Why Tarawa?

Most of the battle of Tarawa took place in the Tarawa atoll on the island of Betio, less than one square mile in size, over three days in late November 1943. It followed the American offensive at Guadalcanal. Naval planners believed it was necessary for the Americans to take Tarawa before they could launch an offensive on the Marshall Islands, followed by the Marianas, with the ultimate goal of launching an attack on the Japanese forces on the Philippines. Also, the Japanese had built an aircraft runway on the Betio from which they would shortly have been able to conduct air operations against American forces.

Tarawa, a small atoll in the Gilbert Islands, lies some 2500 miles southwest of Hawaii. It was heavily defended by some 4,500 Japanese troops; American troops numbered approximately 35,000. After 76 hours of fighting, 1677 Marines and sailors died in the battle; 1 Japanese officer and 16 soldiers survived out of the 4,500 defending the island. 

Tarawa was the first amphibious assault on a heavily defended coral atoll. It proved the viability of amphibious operations on coral atolls in the Pacific. It also taught sobering lessons regarding naval and air bombardment, the need for clearing enemy harbors by underwater demolition teams, the need for far more amtracs (amphibious tracked vehicles, or LVTs, the need for better battlefield communications, and better leadership training for men in the field. Tarawa, then, also served as a training ground saving countless lives in future operations, particularly Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.

Combat cameramen Staff Sergeant Norman Hatch and Private William Kelliher were the first to bring the reality of the Pacific war to the American public. (Military censors had kept most of the grim realism of the war from the public.) They recorded the combat at Tarawa (Betio Island) on their Marine issued, hand cranked, 16mm movie camera. Robert Sherrod, civilian war correspondent, covered the attack as well. With President Roosevelt's approval, the film footage was made available for public dissemination. It was made by movie director Robert Capra into a 19 minute documentary, “With the Marines at Tarawa”, winning an Academy Award.