Assault On Tarawa

By M.F. Swango - Originally Published November 1995

Shortly after leaving radio school, I was assigned to the 1st Medium Tank Battalion of the 2d Marine Division. I had difficulty adjusting to the close confines of a tank. It bothered me to be enclosed in this hulking 33-ton mass of steel, peering out only through a periscope. As soon as possible, therefore, I made my escape into another mode of transportation. We had a newly formed reconnaissance platoon, and this was for me. It was comprised of a couple of half-tracks and half a dozen Jeeps, and each vehicle required a radio operator.

I enjoyed this element of freedom for we were always out ahead of the tanks, scouting the terrain, and dashing about the hill country of southern California. Little did I know of the surprises that lay ahead.

Once overseas, our first combat mission was the assault on Tarawa Atoll. Betio Island, the main Japanese position, was so small and the attack strategies so unique that it was impossible to use any of the mechanization of our reconnaissance platoon. We were destined to be afoot and in the worst possible manner.

Tarawa was long and narrow and edged on one side by a sandy beach and on the other by a coral shelf extending perhaps 200 or 300 yards out into the ocean. It was heavily fortified with impregnable concrete bunkers and pillboxes. Our military strategists theorized that the Japanese defenders would logically expect us to hit the sandy beach in our assault. They therefore reasoned that our only opportunity for surprise was to go in over the coral shelf. But how?

It was determined that, at low tide, the ocean depth on the reef would be from 3 to 4 feet. The invasion would have to be timed precisely at high tide. Our tanks would have to be transformed into semisubmersible vehicles capable of traversing water at this depth.

During the weeks prior to the attack we were in training on the island of New Caledonia. The tanks were fitted with customized sheet metal stacks extending 6 to 8 feet above the ground. One of the stacks would provide air intake for the twin diesel engines. The other would allow the exhaust to exit. Then every opening below the anticipated water line was sealed with a tar-like substance. We now believed these lumbering Sherman tanks would safely negotiate the reef.

For days and nights prior to the assault, the island would be bombed by planes from our carriers and shelled by the 16-inch batteries of our battleships lying off shore. It was logical to assume that a number of the bombs and shells would miss the island and pockmark the coral reef with huge craters. Our tanks, charging across this reef, would be unable to see the craters through the limited vision afforded by the periscopes. A drop into one of these craters would not only eliminate the tank but also be fatal to the five-man crew. The tank would drop like a rock and the external pressure from the water would not allow the crew to open the hatches to escape.

But what of the reconnaissance platoon? What function would we serve? We had not been overlooked. This is where our reconnaissance platoon would fit the strategic pattern. Prior to the assault by the tanks, we would be landed at the outer edge of the reef. Each of us would carry three orange metal floats about the size of a soccer ball. The floats were fitted with a 5-foot section of rope which was, in turn, attached to a small metal anchor weighing about 5 pounds.

We were to spread out in a line and begin walking toward the island. When we came across a crater we were to mark it with a float and continue on. This would provide a safe corridor for the tanks. We were positioned immediately behind the third wave of infantry, and it was reasoned that this would divert Japenese attention to what we're doing and possibly reduce our casualty rate. I had the uneasy feeling that we had been designated "expendable".

Unfortunately, the preinvasion pounding by our bombs and shells was not nearly as effective as had been anticipated. The bunkers were so impregnable they withstood the heaviest hits. The Japanese had merely holed up and when the landing craft came into view, they were waiting. The three initial infantry waves suffered dreadful casualties. Those who survived were diverted from our activities.

Even before we reached the edge of the reef, projectiles were ripping through the bulkheads of our landing craft. Several of our group fell to the deck wounded. One of them was the sergeant in command. We began dividing the floats of those who would not be landing. The Navy coxswain who piloted our craft was a very brave man. He never wavered for a moment and rammed the fragile craft solidly onto the edge of the reef. We went over the side into the shoulder-deep water and headed for shore-a most inhospitable destination.

An aerial view looking north across Betio at Red Beach One on D-day afternoon. At least 10 disabled LVT's can be seen in shadows off the beach. Photo from Utmost Savagery (see p. 82)From the beginning it was apparent the floats were not going to work. The ropes, soaked with salt water, became entangled and could not be separated. We also found that the shifting currents would drag the floats out of position. We therefore abandoned all the floats at the location of the first crater we encountered. Then we took up positions forming a human corridor for the incoming tanks.

Most of the tanks made it throuth and onto the island. A few met with mishap or drowned out and were abndoned on the reef. Once all the tanks, had passed we were to follow them in and serve as replacements within the crews where needed. Once again our carefully laid plans were faulted.

During the early hours of the invasion the entire island was a "no-man's-land." There were no specific lines drawn and a particular beach area would be occupied for a time by our Marines and later by the Japanese. What was left of our reconnaissance group became separated. Our objective was to, somehow, reach the island and find our tanks. How to accomplish this was left to the iniative of each individual.

I tried to keep moving about so as not to provide a stationary target. I was also attempting to move close enough to the beach to determine if it was occupied by friend or foe. If I could be certain that those scurrying about a particular section were friendly, I wanted to make a dash for it.

I spotted a wrecked amtrac at what seemed to be a strategic distance from shore. One end of it was jutting out of the water at a rakish angle. At the highest point there was mounted .50 caliber machinegun. My .30 caliber cabrine was not functioning, and I was without a weapon of any sort. That big machinegun would provide me with some degree of comfort.

As I pushed my way through the water I could see a man on the opposite side of the amtrac. We were saying as low in the water as possible with just our heads visible. It was therefore impossible to determine if he was American or Japanese. He was perhaps 20 to 30 feet closer to the amtrac than I, and it was obvious that he would arrive first. I did not like the odds so I turned and put some distance between myself and the vehicle.

I thought time was important and worried about a higher ride that would put me in deeper water. I would then have the choice of wading ashore to a hostile beach or drowning.

I had been eyeing the rusting hulk of a ship that had, years ago, been wrecked on the reff. The hull extended far out of the water. I edged closer. It might provide a haven and possibly a vantage point from which to view the beach. I headed for it.

I had gotten to within 100 yards of the ship when it erupted into a gigantic ball of flame. I could feel the heat and impact against my head and a jolt of underwater concussion impacted my body. I was momentarily stunned. Then I turned and began making my way from the ship as quickly as possible.

I later learned that word had reached our command that the ship was infested with Japanese snipers. They were taking a deadly toll on our forces. We called in one of our destroyers to shell the hulk into oblivion. Perhaps the snipers had been happily watching my approch.

What now? I would have to do something soon. I felt that the law of averages were now against me. I could hear the increasing roar of a motor and turned to see an amtrac approaching. It was hauling a load of ammunition to shore. The driver throttled back and yelled, "You look like you need a ride." Indeed I did, and those were the kindest words I had heard all day.

I scrambled aboard and we charged the beach at full throttle. Soon I had found my unit-what happened in the following days is another story.