If you were never in the Marine Corps and you aren’t a history buff, then it is likely that you’ve never heard of the Tarawa Atoll. The atoll, nestled in the central Pacific Ocean, is the Republic of Kiribati’s capital. Tarawa has a large lagoon, a ship pass that spans 193 square miles (Tarawa actually means “passage”), and is home to a wide reef. Yet, despite its idyllic location and very small size of less than 12 square miles, in World War II the atoll became the setting of the Battle of Tarawa, one of the bloodiest and most ferocious battles in the history of the U.S. Marines.

The Tarawa Atoll was a key strategic stronghold in the Pacific. Tarawa’s location served as a stepping stone to the Marshall Islands, which would then allow one access to the Mariana island chain. In turn, controlling the Mariana islands would place continental Japan within range of U.S. bombers.


Operation Galvanic

The Marine Corps mission to capture Tarawa was codenamed Operation Galvanic, and the official target was Betio, a small island nestled within the Tarawa Atoll. The mission was just a part of the Marine Corps’ objective of taking multiple independent islands in the central Pacific, which would prevent the Japanese from controlling important shipping lanes, ports and airport runways.

However, the Japanese had fortified the atoll to the point that their leaders believed it could not be overtaken by any outside force.

This was the scene on Betio Island in November 1943. Dead bodies and wrecked amphibious tractors litter the battlefield. (AP)

Japanese Admiral Keiji Shibasaki, the man responsible for securing Tarawa against outside attack, reportedly said that the U.S. couldn’t take Tarawa with a million men in 100 years. Admiral Shibasaki’s confidence rested on Tarawa’s bunker system, airstrip, and its numerous concrete pillboxes, as well as on the Japanese machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, and tanks.

Additionally, the atoll’s geography meant that the Japanese could push any invader into a fatal funnel, while its natural barriers, like its coral reef, further bolstered the Japanese admiral’s confidence. His force consisted of 4,500 heavily-armed Japanese soldiers.

Despite the significant Japanese fortifications, most American leaders believed that Tarawa would be a fairly easy mission for the roughly 18,000-strong Marine force.