stoic, but unanimous that they would much prefer a rubber boat on a very hostile beach to their predicament.”
So, the Nautilus labored her way to the surface and went about her business, without casualties, convinced that a Japanese attack had been thwarted, her fast-disappearing adversaries under the same delusion. The Marines seemed anxious to get off the submarine, forever convinced that torpedo rooms made unsatisfactory foxholes. As soon as darkness permitted, next day, the Marines paddled their rubber boats undetected to the coral beach of Apemama.
The primary mission of the Nautilus was to land the Marines on that outpost. Its secondary mission was to stand by to observe what happened to them, and to give what help was asked for. Meanwhile, like Br’er Rabbit, Nautilus lay low. After considerable shooting ashore, Marine Capt. James L. Jones paddled out to the submarine.
“Our weapons are too light to knock out their guns,” he told the skipper of the Nautilus’s Cmdr. William D. Irvin,
“I’ll surface at daybreak and we’ll shell hell out of them,” said the skipper obligingly.
But the Marine objected. The trajectory of the shells would have to be too flat to blast out the entrenched Japs. The natives, who were friendly might be alienated by the damage. The Marines themselves might be put in jeopardy by stray shots. “You just bring me a chart of the Jap positions,” Irvin counseled.
The Marine captain returned to the submarine with a chart of the exact gun locations. With him he brought some badly wounded Marines, one who was dying. There were more wounded ashore, he reported. The Japs were putting up a tough battle.
The submarine would enter the fight, it was agreed. Irvin selected a position from which the submarine’s bombardment would begin with minimum risk of the unpleasant byproducts the Marines feared. They would display a wide white banner at the northern extremity of their position. Beyond that would be the Japs, and the gunners would know where to shoot.
During morning twilight of the 24th, the Nautilus surfaced. At daybreak, after the body of Pfc. Harry J. Marek, USMC, had been committed to the sea, the submarine opened fire. After 75 rounds the Marines radioed, “Cease fire, situation in hand.”
With the exception of the accidental shelling of the Nautilus the entire Fifth Fleet operation was working with stopwatch precision.
Amphibious-minded R.Adm. R.K. Turner commanded the northern attack force. With him were Marine Maj.Gen. H.M. (“Howling Mad”) Smith, in command of all landing forces in the Gilberts, and Army Maj.Gen. Ralph Smith, commanding the 27th Division. Their job was to take Makin, the island ring temporarily invaded by Lt.Col. Evans Carlson and his daring “Raiders” in a lightning sweep in August of 1942.
“Air attacks will commence on Makin ten minutes prior to sunrise,” read the operation order. Only a few natives and the sentries for the garrison of 900 Japs were awake on the sleepy coral atoll when US Navy bombers came into view. Then everybody was awake. The pilots were prying for targets concealed in the groves of pandanus and coconut.
It was the first time most of the broods of the new escort carriers had tried their wings in warfare. One by one the planes nosed over and plummeted earthward.
The big guns of the battleships Mississippi (Capt. Lunsford L. Hunter) and New Mexico (Capt. Ellis M. Zacharias) turned their long snouts toward the objective, and spat forth the first volley. seconds later the entire firing line was sheeted in flame, and the detonation of shells sounded like Titans endlessly bowling strikes with mile-high tenpins.
At 0830 on D-Day, led by Lt.Col. Gerard W. Kelley, troops from the 165th Combat Team of the 27th Infantry, a division made up of National Guard units from upstate New York, waded ashore on the eastern side of Butaritari beach. The troops were lightly opposed by small mortars and machine-gun fire. By evening one-half of the island was captured.
B-24s PLASTER TARAWA WITH BOMBS
Spearheaded by the doughty destroyer Ringgold, Adm. Hill’s southern forces moved in on Tarawa, in whose circlet of reef-connected islands Betio was the stronghold. The Marine Corps’ Maj.Gen. julian Smith with his famed Chief of Staff, Congressional Medal of Honor-wearing Col. Merritt A. Edson and Lt.Col. David Shoup, the operations officer, had carefully laid plans for their 2nd Marine Division to take Betio.
From the time the first US Navy reconnaissance raider had droned over the blue triangular lagoon enclosed by 25 coral-built islands, strung like beads on a thread of reef, it was known that Tarawa would be “tough going.” Betio was the biggest and most heavily fortified islet in the atoll. It was there that Japanese Imperial Marines had dug in, determined to stay.
Only after the Task Force got underway had Betio been singled out as the feature attraction of the aerial blitz that had been pressed against the Gilberts, or two days out of the preceding ten. Army Air Force Liberators had been flying from Funafuti every day, and R.Adm. John H. Hoover, commander of shore-based aircraft, reported to Adm. Spruance on D-minus-1-day that 19 B-24s had planted 21 tons of bombs on Betio.
Up to this time the bombers had not concentrated on any one island or atoll in the group, because the plan was both to neutralize air power in all the Gilbert area and to avoid identifying invasion points by special attention. The tempo of the aerial onslaught mounted against the two major atoll-targets, carrier air groups joining in the attack two days before the invasion when it was too late for the Japanese to reinforce any particular spot.
The aviators reported Betio to be completely devastated. They couldn’t even find a Jap to strafe above the sandy ground. What they also could not see were the numerous elaborately camouflaged pillboxes; the 8-in Naval guns brought in from Singapore and artfully concealed, or 3-in guns and blockhouses all hidden and especially bolstered against bombing. The Japanese had discovered that palm logs, layered with coral sand, not only defied detection from the air but heavy bombing as well. But regardless of reconnaissance, Betio was obviously “it.”
The curtain was about to rise on one of the bloodiest assaults in Marine history.
Captain Earl J. Wilson, Marine Public Relations Officer for Gen. julian Smith, tells the story:
“I was awakened at 0200 in the morning of 20 November 1943 by bells that told me it was General Quarters and D-Day. In our wardroom everyone was griping about the coffee not being prepared and the water not being on. There was no excitement or tension. The moon was at quarter with a faint golden ring surrounding it and one lone star. By the dim moonlight I could see the black shapes of other ships, all now laying off to the island, a faint strip not very far away.
“The word came over the public address system for all boats away, and the thin pipings of the boatswain’s whistles sounded over the ship in the darkness. I could see the dark outlines of boats and hear the whining of their motors, as they splashed into the water and began circling off the stern.”
Shortly after 0500 a Jap signalman sighted the invasion fleet. He challenged one of our ships with blinker light. Receiving no answer, Japanese shore batteries opened fire at 0507. Admiral Hill ordered Capt. William Granats Colorado to open counterbattery fire. seconds later Capt. Carl H. Jones, skipper of the Maryland, ordered his ship to commence firing.
“First you would see a big flash at sea, then a graceful slow-moving arc of twin balls with bright flashes where they hit. Then would come a rumble like distant thunder. It was beautiful – to watch.
“The sun rose now in a brilliant display of red. There was only one planet and it was Mars – bright and significant, I thought at the time. Smoke poured up from the island, the billowing clouds rivaling the mist which was lifting over the island. I stood beside the rail and watched the scene. Suddenly about 100 yards off from where I was standing, I saw a huge geyser of water, and I was very surprised. At first it occurred to me, that one of our ships had misjudged and her shot had fallen short. Then, I realized that the Japs were using their coastal guns and were shooting back at us.”
Captain Wilson was learning that war is a two-way affair.
“Behind, our boats strung out in a long chain and I thought what would happen if one of those shells should hit in the middle of them. Another whine and a whispering note, and again we hit the deck, for we were learning fast. The shell passed through our rigging and landed a hundred yards off our port side. We all began to ask – where are our planes? For Christ’s sake, why don’t they get here? Why don’t they get here? Why don’t they get in there and knock out those big guns? – One lieutenant remarked that today was his seventh wedding anniversary and he couldn’t decide when he was most frightened. The ship opposite us, steaming along at full speed with a wide “bone’ of foam at the bow, had a string of landing craft following her. It reminded me of a string of black beads against a wide strip of lace. The island became clothed in clouds of smoke and licking flames leaped toward the base of these clouds. The warships came in closer and closer, pouring shells from their guns.”
At 0642 the Ringgold hoisted battle colors and headed inside the lagoon, followed closely astern by the destroyer Dashiell (Cmdr. John B. McLean). They were steering in the path of the minesweepers Requisite (Lt. Herbert R. Pierce, Jr.) and Pursuit (Lt. Roman F. Good). all four ships were under heavy fire. lieutenant Gordon J. Webster, Royal New Zealand Naval Reserve, coolly gave orders to the helmsman in the wheelhouse of the Ringgold. he had lived on the shores of the lagoon before the Japs came. lieutenant Lyttleton B. Ensey, gun boss on the Ringgold, cut loose at a pillbox.
Suddenly the Japs found the range. The Ringgold was hit twice before she silenced the straight-shooting Jap.
Luckily the shells did not explode, but one hit was below the waterline and an arc of black water poured into the ship. lieutenant Wayne A. Parker, the Chief Engineer, perhaps remembering boyhood tales of the Dutch boy and the leak in the dike, plugged the hole with his body until material was brought up to plug it. Then he directed the removal of the unexploded shell, and threw it overboard. The men on the Ringgold were under heavy fire all day, but her gunnery department consistently outclassed the shore batteries.
Captain Wilson continues: “The sky was red, and it reminded me of the old saying, ‘Red in the morning, sailors take warning.’ Then it began turning gray, as the fleet moved in closer, pounding the island with its guns. Waves of landing craft sped toward the beaches, and flights of our planes, finally arrived, streaked through the smoke columns over the island.”
At 0830 a scout and sniper platoon led by Lt. William D. Hawkins darted for Betio. The name of Hawkins has become legend to all those of the great 2nd Marine Division and to all who have read about his heroic efforts to capture the airfield that now bears his name.
Commanded by Col. David Shoup (promoted en route from Wellington, New Zealand, the staging area), Marine assault waves followed closely behind Lt. Hawkins. Major William C. Chamberlin, former professor at Northwestern University and Executive Officer for Maj. Jim Crowe’s 8th Marines, recalls that “the first two waves landed with few casualties aboard LVTs. The third wave came in LCVPs, and got stuck on the reef. We knew in advance the reef would be a ‘touch and go proposition.’ I was in that third wave. I could swear that it took me 24 hours to walk across that reef. Men were dropping all around me. That is when our casualties started mounting. Any man who had to walk across that reef during the first two days suffered.
“We were being hit by a Jap twin 5in mount. The Ringgold’s radio crackled, ‘We have seen those gun flashes, can we fire?’ all I answered was: ‘Hell yes!’
“At one time Cmdr. John B. McLean had his Dashiell so close to the beach her crew could have hit the Japs with rocks, if they’d had any. Once she beamed over the radio: ‘How are we shooting?’ I reported, ‘Fine, but don’t get any closer.’ Their last shell had landed just 25 yards in front of our line. That is what I call close fire support.”
One of the toughest aspects of war, better known to Marines and infantrymen, is being shot at while you can’t shoot back.
“The Battle for Betio was won in the first three hours,” Sgt. Jim Lucas, Marine combat correspondent recalls. he landed late the first day, after being turned back a few times because boats had been successively machinegunned and shelled from the beach. “The issue was decided by the assault waves; had these troops faltered, we would not have taken the Gilberts. Most of the heroic efforts of the first three hours will never be written because most of the principals and witnesses are dead.”
Progress on Betio was slow. The Japanese were setting a higher value on it than had been guessed – and guesses were all there was to go by. Then the warships were authorized to use their full ammunition allowance.
“We could see the task force as it fired,” Lucas reports. “We could see the shells as they hit. Every now and then ammunition and fuel dumps went up with a roar that could be felt. We could watch the dive bombers begin their runs; we could see the explosions, and, seconds later, hear and count the blasts.
“Betio was burning from end to end. Dock buildings, wrecked in the first bombardment, were now charred embers. Only the center of the atoll, where our beachhead was established, was clear. As our shells found their mark, Japanese resistance faded. Toward the end of the day the Japs were replying only with machine guns and rifles.”
At sunset, while recovering aircraft, Adm. Montgomery’s Task Group 50.3 was attacked by 15 Bettys. The planes, flying from airfields in the Marshalls, came in so low that they were in sight before they were picked up by radar. The Jap pilots pressed home the attack through intense AA and our own fighter planes. A direct torpedo hit was scored on the USS Independence. Captain Joseph W. Fowler’s ship was put of action. Her engine rooms were flooded. Seventeen of her crew were dead and 34 were burned or torn by flying shrapnel.
The next morning, after a night of vigilance ashore and afloat, the ship buried its dead. Rich organ music poured through the public address system, not quite drowning the deep throaty rumble and sharp explosions of combat on the island, and the roar of planes skimming past to deliver their bombs. The shipmates of the victims removed their helmets; bare to the waist, unshaved, uncombed, they wearily came to attention as the bodies, wrapped in canvas and covered with huge flags, were carried in by officers. The Chaplain took a deep breath and pitched his voice high to carry through the tempest of bomb and gunfire: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
On the island, catnapping Marines began the painful labor of routing out the surviving Japanese. They marveled, as they tossed grenades and hosed liquid fire into dugouts, at the quantities of steel and concrete reinforced with anchor chains that had sheltered the Japanese Marines so ineffectively.
Captain Wilson recalls being awakened, half-buried by sand in his foxhole, by a sound from another world – the clear-sung reveille of a barnyard rooster.
“Snipers were everywhere,” he wrote. “And everywhere there were bodies. Many were Marines. So many seemed to be merely asleep.”
There was a shortage of drinking water, for it all had to be brought in from the ships offshore. Frank Filan, AP photographer, and Wilson decided to forget thirst by taking a sightseeing tour. The snipers would help dispel dreams of dewy steins of cold beer. “We moved on and came to a dugout which I glanced into briefly and sat down to examine a lot of blueprints near-by, thinking probably it was an engineering shack. Frank jumped and said that someone was in the dugout. I had the only weapon. We moved around to investigate. Two other Marines joined us, and we leveled our weapons, all tense. Finally an unmistakably Brooklynese voice was heard: ‘Stray, I found some sha-sha-sake down here.’ A Construction Battalion bluejacket crawled out, blinked at the muzzles of the rifles. ‘Holy cats, fellas, don’t shoot! I’m a Sheebee.'”
Although Japanese officers had told their men that our Marines could not take Tarawa in a hundred years, Gen. Julian Smith reported Betio secure after 76 hours of what Col. Edson termed “the most bitter fighting in all Marine Corps history.”
The actual number of Japanese killed is not known, but it is estimated that a total of 4800 troops were on the island, and only 146 prisoners were taken. One method which had been used to calculate the strength of Tarawa, which led to earlier exaggerated estimates, was the large number of privies which were always built out over the water. The estimate was exaggerated because, as it turned out, Tarawa was defended by Imperial Marines, hand-picked from husky, oversized Japs who naturally utilized more space.
The land once described by Robert Louis Stevenson as a paradise possessing “a superb ocean climate, days of blinding sun and bracing wind and nights of heavenly brightness” serves as a resting place for 1026 gallant Marines who proved they could outfight the best Marines the Japanese could send against them, and they could capture the best island fortress that Japanese engineers could devise.
Tarawa served as a laboratory and proving ground for future Pacific island assaults. When Marine Col. Shoup ordered an LCVP to lay off the reef and help guide the landing forces to the most favorable landing spot, he established the advantages of the control boat, which would save many lives in future operations. The need for destroying underwater obstacles was revealed, and underwater demolition teams were created as a result. Flat-trajectory fire support proved less effective against heavy emplacements than high-trajectory fire, and was thereafter abandoned for the higher arc and more deadly impact. SC
END OF PART ONE
Copyright Challenge Publications Inc. Mar 2004
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