Sixty years ago today, thousands of U.S. Marines and a handful of sailors began landing on the Pacific equatorial island chain of Tarawa. The primary objective was an airstrip, which was ultimately secured. But within 76 hours, some 3,000 American boys–many fresh from boot camp–lay dead or wounded. It was the bloodiest period the U.S. had seen in World War II, up to that point. Back home, Americans were shocked. Families were devastated. And many were critical of the tactics employed by military planners in the Pacific. But America’s resolve was never in question, and no one considered foregoing the grim work that lay ahead.
Does that mean that Americans in 1943 were somehow less averse to losing their sons than Americans in 2003? Hardly. I’ll get to that in a moment. Let’s first consider what began to unfold on November 20, 1943.
Tarawa was a sharply curving chain of islands with a heavily defended southwest tip, the isle of Betio. Known to Marines as “Bloody Betio,” the island was bristling with naval guns, mortars, machine guns, and 5,000 crack Japanese marines under the command of rear admiral Keiji Shibasaki.
Opposing Shibasaki were elements of the U.S. V Amphibious Corps under the command of major general Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, a hard-bitten Alabama-born leatherneck whose nickname stemmed from his unforgiving approach to failure on the part of subordinates. Smith was also a 60-year-old diabetic with poor eyesight. But overlooking his physical condition, President Roosevelt arranged for Smith to command Marines. Smith knew how to fight, his Marines adored him, and that was good enough for FDR.
At 9 A.M. the landings began when Smith’s initial assault waves struck at three predetermined points. The first wave, loaded onto amphibious tractors (amtracs), began churning toward a cove on Betio. Striking coral, they ground forward toward the beach. Once in the cove, the Marines found themselves under murderous fire from three sides. Many of the amtracs erupted into balls of fire when their fuel tanks were hit. Others spun wildly out of control after their drivers were killed.
The second waves struck adjacent beaches in landing craft. The craft ran aground on the reefs and the leathernecks scrambled down the ramps and over the sides. Wading hundreds of yards across razor-sharp coral toward the burning shoreline, the Marine ranks were shot to pieces. Some of the young men, weighed down with equipment, stepped into deep holes and drowned. Of the first wave, only 30 percent got ashore. The second wave moved beneath a 500-foot-long pier, where their losses mounted. The third wave was nearly annihilated. Fourth and fifth waves were badly mauled. Those who survived the trek to the beach were often wounded, exhausted, weaponless, and separated from their units.
Colonel David M. Shoup, a future Marine Corps commandant, was wounded early in the fighting and spent much of the morning in waist-deep water beneath the pier where he directed the attacks. By midday he was ashore, but only 15 feet inland. Shoup signaled his superiors, “Casualties: many. Percentage dead: unknown. Combat efficiency: we are winning.”
The Marines inched forward. Losses soared. By nightfall some 3,000 Americans had a tenuous foothold on the beach. A few had reached the edge of the airstrip. Another 1,500 were either dead or wounded. The following day, the Marines broke out of their beachheads and moved inland. Initial objectives were seized, landing parties linked up with one another, and counterattacks were beaten back. Officers leading the way were specifically targeted by the enemy and killed. Some lived and became the stuff of legends.
Red-mustachioed major Jim Crowe, swagger stick in hand, calmly strolled his lines and exhorted his men to fight. “All right, Marines, try and pick out a target and squeeze off some rounds,” he said, as bullets and hot shell fragments zinged past his head. “You better kill some of those bastards or they’ll kill you. You don’t want to die, do you?”
Refusing to surrender, the Japanese literally had to be blasted out of their positions or burned to death with flamethrowers.
On the night of the 22nd, the Japanese launched two suicidal “Banzai” charges. Screaming “Marines You Die!,” the enemy penetrated the American lines and the fighting went hand-to-hand. Fortunately, the Marines held, and by the following afternoon, the island was declared secure.
Tarawa was a victory for U.S. forces. Betio and its strategically vital airstrip had been captured. And the defending force had been wiped out. Still, the losses were tremendous, such that Americans on the home front initially reacted as if the Marines had lost. Marine casualties (including sailors) numbered over 1,020 killed and nearly 2,300 wounded. American newspapers published photographs of dead Marines on the beach and angry editorials called for congressional inquiries into the so-called “Tarawa fiasco.”
Military leaders like admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and Holland Smith were faulted for supposedly rushing into a meat-grinder that critics argued could have been bypassed. “You killed my son on Tarawa,” a mother wrote Nimitz.
But few–if anyone–criticized Roosevelt for the casualties on Tarawa. After all, he was president, and the nation was at war.
Recently a colleague and friend, with a political ideology differing from mine, suggested that the mothers and fathers of 1943 were somehow less sophisticated politically–and thus more willing to accept large casualty numbers–than are parents of military men and women in 2003. Perhaps, as a whole, the generation of 1943 was less sophisticated politically. But to suggest that casualties did not pain them as much insults their humanity, their sacrifice, and the deep love they had for their children.
The difference between Americans in 1943 and 2003 is that the Americans of 1943 realized that war is grim, sometimes necessary, and freedom is never free. But they were just as horrified by combat losses as we are today, and perhaps more so, because their losses were by far more numerous.
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in a variety of national and international publications. He is author of the newly released Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to Decisive 20th-Century American Battles.