In the interest of not reverting to the days when my average post was 1,500 words, this post will only include select information. Those who want greater details can check out the sources listed at the end.
My generous thanks to the USMC for putting such wonderful historical monographs online for free!
The Battle of Tarawa was fought from 20–23 November 1943 at Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands. It was part of Operation Galvanic, the U.S. invasion of the Gilberts. This was the first U.S. offensive in the crucial central Pacific region, and the first time U.S. forces faced significant opposition to an amphibious landing.
In comparison to previous landings, this time the Japanese put up a major fight. There were 18,000 Marines and 17,000 soldiers from the Army’s 27th Infantry Division against 5,000 Japanese Naval defenders. Within 76 hours, the U.S. losses were as high as those from the six months of the Guadalcanal Campaign.
The Japanese spent almost a year fortifying Tarawa, right up till the day of the invasion. Rear Admiral Keiji Shibazaki encouraged his troops by saying, “It would take one million men one hundred years” to take Tarawa.
The Marines made a disastrously miscalculated decision about landing time, rejecting the advice of a New Zealand liaison officer who tried to tell them the tide was all wrong.
The Marines found themselves in neap tide. The water wasn’t high enough for their Higgins boats to clear the reef. Only LVT Alligators were able to clear it.
The Marines had to go the rest of the way on foot through the water. During the lull in the Naval bombardment, the surviving Japanese had gotten back into position and now began firing without stop. Many Marines were dead before they reached shore.
Many LVTs were also taken out of battle. Their hulls weren’t armored, thus making them vulnerable.
With the LVTs unable to clear the sea wall, the first landing wave of Marines were stranded. Most of the remaining LVTs who tried to rescue them were too badly damaged to stay afloat. These Marines remained stuck on the reef 500 yards from shore.
By the end of the first day, half of the LVTs were unusable.
One disaster followed another over the next few days. The Marines who got past the first deadly volley and the underwater tank traps and mines had to contend with wet, heavy, slippery sand, log barricades, and barbed wire traps.
Commanding officer, Col. David Shoup, took schrapnel in the leg and a grazing wound on the neck, but continued leading his men.
The first afternoon, Admiral Shibazaki and his forces were caught walking around in the open. The Marine who spied them communicated with the Navy, who launched a barrage of shells from two nearby destroyers. This prevented another brutal wave of carnage overnight.
Many Marines in the landing wave on the second morning were also shot down, but there was more Naval reinforcement. High casualties continued, but U.S. forces began gaining a toehold of that tiny atoll.
Some Marines moved to Bairiki, the next islet over, where more Japanese were amassing across the sandbars.
Col. Shoup was relieved by Col. Merritt A. Edson, the 2nd Marines’ Chief of Staff, but stayed on as an assistant.
After 76 hours of intense fighting and much bloodshed, Tarawa was cleared of Japanese. Only one Japanese officer and 16 enlisted men surrendered. All the others were either killed or chose suicide. Afterwards, the surviving Marines island-hopped to root out any remaining resistance in the vicinity.
During this operation, a force of 175 Japanese Naval infantry on Buariki launched one last stand on 27 November. This battle was over by the end of the day, and all the Gilberts were in U.S. hands.
The heavy U.S. casualties and botched landing sparked much outcry and public protests.
My characters Patya Siyanchuk and Rodya Duranichev are with the 6th Regiment of the 2nd Marine Division at Tarawa. Though Rodya is terrified the entire time, and knows he’s a very unlikely Marine, he holds his own well in battle.
While they’re helping to bury the dead afterwards, Rodya finds a dead Japanese who’s not as disfigured or putrid as the other corpses. He takes three beckoning cats, an omamori, a photograph, and a letter as souvenirs.
These personal objects are meant to show the common humanity of the other side.
Tarawa: The Incredible Story of One of World War II’s Bloodiest Battles, Robert Sherrod