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Operation Galvanic: The 2nd Marine Division and the Battle of Tarawa 

WWII

Operation Galvanic: The 2nd Marine Division and the Battle of Tarawa 

The naval force used in the Battle of Tarawa (the Fifth Fleet) was enormous, but was it enough to break through Japan’s incredible defenses?

The naval force used in the Battle of Tarawa (the Fifth Fleet) was enormous, but was it enough to break through Japan’s incredible defenses?

by Al Hemingway

Pfc. Clayton Jay of Lamesa, Texas, was watching the sunrise from the attack transport Zeilin in the early morning hours of November 19, 1943. The weather had been ideal for the Marines since they left New Zealand days earlier. However, Jay knew this would be the last peaceful moments that he and his fellow Leathernecks would experience aboard ship. Tomorrow his unit, Company F, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, 2nd Marine Division, would attack the tiny island atoll of Tarawa, which its Japanese defenders had turned into a defensive bastion. The operation had been dubbed “Galvanic” by the high command.

With the seizure of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, was already eyeing the next objective in his island-hopping campaign to defeat the Japanese—the Gilbert Islands. “With the paucity of carriers—and the urgency to get started on our return march to the westward—it was essential we seize Tarawa,” said Nimitz, “first, so that we could use it as an unsinkable carrier in our operation against the Marshalls, and second, to eliminate Tarawa as a threat to our important line of communications between our West Coast and Australia and New Zealand.”

“Sprew” Commands the U.S. Armada

The naval force used in the Battle of Tarawa, the Fifth Fleet, was enormous, consisting of six attack carriers, five light carriers, seven escort carriers, 12 battleships, 15 cruisers, 65 destroyers, 33 transports, 29 LSTs (Landing Ship, Tanks), and another 28 support ships. Also, there were 35,000 soldiers and Marines, over a hundred thousand tons of cargo, and 6,000 vehicles.

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In command of this vast armada was Vice Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, known as “Sprew” to his Naval Academy peers. He selected Rear Adm. Harry W. “Handsome Harry” Hill to command Task Force 53 for the assault on Tarawa. They immediately flew to New Zealand and conferred with the Marines. Spruance’s orders were simple: Prepare for an assault on Tarawa.

Intelligence had disclosed a new Japanese airstrip on Betio Island, the main island in the atoll, guarded by units of the Japanese Special Landing Forces, erroneously referred to as “Japanese Marines.” In all, 5,000 enemy troops defended the diminutive island. They consisted of elements of the 3rd Special Base Force, 7th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Force, the 111th Pioneers, and the 4th Construction Unit.

Japan Fortifies Betio

Rear Adm. Tomanari Saichiro, who had a reputation for being an excellent engineer, was in charge of constructing fortifications for Betio. The Japanese strategy was to delay the Marines at the beachhead until they could be annihilated before they reached inland.

Betio was approximately three miles in length and about 800 yards at its widest point. The island had no vegetation to speak of and was flat with no elevation higher than 10 feet above sea level. Saichiro had his workers construct a log and coral barrier, or “seawall,” surrounding almost all of Betio. The island also boasted 500 pillboxes, tank traps, 8-inch guns, howitzers and artillery, heavy machine guns, light machine guns, and “knee” mortars. This impressive array of firepower spurred one Japanese officer to remark: “A million Americans couldn’t take Tarawa in 100 years.”

Historian Samuel Eliot Morison commented on the island’s defenses, “No military historian who viewed Betio’s defenses could recall an instance of a small island having been so well prepared for an attack. Corregidor was an open town by comparison.”

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