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Tarawa:  Testing Ground For The Amphibious Assault
CSC 1989
Author Major Douglas F. Ashton 
     The battle for Tarawa was the first of a series of
amphibious operations which carried the United State's forces
across the Central Pacific to the homeland of Japan.  Tarawa was
the first successful example of a sea-borne assault against a
heavily defended island fortification.  When the 2d Marine
Division landed on Betio Island in the Tarawa Atoll on 20
November 1943, twenty years of Marine Corps doctrine, unproven to
this point, was put to the acid test.
     Seventy-six hours after the marines landed in the face of
heavy resistance, the battle was over and an important base
secured with the annihilation of almost 5000 of Japan's finest
troops.  The cost to the Americans had been dear too. However,
the lessons learned were to pay off in larger, more ambitious
campaigns in the Pacific.
     Many changes came about as a result of Tarawa, all of which
were written in the blood of the men who seized the island from
its defenders.  Some of these changes dealt with naval gunfire
and close air support.  Tarawa served to reduce the exagerated
concept of what a surface and aerial bombardment could do to a
heavily fortified target.  The marines, upon landing, found that
little. if any, damage had been inflicted on the Japanese
defenders.  The battle also highlighted the necessity that the
timing of naval gunf ire and aerial support be made to conform
with the movement of the landing craft with the first waves of
the assault forces.  In future operations, the length and
intensity of the pre-assault bombardment would not be sacrificed
to maintain secrecy.
     Once ashore, the landing force depends on the ship-to-shore
movement of supplies.  Before Tarawa, men, equipment, and
supplies were loaded in boats according to prearranged schemes of
maneuver which were based on a successful landing on selected
beaches.  This caused rigidity in the logistical plan for the
amphibious operation.  At Tarawa, the coral reef, combined with a
very hostile foe, prevented the continuous movement of supplies
ashore and led to the notion of prearranged floating dumps,
giving the commander logistical flexibility ashore.  Also, Tarawa
brought to focus the problems associated with amphibious
communications, command and control.  These shortcomings were
identified and corrected by later campaigns.
     The most dramatic change to come out of Tarawa was the use
of the LVT amphibious tractors in an assault role.  Due to the
coral reef and unpredictable tides at Tarawa, a decision was made
to employ them tactically for the first time.  Their use was very
successful and all future amphibious assaults would rely heavily
on these vehicles.
     Had there been no Tarawa, these lessons would have had to
have been brought home perhaps with even greater force in terms
of casualties in the Marshall Islands or the Marianas later in
the war.  Tarawa, despite its drawbacks, was successful and
proved that the American amphibious doctrine was valid.
Thesis statement:  From lessons learned during the battle of
Tarawa, the Marine Corps refined its amphibious warfare
doctrine resulting in one of the most significant military
concepts of the Second World War. the amphibious assault.
I.   Why Tarawa?
     A.  Strategic situation
     B.  Importance of the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific
II.  Planning for Tarawa
     A.  Task Force 53  Southern Pacific Attack Force
     B.  2D Marine Division assigned mision by VAdm Spruance
     C.  Operation GALVANIC
     D.  6th Marines assigned as V Amphibious Corps reserve
     E.  2D Marine Division reserves
III. Pre-D-Day actions on Tarawa
     A.  US Army and Navy photo reconnaissance
     B.  Preassault deception bombardment of Tarawa and
         other possible objectives
     C.  USS Nautilus operations
     D.  Use and allocation of amphibious tractors (amtracs)
IV.  Assault
     A.  D-Day 20 Nov 1943
         1.  Significance of predawn naval and air
         2.  Beach assignments for assault elements
         3.  Amtracs delay H-hour
         4.  Commitment of corps and division reserves
         5.  Communication difficulties
         6.  Situation at the end of D-day
     B.  D+1
     C.  D+2
     D.  D+3
V.   Mopping up
     A.  Betlo (Tarawa) island
     B.  Tarawa atoll
VI.  Lessons learned
     A.  Use of naval gunfire
         1.  Type shells used vs. effects sought
         2.  Lack of simultaneous NGF and air support
     B.  Use of air support controlled by ground troops
     C.  Demonstrated need for dedicated shore party control
     D.  Demonstrated need for better teamwork between
         infantry and tanks
     E.  Communications difficulties
         1.  C&C ship
         2.  Radio equipment of assault troops
     F.  Use of amphibious tractors
         1.  Lack of sufficient numbers
         2.  Lack of sufficient armor and firepower
     G.  Demonstrated need for dedicated comm personnel for
         NGF teams and air liaison parties
     Shortly after the defeat of Japan in the Second World
War General Alexander A. Vandegrift, a future Marine
Commandant, said the following about the Marine Corps' role
In the war:
         Despite its outstanding record as a combat
     force i n the last war, the Marine Corps' far
     greater contribution to victory was doctrinal:
     that is, the fact that the basis amphibious
     doctrines which carried Allied troops over every
     beachhead of World War II had been largely U. S. Marines.... (5:4)
     The assault of Betio Island In the Tarawa Atoll was the
first successful attempt at crossing and securing a well
defended hostile shore.  From lessons learned during the
battle of Tarawa, the Marine Corps refined its amphibious
doctrine resulting in one of the most significant military
concepts of the Second World War, the amphibious assault.
Knowledge gained at Tarawa led to improvements in every
field of amphibious warfare.  Many of these related to a
more effective delivery of air and naval gunfire support.
Tarawa pointed out the value and necessity of amphibious
tractors, for improvements in shore party control and in the
tactics of offshore, beach and inshore fighting against a
firmly established enemy.  Tarawa, in short, was the testing
ground for the amphibious assault.
     The direction to take Tarawa from the Japanese came
mainly from Admiral Earnest J. King, the Navy's
representative to the Combined Chiefs of Staff.  Admiral
King reasoned that before the war could be brought home to
the Japanese, large air bases with their supporting arms and
services would have to be built within striking distance of
Japan by long range bombers.  King realized that a base in
the Marianas Islands would give the Army Air Forces this
capability.  However, several island chains leading to the
Marianas would have to be taken by force.  These islands
included many held by the Japanese such as the Solomons,
Tarawa atoll in the Gilbert Island, the Marshalls, the
Carolines, then the Marianas. (See figure 1) The island
hopping, as it was called, had only one purpose.  That being
the eventual launching of an offensive against mainland
Japan.  Only islands considered essential to this purpose
were invaded by the Marines, bypassing Japanese
installations not essential to the control of the central
Pacific.  Betio island on the Tarawa atoll was one of these
essential islands.  According to Admiral King:
     Their location is of great strategic significance
     because they are north and west of other islands
     in our possession and immediately south and east
     of important bases in the Carolines and Marshalls.
     The capture of the Gilberts was, therefore, a
     necessary part of any serious thrust at the
     Japanese Empire.(5:182)
Accordingly Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief,
Pacific Fleet, was alerted on 20 July 1943 to plan and
prepare for operations in the Gilbert Islands.  In October,
Admiral Nimitz placed several units of the Pacific fleet
under the command of Vice Admiral R. A. Spruance.  His new
organization, the Central Pacific Force, consisted of three
major groups: Task Force 50, an aircraft carrier force; Task
Force 54, the assault force under Rear Admiral R. K. Turner;
and Task Force 57, the defense force and shore based air
support under Admiral J. H. Hoover.
     Admiral Turner's Task Force 54 (Fifth Amphibious Force)
was subdivided into two major units for operations in the
Gilberts:  Task Force 52, made up of elements of the U. S.
Army's 27th Infantry Division, whose mission was to capture
Makin atoll, north of Betlo Island.  The division was
commanded by Major General Ralph C. Smith.  Task Group 53.5,
the 2d Marine Division, under Major General Jullan C. Smith
USMC, was to capture Tarawa then Apamama atoll, in that
     Betio was the southern most island in the Tarawa Atoll
located two degrees north of the equator in the central
Pacific.  The capture of the atoll was given to Task Force
53 commander, Rear Admiral H. L. Hill.  Hill was assigned
the following task groups: Rear Admiral H. F. Kingman's
Support Group with five fire support sections; the Northern
Landing Force under General Ralph Smith, the Southern
Landing Force under Major General Jullan C. Smith; Transport
Group under Captain H. B. Knowles; a minesweeper group and a
carrier group with five escort carriers commanded by Rear
Admiral V. H. Ragsdale.  Southern Landing Force consisted of
the 2d Marine Division, minus the Sixth Marine Regiment
whose mission was to be V Amphibious Corps' reserve.
     The mission given the 2d Marine Division consisted of
two parts. The first was to land at H-hour, on D-day, on
Betio Island in order to seize and occupy the island.  The
second part was to prepare for further operations ashore on
Tarawa Atoll.  The code name for Betio Island was HELEN.
     The Second Marine Division received this mission while
in garrison at Wellington, New Zealand.  There the division
was training and recuperating from operations on Guadalcanal
in the Solomons.  It was a seasoned outfit, however, with
the exception of the Second Marine Regiment, the division
had yet to participate in an amphibious landing, much less
an opposed amphibious assault. The Second Marines had served
on Guadalcanal from 7 August 1942 until mid-January 1943.
The division arrived in New Zealand with 12,500 diagnosed
cases of malaria from the campaign on Guadalcanal.  As late
as October 1943 the division still had almost 1400
ineffectives and daily admissions for malaria averaged
forty.  However, the arrival of replacements and
intradivisional transfers soon brought the division up to
strength in anticipation of the upcoming operation.
     The operation order for Tarawa was completed on 25
October 1943 and called for Combat Team 2 (2d Marine
Regiment reinforced, 2d Battalion, Eighth Marines attached)
to make the assault landing.  The other two battalions of
the Eighth Marines, as well as the regimental headquarters,
were to constitute the 2d Marine Division's reserve.  The
Sixth Marine Regiment, fully one-third of the division's
strength, was held as  the V Amphibious Corps' reserves.  V
Corps commander, Major General Holland M. Smith, had doubts
about the capabilities of the army's 27th Division, however
it was destined for Makin Island which was known to be
lightly defended.  There were only about 250 first-line
Japanese troops in a few prepared installations, some of
which were found to contain dummy weapons.  With transport
assets at a premium, Holland Smith selected the most
thoroughly trained army regimental combat team of the 27th
Division, the 165th, to take Makin.  For his corps reserve
he picked the Sixth Marines, leaving the Second Marine
Division only two reinforced rifle regiments, the Second and
the Eighth, with which to plan the seizure of Tarawa.  As
will be seen later, General Smith's fears about the army's
performance were unfounded.  The Sixth Marines were
eventually committed on Tarawa because of the relatively
easy time the army had on Makin atoll and the ferocious
fight in which the 2d Marine Division became involved.
     The assault regiment, Second Marines, was commanded by
newly promoted Colonel David M. Shoup, who assumed command
when the former commander suffered a mild heart attack.
Shoup's plan called for three battalions to land abreast
with one battalion from Second Marines in regimental
reserve.  The assault's reinforcing elements were strong.
They consisted of a company of medium tanks, a special
weapons group, combat engineers, shore party engineers
(pioneers), eight shore fire control and air liaison teams,
medical and service units and a battery of 75-mm pack
howitzers.  The pack howitzers would be the only artillery
ashore on Betio.  A plan had been examined whereby a
battalion of Tenth Marines (2d Marine Division's organic
artillery) would land on Bairiki island, adjacent to Betio,
and provide artillery support for the assault. (See figure
2) This plan was abandoned because of the lack of suffient
transports to make a separate landing on the atoll.
     Even with the Sixth Marine Regiment, the marines only
had twice the strength the Japanese were known to have on
Tarawa.  It had long been recognized that in assaulting a
defended shore, the attacker should have at least a three to
one advantage over the defender.  The division chief of
staff, Colonel Merritt A. Edson of Guadalcanal fame,
summarized the situation:
         ...the relative superiority of strength
     with the troops now available to us as
     opposed to the hostile strength on Betio
     alone ... does not permit the detachment of
     any part of the Second Marine Division for a
     secondary landing.  Reliance must be placed
     on supporting air and naval forces neutralize
     or destroy hostile weapons which may
     successfully interfere with our landing on
Jullan Smith had no freedom of action.  He asked for this to
be expressed in his orders from his superior and Holland
Smith minced no words.  The division was about to embark on
its most difficult and costly mission to date.
     Preparations could now be made for the assault.  First
and foremost was the gathering of intelligence on Tarawa as
to enemy size and disposition.  Aerial and submarine
photographic reconnaissance were the chief means for
obtaining intelligence on Tarawa.  Pictures taken by the USS
Nautilus in late October 1943 showed the island as a flat
cluster of palms and undergrowth whose total land area was
roughly one-half square mile.  The highest terrain was less
than twelve feet and the island was without natural defilade
positions.  From the air the island appeared thin.  The long
axis ran east-west for almost two and one-half miles.  In
the thick center of the island there was an airstrip and two
taxiways forming an obtuse triangle.  The south shore,
concave and open to the Pacific, was ruled out as a viable
landing site due to the high surf conditions and heavier
defenses.  The lagoon side was on the north shore with a
long seaplane pier extending about 800 yards out into the
lagoon.  (See figure 2)
     The aerial photography of the atoll was so accurate
that an estimated ninety percent of the Japanese defensive
positions were pinpointed before the target date.  The
number of enemy on the island was estimated in a rather
unusual way.  From the aerial photographs, the number of
privies were tallied and from intelligence of Japanese
health and comfort requirements, the number of troops on the
island were determined.  After the battle, it was determined
that the estimate was accurate to within 100 men.(9:10)
     From information gleaned from the British and New
Zealanders that had lived on the island before the Japanese
occupation in 1941, it was determined that the coral reef on
the north side of the island ran out between 500 and 700
yards.  Further, tide information on Betio was unknown and
estimated to be about four to five feet at high tide.  The
LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel) would require a
minimum of three and one-half feet to cross the reef.  The
tide cycle was also unknown and further complicated by a
"dodging" (non-diurnal) tide, a phenomemon known only on
     The element of suprise for Operation GALVANIC, as the
invasion of Tarawa was code named, was to be maintained
until the last possible moment.  Therefore, there was no
pre-invasion naval shelling nor aerial bombardment that
would precede opposed landings later in the war.  Some
random strikes were made against military targets in the
Gilberts and Marshalls from 13-16 November in an effort to
confuse the Japanese on the exact target for the upcoming
invasion.  These missions were flown by B-24s of the Seventh
Air Force and elements of Task Force 57, launched from
aircraft carriers operating in the area.(8:11)
     Because of the fringing coral reef around the island
and the unknown nature of the tides, a decision was made to
use amphibious tractors tactically for the first time.
Heretofore these had been used only in a support role to
bring logistics ashore and beyond the beachhead.  At Tarawa
however, they were to carry as many of the assault troops
ashore as possible.  With the cooperation of the Navy,
extensive tests were successfully held to prove the
feasibility of crossing coral reefs with these vehicles.
Machine guns were mounted forward and boiler plate was
rivited to the bow in an effort to add some protection to
the area most exposed to enemy fire.  A total of 125
tractors were obtained by the V Amphibious Corps for the
operation.  The last fifty of the amtracs, short for
amphibious tractor, joined the division the morning of
D-day, 20 November 1943.  Smith's plan called for the
employment of 100 amtracs to carry the first three assaualt
waves over the reef and onto the beach.  Twenty-five of the
older models (LVT(1)) were held in reserve, a wise move for
otherwise many needed supplies would have never reached the
beach on, or after, D-day.(3:44)
     The Japanese defenses of Tarawa atoll were concentrated
on Betio Island.  The bulk of the big guns on the island
were on the three corners of the somewhat triangular shaped
island.  In between the 8-inch coastal defense guns on the
corners were everything from 140mm cannons to 7.7mm machine
guns.  The Japanese defenses consisted of fourteen coastal
defense guns, thirty-three antiaircraft guns and
eighty-seven beach defense and antiboat guns.  Many of the
gun emplacements were built using reinforced concrete with
eight inch coconut logs and six feet of sand piled over
that.  In the surf there were antiboat obstacles to impede
the movement of landing craft and force them into
prearranged fire lanes, where the carefully emplaced
defensive weapons could be used to maximum advantage.
     The stage was now set for the fight.  The Americans
conducted two rehearsals enroute to Tarawa while the
Japanese prepared their final defenses.  The marine's
rehearsals were held at Mele Bay at Efate Island in the New
Hebrides, while simulated fire support was rehearsed on
Pango Point.  Meanwhile, the commander of the Japanese
Special Naval Land Forces concentrated on building defenses
on the southern side of Betlo but had erected some defenses
on the northern shore where the Marines would actually land.
The Japanese garrison of almost 5000 waited for the 2d
Marine Division.
     Task Force 53 reported their arrival in the operation
area at 0320 on 20 November.  However, the transports were
determined to be in the alternate transport area (Baker) and
were ordered north to the primary area (Able) before
unloading their troops. (See figure 2) This resulted in some
initial confusion as some of the smaller crafts, trailing
the transports, were separated from their mother ships in
the early morning darkness.  Unloading and debarking was
delayed, changing the time table and contributing to a delay
in H-hour later on in the morning.
     Japanese shore batteries opened fire on the ships at
0507 and the battle of Tarawa had begun.  The flagship, USS
MARYLAND as well as other fire support ships answered the
challenge.  As a result the MARYLAND lost communications
when  her 16-inch batteries were fired.  This was a
recurrent problem for General Smith on the MARYLAND and
would plague him for the remainder of the seventy-six hour
     The naval bombardment lasted nearly four hours.  The
plan had called for the Navy to pound the island with
gunfire until thirty minutes before the first wave was to
land.  Then the carrier air support was to take over until
the LVTs were yards from the beach and about to debark their
marines.  At this stage in the development of amphibious
doctrine, it was believed that air strikes and naval
bombardment could not be carried out simultaneously.  It was
believed that because of the smoke and dust caused by naval
gunfire, the pilots would not be able to see their targets
and that the naval projectiles would present an unacceptable
hazard for the aircraft.  In any case, the air strike did
not arrive on time and Admiral Hill ordered the naval
bombardment to resume.  During the ceasefire period, the
Japanese were able to fire unmolested at the transports but
fortunately their accuracy was poor and they inflicted
minimal damage to the landing forces.  The airstrike arrived
at sunrise and conducted its attack against targets in the
center of the island.  Their efforts were minimal, although
the returning pilots claimed that nothing could be left
alive on the island after the naval bombardment and air
strikes were finished.  Nothing could be farther from the
truth.  In fact, the preparation fires had inflicted little
damage to the defensive installations.  The planners of the
assault had called for destruction fires but had used either
the wrong shell-fuse combination or the wrong trajectory to
achieve the desired results.  What had been achieved was
neutralization fire from which the Japanese were able to
recover and inflict much damage on subsequent waves landing
in LCVP's which were unable to cross the reef.
     The three initial assault battalions consisted of
Second Battallion, Second Marines; Third Battalion, Second
Marines; and Second Battalion, Eighth Marines.  The landing
beaches, Red 1, 2 and 3, were located on the northern side
of the Island.  Red 1 ran from the western end to a point
half way to the seaplane pier.  Red 2 ran from the end of
Red 1 to the pier.  Red 3 ran east from the pier to a point
even with the eastern end of the airstrip. (See figure 3)
Each beach was approximately 600 yard wide.  Third
Battalion, Second Marines was assigned Red Beach 1; Second
Battalion, Second Marines was assigned Red  Beach 2; and
Second Battalion, Eighth Marines, Red Beach 3.  On the
southern side of the island was Black Beach 1 and 2. The
short, western end of Betio was designated Green Beach.
     H-hour had to be delayed due to the LVTs arriving late
at the line of departure.  Also, the speed of the tide had
been underestimated, causing the amtracs to fall further
behind schedule.  H-hour had been set at 0830.  General
Smith adjusted H-hour twice due to the speed of the LVTs and
the time lost in the confusion in the transport area earlier
in the morning.
     The first unit to reach its beach was Third Battalion.
Second Marine Regiment on Red 1.  The tractors first came
under enemy fire 3000 yards out from the beach.  Second
Battalion, Eighth Marines reached its beach next.  They came
under intense enemy fire from 3000 yards also and within 200
yards they received intense fire from the enemy's 3-inch
batteries.  Immediately the battalion was pinned down just
yards in on the beach.  A sea wall, three feet high, gave
the marines protection from the Japanese machine guns that
seemed to have every foot of the beach covered.  Two
tractors were able to crawl through a break in the sea wall
and pushed inland as far as the airstrip.  The remainder of
the LVTs were stopped by the sea wall barricade and the
troops dismounted there.  Of 522 men, less than twenty-five
became casualties initially.(5:16)
     Second Battalion, Second Marines reached Red Beach 2 at
0922.  Resistance was fierce and only a shallow foothold was
established.  Units were scattered and disorganized due to
the heavy fire to which the battalion was subjected on their
way to the beach.  Of the three assault battalions, their
situation was most precarious.
     Behind the first three waves of the landing teams,
those loaded in the new LVTs, were the other waves in LCVPs
that drew three and one-half feet of water.  General
Smith was aware of the possibilitiy that instead of the
estimated five feet of water over the reef, that there might
be as little as three feet at high tide on D-day.  His worst
fears came true. The LCVPs grounded from 600 to 1100 yards
from the beach.  Troops on the LCVPs were briefed to be
ready to disembark and wade ashore.  These marines had to
wade ashore through waist deep water directly in front of
Japanese machine guns.  Many were easy targets for enemy
gunners, as acurate fire rained unmercifully upon the
marines.  Others, heavily laden with gear, drowned when they
fell into hidden craters in the surf where the water was
much deeper.
     Fortunately, casualties had been light for those
marines embarked on the LVTs.  This was in part due to the
armor on the tractors and perhaps to the effects of the
"destruction" fires from the preinvasion bombardment, which
had temporarily neutralized the Japanese defenses.  That was
not the case by the time the LCVPs made their way to the
beach in subsequent waves.  Marines who survived the wade
ashore and attempted to cross the sea wall met intense enemy
fire from reinforced blockhouses, pillboxes and row after
row of concealed machine guns.  Rifle fire alone was of no
avail in reducing these fortifications.  Their destruction
could only be accomplished through the use of demolition
charges and flamethrowers.
     Information was extremely slow and sketchy in reaching
General Smith on board the Maryland.  He was, however, aware
of the seriousness of the situation ashore and started to
commit his reserve units.  Earlier, Colonel Shoup had
committed his regimental reserve, First Battalion, Second
Marines, to land on Red Beach 2 and to work their way west
to assist Third Battalion, Second Marines.  In the process
the battalion was split; the first half landed on the
western part of Red 1, the rest landed on the left half of
Red 2.  Both groups suffered heavy losses.
     General Smith ordered Third Battalion, Eighth Marines
into the fray at 1018, using half of his divisional reserve.
Control of the battalion passed from Smith to Shoup.  The
battalion was directed to land on Red 3 and support Second
Battalion, Eighth Marines.  However, Third Battalion was not
as fortunate as the Second Battalion had been coming ashore.
Third battalion had boated in on LCVPs, and once grounded on
the reef, the marines debarked and became easy targets for
the Japanese.  Only 100 marines of the first wave of Third
Battalion, Eighth Marines reached the beach.  Many of the
officers and noncommissioned officers were either killed or
wounded.  The landing experience had left the battalion
badly shaken and disorganized.(8:47)
     By now the neutralizing effect of the bombardment had
worn off and the accuracy of the Japanese gunners was
beginning to take its toll.  In the initial assault wave
there were forty-two LVTs, twenty-four in the second wave
and twenty-one in the third.  Eight had been destroyed prior
to reaching the beach and about fifteen sank upon reaching
deep water from holes in the hull from rifle, machine gun,
antiboat gun and mortar fire.(8:18)
     Colonel Shoup's command post ashore had suffered from
intermittent communications with his assault battalions due
to poor radio equipment.  Marine communicators struggled
with antiquated TBX and TBY radios, which became inoperative
when exposed to saltwater or subjected to rough treatment.
This was a common problem as most of the radios were doused
coming ashore and many were riddled with bullet holes.
Radio operators would cannalbalize broken sets to make one
sat operable.  Both air-to-ground and ship-to-shore
communications were affected, resulting in difficulties for
air liaison teams and naval gunfire spotters in the
performance of their duties.  The antiquated communications
equipment of the Maryland prevented General Smith from
getting a complete picture of the battle ashore.  He was
later to send his Assistant Division Commander, Brigadier
General Leo D. Hermle, to the beach to size up the situation
and report back.  This, General Hermle was unable to
accomplish due to poor communications on the Maryland.  Even
with the poor communications, it was adequate for Jullan
Smith to realize that the division's situation was
precarious, if not perilous.  He still had one battalion in
reserve but was reluctant to use it and be left with only
support troops as a reserve.  Early in the afternoon,
General Smith radioed Major General Holland Smith requesting
that Combat Team 6 (Sixth Marine Regiment) be released to
the control of the 2d Marine Division.  Within an hour, the
V Amphibious Corps Commander granted the request.  Jullan
Smith now sent his last division reserve unit ashore,
comfortable with the Sixth Marines now under his control.
Later in the afternoon General Smith ordered the remainder
of the Eighth Marines to land on the extreme eastern end of
the island.  The landing time was set at 1745.  However, the
message never reached the regimental commander, Colonel
Elmer E. Hall.  Ashore, Colonel Shoup was under the
impression that First Battalion, Eighth Marines and the
regimental headquarters had already landed.  The problem was
that Hall, who had sailed on the USS Monrovia had expected
to receive his orders via radio from the USS Pursuit, the
ship located at the line of departure, but the message was
sent to the Monrovia.  It was not until after midnight that
those at the division realized that Hall and his units were
still at the line of departure awaiting orders.
     Meanwhile, General Smith had sent Gerneral Hermle a
message directing him to take command ashore and report when
a command post had been established.  Again, because of
communications problems from ship-to-shore, General Hermle
did not receive the message.  The command ashore, now two
full regiments, was to remain the responsibility of Colonel
Shoup for another day.
     The situation at the end of the first day was as
follows.  On the extreme western portion of the island,
Third Battalion, Second Marines held on to the northern most
tip of the island, having been pushed back somewhat from the
center of Green Beach towards Red 1.  Combat Team 2 and both
First and Second Battalions, Second Marines occupied
positions up to the western taxiway and the infield portion
of the airstrip where they linked up with Third Battalion,
Eighth Marines.  Second and Third Battalion, Eighth Marines
held a toehold from the center of the airfield to the middle
of Red 3.  There was no continuous line of defense; the
perimeter was held by small groups of men who occupied shell
holes or huddled behind coconut tree stumps.  A large gap
existed between Third Battalion, Second Marines on the far
western edge of Red 1 and First Battalion, Second Marines on
Red 2.  Smith's worse fears on the night of 20 November were
that the Japanese would mount a counterattack and push the
marines off their hard won real estate during the night.
Fortunately, this did not happen.  After the battle, it was
surmised that this was due to the bombardment having severed
the communications wire from the Japanese commander, Rear
Admiral Shibasaki, to his subordinates.  Without
communications, the Japanese were unable to coordinate this
much feared counterattack.  According to Colonel Shoup's
Japanese language translater, Captain Eugene P. Boardman:
     Strangely enough, the naval troops on Tarawa
     used no field message blanks.  In previous
     operations, as on Guadalcanal, field message
     blank constituted a prominent part of the
     "take" of captured Japanese documents.  The
     total absence of message blanks suprised us.
     It showed, I believe, the complete doctrinal
     reliance of the defenders of Betio upon wire
     communication and indicated a lack of
     training in using runners.  The effectiveness
     of the preliminary naval bombardment in
     breaking up the Japanese wire communication
     system was possibly all the more fateful on
     this account.(8:28)
     The first night ashore was a stark contrast to the
brutal fighting that had ocurred earlier that day.  There
was remarkable fire discipline on Betio, with only sporatic
shots fired when a wandering Japanese would stumble near the
foxhoies of the marines.  The division staff, on the
Maryland, was greatly relieved when the night passed without
an enemy counterattack.
     During the night Colonel Hall's headquarters and First
Battalion, Eighth Marines remained in their landing craft at
the line of departure awaiting orders.  Once their
disposition was discovered by the division, the battalion
was directed by General Hermle to land on Red 2 at once and
attack to the west.  At dawn, the first wave of First
Battalion, Eighth Marines climbed out of the landing craft
after nearly twelve hours aboard and began a 500 yard wade
to Red 2.  Casualties were very heavy from direct fire
weapons.  By 0800, Major L. C. Hayes Jr. had half of his
battalion ashore and reported to Colonel Shoup for orders.
Shoup instructed Hayes to gather his men to the west of Red
2, and when fully organized, attack west and establish
contact with the Third Battalion, Second Marines.  By early
afternoon Hayes had his battalion ready for the attack.
     During the night, no units did any tactical
maneuvering.  Their main concern had been the anticipated
counterattack that had not come.  Units had arrived on the
beach in piecemeal fashion.  Parts of marine units were
spread all along the north coast in desparate pockets.  Many
of the officers had been killed on the first day, some
outfits were without officers or due to the haphazard
disposition of units, some now had officers in charge that
they did not know.
     The coming of dawn of the second day of the fight for
Tarawa served notice that the bitter fighting of the day
before was about to resume.  Colonel Shoup realized that his
only chance of success lay in splitting the Japanese forces
ana expanding the beachhead as quickly as possible.  Shoup
directed First and Second Battalions of Second Marines to
attack south to seize the southern coast of the island, a
mere 500 yards away from their present position.
     First Battalion, Second Marines began its push accross
the airfield towards the south shore.  During the night,
enemy machine guns had been set up to sweep the taxiways.
Air liaison and the naval gunfire spotting teams were used
to silence the gun positions once the sun came up.  By early
afternoon both battalions had crossed the main runway and
occupied empty Japanese defensive positions on the southern
shore of the island.
     On the western edge of Red 1, Third Battalion, Second
Marines prepared to drive south in order to secure Green
Beach, which was the entire western side of the island.
Naval gunfire was directed on the remaining 5-inch Japanese
emplacements that were still effective on the southwestern
corner of the island.  One, then eventually two destroyers
were brought to bear on the enemy positions.  These ships
brought extremely accurate fire on the concrete
emplacements.  Once the fires were complete, the hodgepodge
of troops moved out in the attack.  Within an hour, the
western side of the island was secured and the marines built
a defensive line accross the western end of the island about
200 yards inland from the beach.
     Events did not go that smoothly on the eastern end of
the island for Major Crowe's Second Battalion, Eighth
Marines.  The battalion had resumed its fight with the
Japanese near the Burns-Philps pier.  An effort to reduce
the enemy's fortifications in that vicinity resulted in no
new territory gained.  In fact, the best the battalion could
do during the second day was to strenghthen its postion and
prepare for the next days attack.
     By the second day, the supply situation ashore had
reached critical proportions.  Ammunition, water and rations
were being used up quickly by intense fighting in the
stifling heat and the supplies were not reaching the units.
Supplies were being shuttled to the long pier that divided
beaches Red 2 and 3.  There were still Japanese snipers in
the pilings along the beach.  Dead marines bobbed in the
surf along the beach, victims of the snipers, killed while
trying to get supplies to the troops.  The assistant D-4,
Major B. Weatherwax, was sent ashore to assess the supply
situation.  Working with the shore party commander,
Lieutenant Colonel C. J. Salazar, the supply situation began
to clear up as control was established ashore.  LVTs were
pressed into service and supplies left the pier for the
units whose supplies were quickly running out.
     The division artillery situation began to take shape on
the second day.  The organic 105-mm howitzer had been
replaced by smaller, more mobile 75-mm pack howitzer for the
operation on Betio.  A plan had been proposed to land the
105s on the next island, Bairiki, some 4000 yards to the
east of Betlo, to provide artillery support to the division
during the initial assault, but because of the lack of
sufficient transports, the pack howitzer were opted for
instead.  The smaller 75-mm guns could be brought ashore in
pieces using rubber boats and life rafts.  By the second
night, First Battalion, Tenth Marines was ashore on the
eastern side of the island.  They were used very effectively
in destroying blockhouses that had stopped the Second
Battalion, Eighth Marines from advancing the day before, and
had also inflicted the murderous fire against First
Battalion, Eighth Marines on their way to join the fight.
     Late on the afternoon of 21st, the great pressure that
had been put on the enemy appeared to be paying off.  A
turning point had been reached and the battle slowly began
to take a turn for the marines.  Shoup sized up the progress
made during the second day and sent the following short
message to General Smith on the Maryland:  "Casualties many.
Percentage dead not known.  Combat efficiency--We are
winning. "(6:27)
     To this point General Smith had not seen fit to commit
the Sixth Marines because of the lack of information from
Betio.  Once Smith felt that progress was being made, he met
with Colonel Maurice G. Holmes, the commanding officer of
the Sixth Marine Regiment and told him to prepare to land on
Green Beach, execute a passage of lines with Third
Battalion, Second Marines and attack east.  First Battalion,
Sixth Marines came ashore and found little opposition from
enemy defenders.  Early the next morning, the battalion
passed through Third Battalion, Second Marine's lines and
pushed east along the southern coast to attempt to link up
with First Battalion, Second Marines south of the airstrip.
Second Battalion, Sixth Marines was diverted from following
First Battalion, Sixth Marines on Green Beach and the Second
Battalion was directed to land on Bairiki to stop any
attempt by the Japanese to escape from Betio.
     As First Battalion, Sixth Marines attacked along the
southern shore, Second Battalion, Eighth Marines, supported
by fires of the pack howitzers of First Battalion, Tenth
Marines, had overrun the strong enemy position north of the
eastern taxiway.  By the end of the third day the enemy,
with the exception of the forces faced by First Battalion,
Eighth Marines, on the boundry of Red 1 and 2, was
compressed into the eastern tail of Betio, east of the
airstrip.  Again the marines prepared for a counterattack.
Major W. K. Jones of the First Battalion, Sixth Marines
organized his battalion that night for a counterattack from
the strongest Japanese position located on the eastern tip.
By now, General Smith had come ashore to assume tactical
command of the division.  A conference was held and plans
were made to bring in the last fresh battalion from the
transports and attack the last remnants of Japanese
resistance.  During the conference the Japanese did
counterattack the lines held by the First Battalion, Sixth
Marines.  At first, the counterattack was small: its purpose
had been to infiltrate the marine's lines and gain troop
disposition information for the main counterattack that was
to follow.  However the excellent fire support from the
First Battalion, Tenth Marines, reinforced by fires from
Second Battalion, Tenth Marines, now on Bairiki, formed a
very effective crossfire and eliminated the enemy's front
lines.  The marines resistance consisted of close-in
fighting with bayonets and handgrenades and because of the
marine's fire discipline, the Japanese were unable to locate
the marine's positions.  A second probing attack occurred
two hours later, again to gain information.  This attack was
also repulsed and the enemy was left with little idea of
where the marine's strength was.  The main counterattack
came at 0400 on 23 November.  Through bitter hand-to-hand
fighting and by calling in artillery fire within
seventy-five yards of their own position, over 300 Japanese
were killed and the counterattack failed.  Again naval
gunfire proved its worth by keeping the enemy pinned down on
the beach while the marines repulsed the attack.
     The last fresh battalion brought ashore on 22 November
assisted First Battalion, Sixth Marines in repelling the
counterattack early in the morning of the 23d.  Third
Battalion, Sixth Marines, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel K.
F. McLeod, started the last push towards the eastern tip at
0800 on the 23d.  The battalion met little opposition and
with the aid of two medium and seven light tanks, reached
the tip of the island by 1310.  Many of the Japanese
defenders were found killed by their own hand rather than
being killed or captured by the Americans.  The Japanese had
475 killed and fourteen Korean laborers were taken prisoner.
McLeod lost nine men killed, and twenty-five wounded.  At
1330 on 23 November 1943 General Jullan Smith declared that
the enemy no longer offered organized resistance and the
entire island was in American hands.  This did not mean that
all the Japanese had been discovered though.  Snipers would
continue to kill marines for the next three days and have to
be burned out by flamethrowers or blown up by demolitions
teams.   With the capture of Betio, half of the 2d Marine
Division's mission was complete.  The other half, that of
eliminating the Japanese on the remaining islands of the
Tarawa atoll, fell to the Second Battalion of the Sixth
Marine Regiment.  This battalion had seen relatively little
action during the fight for Betio and had the fewest
casualties of any of the other eight battalion of the
division.  Their task began on the morning of 25 November.
By that evening the lead elements of the battalion were well
up the atoll and had not encountered an enemy force although
evidence of their rapid evacuation indicated that some
Japanese were still on the atoll.  On the second day of
their advance up the eastern side of the atoll, the two lead
companies found the enemy's positions.  The Japanese had dug
in and waited until the marines were practically on top of
them before they opened fire.  The vegetation was thick and
the fighting was reminiscent of the jungle fighting the
division had encountered on Guadalcanal.  After several
hours of close-quarter fighting, the enemy resistance was
overcome and the battalion continued north until the last
island of Naa was reached on 28 November.  The battle of
Tarawa was over.
     The toll for Tarawa was shocking to the American
public.  Few citizens were prepared for the cost involved in
pressing an amphibious assault against a strongly held enemy
island.  The marine's casualties were 3,301 killed or
wounded in action.  The Japanese lost 4,690 men killed.
Only seventeen were captured alive.  In just seventy-six
hours the 2d Marine Division had captured what the Japanese
defenders said would take a million Americans 100 years to
take.  This, coupled with the capture of Makin Atoll by the
army, gave the United States control of the Gilbert Island
Archipelago and consequently the bases from which an attack
could be launched against the highly stategic Marshall
Islands. (3:231)
     The assault on Betio was the first time in history that
a sea-borne attack was successfully launched against a
heavily defended enemy island.  It differed from an
amphibious landing as the size of the island made an attempt
to land on any beach on Betio an opposed landing and hence
an assault vice an unopposed landing.   As a result of this,
Tarawa served two purposes.  It demonstrated the soundness
of the United State's amphibious doctrine, and perhaps more
noteworthy, it pointed out the inevitable weaknesses in its
technique.  Although not as polished as future assaults that
the Marine Corps would conduct later on in the Pacific war,
it served as a laboratory in which the Marine Corps refined
its doctrine and eventually the doctrine of any amphibious
force going against a well entrenched foe defending a
     There were many lessons that emerged from the fight for
Tarawa.  Most of the lessons were refinements to the
doctrine developed during the 1920's and 30's by the
pioneers of modern amphibious warfare.  Some of the lessons
learned dealt with naval gunfire.  The preassault
bombardment had failed to achieve the desired results and
was found to be insufficient.  The nature of the targets on
Tarawa, fortified reinforced concrete gun emplacements,
carefully positioned by its defenders, called for
destruction rather than neutralization fires.  Prior to
Tarawa, it was thought impossible to do more than neutralize
shore targets.  The assault on Betio revolutionized the
concept of naval gunfire.  It prove that destruction was not
only feasible, it was essential.  During the assault, it was
discovered that the bombardment had not achieved the
expected results.  It was discovered that the number of
armor piercing and time delayed shells were not sufficient.
The naval gunfire support commander,  Rear Admiral H. F.
Kingman said:
     Our high capacity projectiles, with super quick
     fuses, made a grand display but accomplished
     little if any real destruction of installations or
     personnel (5:233)
Examination of the defenses after the battle revealed that
each position could have been penetrated if hit by the
proper trajectory and type of shell.  An armor piercing
shell with a plunging trajectory would have knocked out the
strongest installation on Betio, a reinforced concrete
command post with a roof six and one-half feet thick.
     A longer preparatory bombing and shelling on Betlo had
been sacrificed to maintain the element of suprise.  It was
discovered that in terms of lives lost, that suprise was
less important than a long, deliberate shelling of key
targets on the beach whose purpose it was to destroy the
initial positions that would be faced by the marines.  The
simultaneous use of naval gunfire and air support was not
deemed possible prior to the battle.  The preparation of the
island prior to the invasion was a two phased operation.
The first was the naval shelling of the island to be lifted
for the second part, that of the aerial bombardment.  By the
end of the battle, both naval gunfire and air support were
used on the same targets with no reports of danger to the
aircraft or pilots.  The only drawback was that the smoke
and dust from the radar controlled naval gunfire tended to
obscure the targets from the pilots.
     Although the use of air support at Tarawa did little to
win the battle, it proved that aircraft in direct support of
troops on the ground was feasible.  The problems encountered
in the use of air in the assault were similar to those that
had plagued the naval gunfire support.  One problem
indicated that effective air support was not possible unless
pilots and the ground troops they supported had trained as a
team.  Holland Smith recommended that marine aviators,
thoroughly trained in the principles of direct air support,
be assigned to escort carriers and that these carriers be
included in any future amphibious operation undertaken by a
marine division.(5:249)
     The invasion of Betio pointed out needed improvements
in the execution and quality of beachhead logistics for
future operations.  It improved the concept of ship to shore
movement by giving the tactical troop commander, through his
shore party officer, control over the priority in unloading
of supplies from ship to shore.  It further showed the need
for control and transfer points offshore.  The use of a pier
as a logistical staging point could not be relied upon in
future operations.  Therefore the idea of floating dumps of
prestaged, critical supplies, loaded in boats and ready to
go at the line of departure, was born.(5:251)
     Teamwork between the infantry and their supporting
tanks at Tarawa was very poor.  "We did not lose a man
inside a tank," recalled Lieutenant Colonel A. B. Swenceski,
commanding officer of the Second Tank Battalion, "but most
of them were lost getting out and trying to communicate with
the infantry."(5:219)  Part of the problem was the fact that
the medium tanks had joined the division directly from New
Caladonia and were never fully integrated into the battalion
training.  On the other hand, the light tanks had been with
the division since they left the States and it was evident
that the coordination between the riflemen and the light
tanks was better than between the infantry, worming their
way forward on their bellies, and the medium tanks.  Also,
both type of tanks had different radio sets than the
infantry carried, compounding the lack of coordination
between the forces.  The light tank's problem was their main
gun, a 37-mm cannon.  The gun proved to be too light against
the defenses at Betio.  The most effective means of clearing
out the machine gun positions was found to be flamethrowers.
It was suggested following Betio that the 37-mm cannon be
replaced with a tank mounted flamethrower.  Later in the war
in the Pacific this was done with very positive results at
Saipan and Iwo Jima.(1:21)
     Communications difficulties plagued the Americans at
Tarawa from the beginning to end.  Maryland's faltering
voice and ears were more than duplicated by failures in both
ship to shore and beach to beach nets.  The Maryland's
problem lay in the fact that she had not been set up to be a
command and control ship for ship-to-shore movement of
troops and the necessary radio equipment had been installed
as an afterthought.  Even then, the equipment was not tested
in battle conditions prior to the actual assault when her
16-inch batteries knocked out her ship-to-shore radio
capabilities.  A need for a dedicated command and control
ship was clearly demonstrated resulting in the navy
investing in AGC (Auxillery, General, Communications) ships
which first saw action in the Marshalls in 1944.  The
division suffered because of difficulties with their TBX and
TBY radios, used for beach-to-beach communications.  The
fault lay with the bulky and hard to handle radios which
were not waterproof or shockproof.  Once wet, as happened to
every set sent ashore, they were inoperable until dried out.
This not only complicated both the control of naval gunfire
and air support, it more seriously perhaps kept Colonel
Shoup and General Smith in the dark tactically and caused
both to make decisions on the basis of inadequate knowledge
of the situaion.  The problems with the radios were well
documented at Tarawa and immediate replacements were sought
which would eliminate this problem in the future.
     Not only did the communication equipment used by the
assault troops leave room for improvement, so did the
training of the troops that used it.  The communications
personnel assigned to the air liaison and naval gunfire spot
teams were not trained in the intricacies of calling and
adjusting supporting arms fires.  They only operated the
radios.  If the actual spotter or liaison team member was
wounded or killed, then that team became ineffective.  After
Tarawa, dedicated communications personnel were assigned to
these teams and were trained not only on their own
equipment, but also in the actual mechanics of calling for,
and adjusting close air support and naval gunfire.
Similarly, loglstically, infantrymen were no longer tasked
with moving supplies to the units in need.  Permanent shore
party teams were organized and trained in an effort to push
the supplies to the troops instead of the troops pulling the
supplies to themselves.  These communications and logistical
problems, brought to light after Tarawa, were serious enough
so that the Joint Chief of Staff became interested in the
problem.  Following recommendations by Generals Vandegrift
and Holland Smith after Tarawa, the Joint Chiefs directed
that naval gunfire, air liaison, and shore party
communications personnel be pooled into Joint Assault Signal
Companies to be trained by V Amphibious Corps and that one
such company be allocated to each division assigned to an
amphibious assault.(3:147,5:252)
     Perhaps the most significant innovation to come out of
Tarawa was the use of amphibious tractors in the assault
waves at Tarawa.  It was there that the Marine Corps
realized the need for LVTs in the assault because of the
shallow reef surrounding the island.  The vehicles proved
their value when they carried ashore the first three waves
of the assault with relatively few casualties while the
follow-on waves, embarked in LCVPs, were forced to disembark
at the reef and wade ashore under withering fire.  The only
drawback with the LVTs at Tarawa was that there were not
enough of them to lift all the assault ashore.  Jullan Smith
recommended that a minimum of 300 of the craft be assigned
to each marine division and that they be more heavily armed,
faster, and be equipped with a ramp or crane for unloading
cargo.  James Forrestal, then Undersecretary of the Navy,
concurred and recommended that production be increased
immediately.  He warned that heavy casualties were to be
expected in future amphibious assaults in the Pacific, but
added that the more amphibious tractors available, the less
would be the loss of American bloods the most hazardous of military operations,
     the landing on a hostile shore in the face of a
     determined, experienced, well equipped enemy...
     success of invasions to come will depend on the
     sweat that we put into these landing craft today.
     The sooner that they are built, the sooner will
     the war be over and the lower the cost in human
     It is interesting to ponder the difference in
casualties incurred by the marines if more tractors had been
provided for the Second Marine Division at Tarawa.  Their
successful use in later operations tends to point a beacon
towards Tarawa.
     Many other lessons were learned at Tarawa.  The reports
submitted at the end of the operation are filled with them.
Constructive criticism, comments and suggestions were all
aimed at improving the now tried and true doctrine that the
Marine Corps had developed.  Had there been no Tarawa,
these lessons would have remained unlearned until they were
driven home with even greater force in the Marshalls,
Marianas, Saipan or Iwo Jima.  In the end though, the key to
Tarawa did not lay in the machines or tactics used on Betio.
It rested on the Individual marines, attempting to wrest the
island from a foe that believed that a million marines could
not take the island in 100 years.  They did, and in only
seventy-six hours.
     Said military historian S. L. A. Marshall of the Marine
Corps In World War Two:
     The most important contribution of the United
     States Marine Corps to the history of modern
     warfare rests in their having perfected the
     doctrine and techniques of amphibious warfare to
     such a degree as to be able to cross and secure a
     very energetically defended beach. (5:4)
     The battle forTarawa was small in comparision to other
battles to occur later in the war.  But without the
experiences gained at Tarawa, the success of those assaults
would have been doubtful.  Tarawa was the testing ground of
the amphibious assault and therefore worthy of study for its
accomplishments and shortfalls.
1.  Anderson, Morris. Tarawa: Testing the Theory. Ann
         Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms
         International, 1982.
2.  Croizat, Victor J., Col. USMC (Ret). "Fifty Years of
         Amphibious Tractors", Marine Corps Gazette (March
         1989), 69.
3.  Gregg, Charles T. Tarawa. New York: Stein and Day,
4.  Hannah. Richard, Staff Sergeant, USMC. Tarawa. The
         Toughest Battle in the Marine Corps  History.
         Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1944.
5.  Isely, Jeter A. and Crowl, Philip A., The U. S.
         Marines and Amphibious Warfare.  Princeton, New
         Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1951.
6.  Santelli, James S. A Brief History of the 8th Marines.
         Washington, D. C., U. S. Government Printing
         Office, 1976.
7.  Sherrod, Robert L., Tarawa. The Story of a Battle.
         Fredericksburg, Texas: Admiral Nimitz Foundation,
8.  Stockman, James R., Capt. USMC (Ret). The Battle for
         Tarawa.  Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government
         Printing Office, 1947.
9.  Wilson, Earl J., et al. Betio Beachhead. New York, G.
         P.  Putnum's Sons, 1945.
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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias