Gilbert Islands Campaign
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
The invasion fleet, Task Force 52, set sail for an invasion on the Gilbert Islands from Pearl Harbor on 10 Nov 1943. The force sailed with 35,000 troops, 120,000 tons of supplies, and six thousand vehicles. The invasion fleet was divided into two. Rear Admiral Richmond Turner headed up the northern force; the southern was led by Rear Admiral Harry Hill, Turner's deputy. The Navy and Marines portion operation was dubbed Operation Galvanic, involving General Holland Smith's marines. The Army portion was named Operation Kourbash.
Battle of Makin
13-23 Nov 1943
Makin atoll was occupied by Japanese forces on 10 Dec 1941 uncontested, and was converted to a strategically important seaplane base. The Japanese commander in charge of defending Makin was Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Seizo Ishikawa with a garrison of 798 men (including 276 laborers and 100 aviation ground crew) with no boats and no planes. On the coast of the main island of Butaritari, 8-inch coastal defense guns, three 37-mm anti-tank gun positions, 10 machine gun emplacements, and 85 rifle pits protected the beaches from amphibious assaults. Should any landings succeed, two land barriers stretched the entire island to slow enemy advances. The western tank barrier was 12 to 13 feet wide and 15 feet deep, reinforced by one anti-tank gun shielded by concrete, six machine gun positions, and 50 rifle pits. The eastern barrier was 14 feet wide and 6 feet deep, reinforced by barb wire, gun emplacements, and rifle pits. The main philosophy behind the defense was to hold out for as long as possible until reinforcements could arrive to relief the defenders.
On 13 Nov, US Army Air Force began aerial attacks on Makin by sending B-24 bombers from Ellice, while Naval Dauntless dive bombers were sent in from escort carriers Liscome Bay, Coral Sea, and Corregidor. On 20 Nov 1943, the Army 27th Division, a National Guard unit from New york, landed on Butaritari. At Red Beach, the landing was rather uneventful, slowed only by an inefficiently conducted landing operation that was vulnerable to Japanese sniper fire. on Yellow Beach, problems due to inexperience in amphibious operations also occurred, which centered around the miscalculation of high tide sea level. Nevertheless, both landings were completed with rather small casualties. They soon realized that the Japanese did not defend at the beaches as the Americans had hoped. Withdrawing into inland defensive strong points. It took the Americans two days to clear out the defensive barriers at the cost of 66 deaths with an additional 152 wounded. Ralph Smith reported "Makin taken" on 23 Nov. The Japanese lost 395 lives in the defense.
Reacting to the American action directed at Makin, the Japanese launched a serious air raid with 46 planes from the Marshalls on the evening of 20 Nov. The carrier Independence was damaged and was sent back to Pearl Harbor for repairs. Later, on 24 Nov, submarine I-175 from Truk commanded by Lieutenant Commander Sunao Tabata sank the escort carrier Liscombe Bay with a single torpedo. Overall, on the high seas the Japanese lost a total of 100 planes with various counterattacks against the Americans during the Gilberts operation. The Americans lost 46 planes (plus another 73 in accidents by inexperienced pilots) and two submarines.
Battle of Tarawa
20-23 Nov 1943
To the south, the southern task force headed for Tarawa. Like most islands in this region, Tarawa was actually an atoll consisted of 38 islands surrounded by coral reef. The main defense was on the island of Betio on the western edge of the atoll half the size of New York City's Central Park. The value of the island was on the precious airfield on this tiny island. Rear Admiral Shibasaki Keiji defended Betio with 4,836 troops. 2600 of them were of the Special Naval Landing Forces, not the elite Japanese Army troops sometimes mistakenly reported by other accounts. 1,000 of them were Japanese construction troops. Finally, 1,200 of them were Korean laborers. At Keiji's disposal were also 14 large coastal defense guns, some of them captured at Singapore and relocated here. "A million men cannot take Tarawa in a hundred years," said Keiji. Behind the coastal guns, 50 field artillery pieces, over 100 machine gun nests, and 500 pillboxes dotted the landscape. To further deter landing attempts, the Japanese constructed a huge wall across the lagoons to the north.
An impressive preliminary naval bombardment decimated the landscape. "It's a wonder that the goddam island doesn't fall apart and sink," exclaimed a Marine as he watched the large shells exploded on the island. However, what this Marine could not see at this time was that the Japanese defenses were strong. Pillboxes were covered with hard coral and logs, and blockhouses were made of reinforced concrete. The bombardment actually had less effect on the defenders than what the fireworks show suggested. At this time, the plan also began to fall apart for the Americans. The landing force of Marines had to hold off for some extra time because the battleships took a longer bombardment than originally planned, missing the high tide. A miscommunication with bombers caused a delay in the subsequent aerial bombardment as well. The potency of the aerial bombardment was lacking as well; the bombardment was supposed to last 30 minutes, but in reality it hardly lasted seven, then an entire group of B-24 bombers that was supposed to arrive to wrap up the pre-invasion bombardment never showed up.
At about 0900 in the morning of 20 Nov 1943, Marines boarded the Higgins landing crafts and started for Betio. At 0441, the Japanese coastal guns opened fire. Encountering lower tide than expected, the landing crafts became stranded on the reef, and the Marines were forced to wade 700 yards to the beach under Japanese mortar, machine gun, and small arms fire. A naval officer observing the landing wrote in his diary "The water seemed never clear of tiny men.... They kept falling, falling, falling... singly, in groups, and in rows." Bravely, they moved forward, and made it to the beach at heavy casualties, but only to find themselves pinned down on three places on the north beach. The situation became so dire that General Julian Smith reported "issue in doubt" to his superior General Holland Smith. That night, Japanese troops maneuvered behind American lines, firing their machine guns from a broken-down American amphtrac vehicle at the rear of the American beachhead; while this did little to damage the American effort, the negative effect of this on morale was tremendous. On the second day, 21 Nov, the American Marines were able to drive into the defensive line, splitting the Japanese troops in two groups. A tank that made ashore, nicknamed Colorado by the Americans, crushed pillboxes and guarded flamethrowers who followed up with a burst of flame to finish off any Japanese troops not crushed by the tank. In one of the blockhouses, over 300 charred bodies were found, victims of the deadly tank-flamethrower combination. "Our weapons have been destroyed, and from now on everyone is attempting a final charge.... May Japan exist for ten thousand years!", Keiji radioed Tokyo as his lines crumbled. Shortly after, Keiji was killed in action. The last 146 men of the Japanese garrison made a banzai charge at 0400 on 22 Nov. The charge failed, and Betio was now under American control. For the next several days, smaller islands were secured one by one. At the end of the Tarawa operation, 4,690 Japanese and Koreans defenders were killed; only 17 Japanese and 129 Koreans survived the battle. The Americans suffered 1,000 killed with an additional 2,200 wounded.
The newly captured airfield at Betio was renamed Hawkins Field for Lieutenant William Hawkins who knocked out three machine guns single-handedly before being killed by a mortar shell. Also after the battle, reporters such as Robert Sherrod visited the island. He wrote about a pillbox he came across.
Because aerial bombs and naval shelling could not destroy these strong pillboxes, ground troops were necessary to control Betio, which led to Tarawa's high casualty rate, which did not sit well with the American public. Even landing equipment suffered similar fate; out of 125 amphtracs deployed to Tarawa, 90 were lost. The lack of amphibious operation experience was blamed as the cause of such high losses, and Chester Nimitz ordered for his commanders to drill their men to achieve greater preparedness. The next target, the Marshall Islands, was expected to be a tougher target, and Nimitz did not wish to repeat the high casualty rates for his next campaign.
Sources: Goodbye Darkness, the Pacific Campaign, Wikipedia.
Gilbert Islands Campaign Interactive Map
Gilbert Islands Campaign Timeline
|20 Jul 1943||The US Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered Chester Nimitz to begin planning operations in the Ellice and Gilbert Islands.|
|20 Nov 1943||US Marines invaded Makin and Tarawa atolls in the Gilbert Islands.|
|23 Nov 1943||Japanese resistance ended on Tarawa and Makin atolls in the Gilbert Islands.|
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945