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Posted on Dec 22, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Tarawa – The First Day

By Wild Bill Wilder

Using the islands of the south and central Pacific as stepping stones, the American forces had begun to move inexorably toward Japan. The conquest of the Solomons and most of New Guinea had allowed Allied forces to come one step close to victory. A series of US Naval victories in the two years following Pearl Harbor had altered the balance of power and initiative in favor of the American forces. Japanese naval power had been severely crippled and would never recover from its losses to become a major threat again.

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Marines storm Tarawa

The Gilberts – A Step Closer to Japan

The goal of Admiral Nimitz was the conquest of the Marshall Islands. He strongly disagreed with the MacArthur campaign, fighting every so slowly through New Guinea. Nimitz wanted to hit the enemy hard and move fast. Realizing the vulnerability of the slower troop and transport ships lying at anchor in the midst of hostile waters was not an ideal situation. For that reason, Nimitz hammered on the principle, “Get the hell in, and get the hell out!” Lightning assaults, with a quick completion of the task, was the standing order.

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The islands of the Pacific were like stepping stones in a wide river. From Hawaii to Tarawa Atoll was nearly 2,500 miles, or the distance and a little more from the east coast of the United States to its west coast. To cover such a vast area and control it, the US forces would have to kick the Japanese completely out of an area, or make sure that the threat was completely neutralized. In the case of the enemy bastion at Rabaul, it was bypassed. The Gilberts would have to be taken, however, as they were the stepping stones to the Marshalls.

In the Marshall Islands the US Navy had an ideal site for good anchorage and adequate preparation for a drive towards either the Philippines or Formosa and from there to the home islands of Japan.

For that to be accomplished, however, the Gilbert Islands would have to be neutralized. Bougainville had been invaded on November 1st, 1943, and the fighting there was coming to an end. The next invasion was essential to controlling the Gilberts. Its main thrust would center on the Tarawa Atoll. This was due to the airfield on the key island of Betio (pronounced Beshio).

Such a threat to shipping and communication was not acceptable. The airfield would have to be taken. That meant that the island would have to be invaded and conquered. It would not be an easy task. Though only two and one half miles long and a half mile wide at its widest point, the island had been converted into a strong fortress, filled with every kind of gun, and defensive position imaginable.

The atoll had once been a British possession, but it had been occupied by the Japanese in December 1941. With the turn of events in 1942, it was decided to reinforce it and build an airfield there. This would serve as an important link in the defensive perimeter in the Central Pacific. For that reason a unit of the Special Naval Landing Forces was dispatched to Betio, along with a construction battalion. The new commander, Rear-Admiral Shibasaki, pushed the 4,000 men under his command to get ready for a possible attack.

The island was tiny, about 4,500 yards in length and very narrow. It had the shape of a parrot lying on its back (the northwest corner was referred to as "The Parrot’s Beak”), or of a tadpole, with its head pointed to the west and its tail wiggling off to the east. So small was Betio that Colonel Shoup, overall commander of the landing forces on the island and Admiral Shibasaki, commander of all Japanese forces, had their headquarters less than 1,000 yards apart in the heat of the battle.

It was an intensely hot there, and a cake-like dust clogged the nostrils continually. One breathed it in continually and choked on it. There was no potable water supply. Topographically, it was nearly completely flat and offered practically no defensive cover, save the sea wall surrounding it. Betio Island was so flat that the sea wall was built to keep the erratic tides from going so far inland.

And the tide was fickle. It was unpredictable, at least by the standards of that day. This factor alone would prove to create a near disaster for the invading 2nd Marine Division. As a piece of real estate, it was practically worthless; as a military objective, it would become priceless. Who can put a price on the nearly 6,000 men who died there in less than four days?

The airfield was finished by the end of October, but had not been put into use. Strong fortifications of concrete and thick palm-log with interlocking fields of fire and connecting covered trenches made this small island a fortress.

Weapons in size from the huge 140mm guns to the soldier’s rifle were ready. There were a total of over 500 reinforced defensive positions scattered mainly along its slender coasts. They were of every type, from machine gun pits to stout steel shrouded naval guns.

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