At the Quebec conference in August of 1943, the Allied high command announced it's intention to launch an offensive in the Central Pacific, in the drive towards Japan. A prime objective of this drive, to be undertaken as a Navy-Marines operation, was to take the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands would serve as an air base from which further operations could be launched against the Marianas, and from there against the Japanese home islands. But 500 miles to the southeast of the Marshalls, an archipelago of atolls called the Gilberts stood between U.S. forward ground air bases and the Marshalls. The Gilberts had only one workable airstrip for refueling American aircraft and that was on the island of Betio in the western Gilbert Island atoll of Tarawa. The Japanese commander in charge of the defense of Tarawa, Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki, said "A mission men cannot take Tarawa in a hundred years." He commanded 2,600 imperial marines, the best amphibious troops in the Japanese armed forces. With the importation of 1,000 Japanese workers and 1,200 Korean laborers the island airstrip of Betio had been transformed into one of the most formidable fortresses in the world, boasting 14 coastal defense guns(four of which were taken from the surrendered British garrison at Singapore), 40 strategically located artillery pieces, covering every approach to the island, a coconut-log sea wall four feet high lining the lagoon and over 100 machine gun emplacements behind the wall. All this was concentrated on an island only a mile long and a few hundred yards wide. Meanwhile an armada of 17 carriers, 12 battleships, eight heavy and four light cruisers, 66 destroyers and 36 transports carrying the 2nd Marine Division and a part of the 37th Infantry Division- some 35,000 soldiers and Marines headed for Betio in early November of 1943. In the moments before pre-invasion bombardment began, the task force naval commander, Rear Admiral Howard F. Kingman announced to the landing troops "Gentlemen, we will not neutralize Betio. We will not destroy it. We will obliterate it!" Neither Shibasaki nor Kingman knew what they were up against. Return to the Tarawa Timeline page