The Gilberts Operation

Chapter 1
Preparing to Take the Offensive1


The summer of 1943 saw a revival of the strategy contained in both ORANGE and RAINBOW Plans as well as rigorous training in amphibious techniques, methods that stemmed from further elaboration of the theories of amphibious warfare first advanced by Major Earl Ellis. The Central Pacific offensive, for so many years the keystone of American naval planning, was about to begin with operations against the Gilbert Islands.2 The attack on this group of atolls would test the Marine Corps concept of the amphibious assault, an idea originated by Ellis and greatly modified by his successors. The major had been confident that a defended beach could be taken by storm, and since his death new equipment and tactics had been perfected to aid the attackers, but the fact remained that such an operation had never been tried against a determined enemy dug in on a small island. Was Ellis' conclusion still valid? Could an army rise out of the sea to overwhelm prepared defenses? These questions soon would be answered. (See Map I, Map Section.)

On 20 July the JCS ordered Admiral Nimitz to begin preparing for the capture, development, and defense of bases in the Gilbert group and on Nauru Island. This directive also provided for the occupation of any other islands that might be needed as air bases or naval facilities for the carrying out of the primary mission. GALVANIC was the code name assigned to the Gilberts-Nauru venture. The operation was intended to be a preliminary step to an attack against the Marshalls.


Gilbert Islands


At the same time, a lodgement in the Gilberts, in addition to bringing the Marshalls within range of land-based bombers, also would insure the safety of Samoa and shorten the line of communication to the South and Southwest Pacific.

The bulk of the Pacific Fleet, the Central Pacific Force under Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, was committed to the Gilberts operation. As commander of the GALVANIC expedition, Spruance was the immediate subordinate of Admiral Nimitz. The actual landings would be conducted by V Amphibious Force, headed by Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner. This organization, established on 24 August 1943, was similar to the amphibious force that had carried out the Attu invasion. Within Turner's force was V Amphibious Corps (VAC), organized on 4 September and commanded by Marine Major General Holland M. Smith. The general had with him the same staff, with representatives from all services, that had aided in preparing for the Aleutians offensive. Like the original Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, the new VAC was to train and control the troops required for future operations in the Pacific Ocean Areas.

Nimitz had entrusted GALVANIC to a group of experienced Navy and Marine Corps officers. Spruance had commanded a carrier task force at the Battle of Midway; Turner had led the amphibious force that landed the Marines at Guadalcanal and Tulagi and had directed a similar force in operations against New Georgia; and Holland Smith had helped train troops for amphibious operations in Europe, North Africa, and the Aleutians. Preparations for the Gilberts invasion had been placed in capable hands.

The man who would actually command the amphibious phase of the Tarawa operation, Rear Admiral Harry W. Hill, reported to Admiral Turner on 18 September 1943. Hill, a veteran battleship and escort carrier group commander fresh from the South Pacific battles, was designated Commander, Amphibious Group 2. His group would transport, land, and support the assault troops at Tarawa, while a similar group, which Admiral Turner retained under his direct command, would be part of the attack force at Makin. When Hill arrived, the projected D-Day for GALVANIC was 1 November, which was later changed to 20 November, a date which provided only two months to weld a widely scattered force of ships and troops into an effective team.3

The major Marine unit available to Turner's amphibious force was the 2d Marine Division, commanded by Major General Julian C. Smith. This division had fought at Guadalcanal and was currently reorganizing in New Zealand. The division commander, a Marine Corps officer since 1909, joined the unit after it had sailed from Guadalcanal; but during his career he had seen action at Vera Cruz, in Haiti, Santo Domingo, and Nicaragua, and had served in Panama and Cuba as well. In the words of the division historian, Julian Smith's "entirely unassuming manner and friendly hazel eyes clothed a determined personality


that could be forcefully displayed in decisive moments. His concern for his men was deep and genuine."4

Because of the scope of the proposed Central Pacific campaign and the need in other theaters for Marine amphibious divisions, Army troops appeared certain to be needed for GALVANIC and later operations. Preliminary training, administration, and logistical support of these Army divisions fell to the Commanding General, Army Forces, Pacific Ocean Areas, Lieutenant General Robert C. Richardson. In carrying on his work, General Richardson was subject to the direction of Admiral Nimitz.

When the JCS first began exploring the possibility of a thrust into the Gilberts, Admiral King had urged that only Marines be used in the operation. General MacArthur's needs for amphibious troops and the shortage of transports to bring a second Marine division to the Central Pacific prevented the carrying out of King's recommendation. General Marshall, on 29 July offered an Army unit instead, the 27th Infantry Division then in Hawaii, close to the scene of future combat. Although the unit had received no amphibious training, this was a deficiency that Holland Smith's VAC could solve.

A part of the New York National Guard, the 27th Division had been inducted into the federal service in the fall of 1940. Upon the outbreak of war, the unit had been ordered from Fort McClellan, Alabama, to various installations in California. After standing guard on the Pacific coast, the division sailed in March 1942 for the Hawaiian Islands. In command of the 27th Division when it was assigned to Operation GALVANIC was Major General Ralph C. Smith, who had studied and later lectured at France's Ecole de Guerre and who was considered a keen tactician.5

During the planning for and fighting on Guadalcanal, a naval officer, Admiral Turner, had the final responsibility for the conduct of operations, both afloat and ashore. The views of the admiral, a man sure in his opinions and forceful in presenting them, did not always coincide with those of the landing force commander, Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, when the question was the proper employment of troops. General Vandegrift, who recognized the absolute necessity of naval control of the assault, wanted unquestioned authority over operations ashore. A dispatch to Admiral King proposing this command setup was drafted in late October 1942 by the Commandant, Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb, who was on an inspection trip to the South Pacific, signed by Admiral Halsey, and endorsed by Admiral Nimitz. On his return to Washington, Holcomb indicated to King that he concurred in the concept that the landing force and naval task force commanders should have equal authority, reporting to a joint superior, once the landing phase of the amphibious assault was completed.6


Although such a change in doctrine evolved eventually, in the relatively brief operations against the small atolls of the Central Pacific, the role of the naval comander in tactical operations remained paramount.

In setting up the planning machinery for GALVANIC, Admiral Spruance followed the Guadalcanal precedent and made VAC completely subordinate to Turner. Holland Smith, a man just as forceful and outspoken as Turner, objected vigorously and successfully to this setup. Spruance so revised his system that Holland Smith and Turner faced each other as equals throughout the planning phase. On the surface it would seem that the Navy officer and the Marine had equal voice in shaping plans for GALVANIC, but Spruance naturally looked upon Turner as his principal amphibious planner. The decisions of the force commander, however, depended upon the scheme of maneuver advanced by the corps commander, in this case Holland Smith.7

In one respect, their dislike for Nauru as an objective, Spruance, Turner, and Holland Smith were in complete agreement. They did not want to divide the available naval forces and conduct two simultaneous amphibious operations separated by 380 miles, with the enemy naval base at Truk beyond the reach of any land-based reconnaissance planes. Admiral Spruance vigorously protested the selection of Nauru and argued for the substitution of Makin Atoll in its stead. He recalled:

Kelly Turner and I both discussed this situation with Holland Smith at length. It appeared to me that Nauru had been useful to the Japanese as a position from which to search to the southward the area between the Gilbert and Ellice Groups on the east and the Solomons on the west. Once this area was controlled by us, Nauru was not needed by us, and we could keep it pounded down. On the other hand, Makin was 100 miles closer to the Marshalls where we were going, and it tied in well from the point of view of fleet coverage with an operation against Tarawa. The more we studied the details of capturing Nauru, the tougher the operation appeared to be, and finally it seemed doubtful that the troops assigned for it could take it. The transports available for trooplift were the limiting factor. Makin . . . was an entirely suitable objective, and its capture was well within our capabilities.8

The upshot of these discussions was that Holland Smith offered a revised estimate of the situation, endorsed by Turner, that led to a revision of the concept of GALVANIC. On 19 September, the general pointed out that at least one entire division would be required to seize rocky, cave-riddled Nauru. In addition, this island lacked a lagoon as an anchorage for small craft and had only a tiny airfield. This estimate was presented to Nimitz on 24 September, while Admiral King was in Pearl Harbor for a conference with CinCPac, and Spruance recommended to both that the Nauru portion of the plan be scrapped. Proposed substitute


for this target was Makin Atoll, which boasted a lagoon and ample room for airstrips. The defenses of Makin appeared weaker than those of Nauru, its beaches better, and its location near enough to Tarawa to permit the concentration of American shipping. Convinced by the arguments of the GALVANIC commanders, "Admiral King agreed to recommend to the JCS the substitution of Makin for Nauru."9

There was little quarrel with the selection of Tarawa as an objective of the GALVANIC forces. Although this atoll was heavily defended, its capture would cut in half the distance that American bombers would have to fly in raiding the Marshalls. Also, Betio Island in this atoll was the nerve center for the Japanese defense of the Gilberts. The responsible planners believed that the Gilberts could not be neutralized with the American strength then available until Tarawa was overrun.

The capture of Apamama was also thought necessary if the Americans were to consolidate their hold on the Gilberts. Again, the primary consideration was to gain an air base from which to strike the Marshalls. This atoll promised to be the least difficult of the three objectives that Central Pacific planners wished to include in GALVANIC.

The JCS promptly agreed to the substitution of Makin for Nauru, and on 5 October, Admiral Nimitz issued Operation Plan 13-43, containing the revised concept of GALVANIC. This document assigned Admiral Spruance the mission of capturing, developing, and defending bases at Makin, Tarawa, and Apamama. The operation was designed to gain control of the Gilberts and by so doing to smooth the way into the Marshalls, improve the security and shorten the line of communication with Australia, and support operations in the South Pacific, Southwest Pacific, and Burma areas by exerting pressure on the Japanese. (See Map 1.)


Although the Gilberts group was not included by popular journalists among "Japan's Islands of Mystery," American planners knew very little about the one-time British possession. Charts and tide tables provided by the Navy Hydrographic Office proved unreliable. In fact, the maps prepared by the Wilkes expedition of 1841 were found to be as accurate as some of the more modern efforts. If the assault troops were to get ashore successfully, detailed intelligence had to be obtained on beach conditions, tides, and the depth of water over the reefs that fringed the atolls. Principal sources of such information were photographs taken from aircraft and submarines as well as interviews with former residents of the islands.

American photo planes, both land-based


Liberators (B-24s) and carrier aircraft, soared over Tarawa on 18-19 September and again on 20 October. Makin was photographed on 23 July and 13 October. Of the two atolls, Tarawa received better coverage, for only vertical aerial photos of Makin reached the joint intelligence center. Without oblique prints, photo interpreters had difficulty in estimating beach conditions and determining the exact nature of shore installations.

In spite of this handicap, and the inability of interpreters to gauge the depth of water from aerial photographs alone, other information was evaluated in conjunction with the photographs and the work done by intelligence officers proved to be extremely accurate. The remarkable ability of the aerial camera to locate enemy positions and the skill with which these photographs were analyzed enabled the interpreters to estimate the size of the enemy garrison from a picture that showed the shoreline latrines on Betio.

In commenting on this impressive bit of detective work, the 2d Division operations officer (D-3),11 later called the picture they used "the best single aerial photo taken during WWII."12 Using it, he was able to select the spot where he thought "the headman's CP was, since it was the only place with a baffle and sufficient room to drive a vehicle between the baffle and the door."13 He also was able to determine which of the latrines were probably used by officers by the difference in type. Figuring that the Japanese would assign more men per latrine than an American force, he was able to present intelligence officers with an interesting problem and method of finding the size of the garrison. Utilizing these factors, the D-2 (intelligence) section came up with a figure that Japanese documents later indicated was within a few men of the actual count. The D-3 commented: "This didn't help much in determining strategy and tactics, but it provided the valuable knowledge of enemy strength. By the laws of chance we happened to strike it right."14

Additional and extremely valuable data on reefs, beaches, and currents was obtained by the submarine Nautilus. This vessel had been fitted out to take pictures of the atolls through her periscope. None of the cameras issued for this mission could take an intelligible picture, but fortunately one of her officers owned a camera that would work.15 For 18 days Nautilus cruised through the Gilberts, pausing to take panoramic shots of Apamama, Tarawa, and Makin. The negatives did not reach Hawaii until 7 October, but the photos were developed, interpreted, and


the information contained in them disseminated in time for the invasion.

Intelligence officers also were able to gather together 16 persons familiar with the Gilberts. Travelers, traders, or former residents of the British colony, they were attached to Admiral Turner's staff. Those most familiar with Tarawa were sent to Wellington where the 2d Marine Division was training, while those who knew Makin best were assigned to the 27th Infantry Division in Hawaii. Additional intelligence on Makin came from Lieutenant Colonel James Roosevelt, who had fought there as executive officer of the 2d Marine Raider Battalion during the raid of 17--18 August 1942.

Tarawa, the intelligence officers found, was the sort of objective that Earl Ellis had pictured when he first began his study of the amphibious assault. The target for which the 2d Marine Division had been alerted to prepare was a coral atoll triangular in shape, two legs of the triangle being formed by reef-fringed chains of islands and the third by a barrier reef. The southern chain measured 12 miles, the northeastern 18 miles, and the western or reef side 121/2 miles. A mile-wide passage through which warships could enter the lagoon pierced the coral barrier. (See Map 2.)

Key to the defenses of Tarawa was Betio, southwestern-most island in the atoll, just three and one-half miles from the lagoon entrance. On Betio the Japanese had built an airfield, and bases for planes were what the Americans wanted. Like the rest of Tarawa, this island was flat; indeed, the highest point in the entire atoll was but 10 feet above sea level. Betio, completely surrounded by reefs, was only 3 miles long and some 600 yards across at its widest point. The Joint Intelligence Center, Pacific Ocean Areas, after weighing all the evidence estimated that between 2,500 and 3,100 Japanese troops were crammed onto the island. The intelligence officers also reported that the enemy might have 8 or 9 coastal defense guns including 8-inch guns,16 12 heavy antiaircraft guns, 12 medium antiaircraft guns, and emplacements for 82 antiboat guns and 52 machine guns or light cannon. The fighting on Betio would be bloody, but a difficult problem had to be solved before the Marines could come to grips with the enemy. A way had to be found to cross the reefs that encircled the island. (See Map II, Map Section.)

The best solution would have been to land the division in amphibian tractors (LVTs), for these vehicles, like the legendary river gunboats of the American Civil War, could navigate on the morning dew. Unfortunately, the tractors were in short supply, so that most of the troops would have to come ashore in LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel), boats which drew about 31/2 feet of water. Because the assault on Betio had been scheduled for 20 November, a day on which the difference between high and low tide would be slight, the attackers could not rely on any flood of water to float them over the troublesome reef. The success of the operation well might depend


upon an accurate estimate on the depth of the water off Betio.

The first estimate made by amphibious force intelligence officers predicted that during the period of lowest tides no more than two feet of water would cover the reefs off the northern coast of Betio. Turner's staff also was aware that during the lowest period, tides at the island might ebb and flow several times in a single day. There was the remote possibility of a freak "dodging tide," a tide with an eccentric course that could not be foreseen or predicted. Such tides had been reported, but few of the islanders had experienced one. On the other hand, those officers responsible for GALVANIC could take heart from the fact that some of the island traders who had sailed among the Gilberts predicted that there would be five feet of water, more than enough for the landing craft. Some of the Americans chose to be optimistic.

Among those who entertained doubts concerning the depth of water over reef at Betio was Major F. L. G. Holland, a New Zealander and former resident of Tarawa Atoll. Assigned to the staff of General Julian Smith, Holland did not accept the estimate of five feet, but he could not disprove the tide tables prepared by his fellow experts. He could, however, point out that during the neap period tides ebbed and flowed irregularly and warn the Marines to expect as little as three feet of water at high tide.

After listening to the New Zealand major, Julian Smith decided to prepare for the worst. The troops embarked in LCVPs were briefed to be ready to face the possible ordeal of wading ashore in the face of Japanese fire. The best that Julian Smith could foresee was a 50-50 chance that landing craft would clear the reef.

Hydrographic and reef conditions also helped dictate the choice of landing beaches. On the south or ocean side of Betio, the reef lay about 600 yards from the island proper, but heavy swells rolled in from the open sea, a factor which might complicate the landings. To land directly from the west would mean crossing both the barrier and fringing reefs as well as battling strong and unpredictable currents. Aerial photographs showed that the enemy defenses were strongest on the seaward side and that the beaches were heavily mined.17 The choice, then, narrowed to the lagoon side where the reef, though wide, rose gradually to the surface. In addition, the island itself would serve as a breakwater to ships maneuvering within the lagoon.

Makin, northernmost of the Gilberts, was the objective of a reinforced regiment of the 27th Infantry Division. Like Tarawa, this atoll was shaped like a distorted triangle. Southeast of the spacious lagoon lay the large islands of Butaritari and Kuma. A long reef


formed the northern leg of the triangle, but the western portion, made up of scattered islets and reefs, was for the most part open to the sea. Butaritari, some six miles in length, was the principal island in the atoll. Intelligence officers discovered that the western part of the narrow island was swampy and somewhat overgrown. Much of Butaritari, however, had been given over to the cultivation of coconut palms and of the native staple food, taro. (See Map 4.)

Photographs of Butaritari, best clue to Japanese strength, led planners to believe that only 500 to 800 troops were available for the defense of the island. This total included an infantry company, a battery of four heavy antiaircraft guns, and two antiaircraft machine gun batteries. Most of the enemy installations were located in the vicinity of Butaritari Village within an area bounded on east and west by antitank ditches.

Unlike the reef off Betio, the coral outcropping around Butaritari was not considered a particularly difficult obstacle. Along the lagoon shore and off the southern part of the west coast at the island, the reef was considered to be so close to the beaches or so flat that it could be crossed quickly. Even if the LCVPs grounded at the edge of the reef, intelligence officers felt that the soldiers could wade ashore without difficulty.

Apamama, according to intelligence estimates, should cause its attackers no trouble at all. As late as 18 October, the atoll was not occupied by any organized defensive force. The only emplacement that photo interpreters could locate was for a single pedestal-mounted 5-inch naval gun, a weapon that appeared to have been abandoned. It was thought possible, however, that several coastwatchers might lurk among the islands that formed the atoll.18 (See Map 6.)


The basic organization for GALVANIC was established by Operation Plan 143, issued by Admiral Spruance on 25 October. The task organization consisted of three major groups: Rear Admiral Charles A. Pownall's Carrier Task Force (TF 50), Admiral Turner's Assault Force (TF 54), and Defense Forces and Land-based Air (TF 57) commanded by Rear Admiral John H. Hoover. The Assault Force was divided into two attack forces. One of these, the Northern Attack Force (TF 52) remained under Turner's command and was assigned to capture Makin. The other, Southern Attack Force (TF 53) under Admiral Hill, was to seize Tarawa and Apamama.

Admiral Pownall's TF 50 was to play an important part in the forthcoming operation. In addition to establishing and maintaining aerial superiority in the area, the carrier pilots were to aid the amphibious assault by neutralizing Japanese defenses, helping to spot the fall of supporting naval gunfire, and flying observation missions over Makin, Tarawa, and Apamama. They also had the mission of searching ahead of the convoys, providing fighter cover for


Tarawa Atoll
November 1943


the operation, and guarding against submarine attack.

The land-based planes of TF 57 were to help gain mastery of the skies over the Gilberts. Flying from airstrips on Baker Island and in the Ellice, Phoenix, and Samoan groups, Admiral Hoover's aircraft, including the planes of the Seventh Air Force, were to blast those bases from which the enemy might interfere with GALVANIC. In addition, this force was to bomb the assault objectives and conduct long-range searches.

Before preparing the command relationships paragraph of Admiral Spruante's operation order, his chief of staff, Captain Charles J. Moore, had long discussions with the commanders involved. Continual revisions were made to clarify Holland Smith's position and to satisfy him regarding the role of the landing force commanders at Tarawa and Makin. At each objective, Julian Smith and Ralph Smith were to take independent command of their own forces, once they were established ashore, but "their gunfire support and logistic support and they, themselves, remained under the command of their respective Assault Task Commanders."19 In the case of Holland Smith as a tactical corps commander, the naval leaders considered--although the Marine general disagreed--that he had no function "in directing the operations of the two independent commanders ashore at Betio and Makin. He could do nothing without the functioning of the Task Force Commander who controlled the ships."20

General Holland Smith was to sail in the Assault Force flagship and command the landing force; however, Admiral Spruance made directives issued by the general subject to the approval of Admiral Turner, since the employment of troops was governed by "the capabilities of the surface units to land and support them."21 The operation plan issued by Turner followed this definition of Holland Smith's duties. The general was to advise the Assault Force commander on the employment of the landing force and the use of reserves, but at both Makin and Tarawa the Attack Force commanders would exercise authority through the commanders ashore. Although Spruance directed that the assault troops would be free of naval control after the beachhead had been secured, his command alignment did not follow the theories advanced by the Marines who had fought at Guadalcanal. Unquestionably, the Central Pacific commander determined that GALVANIC, with two widely separated landings either of which might attract the Japanese battle fleet, was an operation which required naval control throughout all its stages.22

As he had done concerning his role in planning, Holland Smith protested his tactical command position to Spruance. The naval officer replied that VAC retained operational control over three garrison units: the 2d and 8th Marine Defense Battalions and the 7th Army


Defense Battalion; overall command of assault troops would be exercised by Turner through Holland Smith. "It is considered essential," Spruance continued, "that the responsibility for the assault be placed on the Commander Fifth Amphibious Force. He will require the benefit of your knowledge of amphibious training and operations to ensure the success of the operation with the minimum losses to the troops engaged."23 In response to a query from General Richardson, who received a copy of this letter, as to whether Admiral Turner or General Holland Smith was the "immediate superior combat commander" of Army troops engaged in GALVANIC, Admiral Nimitz replied that the "immediate superior combat commander of the Commanding General, 27th Infantry Division (Army), is the Commanding General, 5th Amphibious Corps, Major General Holland Smith, USMC."24


The overall plan for GALVANIC called for the 2d Marine Division (less one regiment in corps reserve) to storm Tarawa, while the 165th Infantry of the 27th Division took Makin. Elements of the Marine reserve regiment could be employed at either objective, depending upon the enemy's reaction, or used to occupy Apamama. When and where the reserve would be committed was a decision that Admiral Turner alone would make. The force commander, however, might rely upon the advice of Holland Smith.

At both Makin and Tarawa, it was planned that the first few waves would churn ashore in amphibian tractors, vehicles that had been ferried to the objective in tank landing ships (LSTs). Off the atolls, the landing ships would stop, open the huge doors in their bows and disgorge the tractors down a lowered ramp into the water. Since the assault troops would be in transports, it was necessary that they first climb down heavy nets to enter LCVPs from which they later would transfer to LVTs. The tractors would then maneuver to form waves, each one destined for a particular beach. Plans called for minesweepers to sweep the lagoon entrance, anchor buoys to mark the cleared channel, and take position at the line of departure. At this line, the waves were to be guided into lanes leading directly to the assigned beach and at a given signal sent racing across the line toward the island.

The procedure planned for later waves was slightly different, for LVTs had been reserved for the leading assault elements. Since no transfer was necessary, the same LCVPs in which the infantrymen and artillerymen left their transports would carry them to the rendezvous area for the formation of assault waves, to the line of departure where the shoreward movement would be coordinated, and finally to the embattled beachhead. Two Landing


Ships, Dock (LSDs) , the USS Ashland and Belle Grove, had been assigned to carry the medium tanks for Operation GALVANIC. These ships would perform basically the same service for the Landing Craft, Medium (LCMs) and the tanks they carried that the smaller LSTs did for the amphibian tractors. The holds of the LSDs would be flooded to enable the landing craft to float through an opening in the stern. Once afloat, the LCMs would head for the rendezvous area for assignment to the proper boat wave, the first leg in their journey into battle.

D-Day at both objectives was to be ushered in with an aerial attack. From 0545 to 0615 carrier planes would bomb and strafe enemy troops and installations. After the aviators had completed their final runs, the fire support ships would begin a 21/2-hour hammering of the objectives. Scheduled to blast Butaritari Island at Makin were four old battleships, four cruisers, and six destroyers. Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, was destined to shudder under the weight of high explosives thrown into it by three battleships, five cruisers, and nine destroyers. Never before had such powerful seaborne batteries been massed against such small targets. The result, naval gunfire planners optimistically hoped, would be devastating, although few experienced officers looked for total destruction of the enemy defenses.25 When the naval guns had ceased their thundering, the carrier planes would return for a five-minute attack on the invasion beaches as the assault waves were moving ashore.

Naval gunfire, to be delivered on D-Day and after, was scheduled for both objectives. When the ships opened fire depended upon the enemy's reaction, for any Japanese batteries that threatened the unloading would have to be silenced. Preparatory fires on D-Day, divided into two phases, were to begin after the first air strike. First, the support ships would deliver 75 minutes of pre-arranged neutralization and counterbattery fire, if necessary closing the range to as little as 2,000 yards in order to knock out protected coastal defense guns. The second phase, to last for 45 minutes, called for an increasingly heavy bombardment of assigned areas with the combined purposes of destroying emplacements along the invasion beaches and neutralizing enemy defenses throughout the islands. At Tarawa, the support ships were positioned to fire from the west across Betio, since fire from the south might cause ricochetting shells that could fall into troop assembly areas on the lagoon side of the island.26 Once the assault troops were ashore, certain warships could be called upon to blast specific targets that impeded the American advance.


During the preparatory shelling, however, all ships were to fire for the most part into areas rather than at selected strongpoints.

Target destruction fires were to be delivered simultaneously with the neutralization of the remainder of the area in which the target was located. The idea of combining neutralization with destruction did not appeal to the 2d Marine Division staff, but naval planners were determined to rain down explosives on the whole of Betio in order to devastate the island in the shortest possible time. The final approved naval gunfire support plan was an amalgam of the desires of the naval and landing force commanders. In commenting on the planning period, General Julian Smith recalled:

We Marines, all of whom had studied, and in some cases seen in actual combat, the effect of land artillery fire, ships' gunfire, and aerial bombardment, found naval officers unduly optimistic as to the results to be obtained from the bombardment, but never any lack of willingness on their part to listen to our problems and to cooperate most fully in assisting in their solution.27

The plan prepared by the 2d Marine Division had its origin early in August, when Admiral Spruance visited General Julian Smith's headquarters at Wellington, New Zealand. At this time the admiral verbally assigned the capture of Tarawa Atoll to the division. During the conference, the problem of the reef at Betio was discussed, and division planners made a tentative decision to land the first three waves in amphibian tractors. The final judgment would depend upon the results of tests of the ability of LVTs to clamber over coral ledges.

Following these talks, the division received its first written directives, documents based on the original Gilberts-Nauru concept. Since the Marines' objectives were Tarawa and Apamama, the later substitution of Makin for Nauru did not disrupt staff planning.

The 2d Marine Division was attached to VAC on 15 September, and on 2 October, Julian Smith and members of his staff flew to Pearl Harbor to coordinate plans with Holland Smith, Turner, and Hill. During the time between his conversations with Spruance and his trip to Pearl Harbor, Julian Smith had been devising a plan for the conquest of Betio. A striking feature of this tentative scheme was the landing of artillery on an island adjacent to Betio prior to the main assault. At Pearl Harbor, Julian Smith learned that the enemy was considered capable of launching a combined air and submarine attack within three days after the American ships arrived off the atoll. Landing howitzers in anticipation of the assault on Betio would forewarn the Japanese, and the enemy might be able to catch the transports before these vessels could be unloaded. Another unpleasant fact that came to light at this time was the decision to hold one regiment of Julian Smith's command in corps reserve. The 2d Marine Division would lack even the strength to make simultaneous assaults against Betio and a secondary objective which


might serve as the site for artillery. One alternative remained--a direct frontal attack without the prelanding support of division artillery.

Aware that an assault of the type confronting him was the most costly of operations, Julian Smith asked for definite orders. "I discussed the matter fully with the Corps commander," he later recalled, "and when informed that the decision to make the attack directly on Betio was final and must be accomplished by the Second Marine Division less the combat team assigned to Corps reserve, I requested that my orders be so worded as I did not feel that the plan should be my responsibility. "28 Orders were promptly issued by VAC to seize Betio before occupying any of the remaining islands in the atoll.

After the approval of the 2d Division plan, Julian Smith and his party returned to New Zealand. On 19 October, Admiral Hill and key members of his staff followed to go over last-minute details before the issuance of the final plans. Hill brought with him a rough draft of Admiral Spruance's communications plan, whose final version was not available to Task Force 53 until three weeks later, just an hour before the ships left their staging area for the target. When he reached New Zealand, Hill got his first look at his flagship, the USS Maryland. The battleship still had 20 yard workmen on board making the necessary alterations for its role as command center for the Tarawa operation.29

The 2d Marine Division operations order, completed on 25 October, called for Combat Team 2 (2d Marines, reinforced, with 2/8 attached) to make the assault landings. The remaining two battalions of the 8th Marines, along with the regimental headquarters, were held in division reserve, while the 6th Marines remained under corps control. Elements of the 10th Marines, division artillery, a part of Combat Team 2, would be landed as quickly as possible to support operations ashore. From the 18th Marines, Julian Smith's engineers, came another part of the combat team, demolitions and flamethrower men to assist the infantry battalions, as well as the shore party that had the task of speeding supplies to the front lines.

Combat Team 2 planned to assault Beaches RED 1, RED 2, and RED 3, all on the lagoon side of the island and each the objective of one battalion landing team. As a result of the removal of one regiment from Julian Smith's control, the 2d Marine Division had only an estimated two-to-one numerical edge in infantry over the defending Japanese. Instead of reinforcements, Combat Team 2 would have to rely on the effect of the massive preliminary bombardment in its effort to drive completely across the island, capture the airfield, change direction, and launch a two-battalion thrust down the long axis of the objective. (See Map III, Map Section. )

Minor adjustments had to be made throughout the planning phase. Experiments proved that amphibian tractors could crawl across a coral reef, but these vehicles were in short supply. The 2d Division had 100 tractors, all of


them primitive LVT(1)s which had been designed primarily as cargo carriers and lacked armor protection. Julian Smith's staff obtained sheets of light armor which were fixed to the tractors while the division was in New Zealand. Many of these LVTs, veterans of the Guadalcanal fighting, had outlived their usefulness, but mechanics managed to breathe new life into 75 of them. Each LVT(1) had room for 20 fully equipped men in addition to its crew of 3. Unless the division commander received more LVTs, he did not have enough vehicles for the first three assault waves .30

The nearest source of additional tractors was San Diego. Although there was neither time nor shipping to get large numbers of these vehicles to New Zealand, 50 LVT(2)s were shipped to Samoa. Members of the 2d Amphibian Tractor Battalion went to that island to form a new company which would join the division off Tarawa. The new LVT(2) was an improved version of the tractor already in use by the division. Horsepower had been boosted from 146 to 200, a change which enabled the LVT(2) to move slightly faster while carrying 4 more men or 1,500 more pounds of cargo than its predecessor. Also, the new model could cruise for 75 miles in the water, compared to 50 miles for the LVT(1). Tests were ordered in which the new tractors ran 4,000 yards with a full battle load to determine the time it would take the LVT(2), which proved capable of making at least four miles an hour.31 Each LVT(2) was equipped with portable armor plate for the front, sides, and cab. These plates could be used during assault landings or removed if there was no danger of enemy fire.

Another proposed refinement in the basic plan was a request for additional aerial bombardment. Lieutenant Colonel David M. Shoup, division operations officer, urged that Seventh Air Force planes drop one-ton "daisy-cutters" on and beyond the invasion beaches during the ship-to-shore movement. In addition to killing Japanese, the heavy bombs would shatter buildings that otherwise might provide cover for enemy snipers. This request, although endorsed by the division and listed in the air operations plan, was not carried out.32 The approach plan prepared by Task Force 53 called for certain of the fire support ships to separate from the main group as the transports neared the transport area. These warships would steam to designated positions to the south, west, and northwest of Betio. Two minesweepers were to lead the destroyer screen into the lagoon. Next to pass through the gap in the barrier reef would be an LSD carrying the medium


tanks of the division and finally the initial waves of landing craft.

Planning for the employment of the 27th Infantry Division was handicapped by the substitution of Makin Atoll for Nauru Island. In addition, there was a difference of opinion between General Ralph Smith, the division commander, and General Holland Smith of VAC. The corps commander preferred to assault Butaritari from the lagoon side, bringing the maximum strength to bear against a small portion of the coast. On the other hand, the Army general wanted to land two battalions on the west coast of the island and two hours later send a single battalion ashore near the waist of objective. This second blow would be delivered from the lagoon. Ralph Smith's views prevailed, and the Marine general gave rather reluctant approval to the scheme.

Assigned to the Makin operation was the 165th Regimental Combat Team (RCT). With a total of 6,470 men, this heavily reinforced unit outnumbered the estimated defenders of Butaritari by roughly 8-to-1. Three reinforced companies from the 105th Infantry, 582 officers and men in all, had been assigned to the landing force. One of these companies would, if LVTs became available, spearhead each of the assault battalions. This mixing of units was brought about by the shortage of amphibian tractors. Since it seemed for a time that none of these vehicles would be available, Ralph Smith scheduled all assault elements of the 165th Infantry to train with and land from LCVPs, while reserving the tractors for the men of the 105th. Thus, there would be no need to adjust his plans if the promised tractors did not arrive, for the men from the 105th could remain in reserve. On the other hand, if the LVTs did appear, they could be used by the detachments from the 105th Infantry, and again no violence would be done to the basic landing plan.

In Ralph Smith's opinion, the rapid capture of the tank barrier guarding the western limits of the main defenses was of the greatest importance. It was to gain this end that he had proposed two separate landings followed by a pincers movement against the enemy stronghold. Such a maneuver, however, would depend on close coordination between the attacking units and reliable communications with the artillery batteries that had landed over the western beaches. Another solution to the problem posed by the tank barrier would have been to rake the obstacle with naval gunfire. At the time, however, neither Ralph Smith nor his staff were impressed with the effectiveness of seaborne artillery. Instead of seeking aid from sharpshooting destroyers, they preferred a combination of land weapons--infantry, artillery, and armor.


In general, the overall communications


BETIO ISLAND as it appeared two weeks after the battle, looking west over GREEN Beach. (USAF-65141AC)

ASSAULT TROOPS cross the log wall behind the RED Beaches and move inland on Betio. (USMC-64032)


plan for GALVANIC was considered adequate, even though it could have been improved. Principal objections to the communications annex issued by Spruance's headquarters were twofold: it was too long, 214 mimeographed pages, and it should have been distributed sooner. The second criticism was justified, but the staff had worked against an impossible deadline; those who objected to the bulk of the document would later admit that an overall plan, huge though it might be, was preferable to several briefer, less detailed, and possibly conflicting plans.

Secrecy was the watchword during the preparation for GALVANIC, and this mood of caution was to prevail during the approach of the expeditionary force. Since strict radio silence was necessary, only VHF (Very High Frequency) and TBS (Talk Between Ships) equipment could be used within the convoys. Visual signals were substituted whenever possible for routine radio messages, but signalmen proved rusty at first. Although speed came with practice, the vast number of visual signals, which reached as many as 80 per day off Tarawa, led to the establishment, en route to the target, of areas of operational responsibility within the task force. Had this practice not been adopted, hours would have been lost in passing messages from ship to ship to insure that every element of the force had got the information. As it was, certain vessels were to pass on information to ships within specified sectors.

Keeping contact between ships and shore was certain to be the most difficult aspect of the GALVANIC communications problem. Neither LSTs, transports, nor the beachmasters were equipped with the SCR--61O radio, and this set turned out to be the best piece of signal equipment ashore on Betio.34 During the first crucial days, these sets would often provide the only means of radio contact between the beach and the task force. The Marines themselves were saddled with the TBX and TBY, two low power sets whose general worthlessness brought the postoperation comment that: "light weight but powerful and rugged portable equipment having full frequency range and capable of sustained operation does not appear available in any standard type."35 The TBX lacked the necessary range, and the TBY was not sufficiently waterproof.

Both the Marines and soldiers had wire equipment with which to establish communications within the beachhead area. Unfortunately, the generator armature of the standard EE--8 field telephone and the drop coil of its companion switchboard were not waterproof and therefore unreliable in amphibious operations. Also, to avoid damage by troops and tracked vehicles as well as short circuits caused by dampness, it was desirable to string telephone wires above the ground, something that could not easily be done in the face of enemy fire.


GALVANIC could not succeed unless a steady current of supplies was kept moving from the holds of the transports to the front lines. First step in this process was the rapid unloading of cargo, and to gain speed both the Army and Marine divisions combat loaded their shipping. Cargo was so stowed that items needed early in the fighting were at the top of the holds and close to the hatches. Because vessels were dispatched to the 2d Marine Division piecemeal, as quickly as they were released from other duties, the division staff could not predict how much cargo space would be available. Sometimes the blueprints provided by the arriving ships were outdated and no help to the hard-pressed planners. The Marines, nevertheless, managed to do a creditable job; in fact, the only snag in unloading came as a result of the re-arranging of cargo in ships at anchor off Tarawa.

The vessels carrying the 27th Infantry Division troops also were effectively combat loaded. Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Ferris, division G-4, organized a transport quartermaster school and sent his students to Pearl Harbor to learn the characteristics of naval transports as well as loading techniques. In addition, the supply section of the Army division resurrected the stowage plans drawn up for the Attu operation, studied them, and used them as guides for plans of their own.

In handling cargo, the Army division had a decided advantage over its Marine counterpart. While the 27th Infantry Division had some 1,800 sled and toboggan type pallets, the 2d Marine Division had almost none, a deficiency caused when the necessary materials to build them failed to reach Wellington in time. Pallets meant easier handling of cargo because several heavy boxes could be lashed to a wooden platform, stowed and unloaded as a single unit, and hauled intact to the using unit.

At Makin, the scheme of maneuver and the relatively small Japanese garrison indicated that cargo could be ferried to the beach without serious enemy interference. Sailors and a part of a company from the 105th Infantry were to act as ship unloading details. On the beachhead, the 102d Engineer Battalion, reinforced by small detachments from the 165th Infantry, would provide shore parties to sort supplies and rush them inland. One engineer company was attached for this purpose to each assault battalion.36

Tarawa, however, offered a far greater logistical challenge. The assault waves were to slam directly into the enemy's defenses on Betio, and the craft carrying supplies for the 2d Marine Division also might encounter fierce opposition. Landing craft were certain to be sunk, so extra service would be required of the survivors. Every man was expected to do his duty and more. "Use your brains . . . and guts," urged Captain Herbert B. Knowles, transport group commander; "keep the boats moving, and get the stuff to the Marines."37

As soon as the assault waves had hit the beach and landing craft became


available, Marines and sailors would begin unloading cargo from the transports. Supplies were to be loaded into the boats according to a fixed priority, but dispatchers would not send the boats shoreward unless told to do so by the commander of the regiment for whom the cargo was destined. En route to the beach, all supply craft had to report to control officers who made sure that the incoming boats were headed toward the proper sector and that a shore party was on hand to unload them. LVTs, LCVPs, and LCMs all might haul supplies, but the last, with its 30-ton capacity, was considered most valuable.

An orderly logistical effort also required that beach party and shore party units land with the assault battalions. In charge of each beach party was a naval officer, the beachmaster, who assisted the shore party commander, and also supervised marking the beaches, evacuating the wounded, and the other tasks performed by his men. A Marine officer commanded the shore party, which was primarily concerned with unloading the incoming boats, sorting supplies, and storing them or moving them inland. At Betio some of these activities could be concentrated at the long pier near the waist of the island. This structure was accessible to landing craft, for its jutted beyond the reef, and a boat channel had been dredged along its western side.

Since protracted fighting was expected at neither Makin nor Tarawa, both divisions limited the amount of supplies to be carried to the target area. The transports assigned the 165th RCT carried the assault troops, their equipment and weapons, 5 units of fire per weapon, plus 10 days' rations, 2 days' K rations, and such miscellaneous items as medical supplies, ordnance spare parts and cleaning equipment, and fuel enough to last the vehicles on board for 7 days. Stowed in the assault cargo ship assigned to the Makin landing force were 24 days' B rations for the entire command, 15,000 gallons of water, 8 days' motor fuel, and additional ammunition. Three LSTs carried still other supplies.

The 2d Marine Division also attempted to keep a tight rein on its supplies. To be embarked with the convoy carrying the assault and garrison forces were 30 days' B rations, 5 days' C or K rations (later changed to 3 days' K and 10 days' C), 2 days' D rations, and enough water to provide 2 gallons per day to each member of the command for a period of 5 days.38 Within five days, water distillation equipment would be operating. Enough maintenance supplies, fuels, and lubricants to last 30 days were loaded in the transports. Also on hand were construction, medical, and aviation supplies for 30 days. Although antiaircraft weapons were allotted 10 units of fire, coast defense guns and all other weapons received 5.


The number of vehicles was to have been reduced to the minimum necessary for operations on an island the size of Betio, but as planning progressed the number of trucks, tanks, half-tracks, LVTs, and trailers thought vital for the attack continued to increase. Eventually, the Marines lifted to the target more vehicles than they could use. The final total, including LVTs, for the assault echelon was 732 wheeled and tracked vehicles plus 205 trailers. The Makin landing force made a similar miscalculation, bringing with it 372 tracked or wheeled vehicles, and 39 trailers.39


Upon assuming command of the 2d Marine Division on 1 May 1943, Julian Smith inherited a veteran unit but one that still was suffering the effects of the Guadalcanal fighting. The division had arrived in New Zealand with 12,500 diagnosed cases of malaria, many of whom eventually were evacuated to the United States. So serious was the health problem that as late as 10 October malaria victims were being admitted to the hospital at the rate of 40 per day. Even as the new commanding general was taking charge, the first replacements began arriving. More would follow until the organization reached combat strength. Fitting these men into the division team was one of the problems facing the new commander and his staff.

In addition to shattering the health of the division, the Guadalcanal campaign weakened it in a tactical sense. At Guadalcanal, the 2d Marine Division had fought for the most part as a collection of combat teams rather than as a tightly organized unit. The lessons of jungle warfare had to be put aside, and the various elements of the command welded into an effective and well-coordinated striking force capable of seizing a defended atoll.40

Late in September, as transports became available, the transition from jungle fighters to amphibious assault troops began in earnest. First the battalion landing teams, then the regiments practiced off Paekakariki, at Hawke Bay, and in Wellington Harbor, while a few LVTs were sent to the Fijis to test their ability against reefs similar to those that guarded Betio. After these preliminary landings, the Marines returned to camp to rest, repair equipment, and prepare for what they thought was going to be a full-scale division exercise.41

During this period, the same few ships did most of the work with the Marines, since new arrivals destined for the transport group of the Southern Attack Force needed "to have engineering work done, boats from the scrapped boat pool ashore overhauled and supplied them, and some semblance of communications equipment furnished."42 The group commander, Captain Knowles, commented:

Most of these ships arrived lacking full crews, full boat complements and woefully


lacking in communications facilities. Some of these ships had been diverted to Wellington while still on Žshakedown' operations. The transport group commander did not know that he was destined for anything except conduct of amphibious training with 2nd Mar. Div. until about the middle of the month; then he had to organize 3 divisions of transports and get them ready for sea by 1 November. His flagship Monrovia had been stripped of everything useful in the way of communication facilities except basic commercial ship radios. At Efate we had to install a small command station above the ship's bridge plus sufficient signal yards and signal flags to do the job ahead. Had we not had extra naval personnel and Army SCRs (both Žappropriated' at the end of the Aleutian Operation) we would have been in an even sorrier mess than we were. The few ships that had been in the Aleutians furnished officers and men to give at least a minimum of [experienced] personnel to new arrivals.43

Marine Division had a strong leavening of combat experienced men spread throughout its units. These veterans gave emphasis to the constant theme in training--keep the attack moving. Should officers fall or units become disorganized, noncommissioned officers would have to assume command, and this would often happen at Betio. Also emphasized were local security and fire discipline during the night, tactics that would forestall Japanese infiltration and local counterattacks. One criticism of the division training program was its failure to spend enough time drilling infantrymen, tank crews, and demolitions men to act as integrated teams in reducing strongpoints. At the time no one realized the tenacity with which the enemy would fight even after the island seemed doomed to fall.44

The 27th Infantry Division, untried in combat, was also new to the techniques of amphibious warfare. Preparing this division for Operation GALVANIC was a task shared between General Richardson's headquarters and Holland Smith's VAC. The Army command handled training for ground combat as well as certain phases of pre-amphibious training, while the Marine headquarters concentrated on the ship-to-shore movement. Logistical planning and routine administration for Army troops also lay within the province of General Richardson.

In actual practice, the distinction between ground, pre-amphibious, and amphibious matters tended to disappear. The 27th Infantry Division was first introduced to amphibious warfare in December 1942, when two officers from the unit attended a school offered at San Diego by Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet. The information gained at San Diego was passed on to other division officers in a school conducted in Hawaii. After the division had been selected to provide troops for GALVANIC, the tempo of training increased, and those portions of amphibious training which could be carried out ashore were undertaken at Army installations. In addition, the division began organizing liaison parties to direct naval gunfire and drilling its supply personnel in the complexities of combat loading. Ship-to-shore exercises, however, awaited


Admiral Turner's ships and General Holland Smith's instructors.

While the training of Army troops for GALVANIC was getting underway, VAC found itself preoccupied with two demanding tasks, organization of the corps itself and planning for the scheduled operation. In the meantime, General Richardson went ahead with his training program, absorbing the necessary amphibious doctrine from War Department manuals, Navy and Marine Corps publications, and the recorded experience of other Army divisions. Of particular value were notes prepared by the 9th Infantry Division during its indoctrination under Holland Smith as well as the original loading plans for the Attu landing. By the time that VAC began to assert itself in the training setup, Richardson had come to look upon the Marine organization as simply another echelon to clutter up the chain of command. The Army general believed that Admiral Turner, who controlled the necessary ships, was the logical person to train troops for the ship-to-shore movement, and felt that there was no need at the time for a corps of any sort.45

Thus, on the eve of GALVANIC both Richardson and Holland Smith were complaining about the status of VAC. The Marine general objected because his headquarters had been restricted in its exercise of tactical command, and the Army general urged that the corps be abolished completely. Their respective higher headquarters gave each essentially the same advice: to make the best of the situation. This they did, and preparations for combat continued.46

Training of the 27th Infantry Division came to a climax with a series of amphibious exercises held in the Hawaiian Islands. Bad weather and poor beaches hampered the earlier efforts, and the rehearsals were of questionable value. During the first two rehearsals, the troops landed, but no supplies were put ashore. Because of rock-strewn beaches, assault craft did not advance beyond the line of departure in the third or dress rehearsal. Preserving scarce LVTs from possible damage was judged more important than any lessons the troops might learn.

Preparations for the Gilberts invasion included certain preliminary combat operations, some remotely connected with GALVANIC, and others designed specifically to batter the assault objectives. American might first made itself felt in the Gilberts in February 1942 when carrier planes lashed at Makin Atoll. In August of the same year, Marine Raiders startled the Japanese by making a sudden descent on Butaritari Island. In April of the following year, after a series of reconnaissance flights, heavy bombers of the Seventh Air Force, operating from Funafuti and Canton Island, began harassing Nauru and targets in the Gilberts.

These early aerial efforts were sorely handicapped by the lack of bases close to the Gilberts. To remedy this situation, the 7th Marine Defense Battalion occupied Nanomea Atoll in the Ellice


Islands and the 2d Marine Airdrome Battalion established itself at Nukufetau in the same island group. Both landings were made during August 1943. A third air base was established in September at Baker Island, an American possession which had gone unoccupied since the coming of war. The last of these fields to be completed, that at Nukufetau, was ready on 9 October.

The Seventh Air Force began its systematic support of GALVANIC on 13 November by launching 18 Funafuti-based B--24s against Tarawa. On the following day, the hulking bombers divided their attention between Tarawa and Mille in the Marshalls. Gradually the list of targets was expanded to include Makin, Jaluit, Maloelap, and even Kwajalein. Between 13 and 17 November, planes of the Seventh Air Force dropped 173 tons of high explosives on various targets in the Gilberts and Marshalls and destroyed 5 enemy aircraft. Admiral Hoover's land-based naval planes and patrol bombers also began their offensive on 13 November, but limited themselves to night strikes against Nauru, Tarawa, and Makin. (See Map I, Map Section and Map 7.)

The Navy was far from reluctant to risk its carrier planes against Japan's island fortresses. In fact, Admiral Pownall's fast carriers went into action even before the Seventh Air Force had launched its intensive aerial campaign. On 17 and 18 September, planes from three aircraft carriers blasted Makin, Apamama, Tarawa, and Nauru. The naval aviators were assisted by B--24s from Guadalcanal, Canton Island, and Funafuti, aircraft which carried cameras as well as bombs, and other Liberator bombers struck the Gilberts on the following day as the carriers were withdrawing. Next the carriers attacked Wake Island on 5 and 6 November.

The final phase of this campaign of preliminary aerial bombardment took place on 18 and 19 November. Seventh Air Force planes blasted Tarawa and Makin and helped carrier aircraft attack Nauru. After pounding Nauru, Admiral Pownall's fliers on 19 November dropped 130 tons of bombs on Jaluit and Mille. Air power had done its best to isolate the objectives and soften their defenses for the amphibious assault.47


Japan seized control of the Gilberts on 10 December 1941 in a move designed to gain bases from which to observe American activity in the South Pacific. Since the occupied islands were considered mere observation posts, little was done to fortify them. A handful of men were posted at


Tarawa, coastwatchers were scattered throughout the island group, and a seaplane base along with some rudimentary defenses were built on Makin. Apparently the Japanese became convinced that geography plus the battering given the American Fleet at Pearl Harbor had made the Gilberts invulnerable, for the small garrisons were shortly reduced. On 17 August 1942, when the hatches of two American submarines eased open and 221 Marines began paddling toward Butaritari Island, only 70 Japanese could be mustered to oppose them.49

Although Japanese strategists dismissed the Makin raid as an attempt to pin down troops in the Central Pacific while new operations were launched to the southwest, the vulnerability of the Gilberts certainly shocked them. Unless these outlying islands were garrisoned in some strength, they would fall to the Americans and serve as bases for a thrust into the far more valuable Marshalls. Reinforcements were started toward the Gilberts, fortifications were thrown up throughout the group, and British citizens overlooked since the occupation were hunted down.

While the Gilberts were being reinforced, Japanese strategy was being revised. As early as March 1943, the Imperial Navy was thinking in terms of "interception operations," in which its ships would fall upon and annihilate any American fleet attempting to land troops along the fringes of Micronesia. Operations of this sort would be possible only if the defending garrison were strong enough to hold the attackers at bay until Japanese aircraft, submarines, and surface craft could reach the area.50

In May 1943, Japanese naval leaders conferred at Truk, and out of these discussions evolved a plan to counter any American thrust into the Gilberts. Should Nimitz choose to attack, Japanese bombers from the Bismarcks would swoop down on his convoys, land at fields in the Gilberts and Marshalls, refuel, rearm, and return to action. Meanwhile, short-range planes were to be shuttled into the threatened area by way of Truk and other bases. Fleet units would steam eastward from Truk to cooperate with Bismarcks-based submarines in destroying the already battered invasion force.

This scheme for the defense of the Gilberts was but a single aspect of Z Operation, an overall plan of defense. This larger concept called for the establishment of an outer perimeter stretching from the Aleutians through the Marshalls and Gilberts to the Bismarcks. Vigorous action by the Imperial Fleet coupled with a stubborn fight by the island garrisons would thwart any American attempt to penetrate the barrier. The type of strategy espoused


in Z Operation, modified because of American successes in the Aleutians, was reviewed at an Imperial conference held during September 1943 and was considered acceptable.51

Betio Island, in keeping with defensive theory advanced as part of Z Operation, was heavily fortified. The basic defensive pattern selected for the island called for a series of strongpoints with the spaces between them covered by fire. American assault forces were to be cut down at the beach. Should the invaders manage to gain a foothold on the island, determined counterattacks would be launched to hurl them back into the sea.

In command at Tarawa was Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki of the 3d Special Base Force. He had at his disposal 1,122 members of this force and 1,497 men of the Sasebo 7th Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF). In addition to these combat troops, the admiral had a large contingent of laborers, 1,247 from the 111th Construction Unit and 970 from the 4th Fleet Construction Department Detachment. Since many of the laborers were Koreans and most were untrained, Shibasaki could rely on no more than about 3,000 effectives.

The defenses of Betio were cleverly integrated, with coast defense guns, automatic weapons, and various kinds of obstacles complementing one another. Upon approaching the island, the invader would have to brave the fire of 20 coastal defense guns, ranging in size from 80mm to 8-inch. Concrete tetrahedrons scattered along the reef would be encountered next; these had been placed to force assault craft to follow routes swept by fire from the smaller coastal defense weapons, automatic cannon, and machine guns. To scourge the incoming waves, the Japanese on Betio had, in addition to the weapons already mentioned, 10 75mm mountain howitzers, 6 70mm guns, 9 37mm field pieces, at least 31 13mm machine guns, and an unknown number of 7.7mm machine guns.52 The defenders could also press into service dual-purpose antiaircraft weapons and the 37mm guns of seven light tanks. To make the firepower of this arsenal more effective, the Japanese strung double-apron barbed-wire fences between reef and beach and along the beaches themselves. (See Map II, Map Section.)

Admiral Shibasaki planned to destroy the enemy forces as they landed, but he did not overlook the possibility that the attackers might gain a lodgment on the island. A log fence just inland of the beaches, antitank ditches, and other obstacles were arranged to confine the assault force to a tiny strip of coral sand, where it could be wiped out.

If the ring of defenses along the shores of Betio could be penetrated, the attackers would find the inland defenses organized in a more haphazard fashion. The command posts, ammunition dumps, and communications centers were housed in massive bunkers of reinforced concrete, structures that were built to withstand even direct hits by high explosive naval shells or aerial


bombs. These positions, however, were not designed primarily for defensive fighting. Although some fitted into patterns of mutual defense, most of them had blind spots, not covered by fire, from which flamethrower or demolition teams could close for the kill.

Far less formidable were the defenses of Butaritari Island. There Lieutenant Junior Grade Seizo Ishikawa commanded no more than 384 combat troops, 100 of them marooned aviation personnel and the remainder members of his 3rd Special Base Force Makin Detachment. Also present, but of doubtful effectiveness, were 138 men of the 111th Construction Unit and 276 from the 4th Fleet Construction Department Detachment.

Japanese defenses on Butaritari were concentrated around King's Wharf, about one-third of the way down the lagoon side of the island from its western foot. At the base of the wharf, the Japanese had built their seaplane base. The perimeter was bounded on the southwest by an antitank ditch linked to an earthen barricade. This obstacle, about 2,000 yards from King's Wharf, stretched almost across the island but was defended by only one antitank gun, a single pillbox, six machine gun emplacements, and numerous rifle pits. A similar ditch-and-barricade combination was located about the same distance from King's in the opposite direction and marked the northeastern limits of the main defenses. Six machine guns, three pillboxes, and a string of rifle pits guarded this barrier. Throughout the principal defensive area, the majority of heavy weapons pointed seaward, so the greatest threat to an assault from the lagoon lay in the trio of 80mm guns emplaced at the base of King's Wharf. (See Map 6.)


The departure from Wellington of the 2d Marine Division was shrouded in secrecy. Announced destination of the division was Hawkes Bay, the site of most amphibious exercises, and a rumor was planted that the troops would be back in Wellington in time for a scheduled dance. "With regard to the dance," reminisced Julian Smith, "one of the Division wits remarked that maybe we didn't leave many broken hearts in New Zealand but we certainly left a lot of broken dates."53

Instead of steaming to Hawkes Bay, the transports joined Admiral Hill's Southern Attack Force at Efate in the New Hebrides, where rehearsals were held. During the first of these, troops landed at Mele Bay while the support ships simulated a bombardment of Pango Point. The second rehearsal saw the division land again at Mele Bay and the warships actually pump shells into Erradaka Island. At this time, the commander of the assault regiment, Colonel William McN. Marshall, fell ill. To replace the stricken leader, Julian Smith selected his operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel David M. Shoup, who was spot promoted to colonel.

On 13 November, Task Force 53 set sail for Tarawa, but not until the following day did Julian Smith announce to his men the name of the island which they were to assault. "I know


. . . ," read his message to the division, "you will decisively defeat and destroy the treacherous enemies of our country; your success will add new laurels to the glorious tradition of our Corps."54 An intensive briefing for all hands followed this announcement, and the mighty task force bored onward toward its goal.

The first contact with the enemy came on 18 November, when a carrier plane sighted a Japanese aircraft far in the distance. On the following morning, a four-engine patrol bomber was picked up on radar, intercepted, and destroyed. No waves of bombers challenged Hill's ships as they began their final approach to Tarawa. At 2033, 19 November, USS Ringgold, the destroyer leading the task force, picked up Maina Atoll, and Hill's ships altered course to close with their objective.

Around midnight the fire support sections began steaming to their assigned stations. Transports crammed with Marines eased into unloading areas. Finally, at 0507 on 20 November, shore batteries on Betio opened fire, and the battle was underway.

General Holland Smith did not accompany the Tarawa expedition, for he had been ordered to embark in Admiral Turner's flagship, and the latter officer had taken personal command of the Makin task force. The admiral reasoned that since Makin was nearer to the Marshalls, Japanese surface units, if they chose to intervene, would probably strike the Northern Attack Force.

Events during the approach of the Northern Attack Force seemed to bear out Turner's theory. On 18 November a Japanese bomber attacked a group of LSTs but was beaten off by antiaircraft fire. Another bomber appeared the following afternoon and fell victim to Navy fighters. A night attack, delivered against the LSTs on 19 November, ended with the destruction of one enemy bomber and the escape of a second.55 The Japanese, however, did not contest the final maneuvering of the task force, and at first light on 20 November the preliminary bombardment began.

The Japanese were never able to carry out the ambitious program of counterattacks against a Gilberts invasion force envisioned in their Z Operation plan. The carrier aircraft that were to have sortied from Truk and the Bismarcks had been severely depleted in a series of air battles over Rabaul in early November, as Admiral Halsey's and General MacArthur's fliers struck the enemy base in covering strikes for the landing at Bougainville.56 Although it was not known at the time, Admiral Turner's Assault Force was insured against an enemy attack in any significant strength.


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[1] Unless otherwise noted, the material in this chapter is derived from: CinCPac OPlan 1--43, dtd 5Oct43, hereafter CinCPac OPlan 1--43; ComCenPacFor OPlan 1-43, dtd 25Oct 43, hereafter ComCenPacFor OPlan 1--43; V PhibFor AR Gilbert Islands, dtd 4Dec43, hereafter V PhibFor AR; CTF 54 OPlan A2--43, dtd 23Oct43; CTF 53 OPO A101-43, dtd 17Oct 43, hereafter CTF 53 OpO A101-43; VAC AR GALVANIC, dtd 11Jan44, hereafter VAC AR; VAC OPlan 1-43, dtd 13Oct43; 2d Mar Div OpO No. 14, dtd 25Oct43, hereafter 2d MarDiv OpO No. 14; TF 11 AR Baker Island, Sep43 (Baker Island Area OpFile, HistBr, HQMC) ; Samuel Eliot Morison, Aleutians, Gilberts, and Marshalls, June 1942-April 1944--History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, v. VII (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960 ed.), hereafter Morison, Aleutians, Gilberts, and Marshalls; Crowl and Love, Gilberts and Marshalls; Isely and Crowl, Marines and Amphibious War; Capt James R. Stockman, The Battle for Tarawa (Washington: HistSec, DivPubInfo, HQMC, 1947), hereafter Stockman, Tarawa. Unless otherwise noted, all documents cited in this part are located in the Gilberts Area Op File and the Gilberts CmtFile, HistBr, HQMC.

[2] It is interesting to note that the Gilberts did not appear as an objective in the ORANGE Plans. Moore Comments.

[3] Adm Harry W. Hill interview with HistBr, G-3, HQMC and cmts on draft MS, dtd 4Oct 62, hereafter Hill interview/comments.

[4] Richard W. Johnston, Follow Me! The Story of the 2d Marine Division in World War II (New York: Random House, 1948), p. 89, hereafter Johnston, Follow Me!

[5] Edmund G, Love, The 27th Infantry Division in World War II (Washington: Infantry Journal Press, 1949), pp. 11--22.

[6] Gen Thomas Holcomb interview by LtCol Robert D. Heinl, Jr., dtd 12Apr49, cited in Hough, Ludwig, and Shaw, Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, p. 342.

[7] Adm Raymond A. Spruance, "The Victory in the Pacific," Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, v. 91, no. 564 (Nov46) , p. 544; Moore comments.

[8] Adm Raymond A. Spruance ltr to ACofS, G--3, HQMC, dtd 24Jul62.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Additional sources for this section include: VAC G--2 Study, TO Gilbert Islands, Nauru, Ocean, dtd 20Sep43, pp. 21--48, 61--67; 2d MarDiv Est of Sit--Gilberts, dtd 5Oct43; 2d MarDiv SupplEst of Sit, dtd 25Oct43; 2d MarDiv D--2 Study of Makin Island and Little Makin, n.d.; 2d MarDiv D--2 Study of Tarawa, n.d.; IntelEst, Anx D to 2d MarDiv OpO No. 14.

[11] During much of World War II, Marine division general staff officers were designated D-l, D-2, D-3, and D-4, and comparable corps staff officers as C-l, etc. Eventually, the Marine Corps adopted the Army system of designating all general staff officers at division and above as G-l, etc.

[12] Gen David M. Shoup interview with Hist Br, G-3, HQMC and cmts on draft MS, dtd 14Aug62, hereafter Shoup interview/comments.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Tests of this camera, made with the cooperation of VAC and 27th Division G-2 officers, "resulted in the development of a holding frame, sequence timing for stereo overlap, etc." Col Cecil W. Shuler comments on draft MS, dtd 12Dec62.

[16] The determination of the caliber of these guns was made by relating their size in aerial photographs to the known dimensions of wrecked aircraft on the airfield at Betio. Shoup interview/comments.

[17] VAC and 2d Division planners could plainly see the seaward beaches were mined, but the lagoon side was a different matter. The enemy troops there "were in the business of working on their defenses--unloading steel rails, concrete, etc., besides their regular logistic support within the lagoon. . . . The question was what you would do if you were on the island," General Shoup recalled. "Chances are you would mine everything but the place you use daily--that would be the last place to be sewed up. This conclusion was a very definite factor in our decision to land where we did." Ibid.

[18] 2d MarDiv OPlan No. 1, dtd 30Oct43.

[19] Moore Comments.

[20] Ibid.

[21] ComCenPacFor OPlan 1-43, p. 11

[22] Moore Comments.

[23] ComdrCenPacFor ltr to CG, VAC, ser 0081, dtd 14Oct43 (S--1 File, Comd Relationships, HistBr, HQMC).

[24] CinCPOA ltr to CGAFPOA, ser 00249,dtd 25Oct43 (OAB, NHD). General Richardson's request for clarification of the tactical command structure was made to insure that it was in accord with Army doctrine and that the corps commander would be the superior officer from whom the 27th Division commander received his combat orders. CGAFPOA ltr to CinCPOA, dtd 17Oct43 (OAB, NHD).

[25] The commanding officer of the transport group which landed the Marines at Tarawa, recalled stating his doubts of the efficacy of this fire "very forcibly during a conference at Wellington, N.Z. I had witnessed a similar bombing and bombardment of Gavutu Island, in the Solomons, where I landed a Marine Paratroop outfit. From daylight to noon this little island was subjected to repeated bombing attacks and bombardment by cruisers and destroyers. The results had been most disappointing." RAdm Herbert B. Knowles ltr to ACofS, G-3, HQMC, dtd 1Sep62, hereafter Knowles ltr.

[26] Hill interview/comments.

[27] LtGen Julian C. Smith, "Tarawa," U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, v. 79, no. 11 (Nov 53), p. 1170, hereafter Smith, "Tarawa"; VAC NGF Spt Plan, dtd 13Oct43, Anx B to VAC OPlan 1--43, dtd 5Oct43; TF 53 NGF Spt n.d., Encl A to TF 53 Rpt of Tarawa Ops, dtd 13Dec43, hereafter TF 53 AR.

[28] Smith, "Tarawa," p. 1167; LtGen Julian C. Smith ltr to ACofS, G--3, HQMC, hereafter Julian Smith ltr.

[29] Hill interview/comments.

[30] Ibid., p. 1166. For details concerning various models of the LVT, see ONI, ND, Supplement No. 1 to ONI 226, Allied Landing Craft and Ships (Washington, 1945).

[31] Hill interview/comments.

[32] Ibid. General Shoup was later told that three B--24s with these bombs on board actually took off, but that one crashed on takeoff, one flew into the water, and the third did not reach its destination. Shoup interview/comments. A search of Seventh Air Force records in the USAF Historical Archives failed to reveal any mention of this request. Dr. Robert F. Futrell, USAF Historian, ltr to Head, Hist Br, G-3, HQMC, dtd 20Aug62.

[33] Additional sources for this section include: CinCPac Comm Plan, n.d., Anx A to CinCPac OPlan 1-43, dtd 5Oct43; Rpt of GALVANIC Comm, dtd 4Dec43, Encl D to V PhibFor AR; TransArea Debarkation and Unloading Plan, n.d., and Unloading and Beach Pty Plan, n.d., Apps 1 and 2 to Anx D to TF 53 OpO A101--43; SigRpt, dtd 4Dec43 with Suppl, dtd 3Jan 44, and TQM Report, dtd 30Dec43, Encl F to VAC AR.

[34] "The SCR--61O and the ship-carried SCR-608 were Army radios Žappropriated' by the Navy transports that served in the Aleutians and were now to take part in GALVANIC. We had to dole them out where most needed and never had anywhere near enough of them during the GALVANIC Operation." Knowles ltr.

[35] V PhibFor Rpt of GALVANIC Comm, op. cit., p. 2.

[36] SP Ops, Anx 4 to 27th InfDiv AdminO 11, dtd 26Oct43; see also Crowl and Love, Gilberts and Marshalls, pp. 48--49, 102.

[37] TF 53 Unloading and Beach Pty Plan, op. cit.

[38] The usual components of standard rations were: D, an emergency individual ration--a special chocolate bar; C, the individual combat ration--canned hash, stew, or meat and beans, biscuits, sugar, powdered coffee, and candy; K, another emergency or combat ration--breakfast, dinner, and supper units, each consisting of tinned luncheon meat, biscuits, sugar, and gum; B, a rear-area unit ration--canned meats, dried or canned fruit and vegetables, canned bread, or biscuits.

[39] Details of Loading of GALVANIC Ship, Encl 1 to V PhibFor AR; VAC AdminO 4-43, dtd 13Oct43; 2d MarDiv OpO No. 14.

[40] Smith, "Tarawa," pp. 1165--1166.

[41] Shoup interview/comments.

[42] Knowles ltr.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid., p. 1168; Maj Arthur J. Rauchle ltr to CMC, dtd 12Jun47; 2d MarDiv, 3/2, and 3/6 WarDs, Oct--Nov43 (Unit Rpt File, Hist Br, HQMC) ; Johnston, Follow Me!, pp. 94-95.

[45] LtGen Robert C. Richardson, Jr., USA, ltr to LtGen Thomas T. Handy, USA, dtd 5Nov 43 (OPD File 384 PTO--Sec II, RG 115, WW II RecsDiv, FRC, Alexandria, Va.).

[46] Morton MS, ch. 23, pp. 22--25.

[47] Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Cate, eds., The Pacific: Guadalcanal to Saipan--The Army Air Forces in World War II, v. 4, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950) pp. 290-302 hereafter Craven and Cate, Guadalcanal to Saipan; TF 50 AR GALVANIC, 10-27Nov43, dtd 4Jan44; CinCPac-CinCPOA WarD, Nov43, dtd 28Feb44 (CinCPac File, HistBr, HQMC).

[48] Additional sources for this section include: JICPOA Buls 4--44, Study of Japanese Instls on Butaritari Island, Makin Atoll, dtd 14Jan 44, and 8-44, Japanese Fors in the Gilbert Islands, n.d (IntelFile, HistBr, HQMC); VAC G-2 Study and Rpt, Betio, dtd 23Dec43; 2d MarDiv and JICPOA Study of Japanese Def of Betio Island, Tarawa, dtd 20Dec43.

[49] Chief, War Hist Off, Def Agency of Japan ltr to Head, HistBr, G--3, HQMC, dtd 19Nov62, hereafter Japanese Gilberts comments.

[50] Mil HistSec, Japanese Research Div, HQ, AFFE, Japanese Monographs No. 161, Inner South Seas Islands Area NavOps, Pt. 1: Gilbert Islands (Nov41--Nov43) and No. 173, Inner South Seas Area NavOps, Pt. 2: Marshall Islands (Dec41--Feb44) ; Takushiro Hattori, Dai Toa Senso Zenshi [The Complete History of the Greater East Asia War] (Tokyo: Masu Publishing Company, 1953--MS translation in 4 vols. at OCMH) , II, pt. 5, p. 43, hereafter Hattori, Complete History,

[51] Hattori, Complete History, III, p. 4-5.

[52] So great was the destruction on the island that a postoperation count of light machine guns was impossible.

[53] Smith, "Tarawa," p. 1169.

[54] Quoted in Stockman, Tarawa, p. 86.

[55] Four Japanese bombers failed to return from attacks made on the 19th and 10 from attacks mounted on the 20th. Japanese Gilberts Comments.

[56] For the story of this significant series of aerial assaults see Shaw and Kane, Isolation of Rabaul, pp. 481-486.

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