The fight for Tarawa Atoll, begun on November 20, 1943, is a great example of how badly things can go in war when one or two small pieces of information are ignored. As one of the Gilbert Islands, Tarawa was itself a group of tiny islets shaped in a sort of “reverse L”. Betio (bay-sho) was the southwestern most islet and featured a strong Japanese garrison and a 4,000 foot runway. And that was pretty much it, as the tiny strip of land comprised little more than a square mile.
The Gilbert Islands weren’t terribly important strategically, but the garrison at Betio stood in the way of capturing the Marshall Islands (Saipan, Tinian, Kwajalein and Eniwetok), which were vitally important. The U.S. Navy had already tipped their hand a little when they launched a small raid against Makin (100 miles south of Tarawa) in 1942 (just a week after the landings at Guadalcanal). And while the Japanese regular forces were tough enough, Betio had been reinforced with rikusentai, described by Derrick Wright as “elite troops, familiar with the problems of amphibious operations,…and imbued with the bushido philosophy of death before dishonour…”
Timing of the attacks was critical. The U.S. Navy wanted to land primarily on Betio’s north side, but the islet was surrounded by a shelflike reef that extended out 2,000 to 4,000 feet from the island. At low tide, there was barely enough water over the reef to support landing craft. But even worse, Major Frank Holland, a 15-year resident of Tarawa, knew the area also had “dodging” tides, periods when the low tide was more severe. With less than 3′ of water on the reef, landing craft would be stuck far from shore. November 20, 1943 was in the cycle of dodging tides. Holland hollered and screamed, without success, to change the date of landings. Leadership said planning was too far down the line to alter.
So when the 2nd Marine Division (with help from part of the 27th Infantry Division) rode up in the boats, they got a nasty surprise when they were forced to wade to shore. The enemy, having hunkered down during the naval bombardment, manned their guns and poured it to the invaders. By the end of the 20th, U.S. forces had secured a foothold on the beaches, but it was tenuous. And behind those soldiers, the reef that bore so little significance in the planning was littered with blown-up landing craft, destroyed tanks, and the floating bodies of Marines who couldn’t find shelter before death found them.
Recommended Reading: A Hell of a Way to Die – I’m working through Wright’s book now…for the second time.