When we last visited the 2nd Marine Division, their hold on the tiny island of Betio (part of Tarawa Atoll) was desperate. Having spent the entire day wading ashore under punishing enemy fire, their gains were measured only in yards. If ever there was a time for a banzai attack, it was now, and that first night on shore was frightening, with soldiers awaiting the inevitable screams and furious action that would push the exhausted Marines back into the Pacific waters, where so many comrades had fallen hours before.
But surprisingly, no attack came. As it turns out, the commander of the forces on Betio, Admiral Kenji Shibazaki, was killed by naval gunfire early in the action on the 20th. This fortunate “decapitation” robbed the garrison of its head, and without him, Japanese forces lost much of their initiative, though they were still capable of stiff resistance. Of more immediate assistance was the destroyer USS Ringgold, which sat just offshore and pounded enemy positions all night.
November 21st saw U.S. forces land on the northwest side of the tiny island, set up a beachhead, and begin moving eastward. By the evening of the 22nd, most of Betio was in Marine hands, and then, for some reason, the Japanese decided on suicide charges. But the Marines (many with experiece at Guadalcanal and all aided by artillery) were ready and chopped up the attacks. At 1pm the following afternoon, the eastern tip of Betio was taken. The following hours featured mopping up of isolated strongpoints and, with handfuls of Japanese soldiers still fighting, General Julian Smith called Betio secure in the afternoon of November 23, 1943.
But as one of the first battles ever filmed by war correspondants, folks back home were appalled by the scenes of violence, the bodies of Marines caught on barbed wire, and decaying bodies floating on Betio’s shoreline. Historians have debated the value of engaging the enemy on Tarawa versus just leaving it to wilt in the equatorial heat. But the lessons of this bitter fight…the failures, the oversights, the poor communication…were well-learned by the soldiers and their leadership. When the time came to attack the Marshalls in the spring of 1944, many lives would be saved by those who lost them at Tarawa.
Admiral Shibazaki said before the battle that “the Americans could not take Tarawa with a million men in a hundred years.” In the end, that 100-year battle lasted just 76 hours, but nearly 1,000 U.S. soldiers would die. And of the nearly 5,000 Japanese soldiers garrisoned on (and under) that 1 square mile, just 17 would be taken prisoner.