Operation Galvanic, the code name for the invasion of Tarawa, was not the bloodiest battle in total numbers, 953 Marines and sailors KIA, 29 MIA, and 2,296 wounded, but when that casualty figure of 3,301 is out of a total landing force of 11,000, it’s one of the highest rates in the Pacific. Of the 4,707 Japanese Special Landing Force sailors (Jap marines, rikusentai), 4,690 were killed. Only 17 were captured alive, most all of them too wounded to carry on the fight or commit suicide.
Betio was the main island in the Tarawa Atoll and was less the two miles long and 600 yards wide at its widest point. In this space smaller than Central Park, over 20,000 men would slug it out at point blank range. More than 5,600 men would die there, and four Medals of Honor would be earned in the first assault against a heavily defended, fortress beach head of WWII.
The Japanese had fortified the small island with over 3,000 mines, miles of barbed wire and anti-boat obstacles, 14 coastal defense guns ranging in caliber from 80mm to 203mm (including British Vickers guns removed from Singapore after the Japanese conquered the city), 43 anti-aircraft guns, 90 anti-tank and anti-boat guns, and hundreds of concrete reinforced machine gun bunkers and rifle pits. Admiral Shibasaki, commanding the Japanese defenders, had boasted “A million men in a thousand years could not take Tarawa”. The Marines would do it in 76 hours.
Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll
The 2nd Marine Division, comprised of the 2nd, 6th, and 8th Marines, would make the assault against three beaches, named Red 1 through 3, on Betio’s lagoon side. The beaches names were prophetic, the lagoons water would be churned milky white by the pre-invasion bombardment; a whiteness which contrasted greatly the blood that would tint it red.
During the early morning hours of November 20, 1943 the Marines of the assault force were fed the ritual pre-landing breakfast of steak and eggs while the Higgins boats and amtracs churned the bright blue Pacific waters getting into line. The traditional steak and eggs had started with the 1st MarDiv in Australia and was frowned on by the Navy medical staff who knew they would soon be treating stomach wounds. At 0300 the assault boats were in position and the long and laborious, intricate ballet of disembarking the troops began.
During the pre-bombardment briefings a battleship commander had bragged that he would bring his ship in to 6,000 yards because their armor could take whatever the Japs could throw at them. Not to be outdone. a heavy cruiser commander chimed in “I’ll bring her into 4,000 yards, her armor can take it.” General Shoup, commanding officer of the Marine landing force said “Just remember gents, when my Marines storm the beach, they’ll be at bayonet range, and the only armor they’ll have is their damned dungaree shirts.” Shoup knew what his Marines were going to face, and he also knew that Galvanic was a test bed for the amphibious doctrine the Corps had written in the inter war years and the tactics they had devised for storming a fortified position. It would be a first in Military history, and no one knew what would happen.
At 0500 a four hour bombardment by battlewagons, cruisers, destroyers, and even minesweepers began. So much high explosive ordnance was dropped on the island that many Marines felt the whole thing would just break apart and sink. They were convinced that the islands defenses would be totally obliterated; nothing could survive such a bombardment.
They were sadly mistaken.
At 0900 the boats began their six mile run for the beach. By now the merciless Pacific sun was beating down on the sea sick Marines. Betio lies only 80 miles north of the equator and November was the height of summer. Adding to the Marines’ misery was the fact that much of the water they had to drink had been contaminated by improper cleaning procedures of the 55 gallon oil drums it had been stored in. In addition to the rocking of the flat bottomed Higgins boats and the tossing of the LVT’s, the Marines were vomiting from tainted water and suffering severe stomach cramps.
Once they reached the line of departure there was a further 3 mile run to the beach itself. The Japanese were surprised when instead of the wooden boats they had expected, they saw steel boxes churning through the water carrying the assault waves. They were even more surprised when, instead of stopping at the coral reef 1,000 yards out, they churned over it and continued on. The Marines in the LVT’s were the lucky ones. The following waves of Higgins boats would not be able to cross the reef at low tide, and those Marines would be forced to wade ashore through 1,000 yards of fire swept and shell crater pocked lagoon. Weighed down with 80 pounds of gear, if they fell in a shell crater they would drown; if they made it that far through the murderous fire.
The study of tides was an inexact and relatively unknown science and there had been no local guide to advise the planners of the depth over the reef. They had counted on at least 4 four feet of draft to allow the Higgins boats to make it over the reef. Instead they were going in at low tide and the coral reef was sitting just a few inches below the surface. Navy divers, who were tasked with blowing anti-boat obstacles as well as mapping the beach, had reported that the tide was out and that reefs would rip the bottoms out of the Higgins boats, but there was no alternative. There were not enough tracs to transport the entire force over the reef and through the lagoon to begin with. Losses to enemy fire would ensure that there would be even fewer. Those that survived would be tasked with ferrying the wounded off the beaches, and picking up the Marines that they could from the reef. Most of the grunts however would have to wade in, under fire the whole way.
As the assault waves churned forward at 5 miles per hour the Japs opened up with heavy machine guns and anti-boat guns. LVT’s exploded from direct hits, bodies and jagged chunks of aluminum flying through the air. The neat lines became jumbled and mixed, each coxswain struggling to maintain his place while he watched tracers reach out for his boat, or the boats on his left and right. The smoke from naval gunfire and air strikes obscured the beachhead, making navigation near impossible. Marines in the back of the tracs huddled against the illusory safety of the thin bulkheads, vomited and gripped their rifles tighter; waiting for the round that would blast their trac out of the water.
The first Marine to land on Betio was 1st Lt. William Hawkins. The 30 year old Texan, who had won a battlefield commission on Guadalcanal, was leading a platoon of scout snipers whose job it was to clear the long wooden pier jutting into the lagoon between Red 2 & 3. Any Japanese troops on the pier would be able to fire on the landing craft passing on either side of them. He and his Marines cleared the pier and began assaulting other positions. Wounded in the hand from a mortar blast that killed three of his men, he continued fighting until he was hit in the chest and shoulder by a burst of MG fire. He died later that day from his wounds. Lt. Hawkins was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions that day.
Under fire from front and sides, the amtracs of the 3rd Bn. 2nd Marines stormed into the maelstrom of Red Beach 1. Jap machine guns and riflemen aboard the partially sunken freighter Niminoa, sitting just inside the coral reef, fired on them from the rear. Many amtracs exploded when their unarmored fuel tanks were hit, others churned violently out of control as their drivers fell dead, slumped over the controls. Others simply vanished in high explosive geysers of salt water as they suffered direct hits from Jap heavy guns. Rounds plinked as they tore through one side of the amtracs and out the other; except when they were stopped by a body. But they pushed forward, .50 cal guns blazing from their exposed mounts, tearing onto the narrow beach and stopping at the 3 foot high coconut log seawall to disgorge their sick Marines.
On all three beaches the Marines huddled under the sea wall, seeking the only cover available from the murderous fire. An amphibious operation is at best orchestrated confusion. When under intense enemy fire it disintegrates into sheer bedlam and chaos. Unit leaders that make it ashore alive are often at the wrong section of beach, separated from the units they are supposed to lead. Platoons and companies are intermixed and jumbled, often with no communication with the platoons that are supposed to be on their flanks, let alone company or higher levels of command. In this deadly symphony of confusion and chaos, with the screams of the wounded and the deadly fingers of rounds reaching out towards the Marines wading in through the strangely calm waters of the lagoon, is where the famed aggressiveness and initiative of the Marine came into play. Soon a Corporal here would point out a Jap machine gunner bunker a few yards away and organize an ad hoc assault party to take it out. A private there would leap over the seawall and charge an enemy rifle pit. A flame thrower team would take out an anti-boat gun. Small groups of Marines would push in past the seawall and clear a few yards of devastated beach, followed by a few more groups here and there. Soon, the whole Marine line was pushing forward, feet, inches, at a time. Assaulting unseen pillboxes with flame throwers, satchel charges, and rifle fire, they carried the fight to within feet of the enemy who stayed in place, firing until the last. The fighting was so close the Marines could smell the last breath of the rikusentai.
Marines advance over the sea wall at Betio.
Staff Sergeant William Bordelon, of San Antonio Texas, was a combat engineer with 1st Bn. 18th Marines who had landed on Red 2. His LVT had stopped only 15 yards from a concealed Jap 40mm gun and a heavy machine gun and had suffered heavy casualties as it was torn apart by the concentrated enemy fire. S/Sgt. Bordelon was wounded four times; including having the blasting cap of a demolition charge prematurely explode in his hand. Refusing medical aid he pushed on and destroyed four enemy positions. He was killed taking out the fourth and was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. In 1995, at his family’s request, his body was disinterred from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu and transferred to Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. His flag draped casket was given the honor of laying in state in the Alamo.
S/Sgt. William Bordelon
By afternoon the first of the 2nd Division’s M-4 Sherman tanks began to make it ashore. Specially trained platoons of reconnaissance Marines waded out to mark safe passage through the shell craters and other depressions that would swamp the tanks. The bright orange markers they were supposed to use soon failed though, so they posted a Marine at each crater to guide the tanks around it. As they got closer to shore though there were new, more gruesome obstacles to avoid, the floating bodies of dead Marines. At first the drivers tried to avoid the corpses, but soon there was no choice. Gritting their teeth the drivers pushed the accelerators, ignoring the human debris they were forced to crush beneath their tracks.
At Red 3 all but one of the eight Sherman’s made it ashore. The six tanks at Red 1 were not so lucky, four flooded out and they never made it ashore, their crews bailing out and taking up the fight as infantry. The two tanks that did make it, Chicago and China Gal, became valuable additions, even though Chicago was soon knocked out by enemy artillery and China Gal’s 75mm gun was out of action.
On the afternoon of D-day a keen eyed Marine spotted a group of Japanese officers and called in fire support from the destroyers Ringgold and Dashiell. A barrage of 5 inch shells slammed into the exposed men and killed them all. Unknown to anyone at the time, it was Adm. Shibasaki and his entire command staff. Because of this fortuitous event, the massive counter attack that most certainly would have materialized that night never occurred. The thin and hard pressed line of only 3,000 Marines was able to hold until the morning of D+1.
The Marine’s foothold was tenuous. At Red 1 they held a strip of land only 250 yards deep and 300 yards wide, surrounded by the sea on both sides. A 600 yard gap stretched to the west to Red Beach 2 & 3, where 2/2 and 2/8 held an area only about twice as large. The Marines had pushed inland to just a few feet of the main runway, but their line was broken and stretched thin. With the morning came the intense heat, and the overwhelming putrid smell of decaying flesh. It was too dangerous for the graves and registration teams to begin work, and the bodies would lie where they fell until battles end, permeating the entire island, and the survivors memories, with the awful smell of death.
Dead Marines at Red Beach 1
The 1st Battalion 8th Marines, unable to land on D day, were still aboard Higgins boats, having spent the entire night circling in the choppy waters without food or toilet facilities. At 0615 they were finally ordered in to Red 2, landing in a murderous fire of Japanese machine gun fire. They were angry, sore, sick, and ready to vent on the Japanese.
Two Navy Lieutenants from the transport Sheridan, John Fletcher and Eddie Heimberger learned that over 150 wounded Marines were stranded on the coral reef. Acting on their own initiative they commandeered an LCVP and began evacuating the wounded. Heimberger soon realized that he was making little impact with only one boat and collected several other LCVP’s to go back with him. As he approached the reef he came under fire from Japanese troops aboard the Niminoa. Returning fire with his boats .30 cal machine gun, he ordered the other boats to stay out 200 yards while he went in alone to take out the enemy. Working back to the reef and the Niminoa he came under fire from a Jap sniper who had swam out to a destroyed amtrac. Knowing that he was carrying eight drums of high octane fuel aboard, he quickly dispatched the sniper and went back to taking on the wounded at the reef. The Nimonoa would remain a threat until it was stormed by an ad hoc assault force of riflemen. Unwounded Marines stranded on the reef asked Heimberger to bring back weapons and ammo on his return trip. He also brought back with him the regimental surgeon who began treating the less seriously wounded Marines right there on the reef. In all Heimberger was credited with saving 15 Marines and was awarded the Navy Cross. After the war he resumed his acting career under his stage name, Eddie Albert.
By the end of D+1, the Marines were in a much more favorable position, having consolidated their lines and reaching the southern side of the island in the center of Red 2 & 3. On the far right of Red 1 an impromptu landing of 1/6 on the secondary Green Beach had secured the entire 600 yard long stretch of the western end, the widest part of the island, and had pushed in about 100 yards. The Japanese were now split in two, with the bulk of their forces caught around the airstrip between Red 2 and Red 1, with 1/6 pushing from the west, and 1/8 from the east.
On D+2 the Marines cleared the central part of the island in vicious fighting and a composite unit from 2/8 and 3/8 pushed down the eastern end of the main runway. They soon hit a complex of coconut logged machine gun bunkers in mutually supporting positions covering a large, sand covered concrete bunker. A lucky round from a mortar barrage hit a stockpile of ammo in the mg nest and the resulting explosion tore it apart, allowing a Sherman tank to assault it point blank range. The concrete bunker, defended by up to 200 hundred Japanese, proved to be a tougher nut to crack. For over an hour Marines assaulted it with flame throwers and satchel charges. Finally they were able to drop grenades down the ventilator shafts and swarms of Japanese ran out, only to be cut down by canister shot from M-3 light tanks.
Marines assaulting the concrete bunker.
During the assault on this bunker, 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman led his grunts up the western side of the structure where they took out a machine gun nest and set off demolition charges at two entrances. There was an immediate Japanese counter attack from the opposite side, but Lt. Bonnyman stayed in place, repelling them at point blank range and preventing them from reaching the summit until he was killed. 30 years old and with a family, he could have avoided military service if he had wished, but he had enlisted in the Marines as a private and earned rapid field promotions to the rank of Lieutenant. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for defending the summit of the bunker.
1st Lt. William Bonnyman
That night the Marines were in control of nearly two-thirds of the island. But the Japanese were still there in strength and at 1930 about 50 Japs crept out of the ravaged undergrowth and probed the front lines of 1/6. This probe developed into an hour long fight with bayonets, Ka-Bars, and rifle butts, fought in the bottoms of fox holes and shell craters. At 0300 a second and much larger attack developed as hundreds of screaming rikusentai charged the battalion’s front. Shrieking “Marine you die!” and “Japanese drink Marine blood!” they wildly fired their rifles and threw grenades in the infamous Banzai attack Marines would come to be so familiar with. It was a nightmarish fight of stabbing and beating and clawing with bare hands and entrenching tools against a maniacal foe that appeared out of the shadows like demons. They hurtled out of the darkness, throwing themselves at the Marine lines in a suicidal charge with the only desire to kill as many as Marines as they could before being killed themselves. The Marines obliged them with at least one part of their wish. When the sun broke the next morning over 200 rikusentai lay dead before 1/6’s line. Another 125 mangled Japanese corpses lay further back, cut down by naval gunfire from the destroyers Schroeder and Sigsbee.
Dead rikusentai in front of the Marine line.
As D+3 dawned 3rd Bn. 6th Marines passed through the grisly remains of the nights fighting and advanced on a 300 yard front, pushing eastward towards Takarongo Point, the far eastern tip of Betio. In the 1400 yards from 1/6’s line to Takarongo Point lay a labyrinth of bunkers, dug outs and steel rifle pits manned by 500 Japanese for whom surrender was not an option. The Marines killed 475 of the enemy at a loss of 9 killed and 25 wounded. At one blockhouse 75 Japanese charged en-masse. One high explosive round from a Sherman killed them all. At 1300 a sweaty Marine washed the grime from his face in the water of Takarongo Point. The entire eastern half of Betio was now in Marine hands.
The only sizeable body of enemy left was holed up in a maze of formidable gun emplacements at the junction of Red 1 & 2 in a position called “The Pocket”. These rikusentai has already survived three days of concentrated attacks and were responsible for more Marine casualties than any other position. A determined assault from 1/8 and 2/2 was launched, supported by close range direct fire from 75mm artillery. Using flamethrowers and satchel charges the Marine infantrymen wore down the enemy positions and at 1300 the remaining Japanese committed suicide. Betio was declared secure. Mopping up operations of Japanese survivors continued for days, but Operation Galvanic was over.
Many hard learned lessons, paid for in Marine blood at Tarawa, would be applied to the rest of the island hopping campaign in the Pacific. A color documentary of the assault, “With the Marines at Tarawa” was released amid heated controversy, requiring President Roosevelt himself to approve it for the American audience. The images of bloated Marine corpses bobbing in the white surf of Betio Island shocked and horrified stateside audiences, and Marine recruiting slumped. Bloody Tarawa had brought home the cost of final victory over the Japanese to a relatively sheltered American populace. They now knew that it would be a long, hard fight against a determined and fanatical foe.