As we celebrate Thanksgiving, take a moment to remember the many Americans who gave their last full measure 72 years ago in the attack on the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.
Almost two years after Pearl Harbor, the assault by the 2nd Marine Division on a Japanese-held stronghold started on Nov. 20, 1943, five days before Thanksgiving. In a brutal three-day battle, over 1,000 Americans were killed, and almost 2,300 were wounded. In proportion to the forces engaged, it may have been one of the most costly battles in U.S. military history, with as many casualties suffered in three days as in the six-month campaign on Guadalcanal.
Betio Island, the main island of the Tarawa Atoll, was a little over two miles long and no more than half a mile wide. It is about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii and was important to the Allied communication lines with Australia and New Zealand. It was part of the outer defense line of the Japanese Empire. Tarawa was the opening campaign of the U.S. drive across the central Pacific.
Even though no point on the island was more than nine feet above sea level, the Japanese force of 4,800 soldiers had honeycombed the island with a formidable array of barbed wire, mines, bunkers, pillboxes, log barricades, and gun emplacements with interlocking fields of fire. It was the most fortified atoll the U.S. would invade. The Japanese commander, Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki, boasted that “a million Americans couldn’t take Tarawa in a hundred years.” When the battle was over, only 17 Japanese were alive, along with 129 forced Korean laborers.
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