Operation Galvanic – 20-23 November 1943
he Battle for Tarawa was designed to seize an airfield the Japanese had constructed on Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, in the Gilbert Islands. The 4,000-foot landing strip was destined to become one of the first steps in the long and bloody march across the Pacific toward the Japanese home islands. But the price paid in dead and wounded shocked the nation.
The Second Marine Division (Reinforced) had been training for the assault for months on the beaches of Australia. They were to be pitted against a Japanese force of some 5,000 seasoned troops who had dug into the island’s 300-acres of sand fortified with palm logs and concrete. By the end of the battle, some 990 Marines had been killed and another 2,296 were wounded. Among the casualties were 76 sailors, corpsmen and doctors assigned to the Marines. The Japanese lost 4,690 of their force.
Off-shore a flotilla of some 200 ships had converged on the Tarawa atoll and Makin Island, another Japanese-held pile of sand some 140 miles to the north. The aircraft carriers in the fleet bore some 900 aircraft. They had been pounding Japanese positions throughout the Gilberts and the Marshall Islands to the north, shattering any forces the Japanese might have tried to send to the aid of their comrades on Betio. Hundreds of American sailors lost their lives in these side engagements; 644 sailors died when the USS Liscome Bay (CVE-46) was torpedoed near Makin. The full tally of the dead and wounded at sea closely matched the losses on the beaches. When the battle was over and the fleet dispersed, the Marines were taken to Hawaii for recovery; their watery path strewn with the bodies of the wounded who died enroute.
The Marines went ashore in an abnormal low tide that stranded many of their landing craft on reefs hundreds of yards from the beach. The first waves of Marines in amphibious tractors made it in and established a foothold on the narrow stretch of sand behind a log seawall, in some places only 20 feet from the water. Hundreds of Marines in the Higgins boats that grounded on the reefs went over the side and waded into enemy fire. It was later estimated that half of the Marine casualties were suffered before they ever reached shore. Hundreds of bodies were exposed as the tide receded.
This first major assault from the sea on a strongly fortified position was beset by a whole series of blunders, hard lessons paid by the Marines at Tarawa.. Later amphibious assaults would profit from their sacrifice.
Battleships and cruisers pounded Betio in hopes of softening the objectives for the on-coming Marines. But they were not firing armor-piercing shells and most of their hits did little damage to the defenders. The naval bombardment ended 20 minutes before it was supposed to, giving the Japanese time to man their defenses while the Marines were still far from their assigned points of attack. A plan to drop 2,000-pound bombs as the last stunning blow to the enemy before the Marines hit unaccountably never happened. Air support was cancelled when it became clear the Marines trying to cross the seawall were so close to the defenders they were at risk of being hit by our own aerial bombardment. The withering fire from the Japanese not only kept the Marines pinned down at the seawall, it kept them from being supplied; they were soon scavenging ammunition and drinking water from the dead.
Robert Sherrod, a reporter who went ashore with the fifth wave wrote about what he saw on the morning of the second day. “As the long lines of Marines jumped out of the boats and began wading in waist-high water, thousands of bullets plowed among them. Within five minutes I saw six men fall mortally wounded in front of our position, some writhing as they went under, others simply disappearing beneath the surface. Some were killed 300 to 400 yards away; others made it to within 50 feet of the beach before they died. The remarkable thing was that no man turned back, though each became a larger target as he trudged slowly through the shallow water.
“It was a ghastly, yet splendid picture, and no man who ever saw it will ever forget. This is the reason Tarawa may truly be called a victory of the spirit; many were killed but more came on.”
Four Marines were awarded Medals of Honor, the nation’s highest tribute; only one of the four survived the battle.
In the aftermath of the fight, the furor over the high casualties subsided. The lessons learned at Tarawa, costly as they were, proved invaluable to the success of later amphibious operations as our forces surged north to ultimate victory.
When the fighting finally ended, an American flag was raised in victory up a palm tree. Nearby, a British flag was similarly raised. Two flags, presumed to be those raised over the battlefield, were presented to the USS Tarawa CV-40 at her first commissioning and were displayed, framed, on the ship’s hangar deck.. When the Tarawa was decommissioned the flags were kept at the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C. The center’s records show the flags were sent in the 1970s to the Marine Museum at Quantico, Virginia. The museum has no record of receiving them. The whereabouts of the flags remains unknown.