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    Tarawa Island (Betio Island) 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 the western edge of Tarawa Atoll in the Republic of Kiribati (Gilbert Islands). During World War II, known as Tarawa Island. The local name is Betio (also spelled Bititu) and pronounced "Bes-she-o". Borders Tarawa Lagoon to the north and Bairiki Island two miles to the east.

Wartime History
On December 9, 1941 Japanese forces occupied the island and gathered all government employees, missionaries and Gilbertese people on the wharf as they looted the Burns Philp & Company store and killed a mental patient. On October 15, 1942 seventeen New Zealand coastwatchers and five civilians captured in the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) were executed on Tarawa.

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

In late January 1943, American B-24 Liberators from Funafuti began flying long range bombing missions against Tarawa.

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

Battle of Tarawa
On November 20, 1943 a heavy naval bombardment and aerial bombing of Betio Island preceded the amphibious landing of 5,000 U.S. Marines from the 2nd Marine Division (2nd MAR DIV). Due to the coral reef fringing the island, most landing craft could not reach the shore. During the battle, roughly 1,000 Americans were killed and over 2,000 wounded. The war relics on Betio are a reminder of the thousands of American and Japanese soldiers that died on this small island.

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
The Americans designated Red Beach as the landing beaches for the November 20, 1943 amphibious landing. 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 in a November 20, 1943 photograph.

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.

Kiribati: Aspects of History page 90
NZ History - Tarawa coastwatchers memorial

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Last Updated
October 23, 2019


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