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Central Pacific Campaign Pt. 1
Island Fortress Betio
by Tom Sessler

“A million men can not take Tarawa in a hundred years.”-- Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki
Commander of Betio’s 3rd Special Base Defense Force

Editor's Note: This was the winning entry in our Axis & Allies Scenario Contest. Congratulations to Tom Sessler for winning our contest and congratulations to Elindo Castro for his runner-up entry, which will be made into an official scenario as well at a later date.

Background

After securing Guadalcanal in early 1943, U.S. war planners considered their next move. In order to advance on the Japanese home islands, U.S. forces would have to first control the Central Pacific. The atolls of Makin and Tarawa in the Gilbert islands group were selected to be the first step. Seizing these narrow coral islands held a number of advantages. Once taken, the islands could be used as a forward supply base for future operations. U.S. aircraft could then use the Japanese constructed airstrips to reach the next set of islands. And it would also help shorten supply routes to Australia and the South Pacific by denying the Japanese a base from which they could interdict Allied shipping.

While the Army was assigned Makin atoll, the Marines of the 2nd Marine Division were tasked to take Tarawa atoll. A series of landings would be planned, but the main invasion, code named Longsuit, would be directed at Betio Island. It had an airstrip and the main concentration of Japanese defenses in the area. Up to this point in the Pacific War, Marine and Army forces had already conducted several amphibious operations, but they had been largely unopposed or had met light resistance. The Marines were now planning to assault an island that they knew to be heavily defended.

Realizing its’ importance, the Japanese had turned Betio into an island fortress. Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki, commander of the island’s 3rd Special Base Force, had the 6th SNLF (Yokosuka) and 7th SNLF (Sasebo) as a garrison force. In addition, the 111th Construction Unit was brought in to help build up the island’s defenses. Hundreds of large caliber weapons and heavy machineguns were shipped to the island. Many were housed inside pillboxes constructed of coconut logs and covered with sand. A system of bomb proofs and trenches were also built to protect the garrison from bombardment. The island was ringed with off-shore anti-boat obstacles consisting of tetrahedrons, mines and barbed wire. These were designed to divert landing craft into lanes of preset fire. A log seawall was constructed on key beaches as a barrier for vehicles. On the island itself a series of anti-tank ditches were excavated to make movement more difficult for any tanks that did manage to get ashore. Post-war historians would eventually describe Betio as one of the most heavily defended islands of the Pacific War.

Marine planners divided the island into a series of landing beaches code named Red 1,2 & 3 (north side), Black 1 & 2 (south side) and Green (western side). The 2nd and 8th Marines would land on the island’s north side, while the 6th Marines would be held as a reserve force. Additional support would come from the 10th Marines (artillery), the 18th Marines (engineer) and Company C, 1st Corps Tank Battalion (M4A2 Sherman tanks). A pre-invasion air and naval bombardment was designed to occur just before the Marines would go in. Planners had decided against a multi-day sustained bombardment in order to maintain strategic surprise. Instead a raid was to be conducted by B24 Bombers to help soften up the enemy’s defenses. Air support during the landing would be provided by 3 aircraft carriers. (CVs Essex, Bunker Hill and Independence) Naval support would come from several cruisers (CAs and CLs), destroyers (DDs) as well as three battleships. (BBs Tennessee, Maryland and Colorado) The Marines would use their Amtracks from the 2nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion for the initial assault. Then the Navy controlled Higgins Boats would follow up with more troops. A major worry for Marine planners concerned the island’s tides. Low tide was estimated to be anywhere between 3 and 4 feet of water. While the Amtracks could just drive over the reefs, the Higgins Boats would need at least 4 feet of water. Opinions varied, but it was decided that the water level would be deep enough for the boats to pass over the reefs.

Central Pacific Campaign Pt. 1: Island Fortress Betio
During World War Two, the United States conducted dozens of Pacific island assaults. One of the hardest fought invasions was the island of Betio in the atoll of Tarawa. The well prepared Japanese defenders almost succeeded in throwing the US Marines back into the ocean. If not for the grim determination of the individual Marines to hold their ground, the invasion may have ended in a bloody disaster.

Aftermath

D-Day occurred on November 20, 1943. The bomber raid never materialized, but the naval bombardment appeared to be doing a great job of destroying the island’s defenders. At one point, an ammunition dump took a direct hit and sent up a huge column of smoke and dust. As the Marines climbed into their landing boats, many believed that the Japanese defenders had been wiped out.

Some Amtracks did make it to shore with little difficulty, but others sailed right into a hornet’s nest of artillery and machinegun fire. When the Higgins Boats attempted to reach shore, many grounded to a halt on the edge of the coral reef. The water had turned out to be too shallow. Individual Marines then had to wade several hundred yards ashore. Many did not make it. As the day wore on, more and more Amtracks were being destroyed as they attempted to ferry Marines from the Higgins Boats to shore. A series of communication foul ups resulted in misdirected units, orders sent but never received and reserve units waiting off shore but sent in too late. By the end of the first day the Marines held two separate pockets with only a few machineguns and flamethrowers to support them.

But the Marines did get one lucky break, Rear Admiral Shibasaki and his staff were spotted and an artillery strike was called in. The resulting barrage took out most of the top leadership, including Shibasaki. As nightfall came, the Marines braced themselves for a fierce counterattack, but it never came. The leaderless Japanese troops simply held their ground throughout the night. By the next morning enough reinforcements had landed to ensure the Marines could hold their positions. It took a total of 76 hours to secure the entire island at a cost of 1,027 dead, 88 missing and 2,292 wounded Marines. Only 17 Japanese soldiers and 129 Korean laborers survived out of a force estimated to be about 5,000 men.

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