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Roger Payne standing in front of one of the remaining Japanese anti-aircraft guns used against the American allied forces in the Battle of Tarawa.
Photo: Chris Johnson

January 15, 2001
The Battle of Tarawa
  Real Video
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Log Transcript

This is Chris Johnson, speaking to you from the Odyssey. We are currently in Betio harbor, southwest Tarawa, which was the scene of the one of the bloodiest, American landing assaults during the World War II, Pacific campaign. In 1942, The Japanese had arrived here in full strength, digging in and fortifying the island with over 500 bunkers. At the time, Tarawa was the extremity of the Japanese expansion into the South Pacific, a march that had to be repelled at all costs. In November 1943, the US assembled their allied forces totaling 50,000 men around the atoll. Although only 3,800 yards wide, acre for acre, Betio was described as the most formidable fortress in the world. The stage was now set for a fierce and full assault.

The landing was scheduled for Nov 20. 1943. The Americans had planned to land 18,600 Marines, against what intelligence reported to be an estimated force of only 3,000 Japanese troop. However, the U.S. sorely underestimated the Japanese military skill.

Roger Payne describes the assault:

    This is the sight of the famous battle of Tarawa in November of 1943, one of the most important battles in the Pacific theatre. What happened in this battle is that the Japanese had defended most strongly one of the many islands that make up the atoll of Tarawa, this island, the island called Betio and they had done it with these enormous guns. Actually bought from the English almost exactly one hundred years ago. Now what they did also, the Japanese is that they had defended from the open ocean that we see out here using bunkers. These bunkers were lined up along the edge of the shore, we see one right here and the bunkers are all facing the wrong way. What happened is when the war occurred, the attack came in from that side, the reef side using Amtraks. Amtraks are amphibious tracked vehicles, and they were the most successful new method of attacking an island, which had been developed and were used again throughout the Second World War.

This landing area was also heavily defended and divided from west to east into three beaches; named Red beach 1, 2 and 3. A miscalculation of the tide meant that the 75 amphibious landing vehicles called Amtraks became stuck on the reef.

John Brown, Tarawa war historian recounts the landing on Red Beach 1:

    This was one mass of gore, of dead bodies and injured people. Red beach 1 here and Red beach 2 here, Red Beach 3 is the other side of the pier. What happened of course with the new tide was all the Higgins boats got stuck where you can see the tide breaking out there. As they got stuck the Amtraks were moving backwards and forwards, but the Amtraks were being picked off by the 75mm howitzers that were imbedded in the sea wall. Also they had anti coastal battery which was 5-inch shells which were just blowing up the Amtrasks as they were coming ashore from the Higgins. There was hardly any Higgins making it ashore, so the troops were having to wade ashore and they were being shot, the marines had no cover, there was nowhere that they could hide. As the troops had to leave the protection of the Amtraks and walk slowly toward shore, in some cases hundreds of yards, the defenders used every weapon available. Heavy caliber coast defense guns, light and heavy machineguns, mortars and rifles decimated attackers. The defenseless troops were completely exposed and consequently, died by the dozens. Those few who managed to reach the beach were pinned down behind a coconut wall barricade, with more incoming troops piling up behind. Tanks, boats and bodies choked the lagoon until it ran red.

The U.S. was forced to look for a different landing area, and finally an opportunity presented itself. The Japanese had lost all communications during the initial three days of aerial bombardment by the allied forces. So when an assault command of 200 organized men made it ashore on Green Beach to the west, the Japanese had no way to communicate the attack. Betio was cut in 2 by the marines using two tanks and a handful of troops, Green beach was cleared for a full landing. The tide slowly changed as the Japanese realized they were doomed. For these brave troops it was all or nothing, many preferring death over capture. The end was hastened by one final Bonsai charge to the chant of "Japanese drink marines blood", those who would not surrender were buried in their bunkers. 75 hours and 42 minutes since the marines landed, Betio was secured. Many expensive lessons were learned at the Battle of Tarawa, which taught much about armored amphibious vehicles, tides, enemy strongholds and tactical communication. These same mistakes would not be repeated in later battles. The American casualties were 3,301 killed or wounded in action with 4,690 Japanese dying in combat.

Today, after more than 45 years, many relics can still be found all over the island in various states of degradation. Many of the Japanese bunkers display the results of mortar attack, but have been little troubled by the elements. The I-Kiribati seem unphased in their acceptance of these abandoned remnants of war. Some have built there homes on top of bunkers, others have incorporated antiaircraft double barrel guns into their garden landscapes, while rusting tanks and Amtraks have become a playground for the local children.

Log by Genevieve Johnson

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