THE ROAD TO TARAWA
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
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.
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