Tarawa: The Ultimate Opposed Landing
By Joseph H. Alexander - Originally Published November 1993
Tarawa was a landmark in the evolution of warfare, a testing ground of the amphibious doctrine developed by the Navy-Marine Corps team of the 1920s and 1930s. The outcome was a close thing, bought at a hideous price with the courage and determination of Marines and Sailors; but it ended in victory, and it led to improved amphibious techniques and contributed in full measure to the final victory over Japan.
Amphibious warfare came of age in the forceful seizure of Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands, by U.S. Marines during 20-24 November 1943-50 years ago.
Few battles have ever matched Tarawa's concentrated violence at point-blank range in such a compressed period of time. Six thousand Japanese and Americans were killed in 76 hours within an area smaller than New York's Central Park. The Tarawa assault had a significant impact on American strategy in the Pacific, the national psyche, and the institution known as the Navy-Marine Corps team. Some of Tarawa's legacies, both positive and negative, persist today.
The key to understanding Tarawa is to examine the battle within the context of the Pacific War in 1943. During that pivotal year, the Allies prevailed in Guadalcanal and the northern Solomons, recaptured the Aleutians, launched determined offensives in New Guinea and New Britain, and killed Fleet Adm Isoroku Yamamoto, Japan's premier naval warrior. The road to Tokyo, however, seemed endless, almost unimaginable.
Adm Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief Pacific, believed the best path to victory lay across the Central Pacific, the old "War Plan Orange" route through the Marshalls, Carolines, and Marianas. Nimitz asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for sufficient forces to open a new front in this region. He also suggested a limited, initial objective-before undertaking the more distant and difficult Marshalls. The JCS accepted the proposal and assigned the code name Operation GALVANIC to the Gilberts campaign.
Nimitz selected VAdm Raymond A. Spruance to command the Fifth Fleet, RAdm Richmond Kelly Turner as commander, Fifth Amphibious Force, and MajGen Holland M. ("Howlin" Mad") Smith, as commander, Fifth Amphibious Corps. All three commands were new, created out of whole cloth for the Central Pacific drive.
The Gilbert Islands consist of 16 atolls scattered along the Equator in the Central Pacific. Tarawa Atoll is about 2,100 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor and 540 miles southeast of Kwajalein in the Marshalls. Betio (rhymes with "ratio") is the principal island in the atoll. The island is barely 2 miles long and less than 700 yards wide at its center.
Japanese tactics at this point in the Pacific War emphasized defense of small islands at the water's edge. This was the mission of the rikusentai-special Naval Landing Forces of combined arms-sailors equally proficient in infantry tactics and coastal artillery. RAdm Tomanari Saichiro, a superb combat engineer, had 15 months following Evans Carlson's 1942 raid on nearby Makin (in effect, a "wake-up call" for the Japanese) to prepare defensive positions so impregnable as to discourage any subsequent American forays.
Betio became the centerpiece of Saichiro's fortifications in the Gilberts. The island's geography and hydrography favored the defense. Betio was flat-machinegunners could cover the perimeter with simple traverse-and a barrier reef blocked boat intrusions at low tides. The Japanese placed mines, concrete tetrahedrons, and double-apron barbed wire offshore; surrounded most of the island itself with a log and coral seawall then built integrated systems of mutually supporting gun positions just beyond (and often within) the seawall (see p.64). In the end, there were 500 pill-boxes and bunkers on the island, most protected by layers of coconut logs, steel plates, and sand. When Saichiro was relieved by RAdm Meichi Shibasaki in August 1943, the 4,800-man garrison could boast with some assurance that "a million Americans could not take Tarawa in 100 years!"
Nimitz ordered Spruance to "capture, occupy, defend, and develop Makin, Tarawa, and Apamama" to gain control of the Gilberts in preparation for the Marshalls campaign. Spruance assigned a regimental combat team of the Army's 27th Infantry Division to seize Makin. The 2d Marine Division would tackle Tarawa and Apamama (the latter a company-sized operation). Even though Tarawa would be the more difficult target by an order of magnitude, Adm Turner and Gen Holland Smith opted to accompany the Army's landing at Makin. There were two reasons for this. Turner wanted to be closer to the Marshalls, the likely source of a Japanese naval counterattack. And both Turner and Smith were leery of the inexperience of the Army troops, facing combat and amphibious operations for the first time. Turner created a southern force, Task Force 53, for Tarawa and assigned RAdm Harry W. Hill as the amphibious task force commander. His counterpart, commanding the landing force and the 2d Marine Division, was MajGen Julian C. Smith.
The 2d Marine Division was then in New Zealand, recovering from the effects of the Guadalcanal campaign, including 13,000 cases of malaria. Replacements poured into Wellington for Operation GALVANIC. The division soon numbered 18,088 Marines and sailors; about 55 percent were combat veterans. The Marines were also upgunned. Unlike Guadalcanal, these troops would fight the next battle with Garand M1 rifles, Browning automatic rifles, and portable flamethrowers. The landing force also received experimental camouflage utilities for the occasion.
Tarawa would be the pinnacle of Gen Julian Smith's 37 years of active service as a Marine. He was 58 in 1943, competent and compassionate, a taciturn outdoorsman who had grown up as a railbird hunter in the marshes of eastern Maryland. His troops knew he loved them. While mild of demeanor, he was unafraid of tough decisions, and, as one of his battalion commanders recalled, "There was nothing wrong with his fighting heart."
Smith's chief of staff, Col Merritt A. ("Red Mike") Edson, was the counterpart of the commander's easy going personality. The fiery, Edson, already a national hero for his exploits in Nicaragua, Tulagi, and Guadalcanal, became the ramrod for Smith's policies in preparing the division for the coming fight. Edson was most effective in forcibly melding the existing, semiautonomous, regimental baronies into a seamless division team.
LtCol David M. Shoup, the operations and training officer, was another significant figure to emerge within the command and staff of the division. Julian Smith was so taken by Shoup's tough professionalism that he spot-promoted him to colonel and gave him command of the 2d Marines en route to Tarawa, a decision that paid enormous dividends in short order.
Julian Smith, "Red Mike" Edson, and David Shoup have been rightfully lionized for their role in planning and executing the Tarawa assault, but it was not just their bravery and tenacity that accomplished the mission. Often overlooked is the fact that all three made extraordinary efforts to work cooperatively with their naval counterparts in order to bring success to the joint venture. Tarawa was devoid of the catfights and acrimony that too frequently clouded Navy-Marine relations in other landing operations in the Pacific.
The only inter-Service sticking point concerned the employment of tracked landing vehicles (LVTs). First generation LVT-1s had been used with success as logistic support vehicles during Guadalcanal. Shoup and Edson concluded that using LVTs to lead the assault waves ashore at Betio represented the only sure way of negotiating the barrier reef under fire. At Slump's suggestion, the 2d Amphibian Tractor Battalion modified their vehicles in the field by applying boiler plate "armor" to the cab and troop compartments. Reef-crossing tests of the modified vehicles in the Fiji Islands were promising. But the Division only had 75 LVT-1s, not enough for the assault waves.
Julian Smith knew that 100 newer model LVT-2s were available in San Diego and asked his corps commander, Holland Smith, to obtain them for the division's use at Tarawa. The senior Smith concurred; Adm Turner did not. Turner appreciated the Marines' need for reefcrossing craft, but he knew the only way to get new vehicles to the Gilberts in time for the operation was by tank landing ships (LSTs), whose 8-knot sustained speed required a separate convoy, thereby jeopardizing strategic surprise. But Holland Smith could be as stubborn as Turner. "No LVTs," he growled, "no operation." Turner acquiesced, but the Marines would have no chance to train or rehearse with the LVT-2s. In fact, the first time the assault troops would lay eyes on the new craft would be during the predawn debarkation under fire at Betio.
There was a similar "good news-bad news" situation with two companies of Sherman M4A2 medium tanks being provided by the First Amphibious Corps. The Marines were excited at the prospects of employing medium tanks in combat for the first time, but there was no opportunity to train with the Shermans prior to the operation. Like the LVT-2s, the troops' first glimpse of the medium tanks would come during the smoking hell along the line of departure on D-day.
Navy and Marine Corps amphibious planners were also frustrated by the sheer distance between participating elements. The Fifth Fleet was scattered all over the eastern Pacific, from Alaska to New Zealand. The Marines sorely missed being able to plan the campaign with their aviator counterparts. Those Guadalcanal veterans within the division retained fond memories of close relations with the pilots of the "Cactus Air Force." They keenly missed the opportunity to discuss preliminary bombing and close air support on a face-to-face basis. There would be no Marine aviation support for GALVANIC; indeed, the Navy carrier pilots would even miss the rehearsals in the New Hebrides.
Edson and Shoup, irritated at having to plan in a vacuum, nevertheless plowed on. They were encouraged by the superb combat intelligence reports prepared by the division D-2 section and Spruance's joint intelligence center. With minor exceptions, the landing force knew in advance the size of Betio's garrison, the caliber and location of the weapons it would encounter, and the complex nature of the defensive positions.
The Marines also knew full well that their landing-of necessity planned during a morning neap tide-would risk low water over the reef. Charts were poor, and local experts differed as to whether there would be sufficient water depth to enable the standard LCVP landing boats to cross the reef. This was a critical factor. The combination of 125 old and new model LVTs was not enough to deliver the assault landing waves. All other Marines were warned of a "50-50 chance" of having to wade ashore from the reef.
Shoup and Edson worked well together, the former contributing his staff and organizational savvy, the latter his extensive combat background. Edson, after all, had experienced the limitations of naval "neutralization" bombardment, as well as the ferocity of the rikusentai, at Tulagi. Of the other field grade officers in command billets within the division, only newly promoted Maj Michael P. Ryan, a company commander in the 2d Marines, had endured similar close combat in Gavutu as Edson had on Tulagi.
The landing plan devised by Shoup and Edson sought to minimize Betio's formidable defenses. The Marines wanted an extended naval and aerial bombardment, advance seizure of neighboring Bairiki Island as an artillery fire support base, a decoy landing against the south shore (where the Japanese had landed), and a simultaneous landing by two regiments abreast through the lagoon over the north shore.
Julian Smith proposed this plan to Adms Nimitz, Spruance, Turner, and Hill, plus Gen Holland Smith, at a conference in Pearl Harbor in early October. It was not well received. The primary concern of the admirals was the threat of interdiction of the amphibious task force by Japanese submarines, land-based bombers, or a nighttime cruiser foray. (Navy concerns were justified during GALVANIC when a Japanese submarine sank the escort carrier Liscoine Bay off Makin with the loss of 644 American lives.)
Nimitz told Julian Smith that the operational imperatives for GALVANIC would be strategic surprise and speed of tactical execution. Nimitz was blunt to his subordinates: "Get the hell in, and get the hell out."
The impact of these guidelines staggered Julian Smith. The admirals rejected his proposals for advance seizure of Bairiki and the decoy landing. Further, the preliminary bombardment, while intense, would only last for 3 hours. Then Holland Smith dropped his own bombshell. The Fifth Amphibious Corps would retain the entire 6th Marines as corps reserve. The 2d Marine Division at Tarawa was left with the sole option of a frontal assault against a well-fortified enemy with only a two-to-one superiority. The division commander insisted that Holland Smith absolve him of any responsibility for the now truncated landing plan, a highly unusual demand on a superior officer. This was done. There was nothing left for Julian Smith to do but shake his head and return to New Zealand for last-minute amphibious training. Embarkation was only 3 weeks away.
D-day for GALVANIC was 20 November 1943. Some things worked well. The Fifth Fleet attained strategic surprise in the Gilberts. The convoy of LSTs laden with LVT-2s arrived in time. In the waters off Betio, Shoup's elaborate, pre-H-hour debarkation choreography-troops climbing down cargo nets from one ship into boats from a second ship, then struggling over the gunwales into LVTs coming alongside from a third ship-worked in spite of darkness, rough seas, and fire from Japanese shore batteries. The crew of the transport USS Zeilin cheered and played The Marines' Hymn as the 2d Battalion, 2d Marines went over the sides. Advance seizure of the 500-yard pier on Betio's north shore by the 2d Marines' Scout-Sniper Platoon under 1stLt William D. Hawkins got the operation off to a good start. The ponderous LVTs, struggling through a choppy sea with their bolt-on armor, were 40 minutes late on their 10-mile trek from the transport area to the beach, but they climbed over the fringing reefs without difficulty. By H+30 there were 1,500 Marines ashore. The plan was successful to this point.
But there was soon hell to pay. American counterbattery fire had quickly knocked out the rikusentai's 8-inch and 5.5-inch coastal defense guns, but the subsequent bombardment was more noise than destruction. The aviators were late and inaccurate. Gaps in the combined bombardment allowed Adm Shibasaki to reinforce his troops in positions along the north shore. Nor did the Americans have any luck with the tides. A local phenomenon known as "dodging tides" kept the water at neap low levels for more than 24 hours. No boats would cross the reef until late in the forenoon of D+l. Shoup's plan to use emptied LVTs to shuttle troops from reef to beach had limited and diminishing success; many vehicles were shot to pieces, others simply ran out of gas.
This is when the Marines began to suffer the greatest number of casualties in the ship-to-shore movement. The Japanese brought every available weapon to bear on the knots of Marines struggling ashore from the reef, including large-caliber antiaircraft guns fired horizontally. Deadliest of this panoply of weapons were the many M93 13mm heavy machineguns firing from reinforced emplacements along the seawall. Hundreds of troops were cut down in scenes grimly reminiscent of the 4th Marine Brigade attacking through the wheat at Belleau Wood.
The situation was compounded by a near-total loss of communications on the part of the landing force. The command nets on the flagship, the resurrected Pearl Harbor battleship USS Maryland, failed with the first crashing salvos of the main batteries 3 hours prior to H-hour. The fragile TBX troop radios, totally susceptible to water, failed at almost every hand. Only the radios of Maj Henry P. ("Jim") Crowe, fiercely rallying his men along Red Beach Three, and Col Shoup, struggling to get ashore against heavy fire, seemed to work with any consistency.
Early losses among officers and staff noncommissioned officers added to the confusion ashore. One company of Landing Team (LT) 2/8 lost all six of its officers in the first 10 minutes. LtCol Herbert R. Amey, commanding LT 2/2, was killed in the water; his executive officer's LVT was driven far to the west by enemy fire. LtCol Walter Jordan, an observer from the 4th Marine Division, assumed command and tried to rally the survivors. Maj John F. Schoettel, commanding LT 3/2, stayed in his landing craft along the reef, believing his entire battalion had been shot to pieces (reporting to Shoup at midmorning "We have nothing left to land"), completely unaware that Maj Mike Ryan had assembled a diverse force of his own company and survivors of other waves on Green Beach with the best potential for success of any enclave ashore.
The fog of war may have bedeviled the commanders, but individual troops all along the beach were linking up with strangers to start the slow process of taking the island, literally yard by yard. Unlikely heroes emerged from the chaos. When Japanese defenders lobbed grenades into the open troop compartment of an LVT stalled along the seawall, Cpl John Spillane, crewchief and former baseball prospect with the St. Louis Cardinals, caught two in midair, tossing them back at the enemy. A third grenade exploded in his hands, grievously wounding him. At a nearby section of Red Beach Two, SSgt William Bordelon, a combat engineer attached to LT 2/2, was one of the first Marines to cross the seawall, blowing up bunkers with hand-placed satchel charges, exhorting other Marines to follow him inland, and rescuing those who fell. Bordelon was both an inspiring example and a conspicuous target. He soon gave his life. Bordelon became the first of four Marines to be awarded the Medal of Honor for Betio.
Meanwhile, Col Shoup had received his own rude welcome to Betio; a mortar round blew him out of his LVT and wounded him in the leg. Taking dubious shelter beneath the pier, he called for his regimental reserve, Maj Wood B. Kyle's LT 1/2. Kyle found enough LVTs to land two of his rifle companies on Red Beach Two, but the others had to wade ashore and paid a stiff price. Julian Smith, his radio communications now partially restored, ordered the 8th Marines to "CHOP" Maj Robert H. Ruud's LT 3/8 to Shoup and to boat the last remaining battalion of the division reserve, Maj Lawrence C. Hays' LT 1/8. Shoup directed Ruud to land behind Crowe's 2/8 on Red Beach Three, but for the 6 hours after that message, Shoup and Ruud could not communicate with each other, despite being less than 500 yards apart. There were no LVTs left for Ruud. His seven waves were cut to pieces in the water. Some Japanese 77mm gunners on the eastern end of the island were horribly accurate, hitting several landing craft just as they dropped their ramps on the reef. SSgt Norman Hatch, combat photographer attached to Crowe's outfit, reported the deadly "CLANG!" of the shell hitting a boat just before the explosion. Some boat coxswains, distracted by the slaughter ahead, dropped their ramps prematurely, seaward of the reef. The Marines rushed ahead, only to drown in deep water.
Nobody had an easy time getting ashore on Betio throughout D-day, even the medium tanks. The 14 new Shermans were launched in LCMs ("Mike Boats") as part of the fifth assault wave. Unloaded from the LCMs, the tanks negotiated the reef and trundled toward the beach, each column preceded by a dismounted scout with a flag to mark the shell holes in the turbid water. Japanese sharpshooters shot scout after scout; each time, they were replaced by another intrepid volunteer. All six tanks destined for Red Beach One made it safely ashore, but the tank platoon commander saw that the gap blown in the seawall for his passage inland was now blocked with dead and wounded Marines. Rather than grind over his own breed, the lieutenant turned the column around to head for another landing point further west on Green Beach. Unescorted, four tanks sank in holes, drowning the crews. The other two reported to Maj Ryan. Elsewhere, most other Shermans got ashore, but the infantry had no idea how to employ them in combat. The absence of training or any tactical doctrine was painful. Tank after tank was lost while operating unsupported inland. Some were knocked out by Japanese 75mm antitank guns; others were hit by "friendly fire." Shortly, there were only three operational Shermans on the island. A frustrated David Shoup radioed, "Need halftracks...our tanks no good."
Julian Smith did not hesitate to call for help. At 1331 he sent a message to Holland Smith reporting "Situation in doubt," and requested release of the Corps reserve. This was alarming news to all who overheard. Holland Smith responded swiftly; the 2d Marine Division assumed control of the 6th Marines by mid-afternoon. The situation was still critical ashore, but by now Shoup was getting excellent naval gunfire support, especially from the 5-inch guns of those destroyers brave enough to enter the lagoon. Shoup also ordered his artillery support to land. LtCol Presley M. Rixey's 1st Battalion, 10th Marines struggled throughout the afternoon and evening to wrestle their 75mm pack howitzers ashore on Red Beach Two. A SeaBee bulldozer dug a quick revetment. The guns would be ready at dawn, a major achievement.
Julian Smith worried intensely about a Japanese counterattack the first night. His Marines were vulnerable. Five thousand had crossed the line of departure; 1,500 were now casualties. Unit integrity was in shambles. Company "B" of LT 1/2 contained men from a dozen different units, including several enterprising coxswains who swam ashore from sinking boats. Shoup said his lines that night "resembled a stock market graph." There was a 600-yard gap along the beach between Schoettel's survivors on Red Beach Two, and Ryan's assorted "orphans" on Green Beach. The Marines simply went to ground in the best fighting positions they could secure, whether in shell holes or along the splintered seawall. A spirit of grim confidence prevailed. They had survived hell on earth getting ashore; they weren't going back.
The Japanese banzai attack did not materialize that night. The one great contribution of the preliminary bombardment was the shredding of Adm Shibasaki's exposed wire communications network. He had no way to mobilize a counterattack. And throughout the night, the Marines' fire discipline was exemplary. Edson's training had paid great dividends. The crisis passed, but more lay ahead.
The second morning on Betio was a replay of the horrors of D-day. Although the Japanese were pinned down inside their bunkers, their enfilading fields of fire along the beach approaches remained as deadly as ever. At first light, Hays' LT 1/8 crossed the line of departure in wave formation, expecting easy transit over the reef and a covered landing on Red Beach Two. Shoup screamed in frustration. His messages to the flagship throughout the night specified a column landing close to the pier. The word never got through. Dodging tides still prevailed, snagging the boats along the reef. Japanese gunners within the blockhouses along the shore had a field day. Time correspondent Robert Sherrod watched the bloodbath in horror from the beach: "One boat blows up, then another. The survivors start swimming ashore, but machinegun bullets dot the water all around them. This is worse, far worse than yesterday." Shoup did everything possible to provide protective fires-air strikes, naval gunfire, Rixey's pack howitzers-but the Japanese still shot down Hays' troops by the hundreds. Worse, Hays lost all his flamethrowers and other special weapons. His job once ashore was to attack the same blockhouses who had just sliced his waves to ribbons, an impossible mission with rifles alone. Regardless, LT 1/8 soon launched its first attack.
Marines all along the beach picked up the tempo. Kyle's LT 1/2 and the remnants of (now) Jordan's 2/2 attacked successfully across the airfield, reaching the south coast of the island by noon, cutting the island in half. Lt Hawkins, sorely wounded on D-day, personally led his scout-snipers in bold attacks against pillboxes and bunkers along the deadly stretch of Red Beach Two. His bravery was incredible, but Hawkins eventually paid the ultimate price, becoming the battle's second posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor. His death caused the entire division to mourn. "It's not often you can credit a lieutenant with winning a battle," remarked Shoup, "but Hawkins came as near to it as any man could."
The best news of the battle came from Green Beach, where Maj Ryan, learning rapidly how best to employ tanks, infantry, and naval gunfire, made a combined-arms attack that cleared the entire western end of the island. This was Julian Smith's long-awaited opportunity, a protected site to land reinforcements with full unit integrity. Doing so took much of the day, but by evening Maj William K. ("Willie K.") Jones' LT 1/6 was streaming ashore by rubber rafts, fully covered by Ryan's exhausted stalwarts. Luck was with the Marines that evening. The waters off Green Beach had been heavily mined, and nothing but rubber boats could have made that transit. Indeed, one "floating dump" LVT trying to accompany the battalion struck a mine and was blown 10 feet in the air, killing or wounding all occupants. But LT 1/6 was now ashore, intact, and ready for the morning attack.
The battle's momentum had changed. "I thought up until 1300 today it was touch and go," said LtCol Rixey, "then I knew we would win." Shoup's 1600 SITREP swiftly became legendary: "Casualties, many; percentage dead, unknown; combat efficiency, we are winning!" Shoup's aside to Robert Sherrod was probably more accurate: "I think we're winning, but the bastards have a lot of bullets left."
Julian Smith sensed that Shoup by now was in over his head. He had allowed his junior colonel to run the show ashore for the first critical 36 hours. By late D+1, however, there were eight infantry and two artillery battalions deployed either on Betio or nearby Bairiki. It was time to send in the chief of staff. "Red Mike" Edson arrived at Shoup's command post and assumed command at 2030 on D+1. Several hours later, Edson issued his attack orders for D+2. Jones' 1/6 was the key. But once again the radios failed. Maj Rathvon McC. Thompkins, assistant D-3, volunteered to deliver the orders to Jones. Tonipkins' hair-raising odyssey to Green Beach took 3 hours that night, during which time he was nearly shot a dozen times by nervous Japanese and American sentries. Jones got the word.
Edson's tactical plan for D+2 was complicated. While Hays and Schoettel attacked west against Japanese strongpoints along the north shore, Jones would be attacking due east along the south shore, just a few hundred yards away. Ahead of Jones lay Kyle's embattled enclave. Coordination was critical, but it worked. Jones borrowed Ryan's two invaluable Sherman tanks, placed his combat engineers and machineguns up front, and moved out on a platoonsized front. The advantage of having a fresh, fully equipped unit ashore was immediately obvious. Landing Team 1/6 covered 800 yards by noon, killing 250 Japanese and linking up with Kyle's LT 1/2. Progress was slower in the afternoon, as both the equatorial heat and the Japanese defenders took an increased toll, but by dusk, Jones had linked up with Crowe's 2/8 at the eastern end of the airfield.
Many combat photographs of Tarawa show one man standing tall amid scores of troops huddled against the seawall on Red Beach Three. A closer examination would reveal the character of the man: bristling red mustache, unlit cigar clenched in his teeth, a shotgun cradled in his arm. This was Maj "Jim" Crowe, former enlisted man, Marine gunner, distinguished rifleman, star football player. Crowe was a tower of strength throughout the battle. The 8th Marines needed his indomitable spirit; they had landed adjacent to some of the most formidable defenses on the island. Crowe's executive officer, Maj William C. Chamberlin, was a former college economics professor whose personality at first seemed opposite that of the thunderous Crowe. But in combat, according to SSgt Hatch, Chamberlin "became a wild man." Between themselves, Crowe and Chamberlin resolved to conquer the three enemy complexes that had thwarted them since D-day.
By this time, the 8th Marines had learned how to coordinate tanks, infantry, artillery, naval gunfire, and engineers effectively. Two of the strongpoints eventually fell, but the third-the large sand-covered mound that dominates many combat photographs of the Betio fighting-was as deadly as ever. "To hell with it," bellowed Chamberlin, "follow me!" He ran directly for the top of the bunker, accompanied by Hatch, both men assuming they were being followed by hundreds of riflemen. Together they peered down at the started faces of a squad of Japanese rikusentai. The two Marines suddenly discovered they were all alone, fully exposed, and armed only with a pistol and a movie camera. It was a time for hasty discretion. Chamberlin dashed back to the Marine positions, livid with rage, and kicked his bemused troops forward. Hatch returned with them, recording battle scenes so vivid that his black and white documentary of the fighting later won an Academy Award.
It was in that same disjointed assault that another combat engineer earned a posthumous Medal of Honor. Lt Alexander Bonnyman-former Princeton football player, owner of a New Mexico copper mine, recently promoted from the ranks-stepped forward with flame thrower and carbine when a hundred Japanese abruptly sallied forth from the bunker. Bonnyman stopped their charge in its tracks, but was shot dead. Other Marines converged to even the odds. The Sherman tank "Colorado" unleashed a single "dream shot," a 75mm canister round at short range that dropped two dozen escaping Japanese. There were hoarse cheers.
Sometime during this wild fighting, Adm Shibasaki died in his command bunker. His tactical counterpart MajGen Julian Smith, very nearly suffered a similar fate trying to land on Red Beach Two the afternoon of D+2. The coxswain of Smith's boat was killed by Japanese machinegunners; Smith and his staff made a unceremonious exit over the far gunwales. The enterprising Maj Tompkins trudged a half-mile through fire-swept waters to find an LVT to get his commander safely ashore.
The surviving Japanese somehow managed to generate a series of vicious counterattacks against LT 1/6 that third night. For awhile it was a near-run thing, but "Willie K." Jones had organized his position well. Two destroyers offshore emptied their magazines 5-inch shells. The pack howitzers of nearby 1/10 and those of 2/10 firing from Bairiki Island tore attacking Japanese columns to piece. Desperate hand-to-hand fighting in the darkness continued for hours. The Marines beld; the best of the Japanese had fallen by the hundreds. This seemed to break the back of the resistance. On the fourth day, fresh troops of LtCol Kenneth F. Mcleod's LT 3/6 passed through Jones' decimated lines and captured the eastern end of the island. Simultaneously, Hays and Schoettel finally overran the Japanese strong-points at the border between Red Beaches One and Two. This ended the battle for Betio.
The victors, totally exhausted, dropped in place. Capt Carl W. Hoffman, commanding the weapons company in LT 3/8, recalled the feeling at the end. "There was just no way to rest; there was virtually no way to eat. Mostly, it was close, hand-to-hand fighting nad survival for 3 1/2 days. It seemed like the longest period of my life."
The division swiftly achieved its remaining objectives. LtCol Raymond L. Murray's LT 2/6 chased down the remaining rikusentai in the atoll during 4 days of sharp fighting. Capt James Jones' Corps Reconnaissance Company captured Apamama, greatly assisted by fire support from the transport sub Nautilus. The Army wiped out Japanese troops on Makin. Operation GALVANIC was over.
Nearly a thousand Marines died taking Tarawa; another 2,400 were wounded. These losses represented 18 percent of the 2d Marine Division, but casualty rates were much higher among assault units. Both the 2d Battalion, 2d Marines and the 2d Amphibian Tractor Battalion suffered greater than 60 percent casualties, in addition to the deaths of both battalion commanders. The amtracers also lost 90 of their 125 LVTs.
Col Shoup was the only Marine to receive the Medal of Honor and live to tell about it. Both Maj Crowe and Maj Chamberlin received the Navy Cross. So did Maj Ryan and Cpl Spillane, the crewchief who lost his hands and his future baseball career protecting troops in his LVT from enemy grenades along the seawall.
The battle for Tarawa was scarcely over before a wholesale assessment began. From the perspective of the ensuing half century, the significance of Tarawa is best expressed in terms of its impact in three key areas. On the strategic level, the capture of the Gilberts greatly facililated the subsequent invasion of the Marshalls, a mere 10 weeks after GALVANIC. In American hands, the airfields on Betio (quickly named "Hawkins Field") and Apamama soon supported B-24 heavy bombers and photo-recon missions over the Marshalls. More significantly, the lessons learned in amphibious warfare saved American lives in the conquests of Roi-Namur, Kwajalein, and Eniwetok; total combat fatalities among the landing forces in these larger operations were less than 600.
The second impact of Tarawa was on the national psyche. A number of highly gifted combat correspondents and photographers accompanied the landing force through every minute of those 76 hours of close combat. Their graphic reports caused the Nation to recoil in horror, the populace having been largely spoon-fed war news to this point. Allied casualties during the Salerno landings 2 months before Tarawa had been higher, but they were spread out over greater time and distance. Tarawa's casualties were compressed into extremely tight quarters in fighting that knew no respite. Some officials squawked at the high price. Gen MacArthur weighed in with his opinion: "These frontal attacks by the Navy, as at Tarawa, are a tragic and unnecessary massacre of American lives." The Marines sent "Red Mike" Edson home to explain to the civilian media that taking the offensive against the Japanese would indeed exact a high cost, one the Nation fully needed to face. Cooler heads soon prevailed.
The third and most lasting impact of Tarawa was on the institution of the Navy-Marine Corps amphibious team. Subsequent generations of "amphibians" tend to forget how tenuous and fragile amphibious doctrine was in 1943. The classic amphibious disaster at Gallipoli had occurred just 28 years earlier. Fleet Training Publication #167, Landing Operations Doctrine, the embodiment of all the revolutionary work done at Quantico by Marine and Navy visionaries in the early 1930s, was only 5 years old when the 2d Marine Division crossed the line of departure at Betio. In truth, there was a need to submit the fledgling doctrine to a real trial by fire-and the sooner in the Pacific War, the better. Tarawa was thus a benchmark; much of what is now standard practice in amphibious warfare was either defined or validated by that ordeal.
Not everyone agrees. Fifty years after the battle, Tarawa is often used in a pejorative sense by well-meaning program analysts, congressional staffers, and various national security experts who conjure up the image of "Bloody Betio" to discredit the Nation's commitment of defense resources to "maritime forcible entry." But to use Tarawa as the once and future bugaboo of amphibious warfare is to misread history.
No one has ever pointed to Tarawa as a flawless, textbook example of amphibious assault. The opposite is true. Tarawa was attrition warfare at its worst-an undermanned, frontal assault in broad daylight against a fortified enemy whose positions had scarcely been damaged by hasty bombardment. And yet, the Navy-Marine Corps amphibious team prevailed.
The enduring legacy of Tarawa exists in the validation of largely untested amphibious doctrine under the absolute worst possible tactical and hydrographic conditions. Simply put, if amphibious doctrine worked there, it could work anywhere.