Tarawa’s battlefields were cyan saltwater and white-sand beach.
Technically they weren’t fields. Technically the place wasn’t built for war. Technically Tarawa was a beautiful, palmy atoll with a large lagoon and 24 sea-level islets 81 miles north of the equator in the sunny Central Pacific, where the tradewinds blew steadily and the fish were profuse.
It was a cozy, isolated place. Its air was warm and damp. Its people were smiley and simple. Artillery was alien. But two years after Japan’s Pearl Harbor attacks, Tarawa’s fields lay crimson.
And it was a bad place for surfing.
November 20-23, 1943, are the dates people remember. Operation Galvanic, code name Longsuit, encompassed the brutal Battle of Tarawa. The atoll, one of the Gilbert Islands, was a strategically placed paradise in the Japan-U.S. Pacific theater of World War II. Via Pearl Harbor, Japan had enraged America and needed operable land—minimal in that part of the Pacific, just small islands and atolls and unending swaths of sea—to draw a long defensive line against Yankee vengeance.
The Yanks needed the Gilbert Islands because they needed to take the Mariana Islands because they needed to plant air bases across the Pacific to the Philippines and into Japan. Stepping stones from Oahu, basically. The Marianas were heavily defended by the Japs, and for the Yanks to win, land-based bombers were required. The nearest suitable base for the planes were the Marshall Islands, but the Marshall Islands were barred from U.S. communications with Oahu by a Japanese garrison on Tarawa.
In 1941 Japan seized the Gilberts from England. The Brits didn’t really need them. The Japs took 20 months to extensively fortify Betio, a piece of coral three miles long and a half-mile wide, the southwesternmost of Tarawa’s islets. They built an airstrip that was guarded by 4,500 troops in thick cement bunkers linked by tunnels and protected by mines, barbed wire, and major weaponry.
Betio was the world’s most heavily defended scrap of land.
“A million men,” commander Keiji Shibazaki said, “cannot take Tarawa in a hundred years.”
No problem, the U.S. said—we’ll do it in three hours. After all, its Tarawa invasion force was the largest ever assembled for a Pacific mission.
U.S. battleships, cruisers, and destroyers wrecked Betio in November 20’s pre-dawn humidity. “There was a tremendous burst on the land,” embedded war journalist Robert Sherrod wrote. “Betio began to glow brightly from the fires the bombardment pattern had started. That was only the beginning.”
With daybreak came a ferocious stream of U.S. air strikes—torpedo bombers, dive bombers, fighter planes—that would segue to the foot-based troops deployed from warships into five landing crafts.
“If there were actually any Japs left on the island, which I doubted strongly,” Sherrod wrote, “they would all be dead by now.”
A tidebook would’ve helped. Instead of during a hoped-for high spring tide, the Marines’ landing craft entered the lagoon amid a listless neap tide and were stopped by the shallows 500 yards from shore. The depth wouldn’t change all day. The boats could go no further. The troops were forced to slog through waist-deep water toward the beach. The Japs saw this and opened fire. Ratta-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat.
“…they would all be dead by now.”
For the remaining Japs, it was fish-in-a-barrel spree at 0900 hours. Most of the Americans were raked with ease. Eventually a few U.S. amtrac (amphibious tractors) clawed over the reef and up onto the beach. Bodies littered the sand. The warm air reeked of death and smoke. For both sides, it would be a long day.
The next morning, reinforcement U.S. troops made the same lagoon trudge, later with amtracs and artillery, allowing the Marines to penetrate Betio’s narrow interior. By afternoon, they had annhiliated the Japanese and held the upper hand.
By dark on day three, the cost of victory was high for the U.S.: 1,177 soldiers never went home. Scores were wounded. The death toll was much greater for Japan—of its 4,500 troops, only 17 survived.
This set the stage for many more U.S. wins, and many more troops would die on Pacific islands before the war-ending A-bombs of ’45. “Before 1945 we were militaristic,” Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami told American novelist Paul Theroux. “After that, we were peace-loving and gentle.”
Today, technically, Tarawa is the capital of Kiribati (pronounced KIRR-ee-bas), a nation that officially gelled in 1979. Technically it is peaceful. Technically it is still bad for surfing.