Probably few people in the world, aside from Pacific Islanders, know the world “Kiribati”, (Kita-bus) but every serious student of World War II recognizes the name “Tarawa”. For here, on only one small island, Betio (Bay-sheo), of the Tarawa atoll, 76 hours of savagery on 20-23 November 1943, left 1, 085 Marines dead, another 2, 000 wounded and all 4, 836 Japanese Marines dead. The debate in this country over the price paid for this chunk of coral raged from Main Street to Congress.
How could this happen? On Nanumea, 450 miles south of Tarawa, my buddies and I watched the B-24 Liberator bombers leave daily, their bomb bays bulging, and return empty. The graceful, gull-winged F-4U Corsair fighters cleared the skies of any air threat to the bombers. Warships had pounded the small island for weeks, preparatory to the buildings.
But even with photographs of the targets, before and after the air and sea onslaughts, military officers didn’t realize the ineffectiveness of their efforts against Japanese installations: blockhouses with four-foot concrete walls, pillboxes buried under thick coconut logs and sand. And then, probably the most costly, the tides were misjudged, forcing the Marines to wade, unprotected, hundreds of yards in shallow water, into the withering fire power of the entrenched Japanese. The wonder is the island was captured at all.
Micronesia is composed of 33 small, coral islands scattered widely across an area of the northern and central Pacific, with a total land area of only 1, 250 square miles. The Gilberts (now Kiribati) were settled before the first century A. D. by southeast Asians. Then, in the 13th century, Melanesians from Fiji and Polynesians from Tonga arrived, and the intermarriage of all these groups produced the Micronesians.
European contact of the 17th and 18th centuries brought whalers and traders and missionaries, in the north Gilberts Catholicism became the prominent religion, in the south, Protestantism. As noted in the Tuvalu section, the Gilberts and Ellices were closely allied until 1975. In 1979, the Gilbert Islands declared independence, and adopted the name Kiribati (pronounced Kitibus), the word for Gilberts in Gilbertese.
Kiribati’s 33 coral islands are spread among three island groups: the Gilberts, the Phoenix Islands and the Line Islands. All of the islands are atolls. With a land area of 313 square miles, in 1998 the population was 83, 976, with the overwhelming majority of Micronesian decent. About a third of the people live in Tarawa. Like Tavalu, without the “tv” revenue, agriculture and fishing are at subsistence levels. A trust fund and outside aid power the economy.
The lessons learned at Tarawa were successfully incorporated into later landings in this country’s slow walk across the Pacific. Though of no solace to the Marine families who sacrificed loved ones, it has been said that the men who died taking Betio Island made it possible for countless other Americans to survive later campaigns.
But one fact persisted in the later invasions of Paleliu in the Palau Islands and Iwo Jima, and that was the ineffectual neutralization of a heavily fortified island by air or sea bombardment. On both Peleliu and Iwo, Marines were once again forced to attack well-protected Japanese in caves on Peleliu and a 14-story maze of military activity and preparedness in Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. Two would account for the most battle deaths of any Marine operation in World War II, 5, 931. More Medals of Honor given over the nearly four years of U.S. participation in World War II.
The benefits from Iwo Jima: about 2, 000 distressed B-29 bombers, carrying 27, 000 crewmen, made emergency landings on Iwo.
Veterans of the Betio campaign have returned several times, and in 1968 erected a 25” anniversary obelisk marker on a land
pier extending out into the lagoon from Red Beach 3. Final words on the market’s plaque: It (Betio invasion) pave the way for the island campaigns that followed and provided answers that saved thousands of American lives along the road to victory in the Pacific.