Liveblogging World War II: November 23, 1943
At 0510, one of the 17 supporting aircraft carriers, Liscome Bay, was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine, with a loss of of 687 of her compliment. She had contributed her share of the air support for the marines, but by the time of her sinking, her loss had no effect on the land battle. However, this loss was more than 30% of the total loss of life on the American side attributed to the Battle of Tarawa.
At 0400 the Japanese attacked Major Jones' 1st Battalion 6th Marines in force. Roughly 300 Japanese troops launched a banzai charge into the lines of A and B Companies. Receiving support from 1/10's 75mm pack howitzers and the destroyers USS Schroeder and USS Sigsbee, the Marines were able to beat back the attack but only after calling artillery to within 75 meters of their lines. When the assault ended about an hour later there were 200 dead Japanese soldiers in the Marine front lines and another 125 beyond their lines.
At 0700 navy fighters and dive bombers started softening up the Japanese positions on the eastern tip of the island. After 30 minutes of air attack the pack howitzers of 1/10 opened up on the Japanese positions. Fifteen minutes later the navy kicked off the last part of the bombardment with a further 15 minutes of shelling.
At 0800 3/6 under the command of Lt. Col. McLeod attacked, Jones' 1/6 having been pulled off the line after suffering 45 killed and 128 wounded in the previous night's fighting. Due to the narrowing nature of the island, I and L Companies of 3/6 formed the entire Marine front with K Company in reserve. The Marines advanced quickly against the few Japanese left alive on the eastern tip of Betio. They had two Sherman tanks (the Colorado and the China Gal), 5 light tanks in support and engineers in direct support.
I and L Companies advanced 350 yards before experiencing any serious resistance in the form of connected bunkers on I Company's front. Lt. Col. McLeod ordered L Company to continue their advance, thereby bypassing the Japanese position. At this point L Company made up the entire front across the now 200 yard wide island, while I Company reduced the Japanese strong point with the support of the tank "Colorado" and attached demolition/flame thrower teams provided by the engineers. As the I Company Marines closed in the Japanese broke from cover and attempted to retreat down a narrow defile. Alerted to the attempted retreat, the commander of the Colorado fired in enfilade at the line of fleeing soldiers. The near total destruction of the Japanese soldiers' bodies made it impossible to know how many men were killed by this single shot but it was estimated that 50 to 75 men perished. While 3/6's L Company advanced down the eastern end of the island, Major Schoettel's 3/2 and Major Hay's 1/8 were cleaning out the Japanese pocket that still existed between beaches Red 1 and Red 2. This pocket had been resisting the advance of the Marines landing on Red 1 and Red 2 since D-day and they had not yet been able to move against it.
1/8 advanced on the pocket from the east (Red 2) while 3/2 advanced from the west (Red 1). Major Hewitt Adams led an infantry platoon supported by two pack howitzers from the lagoon into the Japanese positions to complete the encirclement. By noon the pocket had been reduced. On the eastern end of the island 3/6's L Company continued to advance, bypassing pockets of resistance and leaving them to be cleared out by tanks, engineers and air support. By 1300 they had reached the eastern tip of Betio. 3/6 killed roughly 475 Japanese soldiers on the morning of D+3 while only losing 9 killed and 25 wounded. Back at the Red 1/Red 2 pocket there was no accurate count of Japanese dead. There were an estimated 1,000 Japanese alive and fighting on the night of D+2, 500 on the morning of D+3 and only 50-100 left when the island was declared secure at 1330 D+3.
For the next several days the 2nd Battalion 6th Marines moved up through the remaining islands in the atoll and cleared the area of Japanese, completing this on November 28. The 2nd Marine Division started shipping out soon after and were completely withdrawn by early 1944.
Of the 3,636 Japanese in the garrison, only one officer and sixteen enlisted men surrendered. Of the 1,200 Korean laborers brought to Tarawa to construct the defenses, only 129 survived. All told, 4,690 of the island's defenders were killed. The 2nd Marine Division suffered 894 killed in action, 48 officers and 846 enlisted men, while an additional 84 of the wounded survivors later succumbed to what proved to be fatal wounds. Of these, 8 were officers and 76 were enlisted men. A further 2,188 men were wounded in the battle, 102 officers and 2,086 men. Of the roughly 12,000 2nd Marine Division marines on Tarawa, 3,166 officers and men became casualties. Nearly all of these casualties were suffered in the 76 hours between the landing at 0910 20 November and the island of Betio being declared secure at 1330 23 November.
The heavy casualties suffered at Tarawa sparked public protest in the United States, where headline reports of the high losses could not be understood for such a small and seemingly unimportant island. The public reaction was aggravated by the unguardedly frank comments of some of the Marine Corps command. General Holland M. Smith, commander of the V Amphibious Corps who had toured the beaches after the battle, likened the losses to Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg.
Back in Washington newly appointed Marine Corps Commandant General Alexander Vandegrift, the widely respected and highly decorated veteran of Guadalcanal, reassured Congress, pointing out that "Tarawa was an assault from beginning to end." A New York Times editorial on 27 December 1943 praised the Marines for overcoming Tarawa's rugged defenses and fanatical garrison, and warned that future assaults in the Marshalls might well result in heavier losses. "We must steel ourselves now to pay that price."
Writing after the war, General Holland Smith, who in his biography was highly critical of the Navy, commented:
Was Tarawa worth it? My answer is unqualified: No. From the very beginning the decision of the Joint Chiefs to seize Tarawa was a mistake and from their initial mistake grew the terrible drama of errors, errors of omission rather than commission, resulting in these needless casualties.
Some commanders involved, including Admiral Chester Nimitz, Admiral Raymond Spruance, Lt General Julian C. Smith and Lt Colonel David Shoup disagreed with General Smith. Said Nimitz:
The capture of Tarawa knocked down the front door to the Japanese defenses in the Central Pacific.
Nimitz launched the Marshalls campaign 10 weeks after the seizure of Tarawa. Aircraft flown from airfields at Betio and Apamama proved highly valuable, but the greater significance of the action on Tarawa to the success in the Marshalls proved to be the lessons learned from the battle itself.
The losses at Tarawa resulted from contributing factors, among which were the miscalculation of the tide and the height of the obstructing coral reefs, the operational shortcomings of the landing craft available, the inability of the naval bombardment to weaken the defenses of a well entrenched enemy, and the difficulties of coordinating and communicating between the different forces involved. It was the first time in the war that a United States amphibious landing was opposed by well entrenched, determined defenders. Previous landings, such as the landing at Guadalcanal, had been unexpected and met with little or no initial resistance. At the time, Tarawa was the most heavily defended atoll invaded by Allied forces in the Pacific.
All told nearly 6,400 Japanese, Koreans and Americans died on the tiny island in 76 hours of fighting. In the aftermath of the battle, American casualties lined the beach and floated in the surf. Over a hundred were never repatriated. Staff Sgt Norman T. Hatch and other Marine cameramen were present obtaining footage that would later be used in a documentary. "With the Marines at Tarawa" contained scenes of American dead so disturbing that the decision of whether or not to release it to the public was deferred to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Following the battle the 2nd Marine Division was shipped to Hawaii, leaving the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment behind to clear the battlefield of ordnance, provide security for the Seabees rebuilding the airstrip and aid in the burial detail. The 2nd Marine Division remained in Hawaii for six months, refitting and training, until called upon for its next major amphibious landing, the Battle of Saipan in the Marianas in June 1944.