November, 1943: Battle of Tarawa Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Admiral Raymond A. Spruance launched Operation Galvanic in November, 1943, to gain air bases in the Gilbert Islands to support the push toward Japan. The first objective was the airstrip on 300-acre Betio Island in Tarawa Atoll.

Admiral Raymond A. Spruance launched Operation Galvanic in November, 1943, to gain air bases in the Gilbert Islands to support the push toward Japan. The first objective was the airstrip on 300-acre Betio Island in Tarawa Atoll.

Rear Admiral Harry W. Hill’s naval and air bombardment (November 17–20) had little effect. Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki had boasted that a million Americans could not take Tarawa in a hundred years. Major General Holland M. Smith’s Second Marine Division began landing at dawn on November 20. Shallow reefs, unpredictable tides, and Japanese obstacles frustrated landing craft. Marines had to wade hundreds of yards to shore under the fire of more than five hundred Japanese pillboxes. The first wave had 75 percent casualties. Smith ordered reinforcements from Makin Atoll. The Americans advanced inland on the second day and secured the island after seventy-six hours of tenacious, inch-by-inch fighting, including desperate suicide charges by the Japanese on the third day.

U.S. infantry troops wade ashore during the Battle of Tarawa. (National Archives)

Tarawa was the bloodiest battle that the U.S. Marine Corps had experienced up until its time. U.S. losses were 1,057 killed, 2,351 wounded, and 88 missing in action. All except 17 of the Japanese and 129 of the Koreans died. The Americans used the captured airstrip to support invasions of the Marshall Islands.

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