USS MARYLAND, FLAGSHIP, U.S. 5TH AMPHIBIOUS FORCE
TARAWA, BETIO ISLAND
20 NOVEMBER 1943
0800 HOURS LOCAL
As Rear Admiral Harry Hill watched from the bridge of his flagship, the largest amphibious assault yet tried in the Pacific was finally under way. Called Operation Galvanic, it aimed to capture the Gilbert Islands in the first phase of a new central Pacific offensive—a strategy long advocated by Admiral Chester Nimitz and bitterly opposed by General Douglas MacArthur.
The long struggle to isolate and neutralize Rabaul had built support in Washington for Nimitz’s plan. And though MacArthur believed that the road to Tokyo had to go through the Philippines, everyone else was looking for a way to avoid more of the long, bloody battles like those fought in the steaming, mountainous jungles of New Guinea and Guadalcanal.
Operation Cartwheel, the two-pronged Allied approach toward Rabaul launched in the aftermath of Yamamoto’s demise, had been a difficult but resounding success. By the end of October 1943, troops from MacArthur’s southwest Pacific command had moved well up the northeast coast of New Guinea and were preparing to land at Cape Gloucester on New Britain. Halsey’s South Pacific forces had made parallel progress up through the Russell Islands, Munda, Vella Lavella and Choiseul. On 1 November, the 3rd Marine Division and the Army’s 37th Division landed on Bougainville.
These engagements were fought as conventional land battles, supported by Navy cruiser/destroyer surface action groups and land-based Army, Navy, and Marine aircraft. While Halsey was slugging his way to the northwest, his lack of carriers forced him to seize and build little island airstrips. General George Kenney, commanding MacArthur’s 5th Air Force, was building a virtual air armada of first-rate, land-based Army Air Force fighters and bombers supported by hundreds of transport aircraft. By the fall of 1943, Kenney’s airmen were ranging hundreds of miles from Australia and Papua, attacking Japanese ships, bases, troop concentrations, and supply depots at will. On 2 November, Kenney sent seventy-five B-25 Mitchell bombers and eighty P-38 Lightnings to raid Rabaul itself, sinking more than a dozen Japanese ships, damaging twenty others, and destroying ninety-four of the emperor’s planes in the air. On the ground, American losses totaled eight B-25s and nine P-38s.
Admiral Harry Hill
That same night, in the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay, U.S. cruisers commanded by Admiral Stanton Merrill and a destroyer division led by Captain Arleigh Burke turned away a Japanese counter-invasion force of cruisers, destroyers, and transports attempting to interdict General Vandegrift’s amphibious landing on Bougainville. The following day, Admiral Halsey sent carrier aircraft from Saratoga and the light carrier USS Princeton to bomb the Japanese fleet anchored at Rabaul. On 11 November, he did it again—adding the carriers Essex, Independence, and Bunker Hill—a five-carrier raid that lasted for hours, wrecking the Japanese base.
These engagements were little noted by an American press corps focused on the bloody Allied campaign in Italy. But for the Joint Chiefs, the operations demonstrated how dramatically the balance of power had shifted in the South Pacific since the beginning of the year. Even though the war in Europe was still the first priority, with Rabaul effectively neutralized, it was finally time to start a new drive toward Japan—this time in the central Pacific.
While Halsey and MacArthur were battling their way north, determined to isolate Rabaul as they aimed for the Philippines, Nimitz had been slowly building up his forces in Hawaii. By November 1943, American industry was churning out hundreds of airplanes a day, bigger and faster ships, thousands of landing craft, and hundreds of thousands of fresh soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and Marines.
Over MacArthur’s vehement objections, Nimitz convinced the Joint Chiefs that a new drive through the central Pacific should become the main axis of attack against Japan. For MacArthur, holding tight to his goal to liberate the Philippines, it was a bitter pill to swallow. But once the Chiefs decided, they made sure that Nimitz got what he needed, particularly the new Essex-class fleet carriers capable of carrying more than a hundred of the latest Navy aircraft: Grumman F6F “Hellcat” fighters, Curtiss SB2C “Helldiver” bombers, and F4U “Corsairs,” which the Japanese had taken to calling “Whistling Death.” Nimitz also got better submarines, now equipped with new torpedoes and commanded by bolder skippers who were decimating the Japanese merchant marine fleet. By November 1943, at fleet anchorages in Pearl Harbor, Midway, and the Ellice Islands, he had nineteen carriers—light, medium, and heavy—twelve battleships, fourteen cruisers, and fifty-six destroyers.
To support and supply them—and to land his Marine and Army assault troops—Nimitz also assembled more than 200 other vessels: twenty-nine fast attack transports, scores of new LST and LSD amphibious assault ships, dozens of fleet oilers, repair ships, ocean-going tugs towing fuel barges, hospital ships, tenders, and hundreds of smaller PT boats, landing craft, and tracked amphibious assault vehicles.
With all this combat power, Nimitz was ready for Operation Galvanic. The plan called for his 5th Amphibious Force to seize three tiny atolls in the Gilberts 2,600 miles west of Hawaii, near the intersection of the equator and the International Date Line. Some described these little spits of land as “the first stop past the middle of nowhere,” and they all had, like so many other places in the vast Pacific, strange-sounding names: Abemama, Makin, and Tarawa.
The plan of attack approved by Nimitz was fairly simple: Fast carrier forces would isolate the three atolls from the threat of any Japanese reaction coming from Truk or the Marshalls. They would then conduct pre–D-day aerial attacks to destroy any Japanese aircraft at their seaplane base on Makin and the airfield being built on Betio Island in the Tarawa atoll.
After the battleships “softened up” fortifications ashore, Admiral Kelly Turner’s 5th Amphibious Force would simultaneously storm Makin and Tarawa. The ground force, designated as the 5th Amphibious Corps, commanded by Marine Major General Holland M. Smith, consisted of the 18,000-man, reinforced 2nd Marine Division for the Tarawa assault and 6,700 soldiers of the Army’s 27th Infantry Division to secure Makin, 100 miles to the north. The U.S. submarine Nautilus would land a Marine rifle company on lightly defended Abemama. It would be the only part of Operation Galvanic that went according to plan.
Major General Holland M. Smith
On 13 November, B-24 Liberators of the 7th Air Force began a weeklong series of bombing raids to “soften up” both Makin and Tarawa. Then, the night before the landings, seven battleships and nine cruisers began pounding both Makin and Betio in a pre-assault bombardment unlike anything ever tried before by the U.S. Navy. Everyone, including the Marines watching offshore, assumed that it would be enough to pulverize the defenses ashore. They were wrong.
The man Tokyo entrusted to defend the Gilbert Islands, forty-nine-year-old Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki, commanded a mixed force of 2,900 elite naval infantrymen (similar to our Marines), about 1,500 armed construction troops (like the U.S. Navy’s Seabees), and 1,500 conscripted Korean laborers. He dispatched 284 of the naval infantry and about 500 of the construction troops and laborers to Makin. The rest, about 4,000 in all, were packed into bunkers and revetments on the narrow two-mile spit of land called Betio Island at the south end of Tarawa atoll—where the British had started an airstrip before Japan seized the Gilberts on 7 December 1941.
Admiral Keiji Shibasaki
By the time Admiral Hill and his Marines arrived offshore, Shibasaki and his troops had been working on the Betio defenses and airstrip for months. He had once asserted that his troops could “hold Tarawa against a million Americans for a hundred years.” They built massive concrete blockhouses, bunkers covered with six feet of coconut logs and sand, dug sheltered trench lines and tank traps, and constructed more than 400 mutually supporting bombproof gun emplacements and machine gun positions. His shore-based artillery, manned by instructors from the Imperial Artillery School, boasted eight-inch, five-inch, and smaller caliber naval guns and mortars—all with pre-registered targets on the coral reef surrounding Betio.
And Shibasaki knew what the Americans did not: The coral reef was itself a formidable natural barrier that would prevent almost any landing craft from crossing at any time other than a very high tide. To make matters worse for the Americans, the naval planners in Pearl Harbor decided to conduct Operation Galvanic during a “neap tide”—the time of month when the alignment of the sun, moon, and Earth create lower than usual tides. For the Marines going ashore on Betio, it would prove to be a very costly error.
U.S. 5TH AMPHIBIOUS FORCE
BETIO ISLAND, TARAWA ATOLL
20 NOVEMBER 1943
1800 HOURS LOCAL
Major General Julian C. Smith, the 2nd Marine Division’s commander, had insisted on a massive pre-invasion bombardment before his troops hit Betio’s narrow beach. He got what he asked for. His Marines, many of them veterans of the Guadalcanal campaign, had been treated to a pre-dawn breakfast of steak and eggs and were circling outside the reef in their landing craft and LVTs when the sixteen-inch guns of the battleships and the cruisers’ eight-inch guns had opened up at 0500. The ear-shattering barrage went on for more than an hour as more than 2,500 tons of high-explosive shells rained down on the little island. Then, at 0610, the naval gunfire lifted so the carrier aircraft could deliver another 900 tons of bombs and strafe the landing beaches. After the dive-bombers and fighters finished their work, the naval gunfire resumed again until 0845, when Admiral Hill ordered a cease-fire for fear of hitting the LVTs and Higgins boats as the men of the assault wave headed for their landing beaches.
Major General Julian C. Smith
To the Marines headed toward the beach and the pilots flying overhead, it looked as if the entire island was on fire. The wooden barracks, equipment sheds, and Shibasaki’s headquarters building were blasted into splinters and burning. Huge billows of black smoke and suspended particles of sand were blasted into the air by the shells and bombs, and the cloud drifted a mile into the sky.
Unfortunately, the first three assault waves—using 125 LVTs—took much longer than expected to make it across the coral reef. As soon as the destroyers stopped firing, the Japanese defenders rushed back to their guns, raking the tracked amphibians as they crawled up onto and across the reef where the water was only two or three feet deep. Few of them made it to the beach unscathed. Worse still, all the LCMs and LCVPs carrying the fourth, fifth, and sixth waves for Red Beaches One and Two ground to a halt 600 to 1,000 yards offshore, forcing the Marines to disembark and wade through chest-high water under heavy machine gun and mortar fire. In many places, the water was even deeper. At Red Beach Three, those who made it to the beach were exposed to withering fire from Japanese gunners hidden in the pilings of the long pier jutting out into the lagoon.
For the Marines who had watched the pre-landing bombardment and finally made it to the beach, the results of that volume of enemy fire was unbelievable. It seemed like the only thing those thousands of tons of munitions had done was to push a little sand around and cut down a few palm trees.
Twelve miles offshore, General Smith and Rear Admiral Hill waited for a situation report aboard the flagship USS Maryland. But most of the radios that the assault waves had taken with them had been soaked during the reef crossing and were now useless. It was only after Colonel David M. Shoup, the assault commander, managed to get up to the seawall and find a dry radio did they realize the magnitude of the carnage on the beach. Smith immediately committed the division’s reserves to the fight, sending in another 1,100 Marines. By 1800, nearly 5,200 exhausted troops were ashore—most of them in two widely separated pockets—and almost a third of them casualties. One of those who had made it was Lieutenant Don Lillibridge from Mitchell, South Dakota.
DON LILLIBRIDGE, USMC
Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll
20 November 1943
2300 Hours Local
I was a lieutenant in A Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines. I was the youngest officer in the battalion, just turned twenty-two, but I had thirty-nine men in my rifle platoon who were seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen years old, so they were a lot younger. I’d never been away from home in my life and I was very inexperienced.
We loaded up, and after we were on board, we were told where we were going. Nobody had ever heard of Tarawa or knew where it was. I saw the stuff on the map and it was just little dots in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A captain assigned all of us replacement officers to different units.
Tarawa was my first battle. In the dark you could see the naval shells streaking red through the sky onto the island. And following all the explosions after the aerial and naval bombardment of the island, we assumed that there would probably be nothing left. It just didn’t seem possible that there could be anybody left alive on the place.
When we hit the reef and started to go up over it, we were hit by machine gun fire. I remember a bullet came through the Amtrac because it wasn’t armored. It passed between my dungarees and my backpack. I could feel the heat as it went through. And I thought, Maybe I’ve been hit! But it was a fraction off—if it hadn’t been, it would’ve shattered my spine—so I was lucky.
Marines at Tarawa
We hit the beach and all leaped out. I jumped out first, by the seawall, and on the very narrow beach were bodies everywhere—in the water, floating on the water, and on the little beach. My guys were jammed up against the seawall for protection against enemy fire.
I leaped up over the seawall and I just took off inland. And they all came after me. But the Marines who followed us, about two or three minutes later, all got shot, just wiped out. I ran inland until I came to this large, twenty-by-twenty-foot depression in the sand, about two or three feet deep. And there were guys in there, and facing me with his back to the wall was Lieutenant Seeley.
He looked at me and said, “Lilly . . . I faced death eleven times today.” One of the curious things about Tarawa was, you almost never saw the enemy. They were in the bunkers, and they were firing at you and you were firing at them. The only way to get them out—as it turned out—was when a handful of Sherman tanks got ashore.
There was this big structure built with coconut palms and concrete. It must’ve been thick because it was very solid. It hadn’t been destroyed by the naval bombardment and I saw it had a huge aperture about a foot high and about four feet long. This tank came up and I pointed to it. He rolled right up to it, stuck the muzzle right up into the opening, and fired a couple rounds. That’s the kind of thing, plus the flame-throwers that the combat engineers, the flame-thrower demolition outfit, used on the bunkers. The flame-throwers didn’t just burn people; they also sucked all the oxygen out of these structures, and the people inside suffocated.
Marines using a flame-thrower on Betio.
Since many of the Japanese were killed in their bunkers, most of the bodies all over the island by the end of the battle were Marines. So many were killed just trying to get on the beach. And that held true for the second day as well.
That experience was a devastating shock. It was the single most traumatic event I’ve ever experienced in my life. I lost twenty-six of the thirty-nine men in my platoon. By the third night, I was the only officer left in the company, which was about the size of my original platoon
Tarawa was so small that you could stand on one side and see over to the other side, from the lagoon to the ocean. It was 800 yards wide at the widest point, and then tapered down to about four feet at the east end. It was about two and a half miles long. That’s what made the battle so unusual—its tiny size and all this concentrated fury.
I didn’t get across the island until the morning of the third day. Bodies were everywhere: a hand here, an arm there, a leg, a shattered torso. A head, even.
Well, even though I had another battle ahead of me, Tarawa was the first one, and it’s the impact of losing so many guys that I think really lasted throughout my whole life. None of this occurs at the time of the battle, you understand. This effect and the impact of it all comes after the battle is over.
HQ 2ND MARINE DIVISION
5 MILES WEST OF BETIO ISLAND, TARAWA ATOLL
20 NOVEMBER 1943
1830 HOURS LOCAL
With four battalions of his 2nd Division ashore, General Julian Smith and his staff sought ways to break the bloody deadlock. Once darkness fell, the shooting stopped almost entirely. An expected Japanese counter-attack never materialized because the communications wires connecting Admiral Shibasaki with his subordinate commanders had all been cut by the furious bombardment and the gunfights earlier in the day.
Exhausted Marines from intermingled units held onto their positions in three-to-five-man foxholes dug in the soft sand or in shell holes and bomb craters created by the pre-landing bombardment. On the beach, Navy medical corpsmen continued to load wounded into LVTs, shuttling them back out to the ships. On their return trips to the beach the Amtracs brought in 75 mm howitzers, mortars, ammunition, fresh working radios, and water for the terribly dehydrated Marines.
As the night wore on, LCVPs and LCMs that had made it across the reef at high tide were policing up bodies and equipment floating in the lagoon. Among the salvage officers engaged in this grisly task was movie star Eddie Albert. Now a lieutenant (jg), he had volunteered for the Navy after Pearl Harbor and was serving as a small boat officer on the USS Sheridan, a transport anchored offshore.
At thirty-three, Albert was likely one of the oldest lieutenants in the Navy. He could have been in Hollywood making training movies. Instead, he went to Officers’ Candidate School, got his commission, and was assigned as a salvage officer off Betio.
During the operation he made twenty-six trips bringing back the wounded from Betio. On one of his forays into the seawall, he picked up a wounded Japanese officer. He told how it happened: “There were piles of dead and wounded and I was in the mess . . . and a Japanese was among the wounded . . . standing up. And I thought, ‘Well, he’s the only Japanese that knows what is going on. Maybe I could get him up to our ship.’ He’s the only Japanese that the interrogators had to talk to—the rest of them were dead.”
Eddie Albert said that the multiple trips to the beach were just part of “doing his job.” But he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor. One of those who believe he deserved it is Dean Ladd, a rifle platoon commander who spent much of the night of 20 November circling offshore in the lagoon, waiting to get ashore and help his pinned-down comrades. Ladd was only twenty-two but already a combat veteran of Guadalcanal by the time he reached Tarawa.
LIEUTENANT DEAN LADD, USMC
Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll
21 November 1943
0845 Hours Local
We knew we were moving out; we didn’t know where until about the first of October 1942. We were put into the line battalions and started training as a unit against snipers and the things that we’d learned from what was going on in Guadalcanal. In the process, I went to Officers’ School, which they did with a lot of us who had combat experience to see if we had the necessary leadership ability in high-stress situations. Many of the NCOs became officers. I was one of those. As corporal I got a field commission and a week or two later we got the mission to go to Guadalcanal.
I joined a green unit that hadn’t been in combat. We were there on Guadalcanal three months. We made our last drive to shove the Japanese off the island as they started to withdraw. They fought a real rear guard action. We were just continually being whittled down. A lot of it was from sickness, malaria. I had four men killed and three wounded on Guadalcanal. When we finally drove the Japanese off the island, we had no idea what our next mission was going to be.
I was twenty-two, almost twenty-three. I was leading guys who were seventeen, eighteen. Some had joined the Marine Corps when they were sixteen, having lied about their age.
The Japanese decided that Tarawa was going to be defended. They brought in a lot of concrete, cut down coconut trees, and put in some of the thickest-walled bunkers you can imagine. They put in eight-inch naval turret guns. They had rifle pits and a seawall all the way around made of coconut logs that were about four feet high. And then, spaced between the riflemen in the pits, were hundreds of machine guns. Well, we were led to believe that our naval gunfire would pretty well obliterate that place. But it didn’t.
As we got into our LCVPs, each holding a platoon—roughly thirty men—we didn’t have any communication. Because of the disruption, we didn’t get the final word of where we were to land until our battalion commander came by in his LCVP and said, “We’re landing on Red Beach Two,” which turns out was the worst one—it was right in the crossfire.
I was the first one out when we got to the reef, yelling, “Come on, let’s go, follow me.” And I start wading as fast as I could. I looked back and the men were kind of slow getting out, a little reluctant. I said, “Come on, let’s go,” a couple more times and then the next thing I know, I’m hit. The Japanese got me with a machine gun, firing at us from the right flank. I was around 600 yards out in the water when I was hit very seriously in the abdomen. And course nobody’s supposed to stop for the wounded. Everybody’s got to keep going. But one of my men, Private Sullivan, started to drag me over to one of these landing craft where the ramp was down. Eddie Albert, the famous movie actor, had brought one of the LCVPs to pick up the wounded. There were about twenty or more of us already hit. Guys still in the water shoved us up over the ramp, and we rolled down inside, and I was in agony by that time. And someone says, “You’re gonna make it.”
I was the first one on the operating table on the Sheridan. There were two surgeons, and the one who operated on me had been an abdominal specialist at the Mayo Clinic. What a fortunate chain of events: One of my men disobeyed orders and dragged me to safety, Eddie Albert was there to take me to the ship, and a surgeon who was an abdominal specialist at the Mayo Clinic was there to treat me. Amazing!
2ND MARINE DIVISION
BETIO ISLAND, TARAWA ATOLL
21 NOVEMBER 1943
0900 HOURS LOCAL
By dawn on D+1, the full magnitude of the D-Day carnage was evident. More than 1,500 U.S. Marines were either dead, wounded, or MIA.
On the morning of D+1, the Corps reserve, which had been circling in the lagoon for most of the night, landed to reinforce the beachhead. The troops were fatigued, seasick, and most hadn’t eaten. Nevertheless, they waded on to the beach while taking tremendous casualties. The new battalions used the 500-yard-long pier between Red Beaches Two and Three as cover to ward off at least some of the enemy rifle and machine gun fire.
Among those reinforcements was Marine Reservist Harry Niehoff from Portland, Oregon, who had trained on the use of a flame-thrower. He would put that training to the test on Tarawa. Lieutenant Michael Ryan had grown up in St. Vincent’s Orphanage in Kansas, joined the Marine Corps Reserves, gone to Guadalcanal, and at age twenty-seven was known as “the old man” by his buddies. By the time he reached New Zealand to prepare for the Tarawa invasion, he was the commander of L Company.
CORPORAL HARRY NIEHOFF, USMC
Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll
22 November 1943
1120 Hours Local
When I was at Tarawa I was considered a combat engineer, attached to a line company with the 8th Marines. I had a flame-throwing demolition team of five members. We were to do whatever the 8th Marines wanted us to take care of.
My primary job was demolition but I also trained on the flame-thrower. We used diesel fuel as the main fuel instead of gasoline. Then you had the igniter, just like a cigarette lighter. When you pressed that igniter, the air pressure in the middle tank forced the diesel fuel through and you had ignition. A huge flame bellowed out.
Later in the war, when they developed napalm, they took that and mixed fuel with the napalm gelatin, and that’s where you got the straight shots coming out rather than the billowing flame. But at Tarawa, we used strictly the diesel.
I had never heard of Tarawa before. It was something brand-new to me. It was just another atoll in the Pacific Islands.
When we arose on D-Day, we heard the bombardment already taking place. As time went on and daylight came, it was quite clear, and then the big battleships started to let go. We could really hear them—they made a noise all their own. It was quite impressive.
When we approached, we all looked at what we could see of the island. All you could see was just a little dark streak on the horizon. And you’d see all the smoke coming up and the bombs and shells hitting it. Someone said, “Boy, they’re really getting it! There won’t be anybody left. They’ll sink the island.”
Then all of a sudden we started to hear the whine of the shells coming toward us.
We had a job on our hands. I think everybody must have thought, “I don’t know about this trip. This is going to be a tough one.” And when we got there almost all of the Marines who had landed earlier were killed, and we were killing Japanese in hand-to-hand combat.
I was originally assigned to F Company. But the Amtrac landed at the wrong place and I ended up with E Company. I tried to find F Company, but they had all been shot. There was no unit there!
All the officers had already been killed. I was told, “When you come ashore, you’ll be assigned to this platoon. Your job is to take care of that bunker.”
We found out later that “that bunker” provided the electricity for the island. So I thought that was going to be my team’s job, so we went right to it and tried to figure out what to do. Well you couldn’t go around the right side or the left side.
There was only one way and that was to go straight up. The bunker was twenty-five or thirty feet high. And it was covered with sand, so if you tried to climb up the side of the bunker, which we were trying, the sand would just cascade out from under you and you’d start sliding down.
Lieutenant Alex Bonnyman, who led the Pioneer Platoon, had been there since the day before. He rallied us and tried to help us. He knew what we were trying to do. He said that they needed to get that bunker taken. But it was still a barrier. No one could get over or around it.
Behind the bunker was a Japanese command post. So there was a lot of manpower and a lot of rifles. So any move you made around there, somebody was sure to pick you off. And then Lieutenant Bonnyman yelled out for everybody to go over to the top. He was next to me and turned around to yell to get more demolitions. At that moment he was hit, and he fell dead. I expected to be hit next because we were side by side.
I was out of ammunition and demolitions. So I came back down, went over to the supply point, picked up some TNT, and came back to the bunker. I was prepared to charge and a major said, “I want you to be careful, that Jap’s already killed five men.”
My hair stood straight up on the back of my neck. I got down alongside the pillbox and we made our charges with four blocks of TNT. Each block was just about two and a half inches square by five inches long, so I had a five-inch square package of TNT taped together.
I lit the fuse. When I reached around to push it through the rifle slot, I found out the rifle slot was only about three inches wide. But I had a package that was five inches square and I didn’t know what to do with it except drop it and take cover. The charge didn’t kill the man in the bunker, but it opened up the slot. And before I knew it, one of my men came up beside me and put another charge in. That took care of it.
The devastation on Tarawa was quite horrific. Crossfire went in every direction. Troops who went in got shot at from the front and from the side. The men were just dying by the hundreds. We had dead and wounded Marines in the water. We had the wounded on the beaches that we couldn’t get to. There was no way to get them. If you went out to try to help them, which many of the Marines did, you might wind up being shot yourself. But the guys did it anyway. They would try to get anybody they could.
Tarawa was really the worst.
MAJOR MICHAEL RYAN, USMC
Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll
22 November 1943
1650 Hours Local
I came on active duty as a Marine second lieutenant, a platoon leader, and we were sent out to join the 1st Marine Division.
We didn’t land on Guadalcanal. We landed to the north on two small islands—Gavutu-Tanambogo—that formed the Japanese seaplane base. That was my introduction to operations and to combat.
The Japanese had made a counter-attack and overran the Marines there. When I got there you could see Japanese bodies all over the ground. None of our guys had seen combat but they did well.
I was promoted to first lieutenant. Within a couple of months I was promoted to captain and made a company commander. After a while we were ordered to Guadalcanal itself, and participated in a number of operations there. We moved from Guadalcanal and were on our way to Fiji when we heard that we were going to a place called Tarawa.
I was hoping that Tarawa would be a short operation. We thought that it would be relatively easy, because we were told the tonnage of bombs that were going to be used and how much the ships were going to fire. We heard that the bombardment would go on for four or five hours. We were to land in boats, form in the center of the beach, and await orders. Our orders were to go as far as we could in the boats, and if we couldn’t get over the reef, to wait for the tractors to come back and then go in.
Well, from where we were sitting it didn’t look like any tractors would get back out again. Implied in the order was, “Get in the best way you can.” And that’s what we planned to do.
The tractor right in front of my boat was on fire. But all the Marines were out—I thought—until two Marines climbed up on the side with their clothing on fire. I could see when they fell that they’d probably died before they hit the water.
We got out and started to walk in, and it’s about 1,300 yards to the beach. By the time we got there, K Company was ashore. And so was what was left of I Company. When we got out and started in, other casualties were in the water. You didn’t know whether they were dead or wounded.
When I and K Companies landed, they moved behind the seawall. When I got over the parapet, Captain Crane came over and said, “Captain Tatem was killed. Lieutenant Turner has taken over I Company. That was the one that got so shot up over there.”
If the Japanese didn’t kick us off the island, they were going to lose it. We fully expected the battalion headquarters to come in with more troops, but they didn’t show up, and so I became the battalion commander.
Regimental headquarters now consisted of a major—me—and a runner. Everyone else was dead or wounded and there were no radios. We could see that the 2nd Battalion was advancing on Red Beach Two. But we had no way of knowing how far they got in or how many of them were there. Nor did we know where regimental headquarters or battalion headquarters were. We couldn’t get in touch with them. It was late in the afternoon that it suddenly dawned on us that the battalion commander wasn’t going to get in. We thought he must’ve been killed. We called “fire!” only once, when we were certain that we had a place that they could fire without hitting friendlies.
The tanks came in late afternoon. As I recall, there were two tanks. But one tank had a disabled main gun. Gradually people turned to me for orders, simply because I was the senior person there. I formed a defensive position inward from the point, and we waited out the night. Our only radio had gotten wet and no longer worked. Out on board our ships they probably wondered what was happening over on the island. But they didn’t know how they could get anything to me.
Troops came in from the One and Six. They had cover for their landing and spent the night on the beach with us, then moved out the next day. They took their tanks with them and started reducing the rest of Green Beach.
Many NCOs were okay. Some had been killed, of course. Now each platoon was checking its own rosters.
A wounded sergeant came up and saluted. You’re not supposed to salute in combat. But that was one salute I was going to return, no matter what.
I told him where the aid station was; he didn’t leave. He kept getting his people into position. He wasn’t from our unit. I think he might have come from another battalion on our left.
Whether he lived through the operation, I don’t know. I never saw him again.
Watching the men trying to get in, under that heavy fire, that was the worst. It’s difficult to sit there and watch people being cut up
Did we learn anything in the Battle of Tarawa? Yeah, I think we did, because at the next operation, they had a greater, longer bombardment. And they did it methodically. They checked to see if there was a position, and then they would fire their big guns. And they did it for a couple of days.
And they had more tractors so that the landing was easier, unlike ours. I think that those changes came from what we saw at Tarawa.
2ND MARINE DIVISION COMMAND POST
BETIO ISLAND, TARAWA ATOLL
23 NOVEMBER 1943
1730 HOURS LOCAL
Mike Ryan assembled the remnants of two battalions and organized a charge that effectively eliminated Japanese resistance on the western end of the island. General Julian Smith came ashore and established his command post in what had been one of Admiral Shibasaki’s command bunkers. Unbeknownst to the Marines, the Japanese commander was already dead. When he and his staff had moved to a secondary command post on the south side of the island, a sharp-eyed Marine had spotted them. With a radio finally dried out and working, the Marine had alerted a destroyer just outside the reef. The Navy responded instantly, firing salvo after salvo over the heads of Marines in the open. They scored a direct hit, killing Shibasaki, his chief of staff, his gunnery officers, and his operations officer. It probably changed the course of the battle.
On the night of 22–23 November, the now leaderless Japanese launched three futile and uncoordinated counter-attacks. The Marines, now better supplied, mowed them down. As the battle entered its third day of fighting, additional troops were landed across Green Beach and came ashore without opposition.
With most of the airfield now in Marine hands, General Smith ordered his weary troops to clear the Japanese pocket that still held between Red Beaches Two and Three and to conduct a sweep east down the narrow length of the island. As they were preparing to do so, a message to Tokyo from the remaining Japanese defenders was intercepted by Navy code-breakers: OUR WEAPONS ARE DESTROYED. FROM NOW ON EVERYONE WILL ATTEMPT A FINAL CHARGE. MAY JAPAN EXIST FOR TEN THOUSAND YEARS.
Only thirteen Japanese were captured, most of them wounded or unconscious, and about a hundred Korean slave laborers gave themselves up. That afternoon, shortly after 1300 on 23 November 1943, General Smith declared that organized resistance had ended on Tarawa atoll.
But the Battle for the Gilbert Islands wasn’t quite over. On Makin atoll, a hundred miles north of Tarawa, the poorly prepared soldiers of the 27th Division had taken two days longer than expected to secure tiny Butaritari Island. Though there were fewer than 400 enemy combatants on the little spit of sand, the 6,000 American soldiers had suffered sixty-four killed and 152 wounded. Another forty-three U.S. sailors had been killed and nineteen wounded in the pre–H-Hour bombardment when a turret exploded on the battleship Mississippi. By the afternoon of 23 November all but one of the Japanese defenders were dead and 104 construction workers and Korean laborers were captives. Unfortunately, things were about to get worse for the Americans.
Early on 24 November, while the Navy waited impatiently for the Army to backload onto their waiting transports, a Japanese submarine slipped through the destroyer screen around Makin atoll and sent a torpedo into the side of the carrier escort Liscome Bay. She blew up immediately, taking 650 of her 900 men to the bottom.
The following day, American and British flags were raised and flown over Tarawa. However, there was still the grim task of burying the dead. Some 6,000 men—5,000 of them Japanese defenders—lay dead on this tiny island atoll on the equator, their corpses strewn across an area smaller than the Pentagon and its parking lots. More than 1,000 Marines had been killed and about 1,500 wounded.
Later, when Admiral Nimitz toured the island he remarked that it was the first time that he had actually smelled death. He was likewise astounded that most of the Japanese bunkers, pillboxes, and gun emplacements seemed to be only lightly damaged despite the initial furious naval and aerial bombardments.
Nimitz directed that detailed architectural drawings of all the fortifications be made and had exact replicas of the Japanese defenses constructed on the naval gunnery range at Kailavi. He then insisted that every destroyer, cruiser, and battleship heading into the western Pacific pass a test of destroying these fortifications.
Marine Corps combat cameraman Sergeant Norman Hatch had a ringside seat for the battle and documented it through the lens of his motion picture camera.
SERGEANT NORMAN HATCH, USMC
Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll
24 November 1943
1745 Hours Local
My position on Tarawa was that of a combat motion picture cameraman. My responsibility was to document what went on in the course of the battle as best I could. And that’s said with some reservation, because at that time, what we were doing was brand spanking new. No one had ever photographed an amphibious landing against a well-fortified enemy. Realizing that, I knew that I had a great deal of responsibility.
The only thing that I didn’t know was that I was going to be the only motion picture cameraman on the beach for the first day and a half. All the rest of them were stuck in the boats and couldn’t get ashore.
There was so much going on that I didn’t have any difficulty finding subjects to shoot. The way that the Japanese had zeroed in on the reef was the big obstacle for the boats. It was devastating. It seemed like every time a boat would come in that morning and drop its ramp on the reef, a shell would land right in the middle of the boat, which would hit just about everybody and sink the boat.
The commanding officer of the battalion that I was accompanying, Major Jim Crowe, wasn’t due to go in until the fourth, fifth, and sixth waves of troops were in. But there was a machine gunner shooting at the amphibious tractors as they were coming in, forcing them to go to the right. They could only go so far because there was a pier there.
The Marines were bunched up, and when Major Crowe saw this, he said, “I don’t like it. I’m losing my beachhead.” That meant it would be difficult for other boats or Amtracs to get in.
So he said, “Put this damn boat in right now!” Well, the coxswain gunned it, and we went in and hit the reef 600 yards off shore, and stopped cold. Then the ramp wouldn’t go down in the front. That meant everybody in the boat, some thirty or forty guys, had to get up over the sides of the boat. The sides of the boat were about shoulder height for a six-foot-tall man.
With sixty or seventy pounds of gear it was difficult to get up over that, much less drop into the water up to your chest, and keep your equilibrium.
Well, it was done. I had an assistant with me, Bill “Kelly” Kelleher. He carried two canisters of film and I carried two. We couldn’t fall into the water, because it would have ruined the equipment.
The men who had gone out ahead of us were now dog-paddling in the water, and all you could see were their helmets.
There were snipers under the pier, and that had me really worried, because I had to stay upright. I was probably too good a target. But neither Kelleher nor I got hit.
It’s difficult to walk in water; there’s too much resistance. The only thing that enabled us to do it was the fact that we had so much weight on our bodies that we were able to stay upright and keep walking.
When we got in we were exhausted. We fell into a shell hole for a few minutes and right above me, to my left, was a guy who got his right buttock shot off and was unconscious. Shock had set in. The corpsman had taken care of him, and I realized then that this was a very dangerous situation.
There wasn’t much chaos on the beach at that time. Everybody was digging in, trying to make sure that they had themselves protected.
Kelly and I shared a shell hole. We dug it out, and the division chaplain came along and asked me if I’d dig a hole for him because he was busy ministering to people.
The Japanese went for the amphibious tractors that were stuck out on the reef. They just swam out there in the night and got in. In the morning, they shot at us from our backside.
Early on I figured out that I could not carry a weapon over my shoulder and a camera at the same time. Lieutenant Colonel Tom Colly, the intelligence officer, agreed with us and he got the quartermaster to issue pistols to the photo section.
Before the landing Major Crowe said, “I don’t want any damn Hollywood cameramen with me.”
I said, “I’m not Hollywood. I’ve been in the Marine Corps for five years now and I’ve been fully trained, and I’m a sharpshooter.” I told him, “I’ve had plenty of training, and I can bend down and pick up a rifle any time I need it.”
He finally said, “All right, just don’t get in my way.” And from that time on, I was practically glued to him.
Major Bill Chamberlain, the battalion commander, came into Major Crowe’s command post on the morning of the third day and said, “I’m ready to take that command post now.” Chamberlain came to me and said, “Sergeant, would you like to photograph our attack on the command post?”
I said, “Yes, sir!” We had to crawl to get to this command post because the shells that our Navy was firing from the ships just sort of bounced off and we didn’t want to get killed by our own navy.
We looked at it and figured that we’d more or less have to go over the top of it as well as around the sides. So we did.
The photography of those efforts and the other things that went on helped later in the training of new Marines. They had a good opportunity to see what it was really like. That was one of the major benefits of the film.
Wherever I looked, there was something to shoot. By the end of the battle, which lasted seventy-six hours, I’d only shot a little over 2,000 feet of film.
Attacking places that are well equipped for protection, like a pillbox, is very difficult. It’s a two- or three-man operation. Sometimes you have to sneak up on the pillbox, crawl up to the entrance, and toss a grenade inside, or a flame-thrower will come up and put an inferno inside.
When you’re taking pictures and looking through the viewfinder, you divorce yourself from everything else. The picture you’re taking is the only thing of importance.
So when it was time to bring all of that film back to Washington, Frank Capra, then a major in the Army, was stationed at the Army Pictorial Center in Long Island. The Joint Chiefs of Staff asked him to come down to look at the film of Tarawa and make a film out of it.
My footage was used in the film produced for public exhibition by Warner Brothers and distributed by Universal. It was called With the Marines at Tarawa, and it received the Academy Award for the Most Outstanding Short Documentary for 1944.
THE WHITE HOUSE
17 DECEMBER 1943
1100 HOURS LOCAL
Norm Hatch’s award-winning documentary might never have been made except for an inadvertent release of some of the footage he and his assistant, Bill “Kelly” Kelleher, had shot during those four furious days. Their 16mm negatives, rushed back to the States by zealous public affairs officers, were supposed to be subject to clearance by military censors in Washington. But when the film reached San Francisco, instead of sending it directly on for clearance, black-and-white prints several minutes long were made selectively from Hatch’s black-and-white reels and from Kelleher’s color footage. Fox Movietone News then distributed hundreds of these black-and-white celluloid prints to local movie theaters. The agency was never told that government censors hadn’t cleared the footage.
U.S. Marine casualties at Tarawa.
Roosevelt was furious. The American people were stunned. On the eve of the holiday season, local movie screens were showing American war dead—not one or two, but hundreds. The Movietone narrator succinctly summed up the graphic images: “The battle of Tarawa is officially described as the most ferocious fight the Marines have ever been in. Each hour was terrifying with violence and gunfire and the hurling of grenades.”
Nimitz and Vandegrift—now the senior Marine in the Pacific—importuned Admiral King, the chief of naval operations, that they had nothing to cover up and that the American people deserved to know the bitter truth about how difficult it was going to be to beat the Japanese. Roosevelt agreed, and the footage shot by Norm Hatch and Bill Kelleher was edited to produce the Academy Award–winning documentary With the Marines at Tarawa. And though enlistment in the Marines dropped by 35 percent for a few months, war bond sales increased dramatically.
The lessons learned in seventy-six hours at Tarawa were almost all technical and resulted in changes that would make future amphibious assaults less costly, including the biggest one in Europe: Normandy. As a result of the losses at Tarawa, the Marines received hundreds of improved LVTs equipped with heavy guns and armor. The Navy developed LCMRs—landing craft equipped with rocket launchers to provide heavy suppression fire just before the assault waves hit the beach. Better long-range waterproof radios were developed and fielded. Naval gunnery improved with new training, ammunition, and fuses. Marine and Navy carrier pilots were provided with better training and more lethal bombs—like napalm—for dealing with well-prepared defenses.
And for the Marines who would have to do it again and again and again all the way across the Pacific, the survivors of the 2nd Division’s assault on Tarawa were sent as cadre to other Marine units to teach others the “lessons learned.” And wherever they went, those who fought at Tarawa were greeted with awe. As one survivor said, “Every participant became a hero in spite of himself.”