Bloody Tarawa


(Eby, Navy Combat Art Collection)

Sixty-four years and two days ago, U.S. Marines began their assault on the tiny atoll of Tarawa. By the end of the week, about a thousand Americans had lost their lives, 2000 more were injured, and over 4800 Japanese were dead (only 17 survived). It was the first opposed landing in the Pacific campaign, and foreshadowed the bloody battles to come as the United States fought its way toward Japan.

Why Tarawa? “In order to set up forward air bases capable of supporting operations across the mid-Pacific, the Philippines, and into Japan, the U.S. needed to take the Marianas Islands. The Marianas were heavily defended, and in order for attacks against them to succeed, land-based bombers would have to be used to “soften up” the defenses. However, the nearest islands capable of supporting such an effort were the Marshall Islands, northeast of Guadalcanal. Taking the Marshalls would provide the base needed to launch an offensive on the Marianas, but the Marshalls were cut off from direct communications with Hawaii by a garrison on the small island of Betio, on the western side of Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands. Thus, to eventually launch an invasion of the Marianas, the battles had to start far to the east, at Tarawa.” (wikipedia)

In other words, we needed the Marianas. To get them we needed to take the Marshall Islands first. To get them we needed Tarawa.

Tarawa Atoll

The invasion began with naval and aerial bombardment, delivered with such ferocity and magnitude that Time Magazine correspondent Robert Sherrod thought, “surely, no mortal men could live through such destroying power . . . any Japs on the island would all be dead by now.” He was wrong.

The assault concentrated on the southwestern island of the atoll, a small bird-shaped strip of land called Betio. The primary assault beaches were on the northern side of the island, approaching from the lagoon – the Red Beaches. Shallow water, sharp coral and ferocious defenses made it virtually impossible to deliver the Marines all the way to shore, forcing most of them to work their way in through neck-deep water with little or no cover. Nearly all of the vehicles that managed to get to the beach were quickly disabled.


But as Marines have done time and again, they fought their way in. After brutal fighting – including suicide charges by the doomed Japanese soldiers – the island was in the hands of the Americans, and the Allied forces had earned a critical stepping stone toward victory.

The veterans of Tarawa are our heroes of the week.

A brilliant account of the Tarawa assault can be found in ACROSS THE REEF: The Marine Assault of Tarawa by Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret).


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