Was Tarawa Worth It?

by Daniel Russ on April 7, 2013


On maps, war makes sense. It’s hard to see the decision making process that produced killing fields from the killing fields themselves. Maps are mostly bloodless affairs that give one a general idea of where attacks are supposed to occur. It’s easy to see why the US had to build airfields starting at Tarawa to eventually build airfields in the Marshall Islands. It was US air combat policy that required bombers to soften targets on the long route into Japan. First Tarawa’s airfield to help take the Marshall Islands to then take the Mariannas. 


Next stop, Japan.


The US cut no corners in the Pacific.


Tarawa was a tiny spit of land, about 800 feet by 2 miles. Not exactly but roughly a curved sword shape. From November 20th to the 23rd, 1943, 35,000 US Maries and Army infantry invaded this heavily fortified series of bunkers. The Japanese hid behind 500 pill boxes, and over 40 heavy artillery pieces, including British heavy naval guns taken from an earlier conflict. The 6th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force invaded the island in August and build fortifications that would provide interwoven fields of fire for defenders.



At the end of the day, 4600 Japanese fought almost to the last man, and the US suffered 6000 casualties. The US Naval task force was invading he Gilberts amd this tiny airfield on the Tarawa Atoll was the target for these four bloody days. The US entered theater with 17 aircraft carriers, 12 battleships, 8 heavy cuiser, 4 light cruiser, and 66 destroyers, plus three dozen transport ships. Tarawa was remarkable in that if it weren’t for the airfield, it would not have been worth a single drop of blood, and it could have been avoided.


Tarawa was remarkable in another way as well. No one knew until after the island was taken, but in the early hours of the initial bombardment, commander Keiji Shibazaki was caught out in the open after giving his quarters over to the wounded. He was killed outright.


The tiny size of the atoll and the disproportionate number of casualties did not go unnoticed. The public wanted to know why some place so small in the middle of the Pacific was worth all that death. But airfields from around the atoll and on the atoll itself proved invaluable for later attacks into the imperial Japanese Empire. 

General Holland Smith, who was highly critical of the Navy in his biography, commented:



‘Was Tarawa worth it? My answer is unqualified: No. From the very beginning the decision of the Joint Chiefs to seize Tarawa was a mistake and from their initial mistake grew the terrible drama of errors, errors of omission rather than commission, resulting in these needless casualties.’ “


source: Wiki




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