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Battle of Tarawa Timeline

Authored By Dan Alex | Last Updated: 9/23/2014

The Americans needed to protect their rears when moving on to the Japanese mainland and that meant taking the Gilbert Islands and Tarawa Atoll.

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The American plan to strike at the Japanese homeland saw a concerted movement along two fronts - the taking of the Marshall Islands (from the Japanese) which also required the taking of the Gilbert Islands to help protect the final advance. The Tarawa Atoll lay within this island chain and was surrounded by thick coral which made for a natural defense against amphibious attack. The Japanese already maintained a useful airbase on the small island and managed a seaplane base out of Makin. U.S. forces would have to wade far offshore against a prepared and fortified foe before setting foot onto the beaches to begin the fight against some 5,000 entrenched Japanese Army soldiers - ready to die for their emperor. The Battle of Tarawa was at hand.


American success hinged upon speed-of-execution and a delayed Japanese response. U.S. naval firepower and air cover added an advantage but the Japanese defenders were prepared and, in some cases, well-stocked for a prolonged fight. The Japanese would not be able to match warship-for-warship at sea but its still-existing submarine fleet would come into play - the submarines arriving to counter the threat posed by the American warships.


American forces first targeted Makin and Navy warplanes were sent over to soften the Japanese resistance. This was then followed by an impressive offshore naval bombardment from warships which opened the way for ground forces hitting the beaches. The reef surrounding the islands forced many to wade into shore while completely vulnerable to enemy fire. The beachhead ultimately fell to the Americans and this action signaled further landings to commence elsewhere.


A second landing against Makin pitted some 6,500 U.S. Marines against 800 Japanese soldiers but the advantageous position of the enemy kept the Marines from an easy victory. Fighting would cover some three days before Makin fell. Next in the crosshairs lay the small atoll of Tarawa and its valuable airfield.


The airfield was garrisoned by no fewer than 5,000 battle-hardened Japanese soldiers and its defense was stout and at-the-ready. Yet another U.S. amphibious landing saw some 5,000 Marines launched against this Japanese contingent without the benefit of offshore bombardment or air cover due to the proximity of friendly forces operating against the enemy. The experienced and prepared Japanese soldiers made short work of the arriving Marines, again slowed by the coral and enemy fire - many of the approaching Marines died before they could set foot on the beaches themselves. Once ashore, the advance was slow-going and lethal close-quarters fighting raged on for the period of three days before the island was made wholly secure. The delay caused by the dogged Japanese defenders ultimately exposed U.S. Navy supply and transport ships to enemy fire, resulting in the loss of USS Liscombe Bay and over 600 of her crew. Likewise, USS Independence, a light aircraft carrier, suffered a torpedo hit and was removed from the battle for needed repairs.


With the island now in check, the airfield lay firmly under Allied control. Nearly all of the Japanese defenders were killed in the fighting save for 150 souls - surrender not a typical option among die hard Japanese warriors. Comparatively 990 Americans were killed and a further 3,400 were injured in the fighting on the march to Tokyo.


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There are a total of 16 Battle of Tarawa Timeline Events. Entries are listed below by date of occurrence.

1943
Wednesday
November 10th

The combined force of US Army and Marine Corps troops numbering 35,000 personnel heads towards Betio on the Tarawa Atoll.

1943
Saturday
November 13th

US Navy warplanes and warships begin the bombardment of Japanese positions at Makin and Tarawa in preparation for the planned amphibious assaults.

1943
Saturday
November 20th

US Navy warplanes and warships conclude their bombardment of Japanese positions.

1943
Saturday
November 20th

At 9:10AM, the first US Marine soldiers make it ashore at Betio during the initial amphibious landings. Nearly half are cut down in low waters by the waiting Japanese defenders.

1943
Saturday
November 20th

US tanks and armored vehicles finally make it ashore and strengthen the US Marine presence on the beaches.

1943
Saturday
November 20th

By the end of the first day of operations, some three US Marine battalions have made it onto the beaches.

1943
Sunday
November 21st

Another US amphibious landing, this consisting of both Army and Marine elements, makes it to the shores on Makin.

1943
Sunday
November 21st

US forces at Makin kill some 800 defending Japanese soldiers, leaving just a lone survivor.

1943
Sunday
November 21st

US forces officially take Makin and give the "Makin Taken" signal.

1943
Sunday
November 21st

US forces take Apamama after the suicide of its 22-strong Japanese garrison.

1943
Sunday
November 21st

US forces continue their progress against the Gilberts though a dogged Japanese resistance makes for slow progress.

1943
Monday
November 22nd

By 8PM on this date, US forces lay claim to portions of the Gilberts at its east and central regions.

1943
Monday
November 22nd

By night time hours, the Japanese enact a counter-attack against US forces, hoping to regain lost ground and take their invaders by surprise.

1943
Tuesday
November 23rd

The Japanese assault is repelled with a tremendous loss of life for the IJA. The dead number some 500 personnel in hours of fighting.

1943
Tuesday
November 23rd

The final Japanese defenders at Betio capitulate.

1943
Tuesday
November 23rd

With the fall of Betio, the Gilbert Islands are now under control of US forces.