Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Best on Betio

The Japanese commander of the force holding the tiny atoll boasted that it would take "a million men a hundred years" to wrest control of the island from him and his well-fortified troops.

Sixty-five years ago today, after only 76 hours of fighting, the Second Marine Division declared the primary island of Betio in the South Pacific Tarawa atoll "secured" and firmly in the hands of American forces beginning their island-hopping counterattack against the Empire of Japan. The cost was very high--nearly seventeen hundred Marines and sailors died in the initial landings and during the ferocious fighting over the next three days. In retrospect, many considered the assault on Tarawa unworthy of the high cost in men. In his post war memoirs, the commander of Marine forces in the Pacific, General Holland M. "Howling Mad" Smith, denounced the Joint Chiefs' decision to seize the island, claiming that we could have "let it wither on the vine" isolating it and its formidable defenses from other US-held Pacific positions and with carrier airpower.

But, the assault on Tarawa provided a treasure trove of lessons regarding the conduct of modern amphibious warfare, the doctrine and equipment for which had only been in development for less than two decades. Tarawa demonstrated the need for detailed intelligence regarding the near-shore waters (obstacles, beach gradient, tides, etc...) of the amphibious objective. Many of the casualties in the initial assault on Tarawa had occurred when unexpected low tides had prevented landing craft from crossing the reef protecting the beach--hundreds of Marines died wading the several hundred yards from reef to beach through murderous Japanese artillery and machine gun fire. Tarawa demonstrated the ineffectiveness of naval gunfire and aerial bombardment against well-fortified and deeply buried defensive positions. Perhaps most of all, Tarawa, and the assaults on other highly fortified Japanese-held islands (Guam, Peliliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, et al.) gave US operational planners a blood-chilling glimpse at the probable cost of the landings on the Japanese home islands projected for the winter of 1945/46.

Sixty-five years ago, today, the men of the Second Marine Division stood the bloodied and exhausted victors of a fight that showed Japan that they were not the planet's only repository of fighting spirit.
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