The 2nd Marine Division at Tarawa
20-23 November 1943
OVERVIEW OF THE ASSAULT ON TARAWA
Tarawa stands as one of the epic struggles in American history. An atoll in the Gilbert Islands, it lie about 2,400 miles southwest of Hawaii in the Central Pacific Ocean. In 1943 Tarawa loomed as an important stepping stone in the Central Pacific island-hopping campaign against the Empire of Japan. The 2nd Marine Division was assigned to assault and capture the island for use as an airbase. The invasion was code-named Operation GALVANIC.
Tarawa Atoll is a chain of small islands and coral reefs that surround a large central lagoon. The atoll is about 18 miles in length from north to south, and is roughly triangular in shape. The largest island, located at the southwest corner of the atoll is, Betio. This island was the target for the 2nd Marine Division's assault on Tarawa.
(above) Map of Tarawa atoll from 2nd MarDiv
Special Report on Operation Galvanic. USMC
Betio Island, code-named HELEN, is about 2 miles long from west to east, and about 800 yards across at its widest point. As seen in the map below, it is shaped somewhat like a seahorse lying on its side. The highest elevation on Betio is only 12 feet above sea level. It is a coral sand island mostly covered with palm trees. It covers an area of only 291 acres. Temperatures in the afternoon reach into the high 90s, with moist humidity.
(above) Map of Betio from the 2nd MarDiv Special
Report on Operation Galvanic
Betio was defended by the Japanese 3rd Special Base Defense Force, a naval garrison force. Also on the island was the Sasebo 7th Special Naval Landing Force, trained in amphibious infantry combat. About 4,600 defenders occupied the island, and had prepared a strong defense using concrete, sand, and logs. They were equipped with a high ratio of automatic weapons, and their morale was good. The defenders, often referred to as 'Japanese Marines' during the war, were ready to die in defense of Betio.
(above) aerial view of Betio looking south across Beach Red 2
during the assault on Tarawa. November 1943 US Navy Photo
The ocean tides played a fateful part in the battle. Marine planners hoped for a high tide to enable clearance of the coral reefs for landing craft. Instead, the 2nd Marine Division confronted a neap tide. This was an unusually low tide that occurred very infrequently. This meant that only amphibian tractors could move across the coral reef. Many Marines were forced to wade hundreds of yards across the exposed reef just to reach the shelter of the seawall.
(above) aerial view of Betio looking southeast on the afternoon of 20 November 1943.
The island is covered with smoke and haze from the battle. US Navy Photo
More than 1,000 Marines died in the assault on Tarawa, and thousands more were wounded. The 2nd Marine Division fought against almost incredible odds. At each step in the battle, Marines of all ranks, from private to commanding general, helped forge the final victory.
(above) aerial view looking south at the boundary between Beaches
Red 2 and Red 3. Mid-afternoon 20 November 1943. US Navy Photo
(above) aerial view of Betio looking east. US Navy Photo
"WITH THE MARINES AT TARAWA"
CINCPAC Communiques regarding Operation GALVANIC
COMMUNIQUÉ NO. 17
21 Nov 43
Marine Corps and Army forces covered by powerful units of all types of the Pacific Fleet have established beachheads on Makin and Tarawa Atolls, Gilbert Islands, meeting moderate resistance at Makin and strong resistance at Tarawa. Fighting continues during these operations.
COMMUNIQUÉ NO. 18,
22 Nov 43
Our troops have improved their positions on Tarawa and Makin Atolls, but are still encountering considerable enemy ground resistance. The amphibious forces are under command of Rear Admiral Richmond Turner, U. S. Navy. Landings were made on Tarawa by the Second Marine Division in command of Major General Julian C. Smith, USMC; those on Makin by troops of the 27th Infantry Division, commanded by Major General Ralph Smith, U.S.A. Major General Holland McT. Smith, USMC, is in command of the landing forces.
COMMUNIQUÉ NO. 19,
23 Nov 43
Our forces have captured Makin. On Tarawa, the Marines have consolidated their positions and are making good progress against enemy concentrations on eastern end of Betio Island with capture assured.
COMMUNIQUÉ NO. 20,
24 Nov 43
Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, was captured shortly after noon, November 23 (West Longitude Date), following a desperate enemy counterattack which was crushed by troops of the Second Marine Division.
Note: The above communiques are edited to only
include information pertinent to Operation GALVANIC.