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Tarawa: the first beach.


It was going to be a long, hard road to Japan, island by island. Until the bloody landing on Tarawa, though no one understood just how hard.

From the cockpit of a bomber, Tarawa Atoll didn't look like much. Most of the ancient rock and coral reef that constituted the tiny, elbow-shaped group of outcroppings--part of the Gilbert Islands--barely reached the ocean's surface. Betio, the atoll's biggest component, was a shoe-horn-shaped sliver of an island, perhaps two miles long and a half- mile across--no more than 300 acres of scrub and sand that hardly seemed to merit attention. But across this otherwise insignificant speck of land lay a Japanese-built airstrip. From that airstrip, American bombers could begin to soften up the next American target--the Marshall Islands--in an island-by-island drive across the central Pacific to Japan. So, as the second anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack approached, American military planners set their sights on Betio, Tarawa Atoll.

Betio would not be taken easily: under the direction of Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki, some 2,300 Japanese and Korean laborers had turned it into an unbelievable maze of steel and concrete bunkers and coconut log fortifications buried beneath gently swaying palm trees and soft coral sand. From within this hidden citadel, 2,600 hard-core rikusentai--members of Japan's Special Naval Landing Forces--planned to make the US Marine Corps' first amphibious assault over a reef against a defended beach its last.


For the campaign in the Gilberts--Operation Galvanic--the United States assembled an armada bigger than any ever seen in the Pacific Ocean. With Fifth Fleet carrier planes providing air cover, one task force carrying the 27th US Infantry would steam 100 miles north of Tarawa to take lightly defended Makin Atoll. For the main target, Betio, the navy had allotted a second task force of three battleships, five cruisers, five escort carriers brimming with fighters and light bombers, 21 destroyers, one LSD (Landing Ship, Dock) loaded partly with Sherman tanks, and enough transports to carry the reinforced 2nd Marine Division and its equipment. Naval officers boasted that the marines would need to go ashore only to pick up the pieces left by their pre-invasion bombardment. Seasoned leathernecks were more realistic: "Well," one veteran said grimly, "I've seen a lot of bombing and shelling on Tulagi and Guadalcanal, and it never was so awfully effective as these airplane nuts would have you think."

Naval support was just one of several concerns weighing on Major General Julian Smith, who commanded the 2nd Marine Division. With the second stage of the central Pacific offensive already scheduled for the Marshall Islands, there was no time for diversionary raids or complicated strategy. Smith's marines would have to make a direct frontal assault across the island's northern beaches, which had been designated Red-1, 2, and 3, west to east.

By approaching the island through its lagoon, the attackers would avoid the jungle of mines and other impediments that lined the island's southern coast. But intelligence had painted a grim picture of the island's defenses, and Smith worried that his assault force might be too small to overcome them. Perhaps even more worrisome was a natural obstacle that could prove as troublesome as anything the Japanese could construct--the shallow reef that surrounded Betio.

Smith and his navy counterparts were acutely aware of the reef's presence, but no one was sure if the local tides would lift the marines' lightly built LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel--better known as Higgins boats) over it. Colonel David Shoup, a highly regarded 38--year-old placed in command of both the 2nd Marine Regiment and the Betio assault force less than two weeks earlier, was counting heavily on the 125 LVT-1s and LVT-2s of the fledgling 2nd Amphibious Tractor Battalion. If the reef stopped the Higgins boats, the tracked, amphibious "Alligators" and "Water Buffaloes" known collectively as "amtracs" would have to ferry the stranded men the rest of the way.

The marines were awakened aboard their transports at 3 a.m. on November 20, 1943 and treated to a breakfast of steak, eggs, and coffee. Last-minute briefings were held, weapons were checked and rechecked, and letters home were written. The chaplains were very busy. Then it was "Go!" The troops picked their way gingerly down the cargo nets, queasy as the swells that rocked the transports hit the greasy steak and eggs that lay heavily in their stomachs. Together in their bobbing landing craft, they watched nervously as the big guns of the navy exchanged fire with seacoast guns on Betio. Then, they were off, their small vessels motoring slowly west from their assembly points outside the atoll's lagoon towards a line of departure some 6,000 yards from Betio's bristling shore. From there, the amtracs would lead the first assault waves south towards the reef, which jutted up from the sea bottom 600-800 yards from their target.


Whittled down to perhaps 6,300 men, Shoup's total assault force consisted of his own 2nd Marines--reinforced by the 10th Marines (artillery) and 18th Marines (engineers, etc.)--and the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marines (2nd Battalion/8th). For now, he held back his own 1st Battalion; the balance of the 8th Regiment remained in division reserve. One other regiment, the 6th Marines, formed Major General Holland M. "Howlin' Mad" Smith's V Amphibious Corps reserve, and would remain floating in transports off the coast of Makin until the 27th Infantry completed its work.

After minesweepers did their job, destroyers Ringgold and Dashiell made one last sortie toward shore to pound Japanese positions with 5-inch shells. The marines could see the smoke, but the island was beyond their view--only four feet above sea level, 10 feet at its highest point.

Following an all-too brief air attack over the island shortly after 6 A.M., the battleships Maryland and Colorado joined the task force's destroyers and cruisers in a two-hour bombardment that filled the waiting marines with awe. "Surely, we all thought," remembered Time-Life correspondent Robert Sherrod, who watched the fireworks from a transport, "no mortal men could live through such destroying power." In reality, the cannonade accomplished little. Sixteen-inch shells screamed over the narrow island to explode in the ocean. Smaller projectiles ricocheted off reinforced, sand-covered embattlements like so much hail. Navy bravado was partly to blame; had the ships stood farther offshore and lofted their shells at higher angles, there would have been ample destruction.


With naval shells still falling, a flotilla of amtracs three ranks deep began lugging 1,500 marines towards the reef. Only a brief, last minute attack by carrier planes provided air cover for this first wave. Angry, Smith and Shoup wondered what had become of an expected raid by land-based B-24 Liberators carrying 2,000pound bombs. Marine officers had counted on these bombers to extinguish much of the fire along the beaches. They never arrived.

Motoring ahead of the churning Alligators and Water Buffaloes, Higgins boats delivered a small team led by 1st Lieutenant William Deane Hawkins to the 600-yard-long pier that jutted from the shore to the reef, separating beach Red-2 from Red-3. Known to fellow marines as "Hawk," the young and aggressive Hawkins bragged that the 34 men in his Scout and Sniper Platoon could "lick any 200-man company in the world," As if to prove that, he led this group of his scout-snipers and assault engineers down the pier in a quick grenade and flamethrower blitz against Japanese machine-gunners waiting to waylay the LVTs.


Meanwhile, the first troop-laden tractors had crept to within range of enemy machine-gunners, who began knocking down their drivers. Fortunately, the reef proved less an impediment for the amtracs, which--to the shock of Japanese onlookers--crawled right over them to deposit hundreds of marines on their designated beaches. The approach of the nimble Alligators and Buffaloes inspired one terrified Tarawa defender to exclaim, "The god of death has come!" A formidable seawall of coconut logs up to five feet high prevented most of the amtracs from proceeding inland, and intense gunfire quickly disabled some. But the next two assault waves hit the beach right on time.

Keyed-up marine infantrymen vaulted from their amtracs onto the beach--right into the kill zones of concealed beachside machine guns. Japanese gunners huddled in fortified mini-bunkers across the island aimed mortars, howitzers, and heavy machine guns at the tractor-filled waters just off shore. Waterlogged survivors of the first LVT waves hunkered down behind the seawall confused, anxious, and leaderless. One company of the 2nd Battalion/2nd that landed on Red-2 lost five of its six officers within minutes. On Red-3, the 2nd Battalion/8th went ashore in relatively good shape, and quickly began to push inland and east toward a smaller dock that formed their eastern border. But stiff defenses here--easily reinforced via shielded tunnels to the south--quickly stymied any real advances. To the west, elements of the 3rd Battalion/2nd stumbled toward Red-1 through murderous fire coming from countless sites--including the bowels of the wrecked Japanese freighter Nimonea stuck on the reef.


Fewer than 1,200 Marines--all infantrymen or engineers--had landed in the first three waves. Reinforcements and heavier weapons were desperately needed. They were on the way--three fresh infantry companies, 81mm mortars, machine guns, and hundreds of special troops. But they were aboard landing craft, not amtracs, and there was no way to tell them their shallow-draft boats could not get over the reef. Japanese gunners firing powerful 127mm anti-aircraft guns horizontally were already turning one LVT after another into burning hulks, as follow-up waves of LCVPs approached the reef. (In three days, Japanese fire would knock out 90 of 125 LVTs.)

The first of the plywood-hulled landing craft slammed into the reef, buckling the knees of the men inside, sending many sprawling on the wet decks. The navy and coast guard boat crews dutifully dropped the steel bow ramps, the only protection the Marines had against thousands of bullets that were converging on the dozen or so boats. Men dropped into the water or fell dead or wounded in the boats. Those who survived the sheets of defensive fire struggled across the belt of coral that had stopped the boats and jumped into water that was barely waist-deep. Ducking bullets, amtrac drivers turned from the beaches to pick up the floundering marines dumped at the reef and to recover the wounded.


About 10 a.m., Colonel Shoup climbed from an LVT onto the pilings of the pier alongside Red-2, bringing a boost of badly needed leadership to the shore. Getting on a radio (the first to survive the trip to Red-2), Shoup called in his one reserve battalion to firm up Beaches Red-1 and 2, where disaster was looming. After thudding into the reef in their Higgins boats, squads of men from the 1st Battalion/2nd scrambled into a few nearby LVTs, which turned for shore. Others were forced into the water, where machine gun bullets found scores of them. But hundreds of these marines made it onto the beach.

Overwhelmed by the ferocity of the island's defense and the shocking amount of casualties they were absorbing, clusters of marines were unable or unwilling to do anything more than cling to the coconut seawall or the pier. To others it quickly became clear that only sheer guts and determination could win success on the hellish outpost. On Red-2, Sergeant William Bordelon, a popular engineer with the 1st Battalion/18th, went after enemy positions with a vengeance. Armed with satchel charges, Bordelon darted between enemy pillboxes, blowing up three in a matter of minutes. Energized marines all around him leaped to follow his lead. Machine gun fire finally brought down the sergeant, who a fellow officer called "the bravest marine I ever saw."

Meanwhile, Shoup radioed for the 3rd Battalion/8th, which had been released from division reserve, to land on Beach Red-3, where the unit's 2nd Battalion had at least established a beachhead. The awful scene of dropping boat ramps and exposed marines absorbing bullet after bullet played out again along the reef.

By mid-afternoon, the waters off Betio were a junkyard. Navy corpsmen did their best to evacuate the wounded, while marines ran a gauntlet of shellfire to deliver supplies and weapons to the pier. For the moment, little information could be gotten from the Red-1 sector, where the 3rd Battalion/2nd had suffered badly. The situation remained stable, if dicey, far to the east, where Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pierson "Jim" Crowe's 2nd Battalion/8th continued to battle infiltrating Japanese and blast some of the 500 pillboxes on the island. Prospects seemed dimmest along Red-2, where a bloodied Shoup--legs riddled with shrapnel--had finally reached the shore and set up shop a few yards beyond the sea wall. Japanese snipers and countless machine-gunners continued to hold the 2nd Battalion/2nd down along the cluttered sea wall. At the same time, however, Lieutenant Colonel Presley M. Rixey's 1st Battalion/10th had begun to lug their 75mm pack howitzers onto the beach, where any weapon bigger than a machine gun was sorely needed. The Japanese suffered, too; the combined fire of pinned--down marines, strafing fighter planes, and ships offshore killed hundreds--including Shibasaki, an apparent victim of a destroyer's 5-inch salvo.


Night fell on a scene of horror. In a foxhole on Beach Red-2, Time-Life's Sherrod studied his surroundings with revulsion. Waves washed over the bodies of dead marines. Shell-blasted LVTs sat offshore, impeding the swirling flow of weapons, backpacks, helmets, empty crates, and dead, stinking fish. Two marines carrying a dead buddy on a stretcher passed by. "It is war," Sherrod wrote angrily. "I wish it could be seen by the silken-voiced, radio-announcing pollyannas back home who, by their very inflections, nightly lull the people into a false sense of all-is-well." More than 5,000 Marines had made it ashore, at a horrific casualty rate of 30 percent. Along the narrow beachfront that Shoup's assault force had managed to secure, morale was low. Darkness was approaching and ammunition, food, water, and medical supplies remained hot commodities, even as the remaining amtrac drivers made Herculean efforts to evacuate the wounded, bring in fresh troops, land artillery, and carry supplies from the pier to the beaches.

After a tense but unexpectedly quiet night, exhausted and waterlogged marines prepared for another brutal day. The sun was still climbing in the Pacific sky as Higgins boats lugging the last reinforcements then available to Shoup--Major Lawrence Hays's 1st Battalion/8th--approached. Shoup's directive that the unit's boats approach in column through slightly deeper water along the pier had not gotten through. No amtracs had been collected to carry the fresh troops in. So, in plain view of thousands of horrified Marines and pleased Japanese, the boats bearing the uninformed battalion slammed into the reef along several hundred yards of frontage 500 yards from Red-2. The boat crews dropped their ramps, and the marines jumped into the water and walked upright across the exposed reef before wading into the lagoon. Fighters zipped overhead to lay down suppressing fire, while on shore horrified marines led by a raging Lieutenant Hawkins killed every defender within range. But there were too many targets. Japanese machine-gunners and snipers in their coconut-log nests and aboard the Nimonea dropped the stunned men of the 1st Battalion/8th by the dozen, leaving more than 300 dead or wounded on the drying coral.


From his improvised command post, Shoup dispatched Hawkins and his scout-snipers to wreak havoc inland, while he and Hays tried to push a force southwest. Supported by Rixey's howitzers, the Americans began to gain ground. By late afternoon, marines had fought their way across the airstrip--blocking any further Japanese attempts to shift troops or communicate across the island. These crucial gains, however, cost Shoup his best fighter, Hawkins, who fell in a stream of machine gun fire after single-handedly knocking out several pillboxes. "It's not often that you can credit a first lieutenant with winning a battle," a marine officer said of the heroic marine, "but Hawkins came as near to it as any man could."

Meanwhile, to the east on Red-3, where Japanese defenders continued to menace the attackers from bullet-spewing bunkers within spitting distance of the seawall, hard fighting remained. There, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions/8th consolidated their meager gains and prepared for a decisive offensive the next morning.

A hodge-podge BODY OF MARINES managed to form up on the right flank of Red-2 and swing over to the attack. They blasted their way towards the clustered bunkers and pillboxes that barred the path to Red-1, where Major Michael R Ryan, Company L commander of the 3rd Battalion/2nd seemed to have worked a miracle. Assuming command on D-Day in the absence of the battalion commander, Ryan had cobbled together a force of "refugee" marines and--with the help of two Sherman tanks (of the few that had not sunk offshore)--swept across the island's western tip. After retracting to a tight perimeter overnight, Ryan's rag-tag force of perhaps 250 men retook its lost ground with the aid of pinpoint fire from a destroyer offshore. By securing the island's western face--Beach Green--Ryan's marines cleared the way for the Americans' first unopposed landings. Dubbing Ryan's marauders "a bunch of fighting fools," a pleased Shoup filed a situation report late in the afternoon: "Casualties many; percentage dead not known. Combat Efficiency: We are winning." The good news spurred General Smith to release the 6th Marines for Tarawa. The 1st Battalion went ashore at dusk without incident, while the 2nd steamed for the nearby island of Bairiki to cut the Japanese line of retreat.

As November 22 dawned--day three of the struggle for Tarawa--marine veterans were already comparing their shocking experience on Betio with previous efforts. "I was at the Sicily landing," one officer grimly joked. "It was a pink-tea party, with 90 percent girls and 10 percent boys." This day held promise: the fresh 1st Battalion/6th began an assault down the long axis of Betio at 8:15 A.M. The rumbling force grew as it incorporated elements of other units that had struggled inland during the previous two days. Meanwhile, growing portions of the 1st and 2nd Battalions/2nd scoured the area between the northern and southern beaches, emptying dugouts, killing snipers, and stumbling across an increasing number of suicides. At the boundary of Red1 and Red-2, an intensely defended pocket from which intense fire had tormented the marines for two days, weary men of the 1st Battalion/8th and the 3rd Battalion/2nd pressed upon the strongpoint from three sides until resistance ceased.

To the east, weary marines on Red-3 had been crammed into a perimeter 75 yards by perhaps 20 yards for two days. Now, two battalions plunged forward to deal with their antagonists once and for all. The key to the Japanese defense was a huge covered communications bunker barely 10 yards south of the seawall. Marines had managed to destroy several outlying pillboxes and bunkers surrounding it, but the massive, sand-covered bunker remained unconquerable until a 28-year-old platoon commander named Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman, Jr., arrived on the scene.


Gathering a squad of 21 engineers and pioneers, Bonnyman led them over the seawall toward the giant mound. With several men covering him, an engineer pointed his flamethrower into the post's ventilation ducts and made it instantly hot for anyone inside. The bunker's great steel main door was thrown open and a dozen or more screaming Japanese charged up the 10-foot-high man-made hill. Alone for the moment, Bonnyman blasted away at the charging defenders. Before support could reach him, a bullet ended his life. But dozens of the soldiers who fled the ruined structure died moments later, victims of a single spectacular shot from a nearby Sherman tank.

Like his fellow Guadalcanal veterans Bordelon and Hawkins before him, Bonnyman had traded his life for his fellow marines, and, unknowingly, for the Medal of Honor. "I can still see him waving the boys up over that blockhouse, and [hear] his southern voice urging them on ...," one witness wrote. "He was one of the most courageous and bravest men we had with us." Bonnyman's sacrifice allowed the 2nd and 3rd Battalions/8th to re-form into battalion tactical units. While most of the 3rd cleared ground south of the beach, the 2nd attacked eastward and dug in, while platoons and squads retraced their steps to pry out snipers left in the unit's wake. Meanwhile the 1st Battalion/6th advanced steadily east, south of the airstrip, until it linked up with the 2nd Battalion/8th and dug in for the night. By then, the 3rd Battalion/6th had landed on Beach Green and had come up to support the advance.

The battle was decided, but it was not over. That evening was particularly dark, so the Japanese launched a series of probing rushes, followed by an all-out charge in the early morning. Loaded down with grenades, screaming Japanese charged the dug-in 1st Battalion/6th, who met them head-on with small arms and then with knives and bayonets. "We are killing them as fast as they come at us," a lieutenant exclaimed in a futile call for reinforcements. Told to hold, the marines did, aided by unceasing fire from destroyers and howitzers now in place on Bairiki. By sunrise, virtually all the Japanese who had lived on Betio at sunset were dead.


Betio was declared secure at 1:05 P.M., November 23, 1943, after a relatively bloodless sweep of the eastern tail of the island by the 3rd Battalion/6th. American Seabees quickly got busy upgrading Betio's air-base facilities for the continued advance across the central Pacific.

After 76 nightmarish hours, all but 13 Japanese servicemen and 134 Korean and Okinawan laborers on Betio were dead. So were 30 American sailors and an astounding 997 marines. Shoup, who would one day be the US Marine Corps commandant, lived to receive his Medal of Honor, which he had earned with more than 36 consecutive hours of painful service. The brutality of the three-day struggle left even the hardest marine veterans shaking their heads. A stunned war correspondent called the site "the bloodiest mess ever seen." But as General Julian Smith believed, "There had to be a Tarawa."

Lessons learned on that pitiless strip of sand and concrete would prove priceless as American forces surged deeper into Japan's Pacific perimeter. Greater numbers of even better amtracs would eliminate reefs as a problem. Marine use of tanks would improve. Moreover, accurate and efficient naval fire support, timely air cover, and solid coordination and communication--all lacking at Betio--would save time and lives in the Marshalls and beyond.

But the Japanese had learned from Tarawa, too. In the future, they would dig deeper and construct island fortresses that would astound veterans of Betio. Ultimately, no matter what the weapons, US forces would have to conquer each Japanese-held island on the road to Japan with the same leadership, courage, and skill that won Tarawa.

RELATED ARTICLE: Landfall on beach RED-1.

The watery route from transport to the narrow beachhead on Betio was like a path into hell. Second Lieutenant James Fawcett, commander of the 3rd Platoon, K Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, led three amtracs carrying about 40 Marines onto Beach Red-3 in the second assault wave. One awful moment of that afternoon would fix itself permanently in his memory....

As Lieutenant Jim Fawcett's tractor turned slowly toward the beach, the 24-year-old Washingtonian fixed his gaze on the amtrac carrying 2nd Lieutenant Mike Hofmann and elements of K Company's 2nd Platoon, which had bounced up on shore in the midst of a murderous crossfire. An anxious Fawcett silently counted the marines as they vaulted from their transport and plopped onto the beach. He got to eight, then stopped. As Fawcett searched for signs of life aboard the stalled tractor, a familiar figure stood up straight and tall and reached for one of the forward machine guns. Mike Hofmann was covering his riflemen.

Fawcett began a slow mental chant: "Get out, Mike! ... Get out! ... Get out!" With an eye on his own progress, he prayed that the tractor in front of his could deliver its human cargo safely before Japanese gunners went to work on it. Suddenly, Hofmann's LVT up on the beach disappeared in an immense cloud of smoke and steel splinters.

As Fawcett's own amtrac hit the beach, his mind raced over 100 disjointed impulses as he, a former enlisted Marine, tried to sort out a plan of action. He had to decide which of K Company's two leading platoons was in the best position to exploit an advantage. The 1st Platoon was nowhere to be found, and a great gap now existed where Hofmann's 2nd Platoon should have been. Fawcett elected to move head-on.

Most of the stunned men crouching on the left side of Hofmann's smoldering vehicle were fearful and badly disorganized. Two of Fawcett's squads were intact, although there was no news from Sergeant Millard Odom's unit. A sheet of bullets buzzed continually over the heads of Fawcett and the roughly 35 men around him.

Ironically, Sergeant Odom and five of his riflemen were close by, desperately searching for a way off the beach from their spot on the opposite side of Fawcett's tractor. About half the squad had come in behind Lieutenant Fawcett while, in the confusion of landing, Odom ducked the wrong way. He had no idea where the rest of the platoon was.

Braving Japanese bullets. Private First Class Bernard Zerr peeked over the top of the seawall to provide real-time intelligence for Odom and the others. When he turned to ask his squad leader a question, he got no response: Odom, whose starched green dungaree utility shirt sported a neat little hole an inch or two below the left armpit, had taken a round through the heart.

The five leaderless Marines elected to sit tight a few yards farther to the right, out of the crossfire that had killed Sergeant Odom, and farther still from the rest of their platoon. Just then, Lieutenant Fawcett cursed at his men to awaken them from their shock and rose to lead them over the wall. Scared beyond belief, he knew that they all stood a better chance fighting on the move.


Pausing to look back, Fawcett was transfixed by the most horrible sight he had ever witnessed. A few steps behind him, a young marine was just coming over the wall; as his head and shoulders rose into view, a shell slammed into his chest. There wasn't enough left of him to roll in a cigarette paper.

--Eric Hammel






Clockwise from above, glimpses of battle on Betio: Two marines drag a wounded buddy through crossfire to the protection of Betio's sea wall. Waiting for his comrade to throw a hand grenade, a marine gets set to go over the sea wall with a carbine and cartridges. USS Colorado's guns blaze against Japanese shore positions. A marine crawls over debris toward comrades manning a machine gun behind the sea wall. Marines use a flamethrower against a stubborn earth-and-coconut-log blockhouse. A seriously wounded marine arrives behind the sea wall. Private First Class Earl Coleman of Oklahoma, who took out three enemy strong points with his flamethrower while under fire, totes a captured Japanese flamethrower.

Eric Hammel has written some 30 books on military history and the US Marines. His latest--Bloody Tarawa: The 2d Marine Division, November 20-23, 1944, coauthored with John E. Lane--was published in 2006 by Zenith Press.
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Author:Hammel, Eric M.
Publication:America in WWII
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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