Friday, November 20, 2009

Bloody Betio

It was an unnecessary battle that had to be fought, in a necessary war that needn't have been. The vengeful victors of the Great War imposed a punishing treaty on Germany in 1919 and one of the punishments was to strip Germany of its colonial possessions in the Pacific. Japan filled the colonial vacuum and occupied islands and atolls across the western Central Pacific. One of these was Betio in the Tarawa Atoll. In the run-up to its war with America, Japan began to heavily fortify its ring of protective islands and Betio was such a bulwark in this maritime Maginot Line that the Japanese commander boasted that it would take a "million men a thousand years" to wrest the speck of coral from him.

Thirty-five thousand Americans, the Second Marine Division and elements of the Army's 27th Division, commenced their assault on Betio sixty-six years ago this morning and took just 76 hours to secure the island. The cost was horrific. A thousand Marines died at Tarawa. Nearly 700 US sailors died ferrying the Marines ashore. Of the Japanese garrison, only 100 were taken prisoner.

After the war, the commander of the invasion force, Lt Gen Holland M "Howling Mad" Smith, wrote the following about the battle in his controversial memoir "Coral and Brass":

"Was Tarawa worth it?" "My answer is unqualified: No. From the very beginning the decision of the Joint Chiefs to seize Tarawa was a mistake and from their initial mistake grew the terrible drama of errors, errors of omission rather than commission, resulting in these needless casualties." [We] should have let Tarawa 'wither on the vine.' We could have kept it neutralized from our bases on Baker Island, to the east, and the Ellice and Phoenix Islands, a short distance to the southeast."

The assault on Tarawa was the first truly opposed landing by American forces on Japanese held territory. A year earlier, at Guadalcanal, the First Marine Division had caught the Japanese by surprise and landed unopposed to seize the airfield on that vital island astride the sea line of communication north of Australia. If the ensuing series of bitter battles on that island spelled the end of Japan's march south in the Pacific, the taking of the Tarawa Atoll signalled the beginning of America's march westward across the Pacific to bring the war to Japan. While Tarawa may not have been strategically important from a location standpoint (Smith's point above), the assault itself provided enormously important tactical and operational lessons that paved the way for successful amphibious assaults against fortified defenses in both the Pacific and European Theaters over the remaining two years of the war.

The Colonel joined the Second Marine Division in January of 1979, thirty-five years after the blood-bath on the beaches of Betio. As I sat in the passageway outside the office of the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Marine Regiment, waiting on my opporturnity to report in to my first operational assignment as a Marine, I had time to scan the paintings, plaques, and pictures on the bulkheads. Opposite me was a painting of Marines wading ashore at Tarawa. I was overwhelmed, and am still awe-struck, by the bravery of those men who waded into the meat-grinder on the beaches of Betio.
Throughout my time on active duty as a Marine, the thought was never far from my mind that, as General Lejeune wrote in 1921, before the heroics and sacrifices of the Second World War, "In every battle and skirmish since the birth of our Corps, Marines have acquitted themselves with the greatest distinction, winning new honors on each occasion until the term Marine has come to signify all that is highest in military efficiency and soldierly virtue. This high name of distinction and soldierly repute we who are Marines today have received from those who preceded us in the Corps."

Not many of the survivors of the battle for Tarawa are still with us. And, true to the virtue of their generation, they would disdain any recognition on this day. All the more reason to give it.

Thank you, gentlemen.
Post a Comment