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    Tarawa Island (Betio) Tarawa Atoll Republic of Kiribati (Gilbert Islands)
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USN November 1943

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Dennis Letourneau 1999
Lat 1° 21' 0N Long 172° 55' 60E  Tarawa Island (Betio Island) is located at an elevation of 3' above sea level at the western edge of Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands. The local name is Betio (also spelled Bititu) pronounced "Bes-she-o". The island is shapes like a long thin triangle and is roughly two miles long and 800 yards wide at the widest point with a total land area of 0 .59 square miles. To the north borders Tarawa Lagoon. To the east two miles away is Bairiki Island. Prewar and during the Pacific War part of the British colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (GEIC). Today part of the Republic of Kiribati.

Tarawa had a small community of British colonial officials and missionaries plus local Gilbertese people. The island had a Burns Philp & Company store and was only accessible by ship via the Burns Philp wharf that was roughly 500-600 yards long rock walled filled with reef and coral material with a fork at the end with the left arm straight and the right arm to the east, each roughly 30' yards long surfaced with wood decking.

Wartime History
On December 9, 1941 Japanese Navy forces occupied Tarawa. Ashore, they gathered all government employees, missionaries and Gilbertese people at the wharf and looted the Burns Philp & Company store and killed a mental patient. Afterwards, the Gilbert Islands were deemed "nonessential territories" until the "Makin Raid" on August 17, 1942 against Makin Island (Butaritari). Afterwards, the Japanese sent reinforcements to the Gilbert Islands and prepared to defend them against any future U.S. landings.

On September 15, 1942 the 6th Yokosuka Special Navy Landing Force (Yokosuka 6th SNLF) arrive on Tarawa to defend the island. On October 15, 1942 seventeen New Zealand coastwatchers and five civilians captured in the Gilbert Islands were executed on Tarawa. During December 1942, the 111th Pioneers arrived with 1,247 personnel and Korean laborers to built defenses and a long pier known as the main jetty on the northern side. Development of the island's defenses continued with fortifications construction of Tarawa Airfield spanning most of the island.

During February 1943 the 6th Yokosuka SNLF garrison was redesignated as the 3d Special Base Force and Rear Admiral Tomanari Saichiro arrived to take command of all Japanese forces in the Gilbert Islands, with most on Tarawa. The Japanese defensive plan was to stop any amphibious landing and pin any landing force on the beach then eliminate them with counterattacks. Fortifications included bunkers, pillboxes, anti-tank ditches and trenches and other fortifications. Defenses included naval guns emplaced in concrete bunkers to guard the approaches, anti-aircraft guns, machine guns and other defenses.

On March 17, 1943 the 7th Sasebo Special Navy Landing Force (Sasebo 7th SNLF) under the command of Commander Takeo Sugai arrived with another 1,497 soldiers plus 14 Type 95 Ha Go light tanks under the command of Ensign Ohtani. During May 1942 the 4th Construction Unit arrived. The Japanese labor force included roughly 1,200 Korean laborers assigned to the two construction units. In August 1942 Rear Admiral Shibasaki Meichi took command.

Meanwhile, on July 20, 1943 the U.S. Joint Chiefs directed U.S. Navy (USN) Admiral Chester W. Nimitz to plan an offensive operation in the Gilbert Islands. Planning began in August 1943 between Admiral Raymond A. Spruance and U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) General Julian C. Smith, commander of the 2nd Marine Division (2nd MARDIV) tasked with the assault against Tarawa code named Operaiton Galvanic.

Starting in late January 1943, B-24 Liberators from Funafuti began flying long range missions to perform photographic reconnaissance and bomb Tarawa. These were joined by U.S. Navy carrier plane strikes that intensified until the U.S. Marine landing.

American missions against Tarawa (Betio)
January 26, 1943–November 19, 1943

Battle of Tarawa
On November 20, 1943 in the predawn darkness, U.S. Navy warships began firing at Tarawa to silence the shore batteries while carrier planes conducted air strikes against Tarawa. At 6:10am began the naval bombardment while mine sweeping began of Tarawa Lagoon ahead of the amphibious landing on the invasion beaches on the north of the island designated "Red Beach" at three locations: Red Beach 1 (Red No. 1) to the west, Red Beach 2 (Red No. 2) in the center west of the pier and Red Beach 3 (Red No. 3) to the east of the long pier. Due to a low neap tide, the landing craft were unable to clear the fringing coral reef in Tarawa Lagoon.

At 9:00am as the amphibious landing began, Higgins boats were unable to clear the reef and only LVT Alligators were able to reach shore while those unable and forced their Marines to wade ashore. Meanwhile, when the bombardment ceased, the surviving Japanese returned to their defenses and moved forces from the southern beaches were added to the north and began firing at the LVTs as they landed.

Ashore, the 2nd Marines were pinned down by heavy fire along the seawall at the edge of the beach. Col David Shoup wounded soon after landing at the pier rallied the men and ordered them to clear the pier. By noon, the Marines secured the beach and captured the first line of defenses. For the next two days, the battle continued as the Marines under heavy fire cleared the island. For his leadership and bravery, Col David Shoup earned the Medal of Honor.

During the Battle of Tarawa, 1,009 Marines were killed and 2,101 wounded. The Japanese lost 4,690 killed, nearly the entire garrison including both Japanese and laborers with only 17 Japanese captured and 129 Korean laborers.

Betio Island is the most populous island in Kiribati with the port, shipyard and main power station and is one of the most densely populated areas in the Pacific. Locals have made a mess of their island, particularly in the invasion beach areas. If you go there you will be shocked to see the vast rubbish dump they have made out of red beach two to the west side of the original jetty of which only the outline can be seen at low tide.

Red Beach
On November 20, 1943 the U.S. Marine Corps landing beaches for the invasion were designated Red Beach divided into Red Beach 1, a curved inlet ending at the stone breakwater and Red Beach 2 on the lagoon side of the island. Today, bits of wreckage remain on the coral reef at low tide.

Stan Gajda reports:
"When I first had a look at the lagoon floor near the jetty opposite Red Beach 3, the place was just littered with junk. It was like an untouched battlefield. Once I found three boxes of 30 06 ammo all encrusted outside. Inside the ammo was like new. I even took some apart here and used the powder to load up some 7.7 rounds for the Carlson gun which we then fired. It burnt just fine! I have even found land mines in the lagoon which were not fused."

Landing Craft
Marines died by the hundreds when their landing craft got hung up on the shallow reefs and they were forced to wade 500 yards in open water under withering crossfire to reach these beaches. Landing craft can still be found although the highly corrosive atmosphere has reduced them to rusting shells.

200mm Naval Gun Type 41 (1908) No. 1 (Horizontal Barrel)
One of two guns emplaced on Betio and disabled on November 20, 1943

200mm Naval Gun Type 41 (1908) No. 2 (Broken Barrel)
One of two guns emplaced on Betio and disabled on November 20, 1943 the barrel sheered off by a shell

Japanese Command Bunker
Japanese command bunker is now protected by a chain link fence. The walls are still marked from bullets and shells.

Japanese Searchlight Bunker
Former Japanese searchlight, now a pig pen. The same searchlight is visible on November 20, 1943 in a photograph of Marines advancing on pillboxes.

Tarawa Airfield (Hawkins Field)
Japanese built airfield, battlefield used by Americans

U.S. Marine War Memorial
Located at the Prince Philip Park, to honor the USMC veterans of the Battle of Tarawa. Also known as the "USMC War Memorial".

Tarawa Coastwatchers Memorial
The original memorial was built during 1944 by the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) built a wooden cross with a memorial plaque surrounded by fence made from pieces of coconut logs with a fence made with a chain. The memorial plaque in the shape of a book read: (Left side) [Crest of Kiribati in a shield] "In memory of twenty-two British subjects murdered by the Japanese at Betio on the 15th of October 1942. Standing unarmed to their posts, they matched brutality with gallantry and met death with fortitude. (Right side) [Honor Roll] K. G. Morgan, B. C. Leary, I. R. Handley, A. M. McArthur, A. L. Sadd, A. C. Heenan, J. J. McCarthy, H. R. C. Hearn, A. . McKenna, A. L. Taylor, T. C. Murray, C. A. Pearsall, L. B. Speedy, C. J. Owen, D. H. Howe, R. J. Hitchon, R. Jones"

On November 11, 2002 a new memorial was built at the same location replacing the original monument. The new memorial was designed and built by the Office of Australian War Graves, Department of Veterans Affairs to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the atrocity. The reverse side of the memorial will incorporate a new inscription which acknowledges the deaths of quite a number of former Gilbert and Ellis Islands locals that also died during the Japanese occupation.

U.S. Marines in World War II Historical Monograph The Battle for Tarawa, Chapter I Introduction
U.S. Marines in World War II Historical Monograph The Battle for Tarawa, The First Day, 20 November 1943
U.S. Marines in World War II Historical Monograph The Battle for Tarawa, The Second Day, 21 November 1943
U.S. Marines in World War II Historical Monograph The Battle for Tarawa, The Third Day, 22 November 1943
U.S. Marines in World War II Historical Monograph The Battle for Tarawa, The Island is Secured
Kiribati: Aspects of History (1984) page 90
NZ History - Tarawa coastwatchers memorial

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Last Updated
March 29, 2023



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