Gilbert Islands--MAKIN, TARAWA


The Central Pacific Force which began the occupation of the Gilbert Islands with amphibious landings on Makin and Tarawa Atolls on 20 November, 1943, involved some 116 combatant vessels and 75 auxiliaries. These were organized into 3 major groups, the Assault Force (Task Force 54), the Carrier Force (Task Force 50) and the Defense Forces and Shore Based Air (Task Force 57). The Assault Force was composed of Northern Attack Force (Task Force 52) and a Southern Attack Force (Task Force 53). Bach of these was composed of a Transport Group, a Fire Support Group, an Air Support or Carrier Group, a Minesweeper Group, a Landing Force, and LST and Garrison Groups. The Coast Guard manned Assault Transport Leonard Wood was one of the Transport Group of the Northern Attack Force, while the Coast Guard manned Assault Transport Arthur Middleton was part of the Southern Attack Force. Five of the LST's assigned to the Tarawa landing were Coast Guard manned, these being LST's Nos. 20, 23, 69, 169, and 205. There were Coast Guard personnel assigned to a number of other units. This was the first amphibious assault against strongly defended enemy atolls. The distance from our bases and the size and complexity of the forces involved required a high degree of coordination and cooperation.





These forces had to be assembled from widely separated areas, trained for the specific operation, furnished detailed plans, given a final rehearsal and made ready for a coordinated attack against separated objectives, while being prepared to repel a major sea attack. In attacking small fortified atolls there was no element of surprise except possibly as to the exact time. Unlike landing on a large island where lightly defended beaches may generally be found, making possible surprise attacks on the enemy's flank or rear, the size of the atolls made it relatively easy to fortify them completely, rendering their capture difficult and costly in casualties.


The forces destined for the operation had been widely dispersed at the beginning of the assembly and training period early in October. They were brought together in two groups, the Southern Attack Force in the New Hebrides Area and the Northern Attack Force in the Hawaiian Area. After intensive training and rehearsals in their respective areas, the Northern Force departed Pearl Harbor on 9 November and the Southern left Efate, New Hebrides on 12 November. The final general approach of the main Attack Forces was from the eastward with the Task Forces within sight contact on the 18 and 19 November. Due to the slow speeds of the two LST groups from the Ellice Islands and the necessity that their arrival coincide with that of the Main Transport groups, they were much closer to the Gilbert Islands on the 18 and 19 November than the Attack Forces. The LST's were sighted on the 18 and 19 by enemy planes and two air attacks made on them. Through the period 13-19 November, 350 to 400 aircraft of Task Force 57, based on islands of the Ellice, Phoenix and Samoan Groups, and on Baker Island, made daily strikes on the Japanese bases in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. Carrier air strikes were made on Nauru and Tarawa on the 18th and on Tarawa, Mille and Makin on the 19th. Also on the 19th a Cruiser Division of three heavy cruisers and two destroyers bombarded Bititu Island on Tarawa Atoll with 250 tons of HC projectiles at 20,000 yards,


The beaches selected for the initial landings at Tarawa were inside the lagoon on the northern side of Bititu Island. The entire island was surrounded by a shallow coral reef which extended for about 500 to 1,000 yards off shore. The transports arrived outside the lagoon entrance at 0355 on the 20th and commenced unloading. The LST group, with their cargoes of LVT's arrived shortly afterward. Unloading was completed at 0616.


Enemy shore batteries opened fire at 0507 and our counter battery fire commenced two minutes later ceasing at 0542 in anticipation of the dawn air strike. When this failed to develop counter battery fire was recommenced at 0600 and continued 12 minutes. The air strike was finally delivered between 0610 and 0620. At 0622 battleships opened fire at 10,000 to 15,000 yards closing to 2,000 to 6,000. Cruisers followed battleships at 20 to 30 minute intervals. Destroyers screened the heavy ships. This phase ended at 0735, with large fires and explosions





frequently observed. Due to change in H-hour about this time from 0830 to 0900, the timing of Phase Two firing was considerably interrupted. Actually the first wave of assault troops did not reach the landing beaches until about 0917. Fire was to begin at H minus 45 minutes and cease at H minus 5 minutes. Due to the 17 minute delay in the boats reaching the Line of Departure gunfire actually ceased at H minus 22 minutes. This left the enemy on the beaches under only relatively light attack during the last 22 minutes of the approach of the first wave of assault troops. Fighter planes strafed the beaches between 0825 and 0840, failing to get word of the change in H-hour. They strafed them again at 0917 just prior to the landing of the first wave. Phase Three was to be as requested by Shore Fire Control parties and on the whole was well carried out. Destroyers stationed in the lagoon gave invaluable support to troops ashore.


Beginning with H-hour six waves of landing craft (LVT's, LVCP's, and LCM's) were scheduled to land in 25 minutes. Loaded LVT's of the first three waves proceeded from transports to the Rendezvous Area and from there into the lagoon to the Line of Departure. Overloading, wind, sea, and the ebb tide slowed the first wave to 2½ knots instead of the 3 knots expected, and it reached the Line of Departure 39 minutes late. This necessitated changing H-hour to 0900. The first three waves of LVT's had no difficulty in crossing the reef and no underwater mines or obstructions were encountered. However, all waves were under heavy enemy fire. About 95% of the LVT's reached the reef and 85% reached the beaches. The fourth, fifth, and sixth waves of LCVP's and LCM's could not pass over the reef and troops and equipment were put ashore either by loading into LVT's or on rafts, or by landing at the pier which extended out across the reef to deeper water. Troops attempting to wade ashore over the reef other than along the pier met intense fire and suffered heavy casualties.


Because no suitable beachheads had been established on any of the beaches, no beach parties were able to land. The LVT's of the first three waves, after leaving the beaches, were apparently more or less leaderless. Some proceeded back to the transport area, others stopped on the reef northwest of Bititu Island where it was difficult to signal them and others stopped just outside enemy fire with complaints of mechanical trouble. Later in the day nearly 200 other landing craft, most of them loaded with either troops or supplies were still floating around in the lagoon. It was not until early next morning that order was restored. By noon on the 21st several beach parties had established themselves ashore.FIGHTING ASHORE BITTER

The fighting ashore was bitter and became a matter of destroying the enemy in small groups entrenched in pill boxes, machine gun nests, and other strong fortifications. By nightfall of D-day 5 battalion landing teams had established a fair beachhead on the western beach but the two beaches to the eastward had practically no beachheads.


Map: Butaritari Island, Makin
Butaritari Island
Makin Atoll, Gilberts Islands


By noon of the 21st the situation ashore showed marked improvement. Late in the afternoon troops were landed on Bairiki Island, adjacent to Bititu, with no opposition, and also on GREEN Beach on the western side of Bititu. Mopping up operations on the western end of the island proceeded on the 22nd and 23rd, assisted by air and naval gunfire and artillery ashore, with the enemy pushed to the east. By the 23rd, Bititu Island was completely in our hands. The total number of troops in the 9 Marine Battalion Landing Teams used in the attack was about 15,545. Of these, 913 were killed or were missing and 2,037 were wounded. Of Navy personnel, 26 were killed and 48 wounded. Of the probable 4,800 Japanese and Koreans on the Atoll, all were killed except 146 prisoners taken, including 17 Japanese and 129 Korean laborers.


As at Tarawa, there was only one island in the Makin Atoll which was defended. This was Butaritari, which was a lone narrow anchor-shaped island, on the northern part of which the enemy concentrated his defenses and made his stand. Landings were made on two beaches on the south and one on the western end of the island. The coral reef at the south beaches had from 12-18 inches of water at low tide and the water was never deep enough to allow boats to get into the beach over the reef. This necessitated the use of LVT's entirely to unload boats onto the beach. On 20 November there was a concentrated aerial bombing from carrier planes between 0615 and 0630 followed by ship's bombardment between 0640 and 0825. The first wave was landed at 0833 on the west beach. There followed 8 waves of landing boats, most of which were directed to one of the beaches as coral conditions on the other necessitated its abandonment, causing confusion, delay and damage to the landing craft. Fortunately there was only slight enemy resistance. Between 0850 and 1025 the south beaches were bombarded and the first landings were made at 1041 from the transports and LST's which had moved inside the lagoon. Enemy resistance consisted chiefly of machine gun fire and casualties were light. By the 22nd, a total of 409 officers and 6,098 men had been landed to engage an estimated 600-800 of the enemy. Our casualties were 56 killed and 131 wounded, with 104 prisoners taken. The remainder of the enemy were either killed or committed suicide. Apamama Atoll, in the Gilberts, was occupied on the 20th of November with only negligible resistance. There were no fortifications and only a small group of about 24 Japanese were found on the island. These were eliminated by a small force of 78 men landed from a submarine. Construction of an air field began on the 26th.


Following some of the heaviest naval bombardment in Pacific history, Coast Guardsmen, acting as coxswains of the landing craft, steered their craft thru the surfs and coral reefs of the Gilbert Islands to land assault troops on enemy beaches on 20 November 1943. They shuttled their boats between the transport and the shore to take supplies and munitions to the fighting troops when and where they were needed, dodging and twisting their small craft under Japanese fire from coconut trees and taro holes. They swept the enemy-held beach with machine guns, then


LST-18 Landing at Arawe, New Britain
LST-18 Landing at Arawe, New Britain


with wide open throttles rammed the bows onto the beach. The boat crews waited under fire of Japanese snipers while the soldiers plunged out across the strip of coral sand. With the troops safely landed, their boats skimmed back through treacherous reefs and pinnacles for another load. In the invasion of Makin Island some Coast Guard coxswains and their crews worked for four straight days never leaving their boats. Men and engines were halted only when sharp coral reefs tore the propellers off the boat or coral pinnacles gouged holes in their hulls. Sandwiches and coffee were lowered to them on a line from the transport. When night fell they anchored their small boats out on the lagoon and snatched a few minutes sleep on top of their cargo, their sleep being frequently interrupted by random fire from Japanese patrols and snipers. Fully Coast Guard manned vessels engaged in the Gilbert Islands operations were the Leonard Wood (APA-12), Arthur Middleton (APA-25) and LST's 19, 20, 23, 69, 169, and 205.


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