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Tarawa

Since the Medal of Honor series has just named 4 Medal holders for the Battle of Tarawa, I thought perhaps a little perspective.  Besides, I've got a former Marine prodding me to do so.

They paid for this: Red Beach 2, Tarawa, 20 November, 1943...

Red Beach 2, Tarawa, 20 november, 1943 

The sheepdogs walk among us all our lives, and we never notice them, until we need them. A whole generation of them are slipping by us now, even as you read this. ...so we could have this - Red Beach 2, Tarawa, today.

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And there are those in the Pacific who appreciate their efforts.

10 Comments

A co-workers father was there, has a dog name Fi, as in Semper Fi! I always wonder if my co-worker would be here if we had not dropped the atomic bomb to end the war. At any rate, great site,
Semper Fi
Jerry
 
Some perspective on Tarawa.

1. It was the first successful amphibious assault against a fortified beach in the industrial era. A thing that was, supposedly, proved impossible by the Brits at Gallipoli.

2. Many folk like to play the snark and point to Tarawa as an intel failure due to the inability to correctly guess the water depth over the reefs.

First, there was no satellites so no sat pics to be had. Second, there was an airfield on Betio (the actual island in the Tarawa chain that was the primary battlefield) so getting photo recon flights was dangerous. Third, there was plenty arty on Betio that could range out well past the barrier reef and the reef itself was within range of small arms (machine gun) and mortar fire, so doing anything more than a periscope sweep for photo recon was out. Another thing about the reef and frogmen. Any frogmen that could have been let off of subs would, most likely, have been beaten to death by the sea surge against the reefs. And last but not least, the Japanese fortifications extended right down to the high tide line or sea wall so there wasn't much of a place for frogmen to do their thing anyway.

The only maps available for that AO were mid 1800's vintage and the only knowledge of the tides and their depth over reefs were anecdotal recollections from old commercial ships captains.

But, even with all that, it was discovered in the after action survey that nearly all the significant emplacements had been accurately charted by the aerial photo recon runs. And, of those charted, 90% had taken at least one direct hit from naval artillery of 5" or better. The defensive works of the Japanese were simply very well constructed.

Tarawa was, also, the first use of the amphtrac as a troop landing vehicle, rather than the ship to inshore logistics mover it was initially built to be. It's use as such in crossing a barrier reef was tested prior to Tarawa with two vehicles at another island with such reefs that was occupied by the Marines. One was rendered non op by sea surge damage to its tracks as it was smashed against the reef repeatedly. The other made it across and back out to sea a few times. So, amph tracks were considered a "probably good enough" vehicle for the job. Other craft were considered. There was lots of discussion among the head cheeses among the USMC while gearing up for the assault. One of them was a plastic hulled boat with only a 2 foot draft and powered by the troops using oars. That discussion didn't go anywhere because such a craft was considered to be not much more than a death trap.

Two good books to read to get perspective are:

First to Fight by Gen Krulak. That goes into great depth on how and why the USMC went against the grain of "military thought" and pushed hard for developing amphib doctrine and capability starting in the late '20 and all through the '30s.

Another is With Utmost Savagery by Col. Joseph Alexander. This book deals specifically with Tarawa and the Col. uses personal memoirs of those who lead the battle, Senshi Sosho (Japanese War History of WW2) and recently declassed ULTRA radio intercepts.

The battle for Tarawa served two purposes.
1. Proof of concept and capability in using amphib forces to assault a heavily defended beach, and the ability to assault such a beach that also had a natural defensive assist with extensive barrier reefs. Both those concept/capability issues had to be battle tested since there were other, larger and more heavily defended islands with such reefs that had to be taken down some how, some way.

It was also understood by those in command of the Marine assault elements that if the attack failed, the Pacific Theater would be put on full back burner until after the European Theater was settled as far as offensive, rather than defensive battles aimed primarily at securing the ANZAC from invasion were concerned.

Just imagine how much bloodier the battles would have been if Japan had those extra years to build up defenses and adjust their strategy?
 
My first Step-father was on Tarawa as a Marine.  Supposedly he was also a member of Carlson's Raiders, but he died in '67, so I know almost nothing of him, and according to the Marine Corps, his records were among those that burned during the big fire....

My first experience with returned vets was with him.  I was 7-9 years old, he was thrashing about one day while napping and I went to wake him--kind of nervous and all and scared of his moans, etc.  I made the mistake of grabbing his big toe and I ended up on the floor looking up at the barrel of a Savage 303 that he kept by his bed (we lived in the project back then).

He was a hard man, but for all that, though, he was also the one who took me to Elks lodge meetings, and vet's organizations, and company picnics (Philadelphia Electric Co.) and the local barber shop where I first met all of the old guys I still remember so well, and he taught me to swim the old way....middle of the deep end of the pool.

I would have liked to get to know him, 'cause I just can't equate what I know of Tarawa with him....


 
Grimmy,

Wasn't the underwater demo guys formed, who became the SEALS of today, because of the intel failure at Tarawa? And, didn't they scope out future assault beaches, including Iwo. We never hit another coral reef again. 

And...Guadalcanal doesn't count as an amphibious assault? Or North Africa? Sicily?

My uncle and his drunken friends taking the ferry to Manhattan on their way to Ft Hamilton to ship out...came close. My grandfather had to go in and bail them out. He bailed everyone but my uncle. Tough guy my grandfather.
 

Fishmugger:

First, it's not an intel failure if there's no possible way to gather the intel, especially to the degree that is common today.

I'm not up on Frogman history, so not sure when they got invented as an organization. I do know that Frogmen would have been of no use in gathering intel prior to Tarawa at Betio.

As I said, there's very little likelihood that a sub would have survived surfacing since the entire area of the reef and several thousand meters past it was under direct observation and fire from the artillery on shore. The reefs themselves were within range of both mortars and machineguns. Betio, itself, is a small island. Approx half the size of Central Park in New York City. The defenses came all the way to the waterline. The highest point on the island was a man made structure, a command bunker, approx 10 feet high in its above ground part. On that tiny island was some 2.5k defenders. No way in hell anyone was sneaking aboard that islands for a sneak and peek.

And yeah, there were other islands with coral reefs in the Central Pacific Campaign. The barrier reefs in those battles were less of an issue because, by then, there was sufficient inventory of the amph tracs to carry the whole force, not just the leading wave.

Also, it was a barrier reef, surrounded the entire island except for one small entry to a pier. That entry was heavily mined and known to be under a heavy watch by anti-boat shipping. Craft going in through that channel got pummeled hard.

And, I said first amphib assault against a heavily defended beach. And, yes, Tarawa was the first such. Guadalcanal amounted to an amphib landing with almost no enemy contact during the landing and no organized beach defenses.

The beaches in North Africa were very lightly fortified if at all. Where there was defense it tended to be away from the beach and centered around old forts, the built up areas in port cities and elsewhere, but not much actually at the beach. And what was there wasn't in bunkers and pillboxes that could withstand multiple direct hits from naval artillery of 5" or better in massive interlocking fire fields with no away to approach any part or piece without being underfire from many other parts and pieces.

Last, the Marines didn't "run into" the reef. The reef was known to exist. It was known to surround the island. It was known to be a problem. What wasn't known was how deep the water would be over the reef, nor if the reef was an insurmountable problem, until the Marines actually got there and stepped out of their landing craft to cross it on foot, then wade to shore under fire.

Sometimes there's things that just can't be dealt with until you are on top of them and having to deal directly with it. That ain't a "failure" it's just life sometimes.

What makes it a failure is when its allowed to be an excuse for failure.

 

Fish:

I'm not up on the history of the Frogmen and when they got stood up as an organization. I will say again that they wouldn't have made any difference at Betio. The fringe reef surrounded the island except for a single channel which had a pier. The reef was under direct observation and within range of machinguns and mortars over its entire length. The area seaward of the reef was in range of artillery for extended ranges beyond. Any sub surfacing would most likely come under either artillery fire or airplane attack, either night or day on any night the conditions would permit such a thing.

Also, with barrier reefs, the seaward side gets pounded by surf. A swimmer attempting to approach such a reef stands every possibility of being beaten to death against that reef by the wave breaking on or against that reef.

The channel to the pier was known to be under direct anti-boat artillery fire. Landing craft did push the channel and some actually made it to shore, but it was a hella gauntlet to run and was saved for the heavier equipment needs, such as tanks. The "lagoon side" that the pier was on was also the heaviest defended.

The Marines didn't "run into" the reef. It was known to exist. It was known to be a huge potential problem. What wasn't known and couldn't be discovered prior to the assault, was the depth of water over the reef at high tide, nor whether or not the reef would be an insurmountable problem. Sometimes, when some thing has to be done, the only way to find out if it's do-able is to go about doing it. Life aint always pretty and rarely comes all neatly packaged.

Guadalcanal amounted to an amphib landing with almost no hostile contact at the beach. The North Africa landings were not against organized and indepth defenses. Resistance was scattered and mostly either at an old fort some distance away from the landing area or in the built up areas around the port cities. The local resistance managed to secure much of the artillery in the area of the landings, and the French soldiers there weren't all that motivated to fight, although some did fight well.

Sicily was also an amphib landing against a very lightly defended beach. Sicily became a hard fight once the Germans got their heads out and got organized to counter attack, though. But by then significant allied forces were already ashore.

Betio (Tarawa) was the first amphib assault against a comprehensively defended beach in the industrial era. And, as bloody as that battle was, and as much as folk love to sing the "it wasn't necessary" or "it was a mistake" or "it was because of screw ups" in one thing or the other, that battle proved that such were possible, if not costly, and that the Central Pacific Campaign could be conducted.


*** I had written a better response to Fishmugger, but it got ate up by a server fart.

 
Oops. Notice from the Redundent Department of Redundency, please send one of the replies of mine above to the outer limits.
 
Grimmy - wrong blog governance structure.  Here it's the Department of Redundancy Department, and, unlike most uncivil servants, they work overtime giving you what you don't want.
 
The Navy called the shots regarding landing through the reefs.  They did get told by a couple of folks who knew that area (British or Aussie, I cannot remember right now) that they would not be able to get landing craft over those reefs when they wanted to do it, but they went anyway.  Not much else they could have done anyway as the orders were to take the atoll.  And the 2nd Marine Division did just that as we always do.  Anyone who knows about our corps knows once we set foot on one of those islands we never failed to take the real estate assigned.

Semper Fi!
 
JoArgghhh!:

Well now, if that aint just super duper cake taking.

First, you tell me you're not the Argghhh! of the Cave of Holy Grail Pointing the Way of, now you say's you've got a Department of Redundancy Department, rather than a Redundancy Department of Redundancy.

What next? No arguing, just contradicting?