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Nov. 20 1943 Battle of Tarawa begins

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History: Battle of Tarawa

In the Battle of Tarawa (November 20-23, 1943) during World War II (1939-45), the U.S. began its Central Pacific Campaign against Japan by seizing the heavily fortified, Japanese-held island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands. The 18,000 U.S. Marines sent to tiny Betio were expected to easily secure it; however, problems quickly arose. Low tides prevented some U.S. landing crafts from clearing the coral reefs that ringed the island. Japanese coastal guns pounded the snagged vessels and desperate Marines gave up on freeing the boats and instead waded toward shore–hundreds of yards away– through chest-deep water amidst enemy fire. Despite heavy resistance from the 4,500 Japanese troops dug in on Betio, the Marines finally took the island after a bloody, 76-hour battle in which both sides suffered heavy casualties.

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Did you know? In the 76-hour Battle of Tarawa, U.S. Marines suffered almost as many killed-in-action casualties as U.S. troops suffered in the six-month campaign at Guadalcanal Island.

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First Day of Battle: November 20, 1943

The highly coordinated U.S. battle plan at Betio relied on the precise timing of several key elements to succeed, but almost from the beginning there were problems. Heavy sea turbulence slowed transfer operations of the U.S. Marines to the ship-side landing crafts. A pre-invasion air raid was delayed, upsetting the timetable for other parts of the assault. Holding for the air raids, support ships ready to launch massive pre-invasion bombardments lingered in position longer than expected. They were forced to dodge increasingly accurate fire from the island where Japanese defenders were dug in.

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Aftermath of Tarawa

More than 1,000 U.S. troops were killed in action and some 2,000 were wounded in only three days of fighting at Tarawa. Word of the heavy casualties soon reached the U.S. and the public was stunned by the number of American lives lost in taking the tiny island.

However, according to “The Pacific War” by John Costello, U.S. commanders learned important lessons from the Battle of Tarawa that would be applied to future atoll wars, including the need for better reconnaissance, more precise and sustained pre-landing bombardment, additional amphibious landing vehicles and improved equipment: Among other advancements, better-waterproofed radios would be developed.

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