The wide Pacific Ocean is dotted with islands, big ones like Guadalcanal, small ones like Johnston and Wake. As World War II moved on past the tragedy at Pearl Harbor into full-fledged war for possession of these bits of land that had been stepping stones for Japan’s territorial expansion. Now in 1943, they became stepping stones for the United States Fleet under Chester Nimitz, and the United States Army under Douglas McArthur to go northward to the homeland of the Rising Sun
Approximately 2500 miles southwest of Hawaii lies the atoll of Tarawa, a scattered group of islets that take on the appearance of a hook when viewed from the air. It was the entre’ for U. S. forces moving toward the central Pacific and the Philippines, the place to which General Douglas McArthur said that he would, one day, return.
The largest of the islets there is Betio, and it is not very large. It is less than three miles in length and about a half mile wide, but it held on its coral surface an airstrip and within its rocks underneath that surface were gun emplacements and bunkers connected by tunnels and in them and on the surface of the islet were 4,700 Japanese soldiers ready and able to defend the tiny scrap of land from anything that could be thrown at them.
The landings began early on 20 November, and immediately, because of the low tide, the landing craft, boats designed and built (many of them) by Higgins in New Orleans had to drop their ramps and send the Marines, heavy laden with packs and guns and ammunition, in through deep water, into the very jaws of Hell, the fire of enemy soldiers on the shore.
Those Marines who made it in the first day were pinned down all night by the sea on one side and the enemy soldiers in their dugouts on the other. The next morning more troops, supported by tanks and artillery, made the same perilous journey in, dodging the broken boats and the sharp coral.
The Battle of Tarawa, there on that slip of land labelled “Betio” on the charts of the Navy, lasted two more days, and the cost was high. The Marines suffered nearly 3,000 casualties (killed, wounded, missing).
The Japanese, ready to die to keep the Americans out of their homeland, suffered even worse losses. Of the 4,700 defenders of the small islet, only seventeen survived. After Tarawa, there was no doubt of the fierceness of the battles that would come on the way to the Japanese home islands.
In the days of World War II it was not unusual for war correspondents to attach themselves to combat units. Ernie Pyle followed his dogface soldiers through Europe and into the Pacific, finally being killed on Ie Shima. Bill Mauldin drew cartoons of Willie and Joe as they waded through the muck and mire of Normandy.
On Tarawa, the correspondent was Robert Sherwood, who had covered the Army campaign in the Aleutians and the Navy’s raid on Wake Island. Sherwood, however, was not prepared for the blood that he saw on Betio. He went in on an amphibious boat, an amtrack, with a detachment of Marines. They made it almost to the shore. Here is how he tells it:
“No sooner had we hit the water than the Jap machine guns opened up on us. There must have been five or six of these machine guns concentrating their fire on us, I was scared, as I had never been scared before. After we waded through several centuries and some two hundred yards of shallowing water and deepening machinegun fire. I knew that we could not do any worse.”
And so after three days ended the bloody Battle of Tarawa, a step toward Tokyo and the eventual end of the battles of the Pacific.