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.

However, that would be far from reality.

 

Not a Picture-Perfect Mission

On November 20, 1943, the Battle of Tarawa started. From the get-go, however, the Marines encountered numerous problems.

For one, a lack of advanced consideration by the Marines regarding the local tidal shifts caused them to land during low tide, thereby resulting in many of their landing crafts becoming stuck.

Because they could continue no further in their landing craft, the Marines were forced to exit their boats and wade to shore. Yet, the low tide and numerous corals quickly bogged the Marines down in thick silt making their wading even more laborious. The Japanese had also placed barbed wire and mines along the coral reef, which further hindered the Marines trying to reach dry land.

Marines man an artillery position on Tarawa in November 1943. The helmet of the Marine in the center standing behind the field gun was pierced by a Japanese bullet, but he was unharmed. (USMC)

Some Marines drowned attempting to exit the boats while wearing heavy gear, not expecting the toll the weight would have on their ability to swim or even stay afloat. Others, perhaps, simply weren’t strong swimmers and were simply unable to make the journey to shore.

While the Marines were having issues just getting to the beach, the Japanese began their attack from their various positions. Marines bogged down in the low tide and slowed by the coral reefs were easy targets.

Remains of 13 more World War II Marines found on Pacific atoll

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The combat at Tarawa was up-close and personal with the men of each side being close enough to the other to smell the stench of fear on the enemy, if it existed.

In addition to machine guns and fortified bunkers, grenades were a key part of the battle for both sides who would lob them into each others’ “safe” zones.

As with every battle, though, certain men always rise to the occasion and have the fortitude to perform incredible tasks. The story of Marine Corporal John Spillane is no different.

 

An Unlikely Place for Baseball

Marines Battle of Tarawa throw grenade
A U.S. Marine throws a grenade at a Japanese pillbox on Tarawa. (USMC)

A young Marine Corporal named John Spillane found himself neck-deep in the Tarawa Atoll in November 1943. Just months earlier, Spillane had been a professional baseball prospect for the St. Louis Cardinals. Baseball was on hold for Spillane for the moment, though, at least… that’s what he thought.

It was reported that during a heavy firefight, Spillane caught two Japanese grenades barehanded and then threw them back at the Japanese position. Spillane’s seeming good luck, however, would soon run out because as he caught a third grenade to return it to sender, it exploded in his hand, inflicting multiple severe wounds.

Spillane was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroic actions that day. His Navy Cross citation reads,

“The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Corporal John J. Spillane (MCSN: 311385), United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty while serving as Crew Chief of an Amphibian Tractor of Company A, SECOND Amphibian Tractor Battalion, SECOND Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces at Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert islands, on 20 November 1943. When several enemy grenades were thrown into the troop-filled cargo compartment of his tractor during the initial assault, Corporal Spillane unhesitatingly, and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, began throwing the grenades out of the vehicle, successfully disposing of two before the third exploded in his hand and inflicted severe, multiple wounds. Corporal Spillane’s splendid initiative, fearless action and self-sacrificing devotion to duty in the face of grave peril undoubtedly saved the lives of his companions and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

A brilliant photo tour of the Battle of Tarawa by Business Insider tells the harrowing story of Spillane.

 

A Deadly Three Days

After a bloody three-day battle, the Marines were able to overtake and secure Tarawa. The battle wasn’t without significant American loss, though.

Of the 18,000 Marines who stormed Tarawa, roughly 1,000 lost their lives and 2,000 more were injured. To put it all in perspective, as the History Channel points out, during the Battle at Tarawa the Marines suffered nearly the same percentage of dead in those three days as they did in the six-month campaign at Guadalcanal Island. That shows the utter magnitude and ferociousness of the Battle of Tarawa.

Preferring death (even if self-inflicted) to surrender, these Japanese soldiers killed themselves in their dugout on Tarawa. (USMC)

Marine 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman, 1st Lt. William Hawkins, and SSgt. James Bordelon were awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. Marine Corps General David Shoup, the 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps, who survived the battle, was also awarded the Medal of Honor. Following his career in the Marine Corps, Shoup had a unique post-Marine Corps life until his eventual passing in 1983 at the age of 79.

Many other Marines also received awards and medals.

One major factor in the Battle of Tarawa, and in many other Pacific engagements, was the different mindsets between the American and Japanese troops. The Americans were there to kill the Japanese soldiers, overtake the island, and return home. The Japanese, however, were there to fight to the death. The Japanese troops on the island had no allusions that they would beat the Marines and then move on with their lives. They knew Tarawa would most likely be their final resting place, and they were good with that. I can’t say anything nice about the Japanese trying to kill Marines, but I can at least appreciate their commitment to their cause.

 

The Marine Corps Learns and Adapts

The lessons the Marine Corps learned during this brief but bloody battle were significant to the branch’s future training and success in battle.

Japanese prisoner Battle of Tarawa
Two U.S. Marines bringing in one of the few Japanese prisoners taken on Tarawa. (AP Photo)

Firstly, the Marine Corps learned that reconnaissance was of paramount importance. Had the Marines known the depth and defenses of the waters off of Tarawa and the tide patterns they could have saved many American lives.

Secondly, Marine Corps training hadn’t placed much focus on water competency before the battle. This resulted in a high number of Marines drowning while trying to reach the shore.

Now, the Marine Corps incorporates a good deal of water training into its regime. When I was in boot camp (and even following boot camp), we practiced jumping off of a diving platform wearing full camouflage utilities (including a kevlar helmet) and holding an M-16. We also wore a pack that weighed approximately 50-75 pounds on our backs to simulate a real-world scenario. I can assure you if you’ve never done that, it sucks… and we didn’t have the Japanese firing with machine guns at our heads.

 

The Power of the Marine Corps

The Battle of Tarawa truly showcased the Marines’ tenacity and willingness to go into a situation riddled with danger. The difficulty of the battle and the problems encountered helped propel the Marine Corps to betterment. That’s all we can ask of our armed services. If something doesn’t go well, just admit it, learn from it, and don’t repeat it. Following the Battle of Tarawa, the Marine Corps passed the test.

The Japanese Admiral said the Marines couldn’t take Tarawa if they had a million men and a hundred years. The Marines did it in under half a week.

That’s the power of the Marine Corps.

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