‘Longsuit’ and the Bloody Battle for Tarawa

Operation ‘Longsuit’ was the US seizure of Betio island, the main Japanese position of the Tarawa atoll in the Gilbert islands between 20 and 23 November 1943. The strategic context in which this small but very bloody battle was fought was the twin drives by US forces to reclaim Japanese-seized areas of the South-West Pacific and Central Pacific after the tide of the war had been turned in the naval Battle of Midway in June 1942 and then the land battle for Guadalcanal, which ended in February 1943. Now, as the army-led forces of General Douglas MacArthur’s South-West Pacific Area command were completing the encirclement of Rabaul with advances along the coast of New Guinea and through the Solomon islands, the drive against the Japanese in the western part of the Central Pacific was proceeding under the naval leadership of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s Pacific Ocean Areas command. Between January and October 1943, men, ships, and aircraft in enormous numbers began to assemble in Hawaii, the Fiji islands, and the New Hebrides. By October Nimitz could deploy Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance’s 5th Fleet, Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner’s 5th Amphibious Force, and Major General H. M. ‘Howling Mad’ Smith’s V Amphibious Corps. In addition to naval air cover, Nimitz could call on the aircraft of Major General Willis H. Hale’s 7th Army Air Force. Also, after the completion of the Solomons operation, he had the naval and marine elements that had previously comprised Admiral William H. Halsey’s 3rd Fleet. Nimitz’s first target was the Gilbert islands, to provide bases for the next step, the capture of the Marshall islands. Possession of these two atoll groups would put him in a position to threaten the Japanese naval base at Truk.

In the Gilberts, the Japanese defences were based on the two largest atolls, Makin and Tarawa. From 13 to 20 November Makin and Tarawa were thoroughly attacked by land-based bombers, and then subjected to heavy naval gunfire. Between 20 and 23 November the atoll of Makin was cleared and occupied with little difficulty. The main US losses were, in fact, incurred at sea where the escort carrier Liscome Bay was sunk by a Japanese submarine. Tarawa, however, was to be another matter entirely.

Undertaken within the scope of ‘Galvanic’, ‘Longsuit’ was part of the first step in the drive across the Central Pacific by Nimitz’s US forces, namely the capture of the Gilbert islands between 20 and 28 November 1943. During the first nine months of 1943, recruitment, training and industrial expansion had paved the way for a huge expansion of the US forces available for Pacific operations, and in order to use these land, sea and air assets the planners of the Joint Strategic Committee (the long-range planning arm of the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff) decided not merely to reinforce the current efforts of Halsey’s South Pacific Area and MacArthur’s South-West Pacific Area, but to implement a new offensive campaign through the Central Pacific to offer a supplement or indeed alternative to the existing drive. The Joint Strategic Committee therefore envisaged a five-phase grand strategic effort against Japan: in the first, simultaneous advances would be made by MacArthur and Nimitz, of whom the latter would have the greater resources; in the second, the Philippine islands would be recaptured; in the third, a major lodgement would be secured on the Chinese coast; in the fourth, Hong Kong would be recaptured; and in the fifth, a strategic bombing campaign would be launched against the Japanese home islands. In May 1943 the Joint Strategic Committee became the Joint War Plans Committee, and this added a sixth phase envisaging an invasion of the Japanese home islands. This overall scheme was accepted by the US authorities on 8 May, and secured inter-Allied approval at the ‘Trident’ second inter-Allied conference held in Washington.

MacArthur objected strongly to the plan, but on 20 July Nimitz was ordered to proceed with a central Pacific campaign in which the first target would not be the Marshall islands as had first been envisaged, but rather the Gilbert islands as this could be reconnoitred by the US land-based aircraft which could also support the landings. This was to be the first time in the war that the US forces faced serious Japanese opposition to an amphibious assault. The strategic rationale of the operation was based on the US planners’ decision to establish on the Mariana islands a number of forward air bases capable of supporting operations across the mid-Pacific, the Philippine islands, and into Japan itself. The Mariana islands were heavily defended, however, and in order for any assault on them to succeed, it was thought that land-based bombers would have to be used to soften the defences. The nearest islands capable of supporting such an effort were the Marshall islands lying to the north-west of Guadalcanal in the Solomon islands. Taking the Marshall islands would provide the base needed to launch an offensive against the Mariana islands, but the Marshall islands were isolated from direct communications with Hawaii by the Japanese garrison and its airfield on the small island of Betio, on the western side of Tarawa atoll in the Gilbert islands, a wide-flung group of atolls at the edge of the Japanese defensive perimeter established by July 1942. Thus, in order to pave the way for an eventual invasion of the Mariana islands, the battle had to start far to the east at Tarawa.

The Japanese were fully conscious of the Gilbert islands’ strategic location, however, and had invested considerable resources in the fortification of Tarawa, with particular emphasis on the defence of Betio, the atoll’s largest island. Rear Admiral Shibasaki Keiji’s garrison was centred on the 2,619 marines of Commander Takeo Sugai’s Sasebo 7th Special Naval Landing Force, an elite unit which also included 14 Type 95 light tanks under the command of Ensign Ohtani. In order to bolster the defence, the 1,247 men of the 111th Pioneer Regiment and 970 men of Vice Admiral Masami Kobayashi’s 4th FleetConstruction Unit were also brought in: about 1,200 of the men in these two groups were Koreans. Some 14 coast-defence guns, including four 8-in (203-mm) weapons (once believed to have been taken from the erstwhile British defences of Singapore where there were, in fact, no such weapons, but later discovered to have been part of an order for such weapons placed by Japan in 1905) were emplaced round the island in concrete bunkers. About 500 pillboxes, ‘stockades’ built from palm logs, and 40 pieces of artillery were also scattered around the island, and an airfield was cut into the brush along the island’s highest portion. Trenches connected all points of the island, allowing troops to move under cover to all the points at which they were needed. Betio is shaped like a long, thin and slightly bent triangle with its point in the east and base in the west. The lagoon of the atoll lies north and east of Betio, and the entire northern coast of the island is in the shallow waters of the atoll’s lagoon, and the southern and western sides in deeper water. An attack would almost certainly have to approach from the lagoon as the deeper water in the south offered no reasonable landing areas. In order to prevent this, a long wall was constructed across the lagoon just in from the high water mark, behind which a series of pillboxes and machine gun positions could engage anyone trying to get over the wall. A long pier was constructed pointing north from the western end of the island, allowing cargo ships to be unloaded out past the reef and shallow waters, while still allowing them to anchor in the protected waters of the lagoon.

The US resources for ‘Galvanic’ were first concentrated at Pearl Harbor and elsewhere in the Hawaiian islands before being despatched to forward bases in places such as the Fiji and New Hebrides island groups for final training. The organisation for massive offensive moves over considerable distances, including ‘Galvanic’, had been readied in the form of Spruance’s 5th Fleet (seven battleships, eight aircraft carriers under the command of Rear Admiral Charles A. Pownall, seven heavy and three light cruisers, and some 34 destroyers), the amphibious warfare ships of Turner’s 5th Amphibious Force, the 100,000 men of Smith’s V Amphibious Corps, and Rear Admiral John E. Hoover’s land-based air assets of the three American forces including, in the Ellice islands, the growing strength of Hale’s 7th AAF. Many of the naval and marine assets had previously been Halsey’s 3rd Fleet for operations in the Solomon islands.

The ‘Galvanic’ operation was schemed by Turner and Julian Smith as a two-part undertaking, with a Northern Attack Force under Turner to tackle Makin and a Southern Attack Force under Hill to take Tarawa in ‘Longsuit’. In preparation for ‘Galvanic’, Pownall’s Task Group 50.1 (fleet carriers Yorktown and Lexington, light carrier Cowpens, battleships South Dakota and Washington, and destroyers Nicholas, Taylor, La Valette, Izard, Charrette and Conner) attacked Mili; Rear Admiral Arthur W. Radford’s TG50.2 (fleet carrier Enterprise, light carriers Belleau Wood and Monterey, battleships Massachusetts, North Carolina and Indiana, and destroyers Boyd, Bradford, Brown, Fletcher, Radford and Jenkins) attacked Makin; Rear Admiral Alfred E. Montgomery’s TG50.3 (fleet carriers Essex and Bunker Hill, light carrier Independence, cruisers Chester, Pensacola, Salt Lake City and Oakland, and destroyers Erben, Hale, Bullard, Kidd and Chauncey) attacked Tarawa; and Rear Admiral Forrest P. Sherman’s TG50.4 (fleet carrier Saratoga, light carrier Princeton, cruisers San Diego and San Juan, and destroyers Stack, Sterett, Wilson and Edwards) attacked Nauru.

US intelligence had confirmed that Makin was by far the softer of the two objectives, but the command team opted to capture Makin first as any Japanese riposte (by air from the Mariana islands or by sea from the base of Admiral Mineichi Koga’s Combined Fleet at Truk atoll in the Caroline islands) would have to stage through Makin. The atoll was an easy target, held as it was by only 300 troops, 100 aviation personnel and 400 labourers, and was reduced in four methodical but uncomplicated days between 20 and 23 November.

On the same day as Makin was attacked, substantially larger American forces launched ‘Longsuit’ against the altogether stronger defences of Tarawa, which was therefore an altogether tougher nut for the Southern Attack Force built round Major General Julian C. Smith’s 2nd Marine Division supported by Hill’s force of five escort carriers, three battleships, three heavy cruisers and 21 destroyers covered at longer range by the four fast aircraft carriers of Pownall’s task force. This US invasion force was the largest yet put together for a single operation, and in overall terms comprised 17 aircraft carriers (six fleet carriers, five light carriers and six escort carriers), 12 battleships, 12 cruisers (eight heavy and four light), 66 destroyers and 36 transports, as well as the ground force of some 35,000 men provided by the 2nd Marine Division and part of Major General Ralph C. Smith’s 27th Division. Rear Admiral Harry W. Hill’s Task Force 53 comprised 12 troop transports, three supply transports and one dock ship to deliver and land 18,600 men of the 2nd Marine Division on Betio. Escort was provided by the destroyers JohnRodgers, Sigsbee, Heermann, Hazelwood, Harrison, McKee and Murray, and fire support by Rear Admiral Howard F. Kingman’s Task Group 53.4 with the battleships Tennessee, Maryland and Colorado, heavy cruisers Indianapolis and Portland, light cruisers Mobile and SantaFe, and destroyers Bailey, Frazier, Gansevoort, Meade, Anderson, Russell, Ringgold, Dashiell and Schroeder. Air support came from Rear Admiral Van H. Ragsdale’s TG53.6 with the escort carriers Suwanee, Chenango, Barnes and Nassau, and destroyers Aylwin, Farragut, Monaghan, Cotten, Cowell and Bancroft. Led by the minesweepers Pursuit and Requisite, and supported by the destroyers Ringgold and Dashiell, the first assault waves land on Betio from the lagoon.

The naval forces opened fire on 20 November in a 90-minute bombardment interrupted only for the brief intervals in which dive-bombers from the carriers undertook pinpoint attacks against the Japanese fixed positions. Most of the larger Japanese guns were knocked out during this period. The island is at most points only a few hundred yards wide, and the bombardment turned much of it into a cratered wilderness. By the time of the landing, it was thought that no one would be left to defend what was left of the tiny island. The attack plan consisted of assaults across three major beaches along the northern coast of the island (Red 1 on the bay on the western end of the island’s northern side, Red 2 between this and the long pier, and Red 3 east of the long pier). There were also two other beaches (Green on the western end of the island and Black on the southern shore), but these were not thought suitable for any initial landings. The airstrip, running roughly east/west, and its associated taxiways and parking aprons divided the island into northern and southern sections.

With the 2nd Marines moving against Red 1 and Red 2, and two battalions of the 8th Marines against Red 3, the men of the three assault battalions under the command Colonel David M. Shoup of the 2nd Marines reached the shore without undue difficulty in their Landing Vehicles, Tracked, these battalions then being checked after moving inland less than 100 yards (90 m). This made it more difficult for the following battalions, which were carried in LCVPs and became stuck on the reef, leaving the men with the task of wading 700 yards (640 m) to the shore through a hail of Japanese fire. The marines started their attack on the lagoon at 09.00, later than expected, and many of the men found themselves stuck on the offshore reef while the Japanese, having hidden in deep shelters during the bombardment, now quickly manned their guns as the naval bombardment was lifted to allow the marines to unload. A withering Japanese fire from the island began, and the boats caught on the reef were soon burning. Troops jumped out and started making their way ashore, under the fire of machine guns the entire time. Only small numbers of amtracks (amphibious tractors) were available, and these were able to climb over the reef, with some difficultly, and then start to approach the beach, but many of the vehicles were knocked out by larger guns as they climbed over the reef, and half had been knocked out of action by the end of the day.

The first assault wave was able to land only a few men, and these were instantly pinned down under the log wall along the beach. Several early attempts to land tanks and to break through the wall failed when the relevant landing craft were hit on the run in, and either sank or had to withdraw while taking on water. Two tanks were finally landed on the eastern end of the beach, but were then knocked out fairly quickly. Three tanks managed to land on the west end and helped push the advance to a point some 300 yards (275 m) inland, but then one of these tanks fell into a shell hole, and another was destroyed by a mine. The remaining tank was used as a mobile machine gun pillbox for the rest of the day. A third platoon was able to land all four of its tanks on Red 3 at about 12.00 and operate successfully for much of the day, but by the end of the day this unit was also down to a single tank. By noon the marines had taken the beach as far as the first line of Japanese defences. By 15.30 the line had moved inland in places, but was still generally along the first line of defences. The arrival of the tanks started the line moving on Red 3 and the end of Red 2, and by nightfall the line was about half-way across the island, only a short distance from the main runway.

During the later hours the Japanese defenders continued their harassing fire: in one instance, a Japanese marine swam out to one of the disabled LVTs and brought its 0.5-in (12.7-mm) machine gun into action into the rear of the marines’ lines. By the time the US forces retook the amtrack, several men had been injured or killed. With the marines holding a line on the island, the second day turned to an effort to split the Japanese defence by expanding the bulge near the airfield until it reached the southern shore. Meanwhile the forces on Red 1 were instructed to secure Green beach, the entire western end of the island. In the end, the seize of Green beach proved to be somewhat easier than had been expected. With heavy resistance all through the area, the commander decided to avoid direct combat, and instead called in a naval bombardment. Inching their way forward during the day, the artillery spotters were able to take out machine gun posts and remaining defences one by one. After the fire stopped, the troops were able to take the positions in about an hour and with few losses.

Operations along Red 2 and Red 3 beaches were considerably more difficult. During the night the defenders had set up several new machine gun posts between the closest approach of the forces from the two beaches, and cut them off from each other for some time. By noon the US forces had brought up their own heavy machine guns, and the Japanese posts were put out of action. By the early afternoon the marines had crossed the airstrip and had occupied abandoned defensive works on the southern side. Around 13.00 a message arrived that some of the defenders were making their way across the sandbars from the extreme eastern end of Betio to Bairiki, the islet next to west of Betio. Elements of the 6th Marines were then ordered to land on Bairiki to seal off this line of retreat. They formed up, including tanks and pack artillery, and were able to start their landings at 16.55. They received machine gun fire, so aircraft were sent in to try to locate the guns and suppress them. The force landed with no further fire, and it was later found that only a single pillbox with 12 machine guns had been set up by the forces that had been assumed to be escaping. They had a small tank of petrol in their pillbox, and when it was hit by the aircraft the entire force was burned.

Meanwhile two battalions of the 6th Marines landed on the northern end of Green beach, adjacent to Red 1. The situation as a whole was not much better at the end of the second day than the first. The entire western end of the island was now in US control, as well as a fairly continual line between Red 2 and Red 3 beaches around the airfield taxiways. A separate group had moved across the airfield and set up a perimeter on the southern side, up against Black 2 beach. The groups were not in contact with each other, with a gap of more than 500 yards (460 m) between the forces at Red 1/Green beaches and Red 2 beach, and the lines on the northern side inland from Red 2 and Red 3 beaches were not continuous. Nevertheless it is at this point, as seen in retrospect, that the US began to gain the advantage. The battle on the third day was devoted largely to the consolidation of existing lines, and the delivery to the shore of additional heavy equipment and tanks. During the morning the forces originally landed on Red 1 beach made some progress toward Red 2 beach, but at some cost. Meanwhile the units of the 6th Marines landed on Green beach to the south of Red 1 beach formed up while the remaining battalion of the 6th Marines landed. By the afternoon the 1/6th Marines was sufficiently organised and equipped to move onto the offensive. At 12.30 the battalion started off, and was soon pursuing the Japanese forces along the island’s southern coast. By a time late in the afternoon the battalion had reached the eastern end of the airfield, and formed a continuous line with the forces which had landed on Red 3 beach two days earlier. By the evening the US forces clearly had the upper hand. The remaining Japanese forces were either squeezed into the tiny amount of land east of the airstrip, or located in several pockets near Red 1 and Red 2 beaches, or near the eastern edge of the airstrip.

Realising this, the Japanese forces formed up for a counterattack, which started at about 19.30. Small units were sent in to infiltrate the US lines in preparation for a full-scale assault, but were beaten off by concentrated artillery fire and the assault never took place. Another attempt was made at 23.00, and made some progress. At 04.00 on 24 November the expected assault finally took place, in the location of the earlier probe at 23.00 earlier in the same night. After the battle ended about 60 minutes later, 200 of the 300 men involved were found dead in front of the US lines, the vast majority the victims of artillery fire. By this point the Japanese had little left with which to defend the island.

When combat resumed during the next morning, the US forces had little trouble forming up. The Japanese pockets remaining in the western end had been eliminated by noon, while the men of the 6th Marines continued their advance and reached the eastern tip of the island just past 13.00. A pocket remained near the eastern end of the runway until the afternoon. The battle was essentially over by sunset, with the entirety of the island now a single continuous line. Nevertheless, small numbers of individual Japanese soldiers still came out of hiding during the night to continue the fight.

Over the next several days the 2/6th Marines landed on Bairiki, and moved along the atoll’s other islands to clean up, taking Buariki on 27 November and Naa on 28 November. The campaign was completed by the seizure of Apamama, south of the main atoll, against the negligible resistance of a detachment of the 3rd Special Base Force by the V Amphibious Corps Reconnaissance Company. Portions of the 2nd Marine Division started leaving soon after this, and the last elements had been pulled out by a time early in 1944.

Of the 18,600 men available to the 2nd Marine Division on 20 November, 990 had been killed and 2,391 wounded, while the Japanese survivors amounted to one officer and 16 men, plus 129 Korean labourers, and the total Japanese and Korean casualties were therefore 4,752, including 1,169 Korean labourers, killed in action. The heavy US casualty level sparked off a storm of protest in the USA, where the high losses could not be understood for such a tiny and apparently unimportant island.