Over three days of intense fighting, thousands of soldiers perished on beaches and in the ocean for a prize — a strategic speck of coral sand and its critical air strip, in the middle of the Pacific — that would help decide the outcome of World War II.
Eighty years ago the United States military invaded the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll, which is now the archipelago of Kiribati. They wanted to take it back from the Japanese.
Betio was only 2.5 miles long and of no significance. Its location would allow the United States move north: first, to the Marshall Islands; then to the Mariana Islands; and finally to Japan. Then there were the “leapfrogging” tactics the Allies used in the Pacific to weaken Japan’s control of the region, as well as to establish bases to launch further attacks.
On Betio the United States Military had expected a simple conquest by sea and air, a “amphibious attack” that involved about 18,000 Marines with an additional 35,000 soldiers. The Japanese had heavy fortifications on Betio, including concrete cannons, bunkers, and concrete bunkers near the sand fringes of the island, and about 5,000 soldiers, a quarter being enslaved Koreans, were in the frontline.
James G. Lucas described the grim early signs that the plan had failed in The New York Times of 1943. James G. Lucas wrote in the New York Times of 1943 about the early grim signs that the plan would fail: “‘We have landed against heavy opposition,’ came the first word from shore. ‘Casualties severe.’”
The American forces were well-armed with thousands of pounds explosives, warships and amphibian vehicles. But, faced with an unexpected low tide, the Marines were forced to abandon their ships offshore and wade toward the island — where they were gunned down by waiting Japanese snipers, leaving a jumble of floating bodies for their compatriots to navigate.
“There was no way to get out of the line of fire,” In the 2009 documentary, Leon Cooper, commander of an U.S. Navy Landing Boat that was part the assault, stated decades later. “Return to Tarawa.” “Every goddamned angle was covered. We bumbled and stumbled into all this slaughter.”
The battle turned on its head the second morning, when millions of American shells and hundreds tons of explosives were released.
“Strafing planes and dive-bombers raked the island,” Robert Sherrod, a war correspondent for Time magazine, You can write a dispatch. “Light and medium tanks got ashore, rolled up to fire high explosive charges point-blank into the snipers’ slots of enemy forts.”
After three days of fighting, thousands of Marines, as well as 4,500 Japanese soldiers, had been killed.
“The waterlogged bodies on the coral flats were gathered up, the crude island graveyards were filled,” Sherrod, Mr.
He was a member of a team of photographers and camera operators who accompanied American forces to Tarawa. The battle was one of the best documented in the war and their work produced the Academy Award winning documentary film “With the Marines at Tarawa.”
The images were barely edited before they were shown to American audiences and caused outrage. Instead of scenes that celebrated victory, Mr. Sherrod said, “the American public was faced with haunting images which were, “riddled corpses formed a ghastly fringe along the narrow white beaches, where men of the Second Marine Division died for every foot of sand.”
The Battle of Tarawa took place between Nov. 20, 1943 and Nov. 23, 1943. Here are some photos of the battle, taken by American photographers.
The first picture shows U.S. Marines approaching Tarawa on a barge in November 1943.
Two months ago, American forces had launched airstrikes against the Japanese airfield in Tarawa.
Marines wading in water while under enemy fire. A coral reef and low tide initially prevented landing boats from reaching the shore.
Marines looking at the half buried body of a Japanese Soldier.
Marines approaching a Japanese bunker. Tarawa was the fortified atoll that America invaded in the Pacific during World War II. Japanese forces built dug-in bunkers, called pillboxes. They also constructed sea walls and an extensive system of trenches.
Marines on a sandy beach resting next to an amphibious landing craft.
Soldiers’ bodies lying on the beach in Betio after they were forced to wade under enemy fire to the shore during the initial attack.
Marine firing on Japanese soldiers in a hidden pillbox while American soldiers were pushing inland.
Marines charging from the beach towards the airstrip across open ground, some soldiers carrying spades in order to dig themselves a hole in the sand. The main objective was to seize the airstrip that divided the island in two. The Marshalls campaign was launched about 10 weeks after Tarawa had been captured by the United States.
Marines injured during battle are sent back to the ship on a landing barge.
A Marine is interviewed by a combat correspondent during a battle.
The bodies of two Japanese soldiers and a Marine lie in an open area.
Marines drinking Japanese sake and beer taken from Japanese fortified position at the end the battle.
After the battle, a combat photographer examines the ruins of a Japanese Shinto temple.
Japanese and Korean prisoner after the American victory. One Japanese officer and sixteen enlisted men surrendered. The rest of the garrison either died in battle or committed suicide. The majority of prisoners were Koreans who had been brought by Japan to the atoll in order to build Japanese defences.
Graves markings for Marines, including artillery shells, helmets and other markers.
Two captured Japanese naval cannons in the background. A Marine patrolling Tarawa’s beach in December 1943.