Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's speech honoring the dead who gave "the last full measure of devotion" fighting to preserve the Union at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Today is the 70th anniversary of the start of a 76-hour battle in which 1,000 Americans gave their last full measure of devotion; a battle on a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean which, while ultimately achieving its goal, did so at a price that shocked the US Navy, the Marine Corps and the American public.

Last week some 2,000 or 3,000 United States Marines, most of them now dead or wounded, gave the nation a name to stand beside those of Concord Bridge, the Bon Homme Richard, the Alamo, Little Big Horn and Belleau Wood. The name was "Tarawa." (Time Magazine, December 6, 1943)

In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Imperial Army and Navy seized islands across the central Pacific to create a fortified barrier against any counterattack by the United States.  Since the end of World War One, Japan had already controlled the Marianas Islands under a League of Nation Mandates.  They quickly moved to capture the Philippines to the west, the Solomons and New Guinea to the south and the Marshall and Gilbert Islands to the east.

The Japanese offensive ground to a halt in the summer and fall of 1942 with the defeat of its carrier fleet at the Battle of Midway in June (and despite its capture of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian Islands off of Alaska), the failure of its plan to capture Port Moresby on the south coast of New Guinea when the US Navy suffered a tactical loss but strategic victory at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May and then with the Marine landings on Guadalcanal in August, initiating a land/sea campaign that lasted until February 1943 when the Japanese withdrew the survivors of its garrison.

U.S. war planning had always focused on a central Pacific offensive designed to defeat the Japanese navy and seize its strongholds in the Marianas as the key to achieving a decisive victory in the war.  Military doctrine required both sea and land-based aviation in order to support this offensive.  With the Gilbert Islands serving as both a shield to the Marianas and with aviation fields within flying range of those islands, the U.S. Navy determined it was necessary to first capture the Gilberts and, in particular, Tarawa Atoll, which included the island of Betio with its landing strip.

Betio, the largest island of Tarawa Atoll, is about two miles long, 800 yards wide at its broadest with a highest elevation of only 10 feet above sea level, located on the equator about 2,400 miles southwest of Honolulu.

The Japanese knew the Americans were coming and spent 15 months fortifying Betio and placing a 4,800 man garrison (about 2,600 soldiers, a 1,000 strong Japanese construction battalion and 1,200 Korean slave laborers).  As described in an article in the Marine Corps Gazette:

Concrete and steel tetrahedrons, minefields, and long strings of double-apron barbed wire protected beach approaches. The Japanese also built a barrier wall of logs and coral around much of the island. Tank traps protected heavily fortified command bunkers and firing positions inland from the beach. And everywhere there were pillboxes, nearly 500 of them, most fully covered by logs, steel plates and sand. 

The island's geography and hydrography favored the defense. Betio was flat-machinegunners could cover the perimeter with simple traverse-and a barrier reef blocked boat intrusions at low tides. The Japanese placed mines, concrete tetrahedrons, and double-apron barbed wire offshore; surrounded most of the island itself with a log and coral seawall then built integrated systems of mutually supporting gun positions just beyond (and often within) the seawall (see p.64). In the end, there were 500 pill-boxes and bunkers on the island, most protected by layers of coconut logs, steel plates, and sand. - See more at:
The flat terrain meant that the entire island could be covered by interlocking fields of fire from the Japanese machine guns.  And all of this in an area smaller than New York's Central Park.
Battle of Tarawa: The Marines Assault Betio, 20th November 1943 . (From History Of War.Org)
This was to be the first amphibious landing against opposition in the Pacific campaign (at places like Guadalcanal, the Japanese had faded away into the jungle upon the American landings and from there launched counterattacks).  The landing force was to be the 2nd Marine Division which had fought at Guadalcanal.  Because of the battle casualties plus the large number of marines who caught malaria during that campaign only about half of Marines in the division that would land on Tarawa had been at Guadalcanal.

Two issues dominated the planning.  One was the length of the naval bombardment before the landing.  Because the Navy feared a sortie by the Japanese fleet the plan was to spend the minimum amount of time for the bombardment which was limited to three hours, a decision that upset the Marines.    

The second was how to get the Marines from the ships to the beach.  Tarawa, including Betio, is an atoll surrounded by a coral reef several hundred yards from the island.  Any attacker needed to be able to get over the reef and into the shallow lagoon in order to land.  This required landing on a high tide, which was normally five feet above the reef, because most of the American landing craft had a draft of four feet.  

The Navy bombardment by sea and air began on the morning of November 20, 1943.   Despite its abbreviated nature many of Naval planners expected it to be decisive.  According to one account, an admiral boasted:

We do not intend to neutralize [the island], we do not intend to destroy it, Gentlemen, we will obliterate it.
 For the watching Marines it was an awesome sight and many expected resistance to be minimal.  According to the same account:

Staff Sergeant Norman Hatch, a combat photographer, thought to himself, "we just really didn't see how we could do [anything] but go in there and bury the people . . . this wasn't going to be a fight." Time correspondent Robert Sherrod thought, "surely, no mortal men could live through such destroying power . . . any Japs on the island would all be dead by now."
But the bombardment was ineffective against the well-entrenched and protected Japanese defenses. 

Then came the problem with the tides.  What the planners were unaware of was that twice a month there were unusual high tide conditions at Betio that left only three feet of water over the reef and it turned out that the invasion had been scheduled during one of these periods.  With many of the landing craft left stranded on the wrong side of the reef, Marines had to disembark and struggle on foot across the shallow lagoon under heavy rifle, machine gun, mortar and artillery fire with many being killed or wounded.  Those who made it to the beach were pinned down against the log seawall. It took six hours before the Marines were able to advance off the beach. The Americans had a bit of luck during that first afternoon when the Japanese commander and his entire staff were killed by a naval artillery shell while moving in the open between command posts.  While we were unaware of this event, it disrupted the Japanese chain of command and left each unit on its own for the rest of the battle.

The next two days were a gruesome and slow process of eliminating the enemy strongpoints.  The Japanese refused to surrender requiring each pillbox to be reduced at a heavy cost requiring the first large scale deployment of flame-throwers by American forces. The severity of the fighting led to four Marines receiving the Medal of Honor, three of them posthumously.  One of these was 1st Lt. Sandy Bonnyman.  His relentless determination and that of those who fought with him was replicated across Betio on those three days.

Alexander "Sandy" Bonnyman was born in 1910.  His father owned a coal company and Sandy graduated from Princeton in 1932.  When the war started he was 31 and exempt from the draft with a wife and three young daughters but in July 1942 enlisted as a private in the Marines.  Joining the 2nd Marine Division he served on Guadalcanal, seeing combat and becoming a corporal and then receiving a field promotion to 2nd Lieutenant.  In September 1943, Bonnyman became a 1st Lieutenant and was appointed Executive Officer of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines' Shore Party for the Tarawa attack.

Sandy Bonnyman's Medal of Honor Citation tells of his actions during the battle when he led the attack on the largest fortified strongpoint on the island:

Acting on his own initiative when assault troops were pinned down at the far end of Betio Pier by the overwhelming fire of Japanese shore batteries, 1st Lt. Bonnyman repeatedly defied the blasting fury of the enemy bombardment to organize and lead the besieged men over the long, open pier to the beach and then, voluntarily obtaining flame throwers and demolitions, organized his pioneer shore party into assault demolitionists and directed the blowing of several hostile installations before the close of D-day. 

Determined to effect an opening in the enemy's strongly organized defense line the following day, he voluntarily crawled approximately 40 yards forward of our lines and placed demolitions in the entrance of a large Japanese emplacement as the initial move in his planned attack against the heavily garrisoned, bombproof installation which was stubbornly resisting despite the destruction early in the action of a large number of Japanese who had been inflicting heavy casualties on our forces and holding up our advance.

Withdrawing only to replenish his ammunition, he led his men in a renewed assault, fearlessly exposing himself to the merciless slash of hostile fire as he stormed the formidable bastion, directed the placement of demolition charges in both entrances and seized the top of the bombproof position, flushing more than 100 of the enemy who were instantly cut down, and effecting the annihilation of approximately 150 troops inside the emplacement. Assailed by additional Japanese after he had gained his objective, he made a heroic stand on the edge of the structure, defending his strategic position with indomitable determination in the face of the desperate charge and killing 3 of the enemy before he fell, mortally wounded.

By his dauntless fighting spirit, unrelenting aggressiveness and forceful leadership throughout 3 days of unremitting, violent battle, 1st Lt. Bonnyman had inspired his men to heroic effort, enabling them to beat off the counterattack and break the back of hostile resistance in that sector for an immediate gain of 400 yards with no further casualties to our forces in this zone. 

He gallantly gave his life for his country.
AlexanderBonnymanBW (Sandy Bonnyman)
Sandy Bonnyman was also the first and, to this day, the only Medal of Honor recipient to be photographed during the action for which he received the medal.  The photo below shows the emplacement being stormed by the Marines led by Bonnyman who is standing at the center right, silhouetted by the smoke, on top of the bunker; he is the Marine furthest advanced in the picture.

Marines storm Tarawa. Gilbert Islands." WO Obie Newcomb, Jr., November 1943.
The photo was taken by Corporal Obie Newcomb, a Marine Corps photographer who, according to an article by Joseph M Horodyski in WWII History Magazine, "quickly realized he was in the presence of someone unusual and decided to follow the lieutenant's assault with his camera".

Bonnyman led an improvised team of 21 Marines in the assault, eight of whom died along with Bonnyman.  One member of that team was Corporal Harry Niehoff, who is quoted by Horodyski in his account.  Niehoff said of Bonnyman, whom he did not know prior to November 21, "He just showed up.  Until that time we were being held up with no gain to show for it".   Late that afternoon, Bonnyman led an unsuccessful assault on the Japanese bunker and then spent the evening planning how to renew the attack the following morning.  Niehoff was next to Bonnyman when he died.

Obie Newcomb, in a letter to Bonnyman's family, wrote:

He didn't have to go up to take that blockhouse but there was no stopping him.  It was a perfect hell hole and the boys needed a little urging when things started to break.  I can still see him waving the boys up over that blockhouse and hear his southern voice urging them on.
Bonnyman was buried on Betio and the exact location of his body remains unknown (you can see a 2009 CNN story about the search of his grandson for his remains).

Tarawa was declared secure at 1330 on November 23.  One thousand Marines were dead and another 2,100 wounded (about 25% of those who landed on Betio).  Of the 3,600 Japanese only 17 wounded survivors were captured; all the rest were killed.  129 of the 1,200 Korean laborers survived.

Although some other earlier American campaigns in the war had higher casualties they had been incurred over much longer time periods; 3,000 dead and wounded in just three days was a shock to the public and caused an uproar at home.  In fact, Time's edition of January 17, 1944 mentions that "Navy spokesmen last week tried to correct the impression at home that Tarawa's cost had been too high".  To give some perspective on why this reaction occurred in late 1943 when we had been at war for almost two years remember that America was in WWII for 44 months but more than 70% of U.S. combat casualties occurred in the 13 months from May 1944 through May 1945.  The worst was yet to come.

The subject of American casualties remained sensitive enough that it required President Roosevelt's personal approval to show dead American soldiers in a documentary released in March 1944, With the Marines at Tarawa, which won an Academy Award in 1945.   The documentary, which you can watch below, shows the dead Marines at about 15 minutes into its 20 minute running length.  Also, at about 9:25 I believe it shows the bunker attacked by Sandy Bonnyman and at 8:40 you can see the first footage of the war showing both American and Japanese soldiers in combat in the same frame. Much of the footage was taken by Norman Hatch, a Marine Corps camerman.  You can see Hatch interviewed on his experience at Tarawa here.

Ten weeks after the fall of Tarawa and the Gilbert Islands, American forces seized the Marshall Islands and then, in July 1944, the Marianas.  While many lessons were learned and improved techniques employed in future landings, Tarawa was also an accurate predictor of the terrible toll that would be taken on American forces at Kwajalein, Saipan, Guam, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and other islands as the advance continued across the Central Pacific.


  1. Replies
    1. You are welcome. It is important we not forget.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  3. There are almost 500 brave heroes who remain missing from the Battle of Tarawa. The families of over 83,000 brave American heroes who remain missing from all our conflicts dating back to WWII should know that many are working to locate, recover, and help identify our lost heroes to achieve the closure for the families that they deserve.

    The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) was finally disbanded after an avalanche of scandals were exposed by NBC, CBS, Fox News, NPR, the AP, and Stars and Stripes. Multiple government investigations then found gross mismanagement and a total lack of leadership. The American public and families of our lost heroes channeled their anger, frustration, humiliation, and feelings of betrayal to demand the immediate removal of those responsible for what the the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, testified was “Disgraceful”.

    A “new” Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) was created to replace the scandal plagued JPAC. Sadly, the government’s idea of the massive reform necessary was a superficial name change of the organization and re-shuffling the same poor executives and laboratory managers to new desks and titles in a brand new $85 million dollar building in Hawaii. Before quitting in less than a year, the new director of DPAA discovered that the DPAA lab was just as inept in a new building as they were in the previous facility and DPAA began depending on the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Delaware for identifications.

    In 2015, the DPAA lab produced a grand total of 70 identifications at a gross cost of almost $2 million per identification! This was a whooping one more identification than JPAC’s proven dysfunctional system produced the previous year! Five identifications in 2015 were from remains discovered by a private group at a construction site . Another identification was the result of a family filing a Federal lawsuit to force DPAA’s management to act after JPAC’s own investigation matched the missing serviceman’s identity with a precise burial location! But half of the 70 identifications were from remains turned over by North Korea in 1991 that had been sitting on the JPAC/DPAA Laboratory shelves for 24 YEARS! Disgraceful!

    Due to antiquated methods and dysfunctional management there is a backlog of over 1,400 sets of remains of American service men and women sitting in cardboard boxes at DPAA awaiting identification right now. The AVERAGE time for identification after remains are received in the DPAA/JPAC laboratory is ELEVEN YEARS! Disgraceful!

    The same group of serial offenders responsible for this ineptitude that brought us multiple outrageous scandals including phony “arrival home” ceremonies and multiple investigations into fraud, waste and abuse of government funds remain in the “new” DPAA. The JPAC Scientific Director was reassigned to be in charge of “partnering with private groups”. Does this mean that he hands out government contracts for work that DPAA should be doing? Disgraceful!

    Meanwhile the JPAC/DPAA management mantra of “Delay, Deny, and wait for the families to Die” continues. The current response time for basic information to families and researchers under the Freedom of Information Act is over ONE YEAR! Federal law requires this information to be provided within 20 days, which DPAA routinely violates without consequences. Disgraceful!

    Anyone with any management experience knows that the entire operation that was JPAC should have been deconstructed, brick by brick. Such needed massive reform simply did not happen. Just when families of our missing servicemen and women thought things could not get worse, it did. The same infectious disease of JPAC arrogance and lies to the families of American heroes took root all over again at DPAA. This incredibly dysfunctional organization continues and has been added to the VA Hospital, Dover Mortuary, Arlington Cemetery, and the Viet Nam Unknown misidentification debacles. Disgraceful!