November 20-23, 1943
The LVT or Landing Vehicle Tracked, also known as the Amtrack, heading into The Battle of Tarawa.
Oceans move in this pattern: high tide raises the water level on shore, and low tide takes the water back out, leaving bare beach behind. These tides are controlled by gravitational pulls between the sun and moon.
But twice a month, on the moon’s first and third quarter, something unusual happens. The gravitational forces between the sun and moon cancel each other out. That means there’s almost no difference between high and low tide, because there’s no strong pull between the sun and moon.
This phenomena is called a neap tide.
One the Pacific’s fiercest battles was influenced by a neap tide. Some people might even say the neap tide was responsible for the death of many American soldiers.
It happened on Tarawa Island.
Another tiny atoll in the South Pacific, Tarawa is linked with an smaller island named Betio. This island is half the size of Central Park in New York City.
Japan had transformed this speck on the sea into one of the most heavily-fortified islands in the Pacific. Japanese soldiers dug hundreds of concrete bunkers into the ground, called pillboxes. These were used to store weapons and to protect from bombs or other attacks. The Japanese also erected seawalls difficult for men to climb over, and created trenches that connected all points of the island, allowing more than 4,500 Japanese troops stationed at Betio to move anywhere underground. They then tore out trees and put in an airstrip down the middle of the island.
And all of this was protected with coastal guns, anti-aircraft guns, heavy and light machine guns, and light tanks.
Japan was so proud of this fortification that Admiral Keiji Shibasaki bragged that “it would take a million men one hundred years" to conquer Tarawa.
The marines would put that boast to the test.
America’s military leaders had devised a strategy called “island hopping.” They picked select islands for bases that could bring the American troops closer to Japan, and isolated or contained other islands with naval or air power. The goal was to reach Japan.
The Tarawa atoll lay in the path of this advance on Japan.
In addition to all those Japanese fortifications, Tarawa was surrounded by dangerous coral reefs. Even the toughest amphibious vehicles couldn't get across these mineral embankments. So the military brought in LVTs, Landing Vehicle Tracked. These machines are sometimes called amtracks or even Alligators. They were being used experimentally elsewhere, such as the battles in North Africa. They worked much like amphibious tanks, crawling out of the water onto land, and came equipped with machine guns. Each LVT could carry twenty troops.
The navy also sent to Tarawa the largest American invasion force yet assembled for one Pacific operation: seventeen aircraft carriers, twelve battleships, eight heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, sixty-six destroyers, and thirty-six transport ships carrying 35,000 troops from the 2nd Marine Division and part of the Army’s 27th Infantry Division.
The marines were going to land on three beachheads, named Red 1, Red 2, and Red 3.
The Japanese Imperial Marines--the strongest men, chosen specifically to defend the island--had been ordered by Admiral Shibasaki to fight for Tarawa to the last man.
At 5:10 a.m. on November 20th, the American battleships, cruisers, and destroyers opened fire on Tarawa from the water. After thirty minutes, pilots inflicted a seven-minute air strike. Then the ships opened fire again—this time for two-and-a-half hours.
“Fires were burning everywhere,” Captain Charles Moore later said. “The coconut trees were blasted and burned and it seemed that no living soul could be on the island. . . . the troops approached the beach and it looked like the whole affair would be a walkover.”
Other naval officers were just as confident. They said the marines would walk in "standing up," not crouching under enemy fire.
Some 100 LVTs headed for the beachhead.
Suddenly the air filled with deadly gunfire.
The American bombardment didn’t damage enough of the Japanese military fortifications.
“The bullets were pouring at us like sheet rain,” one Marine recalled. “We were one hundred yards in now and the enemy fire was awful damn intense and getting worse. They were knocking boats out left and right. A tractor’d get hit, stop, and burst into flames, with men jumping out like torches.”
The LVTs climbed over the coral. Some shallow-bottomed boats followed, sent out at high tide to clear the gnarly reefs.
But it was a neap tide— there was no high tide.
So the boats got stuck on the reefs, leaving the troops inside as easy targets for the Japanese who were already shooting holes in the LVTs. Even when an LVT reached the beach, it still couldn’t clear the seawall. Men got pinned against the logs. As the LVT drivers realized the boats were stuck on the reefs, some headed back out for them, even as bullets zipped past their heads. Other men climbed out of the boats and tried to walk to the beach.
“It was painfully slow, wading in such deep water,” recalled war correspondent Robert Sherrod. “And we had seven hundred yards to walk slowly into that machine-gun fire, looming into larger targets as we rose onto higher ground. I was scared, as I had never been scared before. But my head was clear. I was extremely alert, as though my brain were dictating that I live these last minutes for all they were worth.”
The Japanese wiped out half the LVTs that day.
On the beach, dead and wounded Americans covered the sand.
American Marines advancing from behind a Tarawa sea wall.
The enemy gunfire didn’t stop. Some marines stayed behind the seawall. The marines landing at Red 3 used some long piers for cover, but communications were lost, as salt water damaged their radios.
After ninety minutes of relentless shooting, Colonel David M. Shoup, the senior officer of the landing forces, managed to call in for “All possible fire support.” Though wounded by an exploding shell, Shoup still managed to clear the pier of Japanese snipers. Over the next two days, under constant enemy fire, Shoup lead several attacks against the Japanese, pushing the marines forward. For his heroic actions on Betio, Shoup would be awarded the Medal of Honor.
By dusk of the first day, the Japanese had destroyed American tanks, bulldozers, and severely limited what medical supplies could reach shore. The sand turned red with blood.
Yet, the marines managed to hold about 1,000 yards of the beach.
On the second day, the neap tide continued, so the next wave of landings experienced the same problems. Struggling ashore in chest-high water, bullets ripping the water around them, the troops staggered onto shore only to find low supplies of ammunition, food, and fresh water.
The beach continued to pile up with the dead and wounded men, along with wrecked equipment twisted in the barbed wire traps.
Without tanks and artillery, the marines had little chance of destroying the enemy's concrete bunkers and pillboxes. But toward the end of the second day, the neap tide faded away. The ocean began to rise. With a high tide, five destroyers were able to push close enough to shore to blast the pillboxes. Landing craft also were able to carry the desperately-needed tanks and artillery to the beach.
Using their flamethrowers, the American tanks burned a path forward onto the island, blowing up the pillboxes one by one.
The battle, for both sides, was a take-no-prisoners fight.
Finally, on the third day, the marines approached a massive bunker. Inside, Admiral Shibaski was hiding with 300 of his men.
Using bulldozers to pile sand and soil high against the entrances, the marines poured gasoline into the bunker, and topped it off with a hand grenade.
The bunker exploded.
The battle of Tarawa was over. The Americans had won.
But this battle is distinctly remembered for the highest loss of life in the first seventy-five hours of any Pacific battle. In those three days, more than 1,300 marines were killed. The entire 4,500-man Japanese garrison was wiped out.
Having learned hard lessons from the botched landings at Tarawa, Admiral Nimitz ordered replicas made of Japanese fortifications. These models were built on outlying Hawaiian islands and allowed the military to practice maneuvers to destroy them. The experiences at Tarawa also led to the development of waterproofed radios and deeper focus on natural phenomena, such as the mystery of tides.
In One Square Mile of Hell: The Battle of Tarawa, author John Wukovits described how battlefield fighting affects human behavior.
“Lt. Frank Plant, Jr. concluded that three categories of men existed in battle. Some froze and could do nothing to contribute. For instance he unsuccessfully tried to halt one terrorized private who dug deeper and deeper into the sand, as if in doing so he could escape the carnage. Not far from this private, two other marines, rigid with fear, lay immobile on the ground with their arms extended at right angles.
“The other extreme offered those, like Hawkins, who not only ignored every risk but seemed eager to face them. He called them ‘sons of guns’ who inspired the men, and concluded ‘Most of them probably lost their lives.’
“ ‘The vast majority,’ he decided, ‘stood in the middle of the two extremes, following orders and killing Japanese because that was what they were supposed to do.’ ”
These young men faced a powerful and well-fortified enemy. Though many of them were certain to die, they courageously chose to fight—and ultimately win.
To see just what these men faced at Tarawa, you can watch this historic footage taken after the battle. Caution: some images are graphic.
FIND OUT MORE
World War II Battles and Leaders DK Publishing Tarawa 1943: The turning of the tide by Derrick Wright
Marines in World War II -The Battle for Tarawa by Captain James R. Stockman U.S.M.C.
Eyewitness to History offers some more information about the Battle of Tarawa.
War in Tarawa Documentary on the Brutal Battle of Tarawa