The Fight for Tarawa: 75th Anniversary of One of the Bloodiest Battles in the Pacific Theater of WWII

The Fight for Tarawa: 75th Anniversary of One of the Bloodiest Battles in the Pacific Theater of WWII

It was photographs and video scenes of American casualties lining the beach that would stun the American people in the aftermath of the Battle of Tarawa. Imagery of significant casualties floating in the surf disturbed the public, setting into motion public protest and angry letters from families mourning loved ones lost in battle.

This was the wake of a series of battles within the American offensive island-hopping campaign, and undoubtedly, one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific war. Tarawa would be the first time in World War II (WWII) that the United States Marine Corps would face noteworthy opposition from the Japanese. In the span of just 76 hours, the Marines suffered casualties similar to that of the Guadalcanal Campaign, which took place over the span of six months.

In November 1943, as fighting raged, Japanese Admiral Keiji Shibasaki, commander of the Japanese forces defending the Gilbert Islands, was confident that his soldiers would make the invasion of Tarawa more difficult than the Americans had anticipated. U.S. military had sights on conquering the Gilbert and Marianas Islands, paving the way for American troops and allies to progress to Japan.

History records Shibasaki’s confidence in his forces as he boasted that it would take the U.S. military “one million men and one hundred years” to conquer Tarawa. Severely outnumbered, his forces waged war against more than 35,000 American troops, both U.S. Marines and soldiers. Close to 18,000 Marines from 2nd Marine Division began the assault of the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll of Gilbert Islands.

Despite these numbers, both sides endured heavy loss. Only 17 of the 4,500 Japanese defenders survived and surrendered. Close to 1,000 Marines were killed in action, as others later died from their wounds. Nearly 2,000 Marines were wounded in action and over one hundred of these Americans troops never repatriated until recent years.

If they were paving the way to Japan, it would be a long road to Tokyo.

Today, Nov. 20, 2018 marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Tarawa, which was part of Operation Galvanic. It marks one of the bloodiest battles of WWII.

Upon arrival, many of the landing craft failed to clear the coral reefs and were forced to try to wade ashore under intense fire. As they were met by enemy fire, only a small number made it to shore. In chest-deep water, those that made it were exhausted, with much of their electrical equipment flooded beyond repair. With resilience and courage, the Marines continued to fight and in 76 hours, not “one hundred years,” the island was declared secure on Nov. 23, 1943.

Despite the sorrow and despair that comes in remembering great loss, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (1st MAW) and 2d MARDIV commemorated the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Tarawa with the people of Tarawa, Kiribati. Marines and Sailors from 1st MAW and 2nd MARDIV, Japanese leaders and the people of Kiribati attended the ceremony. The 75th anniversary ceremony and the repatriation ceremony focused on the courage, service and sacrifice of U.S. service members during the bloody 76-hour Battle of Tarawa.

Through the years, 75 years after a tumultuous past, the U.S. and Japanese forces have forged a close friendship, partnership and alliance that contributes to regional peace and stability. In addition, the ceremony highlighted the friendship and camaraderie between the United States and the people of Tarawa. With strength in U.S. military partnerships since 1943, our Indo-Pacific allies, partners and friends can focus on continued importance of regional security and enduring peace in this region.

Many lessons were learned in the Battle of Tarawa, but more importantly we remain indebted to the heroes of this battle and all of the WWII Pacific Theater veterans. Their service paved the way for a stable post-WWII international order in the region. The 75th commemoration is a tribute to the warriors that represent the resilience and resolve of a generation that endured incredible sacrifices, changing America, Kiribati, Japan and the Gilbert islands forever.

Sgt Grit wants to hear from you! Leave your comments below or submit your own story!

7 comments


  • Thearle Lacey

    My Dad had told us stories about his service in the Pacific area, mentioning/recalling Guadalcanal, Pago Pago (sp). American Samoa, et al. His field rank was corporal when he came home to recover from wounds and disease. While he tried to bring the humor to some of his experiences, you could see that funny or not, all had deep scars both physical and mental. He passed on March 12, 1959 from the effects of his disabilities. The stories he told faded from my memories but one thing did come about. I joined the Corps and graduated from PI on Sept. 27, 1961. The one place he did not talk much about was Tawawa. At that time he said he was a machine gunner. But it was his memories that made me promise him that I was going into the Corps. I still feel he was there with me at boot. I do wish that the “Silent Second” be returned as the logo for the 2nd Marine Division. The Marines accomplished what many believed couldn’t be done in the battle.


  • A. Mac…1/5 ‘53-‘57

    After my discharge in 1957 I was working as a draftsman for an engineering firm. A fellow worker introduced me to an older gentleman who he said was also a Marine, and had served during WWII. At lunch I talked with him and we compared some experiences. He was a radio operator. His platoon was in the third or forth wave at Tawawa. His landing craft hung up on the reef. All he really remembered is being told to: “get off and head to the beach.” Being about 5-7 or 8, with the platoon radio strapped to his back, his rifle, etc., he stepped off and all he remembers was sinking to the bottom and feeling his feet hit the sand. Then being grabbed by his buddies and dragged above the surface. He said he’ll never know how he survived.


  • R M (Dingus)Dinwiddie Sgt 69-75

    My Dad Cpl Arvell Dinwiddie USMC was also on Tarawa,Saipan,Tinian Iwo Jima on the South Pacific Island “Tour”.He was with the 4thMar Div;4th Tank Div and also never talked very much of what they endured:However I do have pictures of when they landed on Iwo Jima and the battle there;I have shared some of them with Jim Barber(author of Sh*tBird,How I Learned to Love The Corps-a 10 star book;)and in return he sent me Sand from the beach of Iwo to go with My Dad’s pictures. Jim went there on the70th anniversity. My Dad joined The Marine Guard in 2016 at age of 90.It’s a shame so many people now days do not know the sacrifices that so many men and women have made to give them the rights and freedom they have today. Semper Fi; Forever and a Day!


  • Jerry DeMaagd LCpl 1958-1961

    New recruits, like me, spending time in casual company in the late 1950’s at MCRD San Diego were shown “gung-ho” flicks, which were actual films from the Pacific Campaign. It was a real eye-opener to what the war in the pacific was like, including Tarawa, Peleliu, and others. In one scene in particular where rocket launchers were firing at the enemy from the beach, the camera suddenly focused skyward–we were told because that’s when the cameraman got hit! Semper Fi brothers.


  • Vince Piquet SSgt. ’79-’90

    This well written article is one of the reasons that whenever someone who has not served speaks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I tend toward letting them know how bad it would have been, had the Allies been required to invade mainland Japan. The battles of Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Huertgen Forrest, The Bulge, and battles throughout the world at that time were fought and won by men and women who just wanted to get home to their families and lives. Bless ’em all. Semper Fi.


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