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battle of Tarawa, battle of makin
U.S. Marine Corps
A U.S. Marine uses a flamethrower to clear a path through the jungle in Tarawa
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United States Wins Battle of Tarawa Against Japan

November 23, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Nov. 23, 1943, U.S. forces captured the Tarawa atoll from Japan, its first victory in the island-hopping campaign toward Japan.

The Battles of Tarawa and Makin

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Following victories over Japan at Midway Island and Guadalcanal, the United States instituted a plan to advance toward Japan by capturing strategically positioned Pacific Islands and using those islands as bases to launch attacks on the next series of islands. The so-called “island-hopping campaign” had two prongs: the southern campaign under Gen. Douglas MacArthur that was bound for the Philippines and the northern campaign under Adm. Chester Nimitz that targeted Japan.

Adm. Nimitz’s campaign began at Makin and Tarawa, atolls located in the Gilbert Islands, part of preset-day Kiribati. Makin and Tarawa were intended to be used to launch attacks on the Marshall and Marianas Islands to the northwest.

The U.S. had launched a raid on Makin in 1942. Realizing the strategic importance of the islands after the raid, Japan heavily fortified Makin and Tarawa in preparation for a future attack.

The most important point in the Gilberts was the island of Betio, the most western island in the Tarawa atoll. On Nov. 20, the U.S. launched its attack on the heavily defended Betio and the less defended island of Butaritari in Makin.

The battles marked the first time in the war that the U.S. faced resistance while making an amphibious landing. It made several miscalculations in planning the landing (for example, attacking during a low tide), which contributed to heavy losses. It took four days of brutal fighting to defeat the fanatical Japanese defenders on Betio, where just 17 soldiers agreed to surrender, while over 3,600 were killed. The much smaller Battle of Makin was won a day later.

More than 1,000 Marines were killed in Tarawa. The heavy losses outraged many Americans, who saw little value securing the tiny unknown island of Betio. One mother wrote to Adm. Nimitz blaming him for “murdering my son.” Nimitz defended the battle, saying, “The capture of Tarawa knocked down the front door to the Japanese defenses in the Central Pacific.”

The failures of the amphibious invasion also proved valuable for the U.S. leadership. History.com writes, “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.”

Historical Context: Pacific War

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to World War II features links to the best sites for learning about the Pacific War.
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