This operation (Gilberts) is considered to have been highly successful. Island bases essential to our advance across the Pacific were captured from the enemy with the complete loss of all his defending forces.--CinCPac Operation Report, November 1943, annex F, page 10.
Unique among all the operations in the war in the Pacific, and with implications so broad and far-reaching as to affect all subsequent amphibious operations, Tarawa was much more than a successful battle. It was, in many ways, a departure from anything that had been done before.
For the first time in history, a sea-borne assault was launched against a heavily defended coral atoll, thus beginning an operation that was assault in nature from start to finish, that never once lost its amphibious flavor, and that depended for success upon the closest control and coordination of land, sea, and air forces.
Here was no large, or even limited, land mass where the attacker had merely to seize a beachhead in order to taste the first fruits of success. At Tarawa, success could only come when the island under attack was taken in entirety, for Betio was so small as to preclude the possibility of seizing a beachhead, in the classical sense of that term.
The small foothold held by the Marines on Betio on D-day, and the day following, could scarcely be called a beachhead. It had few of the characteristics normally associated with a beachhead; there was no fairly secure area on the hostile shore in which to reorganize; where it was possible to strengthen positions by moving intact units into the threatened zones. There was no beach free from enemy fire where reinforcements could be landed safely, where supporting weapons could be brought ashore and emplaced to support the attack. There was no opportunity to land supplies and equipment in the conventional manner.
Until the close of the second day of the fighting, entry to the island was no easier for reserve units than it had been for the initial assault waves, and in the meantime the sole vehicle capable of crossing the reef with troops was diminishing in numbers to the point of vanishing.
There was no weakly defended, or undefended, beach on Betio upon which to land. There was no jungle to screen or conceal a landing or subsequent operations ashore. Neither were there any ground forms to shield the attacker. From the reef all the way to the beach the enemy denied all approaches, forcing the Marines to ride their vehicles ashore--or wade in--without being able to fight back. Once ashore, the assault waves found themselves pinned down by withering enemy fire that came from carefully prepared emplacements, from almost every direction.
For two full days the defenders of Betio had all the advantages accruing to the defender. The attackers had to come to them, across fire-swept water, over a coral reef that barred the progress of everything but amphibian tractors, and these were few. The defenders had the protection of underground emplacements and positions; bombs and shells had little effect upon them. The attacking marines, on the other hand, were forced to move in the open, with no protection, no cover, and no concealment. They came down fire-lanes covered by presited enemy guns.
Chief ally to the Japanese in this battle was the reef that fringed Betio. The reef prevented the continuous movement of troops, supplies, and equipment from ship to shore. Despite the reef, and intense and bitter resistance from the enemy, the 2d Marine Division fought and worked until it got enough men, supplies, and equipment ashore to carry the fight into the Japanese positions, and in the end annihilated all but 146 of the enemy's 4,836 men.
In just 76 hours, the 2d Marine Division had completed the capture of Betio, key island--and the only one with an airfield--in Tarawa atoll, and this, coupled with the capture of Makin by a regimental combat team of the 27th Infantry Division, gave the United States control of the entire Gilberts Islands archipelago, bases from which an attack could be launched against the highly strategic Marshalls.
Appraised in terms of the combined United States Navy, Marine, and Army forces employed in the Gilberts operation, losses in ships and personnel were relatively light. Tarawa, however, appeared extremely costly, on the basis of casualties sustained by one organization, the 2d Marine Division; and, they occurred within the scant space of 76 hours.
To a people hungry for war news and word of victories, the announcement of casualties in United States papers following Tarawa came as a blow. Few people were prepared for the cost involved in pressing an amphibious assault against a strongly held enemy island. The initial public reaction which followed in the wake of Tarawa tended for some time to obscure the fact that here was an important, if hard-won victory; an operation which was planned on the basis of exceptionally good intelligence information, with an unusually accurate and full estimate of the situation, and which was executed according to plan. When evaluated in terms of later operations, Tarawa finally achieved its proper perspective.
Actually, casualties to the assaulting troops at Tarawa amounted to approximately 20 percent, a figure well within the calculated amount that can be sustained in a successful amphibious assault against a strongly defended enemy island, and actually less than those sustained during corresponding periods of initial assault in several succeeding operations in which the Corps would participate.
Tarawa served two important purposes: It demonstrated clearly the soundness of our doctrines of amphibious assault; it pointed out inevitable weaknesses in technique. If Tarawa was not the finished product that many later operations were, it had a greater importance in that it paved the way for those operations.
Never before in the history of war had ships and planes been called upon to attempt the destruction of the enemy on a fortified coral atoll as a preliminary to landing troops. Betio offered a concentrated target which ordinarily would tend to multiply the effectiveness of air and surface bombardment, thus simplifying the destruction of the target.
For this to be absolutely true there would have to be a foreknowledge of the exact capabilities and limitations of air and surface bombardment as applied to a target of this precise nature, and equally important, a fully evolved technique in applying these weapons against such a target--something that could come only from actual experience.
Tarawa served to reduce to proportion the exaggerated concept of what surface and air bombardment could do to a heavily fortified, concentrated target. The results came as no surprise to the landing force.
One of the great lessons learned about naval gunfire, as used against a target such as Betio, was the need for destruction rather than neutralization. There had not been enough preliminary preparation by naval gunfire and air bombardment. Those who believed, before Tarawa, that planes and ships could destroy completely the enemy fortifications and personnel on a small coral island were quick to perceive their error.
It was concluded that the preparatory bombing and shelling to be delivered on enemy-defended islands similar to Betio would have to be increased in duration and weight, all of this with an eye toward the total destruction of accurately located weapons and fortifications.
Tarawa highlighted the necessity that timing of naval gunfire and air bombardment be made to conform with the movement of the landing craft of the first waves of assault troops. Until the landing force can get ashore and establish its own base of supporting fire, it has to rely heavily upon naval gunfire and air bombardment to render the support normally provided by organic weapons.
This is important because an amphibious assault is not a simple ferrying operation; it is a tactical movement, an integral and vital part of the attack itself. Therefore, the landing force must be landed properly and with full support during its approach to the beach, a time when its effectiveness is potential, rather than kinetic.
Once ashore, the landing force depends upon a continuous ship-to-shore movement, the life line of the amphibious assault. Normally, troops, equipment, and supplies are boated according to prearranged plans which envisage a successful landing on selected beaches. This causes a tendency toward rigidity in executing the ship-to-shore movement.
At Tarawa the reef, and the volume and accuracy of hostile fire resulted in the flow of troops and supplies (subsequent to the initial landing) being stopped short of the beach. Furthermore, the order of equipment and supplies moving toward the beach was not the order in which they were required. In this case, the loaded landing craft were committed by the forces afloat to a movement which did not conform to the tactical situation ashore.
It is difficult to change the ship-to-shore movement plan when the assault is pinned down at the beach. Then, if ever, there has to be a great flexibility to offset the inherent rigidity. Tarawa showed that better regulation and control could help to provide this flexibility; that the landing force must be able to exert control over the movement of supply and reinforcements in accordance with the situation on the beaches.
At Tarawa, the amphibian Tractor--the LVT--came into its own as an assault troop carrier. In the words of Admiral Nimitz:
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.
In the field of the LVT's, the main lesson learned at Tarawa was the need for having enough of the tractors available in future operations to carry ashore not only the first three assault waves, but the reserve waves to follow; in addition to these, there needed to be spares to take the places of those tractors destroyed by enemy fire or mines, or which became inoperative due to mechanical failures. Also recognized was the need for amphibian tanks and LCI gunboats, not available in time for Tarawa.
The 2d Marine Division (which had initially realized the need for LVT's in the assault of Tarawa) had available to it in all only 125 amphibian tractors, too few to carry ashore more than the first 3 assault waves of troops, and even then too many for the 3 LST's provided to transport the tractors to the target. It was necessary that the division deck-load 50 tractors on troop transports in order to bring them along for the operation.
It is interesting to speculate as to what might have happened at Tarawa had the landing force been provided with more tractors and with the shipping to launch them. Their successful use in every-increasing numbers in later operations serves to point as a beacon toward Tarawa.
There were many other lessons learned at Tarawa. Reports submitted at the close of the operation are filled with them. Constructive criticism, comments, suggestions, and ideas provided a wealth of material that was quickly disseminated so that others might benefit.
There had to be a Tarawa. This was the inevitable point at which untried doctrine was at length tried in the crucible of battle. The lessons learned at Tarawa had to be learned somewhere in the course of the war, and it now seems providential that they were learned as early and at no greater cost than was involved.
Had there been no Tarawa to point the way, those lessons would have remained unlearned until they were driven home with even greater force in the Marshalls, in the Marianas, at Peleliu, or on Iwo Jima. The last operation, which occurred 14 months after Tarawa, parallels more closely than any other battle of the war the bitter fight on Betio, and it was there, if ever, that the experience of Tarawa sustained and facilitated victory.
Tarawa was the key to the Gilberts, which in turn was one of the keys that unlocked the Marshalls. The key to victory at Tarawa, however, in the last analysis, was the individual Marine. His disciplined fighting ability and courage came into sharper focus, perhaps, than ever before in World War II. His strength, however, important as an individual, found real effectiveness in the over-all collective effort, the effort of the task force.
For Tarawa was more than a battle of individuals and their strengths and frailties; it was a battle of machines, of equipment, of planes, of ships, of sand and water and coral reefs. It was a battle of what the Marine Corps and Navy knew and had, as opposed to what the Japanese knew and had; and in the end, it was the Japanese who were more than defeated--they were literally exterminated.
THIS SIMPLE CROSS WAS ERECTED at the western tip of Betio as a monument in memory of the 2nd Division Marines who were killed in the battle for Tarawa.
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