Strategic SituationThe strategic situation in the Pacific in the fall of 1943 was this: The Japanese had been driven out of the Aleutians in the North Pacific; with the landing of the 3d Marine Division on Bougainville, the conquest of the Solomons in the South Pacific neared completion; General MacArthur, in the Southwest Pacific, had secured eastern New Guinea and was preparing to invade the Bismarcks.
Since the beginning of the war, it had been the opinion of the United States Chiefs of Staff that Japan "could best be defeated by a series of amphibious attacks across the far reaches of the Pacific." In 1942 and early 1943, the attacks were few and widely scattered and the land fighting was done on the edge of the enemy's island defensive perimeter, ranging from Guadalcanal to Attu. That there were few amphibious attacks in the Pacific during the first year and a half of the war, and that these were limited in scale, may be traced to the global strategy to which the United States was committed: To defeat Germany first; to maintain increasing pressure on Japan; and to keep China in the war. So long as the war in the Pacific had a second priority, increasing pressure on Japan, in the form of amphibious attacks, had to be limited to the means at hand.
Importance of the Gilberts"The Gilbert Islands are a group of coral atolls lying athwart the equator. They had been held by the British up to the outbreak of the war in December 1941, when they were seized by the Japanese. Their location is of great strategic significance because they are north and west of other islands in our possession and immediately south and east of important bases in the Carolines and Marshalls. The capture of the Gilberts was, therefore, a necessary part of any serious thrust at the Japanese Empire."1
At the QUADRANT Conference in Quebec, August 1943, the specific routes of the advance on Japan were laid out and operations in the Gilberts, the Marshalls, and the Marianas were agreed to. Before the QUADRANT Conference, however, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific and Pacific Ocean areas, had been alerted to begin planning for operations in the Central Pacific. On 20 July, 1943, a directive was sent by the Joint Chiefs of Staff instructing Nimitz to plan and prepare for operations in the Ellice and Gilbert Island groups.2
United States plans for the Central Pacific operations called for the capture of a succession of Japanese positions from which attacks could be launched against Japanese strong points such as Truk and the Marianas and also against essential lines of communication. The several directives issued for these operations defined the purposes as to gain control of the Gilbert Islands and the Marshall Islands, to secure a base area for the attack on the Carolines, to improve the security of our lines of communications and to support other operations in the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean by extending pressure on the Japanese.
Plans for Operation GALVANIC
On the basis of the directives from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Nimitz began to organize and prepare his forces for the forthcoming operations. Planning studies and directives were sent out to the various units earmarked to participate in the Gilberts operation. Early planning envisaged the seizure of Nauru, Bititu (Betio) Island of the Tarawa Atoll, and airfield sites on Apamama as the primary objectives in the Gilberts operation. As planning progressed, certain intelligence information, not previously available, indicated that Nauru was heavily defended and offered extremely poor landing beaches. As a result, it was decided to substitute Makin for Nauru.
Operation Plan 13-43
While planning and preparations were in full swing, Admiral Nimitz ordered carrier-based strikes on Marcus, Tarawa, Apamama, and Wake to take place during the months of August, September, and October. The purpose of these strikes was to soften Japanese installations and keep the enemy guessing as to where our next full-scale attack would be delivered. The strikes were eminently successful.
Planning for Operation GALVANIC (the capture of the Gilbert Islands) crystallized when Admiral Nimitz issued Operation Plan 13-43 on 5 October 1943. By this plan Vice Admiral R.A. Spruance, Commander Central Pacific Force, was assigned the following mission:
Capture, occupy, defend, and develop Makin, Tarawa, and Apamama and vigorously deny Nauru, in order to:
- Gain control of the Gilbert Islands;
- Prepare to gain control of the Marshall Islands;
- Improve the security of lines of communication;
- Support the operations in the South-Southwest Pacific and Burma areas by extending pressure on the Japanese
In addition Spruance's Fifth Fleet was to prevent enemy interference by destroying or repelling enemy forces and by attacks on enemy airfields in the Gilberts and Marshalls, and to provide naval gunfire and air support of the landings.
Task OrganizationIn October, Admiral Nimitz placed various units of the Pacific Fleet under the command of Vice Admiral R.A. Spruance, designating the new organization Central Pacific Force.3 It consisted of three major groups:
- Carrier Force (Task Force 50), Rear Adm. C.A. Pownall;
- Assault Force (Task Force (54), Rear Adm. R.K. Turner;
- Defense Forces and Shore-based Air (Task Force 57), Read Adm. H.J. Hoover.
Admiral Turner's Task Force 54 (Fifth Amphibious Force) was subdivided into two major units: Task Force 52 (also commanded by Turner) to capture Makin; and Task Force 53 (Rear Adm. Harry Hill) to capture Tarawa and Apamama, in that order.
Admiral Pownall's Task Force 50 had an ambitious program. In addition to establishing and maintaining air superiority in the area, this force was to neutralize enemy defenses, support the assault, conduct medium searches ahead of the assault forces, provide fighter protection maintain antisubmarine patrol, provide gunfire spotting and maintain continuous observations and reports over the objectives, Tarawa, Makin, and Apamama.
In an effort to establish air and sea control of the Gilbert Islands the land-based aircraft of Admiral Hoover's Task Force 57, operating from the Ellice, Phoenix, and Samoan islands, were directed to conduct photographic reconnaissance missions, attacks against enemy bases within range to the westward, and long-range searches.
Assigned to Fifth Amphibious Force was V Amphibious Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Holland M. Smith, USMC. The function of this corps was to exercise full and continuing operational command of the amphibious training and operations of all troops in the Central Pacific Areas assigned for the amphibious attack. The 2d Marine Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Julian C. Smith, USMC, mounted at Wellington, New Zealand, and assigned to V Amphibious Corps, was to furnish the assault forces for the capture of Tarawa and Apamama. The 27th Infantry Division, mounted at Pearl Harbor, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ralph C.Smith, USA, was to furnish a regimental combat team for the capture of Makin. Other V Amphibious Corps
forces to be involved were: 2d Defense Battalion (Marine), mounted at Wallis, to garrison Apamama following the attack; and 7th Defense Battalion (Army),4 mounted at Pearl Harbor, to garrison Makin.
The capture of Tarawa Atoll was the mission assigned to Task Force 53. The Task Force Commander, Rear Adm. Harry Hill, was assigned the following task groups: Rear Adm. H.F. Kingman's Support Group, comprising five fire support sections;5 Southern Landing Force (2d Marine Division, less RCT 6); Transport Group (Capt. H.B. Knowles); Minesweeper Group, and Rear Adm. A.E. Montgomery's Southern Carrier Group (a part of TF 50, Rear Adm. C.A. Pownall), to screen the operation and furnish air interception and support ashore when needed.
Task Force 53
Intelligence reports indicated that of the islands of Tarawa Atoll, Bititu (Betio) Island was strongly held and fortified; on it the Japanese had built an airfield. In order to destroy the enemy forces on Tarawa Atoll, and to capture and use the airfield, the main attack by the landing force of Task Force 53 was to be made on Bititu Island.6
Early in August 1943, Vice Admiral R.A. Spruance came to Wellington to acquaint Maj. Gen. Julian C. Smith with plans for the Gilberts operation. No formal orders were issued but Admiral Spruance assigned the capture of Tarawa Atoll verbally to the 2d Marine Division at this time. During this conference the question of the reef that fringed Betio Island was discussed and the decision was made by the 2d Marine Division to use amphibian tractors to carry its first three waves over the reef, pending further experiments with the tractors.
2d Marine Division
Following this conference, planning directives and studies, based on a projected plan which called for the capture of Nauru, Tarawa, and Apamama, were received by the division. The latter objectives were tentatively assigned to the 2d Marine Division.
On 15 September, the division was attached to V Amphibious Corps and on 2 October, Maj. Gen. Julian C. Smith and his staff reported to Maj. Gen. Holland M. Smith, the corps commander, at Pearl Harbor, to obtain the corps plan and secure approval of the preferred plan of the 2d Marine Division in the attack of objectives not yet definitely assigned.
Gen. Julian C. Smith was informed that the enemy was capable of making a combined air and submarine attack within 3 days of the beginning of action on Tarawa. No plan for landing artillery on the other islands of the atoll for the preliminary bombardment of Betio would be approved because of the time element involved. The initial attack had to be made on strongly defended Betio. Gen. Julian C. Smith orally requested that he be given definite orders to that effect. This request was granted and the mission was thus assigned.
In the meantime, the division continued its training and in September, when transports were made available, the battalion landing teams went aboard ship and participated in amphibious landing maneuvers. Concurrently, schools were in progress, training personnel for specialized duty. The division had lost many men who were invalided home after the campaign on Guadalcanal because of chronic malaria attacks.7 However, the arrival of replacements and intradivisional transfer of personnel soon brought the division up to strength.
The mission assigned the 2d Marine Division in Operation GALVANIC was (1) to land at H-hour of D-day8 on Betio Island, on the southwest corner of Tarawa Atoll, in order to seize and occupy the island; (2) to prepare for further operations ashore on Tarawa Atoll. The code name for Tarawa was LONGSUIT. Operations to capture Apamama Atoll (code name: BOXCLOTH) were to follow those on Tarawa.
The division operation order, completed 25 October 1943, called for Combat Team 2 (2d Marines, reinforced, 2d Battalion, 8th Marines, attached) to make the assault landings. The remaining two battalion landing teams of the 8th Marines, along with combat team headquarters, were to constitute the
2d Marine Division's reserve.9 The 6th Marines was held in reserve by V Amphibious Corps.
The operation order of the 2d Marines called for three battalion landing teams to land on Beaches RED 1, RED 2, and RED 3, on the north, or lagoon side of Betio Island.10 Since the 6th Marines was not under division control, initially, Gen. Julian C. Smith, Commanding General, 2d Marine Division, could plan on having a two-to-one numerical superiority over the Japanese defenders of Betio, provided that intelligence estimates of enemy strength on Betio were correct.
Division planning was done on the basis of intelligence information furnished by Joint Intelligence Center, Pacific Ocean areas, relayed via V Amphibious Corps. According to this information, Tarawa was believed to be held by a defending force composed entirely of naval personnel. Naval units of this type are usually more highly trained and have greater tenacity and fighting spirit than the average Japanese Army unit. Most of the Japanese in Tarawa Atoll were believed to be on Betio and the estimated strength of the garrison on that island was placed at 2,500 to 2,700 men. This was later revised to not less than 2,700 men and not more than 3,100. (Actually there were 2,619 first-rate troops. See appendix F.)
Through aerial photographs, especially those obtained during the United States raids on Tarawa on 18 and 19 September 1943, planning agencies of Central Pacific Force, V Amphibious Corps, and 2d Marine Division estimated the numbers and types of weapons on Betio, and located their emplacements. A post-operation survey proved that the estimates were unusually accurate.11
Information on the tides and on the reef that fringed Tarawa Atoll, both on the exterior and interior, was equally complete. To reach Betio Island from the sea or from the waters of the lagoon, regardless of the direction of approach, meant crossing the reef. "The ideal defensive barrier has always been the one that could not be demolished, which held up assaulting forces under the unobstructed fire of the defenders and past which it was impossible to run, crawl, dig, climb, or sail. The barrier reef fulfills these conditions to the letter, except when sufficient amphibious tanks and similar vehicles are available to the attackers" (CincPac Op. Report, November 1943). To land its assault waves on Betio, the 2d Marine Division had decided to use amphibious tractors (LVTs) and had conducted successful experiments with them. Later waves would have to go in boats (LCMs and LCVPs).
It was necessary that the last of the tractor waves cross the reef as the tide approached the flood so that there would be enough water to float the boats over when they arrived at the reef. To get information on Gilbert tides, the division turned to some men who probably knew more about them than anyone else. Since available charts of the Tarawa waters were known to be inaccurate, Fifth Amphibious Force obtained the services of several British who had lived in the various islands of the Gilbert group, or had been shipmasters operating small steamers and schooners among these islands. A part of this group was sent to the 2d Marine Division to assist in its planning; it consisted of Maj. F.L.G. Holland, who had lived on Bairiki (the island adjacent to Betio) for 15 years, a Captain Warnham who had been in the atoll for about 5 years, and several small craft skippers who had sailed the waters of the Gilbert and Fiji Islands. During the early planning, Gen. Julian C. Smith learned from the tide tables furnished by these men that he could expect 5 feet of water on the reef at high neap tide, enough to get the boats in to the beaches.12 However, General Smith also learned that these tides were not always dependable; that there were frequent dodging tides.
Early in the planning stage, when it became apparent that amphibian tractors would have to be used to get its first waves ashore, the 2d Marine Division requested that additional tractors be furnished. The division had about 100 tractors, 75 of which
were thought to be in suitable condition for the operation. According to Colonel M.A. Edson, 100 LVT(2)s were assigned the division but they were still in San Diego and could not be shipped out in time to reach the division at Wellington, nor could the Navy furnish sufficient LSTs to transport them. However, 50 could be sent to Samoa in time, and this was done. Trained personnel from the 2d Amphibian Tractor Battalion were sent to Samoa to form a new company, with the LVT(2)s, which would join the division at Tarawa on D-day.
Also during the planning phase, the division requested Task Force 53 to use the ships carrying the 6th Marine (Corps Reserve), with a suitable destroyer escort, to make a diversionary feint off the south shore of Betio, while the main force was preparing to land on the north side, in order to confuse the Japanese on the island, but the request was denied. To do this, about 50 percent of the destroyer fire support strength would have to be diverted from the main landings to screen and protect the simulated transport area set up in the feint, leaving the main transport area unprotected.
The northern beaches of Betio were chosen as the preferred landing beaches because they vouchsafed better opportunities for securing a foothold than the others.
The presence of underwater antiboat mines was also considered. Since the Japs were still working over the north beaches, it was believed there would be less chance of encountering mines in that sector. This proved to be correct. Although mines were located there, they were not armed; mines on the other beaches were fully armed.
In addition, it was believed that water conditions desired by the division would be available inside the lagoon. The other beaches on the island were rejected for several reasons: The eastern end of the island was too narrow to be of any use; the south side had the heaviest boat obstacles and fairly bristled with gun emplacements; the west end had numerous boat obstacles, a heavily fortified beach, and led into a bottleneck where the island narrowed a short distance east of the beach. The south coast formed a re-entrant facilitating the use of flanking fire; the north beach offered a salient.
The naval gunfire support plan called for the firing to be done in three separate phases. The first phase was to begin at a time to be announced by the commander of Task Force 53; this time was to be called W-hour. During the first phase, lasting from W-hour to H minus 60, the support ships were to fire on designated target areas; this was to insure that all important parts of the island would receive adequate attention. Phase II was to begin at 50 minutes before H-hour and would last until H-hour. During this period the ships would continue to fire at designated target areas, starting at the water's edge of each of the landing beaches and extending a short distance inland. In the last phase, the ships were to fire neutralization fires and provide call fires for the assault units ashore.
The air support plan called for bombing and strafing missions from 0545, D-day, until 0615. Then 5 minutes before H-hour, fighter planes were to strafe from the water's edge inland for about 100 yards on each of the landing beaches. Upon completion of this strafing, bombers were to attack secondary defensive positions behind the beaches.
In addition to this bombing and strafing, Col. D.M. Shoup had requested that Seventh Air Force planes drop 2,000-pound "daisy-cutters" on the beach along the landing beaches, and inland, to kill as many of the enemy as possible and to level the many buildings that would otherwise provide cover and concealment for snipers. This request, approved by division, was never fulfilled.
Briefly, the approach plan13 called for a part of the fire support ships to move out from the main fleet group as the transports neared the transport area, and take up positions in predesignated areas to the south, west, and northwest of Betio. Two minesweepers were to enter the lagoon ahead of the screening destroyers, which were to be followed by the LSD from Noumea carrying the medium tanks of the 2d Tank Battalion, and the landing craft comprising the initial waves of the landing force.
Tarawa is one of the coral atolls which comprise the Gilbert Islands, an archipelago that sprawls across the equator between 174° and 178° east longitude. Roughly triangular in shape, the atoll is about 18 miles long on the east side 12 miles long on the south side and 121/2 miles long on the west side. A continuous reef, the atoll consists of a narrow string of coral sand islands whose altitude varies
Japanese Practice Gunnery from the southwest tip of Betio. This captured photograph shows the eastern gun of the 8-inch battery.
from 8 to 10 feet. Coconut trees, pandanus, and dense shrubs make up the vegetation found on the islands. On the east side of the atoll there are 42 little islands, and on the south side 5; across the western side, connecting the two open ends of the reversed L-shaped atoll, lies the lee barrier reef which guards the lagoon enclosed by the atoll. Entrance to the lagoon may be gained at a point where a break occurs about 31/2 miles north of the west part of Betio Island, the southwesternmost one of the atoll. The lagoon is thickly studded by coral patches and reefs; navigation depends upon good light. Depths from 5 to 8 fathoms may be found in places.
Tarawa lies in the easterly wind belt, with a westerly season appearing along about November. Normal wind velocity for the year averages 7 knots. Rainfall is comparatively light, averaging around 35 inches annually. There are no clearly marked seasons.
Japanese Occupation of TarawaTarawa Atoll was raided by the Japanese Navy on 10 December 1941,14 and was proclaimed occupied by the Imperial Navy, although the real occupation of the atoll did not occur until September of 1942. As a result of the United States Marine raid on Makin, 16 August 1942, action was taken immediately by the Japanese to reinforce positions in the Gilberts. On 15 September 1942, the Yokosuka 6th Special Navy Landing Force (SNLF) landed on Betio, Tarawa Atoll, for garrison duty. In December the 111th Pioneers arrived to begin the construction of the island's defenses. In February 1943, the Yokosuka 6th SNLF was redesignated the 3d Special Base Force. During that same month Rear Admiral Tomanari Saichiro, arrived at Betio to take command of Japanese forces in the Gilberts.
On 17 March 1943, the Sasebo 7th SNLF reached Betio and joined the 3d Special Base Force as garrison troops. Then in May another unit arrived, the 4th Construction Unit. There was a change in command in August when Rear Admiral Shibasaki Meichi relieved Tomonari. Shibasaki remained in command of all Japanese forces in the Gilberts until his death on 21 November 1943, the second day of the fighting on Betio. At the time of the landing of the 2d Marine Division, Shibasaki had 2,619 first-rate troops.15
The Japanese concentrated their strength in Tarawa Atoll on one island--Betio. The basic overall tactical defense planned for Betio provided for a series of strong points organized with intervening distances covered by fire. The plan called for the destruction of American forces at the water's edge; if this failed, the garrison would immediately counterattack any beachhead that might be established. The principles contemplated in the defense of Betio were defined early. The Yokosuka 6th SNLF directed its personnel, in an order published in October 1942, to "wait until the enemy is within effective range (when assembling for landing) and direct your fire on the enemy transport group and destroy it. If the enemy starts a landing, knock out the landing boats with mountain gunfire, tank guns and infantry guns, then concentrate all fires on the enemy's landing point and destroy him at the water's edge."
Japanese Defense on Betio
Camouflaged 8-inch Guns in concrete emplacement on southwest point of Betio. This emplacement was overrun by the 3d Battalion, 2d Marines, after naval gunfire neutralized the guns.
The weapons to provide the backbone of the Japanese defense were coast-defense guns (ranging from 80 mm. to 8 inch), antiaircraft guns (13 mm. to 127 mm.), antiboat guns (13 mm. to 75 mm.), and light and heavy machine guns.
The basic beach defense weapon was the 13-mm. machine gun, supplemented by the 7.7-mm. machine gun. These were sited to cover most likely approaches to the beach with frontal fire, and to cover the forward side of the diagonally placed barriers on the reef with flanking fires, these fires interlocking in front of, and protecting, other beach defense weapon installations. Carefully built rifle and light machine-gun emplacements were positioned in the log beach barricade and immediately behind it to provide local protection for automatic-fire weapons.
On the beach, the Japanese placed antipersonnel mines and out on the fringing reef there were antivehicle mines; these were to complement the basic weapons ashore. Out in the water from the beaches there were antiboat obstacles, the purpose of which was twofold: (1) To slow down and otherwise impede the movements of landing craft; (2) to force approaching landing craft into prearranged fire lanes where concentrated fires from all types of weapons could be employed most advantageously.
The obstacles were of several types. There was a double apron barbed wire fence, located 50 to 100 yards out, which virtually encircled the island. On the south side of Betio there was a coconut log barrier and scattered through the water were concrete tetrahedrons. On the beaches proper, the Japanese built log barriers, which in effect were retaining walls, and these were constructed to contain positions for machine guns and antiboat guns.
Defenses inland were haphazard. Command posts, ammunition dumps, and communication centers were made of reinforced concrete and were virtually bombproof. They were not purposely constructed as positions from which active resistance could be offered.
In May 1943, there was a conference at Truk between the Commander in Chief of the Southeast Area, Vice Admiral Kusaka, and the Commander in Chief Second Fleet, Vice Admiral Kondo. At this conference it was decided: first, to bring out as many reinforcements as possible from Japan; and second, to hold the Solomons and Dampier Strait area in the Bismarcks. The emphasis on aircraft reinforcements was in the Solomons and reinforcements to the Marshalls-Gilberts were to be principally in the form of troops. The possibility of United States attack in any of the Marshalls-Gilberts, Solomons, and Eastern New Guinea Areas was realized; therefore, the Second Fleet was to be concentrated at Truk to meet any eventuality. Japanese aircraft were concentrated in the Solomons, but there were relatively few in the Central Pacific due to the shortage caused by attrition in the Solomons.
Japanese Plans, Summer, 1943
The specific plan to counter an American invasion of the Gilberts was as follows: Long-range aircraft from the Bismarcks would attack the United States invasion forces and then land at fields in the Marshalls-Gilberts. Short-range aircraft would start from or stage through Truk and proceed to Marshalls-Gilberts fields and from there attack United States forces. It was expected to require 4 days for the short-range aircraft o reach the attack position from the Bismarcks. Warships at Truk would sortie and move to the Gilbert Islands where they would attack American surface and invasion forces. Six of seven submarines, which were employed in supply services in the Bismarcks, also would be ordered to assist in repelling the invasion.
This plan, a part of the larger one called the Z plan, designed to defend the outer line in the event of an American attack on the Gilbert-Marshalls area, depended on the fleet, based at Truk to assist land-based aircraft and garrison troops on the islands. The Japanese were never given a chance to place the Z plan into effect.
The landing of the 3d Marine Division on Bougainville on 1 November 1943, and the United States carrier-based plane raid on Rabaul on 5 November had the Japanese in a bad spot. Pouring reinforcements into the Solomons had got to be like pouring sand down a rat hole. United States forces had thrust their way up the Solomons chain from Guadalcanal, through the Russells, to New Georgia, bypassing Kolumbangara, on to Vella Lavella and
Situation, November 1943
from there to Bougainville, posing a dangerous threat to the Japanese strong point at Rabaul. To keep their air strength effective in the northern Solomons, the Japanese, after suffering heavy losses, were forced to draw reinforcements from the Marshalls, Truk, Marianas, and Celebes areas. The situation was critical. If Bougainville, fell, Rabaul would be virtually useless. The successful United States landing on Bougainville Island, 1 November 1943, convinced the Japanese High Command that the threat in this section was greater than that of attack in the Central Pacific. A number of the naval vessels which had been held at Truk in conformity with the general plan for the defense of the Pacific perimeter were sent via Rabaul to assist in checking the United States advance toward Rabaul.
At the same time, a United States task force under Rear Adm. F.C. Sherman, built around aircraft carriers, was moving toward Rabaul. At sunrise on 5 November 1943, the Japanese force, consisting of cruisers and destroyers of the Japanese Second and Third Fleets, arrived at Rabaul from Truk and began to make preparations for fueling. Within an hour Admiral Sherman's planes came diving in on the helpless Japanese ships, attacking with bombs and torpedoes. Immediately the attack began, the Japanese ships left the harbor to gain room to maneuver. Of nine cruisers, seven were damaged badly enough to make it necessary to send them to Japan for repairs. A week later Rear Admiral Sherman and Rear Adm. A.E. Montgomery, each with a carrier task force, again attacked Rabaul and inflicted heavy damage on enemy destroyers outside the harbor as well as on cruisers, destroyers and other shipping within the harbor.
Thus it was that the Japanese found that the Rabaul attacks, the Bougainville landing, and the intensified air war in the Solomons (which had absorbed air forces already in the area, as well as required the employment of the short-range planes which were being held at Truk for the defense of the Marshalls-Gilberts), made it necessary to alter previous plans for the defense of the Central Pacific Islands. The Fourth Fleet, in the Marshalls, was too small to strike American invasion forces. The 22d Air Flotilla, also based in the Marshalls, was badly understrength. It would be up to the island garrisons to resist as best they could, aided in a small measure by harassing submarine action.
Rehearsal and Movement to Target
On 7 November most16 of the elements of Task Force 53 (Southern Attack Force), commanded by Rear Adm. Harry Hill, assembled at Efate in the New HEbrides for rehearsal exercises before setting out for Tarawa. Rear Adm. H.F. Kingman had brought his battleships, cruisers, and destroyers down from Pearl Harbor. From Wellington, New Zealand, came the 2d Marine Division, loaded in Transport Group 4.
Task Force 53 Assembles
The departure of the 2d Marine Division from New Zealand was ostensibly for the purpose of effecting practice landings in the vicinity of Hawkes Bay. Few officers in the division knew that there would be no such landings; that this was merely a ruse.
Operations orders for the practice landings were issued; arrangements for moving division equipment from Hawkes Bay back to Wellington afterward were made; the New Zealand Air Force was briefed on air coverage for the practice landings; and it was intended for the word to get out that the ships would return to Wellington in about a week. Not until the day of departure from Wellington was the Governor General of New Zealand notified that the division was leaving the country and would not return.
Company C, from 1st MAC, arrived at Efate with its medium tanks aboard an LSD, the Ashland, from Noumea, New Caledonia. The arrival of the transports was timed so that the first rehearsal could be held on the same day that they reached Efate.
During the first rehearsal Mele Bay was used for the landing of troops and Pango Point for simulated fire support targets. Following the landing exercise, the transport group entered Havannah Harbor and remained overnight. The second rehearsal was held on 9 November with the troops again landing in Mele Bay while fire-support ships held bombardment practice on Erradaka Island. Conferences and critiques were held on both the second and fourth day of the stay at Efate. Communication equipment was tested during this period and exercises were held to check the communication plan. On 13
November, Task Force 53 left Efate and sailed for Tarawa.
It was during the rehearsals at Efate that the regimental commander of the assault regiment, Col. William McN. Marshall, became ill. General Smith named Col. David M. Shoup, the divisional operations officer, to take Marshall's place.
Thus, Shoup was placed in the unusual position of now being called upon to execute orders based upon planning in which he had had a major part.
The first 3 days en route to Tarawa passed without unusual event. On the second day out, Task Force Commander Rear Adm. Harry Hill sent the following message to the ships of his force:
Movement to Target
Give all hands the general picture of the projected operation and further details to all who should have this in execution of duties. This is the first American assault of a strongly defended atoll and with northern attack and covering forces the largest Pacific operation to date.
Now for the first time, the troops of the 2d Marine Division learned the name of the island they were about to assault. All data withheld previously was made available. Troop officers gathered their men together in small groups and told them all they knew about the forthcoming operation. On 16 November the task force slowed down to permit the refueling of some of the ships. Early in the morning of 18 November, an observation plane from the Colorado reported sighting Task Force 52 to the north. During the afternoon a plane from the carrier Chenango sighted an enemy plane far in the distance.
While Admiral Turner's Fifth Amphibious Force was en route to Makin and Tarawa, aircraft of Task Force 57 (Rear Adm. J.H. Hoover) were busy "softening up" the target islands, as well as others adjacent. Hoover's land-based planes flew from the Ellice, Phoenix, and Samoan groups, and from Baker Island. The planes, totalling between 350 and 400, made daily strikes on the Japanese bases in the Gilberts and Marshalls through 13-19 November. In addition, they conducted searches and photographic missions.
Air and Surface Strikes
During the same period that Seventh Air Force B-24s (operating under Task Force 57 as striking group, Maj. Gen. Willis A. Hale, USA, commanding) were bombing Tarawa, carrier planes from Rear Adm. A.E. Montgomery's Southern Carrier
Looking East Down the Airfield before the Marines landed. Trees had been cut in order to lengthen the field, but the Japanese were interrupted by United States invasion of Tarawa. This area was overrun by the 3d Battalion, 2d Marines.
Group moved in to add their bombs. Commencing at daylight on 18 November, the carrier-based planes dropped a total of 115 tons and next day again attacked Betio, this time with 69 tons. The attack on the latter day was coordinated with a surface bombardment from Cruiser Division 56, consisting of three heavy cruisers and two destroyers; the ships fired roughly 250 tons of high capacity projectiles, mostly 8-inch.
Elsewhere, other strikes were in progress. On 16 November Admiral Sherman's Relief Carrier Group came up from Espiritu Santo to attack Nauru and dropped 90 tons of bombs to neutralize the airfield. On 19 November, Admiral Pownall's Carrier Interceptor Group made 10 attacks, 1 on Jaluit and 9 against Milli, dropping a total of 130 tons of bombs.
During the morning of 19 November an enemy plane was picked up by radar about 60 miles west of Task Force 53. It was a "Mavis" and was soon shot down by the Suwanee's combat air patrol. In the early afternoon Task Force 53 turned from its northerly course and began the last leg of its voyage to Tarawa, heading to the west. Out ahead of the main body of ships the destroyer Ringgold was on the lookout for Maiana Atoll, the last guiding mark for the force in its approach to the target. At 2033 Maiana was picked up and the force began its final approach toward Tarawa. Shortly after midnight the fire-support sections began to move to their assigned stations.
Final Approach Task Force 53
The transports were reported to be in position at 0320. It was found, however, that they had stopped in Transport Area Baker instead of Able, farther north. As soon as this was ascertained, Admiral Hill ordered the transports to move north to the proper area in order to unmask his fire-support ships so that they could place enfilade fire down Betio from west to east.
When the transports finally got to their proper area, with their small boats trailing along beside them as they moved, there was some confusion, since some boats got separated from their mother ships. This helped to delay unloading, thus changing the time table, and contributed to a delay in H-hour later on.
At 0507, on 20 November, shore batteries on Betio opened fire on the ships nearest the island. The battle for Betio had begun.
Desolate and Bare. The area at the west end of the airfield as it looked after the battle for Betio.
Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (Foreword) * Next Chapter (2)
1. From U.S. Navy at War, Official Reports by Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, USN, p. 71.
2. Joint Chiefs of Staff Dispatch, 20 July 1943.
3. For task organization diagram, see appendix E.
4. This Army battalion was organized on Oahu specifically for duty at Makin.
5. For names of ships comprising these groups, see appendix E.
6. Hereafter, the island will be referred to as Betio.
7. As late as 10 October, the division had 1,387 ineffectives. Daily admissions for malaria at that time averaged 40.
8. Preliminary planning was done without reference to a specific target date (D-day) or landing hour (H-hour). For higher echelon planning purposes, a tentative target date was set, well in advance of the projected operation. H-hour was left to the discretion of the task force commander.
9 For Division Task Organization, see appendix E.
10. See map 1.
11. For a comparison of estimated against actual weapons on Betio, see appendix I.
12. As late as the rehearsals at Efate, Major Holland announced, during a division staff meeting, that his earlier estimate of the height of the water over the reef had been based on flood tide. He stated that he "never dreamed that anyone would try to land on the neap tide." The latter, he said, would provide not over 3 feet of water on the reef.
Major Holland stated that the tide tables were not dependable during neap tide periods; that there might be as little as 3 feet of water over the reef at extreme high tide. Since amphibian tractors had been secured for landing the first three waves of troops, this information affected only the landing of support and reserve troops; these were to be carried in LVCPs and LCMs.
This caused another meeting of the pilots to be held and the consensus of this group was that there would be enough water over the reef at high neap tide to float the LCVPs and LCMs over the reef.
13. Prepared by Task Force 53.
14. Makin was occupied the same day.
15. For a break-down of Japanese strength on Betio on D-day, see appendix F.
16. Cruiser Division 13 and Destroyer Division 49 were on duty with the Third Fleet and did not join TF 53 until 16 November. Carrier Division 22 did not participate in the first rehearsal at Efate.