Following preparatory air strikes against Rabaul, the 11 fleet carriers in Task Force 50, which were divided into 4 different carrier groups, neutralized Japanese bases in the Marshall Islands and pounded Makin and Tarawa in preparation for landings there. At the latter two atolls, 7 battleships and accompanying cruisers bombarded the shore for more than an hour the morning of the invasion. On 20 November, Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner's Task Force 54 landed elements of the army's 27th Division on Butaritari Island; 2nd Marine Division troops landed on on Betio Island.
At Butaritari, 4 battalions from the 27th Division assaulted Beach Yellow in the lagoon and Beach Red on the western face of the island. Although the reef line forced the men in the lagoon to wade the last 300 yards to shore, initial resistance was light since only 300 Japanese combat troops defended the island. The attack became bogged down by enemy snipers and small counterattacks, however, and it took three days to secure the island. The army suffered 64 killed and 150 wounded.
Resistance was heavier on Betio, a small but well-fortified island defended by 4,000 Japanese troops. Initially, three Marine battalions landed on Beach Red along the wide lagoon side of the island. These troops ran into heavy fire, and, as low tide prevented heavy equipment from crossing the reef line, the attack stalled in the face of determined Japanese resistance. Two additional battalions landed as reinforcements later that day, and a sixth battalion landed the following morning. All suffered heavy casualties in the process. The situation improved late on the second day when destroyers and aircraft supported the landing of a seventh battalion at the narrow western end of Betio. Using tanks, grenades, TNT blocks, and flamethrowers, the
Marines secured most of the island by 22 November. Two Japanese counterattacks were repulsed that evening, and the entire atoll was cleared six days later. The United States lost 980 Marines and 29 sailors killed; 2,106 troops were wounded. Only 17 Japanese survived the battle; they were taken prisoner along with 129 Korean laborers.
Although the Japanese surface navy did not intervene, Japan's air and submarine units did strike the American invasion force. At dusk on 20 November, 16 twin-engine "Betty" bombers attacked a carrier group off Tarawa and torpedoed the light carrier Independence. The explosion killed 17 sailors and wounded 43, and it forced the carrier to retire for repairs. At least three similar raids followed over the next week, although none scored hits because American air cover—including the first use of night-combat air patrols—broke up the attacks. More deadly were Japanese submarines, one of which torpedoed and sank the escort carrier Liscombe Bay on 24 November, killing 642 sailors. Overall, the Gilbert landings cost the lives of roughly 1,800 Americans and 5,000 Japanese, including the crews of 4 lost Japanese navy submarines. The Gilbert Islands Campaign provided important lessons in amphibious operations, and it paved the way for the next U.S. amphibious operation, which was conducted against the Marshall Islands in January and February 1944.
Timothy L. Francis
Crawford, Danny J. The 2nd Marine Division and Its Regiments. Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 2001.; Cressman, Robert J. The Official Chronology of the U.S. Navy in World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000.; Morison, Samuel E. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vols. 2, 4, 5, 9, 10, and 11. Boston: Little, Brown, 1947–1952.