Tarawa! by T.R.Hart
Tarawa Atoll is located at longitude 173⁰00' East (173 degrees, 00 minutes), latitude 1⁰26’ North within an archipelago (chain of islands) known as the Gilbert Islands. They were named for Thomas Gilbert, a British Merchant, who was the first European to describe Tarawa. On June 20, 1788, he arrived at the lagoon which christened Charlotte Bay in honor of his ship, and the Island was named Matthew Island in honor of the owner of his ship. Arnold (Lloyd) Gladson, a young marine aboard the amphibious boat heading to Tarawa on November 20th, 1943, like most of his comrades had never even heard the word "Tarawa", but they knew what to expect when they landed on its beaches.
“Lloyd” was barely out of High School when America was attacked by Japanese planes at Pearl Harbor on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. The United States was quickly embroiled in a two "Theater" war. The European Theater would be fought against the military regimes of Germany and Italy. The Pacific Theater would be fought against the Japanese Empire. Britain and Russia were allied with the Americans is a desperate struggle to overcome the global ambitions of the "Axis" powers.
The Island was heavily defended by Japanese forces entrenched on the Island. Gladson could feel his heart racing as they approached. His throat was tightening. Of course he was afraid to be wounded or even killed, but his greatest fear was: "How will I react in a combat situation?" Would he perform his duties as a U.S. Marine admirably, or would he be a coward?
This was to be the first amphibious island assault known as "Operation Galvanic". Would it be successful? Japan had been victorious on land, but its navy had suffered a decisive blow at the Battle of Midway a year earlier. Now, Japan's ability to supply its troops inhabiting the Island perimeters of the Japanese Empire was threatened. The U.S. combined force strategy was a two pronged systematic attack of the Islands in a "Leap Frog" fashion. Some of them would be invaded, others isolated and cut off from supplies. The young marines had no understanding of "island hopping" strategies. They were ordered to take the island. First they would have to hit the beach, ominously known as "Red Beach" for the blood that would be spilled on it.
Day One – November 20, 1943
The amphibious landing craft were now lining up to hit Red Beach 2 on Betio Island, Tarawa. Gladson began to scribble down notes of his observations. "Men, too anxious to sleep the night before were slumped on their rifles dozing to the drone of the motor and lapping of the waves against the sides of the boat. Suddenly, a shell exploded about 50 yards behind us creating a large pillar of water rising up into the air. I never had time to duck." He was thinking: “that could have been us."
The boats quickly spread out and toward the beach. The Destroyers let out a barrage of fire to "soften up" the enemy positions. Warplanes from the aircraft carriers zoomed overhead and began strafing the beach. "Surely", they thought," who could survive that!" The men cheered thinking that this would be an easy victory but the worst was yet to come.
Exactly six minutes before the scheduled landing, the young marine gets his nerve up and sticks his head out of the boat to take a look. What he sees rattles him. "The boat in front is hit" we writes, "the sides of the boat just fall apart...some killed men are floating in the water while the others are drowning trying to swim to safety while being pulled under by all their heavy gear." Shells start to burst above their heads. Red hot fragments litter the floor of the boat. One hit the coxswain's helmet. He's okay but shaken up. Other boats are on fire, some are damaged and out of control, or sinking. These boys aged 18 or 19 who should have been playing baseball or taking their sweethearts to get a milkshake are now dead men.
No one anticipated the low tide. The boats got stuck on the coral reefs. The men got out and pushed for their lives to get the boats off of them. Japanese machine guns were firing on them. Most were lucky to be behind the boats, other men waded into the waist high water towards the shore. They were like sitting ducks falling face forward into the waves. The blood was turning the beaches red, but they kept coming.
On the Beach
There was heavy machine gun fire hitting the men upon landing. Corporal Long gave the order to move in one by one. Miraculously no one was hit in the gunner’s crew despite having to stop ever 20 yards due to the machine guns ferocity. The men still had about 75 yards to go to get off of the beach, Gladson felt his legs cramping under his heavy load. No amount of conditioning could have stopped the reaction his body felt under these extreme circumstances. His nerves were shaken. He rolled over into a ditch to avoid being hit. The guys in back of him were not so lucky. He “bummed” a cigarette from Fletcher, who lay next to him, but couldn’t light it as his hands were shaking. Within seconds they were running to take cover behind a blockhouse “neutralized” by the first wave of marines who landed before them. Realizing that they had been separated from their squad, Charlie, the third man in their little group, sneaked away under sniper fire to find the Major. Somehow Charlie got back to them with the message that they should make their way to the main beach crossing the lagoon, leaving the heavy gun behind.. One by one again they made their way through the water, but not before Gladson fell face first in that “stinking water”.
They finally made their way to the command post. Their relief had turned to disbelief as they were given a gun and told that they were now part of the infantry. The rest of the day was a nightmare. The soldiers werefighting off suicidal attacks from the Japanese garrison. There was a heavy toll on human life on both sides that day. Gladson remarked the rest of the day was a “blur” to him.
Day 2 - November 21, 1943
Gladson awoke the next morning in a foxhole after a brutal day of fighting. There were wounded men everywhere. “Bongi” the gun crew chief that he had been friendly with met up with Gladson and his men. He appeared dazed and confused. His crew had been transporting the heavy gun across an airstrip when they were attacked. Bongi’s men were all killed. He was the sole survivor.
Japanese snipers were picking off Americans at an alarming rate. Despite the success of the American’s offensive and the annihilation of the main force of Japanese troops, pockets of resistance were still holding the rear guard protected by the snipers. A long, lanky soldier from Texas that the men called “the Kid” took it upon himself to deal with the “sniper problem”. Stealthfully moving through the enemy lines, he managed to "take out" six snipers who had been successfully killing the advancing Marines. Dirt plumes rose from bullets hitting the ground around him. The "Kid” slithered back on his belly daring the Japanese to hit him. He returned to cheers from the men. The “Sniper problem” had been solved. No one ever knew “the Kid’s” name or whatever became of him, but no one forgot what he did that day.
Day 3 - November 22, 1943
“Our gun crew had been relieved of infantry duty, much to our relief”, wrote Gladson on last day of fighting on Tarawa. “We were sent back to the beach to set up the heavy gun that we left on the beach… we were to “cover” the next wave of soldiers who would be coming in on the next wave. Then we were ordered to help bury the dead which was horrible duty…we were relieved only by the knowledge that our missing lieutenant was not among them. The men began carrying ammunition to the trucks to supply the front line when two of his crew, Joe and Swede, were hit by either fragments of an exploding shell or sniper fire. They were quickly brought back to the beach, loaded on a boat and then transported to a waiting hospital ship. Both men survived.
As evening approached the men were overjoyed to see their lieutenant stepping into the chow line after fighting on the front lines for two days. Japanese troops had been told to fight to the last man. Wave upon wave of ‘banzai” attacks were launched against the Americans. They had been mowed down like fields of wheat. Their bravery was no match for overwhelming forces and enormous firepower. Arrogant Japanese officers had underestimated America’s resolve to fight and they had wasted the lives of their young men in these desperate attempts at victory. ”The Japanese commander had bragged that the Island would take years to be taken. It took only three days but not without many killed and wounded.
It was estimated that one of every three marines who landed on Tarawa beach were killed. Every second man was wounded. The battle lasted only 76 hours from 9:10 AM November 20th to 1:30 PM on November 23rd 1943. The American forces lost 894 men killed in action, and 2,086 wounded. The Toll was much higher for the Japanese garrison. They had lost a total of 3,636 men in the fighting. They had resolved to die for their emperor according to the “Bushido Code” of the Samurai. Only 1 officer and 16 men, realizing the futility of dying, surrendered. Sadly, only 129 of the 12,000 Korean laborers forced to construct the defenses for their Japanese masters survived.
There has been controversy surrounding the decision to engage the enemy at Tarawa. There was much public outcry when they learned of the heavy toll on American troops to secure a tiny Island just 10 ft. in elevation, 12 miles long, and only 800 yds. at its widest point. The death toll at Saipan, Iwo, and Okinawa would ultimately dwarf the loss of life at Tarawa.
Today Tarawa is now known as the Capital of Republic of Kiribati. Its large lagoon and reef, formerly abundant with fish and shellfish, is now endangered due to the population explosion on the Islands which number approximately 50 thousand residents. There is little rainfall, but enough to maintain breadfruit, papaya and banana trees as well as coconut and pandunas, a fibrous fruit resembling pineapple which is cooked, eaten raw, or used as dental floss. Causeways connect the islands, but during low tide they can be traversed on foot.
Although he was unaware of it at the time, Lloyd Gladson was shipped out on November 24th back to Hawaii where he would remain until the end of the war. He was one of the lucky ones who never fought again - he survived! “Lloyd”, as he preferred to be known as, returned to the United States after the war, married, raised a family and became a grandfather of the ‘greatest generation”. He living to a ripe old age until his death on May 3, 1999. He never forgot what he had witnessed, nor did he forget the boys who died in the battle. Many of the survivors would go on to fight at Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. A few lived long enough to reach Japan and become part of the occupying forces. He thought about what would have become of the young men who died in the battle. What if they had lived to enjoy the love of their families? How many would become professionals and of those who were the “dreamers”? He could not think about them without wiping a tear from his eye. Until his last day he saluted his fallen friends with the Marine Corps motto: “Semper Fi!”