As we celebrate Thanksgiving, take a moment to remember the many Americans who gave their last full measure 72 years ago in the attack on the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.
Almost two years after Pearl Harbor, the assault by the 2nd Marine Division on a Japanese-held stronghold started on Nov. 20, 1943, five days before Thanksgiving. In a brutal three-day battle, over 1,000 Americans were killed, and almost 2,300 were wounded. In proportion to the forces engaged, it may have been one of the most costly battles in U.S. military history, with as many casualties suffered in three days as in the six-month campaign on Guadalcanal.
Betio Island, the main island of the Tarawa Atoll, was a little over two miles long and no more than half a mile wide. It is about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii and was important to the Allied communication lines with Australia and New Zealand. It was part of the outer defense line of the Japanese Empire. Tarawa was the opening campaign of the U.S. drive across the central Pacific.
Even though no point on the island was more than nine feet above sea level, the Japanese force of 4,800 soldiers had honeycombed the island with a formidable array of barbed wire, mines, bunkers, pillboxes, log barricades, and gun emplacements with interlocking fields of fire. It was the most fortified atoll the U.S. would invade. The Japanese commander, Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki, boasted that “a million Americans couldn’t take Tarawa in a hundred years.” When the battle was over, only 17 Japanese were alive, along with 129 forced Korean laborers.
The battle to take this tiny island, which was only barely the size of New York’s Central Park, was vicious, with the Marines fighting from one pillbox, bunker, and strongpoint to another.
The U.S. Navy Task Force supporting the Marines, led by Admiral Harry Hill, included three battleships—two of which, the Tennessee and the Maryland, had been damaged at Pearl Harbor—as well as several light and heavy cruisers and destroyers and three aircraft carriers.
A New Challenge
Even though the U.S. Marines had a long and storied history, they had relatively little experience in the type of large-scale amphibious assault against a heavily defended island that the Tarawa attack would require. Although the 2nd Marine Division had already fought a bloody campaign on Guadalcanal, alongside the 1st Marine Division, the initial landings there were unopposed. That would not be the case on Tarawa. And on Tarawa, the Marines, for the first time, would be up against Japan’s elite Special Naval Landing Force—the Imperial Marines.
The 16- and 14-inch guns of the battleships, along with the guns of the cruisers and destroyers, conducted a massive pre-invasion bombardment. In addition to air attacks launched from the carriers, the warships fired more than 3,000 tons of shells. Unfortunately, as the Navy and the Marines experienced again and again in subsequent island assaults, the sandy soil absorbed much of the high explosives, and most of the Japanese bunkers survived. There were also complaints from the Marines that the shelling was lifted too early, giving the Japanese time to get their men back down to the shoreline defenses before the Marines landed. Even worse was a problem that affected much of the Pacific island-hopping campaign—the lack of precise information on the topography and the tides and currents surrounding these islands.
The first three waves of Marines were carried in LVTs or amphtracs, an armored, amphibious tractor that could get over the reef surrounding the island. In fact, Tarawa was the first battle using the LVTs, which had been originally developed for rescue operations in the Florida Everglades. But because there were not enough of them and so many were lost in the initial assault, the following waves of Marines were carried in Higgins boats, which drew three to four feet of water. In a mistake that would end up costing many lives, the battle planners miscalculated the tide, and the Higgins boats were stranded in low water over the coral reef.
The Heroism of Marines
In what is probably one of the greatest examples of bravery, fortitude, and sheer grit in the history of the Marine Corps, the Marines dismounted from the Higgins boats and waded hundreds of yards through chest-high water under intense enemy fire, loaded down with weapons and packs. Five thousand Marines managed to get ashore on the first day, but the lagoon was filled with the floating bodies of hundreds of dead Marines. In fact, the Marines were pinned down on the beach because of the fanatical Japanese resistance and a seawall that their amphtracs could not get over. They had numerous other problems, from seawater soaked radios to delays in getting their artillery support ashore to water contaminated from being stored in insufficiently cleaned oil drums.
There were countless acts of bravery during the battle by both Marines and sailors. On the second day, two Navy lieutenants on their own initiative rescued 150 wounded Marines who were stranded on the reef, one of them using a commandeered Higgins boat after his own boat was wrecked. That Navy lieutenant even took out a Japanese sniper who had swum out to a wrecked Higgins boat. He received the Navy Cross for his gallantry—and when the war ended, Lt. Eddie Albert resumed his acting career.
Four Medals of Honor were awarded, including one for Colonel David Shoup, who had landed with his Marines on the first day and had continued to direct attacks despite being wounded with shrapnel in both legs.
In what is probably one of the greatest examples of bravery, fortitude, and sheer grit in the history of the Marine Corps, the Marines dismounted from the Higgins boats and waded hundreds of yards through chest high water under intense enemy fire, loaded down with weapons and packs.
The battle to take this tiny island, which was only barely the size of New York’s Central Park, was vicious, with the Marines fighting from one pillbox, bunker, and strongpoint to another. Each one had to be destroyed and every Japanese soldier killed, because none would surrender. The Marines fought off multiple Banzai charges, a foreshadowing of what was to come in other island assaults in the next two years.
Marine Corps General Holland “Howlin Mad” Smith, who is known as the father of modern U.S. amphibious warfare, was the commander of the Amphibious Corps, which included the 2nd Marine Division. He compared the Marine assault on Tarawa to Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. The number of casualties and the photos of dead Marines published in newspapers from that “stinking little island” shocked the American public. But Henry Shaw, the former chief historian of the Marine Corps, said that Tarawa provided the Marines and the Navy with the textbook on how to conduct amphibious landings. The lessons they learned helped save countless American lives in the island assaults that followed in the Pacific Campaign that ultimately led to the Japanese surrender in 1945.
So as we sit down to our Thanksgiving dinners with our families, all of us should remember and give thanks to the American Marines and sailors who 72 years ago fought for the freedom, liberty, and security we enjoy as Americans. They didn’t experience a peaceful Thanksgiving, but they—and the men and women in our military today—are the reason all of us will be able to enjoy a peaceful holiday with our families.