IF THE UNITED STATES were the Arsenal of Democracy, the Hawaiian Islands were the Pacific locker when I arrived in Honolulu by Clipper from San Francisco and September 5, 1943, to assume the post of Commanding General of the Marines in the Central Pacific.
[Fifth Amphibious Corps · Makin & Tarawa]
Huge camps spotted these beautiful semi-tropical islands. Towering stockpiles of equipment and mountains of supplies covered mile after mile of storage bases. Pearl Harbor, once the grave of the Fleet, was busier than any navy yard I had ever seen. Ships jostled one another for room in the blue water. Airfields were packed with planes and it scarcely seemed possible that less than two years before the Japanese had caught us sound asleep. We were a people girded for revenge.
Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner met me at the airport. He commanded the Fifth Amphibious Force while I commanded the expeditionary troops that went along with the Navy and our partnership, though stormy, spelled hell in big red letters to the Japanese.
I had met Kelly Turner in Washington when he headed the Operations Section (War Plans) at the Navy Department. He had commanded the amphibious operations in the Solomon Islands and brought to the Central Pacific considerable battle experience. On first meeting, he suggests the exacting schoolmaster, almost courtly in courtesy. He is precise, affable in an academic manner and you are tempted, in the first five minutes of acquaintance, to make the snap judgment that he is a quiet, softly philosophic man. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Kelly Turner is aggressive, a mass of energy and a relentless task master. The punctilious exterior hides a terrific determination. He can be plain ornery. He wasn't called "Terrible Turner" without reason.
The broad lines of the Central Pacific offensive were drawn at the Quebec Conference in August, 1943, when President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill discussed with the Joint Chiefs of Staff the grand strategy of the Pacific war.
In the South Pacific, the enemy movement toward Australia had been checked and Allied action in that theater, originally defensive,had swung over to the offensive. A large part of the Solomons was ours and General MacArthur had turned the tide in New Guinea. Japanese offensive action had ceased; ours was accelerating. The time was now ripe for a boldly planned drive across the Central Pacific from the east to coincide with our advance from the south.
In the global strategy to which the United States was committed, the war in Europe absorbed the bulk of our military effort and, until the defeat of Nazi Germany released from that theater troops for employment in the Pacific, we did not have strength for a frontal attack on Japan. However, we did possess sufficient naval and air superiority to start a war of attrition, capture bases in Japan's mandated islands in order to increase pressure on the enemy homeland, and whittle down her strength until we were able to launch the final assault.
A month before, Admiral Nimitz had been alerted by the Joint Chiefs to prepare for the offensive. This was approved by the Quebec Conference. The Gilbert Islands, strung across the Equator 2,000 miles southwest of Hawaii, were designated as the jumping-off point in the Central Pacific campaign. Here the Japanese had seized and fortified a number of low-lying coral island in the main atolls.
In his official report, Admiral King explained:
Their location [the Gilberts] is of great strategic significance because they are north and west of other islands in our possession and immediately south and east of important bases in the Carolines
and Marshalls. The capture of the Gilberts was, therefore, a necessary part of any serious thrust at the Japanese Empire.
Tarawa, the atoll in the center of the group, was selected as one target and originally Nauru, the phosphate island to the west, was suggested as the other. For reasons I will explain later, Makin, at the northern end of the group, was substituted for Nauru in the final plans.
We captured Makin and Tarawa. The people of America were shocked by the slaughter on the beaches and stirred by the heroism of the Marines. Makin was an easy job, with few casualties. Tarawa was a terrible baptism of blood for the new offensive. The Marines lost relatively more men in a few hours than they had ever lost before. Tarawa cost us 990 dead and 2,311 wounded. Twice the issue of battle was in doubt. We could have been driven back into the lagoon, defeated, but we were saved by the bravery and tenacity of individual Marines and were able to chalk up a final victory.
The question is inevitable: 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.
The operation plan issued by Admiral Nimitz directed the capture of Makin, Tarawa and the nearby Apamama atolls as a prelude to gaining control of the Marshalls. I am convinced that we should have hit the Marshalls first, capturing Kwajalein, which we did two months later. Kwajalein Atoll, in the heart of the Marshalls, was the logical initial objective.
Tarawa had no particular strategic importance: as a base it had little value. The Japanese had concentrated their strength on Betio Island, the southwestern tip of Tarawa Atoll, which is only about the size of Central Park in New York City. Tarawa constituted no threat to our communications with the South Pacific or to our offensive in the Central Pacific. The Japanese had built an airfield on Betio as a refueling base for planes on
sorties from the Marshalls and the Carolines but little traffic was observed on the field and prior to our D-Day strike there were only two planes there. There were no dock or naval facilities for the Japanese fleet and only a shallow lagoon.
Roi-Namur (part of Kwajalein Atoll), the biggest base in the Marshalls whence air support could be drawn, was 600 miles to the northwest; Nauru was 500 miles to the west; and Truk, the great Japanese naval and air base guarding the Central Pacific approach, lay 1,500 miles to the northwest.
Tarawa should have been by-passed. Its capture--a mission executed by Marines under direct orders form the high command--was a terrible waste of life and effort. Rabaul, in the South Pacific, and Truk, in the Central Pacific, both far stronger and more vital bases, were by-passed without danger to our rear. They both had airfields, naval and military installations, submarine, dock and storage facilities.
To have ignored Tarawa's 4,000-man garrison would not have endangered our position. In the New Britain-New Ireland area 50,000 Japanese troops were pinched of and left to starve when Rabaul was by-passed. Acquisition of air bases on neighboring islands enabled us to bomb and harry the Japanese at will, secure in our knowledge that they could not escape and equally certain that to assault these bases would have cost us an incalculable number of men.
Rear Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, war plans officer to Admiral Nimitz, put his finger on the solution when we struck directly at the center of the Marshalls and captured Kwajalein, completely ignoring other Japanese occupied islands. He said, "We shall let them wither on the vine." To borrow his words, we should have let Tarawa "wither on the vine." We could have kept it neutralized from our bases on Baker island, to the east, and the Ellice and Phoenix Islands, a short distance to the southeast. Or, ad we did later in the case of Rota, with a garrison of 4,000 a few miles off the coast of Guam, used Tarawa as a convenient bombing and "gun unloading" target.
The futile sacrifice of Marines on that strategically useless
coral strand makes me as sad today as it did then. Why did we attack Tarawa? The war was young in those days and perhaps the powers that be felt the need of a victory in the Central Pacific as a demonstration upon which to base future operations. My Marines provided the necessary victory but it was a fearful initiation, out of all proportion to the results, although it taught us lessons that were not forgotten in subsequent operations. But even the knowledge we gained did not justify Tarawa.
The Gilberts attack, known as Operation GALVNIC, was the largest we had undertaken at that stage. Shortly after my arrival at Pearl Harbor an impressive chain of command was established for all amphibious operations in the forthcoming offensive. At the top, in command of all Army, Navy and Marine forces, was Admiral Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, whose function was the planning, overall supervision of operations, logistic support and coordination between the three services.
Under him was Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, Deputy Commander-in-Chief and Chief of Staff to Nimitz, who was detached to command the Central Pacific Force, consisting of the powerful Fifth Fleet of fast battleships, cruisers and aircraft carriers, the striking forces that kept the enemy at sea and protected us ashore.
Next was Rear Admiral Turner, commanding the Fifth Amphibious Force, comprising old battleships, cruisers, destroyers, supply ships, transports, minesweepers, a veritable armada of vessels for transporting, supplying and supporting the troops.
I commanded the V Amphibious Corps, the expeditionary troops, which were under Kelly Turner's command for the purpose of operational control but were administratively independent. As soon as the assault waves hit the beach the status of my command was parallel, not inferior, to Kelly Turner's. For the two phases of the Gilberts operation, there was further subdivision: Kelly Turner commanded the Northern Attack Force for the assault on Makin and Rear Admiral Harry S. Hill commanded the Southern Attack Force at Tarawa. These organizational
details are necessary to explain the command relationships.
Headquarters of the V Amphibious COrps was in the Marine Barracks area in the Navy Yard at Pearl Harbor. Troops assigned here were quartered on Oahu at Camp Catlin, named after Brigadier General Albertus W. Catlin, here of World War I. We had three Marine divisions in the Pacific and a fourth in combat training on the West Coast. The Second Division, under Major General Julian C. Smith, assigned to the assault on Tarawa, was training in New Zealand.
For the Makin phase, the Twenty-seventh Army Division (New York National Guard) under Major General Ralph Smith, was assigned to the V Amphibious Corps for operational control, a term which if frequently misunderstood and must be clearly defined here in order to explain difficulties arising later. The term means that I had no administrative control over the Army division. The Twenty-seventh was turned over to me for employment in a specified operation, in this case the capture of Makin, and when the operation concluded the division reverted to the Army. However, only one regiment was actually employed at Makin.
Crippled as I was by shortages of staff for the task of planning and training for the Gilberts at short notice, I set to work with all the data available. In my estimate of the situation regarding the original objectives. I decided that the capture of Nauru would require more troops than we could spare and that the cost in men, time and equipment of a landing on poor beaches against strong Japanese defenses did not justify the attack. I suggested the substitution of Makin for Nauru and after much argument with Spruance and Turner I won my point, which Nimitz approved. This was the first important decision I was able to push through.
Major General Julian Smith, Colonel Merritt A. Edson, his Chief of Staff, and other members of his staff, flew from Wellington, New Zealand, to Pearl Harbor,where plans for Tarawa were drawn up at my headquarters and approved at a joint conference with Kelly Turner, Julian Smith, and our staffs.
The Makin plans were drawn up by Major General Ralph Smith and his staff and were similarly approved after modifications.
Commanding Army troops in the Central Pacific at this time was Lieutenant General Robert C. Richardson, Jr., who was also Military governor of the Hawaiian Islands. His nickname was "Nellie." Richardson caused more than a lifting of the eyebrows when he decorated members of his staff with the Legion of Merit for what he termed the "massive planning" of the Makin operation,. All the approved plans for Makin came out of my office.
His penchant for such decorations was not limited to awarding them, as became evident later in the war when he accepted an Air Medal from the local air commander, in recognition of his long overwater sightseeing trips in a command airplane, to and from islands which had been rendered safe by Marines.
I made an official call on Lieutenant General Richardson soon after I arrived. He was amiable and welcomed me to Hawaii but it was evident that my appointment to command the V Amphibious COrps and lead the Central Pacific offensive was a great disappointment to him.
Richardson's resentment was not based upon personal objections. Of this I am sure. The reason was much deeper rooted. Although he commanded the Army troops in the Central Pacific, his paperwork headquarters being non-tactical and responsible only for the administration and logistic support of the troops, he was directly under Nimitz in the chain of command. But he had hoped that he, and not a Marine, would be given command of amphibious operations. This ambition to make the Pacific offensive an Army show amounted to an obsession with Richardson and other Army men. They ruled out the possibility of Marines playing anything but a secondary part.
The decision to give command to a Marine was made by Nimitz in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief. Most of the troops to be employed in the offensive would be Marines, so a Marine commander was the logical choice. Moreover, this highly technical mode of warfare, in which Marines had trained for years, demanded specialized leadership and my experience in
training amphibious troops in the Atlantic, the Aleutians and on the West Coast must have influenced Nimitz in his decision. Richardson, on the other hand, had no amphibious background. He was a diehard horse cavalry enthusiast, who had been ordered to Hawaii from a swivel chair in the Army's high-powered Bureau of Public Relations in Washington.
The long standing General Staff thesis, that no Marine should ever be allowed to exercise high command, dominated Richardson's thinking and eventually expanded into an interService controversy--largely of his own making--between the Army and my Corps, in which he intervened against me with Nimitz and with Washington. After Tarawa, for example, he reported in a secret "eyes-only" memo to Nimitz, that Marines were not competent to command amphibious operations and that my veteran V Amphibious Corps headquarters should be replaced by an Army Corps command over all the Central Pacific. Nimitz kept me in ignorance of this, but my old team-mate, Admiral King (ably seconded by Vandegrift), made short work of the suggestion when it reached Washington.
Hostility to my initial endeavors from high Army sources was never demonstrated openly. Subtle influences were set in motion and permitted to flow unchecked through receptive channels. In combat it was disquieting to feel that my actions were being observed, not with the idea of constructive analysis but with the sole purpose of finding fault. Richardson seemed waiting for me to make a mistake that could be magnified to promote the grand plan of an Army-controled offensive, well supplied with Marine troops to do the fighting.
Had the Marines failed at Tarawa, no Marine would have commanded another major operation. Command in the Central Pacific would have passed to the Army. Since at this period there was not a single Army general with amphibious experience, it would have taken time to qualify commanders and, consequently, would have added months to the Pacific war.
The glittering prize of amphibious warfare, spectacular victory over Japan, dazzled not only Army eyes. The prospect pleased the Navy, who from the start made a determined effort
to cut me down to size and show the fountainhead of authority.
In a memorandum to Spruance on September 12, 1943, Kelly Turner indicated his intention of taking over the training of the landing forces. This was an attempt to usurp my functions and was probably initiated under the mistaken impression that I was a newcomer to command and could be molded to naval subservience. It was an effort to undermine everything we had accomplished for the marine Corps. As Commanding General of the V Amphibious Corps, I was in Hawaii to supervise the training of troops, their embarkation and everything we had accomplished for the Marine Corps. As Commanding General of the V Amphibious Corps, I was in Hawaii to supervise the training of troops, their embarkation and everything else pertaining to them. I wrote Spruance four days later, strongly protesting, and pointed out that turner, as Commander of the Fifth Amphibious Force, "would be granted operational control during the amphibious phase but that command of the landing force is a function of the Corps Commander. . . . The amphibious training of the units assigned to the landing force must be under his command."
That point was conceded but,with troops assigned, transports loaded and the expedition ready to sail from Pearl Harbor for the Gilberts, I was amazed to discover that in the general directive from Nimitz, my name had been removed from command. Apparently, the Navy intended to employ the V Amphibious Corps and leave me, the Corps Commander, twiddling my thumbs at Pearl Harbor. Incredible as it may seem, there it was--or wasn't. Nimitz had appointed me, ordered me and my staff to Pearl Harbor to take the job, entrusted me with the training of the troops and handed over all planning material and when matters had reached the final stage I was to be left behind.
The last minute change of orders sent me charging over to Spruance, who was as dumbfounded as I was that his top amphibious officer wasn't going along. Admiral Spruance insisted that I go along. I had no knowledge of the person or reason behind that extraordinary maneuver until the day Vice Admiral Charles H. McMorris, who succeeded Spruance as Chief of Staff to Nimitz, admitted that he was responsible. He had the Navy idea that naval officers could do the job without Marine assistance, other than divisional command.
Looking back on this period from the vantage of years and distance, I sometimes wonder if we didn't have two enemies: the Japanese and certain brass hats in the Army and Navy. But at that time I was too keen to get into combat to allow intrigues to upset me disastrously.
For the two-phase Gilbert operation I considered the allocation of troops and targets as satisfactory as possible. Tarawa would be a hard nut to crack. Information on Betio wasn't too good. The island had been seized by the Japanese from the British early in 1942 and was strongly fortified. Our charts were old. Air reconnaissance photographs failed to reveal all details of the enemy's cunningly hidden defenses constructed during a year and a half of occupation. The Second Division was a good outfit, already battle tested, and Julian Smith had drawn up a fine plan for wresting the island from its garrison of 4,000 men, approximately two-thirds of whom belonged to the Special Naval Landing Force,the elite of Japan's marine troops.
Makin was different. The main island of Butaritari was lightly held. The garrison was only 290 combat personnel, plus 271 laborers, and therefore I considered Makin a minor operation, which a single regimental combat team from the Twenty-seventh Army Division could handle easily. Admittedly, I was a little uneasy about the Army troops because Ralph Smith had told me the Army Inspector General had given an adverse report on the division. In Hawaii, I had to high-pressure the Twenty-seventh to get the division into a dress rehearsal for the Makin operation. One of Ralph Smith's objections was that his equipment might be damaged.
I took the 165th Regiment (Reinforced) for employment at Makin. It was the best in the division but prior to departure it was reported that MP's had been mauled in an incipient riot over at the Twenty-seventh Division's camp. The trouble was reported to have started over the question of return to the mainland after more than a year's service in the islands. This discontent, plus the fact that the Army troops were not so well trained as the Marines in amphibious warfare, did not make
the Twenty-seventh an ideal division but, since Makin was only feebly defended, a reinforced regiment should take it easily.
The Second Division embarked for Tarawa from New Zealand. The Makin forces sailed from Pearl Harbor. I travelled with Kelly Turner on his flagship, the USS Pennsylvania. This was my first combat command and my sense of expectancy just about balanced the mental third degree I gave myself, turning over all the cognate problems in my mind. Makin presented no obvious difficulty. I was not so sure about Tarawa. One uncertain factor was the Japanese defenses. Another was the long, fringing reef stretching the length of the lagoon and curving shallowly along the north shore of Betio Island, where we were to land. The tricky question of tide could not be overlooked. The system of underwater demolition teams, which contributed so much to the success of later landings, had not been organized and we had no accurate information on actual beach conditions since the Japanese emplaced underwater obstacles.
Our landing plans were on a radically new basis. We had Higgins boats, both LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) and LCMs (Landing Craft, Medium). In New Zealand, the Second Division had conducted special tests in shallow water simulating conditions anticipated at Tarawa.
However, we were to cautious to place our entire confidence in these craft. The Second Division also had a battalion of amphibian tractors, officially known as LVTs (Landing Vehicle, Tracked), the latest addition to our mechanized equipment and forerunner of other amphibious vehicles, including armored tanks. A few tractors, abbreviated to "amtracks," were used to haul supplies at guadalcanal, but for the deceptive reef at Tarawa we planned to send the first three waves of Marines ashore in amtracks, using Higgins boats to complete the landing of supporting waves and supplies.
What a fight I had to get an adequate number of amtracks into the operation. And what a lucky day it was for the Marines when, after virtually a stand-and-deliver ultimatum, the Navy
yielded on this supply request. It galls me to remember this instance of Navy stubbornness.
Officially, the Second Division had 75 amtracks but not all were operable. To insure success, more were needed. We used 125 all told, barely sufficient to carry in the first three waves, and during the battle the 125 dwindled to a mere handful due to reef hazards, enemy fire and mechanical defects.
During planning at Pearl Harbor, I was appalled to find Kelly Turner shortsightedly opposing the use of amtracks. He saw no need for them and said flatly he would not carry the vehicles on his ships. Our equipment, he stated, was adequate without these tractors.
I pointed out that it was essential we should have amtracks, as many as we could get, for carrying men and supplies across the reef, which landing boats might not be able to pass, and also for destroying underwater obstructions. On Oahu, I obtained irrefutable proof of the amtrack's efficiency in clearing a way through protected beaches. The amtracks walked clean through seven lines of barbed wire in tests. We knew that a double-apron barbed wire fence practically encircled Betio and a series of concrete tetrahedrons had been nearly completed. If the reef proved impassable for boats--and it did--the only way to get the men ashore was in amtracks.
When our disagreement reached an impasse I said bluntly, "Kelly, it's like this. I've got to have those amtracks. We'll take a helluva licking without them." And I added with finality, "No amtracks: no operation." The Marines took along their amtracks plus reinforcements, which they obtained this way: A shipment had arrived in San Diego too late to transport to New Zealand before the Second Division sailed. This shipment was rushed to American Samoa, where the Second Division picked up an additional fifty en route to Tarawa and we landed with the amtracks despite the reef.
Admiral Nimitz stressed the value of these amphibious vehicles in his report on the operation. He wrote:
The ideal defensive barrier has always been one that could not be demolished, which held up assaulting forces under the unobstructed
fire of the defenders and past which it was impossible to run, crawl, dig, climb or sail. The barrier reefs fulfil these conditions to the letter, except when sufficient amphibious tanks and similar vehicles are available to the attackers.
D-Day for one of the saddest and most glorious battles in American history was set for November 20, 1943. I am not going to describe the fight for Tarawa. The story, brilliantly told by war correspondents and Marines, has been written into the annals of our country. Besides, I was not there. I was 450 miles away, on board the Pennsylvania, chafing under the inexcusable delay caused by the fumbling Makin operation. Makin should have been cleaned up in one day but fighting dragged out three days and chained me to this insignificant skirmish.
My only direct contact with Tarawa was through laconic messages from Major General Julian Smith reporting the shifting phases of the attack. Three days of pre=landing air and naval bombardment failed to knock out the defenses. So strong was Betio that our naval gunfire did not materially reduce resistance. Two thousand tons of naval shells and 400 tons of bombs had little effect. The Japanese were ready for us.l Hardly had the transport fleet hove into sight, hardly had the assault force started embarking in amtracks and boats for the organization of waves when the shore batteries opened fire and our first casualties were caused by near misses.
What happened was that three of the four 8-inch Vickers guns, brought to Tarawa by the Japanese after the British surrendered Singapore Base, were still in action. Only one was knocked out by the initial bombardment. Our transports anchored far south of their proper stations and came within the range of enemy guns. H-hour (landing hour) was postponed twice while the transports shifted position to escape shore fire and were followed by the already loaded craft. Precious time was wasted in organizing assault waves because in the confusion boats were separated from their mother ships. Meanwhile, naval units moved in and silenced the big shore guns but for half an hour the Japanese gunners ashore had the transports at their mercy. Providentially for us, the Japanese seemed inept despite
our feeble initial bombardment. Perhaps the bombardment did stun them and disrupt their communications. Otherwise, they might have sunk some of our transports and wrecked our plans. As it was, the damage they inflicted was minor.
After two postponements,. H-hour was fixed for 0900. One Marine party already had reached the pier jutting out 500 yards from the north shore of Betio, where we had chosen out three landing beaches. Three waves of amtracks headed for shore, followed by landing boats. The reef was out undoing. It cost us many casualties on the first and second days of the battle. An attempt to lay down a smoke screen failed because the wind shifted. Also, an unaccountably low tide--which lasted for two days--lowered the water on the reef so that only amtracks were able to get ashore. The Higgins boats stranded on the reef, half a mile from the beach. Marvelous as they were, the Higgins boats couldn't run over dry coral.
At this point the failure of the bombardment to come up to the Navy's expectations became tragically apparent. Though the big guns had been taken out, there were dozens of smaller guns, from five-inchers down to vicious 37-millimeter anti-boat guns and machine guns in concrete emplacements and pillboxes. They were still operating, raining murderous fire on that half miles form reef to shore, where the men of the later waves jumped out of their boats and waded through the blood-stained surf into the swirling red hell that was Tarawa.
These details, of necessity, I learned later. On board the Pennsylvania, pacing near the communications shack and watching the dilatory Makin operation, I was unable to realize the gravity of the situation at Tarawa. The first message from Julian Smith read:
Successful landings on Beaches Red 2 and 3. Toe hold on Red 1. Am committing one LT (Landing Team) from division reserve. Still encountering strong resistance.
This message was timed an hour and a half after the landing and since his reference to committing another landing team from division reserve was not a cause for great alarm, in view of
the resistance, it was not until that afternoon that I got a true picture of Tarawa.
A message from Julian Smith reported that heavy casualties had been suffered during the morning and added, "The situation is in doubt." I was holding the Sixth Regiment, Second Division, as Corps reserve. Julian Smith asked that this reserve be turned over to him. Without it he was uncertain of the final outcome. He was sending in his own reserve and this left him with a few artillerymen, engineers, mechanics,military police and headquarters technicians.
Kelly Turner was in his cabin resting after long hours on the bridge. I took the message directly to him. After a discussion we decided to release the Corps reserve for employment by Julian Smith in compliance with his request. No conditions were imposed on its release, though I was seriously disturbed by such an early request. The battle was only a few hours old. I had full confidence in the commander of the Second Division and in his ability to use the reserve advantageously. I have always believed in decentralization and when a man is given a job to do he should be supported fully. The Second Division was one of the best in the Marine Corps; it was well trained and well led and, though the picture looked black, I was sure Julian Smith would not fail. Having landed, the Marines would hold on. My faith in the Corps reassured me.
But, knowing the strength of Betio, I was extremely apprehensive. Julian Smith would not have asked me to commit our last reserve unless conditions demanded this desperate action.
No news is good news in the ordinary pursuits of life but in war no news is bad news. I had had no sleep the night before and after committing our last reserve to the battle of Tarawa, sleep again was out of question. No matter what happened to my Marines at Tarawa I could not be with them because Turner insisted that I remain at Makin. He promised to send me south as soon as the situation was well in hand. Makin, an operation the Marines could have completed in a few hours, came first and he was in overall command. I stayed aboard the flagship, waiting.
That night, alone in my cabin with my fears, I turned to a
source of solace that has never failed me. I opened my Bible and read about Joshua and the Children of Israel and their troubles and triumphs. During the war, I always read the Bible each night before I went to sleep. It was a great spiritual relaxation: an answer to the day's problems. My Bible was given to me by my mother when I joined the Marine Corps and she admonished me, "Holland, always read your Bible. Never be ashamed of being esteemed religious."
Two other books also gave me consolation. One was the Catholic Prayer Book and the other a collection arranged by Father Joseph F. Stedman, bearing the title "My Daily Readings from the New Testament and the Daily Mass Book, distributed by the Chaplain's Aid Association. Coming from a Methodist family, I follow the faith of my fathers, but in the Pacific I was never without these two books and read a prayer from them each night. I have always felt a special sympathy with the doctrines of the Catholic Church because of the spiritual discipline the Church imposes.
Next morning I was buoyed by new hope, although the news on the second day was little better than on the first. Again the treacherous reef, the best ally the Japanese had, combined with enemy fire to hold up our landing. We still had only a precarious hold ashore but one factor was in our favor as we struggled to consolidate our position.
The Japanese were unable to counterattack. Had they counterattacked that first night they might have driven us back into the lagoon but the bombardment had achieved one positive result. Enemy communications, which were above ground, had been disrupted by naval gunfire and the Japanese were no longer a cohesive force but a series of scattered units. They had no system of runners for carrying messages and could not organize a counterattack.
The situation on the reef continued to worry me. Our supply of amtracks was limited and could not last indefinitely under operational strain. The dismal picture of my men trying to wade ashore against Japanese fire was before my eyes all day. I could do nothing to help them except pray for an early conclusion of
the Makin phase so that I could take the first plane to Tarawa.
However,reasoning dispassionately, I was able to discover reason for hope. In spite of terrific obstacles we had succeeded in getting a few tanks ashore, as I learned later, and this cheered the men tremendously. On the evening of D-day, Lieutenant Colonel Presley M. Rixey had started landing the 1st Battalion, 10th Marines (Artillery), a 75-millimeter pack howitzer unit.
Except for some destroyer fire on the eastern end of the island, Navy guns were helpless because of the uncertain situation ashore: the chances of killing Marines were too great in continued close fire support. By the morning of the second day, Rixey had five sections in action, bearing on Japanese strong points at close range.
The second day of the battle for Tarawa was one of climax and anti-climax. The bottleneck of the reef looked very serious when I studied Julian Smith's earlier messages but 30 hours after the Marines went ashore came a message which relayed the news from Colonel David M. Shoup, shore commander, reporting:
Casualties many; percentage of dead no known; combat efficiency: We are winning.
With this message in my hand I knew that the darkest hour at Tarawa had passed. Throwing in the Corps reserve had swayed the balance. Not only had Marine combat training triumphed; so had our morale. I looked forward more eagerly than ever to standing beside my men at Tarawa.
At Makin, however, the Army troops were infuriatingly slow. Butaritari, the objective island, should have been secured by dusk on D-day. Any Marine regiment would have done it in that time. At Eniwetok, the 22nd Marine Regiment, under Colonel John T. Walker, captured Engebi, a far stronger island than Makin, in seven hours, but on the morning of the second day the end of the Makin operation was not even in sight. Army superiority in numbers alone should have overwhelmed the Japanese. The 165th Infantry (Reinforced) totalled 6,500
men against an enemy garrison of 290 armed with nothing larger than light artillery and machine guns.
I was very dissatisfied with the regiment's lack of offensive spirit; it was preposterous that such a small Japanese force could delay the capture of Making three days. It probably was not the fault of the men. The 165th was not too well officered. When I returned to Pearl Harbor,I reported to Admiral Nimitz that had Ralph Smith been a Marine I would have relieved him of his command on the spot. His conduct of the operation did not measure up to my expectations at all.
Speaking as a Marine,faithful to service tradition, I was greatly disturbed by a certain incident at Makin. On D-day, Colonel Gardiner Conroy, commanding officer of the 165th Regiment, exposed himself while making a reconnaissance and was killed by a Japanese sniper. With him at the time was Lieutenant Colonel James Roosevelt, son of the President, who was a Marine observer attached to the Army. Two days alter, I was shocked to find the gallant Colonel's body still lying where it had fallen. No attempt had been made by either his officers or his men to recover the body and give it a Christian burial.
The body lay a few yards from the main road traversed by troops, jeeps and trucks, in full sight of hundreds of men and only a short distance from the beach. It was inconceivable to me that soldiers of a regiment, whose loyalty is centered on the man directly in command, their Colonel, could permit his body to lie unrecovered for two days. There was no danger involved in recovering it and even if there had been, such negligence was inexcusable. To me this callous disregard of a soldier's common duty to his commanding officer was an ominous commentary on the morale of the regiment. I ordered Ralph Smith to recover the body immediately and bury it. In that order I used emphatic language.
Poor Conroy's death had an ironic aftermath. Back in Honolulu, Richardson, without any reference to me, let alone the Marine Corps, decorated young Roosevelt with the Silver Star for his part of the Makin operation, which consisted of
being present. Had the matter been referred to me, a courtesy which should have been extended to the Commanding General, I would have strongly disapproved the recommendation. Jimmy Roosevelt proved himself a competent and courageous Marine on many occasions, but I always wondered how he felt about that decoration.
Another incident at Makin, well publicized at the time, involved a young Army lieutenant who was doing some wild firing. "Son, if you can't do better than that I'll have to take your gun away from you," I was quoted as saying. That admonition cast me in a paternalistic role which tells only half the story. The complete version is a sorry reflection on the undisciplined, trigger-happy Army troops on the island.
This is what happened: Accompanied by my aides, Major Woodrum and Captain Asbill, I was driving along the beach where hundreds of troops were unloading supplies. A company came through, firing indiscriminately right and left and forcing the unloading party to take cover in the belief it was enemy fire. Jumping from my jeep, I located the lieutenant in command and asked what he was firing at.
"I'm trying to clean out snipers in this area," he replied.
"Can't you see there aren't any Japs around here?" I shouted. "Our men are working all over the area and you come shooting at tree tops when any damn fool can see there aren't any Japs up there. Why, the enemy is thousands of yards up front."
"I was given orders to clean out this are," the lieutenant persisted. "And I think there still may be Japs around here. I'm shooting at everything so we won't be taking any chances."
This did make me howling mad. "If I hear one more shot from your men in this area I'll take your damn weapons and all your ammunition away from you," I said, revealing my identity. I was wearing my utility suit, without insignia. The shooting stopped and unloading was resumed.
One of the worst nights I ever spent in the Pacific was at the Command Post ashore on Makin when I slept under a mosquito net, on a cot set outside the tent. This was the first time the
165th Regiment had been in action and I hoped the presence of Ralph Smith, their Commanding General, and myself would be a good influence on the sentries posted around camp. I was mistaken. Shots whizzed over my head from a 25-yard range, drilled holes in the command post tent and clipped coconuts off the trees. I crawled out from under my net and implored the sentries to stop shooting at shadows. There wasn't a Japanese within a mile of the Command Post. My two orderlies, Sergeant Bradley and Sergeant Daniels, were less sanguine about their Army buddies. They spent an unmolested night in foxholes.
Only a brief examination of the situation ashore sufficed to show there was little opposition. I stressed to Ralph Smith the importance of cleaning up the island as soon as possible, and early on the morning of the third day I called for a report. I received one saying there was still heavy fighting at the northern end of the island, which delayed final capture. This seemed highly improbable, so I too a jeep and drove to the scene of the reported action. There was no firing of any sort. Two Army officers, Colonel Aereckson, Headquarters Support Aircraft officer, and Colonel C.B. Tenney, afterward Island Commander at Makin, joined me and we advanced to the front line of the battalion occupying that zone. It was as quiet as Wall Street on Sunday.
"Sometimes a General has to go up to the front and let the troops see him," I remarked. "That's the only way he can make them realize there's nothing ahead of them."
I was furious with Ralph Smith. I was anxious to go to Tarawa and here he was fiddling around with an operation that should have been ended long before in my opinion. His communications with his regiment were extremely poor and he showed little enterprise in improving them. He didn't know where his battalions were, and insisted on sitting by the phone, where he couldn't get any information because the phone didn't work.
Back at the Command Post I advised him to go and have a look for himself at what his staff called heavy fighting. There
were very few Japanese alive on Makin and it was all over as far as I was concerned. I collected my staff and returned to the Pennsylvania, where I reported to Kelly Turner there was no further need for my presence at Makin. That afternoon, a short time after I left the island, came Ralph Smith's message: "Makin taken."
Later the same afternoon the vest news I ever received came from Julian Smith. Organized resistance had ceased on Tarawa. Saipan and Iwo Jima caused me many anxious hours but the relief when they were "secured," the official end of operations, was nothing to the overflowing happiness I felt at that message from Tarawa.
Officially, Tarawa was secured at 1300, seventy-six hours after the Marines landed. Secured does not mean that fighting has ended. There is always the job of mopping up and cleaning out isolated pockets of resistance, but to all practical purposes fighting is over. The message meant Tarawa was ours; Makin was ours; and when Brigadier General Leo D. Hermle seized Apamama Atoll two days later, after Marine reconnaissance troops had landed, the Gilbert Islands were ours. For the first time in a week I slept soundly, free from the endless apprehensions that had tortured me, and I woke up refreshed, ready to board the seaplane to Tarawa.
No words of mine can reproduce the picture I saw when the plane landed after circling that wracked and battered island. The sight of our dead floating in the waters of the lagoon and lying along the blood-soaked beaches is one I will never forget. Over the pitted, blasted island hung a miasma of coral dust and death, nauseating and horrifying. Chaplains, corpsmen and troops were carrying away wounded and burying the dead. We had about a thousand killed and, added to this nightmare of mangled bodies, were the four to five thousand Japanese. The Marines took 146 prisoners but only 17 were Japanese. The others were Korean laborers.
As I stepped ashore from the barge to the jetty inside the lagoon on my way to Julian Smith's Command Post, I passed
boys who had lived yesterday a thousand times and looked older than their fathers. Dirty, unshaven, with gaunt, almost sightless eyes, they had survived the ordeal but it had chilled their souls. They found it hard to believe they were actually alive. There were no smiles on these ancient, youthful faces; only passive relief among the dead.
I haven't the slightest recollection of what I said to Julian Smith when I met him in the battered Japanese shack he called his headquarters, although I remember vividly the faces of the boys on the beach. I do remember clasping his hand warmly and I must have congratulated him on his fine conduct of the campaign. He was elated over victory but, like myself, distressed by the casualties. We both knew the Marines would be criticized by the people back home, to whom the high price paid for Tarawa must come as a shock. I do remember that later I extended congratulations to members of his staff and to officers of the Second Division--that is, those who survived. Among 3,301 casualties at Tarawa, were 57 officers killed and 111 wounded. The ratio of dead to wounded--about one to two--was probably the highest in any battle of World War II.
With Julian Smith I made a tour of the western and central portions of the island, where the enemy had built his strongest pillboxes and blockhouses. My pride in the invincible spirit of the Marines was never greater. Only men with the highest morale and willingness to die rather than be defeated could have captured this well-nigh impregnable chain of fortifications. Japanese prisoners told me their officers boasted Betio defenses were so strong that a million men could not take the island.
Turning to Major Woodrum, I said, "I don't see how they ever took Tarawa. It's the most completely defended island I have ever seen."
That inspection trip left other impressions on my mind--impressions of our own inadequacies. Before the Marines landed and the Navy laid down the final bombardment, one of the Admirals messaged the Southern Attack Force:
It is not our intention to wreck the island. We do not intend to destroy it. Gentlemen, will will obliterate it.
Obliterate it? I entered every pillbox and blockhouse on the western end of the island and found only one had even been hit by naval gunfire. Not one had been destroyed. All of them had to be destroyed by the marines with explosive charges and hand grenades. Dead Japanese lay everywhere but they were killed by Marines, not by Naval gunfire.
Instead of three days' preliminary bombardment, Betio needed at least ten. After that amount of fire, the Marines would not have faced guns that should have been knocked out before they landed. They would not have had to capture, almost barehanded, positions the Japanese had fortified for 15 months. The strength of the blockhouses was tremendous. Concrete was five feet thick and superimposed were i-inch coconut palm logs, reinforced with angle iron and railroad spikes. The Japanese then piled ten feet of coral or soil on this structure. Nothing but a direct hit with a 16-inch shell, or a 2,000-pound bomb could cave them in.
The Second Division had initiated a request to Major General Willis A. Hale, commanding the Army's Seventh Air Force, that 2,000-pound bombs be dropped on Betio. For some unexplained reason, this request was ignored so there was nothing left for the Marines to do but take the blockhouses by frontal attack.
The Japanese Command Post was a case in point. On the low-lying coral island it reared against the skyline like a two-story house, a massive building of reinforced concrete, coconut logs and sandbags. A Kingfisher reconnaissance plane from the USS Maryland, Hill's flagship, spotted it intact long after it was supposed to have been knocked out. He radioed his discovery to the task force and his message was acknowledged. But it was not knocked out.
Once more, the Marines took the blockhouse their own way. Bulldozers were moved up, the drivers sheltering behind the blades, and buried the entrance in coral and dirt. As the height of the rubble increased, gunports and other apertures were closed, immobilizing all Japanese resistance and completing the process of entombment. Marines then climbed on top of the blockhouses and poured gasoline down the air vents. A few hand
grenades, and incineration followed. Rear Admiral Keijai Shibashi, the island commander, was the principal victim of this holocaust. The Marines took out 300 bodies. It was a grim procedure but the only course left to the Marines if they wanted to survive.
If Tarawa had to be fought, its only justification was the information we gained that saved lives and increased the efficiency of our landing technique in subsequent operations. We were entering a new, uncharted land, a field of military enterprises in which we were guided only by theory and peacetime maneuvers. At best, simulated attacks are poor substitutes for combat experience. This was our first frontal attack on a fortified enemy atoll and we were ignorant both of its capacity for resistance and of our own offensive limitations. The Marine doctrine of amphibious assault stood the test.
Timing of the operation and the selection of beaches were good. The three beaches on the north coast of Betio, inside the lagoon, were the only feasible landing beaches. Had we delayed our attack a few weeks, the Japanese would have completed their ring of underwater obstacles and made our landing even more difficult. Lieutenant Colonel (afterwards Brigadier General) Evans F. Carlson's raid on makin in August, 1i942, was a spectacular performance by his 2nd Marine Raider Battalion but it was also a piece of folly. The raid had no useful military purpose and served only to alert the Japanese to our intentions in the Gilberts. The intensive fortification of Tarawa dates from that raid.
Tarawa taught us the necessity for more naval gunfire and more air bombing before we undertook a landing. What was considered by the Navy a paralyzing amount of fire was directed at Betio, in our first wedding of naval guns and airplane bombs in the reduction of a fortified atoll, but until after Tarawa we could not calculate accurately the result of this type of attack on concentrated fortifications such as the Japanese had constructed. Moreover, the Navy was inclined to exaggerate the destructive effect of gunfire and this failing really amounted to a job imperfectly done. The Marines discovered this fact only when
they tried to land. Air assistance was no better gauged than naval support and the strikes were poorly coordinated. The planes were not there when needed. The secret of amphibious warfare is concentration of your forces and meticulous coordination of all elements, plus as much naval gunfire and air bombardment as you can pour into enemy positions.
An island as small as Betio made it impossible to establish a beachhead as we understand the term in amphibious parlance. There was no depth beyond the beaches for landing supplies and organizing attacks. With every yard accurately and carefully covered by enemy fire, we had first to get a toehold and proceed to take the island all in one piece. This was the first time we had made an assault across a fringing reef covered by an uncertain depth of water and our calculations on water depth were badly in error. The Japanese were fully aware of the defensive possibilities of that reef from the vantage of their pre-sited guns,and they were helped by the inexplicably low tide which held for two days.
Another lesson the Navy should have learned was the need for better cooperation between all units. An Admiral should confine himself to the job of carrying the troops safely to the objective and then helping the protect them. He should leave details of landing and assault to the troop commander.
The reef at Tarawa emphasized the value of amphibian vehicles. The operation was as much as test of our technical equipment as it was of our landing technique. We should have had more amtracks for employment in the initial landing, with adequate reserves for vehicles knocked out by enemy guns or incapacitated by mechanical difficulties. The two or three types used stood up well. The average mechanical life of an amtrack is 200 hours; some of those used at Tarawa had already run 400 hours.
After Tarawa I made up my mind that all future landings would be spearheaded by amphibious vehicles, either the open-decked amtrack, of which a new improved model was already being made available, or amphibian tanks, carrying heavier guns, which were in production. This decision did not mean discarding
Higgins boats. These craft could be used on unobstructed beaches, or through reef channels--as the work horse of amphibious landings--but for impassable reefs the solution was the amphibious vehicle.
Tarawa taught other lessons. it stimulated our desire to learn. It taught us more about the character of the enemy than all the textbooks and intelligence reports at staff disposal. In the strategical scheme for the Central Pacific offensive, it taught me that the instrument of high policy known as the Joint Chiefs of Staff was not infallible.
Tarawa was a mistake.
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