The 1943 Battle of Tarawa was the first of the Central Pacific Campaign. There, 18,000 Marines fought a bloody, 76-hour battle to seize the heavily fortified Tarawa Atoll from 4,500 Japanese defenders, wading through hundreds of yards of surf and scrambling for cover on the nearly flat islands.
Marines take cover on the beaches of Tarawa while planning their next move forward. Conquering Tarawa would take 76 hours and cost thousands of lives.
(U.S. Marine Corps)
Now, the nation of Kiribati, as the former British territory is known today, is expected to be completely underwater within a few decades, including all the territory of its capital, Tarawa.
Importantly for Marine Corps historians, that means that one of World War II’s most bloody and important battlefields will disappear under the waves — with Marine remains and artifacts still on it.
The 1943 battle for the island began with a massive naval artillery bombardment that failed to dislodge most of the pillboxes, obstacles, and defenders on the island. When troops landed on November 20, underwater obstacles in the form of coral reefs, sandbars, and other barriers caused landing craft to get stuck out at sea.
The assault on Tarawa was a nightmare. Shallow waters led to gently sloping beaches and hundreds of yards of obstacles — all factors that favored the Japanese defenders.
(U.S. Marine Corps)
Those who could rode their boats all the way to shore, but men who were stuck eventually waded through chest-deep water for hundreds of yards while under machine gun fire. When the Marines finally reached the beach, they struggled to find good cover on an island where the highest elevation was about 10 feet above sealevel.
Undeterred, the Marines fought through barbed wire and Japanese attackers. On the second day, they were able to land tanks and artillery and punch out from the beach, starting their campaign across the tiny island.
At the end of the three-day battle, the Marines had suffered almost 3,000 casualties, including many men marked missing in action who were either washed out to sea or lost in the sand dunes and vegetation. Of the 4,500 Japanese defenders, there were only 17 survivors left. Most fought to the death as there was no way to escape the island.
Four men earned Medals of Honor during the fighting.
After the war, the Kiribati Islands reverted to British control and then became a sovereign country in 1979. The U.S. signed a treaty of friendship later that year and then established full diplomatic relations in 1980. Since then, the relationship has been friendly if not exactly close.
The State Department says that they actively cooperate with Kiribati to repatriate the remains of Marines when discovered on Tarawa or on any other island within the nation.
Marine Corps 1st Lt. Alexander Bonneyman, Jr., thought to be fourth from the right, and his men attack a Japanese position on Tarawa. Bonneyman posthumously received the Medal of Honor and his remains were recovered from Tarawa in 2015.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Obie Newcomb)
The remains of 139 service members were discovered and repatriated in 2015. One of those repatriated was 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman, Jr., who posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his actions on the island.
500 American service members were thought lost on the island, meaning that the remains of hundreds may still be hidden there.
Unfortunately, much of Kiribati rises in elevation no more than 10 feet, meaning that it will be one of the first nations wiped out by rising seas.
Another island nation and World War II battle site under threat is the Marshall Islands, where 400 Americans died seizing the strategic islets from Japanese defenders.
Luckily, these were well-documented battles. Historians have recovered many documents and interviewed survivors of each, and With the Marines at Tarawa was an Academy Award-winning documentary produced during the invasion. So, future generations will still see evidence of the Marine Corps’ sacrifice.
But any historians who need additional evidence from the islands better get to work soon. Time is ticking.