The Battle of Tarawa

The Battle of Tarawa was fought between the United States and Japan at the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands (now the Republic of Kiribati), and was part of Operation Galvanic, the U.S. invasion of the Gilberts.

Battle of Tarawa

The Beachhead on Tarawa

It was the first American offensive in the critical central Pacific region. It was also the first time in the Pacific War that the United States had faced serious Japanese opposition to an amphibious landing.  

Tarawa, now the Capital of Kiribati, is an atoll in a group of secluded islands, surrounded by coral, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The island of Betio is the largest landmass on the Tarawa atoll. It’s effectively a sandbar the size of the National Mall in Washington D.C. During the battle it was the prime target for U.S. forces to take Tarawa – sometimes known, by the Marines as ‘one square mile of hell’.

The battle lasted 76 hours from November 20-23, 1943. Nearly 6,400 Japanese, Koreans, and Americans died in the fighting, mostly on and around Betio.

At the time, Imperial Japanese Marine Commander, Rear Admiral Kenji Shibasaki predicted, “A million men cannot take Tarawa in 100 years.” The 4,500 Japanese defenders were well-supplied and prepared, and fought almost to the last man, exacting a heavy toll on the United States Marine Corps. But the battle took a far more devastating toll on the Japanese defenders.

Battle of Tarawa

Wounded at Tarawa

The battle was expected to be an easy victory for U.S. forces, but problems arose before they even landed. Japanese coastal defence guns exacted a heavy toll on the initial assault wave. The low tides meant several American follow-on landing craft got caught up on the coral reef and Marines had to wade through chest-deep water, up to 10 football fields long, in the middle of intense enemy fire.

Tarawa was held by more than 4,500 Japanese troops and Korean laborers. In the final hours of battle, they resorted to suicide attacks, choosing to fight to their death rather than surrender. All but 17 Japanese soldiers died in the battle.

Some 18,000 U.S. Marines were sent to capture Tarawa. In all, more than 997 Marines and 30 Sailors died, 88 Marines were missing. 2,233 Marines and 59 Sailors were wounded. The total casualties were 3,407 in 76 hours of intense combat.

Battle of Tarawa

Burial at Sea

In time, the battle of Tarawa became a symbol of raw courage and sacrifice on the part of attackers and defenders alike. Ten years after the battle, the US Commanding General Julian Smith who led the Marines paid homage to both sides. He saluted the heroism of the Japanese who chose to die almost to the last man. And to his beloved 2nd Marine Division and their Navy shipmates he said: “For the officers and men, Marines and Sailors, who crossed that reef, either as assault troops, or carrying supplies, or evacuating wounded, I can only say that I shall forever think of them with a feeling of reverence and the greatest respect”.

External Links

Read about the The Battle of Tarawa on the History Flight website.