Chapter 2
The Assault on Betio1


The transports halted at approximately 0355,2 and the Marines of Combat Team 2 began groping down the sides of their ships toward the LCVPs waiting below. The troopships, victims of an unexpectedly strong current, had halted in the wrong area and masked certain of Admiral Hill's fire-support ships. The task force commander at 04313 ordered the transports to stop disgorging the troops and steam northward to their proper positions. As the larger vessels glided off into the night, the landing craft attempted to follow, but some of the LCVPs became separated from their assigned ships. Rounding up these strays further delayed unloading, subsequent transfer of men from landing craft to amphibian tractors, and the final formation of the assault waves.

From 0507, when enemy shore batteries first opened fire, until 0542, American warships attempted to reduce these troublesome batteries and neutralize known enemy positions. The naval guns then fell silent to enable carrier planes to scourge the objective. Admiral Hill ceased firing to prevent possible collisions between shells and planes as well as to allow the dust raised by explosions to settle before the pilots began diving toward their targets. Unexpectedly, the aircraft failed to appear. One explanation for this failure is that the request for a dawn attack may have been misunderstood, with the result that the strike was scheduled instead


for sunrise. This seems logical, for the fast carriers, from which the planes were to be launched, had been excused from the Efate rehearsals where any misinterpretation of orders would have come to light. Another version maintains that the principal commanders of Task Force 52 had agreed to a strike at 0610 because pilots diving from sun-filled skies toward the darkened earth could not locate their targets. This change, the account continues, was incorporated into the overall plan for both task forces, the information was passed to the carrier pilots, but somehow word did not reach Admiral Hill at Efate. Since the planes materialized over both Makin and Tarawa within a few minutes of sunrise, this too seems plausible.4 Whatever the reason, the enemy was granted a brief respite from the storm of high explosives that was breaking around him.

Earlier that morning, when the Maryland had opened fire against Betio, the concussion from her main batteries had damaged her radio equipment, leaving Admiral Hill without any means of contacting the tardy planes. While Hill waited, Japanese gunners took advantage of the lull to hurl shells at the transports. The admiral scanned the skies until 0605, at which time he again turned his guns on the island. After the supporting warships had resumed firing, the transports, which had unloaded all troops in the initial assault waves, steamed out of range of the determined enemy gunners. At 0613, the aircraft finally appeared over Betio, naval gunfire again ceased, and for about 10 minutes the planes swept low over the objective, raking it with bombs and machine gun fire. Because the Japanese had taken cover in concrete or log emplacements, neither bomb fragments nor bullets did them much harm. Yet, the blossoming explosions looked deadly, and as the pilots winged seaward, the warships returned to their grim task of battering the island. This resumption of naval gunfire marked the beginning of the prelanding bombardment.

A few minutes after sunrise, the minesweeper USS Pursuit, carrying on board a pilot familiar with the atoll, began clearing the entrance to Tarawa lagoon. Astern of this vessel was another minesweeper, USS Requisite. Smoke pots laid by LCVPs were used to screen the sweeping operation.5 Two destroyers, the USS Ringgold and Dashiell, waited off the entrance until a passage had been cleared. Fortunately for both Pursuit and Requisite, the pair of destroyers were in position to silence, at least temporarily, the shore batteries that had opened fire on the minesweepers. Once a path had been cleared, the Pursuit, assisted by an observation plane, began marking the line of departure, assault lanes, and those shoals which might cripple ships or small craft. In the meantime, the other minesweeper steamed out to sea to pick up the destroyers and lead them into the lagoon.

The enemy batteries, so recently silenced, again began firing as the destroyers came through the passage. A


shell sliced through the thin skin of the Ringgold, penetrated to the after engine room, but failed to explode. Another dud glanced off a torpedo tube, whistled through the sick bay, and thudded to a stop in the emergency radio room. Moments after the guns of the ship had been unleashed at the supposed artillery position, a vivid explosion rocked the area. One of the destroyer shells must have touched off the enemy ammunition supply.

At 0715, the Pursuit, which had taken position astride the line of departure, switched on her searchlight to guide the waves of LVTs through the curtain of dust and smoke that hung between the minesweeper and the assembly area. While the Ringgold was fighting her duel with Japanese cannoneers, the Pursuit tracked the approaching waves on radar. The minesweeper reported to Admiral Hill that the assault waves were 24 minutes behind schedule and could not possibly reach the beaches by 0830, the time designated as H-Hour.6 Lieutenant Commander Robert A. McPherson, flying spotter plane off the Maryland, also reported that the LVTs could not meet the schedule, so Hill, in the Maryland, radioed instructions to postpone H-Hour until 0845.7

When the task force commander issued this order the erratic radios of the Maryland were still misbehaving. Though in contact with surface craft, Hill could not raise the aircraft that were scheduled to attack Betio just before H-Hour.8 While his communications men were struggling with the balky radio sets, the admiral at 0823 received a report from Lieutenant Commander McPherson that the amphibian tractors had just crossed the line of departure.9 Since tests had indicated the lead LVT(2)s could make 4--41/2 knots, he granted them an additional 40 minutes in which to reach the beach and announced that H-Hour would be 0900.

At this point, carrier planes reappeared over Betio and began strafing the assault beaches, delivering what was supposed to have been a last-minute attack. The cessation of main battery fire on the Maryland enabled its support air control radio to reach the planes so that Hill could call off the premature strike. The aviators finally made their runs between 0855 and 0900.

While the fliers were waiting their turn, the task force continued blasting the island. Five minutes before H-Hour, Hill's support ships shifted their fires inland, the planes strafed the beaches, and at 0900 the bombardment, except for the shells fired by the two destroyers in the lagoon, was stopped.

Awesome as it had been, the preliminary bombardment did not knock out all the defenses. The coast defense guns had been silenced, many of the dual purpose antiaircraft weapons and antiboat guns had been put out of action, but most of the concrete pillboxes and emplacements protected by coconut logs and sand survived both bombs and


shells. Of major importance, however, was the effect of the preliminary bombardment on Japanese communications. According to some of the prisoners taken during the battle, the preinvasion shelling had ripped up the enemy's wire and forced him to rely on messengers. Since these runners often were killed or pinned down by bursting shells, few messages got through.

Betio has been compared in shape to a bird, whose legs were formed by the 500-yard pier that passed just beyond the fringing reef. On 20 November, as H-Hour drew near, the bird appeared lifeless, the plumage on its carcass badly charred. Colonel Shoup had decided to use three of his landing teams in the assault and hold one in reserve. Major Henry P. Crowe's 2/8, attached for this operation to the 2d Marines, was given the job of storming Beach RED 3. This objective was the bird's belly, the invasion beach that lay east of the long pier. Ordered to land on Crowe's right was Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Amey's 2/2. Amey was to attack Beach RED 2, the breast of the bird, which included the base of the pier and stretched 500 yards westward to an indentation in the shoreline. Major John F. Schoettel's 3/2 would land to the right of Amey's battalion, assaulting Beach RED 1, a crescent-shaped portion of the coast that measured about 500 yards in width and served as throat and lower bill for the bird of Betio. The legs, or long pier, were reserved for the 2d Scout-Sniper Platoon, which was to secure its objective immediately before the assault waves landed. In regimental reserve was 1/2 commanded by Major Wood B. Kyle. (See Map III, Map Section.)


The precisely arranged waves of amphibian tractors that roared across the line of departure had difficulty in making headway toward the island. At the time, the slowness of the assault waves was blamed upon "overloading, wind, sea, and an ebb tide, together with poor mechanical condition of a number of the leading LVTs."10 Students of the operation, as well as the men who fought at Betio, have since absolved the wind, sea, and tide of some of the responsibility for the tardiness of the assault waves. The time lost earlier in the morning when the transports had first shifted their anchorage could not be made up. Because they had missed the rehearsals, the drivers of the new LVT(2)s were not familiar with signals, speeds, and load limitations, a factor which slowed both the transfer of men from the LCVPs and the forming of assault waves. The waves had to dress on the slowest tractors, and fully loaded LVT(1)s could not keep up with the LVT(2)s. The older vehicles were not in sound enough mechanical condition to maintain even 4 knots during their long journey from assembly area to the assault beaches.11

While the assault waves were moving from the line of departure toward the Betio reef, Japanese shells first began bursting over the Marines huddled inside the amphibian tractors. These air bursts proved ineffectual, as did the


long-range fire of machine guns on Betio, and none of the tractors was damaged. Upon crossing the reef, the LVTs swam into a hail of machine gun and antiboat fire, but even so casualties among the troops were relatively light. Few of the LVTs failed to reach the beach.

The first unit to land on Betio was First Lieutenant William D. Hawkins' 2d Scout-Sniper Platoon,12 a part of which gained the end of the pier at 0855. Hawkins, with engineer Second Lieutenant Alan G. Leslie, Jr., and four men, secured the ramp that sloped downward from the pier to the edge of the reef. Next, the platoon leader ordered the men who had remained in the boat to scramble up the ramp. When enemy fire began crackling around the gasoline drums that the Japanese had stored at the end of the pier, Hawkins waved the men back into their LCVP. With his four scouts and Leslie, who was carrying a flamethrower, he began advancing shoreward along the pier, methodically destroying or clearing anything that might shelter enemy snipers. Blazing gasoline from Leslie's weapon splattered against two shacks that were thought to be serving as machine gun nests, the flimsy structures ignited like twin torches, but unfortunately the flames spread to the pier itself. Although the gap burned in the pier by this fire would later handicap the movement of supplies, this difficulty was a small price to pay for driving the enemy from a position that gave him the opportunity of pouring enfilade fire into the assault waves.

After the Japanese on the pier had been killed, Hawkins and his handful of men rejoined the rest of the section in the LCVP and moved along the boat channel toward the island. Beyond the end of the pier, Hawkins tried unsuccessfully to commandeer an LVT to carry his men to the beach. In the meantime, the second boatload of scout-snipers was being held off the reef on order of a control officer. The platoon leader finally made contact with them, got hold of three LVTs, and started the entire platoon toward shore. Two tractor loads, Hawkins among them, landed in the proper place and reported to the regimental command post, but the third group came ashore on the boundary between RED 1 and RED 2 to join in the fighting there. The difficulties in getting ashore experienced by the 2d Scout-Sniper Platoon were typical of the Betio operation.13

Two of the assault battalions hurled against Betio made the last part of their shoreward journey unaided by naval gunfire. Dust and smoke screened the movement of the LVTs, so that the distance yet to be traveled could not be accurately gauged. At 0855, according to plan, all but two ships in Hill's task force lifted their fires to avoid striking either the advancing tractors or the planes which were beginning their final 5-minute strafing of the beaches. Out in the lagoon, however, the destroyers Ringgold and Dashiell continued to loft 5-inch shells into RED 3. These ships, whose officers


DAMAGED LVTs and the bodies of Marines killed during the landing on Betio are grim witnesses to the fury of D-Day. (USMC 63578)

RUBBER RAFT is used to float wounded men across the lagoon reef to LCVPs waiting offshore at Betio. (USMC 63454)


were able to follow the progress of the tractor waves, did not cease firing until 0910.

The first assault battalion to reach its assigned beach was Major Schoettel's 3/2, which landed on RED 1 at 0910. On the right half of that beach, and at the extreme right of Combat Team 2, the Marines of Company I leaped from their LVTs, clambered over the log beach barricade, and began advancing inland. On the left of the beach, astride the boundary between RED 1 and RED 2, was a Japanese strongpoint, which raked Company K with flanking fire before that unit could gain the shelter of the barricade. After getting ashore, Company K was to have tied in with the troops on neighboring RED 2. Since the company commander could see no Marines in that direction, he made contact with Company I and did not attempt to advance toward his left.14 During the next two hours, these assault companies of 3/2 would lose over half their men.

Little better was the lot of Company L and the battalion mortar platoon. These units, boated in LCVPs, grounded on the reef 500 yards offshore. While wading toward RED 1, Company L suffered 35 percent casualties.

The next battalion to touch down on Betio was Major Crowe's 2/8, which reached RED 3 at 0917, just seven minutes after the destroyers in the lagoon had ceased firing. The fire of these warships had kept the Japanese underground as the Marines neared the beach, and the enemy did not have time to recover from the effects of the barrage before the incoming troops were upon him. Two LVTs found a gap in the beach barricade and were able to churn as far inland as the airstrip before unloading their men. The other amphibians halted before the log obstacle, discharged their troops, and turned about to report to the control boats cruising in the lagoon. Of the 552 men in the first three waves that struck RED 3, fewer than 25 became casualties during the landing.

The most violently opposed landing was that made by Lieutenant Colonel Amey's 2/2. Company F and most of Company E gained RED 2 at 0922, but one platoon of Company E was driven off course by machine gun and antiboat fire and forced to land on RED 1. Although Company G arrived only three minutes behind the other companies to lend its weight to the attack, the battalion could do no more than carve out a beachhead about 50 yards in depth. Losses were heavy, with about half the men of Company F becoming casualties.


Behind the first three waves of amphibian tractors, came two waves of LCVPs and LCMs carrying additional infantrymen, tanks, and artillery. When the leading waves had crawled across the reef, they discovered that the depth of water over this obstacle varied from three feet to a few inches. Since standard landing craft had drafts close to four feet, they were barred from approaching the beach. Infantrymen and pack howitzer crews had to transfer to LVTs or wade ashore with their weapons and equipment. The tanks


were forced to leave the LCMs at the edge of the reef and try to reach Betio under their own power.

The men who attempted to wade to the island suffered the heaviest casualties on D-Day. Japanese riflemen and machine gunners caught the reserve elements as they struggled through the water.15 The only cover available was that provided by the long pier, and a great many men died before they reached this structure. During the movement to the beach, platoons and sections became separated from their parent companies, but junior officers and noncommissioned officers met the challenge by pushing their men forward on their own initiative. On D-Day, few reserve units reached Betio organized in their normal combat teams.

Like the reserve and supporting units, the battalion command groups were unable to move directly to their proper beaches. All the battalion commanders, each with a part of his staff, had embarked in landing craft which took position between the third and fourth waves as their units started toward the island. As was true with the assault waves, the least difficulty was encountered at RED 3, but establishing command posts on RED 2 and RED 1 proved extremely hazardous.

The first landing craft to slam onto the reef off RED 3 was that carrying Major Crowe, a part of his communications section, and other members of his battalion headquarters. On the way in, one of Crowe's officers told him that if things did not go well on the first day, the staff could swim back to the transport, brew some coffee, and decide what to do next. "Jim Crowe," recalled First Lieutenant Kenneth J. Fagan, "let out with his bull bellow of a laugh and said it was today, and damn soon, or not at all."16 When his boat grounded on the reef, Crowe fitted action to these words, ordered his men to spread out and start immediately for the island, and reached Betio about four minutes after his assault companies. Such speed was impossible on RED 2 and RED 1, beaches that had not received a last-minute shelling from the pair of destroyers in the lagoon.

Off RED 2, Lieutenant Colonel Amey's LCM also failed to float over the reef, but the commander of 2/2 was fortunate enough to flag down two empty LVTs that were headed back to the transports. These amphibian tractors became separated during the trip toward the island, and the one carrying Amey halted before a barbed wire entanglement. The battalion commander then attempted to wade the rest of the distance, but after he had taken a few steps he was killed by a burst from a machine gun. Lieutenant Colonel Walter I. Jordan, an observer from the 4th Marine Division and the senior officer present, was ordered by Colonel Shoup to take command until Major Howard J. Rice, the battalion executive officer, could get ashore.17 Although Rice was a mere 13 minutes behind the first assault waves, he was in no position


to relieve Jordan of responsibility for 2/2. The executive officer was pinned down and out of contact with his unit, so Jordan retained command until he was relieved of this task by Shoup.

Though the beachhead held by Jordan's men was admittedly precarious, the most disturbing news came from neighboring RED 1, where 3/2 was in action. There the battalion commander, Major Schoettel, was unable to get ashore until late in the afternoon. At 0959, Schoettel informed Colonel Shoup that the situation on RED 1 was in doubt. "Boats held up on reef of right flank RED 1," said his next message, "troops receiving heavy fire in water." Shoup then ordered the battalion commander to land his reserve over RED 2 and attack westward. To this the major replied, "We have nothing left to land."18

Colonel Shoup and his regimental headquarters experienced difficulties similar to those that had plagued the battalion commanders. At the reef, Shoup happened upon an LVT which was carrying wounded out to the transports. The colonel had these casualties transferred to his LCVP, commandeered the amphibian tractor, and started toward the left half of RED 2. As the tractor neared the island, it entered a maelstrom of fire and a hail of shell fragments "started coming down out of the air. It was strong enough to go through your dungarees and cut you," Shoup recalled. Then, as the command group continued its way shoreward, he said, "a kid named White was shot, the LVT was holed, and the driver went into the water. At that point I said, ėlet's get out of here,' moved my staff over the side and waded to the pier. From then on it was a matter of getting from the pier on down. You could say my CP was in the boat, then in the LVT, and then on the pier on the way in, but there was very little business conducted."19 After determining what portion of RED 2 was in the hands of 2/2, Shoup established his command post on that beach at approximately 1200.

Even before he reached the island, Colonel Shoup kept a close rein on the operations of his command. At 0958, in the midst of his exchange of messages with Major Schoettel, he directed his reserve battalion, 1/2, to land on RED 2 and attack westward toward the embattled Marines on RED 1. Shoup's plan, however, was slow of execution, for only enough LVTs could be rounded up to carry Companies A and B. Company C had to wait until noon for transportation. While Major Kyle's battalion was moving toward RED 2, the leading waves of amphibian tractors drew heavy fire from the right hand portion of the beach. As a result, some of the vehicles veered from course to touch down on RED 1, and the 4 officers and 110 men that they carried joined in the fighting there. The remainder of the LVTs bored onward to the left half of RED 2, where the bulk of Kyle's command aided in expanding the beachhead. Not until the morning of the second day was the entire battalion ashore on Betio.



At his command post in the Maryland, General Julian Smith was convinced that a foothold had been won, but he realized how vital it was that the attack be kept moving. Because the 6th Marines had been placed under the control of Turner, Julian Smith had but two battalion landing teams as his own reserve. These two units were Major Robert H. Ruud's 3/8 and 1/8 commanded by Major Lawrence C. Hays, Jr. The commanding general could select the regimental headquarters of the parent 8th Marines to control either or both of its battalions.

At 1018 on the morning of D-Day, Julian Smith radioed Colonel Elmer E. Hall, commanding officer of the 8th Marines, to send 3/8 to the line of departure where it would come under the tactical control of Colonel Shoup.

Since Shoup was more familiar with the situation on Betio, it was logical that he, rather than Hall, should determine where this portion of the reserve would be landed. Ruud's battalion became a part of Shoup's command at 1103 and was promptly ordered to land on RED 3 in support of Crowe's 2/8. Since Shoup and his party were moving alongside the pier at this time, he could watch what was happening to the incoming Marines. As soon as their boats grounded on the reef and the ramps were lowered, Ruud's men started wading toward the island. Landward of the reef, the water proved deep, in places well over a man's head. Some Marines, weighted down by the equipment, plunged into deep water and drowned; others were killed by enemy bullets and shell fragments. Only 100 men from Ruud's first wave, approximately 30 percent of the total, survived the ordeal to set foot on Betio.

From the pier, Shoup and his staff signalled frantically to the men of the second wave, directing these troops to seek the shelter of the pier. This structure, however, offered little protection, so the toll claimed by Japanese gunners continued to mount. "Third wave landed on Beach RED 3 were practically wiped out," reported Ruud--who had lost radio contact with Shoup--to Hall. "Fourth wave landed on Beach RED 3," he continued, "but only a few men got ashore and the remainder pulled away under heavy MG and 37mm fire."20 Shortly after the fourth wave landed, the battalion commander received a message to "Land no further troops until directed." The remainder of the battalion gathered off the end of the pier and was finally ordered in about 1500. By 1730, all of 3/8 was ashore, and, on Shoup's orders, Rudd deployed one of his companies to plug a gap directly inland from the pier between 2/8 and 1/2.21 Company K, which had landed in the first waves, was already attached to Crowe's battalion and continued to serve with 2/8 through the rest of the battle.


In spite of the light losses suffered by the LVTs that carried the assault waves, the number of amphibian tractors available to the division dwindled


rapidly as the day progressed. Some were destroyed while bringing supplies or reinforcements to the island, others were so badly damaged that they sank upon reaching the deep water of the lagoon, and a few either broke down or ran out of gas. To reduce losses to a minimum, the LVTs had to be restricted to the boat channel that paralleled the long pier, but even so Japanese gunners still managed to cripple some of the incoming amphibians.

General Julian Smith realized that he could not afford a stalemate at the beaches. Strength would have to be built up rapidly and the attack pressed vigorously if Betio were to be taken with a minimum of losses. Yet, after the assault waves had gained a foot-hold, the operation bogged down, for the reef effectively barred landing boats, and the number of LVTs available for duty was fast diminishing. Since the battle was raging only a few yards inland, the reserve units that attempted to wade ashore were under fire from the moment they stepped into the water. Those who survived the trek from reef to beach found themselves in the thick of the fight as soon as they set foot on the island.

Reserve units became so disorganized while wading toward shore that battalion and even company control was virtually impossible. The resultant confusion was offset by the grim determination of the individual Marines, who simply kept coming in spite of all the enemy could hurl at them. For a distance of 400 yards, Japanese machine gunners or riflemen grazed the water with streams of bullets. The only cover available to the Marines was that afforded by the pier, and even from here they had no opportunity to fight back. All the attackers could do was take their punishment and keep moving. Many Marines were hit in the water, but the survivors waded onward, moving doggedly to join their comrades ashore.

During the early morning, the situation on Betio was literally cloudy, for the explosions of shells and bombs had sent a column of dust and smoke towering above the island. As the morning wore on, the smoke from burning emplacements and buildings continued to cloak parts of the island so that it was impossible, even from the air, to see much of the island at one time. Neither Julian Smith nor Colonel Shoup could observe much of the action ashore. The general had remained in the Maryland, the best place, given adequate communications, from which to control his division.22 The movements of the commander ashore were restricted and his communications, especially with the unit on RED 1, unreliable. Colonel Shoup, however, was by no means pinned down. "Once ashore," he recalled, "I was never off my feet for over 50 hours, standing for the most time protected by an enemy pillbox with 26 live Japs therein."23

By noon, the situation ashore began to come into sharper focus. Colonel Shoup made contact with his subordinates, and requests for medical supplies, ammunition, and air support


began trickling back to the Maryland. Julian Smith also profited from observation flights made during the afternoon by naval pilots. Little information, however, could be had concerning the battle on RED 1.


A source of grave concern throughout the morning was the fate of 3/2 on Beach RED 1. Actually, Major Schoettel's men, though isolated from the other Marines on Betio, had fared better than Julian Smith suspected. The assault companies had received a severe scourging as they started moving inland, but Major Michael P. Ryan, commander of Company L, managed to organize an effective fighting force from remnants of several units. By midafternoon, his contingent could boast portions of every company of 3/2, four platoons and part of the headquarters of 2/2, as well as the 113 officers and men of 1/2 who had been driven off course during their attempt to reach RED 2. Among the members of 2/2 who ended up on RED 1 was Major Rice, the battalion executive officer, who had with him a usable radio. This set provided Ryan his only link with Colonel Shoup's command post.

During the afternoon, Ryan's Marines consolidated their beachhead on Betio's beak, clearing an area 500 yards deep and 150 yards wide. The farthest penetration made by this conglomerate command was to the antitank ditch 300 yards from the south coast of the island, but this advanced position could not be held with the number of men at Ryan's disposal. For this reason he pulled back to within 300 yards of the tip of the beak and dug in for the night.

The key to Ryan's success was the pair of medium tanks that reached RED 1 about 1130. All Shermans employed at Betio were from the Company C, I Marine Amphibious Corps (IMAC) Tank Battalion, the entire company having been attached to the 2d Marine Division for GALVANIC. Company C joined the division at Efate and made the voyage to Tarawa in the USS Ashland, a new LSD.

On D-Day morning, a total of six medium tanks started toward RED 1 in LCMs, but the coxswains of these craft could find no place to unload. Fortunately, Major Schoettel happened upon these boats as they were circling off the reef and ordered them to run up on the reef and lower their ramps. The Shermans then nosed into the water to begin a 1,200-yard journey to the island. Reconnaissance parties waded in front of the tanks, carefully marking pot-holes with flags, so none of the tanks drowned out before reaching the beach. As the lumbering vehicles approached a gap already blown in the log barricade, the platoon leader saw to his horror that the coral sands were littered with wounded and dead. Rather than risk crushing those Marines who were still alive, he led the platoon back into the water, drove to a position off GREEN Beach, and waited for engineers to pierce the barrier. During this second move, four tanks wandered into pot-holes, drowning out their engines.24 Both the surviving Shermans were hit during Ryan's advance. One was gutted by flames, but the other, with only its bow machine gun still in working


order, was used to protect the flank of the beachhead during the night.

Ryan's men held the beak of the Betio bird, but the head, throat, back, and most of the breast were controlled by the enemy. The nearest American troops were elements of 1/2 and 2/2 fighting on that part of RED 2 near the pier, an area some 600 yards from the RED 1 perimeter. That part of the line manned by 1/2, originally Shoup's reserve, extended from a point about 350 yards inland from the base of the pier along the triangular plot formed by the runway and west taxiway then veered toward the beach. The area between 1/2 and the edge of the water was the zone of 2/2, the battalion that had stormed RED 2.

Both medium tanks and artillery reached RED 2 before D-Day had ended. Three Shermans that had landed on RED 3 crossed the boundary and halted in a previously selected assembly area. This trio of tanks supported 2/2 in its advance toward the runway by rolling up to pillboxes and firing at point blank range through the openings in these structures. Two of the Shermans were knocked out, but one of these was retrieved on the following morning.

The artillery that arrived on RED 2, 1/10 commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Presley M. Rixey, had first been destined for RED 1. A member of Colonel Shoup's command post group, Rixey had landed before noon. In the meantime, his 75mm pack howitzers and their crews were boated at the line of departure awaiting further orders. During the afternoon it became apparent to both Shoup and Rixey that RED 1 was no place to land artillery, and they finally decided to bring the battalion ashore over RED 2. Since the boats carrying the unit could not cross the reef, LVTs had to be found. Two gun sections, one from Battery A and one from Battery B, were transferred to amphibian tractors and at dusk ordered ashore. Also ordered to land were three howitzers and crews of Battery C, elements that were believed to be in LVTs but which had not yet actually been shifted from their original landing craft. The two sections in the tractors moved rapidly to RED 2. The other three were boated to the edge of the pier where the artillerymen plunged into the water and began wading ashore carrying their dismantled pack howitzers. None of the guns reached the beach until after dark, and the crews could do little more than wait, ready to move into position at dawn.25

Inland of the pier, at the dividing line between RED 2 and RED 3, responsibility passed to elements of 3/8 and Crowe's 2/8. Its initial blow at the midsection of Betio had carried a part of Crowe's battalion into the triangle formed by the runway and taxistrip, but on the left flank his men collided with a powerful strongpoint near the base of the Burns-Philp pier. During the afternoon, some 70 Marines from 3/8 were sent into the triangle to hold that sector of the line. A group of men, survivors of various battalions whose weapons had been lost or ruined by water, were found crouching under the Burns-Philp pier, led ashore, rearmed, and fed into the battle being waged on Crowe's left flank.26

Throughout D-Day, the Marines of


2/8 attempted to batter their way through the fortifications inland of Burns-Philp pier in order to advance eastward along Betio's tail. Four medium tanks from the Company C, IMAC Tank Battalion, threw their weight and firepower into this effort but to no avail. One Sherman was destroyed by a friendly dive bomber, a second bulled its way into an excavation used by the enemy as a fuel dump and was burned when an American plane set the gasoline aflame, and a third was disabled by Japanese gunners. Although damaged by an enemy shell, the fourth tank continued to fight.


General Julian Smith's decision to land 3/8 left him with but a single landing team in division reserve. Early in the afternoon, it began to appear as though it might be necessary to land 1/8, the last of the reserve, to help the five battalions already in the fight. If this were done, the general would be left with no reserve except for his support group, made up of elements of the 10th Marines (artillery), the 18th Marines (engineers), Special Troops, and Service Troops. In short, he would be forced to rely upon an assortment of specialists in case of an emergency.

There was present, however, an organized unit which might spell the difference between victory and defeat. This was the 6th Marines, designated as corps reserve and under the control of Admiral Turner. Having informed Holland Smith of the situation at Betio, the division commander at 1331 requested the release of the 6th Marines to his control. Admiral Hill seconded Julian Smith's request and within 50 minutes Turner's message of approval arrived. "Meanwhile," commented Julian Smith, "consideration was being given to a plan to organize the support group into provisional battalions." 27

Once the 6th Marines had been released to him, Julian Smith felt it safe to land 1/8. At 1343, Colonel Hall's regimental headquarters and his remaining landing team, commanded by Major Hays, was ordered to proceed to the line of departure and wait there for further orders. The division commander then asked Colonel Shoup to recommend the best site for a night landing by this battalion.

This message concerning Hall's unit never reached Colonel Shoup, another of the communications failures so typical of the Tarawa operation. The radios of the Maryland had proved balky, and the portable sets carried ashore by the assault troops were little better. Water, shell fragments, bullets, and rough handling played havoc with communications equipment, but some radios were repaired with parts pirated from other damaged sets. Both the TBYs and the MUs, the latter light-weight hand sets, were exceptionally vulnerable to water damage, and the TBX the more durable and somewhat waterproof battalion radio, was so heavy that it could hardly be called portable.

Colonel Hall's headquarters and 1/8, "cramped, wet, hungry, tired, and a large number . . . seasick,"28 waited throughout the afternoon at the line of departure. At 1625, Julian Smith sent


a message ordering Hall to land on the north shore of the extreme eastern end of the island. These last uncommitted elements of the 8th Marines were to have gone ashore at 1745 and to have attacked to the northwest, but the orders failed to reach the regimental commander.

To observe the general progress of the battle, a scout plane was launched from the Maryland at 1548. Colonel Merritt A. Edson, division chief of staff, and Lieutenant Colonel Arnold F. Johnston, the operations officer, contacted the plane and asked the fliers to report any movements in the area where 1/8 was waiting. As the observation craft circled overhead, an artillery battery from 1/10 started toward RED 2. Since Hall was believed to have received his orders, the artillerymen were mistaken for a portion of 1/8. The thought that Hall was landing on the wrong beach caused consternation at division headquarters, but his supposed position was duly plotted on the situation map. Not until midnight did the division staff discover that Hall's command was still waiting on the line of departure.


In assessing the work of his shore party, Lieutenant Colonel Chester J. Salazar admitted that carefully prepared and basically sound standing operating procedure had to be abandoned during the Tarawa operation. Elements of the shore party had difficulty in finding the combat units to which they were assigned. Salazar's demolitions men and bulldozer operators were needed to blast or bury enemy positions, and the assault battalions could not spare riflemen to serve as stevedores on the crowded, hard-won beachheads. Finally, there were not enough LVTs to move supplies directly to the battalions from the ships offshore.

With Colonel Shoup throughout the morning of D-Day was Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson, leader of the previous year's Makin raid, who had been assigned to GALVANIC as an observer. Because of the continuing difficulty in keeping radio contact with division, Shoup at 1230 asked Carlson to make his way to the Maryland and sketch for Julian Smith an accurate picture of what was happening ashore. The commander of Combat Team 2 could then be certain that higher headquarters knew his basic plan for the conquest of Betio--to expand southward and to unite the beachheads before attempting a final thrust. The division could best help by landing reserves on RED 2. As the two men parted, Shoup told Carlson, "You tell the general and the admiral that we are going to stick and fight it out."30

Before starting toward the lagoon, Carlson noticed some Marines from Ruud's 3/8 clinging to the pier and unable to get into the fight. With


Shoup's permission, Carlson interrupted his journey to bring several LVT-loads of able-bodied infantrymen to the island, returning each time with wounded men whom he had transferred to boats at the reef. This done, he left his tractor at the reef, embarked in an LCVP, and at 1800 reported to Julian Smith in the Maryland.

Early in the afternoon the division commander ordered Brigadier General Leo D. Hermle, assistant division commander, to prepare to land his command post group on order. General Hermle was told at 1343 to go to the end of the pier, form an estimate of the situation, and report his findings to General Julian Smith. On the way to the pier he attempted to learn the location of Shoup's command post but could not contact the regimental commander by radio. At 1740, Hermle reported that he had reached the pier and was under fire. He tried a short time later to radio to the Maryland details of the action ashore, but again he was victim of a communications failure. He then entrusted the information to a messenger.

While he was on the pier, Hermle managed to establish intermittent radio contact with Shoup and Crowe, who informed him that ammunition and water were desperately needed ashore. Since many Marines from 3/8 had taken cover beneath the pier, Hermle had enough men available to organize carrying parties to bring these vital items to the island. Supplies, which kept arriving by boat throughout the night, were unloaded by the carrying parties and manhandled to the beach. En route to Betio, the Marines doing this important job had to wade through a 50-yard area that was exposed to Japanese fire.

In addition to the able-bodied men who were formed into carrying parties, a number of wounded Marines had gained protection of the pier. Captain French R. Moore (MC), USN, assistant division surgeon and a member of Hermle's party, had the wounded collected, given first aid, and evacuated in landing craft that had finished unloading supplies. The captain later returned to the transport area with a boatload of seriously wounded men.

General Hermle's radio link with Shoup and Crowe was severed early in the evening. About 1930, the assistant division commander sent Major Rathvon McC. Tompkins and Captain Thomas C. Dutton to find Shoup's command post and learn where and when the regimental commander wanted the reserves to land. The two officers, after working their way across a 600-yard strip of coral swept by enemy machine gun fire, reached their goal. They found out the needed information, but it was 0345 before they could report back to Hermle.

Although he had obtained answers to Julian Smith's questions, Hermle lacked a rapid means of communicating this intelligence to the division commander. For this reason, the assistant division commander and his party ventured into the lagoon to use the radio on the destroyer Ringgold. Word that Shoup wanted 1/8 to land near the pier on RED 2 was dispatched to the Maryland at 0445.

General Hermle next was ordered to report to Julian Smith in the battleship. Here he learned that at 1750 an order had been issued giving him command


Betio Island
21-22 November 1943


of the troops ashore. Because of a communications failure, the message had gone astray. Command ashore was to remain the responsibility of Colonel Shoup.

The transports had been unloading water, plasma, ammunition, and other supplies throughout the day, but judging from the requests that continued to pour in from the island, few of these articles were finding their way to the front lines. Captain Knowles, commander of the transport group, who shared with the division supply section responsibility for coordinating the logistical effort, directed the Assistant D--4, Major Ben K. Weatherwax, to go to Betio and find out what had gone wrong. The major was to contact either General Hermle or Colonel Shoup.

Weatherwax left the transport USS Monrovia at 2100 and went to the Pursuit, where he obtained directions for landing. He approached Betio by way of the pier, climbing out of his boat on the beach side of the gap burned in the structure by Hawkins' men. Had the major landed at the end of the pier instead of following the boat channel, he would have met General Hermle and learned the details of the logistical situation. As it was, he reached the beachhead, made his way to Shoup's command post, and there learned that the troops ashore needed still more of the types of supplies that already had been sent them. Weatherwax then encountered the same problem that had plagued Hermle--inability to reach the Monrovia by radio. He finally went along the pier until he found a boat and arrived at the transport just before dawn. There, he informed Captain Knowles of the supply situation and of the need for getting additional tanks ashore. The transport group commander gave Weatherwax authority to order in any boat with a tank aboard to any beach where there was a good chance for the armor to land.31


As daylight waned on 20 November, the position of the Marines on Betio seemed precarious. The front lines were perilously close to the beach, and the enemy had effectively dammed the torrent of supplies that was to have sustained the embattled riflemen. Small boats dashed to the end of the pier and unloaded. Carrying parties managed to keep a trickle of supplies moving toward the island, an effort that was supplemented by the work of the surviving LVTs. During the afternoon these tractors had carried water, ammunition, and medical supplies directly to the beaches. In the meantime, the transports were unloading as rapidly as possible. Soon the waters around the line of departure were dotted with landing craft waiting for an opportunity to dart toward the pier and unload their cargoes.

The picture ashore seemed equally confused, with the assault battalions confined to small, crowded areas. Forward progress had been slow, a matter of a few feet at a time. It was worth a man's life to raise his head a few inches. Yet, a Marine could not fire his weapon unless he exposed himself, however briefly. Shoup's men did this


and even more. "A surprising number . . . ," the colonel would recall, "displayed a fearless eagerness to go to the extreme for their country and fellow men."32

At dusk, the Marines held two separate portions of Betio Island. On the right, Major Ryan's composite unit, isolated from the remainder of Colonel Shoup's command, had withdrawn to a compact perimeter on the island beak. Another perimeter fanned out from the base of the long pier. The segment nearest Ryan's lines was manned by troops from 1/2 and 2/2 and curved from the water into the triangle formed by runway and taxiway. Within this triangle, the left-hand portion of the line was held by 3/8, while 2/8 had responsibility for the sector facing the strongpoint at the base of Burns-Philp pier. The larger perimeter was not a continuous line, for this beachhead was defended by small groups of Marines who had taken advantage of whatever cover they could find.

Most of the Marines on Betio prepared for the night with the uneasy feeling that a Japanese counterattack was inevitable. On the control vessels and transports there was a restless feeling that at any moment reports would come flooding in telling of a Japanese attempt to hurl the invaders into the sea. In the Maryland, the division staff strained to pick up the sounds of rifle fire that would herald the enemy attack. Silence reigned. Marine fire discipline was superb; few shots were wasted on imagined targets. Enemy weapons too were quiet, for the expected attack never came.

According to Julian Smith, Admiral Shibasaki lost the battle by failing to counterattack on that first night, for never again would the beachhead be so vulnerable. Shibasaki's failure was probably due to a collapse of his communications. The fact that few field message blanks were captured during the course of the battle seems to indicate a reliance on wire communication. Naval gunfire ripped out the carefully strung wire, and the Japanese command post was isolated from troops it was to direct.33 Important as this lapse in control may have been, it was the combat effectiveness of Shoup's Marines, men who overcame incredible obstacles to maintain cohesive fighting teams, that promised failure to any enemy assault.


Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (II-1) * Next Chapter (II-3)


[1] Unless otherwise noted, the material in this chapter is derived from: VAC AR; TF 59 AR; 2d MarDiv Rpt on GALVANIC, dtd 22Dec43, hereafter 2d MarDiv OpRpt; 2d MarDiv D-3 Jnl, 19Nov--4Dec43, hereafter 2d MarDiv D-3 Jnl; 2d MarDiv ADC Jnl, 19--21Dec43; 2d Mar Rpt of Ops, Betio Island (including 1/2, 2/2, 3/2, 2/8, WpnsCo, and H&S Co ARs), dtd 21Dec43, hereafter 2d Mar Op Rpt; 2d Mar UJnl, 12-24Nov43; 8th Mar SAR (including 3/8 AR), dtd 1Dec43, hereafter 8th Mar SAR; 18th Mar CbtRpt (including 1/18, 2/18, and 3/18 CbtRpts), dtd 23Dec43, hereafter 18th Mar CbtRpt; 10th Mar Rpt of Ops, Tarawa, (including 1/10,2/10, 3/10, 4/10, and 5/10 Notes on or Rpts of Ops), dtd 22Dec43, hereafter 10th Mar OpRpt; 2d PhibTracBn SAR, dtd 23Dec43, hereafter 2d PhibTracBn SAR; 2d TkBn SAR, dtd 14Dec43, hereafter 2d TkBn SAR; BGen Merritt A. Edson, "Tarawa Operation," lecture delivered at MCS, Quantico, Va., 6Jan44, cited hereafter as Edson Lecture; Stockman, Tarawa; Johnston, Follow Me; Isley and Crowl, Marines and Amphibious War; Morison, Aleutians, Gilberts, and Marshalls.

[2] TF 53 AR, Anx A, p. 18. The times for various actions of the task force contained in this document have been accepted as accurate. Stockman, Tarawa, p. 11, maintains that disembarkation had begun by 0320.

[3] Crowl and Love, Gilberts and Marshalls, holds that this maneuver took place at 0550. Other sources indicate that the transports actually shifted position sometime between 0430 and 0510.

[4] Cf. Crowl and Love, Gilberts and Marshalls, p. 219n; Morison, Aleutians, Gilberts, and Marshalls, p. 156.

[5] Hill interview/comments.

[6] USS Pursuit, Requisite, and Ringgold ARs, dtd 6, 13, and 1Dec43.

[7] Hill interview/comments.

[8] In regard to the communication setup on his flagship, Admiral Hill reported: "not only are the transmitters, receivers, and antenna so close to each other as to cause mutual interference, but several of the installations, particularly SAC [Support Air Control] equipment were made entirely inoperative during main battery gunfire." TF 53 AR, Anx A, p. 62.

[9] Hill interview/comments.

[10] CinCPac Monthly Rpt, Nov43, Anx E (CinCPac File, HistBr, HQMC).

[11] Isley and Crowl, Marines and Amphibious War, pp. 227-228; MajGen Thomas E. Watson ltr to CMC, dtd 17Jun47, hereafter Watson ltr; Hill interview/comments.

[12] A scout-sniper platoon from the 8th Marines also saw action at Betio. There is no record of the employment of a similar unit by the 6th Marines.

[13] H&S Co OpRpt of Sct-Sniper Plat, dtd 15Dec43, Encl J to 2d MarDiv OpRpt.

[14] Rpt of Capt James W. Crain, n.d., in Rpts of 2d MarDiv BnComdrs, dtd 22Dec43, hereafter Rpts of 2d MarDiv BnComdrs.

[15] Capt James R. Stockman, Notes on an Interview with Col David M. Shoup, dtd 26May1947, hereafter Shoup-Stockman interview.

[16] Quoted in Watson ltr.

[17] Shoup interview/comments; Rpt of LtCol Walter I. Jordan, dtd 27Oct43, in Rpts by SplObservers on GALVANIC, Encl G to VAC AR, hererafter Jordan Rpt.

[18] LT 3/2 to CO CT 2, ser no. 27, CO CT 2 to LT 3/2, ser no. 28, and LT 3/2 to CO CT 2, ser no. 30, in 2d MarDiv D-3 Jnl.

[19] Shoup interview/comments.

[20] LT 3/8 to CO CT 8, ser no. 88, 2d MarDiv D-3 Jnl.

[21] Col Robert H. Ruud comments on draft MS, dtd ca. 10Aug62.

[22] The transport group commander offered the opinion that Julian Smith "could have had much more ready communication means (radio, boats, etc.) than were available to him on the Maryland" on board the comparatively close-in transport flagship. Knowles ltr.

[23] Shoup-Stockman interview.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Shoup interview/comments.

[26] Watson ltr.

[27] Smith, "Tarawa," p. 1173.

[28] LtCol Rathvon McC. Tompkins ltr to CMC, dtd 13Jun47.

[29] Additional source for this section include: Rpts of LtCol Chester J. Salazar and Maj George L. H. Cooper, dtd 22Dec43, in Rpts of 2d MarDiv BnComdrs; Rpt of LtCol Evans F. Carlson, dtd 27Oct43, in Rpts by SplObservers on GALVANIC, Encl G to VAC AR, hereafter Carlson Rpt; Maj Gen Leo D. Hermle ltr to CMC, dtd 9Jun47; Maj Ben K. Weatherwax ltr to CMC, dtd 17Jun47.

[30] Shoup-Stockman interview.

[31] Knowles ltr.

[32] Gen David M. Shoup, "Some of My Thoughts" (Gen David M. Shoup Personal Folder, HistBr, HQMC). This folder contains notes, impressions, and reminiscences dating from early in the general's career until his appointment as CMC.

[33] Smith, "Tarawa," pp. 1173--1174; Major Eugene P. Boardman ltr to CMC, dtd 16Jun47.

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