The Legacy And Lessons Of Tarawa

By Jon T. Hoffman - Originally Published November 1993

Barely 2 miles long and less than 700 yards wide, every inch of Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, was contested in one of the Corps' bloodiest amphibious assaults. Yet there are still lessons to be gleaned from this precursor to modem day amphibious warfare.

When Marines think about the history of amphibious warfare, very likely the first image that comes to mind is Tarawa. Even for those who know next to nothing about that battle, its very name evokes heroism, great sacrifice against incredible odds, and the pride of being a Marine. It was the closest the Marines have ever come to being forced back into the sea during an amphibious assault. It is little wonder then that the debate over the future of amphibious doctrine and technology often turns to the question, "What happens if we face another Tarawa?"

Many factors combined to make Operation GALVANIC a close call. One well-known problem was the dual effect of coral reefs and a lower-than-hoped-for tide, which increased casualties among the landing waves that had to wade ashore into murderous grazing fire. Another explanation for the struggle was the inadequate prelanding bombardment by air and naval guns. The weight of shells and bombs was unprecedented in the Pacific, and many planners expected it to be particularly devastating given the small size of the targets. The mostly unobserved area fire, however, had limited effect. It did destroy most of the large-caliber coastal defense guns and the aboveground Japanese wire communications system, but it did not knock out the numerous machineguns and antiboat guns that created havoc among the amphibious tractors and the wading troops. Almost as significant was the initially poor coordination of these supporting arms. Last-minute changes to H-hour and the late arrival of the first wave of assault vehicles created significant gaps in suppressive fires that allowed the defenders to reinforce the threatened beaches and recover their senses sufficiently to man their guns well before the Marines came into range.

A third factor encompassed the tactics used by the invasion force. The Navy was concerned about a repeat of the bloodletting it had suffered in the prolonged campaign around Guadalcanal. As long as the fleet was tied to a static position, the admirals felt they were at the mercy of Japanese submarines, aircraft, and surface ships. The naval commanders wanted Betio seized as rapidly as possible. Once the Marines opened up the airfield, the fleet would be free to maneuver against the enemy without concern for supporting the forces ashore or for protecting the vulnerable amphibious shipping, which could sail to the rear after unloading its troops and supplies.

To add to this major limitation on the tactical flexibility available to the landing force, MajGen Holland M. "Howlin Mad" Smith, the corps commander, designated the 6th Marines as his reserve. Since he also was responsible for the simultaneous assault on Makin Atoll, the Marines facing Tarawa could not count on having the reserve available to them alone. This left the division with only two regiments to attack a force estimated at 2,750 men, all but a few hundred of them known to be elite combat troops of the Special Naval Landing Forces. (The defenders actually numbered closer to 4,800. About half of these were service troops, but nearly all of them would end up fighting in the battle.) Since most of the Marine division's combat support and service units could not participate in the initial stages of the landing, MajGen Julian C. Smith, commanding general, 2d Marine Division, had only about 6,000 men for the attack. That was much less than the three-to-one ratio required by doctrine.

The time factor and the shortage of combat power severely limited the division's options. Smith and his primary planners, chief of staff Col Merritt A. "Red Mike" Edson and operations officer Col David M. Shoup, decided that they had only one alternative, a frontal assault designed to capture the island in the shortest possible time. They selected the northern beaches, which provided the best hydrographie conditions and the weakest defenses. The Navy even rejected a Marine request for an amphibious feint against the southern shore, which might have been of some use in diverting enemy attention from the actual assault and fixing his reserves in place for at least the critical moments around H-hour.

The Navy's tactical decisions at Tarawa were not without justification. The concern about speed of conquest was confirmed by events at Makin. The slow progress of U.S. Army troops conducting that portion of Operation GALVANIC (against much lighter opposition) contributed to the torpedoing of the escort carrier Liscome Bay, which cost the lives of 644 sailors. An amphibious feint also would have required the switch of 50 percent of the destroyers from fire support to antisubmarine patrols for tne second transport group, a significant decrease in available firepower. Smith's provision for a corps reserve was in accordance with approved doctrine, but it was less justifiable given advance knowledge of the weakness of the defenses on Makin.

Although these factors are all well documented in accounts of the campaign, it has become an article of faith that heavily defended small islands can only be taken by the type of frontal assault that occurred on Betio. That misconception cannot be placed at the door of historians or popular attitudes, because it was fostered at the time of the operation by those who had reason to know better. One of the perpetrators of the myth was Maj George F. Eliot, the respected military analyst of the New York Herald Tribune. In an article praising the Marines on Tarawa, he noted that one of the major lessons of the battle was:

that an amphibious attack against a well prepared enemy is in all cases a costly operation and will certainly be the more so if the objective is so small that the enemy is in no doubt as to where the attack will come.

Eliot was assisted in creating this fallacy by none other than Gen Alexander A. Vandegrift, the hero of Guadalcanal and the brand-new Commandant of the Marine Corps. In an interview barely a month after Tarawa, Vandegrift classified amphibious assaults into two types. One involved "an island which is large enough so that you can exercise some discretion as to where to land, and an island which is large enough so that the people defending it cannot be strong at every point." Guadalcanal and New Guinea fell into this category. He then held up Tarawa as an example of the other type of landing, one against "a very small island." As he noted:

It is only about two and one-half miles long and a little less than a half mile wide at its widest place so that the attack generates into what could be purely and simply assault, if you understand what I mean by assault. Assault is usually the last stages of an attack; but in that type of operation you have assault from beginning to end. You come in your boats and they are right there. There are no lapses, and they meet you with fire before you get there....It is the first effort, your initial assault, that finishes them, because that's all there is of it.

Tarawa did not necessarily have to be a frontal assault. In fact, Edson had argued forcefully for an entirely different plan. He had wanted a subsidiary landing on an adjacent island of the atoll prior to the main attack on Betio. That initial assault would have been nearly bloodless, since Bairiki and the other islands were almost entirely undefended, and naval air and guns could have easily silenced any long-range interference from Betio. Red Mike had hoped that artillery emplaced on Bairiki would then provide a much longer, more deliberate, more accurate, and better coordinated preliminary bombardment for the subsequent attack.

Although the division never fully developed this discarded alternative, a subsidiary landing might have provided several other benefits. At a minimum, the captured island could have served as a base for the transfer of troops from landing craft to amphibious tractors, thus turning the Betio portion of the operation into a logistically easier shoreto-shore rather than ship-to-shore landing.

The division also could have attacked from adjacent Bairiki down the long axis of Betio. This option is more controversial, since Julian Smith firmly believed, even after the battle, that he and his staff had chosen the only practical landing beaches. He felt it was important to land on the wide front of the northern coast, which allowed the division to put more troops in the initial waves, and gave them more freedom of movement once ashore. Another decisive factor was that the northern waters were the only ones that the Japanese had not yet mined.

But a landing on the eastern tail had benefits that might have offset its difficulties. Although the Japanese had more troops and guns in this sector, the defenses generally had fixed fields of fire that pointed toward the northern and southern approaches to the island. Thus an attack from the east would have been met by the fire of only a few of the antiboat guns and heavy machineguns actually located there. Once a toehold was established at the tip of the tail, subsequent waves could have come ashore there almost untouched by direct fire. By contrast, the actual landings on a broad front on D-day ended up securing only small portions of the long northern coastline. As a result, numerous Japanese guns brought enfilading fire to bear against subsequent waves and inflicted heavy casualties on reinforcing units.

Once ashore on the eastern tail, the landing force would have faced an advance on a narrow front. Although that would have severely limited maneuver in the classic sense, it would have uncovered a significant Japanese weakness. As the Marines discovered in the middle of the battle, fortifications that were formidable from a seaward point of view were vulnerable to flanking attacks from the landward side. Men under the command of Maj Michael P. Ryan were successful in rolling up the defenses of the western shore in just such a fashion. Had the initial landing been in the east, the division might have been able to flank the northern defenses in a similar manner instead of attacking across open water into interlocking bands of fire.

The landing on the northern coast also minimized the American advantage in firepower. Due to the broad, but broken front gained in the initial attack, fire support ships had to cover more territory and often shoot over the heads of friendly forces. A landing on the narrow eastern tail would have maximized the strengths of naval gunfire. All ships would have been in the ideal position of firing from the seaward flank parallel to the front of the advancing Marines. Their firepower also would have been concentrated rather than dispersed. Finally, the division's limited supply of tanks and flamethrowers could have been utilized more efficiently on a narrow front. As it was, they were committed piecemeal, and some units received little support from these important assets. Since the Japanese were basically trapped in their fixed defenses, the attackers could have concentrated their combat power on one sector at a time and defeated the enemy in detail.

A landing on the eastern tail may not have been a better alternative, especially since the amphibious forces had not yet developed much of a mine-clearing capability. However, the main point is that, contrary to the assertions of Vandegrift and Eliot, it was not geography that forced the 2d Marine Division to make a costly frontal assault on Tarawa. As Edson and a few others realized, there was room for maneuver even on a tiny atoll, in the right circumstances. It was the situation-the lack of time, troops, and technology-that argued against the use of an alternate subsidiary landing or some other plan. Even with those limitations, one could make a good argument that a day spent on a subsidiary landing and a methodical bombardment might have saved a day or more in terms of the actual time it took to secure the main target.

Modern Marines tend to cite Tarawa as justification for a continued reliance on technology and doctrine not much changed from that in use in November 1943. Although we have created the over-the-horizon concept, its value is largely limited to a scenario where we expect to achieve surprise against an enemy who is unprepared for us. If we need sweepers to clear mines, an armored amphibious vehicle to protect us from small arms and shrapnel, and the firepower and armor of a battleship to take out strong enemy defenses, then we necessarily will be conducting a forcible entry launched from close to the shore. We may be improving our capabilities in this specialized area of combat by procuring things like advanced assault amphibious vehicle (AAAVs), but we will still be "knocking down the door" in a manner that Red Mike and his colleagues would instantly recognize.

If we had to attack Betio again with a frontal assault, battleships and AAAVs certainly would be vital. But those who always claim that we must have these things to deal with a small fortified objective are making the same mistake that Eliot and Vandegrift made. Anyone who thinks that a frontal assault is the only alternative is ignoring just how different the situation is today. Fifty years ago the U.S. Navy was properly wary of a naval opponent who was hurt, but who still had the capability and will to respond like a wounded tiger. If we had to seize Tarawa today from any available enemy, it is hard to conceive of a scenario in which there would be the same requirement for speed of action ashore in order to free the Navy for a fleet battle. Even in the midst of the drawdown, we maintain an unchallenged supremacy on the high seas. (The Navy might face a somewhat stiffer fight in some coastal waters, but the odds are still heavily in our favor.) Once today's fleet has used this "battlespace dominance" to seal off an atoll from reinforcements and resupply, Marines of the 1990s could take the time to do things right and make the type of subsidiary landing Edson had wanted. With artillery, multiple-launch rocket systems, and Harriers in place, the ground force would be in a position to provide its own support in a way that Red Mike and his contemporaries would have envied.

Even a small island located by itself, with no opportunity for a subsidiary landing, presents a fundamentally different type of target now than it would have 5 decades ago. We need to remember that maneuver warfare is not predicated on movement, but on using strength against enemy weakness. One of our greatest strengths, as demonstrated in the Gulf War, is air power. Today we have the capability to achieve air superiority quickly and then utilize advanced munitions and intelligence collection systems to reduce fixed targets to rubble. Aviation is not a panacea, of course, a fact equally borne out by the Gulf War, where planes were frustrated in their hunt for mobile Scud launchers dispersed over a vast area. We also would not have fared so well if the Iraqis had launched a ground assault early in the buildup, or even on the day the air war began. However, they let us gather our forces and then hit them virtually without retaliation for several weeks.

But the very things that make a place like Betio so fearsome-its small size and apparent lack of room for maneuver on the ground-also make the "maneuver" of firepower vastly more efficient and effective. At least one Marine of the Tarawa era, LtCol W. W. Ashurst, recognized that distinction, writing Edson in 1940 that "when we speak of maneuver, we really mean the maneuver of effective firepower." Given the time for a deliberate bombardment by modern weapons systems and munitions, no targets of consequence could survive on a tiny island objective. And unlike the Iraqis, an island's defenders could not consider launching a ground attack to lash out at their tormentors. Even ground-launched antiship cruise missiles would not present much of a threat, since our carriers could maintain plenty of sea room between themselves and the target. Thus a modern Betio presents a nearly perfect situation where the United States can best utilize the strength of its superior Navy and firepower against an enemy who has no opportunity to run, hide, or reinforce.

Obviously there would eventually have to be an assault to take physical control of an objective needed to support future operations. And we can assume that despite the best and longest preparation fires, someone will survive to contest the issue on the ground. At this point, better coordination, targeting capability, and munitions would provide much better suppressive fire than our predecessors could ever have hoped for. One can imagine what fuel air explosives and 10,000-pound "daisy cutters" would have done to the fighting abilities of even the Japanese, especially after days or weeks of already intensive bombardment. Following extremely close on the heels of this neutralization fire, fast V-22s and air cushioned landing craft (LCACs) would place armor and infantry ashore well before the handful of remaining defenders could recover their senses. The capability of these transport systems also would allow us much greater flexibility in terms of where we want to land. No longer will an enemy be able to concentrate his defenses on the few likely avenues of approach dictated by beach conditions. In addition, improved navigational systems might allow us to make heavy use of obscurants that hinder enemy targeting while allowing us to get where we want to go unseen.

Finally, there is much less likelihood today that we will have to seize such heavily defended targets. As MacArthur wisely observed in his New Guinea campaign, we do not need to capture a port or airfield if we can neutralize the enemy's use of it and create our own facility elsewhere (see "The Legacy and Lessons of The New Guinea Campaign," MCG, Sep93). The Navy and Marine Corps practiced island-hopping in the Central Pacific, but today the improved range of land-based air, the increased endurance of ships, better underway replenishment techniques, the advent of vertical/short takeoff and landing technology, and a host of other enhanced capabilities give us much greater basing flexibility than that possessed by our forebears. During World War II we probably had to take Tarawa; today we could ignore it and move on to an easier objective. An enemy might be ready for us at any one single place, but he could not be equally well prepared on every island, or at every point on a long coastline.

Nearly 80 years ago the British and their allies stormed ashore at Gallipoli in one of the first modern attempts at forcible entry. Their failure was so bitter that it colored the thinking not only of the British, but of most of the world's armies for the next 25 years. The Marines of the 1930s were almost alone in looking at Gallipoli in a different light. Instead of seeing it as a portent of the way things had to be, they searched for lessons and developed fresh doctrine and technology that would allow them to succeed where the British had failed.

Marines of the 1980s and 1990s have made some tentative steps in the same direction. Over-the-horizon tactics and the associated V-22 and LCAC will soon provide us with the means to outmaneuver an enemy that is defending a lengthy coastline. Fifty years later though, Tarawa is still molding our thinking in the same way that Gallipoli dominated the British. We need to look beyond the difficulties posed by the geography of a small island and discard the notion that we can only seize such an objective by frontal assault. Instead, we must consider how we can use new technology and imaginative doctrine to solve that old problem. If we rely instead on "our father's Oldsmobile," we may find ourselves suffering the same heavy casualties and coming just as close to defeat.

>This is the sixth in a series of legacy and lessons articles being written by Maj Hoffman in commemoration of World War II amphibious operations. Maj Hoffman is in his second year of law school at Duke University in Durham, NC.