The Island is Secured

The Fourth Day

During the night 22-23 November, the landing team of Lt. Col. K.F. McLeod moved up in close support of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. While the 1st Battalion was repelling the Japanese counterattacks, the 3d Battalion formed a secondary line, ready to prevent a major break through the lines. Early next morning McLeod received orders from Col. M.G. Holmes, 6th Marines commander, to be prepared to relieve the 1st Battalion after daylight and continue the attack to the east at 0800. Planes from the carriers came in to bomb and strafe the eastern end of the island from 0700 to 0730. Then the 1st Battalion, 10th Marines, shelled the same area until 0745, at which time naval gunfire was called in for the last 15 minutes before the attack hour. While all this preliminary bombardment was being carried out, the 3d Battalion, 6th Marines, moved two of its companies through the position of the 1st Battalion. On the right, facing east, was Company L; on the left, Company I. The line formed by the two companies extended from one side of Betio to the other; behind the skirmish line, Company K waited in reserve, ready to support either company.

The eastern part of the island, the 2,000-yard stretch in front of the 3d Battalion, 6th Marines, yet to be taken, was a shambles. It had received almost as much attention on D-day as the western half, and had been pulverized daily on each of the three succeeding days. Still, in the midst of all the death and destruction caused by the planes, the naval gunfire, and the shells of the pack howitzers of the 10th Marines, roughly 500 Japanese held out in dugouts, blockhouses, log and dirt emplacements, and rifle pits. Five hundred of the enemy were still alive on the eastern part of Betio, despite the terrific losses sustained in the counterattacks against Jones' battalion the night before.

At 1930, 22 November, General Smith called his regimental commanders together and at that time issued verbal orders for the next day's operations. Present at the meeting were Colonel Shoup, Colonel Edson, Colonel Hall, Colonel Holmes, General Bourke,1 commanding general of the 10th Marines, and Major McCoy of the 2d Tank Battalion. To this group, General Smith read the following:

LT 2/6 has been ordered to move from Bairiki to the west beach of Betio tonight. CT 6 will attack at 0800 tomorrow morning to secure the southeast end of Betio. All available tanks attached. CT 2 with LT 1/8 attached, will continue mopping up operations on western end of Betio and in particular eliminate Japanese resistance in the vicinity of the boundary between Beaches RED 1 and RED 2. CT 8, less LT 1/8, prepare to move to Bairiki when boats become available. Tenth Marines in direct support of CT 6. Air bombardment on southeast end of Betio from 0700 to 0730. Naval gunfire support from 0730 to 0745. All battalions of 6th Marines will revert to the control of the 6th Marines at 0600, but necessary orders preparatory to launching attack may be issued by the commanding officer of the 6th Marines prior to that time to his battalion commanders; 10th Marines will maintain harassing fires on Japanese positions on southeast end of Betio throughout the night.


Map No. 7: Attack of the 3d Bn, 6th Marines, 23 Nov 1943

On the morning of the fourth day, Colonel Holmes was to attack with his regiment in a column of battalions. Division had hoped that the 2d Battalion would be able to move over from Bairiki in time to support the 3d, the attacking landing team. The 1st had sustained fairly heavy casualties during the counterattacks of the night before, and the day of fighting previous to that. It was planned that the 1st Battalion would remain in reserve for the 6th Marines on 23 November.

The way things turned out, however, the first elements of the 2d Battalion did not reach Betio until the island was almost secured. There had been a misunderstanding about boats to transport the team over to Betio, and to carry the 8th Marines to Bairiki. For one thing there were too few boats available, since the unloading of the transports had been carried out without due regard to the need for certain supplies ashore at a given time, and too many boats were loaded and waiting out in the water with no place to unload and no personnel ready to unload them. There had been no opportunity for the shore-party organizations of the combat teams to operate according to previous planning. The break-down in the logistical phase of the operation began when shore-party personnel attached to the landing teams were used, of necessity, to fight for the initial beachhead; further deterioration was experienced when the landing teams began to call for supplies directly from their own transports, without regard to any systematic plan for coordinating the ship-to-shore movements of the boats carrying badly needed ammunition, water, and rations.

Attack of the Third Battalion, 6th Marines

At 0800, 23 November, McLeod's battalion moved through the positions of the 1st Battalion toward two tank-trap ditches about 150 yards to the front. Supporting the advance of the landing team were two medium tanks and seven light tanks. Men with flamethrowers were in the front lines of the advancing infantry. The tank traps were reached in a matter of only a few minutes; McLeod had planned to stop there and reorganize before continuing. With only feeble token resistance being offered thus far there was no need to halt; nor was it even necessary to pause while additional artillery fire was called in to the immediate front of the advancing troops. The infantry and tanks pushed on, blasting out dugouts, burning positions, and another 200 yards was gained before the first enemy strong point offered resistance over in the path of Company I. Here the Japanese were emplaced in several large bombproof dugouts and pillboxes with good fields of fire covering the open ground to the immediate west, the ground between the Marines and the Japanese positions. McLeod saw that the zone of action in front of Company L offered some cover, and by pushing that company around to the south the Japanese positions could be bypassed. This was done. Company L, now past the enemy obstacle, assumed responsibility for the whole front, a width of about 200 yards. Company I was left to contain and reduce the enemy pocket of resistance. Company K moved up behind Company L and the drive to the southeast continued.

It seemed that most of the Japanese with any will to fight had been killed in the counterattacks of the night before. Most of those who remained in the path of the 3d Battalion, 6th Marines, concentrated in any place that offered shelter and few attempted to resist in the same fashion as previously encountered. There were no prepared lines of defensive positions to resist the attack of Company L. The troops found that they could destroy the fortified emplacements on a piecemeal basis without worrying too much about coming under fire from what normally would be supporting positions. The tanks and flamethrowers were kept busy all through the morning. Just before the end of the island was reached, naval gunfire was called in on the extreme southeastern tip to pin down those of the enemy which still remained and to prevent any of them from trying to escape across the sand spit that led over to Bairiki. The rapid advance of Company L denied the enemy the opportunity of reorganizing as positions were overrun. Shortly after 1300 the end of the island was reached and declared secure. During the morning's attack, McLeod lost 9 men killed and 25 wounded. Fourteen prisoners were taken during the period, and 475 of the enemy were killed. The prisoners were mostly Korean laborers.

After the 3d Battalion passed through its lines to carry the attack at 0800, the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, turned to reorganization and supply. All the tanks and flamethrowers were turned over to the 3d Battalion. Since the 2d Battalion had not arrived from Bairiki, Holmes had to plan on using the 1st Battalion in case the 3d ran into difficulty. By 1945,


DIRECT HIT BY 16-INCH SHELL knocked out this gun and killed its crew.

Jones was able to report that his team was ready for action again. During the previous night and afternoon he had lost 1 officer killed and 5 wounded; 44 enlisted men were killed and 123 wounded.

Enemy Pocket RED 1-RED 2 Area Destroyed

While the 3d Battalion, 6th Marines, was attacking on the southeastern end of the island, the 3d Battalion, 2d Marines, and the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, were compressing the pocket of enemy resistance which still held out on the boundary between Beaches RED 1 and RED 2. This Japanese strongpoint had decimated the 3d Battalion, 2d Marines, and the 2d Battalion, 2d Marines, on D-day. It had resisted all attempts toward its reduction since them. From the east, the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, attacked with all three of its companies in a semi-circular line. The 75-mm. self-propelled guns, flamethrowers, and a demolitions crew from Company C, 18th Marines, lent their support to the infantry. Initially the main effort was made on the right.

Two 75-mm. self-propelled guns and a platoon of infantry under the direction of Maj. Hewitt D. Adams went on the reef and attacked the strong point at the junction of Beaches RED 1 and RED 2 from close range. Elimination of this pocket enabled the attack to move slowly; physical contact with the 3d Battalion, 2d Marines, was made on the left flank at about 1000.

Meanwhile, Maj. John Schoettel, who by now had regained control and command of his battalion (3d Battalion, 2d Marines), attacked from the west, swinging the right (south) flank of his line around across the pot-hole area west of the main air strip until the revetments on the north side were reached. Here contact was made with 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, and the enemy pocket was completely encircled. The reduction of the Japanese position was made from its rear. After a large concrete pillbox had been destroyed, the action was little more than a


Map No. 8: Attack of 1st Bn, 8th Marines and 3d Bn, 2d Marines, Morning of 23 Nov 1943

mopping-up exercise. By 1300 the entire area had been overrun and the 1st Battalion, 8th, and the 3d Battalion, 2d, were in contact on the site of the heavily defended strong point. Emplacements, dugouts, and pillboxes were blasted and burned all afternoon. A few prisoners were taken.

End of the Battle

Late in the morning of the fourth day of the action on Betio, Gen. Julian C. Smith sent a message to Admiral Harry Hill, summing up the situation ashore as of 1150:

Decisive defeat heavy enemy counterattack last night destroyed bulk of hostile resistance. Expect complete annihilation of enemy on Betio this date. Strongly recommend that you and your chief of staff come ashore this date to get information about the type of hostile resistance which will be encountered in future operations.

At noon, troops were surprised to see the arrival of the first friendly aircraft to land on Betio,2 a carrier-based plane, and the pilot of the plane soon was surrounded by Marines, anxious to tell him about the battle and to find out what the world at large thought of it.

At 1245 Admiral Hill and some of his officers came ashore to inspect the devastated island. In the hot sun of early afternoon the little island was quiet except for sporadic rifle fire from small patrols, which were combing captured enemy positions. Occasionally the ground would shake when a charge of TNT was set off in a pillbox or heavy emplacement. Engineer personnel with flamethrowers were still busy burning out dugouts and emplacements where it was believed that a few of the Japanese might be hiding. After 75 hours of violent writhing under the hot equatorial sun, Betio appeared almost inert. At 1330, Gen. Julian C. Smith announced that all organized resistance on Betio had ceased. This did not mean, however, that all the enemy were dead or captured. Every day for many of the succeeding days Japanese would be killed. There were still snipers hiding underground who took an occasional shot at passing Marines.

During the afternoon Col. Elmer Hall moved 8th Marines, less Hays' battalion, over to Bairiki, arriving there at 1615. In the meantime, the 2d Battalion, 6th Marines, moved over to Betio from Bairiki and bivouacked for the night. Lieutenant Colonel Murray learned that his landing team would operate under division control and would leave next day to start a long march up the islands of the atoll. This landing team was the freshest in the division, had seen less action, and was in excellent shape for the assignment.

Before nightfall General Smith planned to have every battalion on Betio placed in position to defend the island in case the enemy attempted a counter-landing. Through the afternoon the battalions moved into their assigned positions, set up their machine guns, their antitank weapons from the regimental weapons companies, and dug their foxholes. Tanks were moved up to areas offering good fields of fire out over the water. The same held true for the half-tracks, and the self-propelled 75-mm. guns. On the east side of the main pier, the 3d Battalion, 6th Marines, moved into position with its men deployed all the way to the southeastern tip of the island. West of the pier, covering Beaches RED 1 and RED 2, the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, prepared its positions for the night.

Across the western end of the island, on GREEN Beach, were the 3d Battalion, 2d Marines, and 2d Battalion, 6th Marines. Then around on the south side of the island, extending about one-third the way down from the west end, was the 1st Battalion, 2d Marines. Next came the men of the 2d Marines' Regimental Weapons Company. To the east, for about 400 yards, were the men of the 2d Battalion, 2d Marines, reaching to connect with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, which covered the remainder of the island, joining with the 3d Battalion, 6th Marines, at the southeastern tip.

Back from the beaches, each landing team kept a part of its force as a mobile reserve, ready to move to any threatened sector. Ready to fire in any direction, the batteries of the 10th Marines stood silent after 21/2 days crowded with action. It might appear that the defensive measures taken by the 2d Marine Division at the close of the fight for Betio were unnecessary. The ships of the task force still stood off shore. There were the battleships, the cruisers, carriers, and ringing them, the destroyers, now mute and still, but nonetheless ready with radar screens working continuously lest the enemy achieve some measure of surprise. It was, of course, simply sound military practice, and if any attempt were made to take away this little piece of ground so recently wrested from


the enemy--and then only after one of the bitterest fights yet seen--the division would not be caught by surprise.

All through the afternoon men were busy burying the dead, evacuating the remaining wounded, and moving supplies into dumps or distributing them to the many units ashore. The division chaplain and his assistants were in charge of interring the remains of the Marines who were killed in the terrific struggle, and funeral services went on all through the day. Each battalion landing team made every effort to retrieve its own dead, to identify them, and carry them to the burying places.

The island, though quiet and peaceful looking, was nothing but a dirty, demolished, stinking battlefield, whose reside remained to be cleaned up and straightened away. Although every effort was made all through the action to take care of the Marine dead when possible, little or nothing could be done for the enemy dead. Somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 Japanese and Koreans were on Betio when the 2d Division arrived on 20 November. Only 146 allowed themselves to be captured. The rest lay where they had fallen and, at the close of the fourth day ashore on Betio, the air was heavy and foul to smell. This did not seem to bother many of the Marines who proceeded to eat with a gusto hard to achieve during the tension of combat. For once everyone had enough food and water. There was opportunity to dig a fairly comfortable foxhole for the night with none of the discomforts connected with being under enemy fire. The men dug their holes deep; every night had seen an air raid so far and there was every indication that this night would bring another one.

However, the night was far from quiet. At approximately 1800, a Marine threw a thermite grenade after a hold-out Japanese in what the Marine thought was a dugout. Actually this "dugout" was a Japanese 5-inch gun magazine. The grenade started the projectiles in the magazine exploding; the explosions continued all through the night, pinning the Marines in their foxholes over a large part of the eastern end of the island.

Under the cover of explosion of the magazine, several Japanese, hidden in the battle debris on the eastern tail of Betio, emerged from their hiding places to strike a final blow at the Marines.

In sporadic individual engagements during the night, two enlisted Marines were bayoneted to death and the intelligence officer of the 1st Battalion 6th Marines, was killed. Approximately 14 Japanese were killed in the center of the area occupied by the 6th Marines.

Two of the regimental combat teams of the 2d Marine Division embarked in transports and left Tarawa for the Division's new base camp at Kamuela, Hawaii, T.H., on 24 November 1943. After spending the night of 23-24 November on Bairiki, Colonel Hall's regiment, the 8th Marines, loaded aboard its ships all through the morning of 24 November, and Colonel Shoup's regiment, the 2d Marines, began to reembark at 0900 that morning. Late that afternoon the ships left Tarawa.

During the same day, Maj. Gen. Holland M. Smith, Command General of V Amphibious Corps, arrived at Betio from Makin, by plane. In company with Maj. Gen. Julian C. Smith, Gen. H.M. Smith made a tour of the battle-wrecked island and inspected the captured fortified emplacements and gun positions so recently manned by the Japanese. The fight for Makin had been easier than that for Betio.3 One reinforced regimental combat team of the 276th Infantry Division, under the over-all command of Maj. Gen. Ralph C. Smith, USA, landed on Makin on D-day, 20 November, and by the afternoon of 22 November, it was announced that all organized resistance on the atoll had ended. The regimental combat team, the 165th Infantry, lost 56 men killed in action and 131 wounded in action.

On 24 November 1943 a flag-raising ceremony took place on Betio. Since Tarawa had belonged to the British before it was captured by the Japanese, it was only proper that the Union Jack should be raised simultaneously with the Stars and Stripes. After a great deal of difficulty a small British flag was found and then the ceremony was held. Two battle-scarred palms served as masts. A Marine field music sounded colors on a battered bugle while troops came to attention. First the American flag was raised, joined a moment later by the British flag, to flutter in the breeze over the island so recently wrested from the enemy. The flag raising seemed to mark the official capture of the island. Assault troops then marched off to the pier to go aboard ship and leave the island. Defense troops carried on with the work of converting the island into an American base. The chaplains and their helpers went on with their work of identifying and burying the dead.


Map No. 9: Situation 1800 D+3

UNITED STATES COLORS FLYING OVER BETIO marks the end of the battle, another step along the road to Tokyo.


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1. There had been no replacement colonel available for the artillery regiment when Bourke was promoted to brigadier general; hence he remained in command for the Tarawa operation.

2. Engineers and Seabees had worked under fire to repair the main strip.

3. [See HyperWar for histories of the campaign on Makin, as well as other accounts of the fight for Tarawa.]

Transcribed and formatted by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation