This evening, let’s focus on Makin Atoll, because I think it lives in Tarawa’s shadow. Makin was targeted by U.S. war planners for a couple of reasons. First, its proximity to the main attacks at Betio (just 100 miles straight south) meant plenty of U.S. forces were in the area. Second, the garrison there was quite small, just 800 men, many with little or no real combat experience. Finally, a small raid in August of the previous year had provided some useful intelligence and reconnaissance of the area. It was to be a fairly minor operation, taking a day or less.
First, let’s talk names, since these islands chains can be confusing. The soldiers landed on Makin Atoll the same morning as the Betio landings. However, they didn’t land on Makin Island (the atoll’s northernmost islet). They landed on Butaritari (the atoll’s southernmost islet). But since it’s part of the same island chain, the names sometimes get interchanged.
The landings stood in stark contrast to those on Betio. Other than sporadic sniper fire, U.S. soldiers walked ashore virtually unopposed, as the defenders had all moved inland. When the 165th Infantry Regiment finally reached the enemy defenses, they stalled. Trying really hard to minimize casualties, they took a very careful approach. A fine idea, but there were a bunch of support ships sitting offshore, and every hour increased their exposure to air and submarine attacks.
Marine General Holland Smith fumed at the delays. He went ashore, started knocking heads around, got in a Jeep and drove to the edge of the supposed “battle” (where he reported it was “as quiet as Wall Street on a Sunday“), drove back, and ordered them to finish the job, which they finally did on November 23, 1943 (the same day Betio was secured). Only 7 of the 800 Japanese soldiers were taken alive. American losses on the island were 65 killed and about 150 wounded.
But as you would guess, the delays allowed submarine I-175 a chance to join the fray, which she did in spectacular fashion early the next morning. The sub put at least one torpedo into the carrier USS Liscome Bay, which hit the bomb storage compartment and blew the entire stern off the carrier. The ship’s fuel tanks went next in a explosion which sunk the ship and killed 650 sailors in just over 20 minutes.
Like Betio, Makin Atoll was in U.S. hands. But like Betio, the cost of victory was extremely high.