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Posted on Dec 22, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Tarawa – The First Day

By Wild Bill Wilder

Manning these positions were troops of the Special Naval Landing Forces, Japanese Marines. They were well-trained, well-disciplined troops, skilled in the use of all naval and army weaponry. They were imbued with the strong nationalistic spirit that adored the emperor and did not hesitate to give up one’s life for “king and country.” So confident and proud of the accomplishments of his rikusentai and the Korean laborers that Admiral Shibasaki boasted that 1,000,000 men could not take his island in over 1,000 years.

Less than 15,000 Marines of the Second Division would do it in less than four days. It would not be, however, without horrendous cost to both sides. In those 3 1/2 days of fighting, there more than 3,000 US casualties. Of the Japanese troops, less 100 of the original 4,000 survived. The Japanese were in no mood to surrender, and the Americans were in no mood to take prisoners.

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It would be the lot of the Second Marine Division to take the island of Betio. After heavy attacks from the air and the sea, the troops boarded their LVTs and LCVPs and headed toward the northern shores, designated Read Beaches, One, Two and Three. In addition to the troops, a battalion of Stuart light tanks, and a Company of Sherman from the 1st Marine Crops Medium Tank Battalion would be landed to deal with the heavier enemy strongpoints. Marine engineers had been well trained in dealing with bunkers and pillboxes, satchel charges, flamethrowers, and dynamite was going in with them to get the job done.

A Number of errors in planning "Operation galvanic," however, proved disastrous for the Marines. The biggest mistake of all hinged on the fact that the Navy had no real accurate information on the island or the tides that washed its shores. The island had what was known as a “dodging tide,” which meant that often and unexpectedly would rise to different levels. Occasionally it would not even cover the large coral reef that surrounded the island and linked the entire atoll.

The tragedy was that much of the invasion forces on the day of attack were not able to pass over the reef. The water there was just too shallow. Only the newer amphibious tractors, called LVTs could rumble through. Their treads simply gripped the coral just below the surface of the lagoon and passed over without major difficulty. LCVPs and other landing craft could not do so. The end result was that hundreds of Marines would become stranded on the coral reef. With disastrous losses to the LVTs in the first attacking waves, subsequent waves were forced to force their way through chest high water while Japanese machine gunners and cannoneers used them for target practice.

The losses were horrendous, but on they came, rifles lifted above their heads. Many fell into sinkholes on the ocean floor and never reappeared. Mortar rounds thumped and splashed into the midst of these men, hurling them in all directions. Sometimes they died one at a time. On other occasions a whole squad was taken out at the same time. Still they kept filing their way along to the shores, which themselves offered little safety. Many never made it. A young naval pilot, Lt. Commander Robert McPherson flying a Kingfisher observation float aircraft, watched in horror the scene unfolding below him. When Hill asked was water completely covering the reef, he grimly sent back the answer, “Negative.” He sensed anger and helplessness by being a witness to the death of hundreds of his comrades in the waters below. He later wrote, “The water never seemed to clear of tiny men, their rifles held over their heads, slowly wading beachward. I wanted to cry.”

As the first waves came into the island, the situation for the 2nd division became precarious. It was bloody chaos. When Colonel David Shoup arrived on the beach at 10:00AM, he waded onto the beach (his landing craft had been disabled by enemy fire) and looked in horror to what was going on all around him.

Marine bodies floated lifelessly in the tepid waters around him. Some were burned beyond recognition; others had various limbs missing. Some floated on their backs, empty lifeless eyes staring imploringly toward heaven. Those still living were bunched up against the seawall, as men seeking shelter from icy winds. But the winds were hot, filled with flying death of every size. One grizzly Marine sergeant refused to stay down. “Duck, hell! If you duck, you may lean over into one!”

Shoup struggled to get up on the beach. He had been wounded already and his leg was throbbing incessantly. There was no time, however, for any personal attention at that moment. He could feel the eyes of his young responsibilities staring at him questioningly. They looked to him in this dark hour as a camouflaged angel of light, come to give all the answers and resolve all the tragedies. He, at thirty-eight, barrel chested and bullnecked, was the “old man,” and he would make it work. It was a solemn and heavy responsibility.

Many units had became confused and landed in the wrong place. Overall command was impossible. Many were trapped at the sea wall between the water and the higher ground inland. Very little progress was made. The tanks designated to aid the ground troops had their own disasters. Of the fifteen Shermans, only three got ashore.

One of them was damaged from a lucky shot from a Japanese light tank. Its turret ring was damaged and the turret would not rotate. It continued to fight. Most of the Stuarts of the initial waves were sunk before getting ashore. Many of the radios had gotten soaked with seawater and became inoperable. Weapons were jammed with sand and would not fire.

While the Marines huddled against the seawall, small independent groups, led by non-coms and any one else with some initiative, were formed to carry the attack to the enemy. Some of these were self-styled heroes who attempted to grab the glory of the moment and instead played the fool. As machine gun, mortar and cannon fire raked the beaches, Marines huddled as tightly as they could against the protective sea wall that ringed the island. It was suicide to stick one’s head above that wall. Even these dedicated, brave Marines were cowed by the intensity and certain death that thundered and pinged all around them.

On to the scene came another officer, a new, young Lieutenant, bearing all the trademarks of a ninety-day wonder and a neophyte to fighting the Japanese in the Pacific (or anyone else for that mater!). He first glared at the young Marines against the wall, and then began cursing and deriding them. With foolhardy bravado, he suddenly climbed the sea wall, shrieked in a falsetto voice, "Follow me!" and stood up to face the enemy. The ripping sound of a Nambu machine gun was accentuated by a number of thumps as if something were slamming into human flesh.

The officer staggered and spun around as though twisted suddenly by a giant invisible hand. The young men below stared up in horror as a bloody stitching pattern appeared across his face and uniform. Hit twelve times, from head to crotch, he sagged, then crumpled back over the wall into the sand right in front of them. None of them moved. There was no need. Instead, they just crouched and stared at the dead officer at their feet.

Others along the line, however, not wanting to die on that bloody beach, after cowering against what little cover there was, slowly began to scale the wall, stand in a crouch and move inland. Attacking with rifles, bayonets, grenades, demolition charges K-Bar knives and flamethrowers, they overcame one enemy position after another. The battle raged all that day, and by nightfall the situation was still in doubt. Some units had penetrated to the edge of the airfield, but holding the ground gained was an uncertain situation.

By the afternoon, with no cohesion between units on Tarawa, and reinforcements being cut to pieces trying to wade into the island, men began to realize just how tenuous the US hold on the beach really was. A strong enemy counterattack and it would be the end. Colonel Shoup, in charge of the landings on Red Beach, somehow got in touch with the flagship Maryland and radioed an urgent message to General Julian Smith, commander of the 2nd Marine Division: “Issue in Doubt.”

This was the same message that came nearly two years earlier from the besieged Marines on Wake Island shortly before it fell. By the end of the day, however, Shoup sent a new message. It was simple, but it spoke volumes of the courageous tenacity of the 2nd Division Marines. It stated, “We are winning.”

Sources

The Utmost Savagery, Alexander
Storm Over the Gilberts, Hoyt
Tarawa, Shaw\A Special Valor, Wheeler
The USMC in WW2, Smith

About the Author

Wild Bill Wilder, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, was introduced to modern warfare as a tot in World War II when his father and uncle went off to war in the USAAF. It was an experience that influenced him greatly throughout his life. After graduating from Toccoa Falls College in 1962, he spent the next 10 years in public service in various countries in Central America. He then worked in public transportation until his retirement in 1999.

Wild Bill now has even more time to dedicate to his passion – wargaming. In 1997 he formed a group called "Wild Bill’s Raiders." From small beginnings the Raiders expanded into five separate web sites and gave top-notch coverage to a number of popular wargames.

Bill has also been a vital part of the production of 13 different games, including SPWAW, Combat Mission, The Operational Art of War, and John Tiller’s Squad Battles series. He has authored over 1300 scenarios and campaigns for these and other games over the last nine years. At age 68, Bill is also a prolific writer, with his primary focus on warfare of the 20th century. To quote him, "Wargaming is a passion that never dies with the passing of the years. Instead it only intensifies as new and better wargames are produced. It is in military history that one finds often written in blood the glory and the grief of mankind!"

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