The origins of this division lay in the activation of the 2nd Marine Brigade as part of the Fleet Marine Force on 1 July 1936. A year later the brigade deployed to Shanghai, China, returning in 1938 to San Diego, California. On 1 February 1941, the unit was redesignated as the 2nd Marine Division. Its component regiments, the 2nd, 6th, 8th, and 10th Marines, brought with them impressive histories of service in Vera Cruz (Mexico), in France (World War I), and the Caribbean. In World War II, elements of the division served in Iceland, in Hawaii during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and on Samoa. The full division served in the Guadalcanal campaign, followed by the bloody assault of Tarawa for which it was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation. The unit went on to Saipan, Tinian, and Okinawa.
This month (November) marks the 63rd anniversary of the Battle of Tarawa. On November 20-23, 1943, United States Marines, Sailors, and Airmen engaged in a fight that would provide the home front with its first bloody shock of WW II. Although more Americans were killed at Pearl Harbor, but that was due to enemy action and sparked outrage at the Japanese nation. At Tarawa, with the United States on the attack against 4,000 entrenched defenders, more than 1,000 U.S. servicemen were killed in three days. More than 2,000 more were wounded. The Japanese and Korean defenders died almost to a man.
Tarawa Atoll is located in the central Pacific Ocean. It is composed of a chain of coral islets with an area of 23 square kilometer (about 9 square miles). Tarawa Atoll is shaped like a triangle with it's base running pretty much East and West. The base is a chain of islands and so is the eastern side right to the tip. On the western side is a large reef that runs all the way with a big passage just north of the western corner. Betio is the first island on the left (West) separated by about two miles to Bairiki. Pronounced 'Bes-she-o'.
The islet group of Tarawa, about 2,400 miles southwest of Hawaii, was held by the Japanese from 1941 to 1943 during World War II, and it fell to the U.S. Marines of the Second Division after a bloody 76-hour battle. Tarawa's military significance lay in its strategic position as the entrance of the U.S. push through the central Pacific to the Philippine Islands.
Japanese forces occupied the island on December 9, 1941. On November 20, 1943, U. S. forces arrived to secure the island. A heavy naval and aerial bombardment of Betio preceded the landing of 5,000 men of the 2nd Marine Division. Due to the Coral Reefs around the islands, American landing craft could not reach the shore. The men, without cover or protection, were forced to wade to the sandy shore. Close to 1,000 Americans were killed, and over 2,000 wounded during the operation.
Just after 5 a.m., the first shot at the Betio coast was fired from the American ships. The following salvos were so powerful that they caused explosions that lit up the sky. Marines gathered on the decks to watch the fireworks along the shoreline. There was so much rapid firepower from the ships that it looked to some like a machine-gun burst.
After the marines witnessed the hail of fire, many concluded that little could be left of the enemy. Next, they heard a roar in the air and saw dozens of torpedo bombers, dive bombers, and fighters called in to stage another attack, which drew no discernible resistance from the ground.
As the Higgens landing craft made their way in, they came to an abrupt halt on a reef. They had made the mistake of coming in on low tide. The reef was 500 yards from the shore and as soon as they hit it, the Japanese hit them with massive fire power, destroying many of the craft before the men could even disembark. The marines quickly realized that the enemy had not been neutralized. As the first wave of marines waded through the water to the beach, only a few managed to get to the shore.
After realizing that the Japanese had a larger force than anticipated, the Americans sent out more and more men in an effort to establish a beachhead. With those reinforcements, they managed to secure part of the beach only 100 yards long and 20 feet in from the water's edge.
"Red Beach Two" Tarawa Atoll 20th November 1943 by David Pentland
Tarawa was far more heavily fortified than any island the Allies had encountered before; to attack it the growing strength of the United States Navy would mobilize a fleet of dozens of ships. On November 22, 1943, after a three-hour bombardment, the 2nd Marine Division landed on Betio. Shibasaki had 2500 Imperial Naval Marines, with 2,300 Korean and Japanese laborers. They had transformed Betio into a fortress of unparalleled intricacy, with coconut log bunkers cemented with crushed coral and intersecting zones of fire. The fire thrown against the U.S. Marines was intense, and within the first hour the first wave had suffered almost total casualties. The amtracs, mobile personnel carriers that could operate on land and water, were in high demand by Americans, but were being destroyed one by one.
Meanwhile, the Japanese had lost their communications, but they were indoctrinated to either fight in place to the death, or commit suicide. With that determination, they fought fiercely against the Americans.
At 6 a.m. on November 21, three marine battalions that were holding a small area of beach around a Betio lagoon were ordered to fire at the Japanese. That was to ease the attacks against the main wave of marines, to hinder the Japanese from slaughtering the men coming in through the water. Nevertheless, only 450 of the 800 men were able to make it to the shore. Those 450 men fought their way inland to the airbase, which they took over and from which they continued to fight.
As the morning tide began to rise, landing craft were able to pass over the reef and bring in many tanks. The tanks rolled onto the beach and fired directly at the pillboxes that had been giving the marines so much hell. By dusk, the Sixth Marine Regiment, after having taken the adjacent islet of Makin, paddled over the reef in rubber boats and landed on the western beach to combine with Major Ryan's battered western lagoon assault battalion. He decided on a major assault against the Japanese.
The next day the major's First Battalion and the Sixth Marines fought hard from the southern shore. They destroyed many of the remaining fortifications and wiped out numerous pillboxes. The main attacks for the remainder of the day were the enemy snipers and the remaining pill boxes that had given them so much trouble the day before.
That night the Japanese troops made one final attack on the Sixth Marines, Company B — a Banzai suicide charge. The marines were able to hold off the attack for a while, but when they radioed for reinforcements, they were told that they would not get them. The brave men were barely able to hold their positions against the charging waves of soldiers.
The counterattack on the night of the 22nd was the last-gasp effort of the Japanese on Betio island. The only men left to fight were scattered Japanese snipers and a few dazed and confused defenders. Finally, the battle ended after more than three days of hellish fighting.
The marines sustained nearly 3,000 casualties. The cost was much higher for the Japanese: Of the 4,700 defenders, only 17 survived. Their willingness to fight to the last man augured the nature of other battles to come.
This page is dedicated to Bill Lewis and the all the other survivors of Tarawa Atoll. It is also dedicated to the memory of all the Marines of the 2nd Division that gave their lives on that tiny island in the Pacific.