70th Anniversary: Battle of Tarawa
Battles become more famous if things don’t go well and enormous amounts of blood are shed. The issue was truly in doubt at the Battle of Tarawa, November 20–23, 1943, in the Gilbert Islands, as 35,000 US troops fought it out with 2,619 Japanese defenders. In the end, 1,696 US Marines and Navy were killed, as were almost all of the Japanese soldiers and 2,200 construction workers. The commanding officers were Julian C. Smith and Keiji Shibazaki.
Tarawa was the first amphibious landing in World War II against a determined opposition that would fight to the last man.
In his book Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa, Col. Joseph H. Alexander (USMC ret) points our that “Once the American public came to deal with the shock of the bodies floating in the shallows along Red Beach, the national mood became one of grim determination. Kiska, we came to realize, had been an aberration. Henceforth we could expect the Japanese to defend each island to the death. So be it, the public seemed to say. The Pacific War would become a war of virtual extermination. Tarawa revealed that the road to Tokyo would take time and blood and treasure. Tarawa also provided confidence that Amerians cold prevail.”
Perhaps because of the ferocity of the fighting, many Tarawa veterans didn’t share their stories in later years. Dud King was a popular athletic director at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City. When he died, there wasn’t even one mention at a campus commemoratory service of his Marine Corps experience at Tarawa, one of America’s bloodiest and most hard-fought battles.