From time to time I have had occasion to do legal work for veterans of America’s wars. I have drafted estate planning documents for World War II veterans. I will never forget Carl who was a tail gunner on a B-24 flying missions over Germany. He said “I liked Europe, but I went at the wrong time.” He retained a scar across his forehead from flak exploding near the tail of his aircraft, shattering his plexiglass cupola.
Then there was Garland, a man whose veteran status came out during our interview. I followed up with what branch and did he serve overseas. “Well, I was with the Marines at Tarawa….” Tarawa! I couldn’t resist getting his story about wading ashore for several hundred yards under Japanese fire because the Higgins boat- essentially a barge with a ramp that fell forward to release the troops – could not cross the reef during the neap tide, when the rise and fall of the water level is at its least, on November 20, 1943. Fortunately, Garland was in the second wave and had better than something like 50/50 chance of being wounded or killed in the initial assault.
I have been reading about World War II since I was a boy, but nothing really prepared me for Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa by Col. Joseph Alexander USMC (Ret.), Naval Institute Press, 1995. This island, also called Betio (rhymes with “ratio”), sits among the Gilbert islands in the central Pacific. Some of these islands had to be taken in order to ensure the upcoming allied advance through the Marshall Islands would not be hindered by enemy activity at their rear.
I already had a sense it was a nasty fight from family stories told about my mother’s maternal uncle, Joe Little. He had joined the Seabees with the idea that he would be far from the fighting, just building airports and the like. Well, that is what the Navy assigned him to do, but it was to lengthen the preexisting airfield on Tarawa, which at the time was held by about 3,600 Japanese marines in well-fortified bunkers. For the battle, Uncle Joe was transferred from the Navy to the 2nd Marines, 18th Regiment, 3rd Battalion.
His story is that at some point he is assigned to drive a truck ashore. It must be that these vessels found an entrance cross the reef, as he told the family when the ramp of the Higgins boat came down he could see the battle was right before him, still raging. He froze. A Marine next to him saw he was paralyzed with fear, so he drew his side arm, placed it to Uncle Joe’s temple and said, “Drive, sailor!” He did, turning down the beach.
Once ashore the only personnel leaving the beach were the wounded, and there were plenty. Coast Guardsmen who came ashore expecting to be part of a secured beachhead and be more or less acting as supply clerks are instead handed WWI-vintage Springfield rifles and shown how to load them by the Marines.
So Uncle Joe is there, trained as a Seabee but expected to fight. My mother was perhaps 14 years old when he returned from the war and was present when my grandfather asked him if he shot anyone. “Spud,” he replied, “I didn’t have a rife, only a knife, and every time I jumped in a foxhole there was a ‘Jap’ already there.” That Uncle Joe survived speaks to what happened there.
The written history bears this out; the entire three days was a fist fight. From the moment of first engagement, hand-to-hand fighting was a standard feature of the engagement.
Many arrived ashore by being carried in a tractor-like amphibian called an “LVT” or Landing Vehicle, Tracked, which successfully negotiated the coral reef. One corporal, John Joseph Spillane, a prospect for shortstop with the St. Louis Cardinals, found himself in one of these vehicles which made it all the way to the sea wall. The Japanese started throwing hand grenades into the LVT, but Spillane was catching them bare handed and throwing them back. By about the sixth grenade the timing was off a bit and it blew up in his hand, ending his baseball career.
The USS Maryland and several other vessels fired a lot of shells onto the island before the Marines landed, doing some damage, but many just ricocheted off. Additional sea bombardment was made after the Marines were ashore. One of these shots, likely from a destroyer, apparently killed the overall Japanese commander, Rear Admiral Keiji Shobazkai, and his staff as they attempted to change the position of their command post. They were caught in the open by this random shell, an event which most certainly lead to the failure of a night counterattack on the Marines the first night, pinned down on the sea wall where they had first landed on Red Beach.
The Maryland had been struck badly at Pearl Harbor two years prior, and the repairs to the communications system was not robust. As a result of the firing of its main guns upon Tarawa, the shock to the electrical system on board interrupted communications from the ship and the overall commanders on board to the subordinates on the beach.
On the beach, unexpectedly in overall command with no superiors available to consult, stood Lt. Col. David Shoup. He had already been promoted to the beach leader when his predecessor suffered a nervous breakdown en route to the invasion. Shoup had no previous combat experience.
Wounded nine times, Shoup retained command until the evening of the second day when relieved. He was one of four awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for action on Tarawa, and the only one not awarded posthumously. Shoup was also awarded the British Distinguished Service Order as the atoll had been a possession of the Crown prior to Japanese expansion. He later rose to become commandant of the Marine Corps. Today, assigned to Naval Station Everett in Washington State is a destroyer named for him, the USS Shoup DDG-86.
On the beach at Tarawa the shore-to-shore radios generally did not work either, forcing runners to convey messages, many of whom were killed en route. Shoup’s command post was literally under a block house full of Japanese who could not shoot at him due to the angle.
A few reports from the other beaches did filter back to Shoup. The most chilling was about 10:00 am on the morning of the landing from the right flank of the beach: “Receiving heavy fire all along beach. Unable to land all. Issue in doubt.”
The “issue in doubt” phrase made it back the commanders on ships by boat messenger, and from there all the way to Admiral Nimitz in Pearl Harbor. When I read this book, I couldn’t help but think of the desperate fight on Omaha beach that was to take place six months later in France. But that beach assault, deadly as it was, lasted about a day. Securing Tarawa required 76 hours.
In 1944 the government produced a 20-minute film concerning the events on Tarawa. The decision to release With the Marines at Tarawa was not lightly taken, only with Presidential approval. Upon its nationwide screening the sale of war bonds increased, but Marine recruitment dropped thirty-five percent. The public was shocked by the violence and the scenes of so many dead American Marines floating in the surf. My client Garland told me he was in the second wave of Marines ashore and had to wade past those men to carry on the battle.
The United States learned hard lessons at Tarawa. Pre-landing bombardment had to be longer and with better aim. While the qualified utility of the Higgins boat in the Pacific, as opposed to its preference in Europe was laid bare, resulting in the LVT becoming the preferred manner of assault on islands, the price was dear. Roughly 12,000 Marines and other Navy personnel went ashore, over 1,000 died, and about 2,300 were wounded. Nearly all the Japanese soldiers were killed, as well as the 1,200 Korean laborers brought to the island by the Japanese to fortify it.
Newspapers in the United States criticized Admiral Nimitz for the casualty rates taking this small island from the Japanese. And yet there did not appear to be any option, and so he planned for the next series of opposed landings further west.
“If you are going through hell, keep going.” –Winston Churchill
(Editor’s Note: Some personal accounts of the battle on Tarawa can be found here.)