The Chieftain's Hatch: Tanks at Tarawa

For the last in our series of Marine tank fights for a while, the keyboard goes back to Ken Estes.

Tarawa and the First USMC Tank vs. Tank Encounter

The landings taking place after Guadalcanal in the Solomons and New Britain by the 1st and 3d Marine Divisions  and Army troops demonstrated the value of the new USMC style of close support tank-infantry teams as well as the continuing exploitation of the LVT as a logistics carrier over the beaches and in marginal terrain inland. They remained, however, mostly unopposed landings which only later demonstrated the marginal value of the standard light tank as an infantry support combat vehicle.  For Marine Corps tank and LVT units, as for the rest of the Fleet Marine Force (FMF), the real changes in doctrine and equipment would come out of the close encounter with disaster that the 2d Marine Division would find at Tarawa.  The fighting for that coral atoll set the standard required for the rest of the Pacific War and the many challenges which remained.  With their participation in Operation “Galvanic,” the seizure of bases in the Gilbert Islands, the Central Pacific drive began for the FMF forces


Gilbert Island Group Strategic Setting (USMC)

Japan seized control of the Gilberts on 10 December 1941 as bases from which to observe American activity in the South Pacific. Since the occupied islands were considered mere observation posts, little was done to fortify them.

Japanese strategists dismissed the Makin attack by LtCol Evans Carlson's 2d Raider Battalion as an attempt to pin down troops in the Central Pacific. But the vulnerability of the Gilberts certainly shocked them. Reinforcements were started toward the Gilberts, fortifications were thrown up throughout the group.

Betio Island in Tarawa Atoll reflected Japanese defensive theory following the losses at Midway and Guadalcanal, and was heavily fortified. The plans relied upon a series of strongpoints with the spaces between them covered by fire.  American assault forces would be stopped at the beach by frontal and enfilade fire. Should the invaders manage to gain a foothold on the island, determined counterattacks would be launched to hurl them back into the sea.

Commanding  at Tarawa, Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki led his 1122-man 3d Special Base Force and  1,122 more troops of the Sasebo 7th Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF). In addition to these combat troops, the island held over 2000 laborer troops, many of these Koreans and most untrained, Shibasaki could rely therefore  on no more than about 2.500 effective troops.

8 inch gun mounts guarded the seaward side of Betio [Wiki]

The defenses of little Betio bristled with coast defense guns, automatic weapons, and various kinds of anti-landing obstacles. These included 20 coast defense guns, ranging in size from 80mm to 8-inch. Other weapons included 10x 75mm mountain howitzers, 6x 70mm guns, 9x 37mm field pieces, at least 31x 13mm machine guns, and an unknown number of 7.7mm machine guns The defenders could also press into service dual-purpose antiaircraft weapons and the 37mm guns of seven Type 95 light tanks of the SNLF.

Japanese Defenses on Betio (USMC)

The 2nd Marine Division Prepares to Fight

Marines held little doubt that a real fight awaited them on Betio, the major island of the Tarawa Atoll.  Japanese defenses stood out in the aerial photographs and few of the commanders believed that the air and naval bombardments would eliminate enough of them to permit an easy landing.  In fact, the threat of the defenders' major caliber guns to the transports contributed to the decision to assault the island across beaches inside the lagoon, from transports anchored outside the atoll, thus requiring the landing craft and LVTs to cover a record 10 miles from ship to shore. Unlike in previous landings,  the landing force had to cross six to eight hundreds of yards of reefs before coming ashore against a sea wall and the surviving enemy and his weapons. [i]

LVT1 Alligator at New River, NC 1941 (USMC)

The 2d Amphibious Tractor (Amtrac) Battalion still operated 75 LVT-1 alligators, as usual in need of overhaul after their use during the division’s actions on Guadalcanal. A further 50 LVT-2 Water Buffaloes reinforced Maj. Henry C. Drewes’ battalion,  but these could only arrive at the island at the last minute, transported by LSTs from California.  Drewes already had his men hard at work installing bolt-on armor and an additional machinegun mount on the cabs of the LVT-1s, but fewer improvements could be made to the late-arriving water buffalos.  The long waterborne approach and the assault landing through surf and over reefs would prove the mettle of the LVTs. The division staff dedicated  84 of these vehicles to landing the first waves of assault infantry, fearing that the reefs would hold up the landing craft.  A logistics vehicle would thus become a combat infantry carrier, with 18-20 troops in each, a role until now denied by all planners and tacticians since the Marine Corps Equipment Board had first laid eyes on it.[ii]

LVT2  Water Buffalo new production model, without armament (USN)

With the armored amphibians just beginning to arrive on the west coast for their three new battalions, none would be ready for the November 20, 1943 assault on Betio. But a company of the 1st Corps Medium Tank Battalion reinforced the division.  The newest class of the specialized amphibious ships entering Navy service provided the key to using the M4 series medium tank in the amphibious assault. The landing ship, dock, or LSD, served as a mobile drydock, carrying LCM-3 landing craft and their pre-loaded  cargos of tanks, artillery or other equipment ready to disgorge over its stern gate once the well deck flooded using the ships’ internal ballast tanks. The first of these ships, USS Ashland, arrived in the South Pacific in time to load the 14  M4A2 mediums of 1st Lt. Edward L. Bale’s C Company for the assault.  Bale would take the M4 tank into its first combat operation with the Marines.  These would be the only tanks immediately available to the landing force, as the M3A1s of the 2d Tank Battalion remained stowed in the holds of the various transports now heading toward the objective area.

Early production M4A2, 1943, at Tank training Battalion, Camp Elliott, CA (1043). The crew wears the standard Rawlings helmet and Resistol goggles. (KW Estes)

The epic struggle of the 2d Marine Division to take Betio from its determined Japanese naval infantry garrison provided costly lessons which would greatly improve the rest of the Pacific War for the Marine Corps and Navy. 

The Brawl for Betio

The Japanese defenders saw the strange landing craft rise over the reef barrier and advance toward the lagoon-side beaches. They held their fire until  the LVTs came within 150 yards of the beach, then opened up with 37mm and 75mm anti-boat guns as well as the rest of their infantry weapons. The LVTs responded with their machineguns and continued to the beaches, a few even passing over the seawall. Although the LVTs delivered most of their infantrymen to the beaches, they suffered considerable damage and not a few total losses. Many of the tractors not destroyed by direct hits (eight of the initial effort) sank on return runs from flooding through numerous bullet and fragment holes in their hulls.  Major Henry G. Lawrence, Jr., the executive officer of the amtrac battalion, approached the beach..,[iii]

Aerial Photo of Beach, D-day, from a floatplane (USN)

"personally leading the center group of amphibian tractors in the initial landing,[he] directed his own tractor over barbed wire and other beach obstacles in the face of intense antiboat and machine gunfire, thereby enabling subsequent waves to land successfully and, when his driver was killed, unhesitatingly took the drivers seat and made four trips to the beach with urgently needed supplies and men. With his tractor finally disabled and his Battalion Commander reported killed, he promptly reboarded a landing boat and reorganized the remaining vehicles for continued action. Throughout the following three days, he worked tirelessly to direct the landing and delivering of supplies to the front line troops although three of his drivers were killed and he, himself, was trice hit by shrapnel while attempting to get ashore in tractors."

LVTs on Red Beach, LVT2 foreground with add-on plate; LVT1 in background (USMC)

Japanese cannon, mortars  and small arms fire shattered the infantry units which waded ashore from their landing craft stuck on the edges of the reefs at a freak low tide. These craft had  followed the initial waves of amtracs, and the sheer volume of  fire on the isolated infantry on the beaches prevented their tactical movement into the island’s interior.  Losses to the amtracs and their crews mounted. Maj. Drewes and many other amtrackers died in their mined and shot up vehicles, and the battalion suffered 323 casualties among its 500 men. After three days of action, only 19 LVT-1 and 16 LVT-2 vehicles remained in action. As the senior surviving officer, Maj. Lawrence said later, “Ah really don't know what to tell y'all except that we went from shit troops to shock troops in a helluva hurry!”[iv]

Marines inspect LVT1 vehicle 49 for possible salvage (USMC)

44 shows how easily it was knocked out, having driven belly up on the sea wall. (USMC)

The Tanks Land

            The M4A2 tanks did not come ashore as scheduled in the fifth wave of the landing, as the control craft circled beyond the reef, under enemy fire, before giving orders to the LCMs to discharge their tanks directly onto the reef.  Lt. Bale led his two headquarters tanks and a four-tank platoon on the right side of the beaches, while the other eight tanks aimed for the shipping channel and the left side beach.  Liaison scouts from the company attempted to guide Bale’s tanks through the water to land, but one of the eight other vehicles plunged into a hole, taking the crew with it.  As Bale’s six tanks approached the beach, he saw that it was crowded with troops, including many dead and wounded lying directly in his path.  Instead of driving over them, he turned back into the water and waded farther around to the right. Japanese fire killed the trailing platoon leader, and the four leaderless tanks fell into shell holes. But moving to the right, Bale inadvertently joining the orphaned pocket of infantry gathered together by Major Michael Ryan on the point known as the Parrot’s Beak.  Bale’s tank “Cecilia”  dueled with a Japanese Type 95 light tank, losing his main gun to a chance hit while destroying the Type 95, the first enemy tank to fall to Marine Corps tank fire.  His other surviving Sherman, named “China Gal” would remain in action for the entire battle, next to the now machinegun-armed “Cecilia.”

This Japanese Type 95 could not be started and remained in its revetment (USMC)

On the left  side beaches, the seven M4s reaching the left side of the beach went into action unsupported and blind, drawing much of the fire of those Japanese weapons able to bear upon the lagoon side of the island. The 2d Marine Division had yet to develop close support by infantry as a tactic, and Bale’s tankers had never worked with the division at all. The radios, of course, only served to communicate among the tanks and could not net with the infantry sets.  The Shermans moved over the seawall and began to take out the bunkers they could identify, Two fell into shell holes, two were knocked out by Japanese guns and yet another was disabled by a Navy dive bomber responding to the threat of several Japanese tanks still moving on the island.  A Japanese infantry attack with explosives knocked out yet another and the surviving tank on the USMC center, named “Colorado,” limped back to the beach on fire, wading into the sea to douse the flames.  The troop commander ashore, Col.  David M. Shoup, radioed the discouraging message, “tanks no good” and called for his regiment’s M-3 GMC tank destroyers to land, but neither of these lasted long enough to make a dent in the enemy positions.

Tank "Colorado" after repairs undertaken after the island was secure. The elephant logo was first used by 1st Corps Medium Tank Battalion, taken over by 3rd Tank Battalion upon disbandment of the former. (USMC)

            Hunkering down for the night defense, the infantry commanders made good on some of their bad experiences, and the second day’s action saw close infantry support for “Colorado” on the center beach, and for “China Gal”  on the western end of the island.  Both Bale and 2d Lt Louis Largey of  “Colorado” spent much time overnight with their respective infantry formations to coordinate the effort. Both tanks supported the drive of their respective infantry to clear the western end and surge across the airfield, dividing the island in two.  The infantry accompanied the tanks, firing on and around them as they advanced to kill each pillbox encountered, sometimes mounting an infantryman behind the turret to shout directions down to the hardworking crews.  Miraculously, the two tanks stayed in action for the rest of the battle, returning frequently to the beach to reload ammunition. No tank ammunition came ashore, but howitzer ammunition fit the gun and more ammunition was scrounged from disabled Shermans on the third day.

Lt Bale's command tank Cecilia remains on duty to this day at Betio [Wiki]

            The 2d Tank Battalion fared little better in the assault. Their commander, LtCol. Alexander Swenceski, fell severely wounded and his operations officer died when a shell hit his LVT offshore. A platoon of C Company attempting to follow the Shermans of Lt. Largey into the shipping channel had four of its landing craft sunk from under them.  The light tanks of B Company did not come ashore until late on the second day of the battle, and most of C Company landed on the third day.  Most of the light tanks lay at the bottom of holds stuffed with various supplies still undeliverable to the hostile shore. Each platoon rode a different transport and loading the tanks by cargo boom into the bobbing LCMs imposed the usual problems.

Finishing the Fight

 Marines hug the sand while awaiting a chance to move inland.(USMC)

Moving inland (USMC)

            As the remaining battalions of the 2d Marine Division  began to turn the tide of battle on Betio, the light tanks attempted to support the advance, with C Company, 2d Tank Battalion, operating at times with  the two intact M4A2s. Once again, the 37mm cannon revealed its shortcomings even when the tankers bravely drove up to the very embrasures of the Japanese emplacements to fire. One light tank served as a radio vehicle for the battalion commander at the division command post, trying to maintain tank-infantry liaison. But close cooperation between tanks and infantry still depended on visual signals and mounting an infantryman high and exposed on the vehicle.  At least with the M3A1 tanks ashore, they could be used to support the two mediums, “cleaning” them with canister and machinegun fire of the Japanese infantrymen who continually tried to stop them with close assaults.  They moved like a bunch of baby chicks surrounding the mother hen. After the Marines destroyed a counterattack on the third night, resistance slackened perceptibly and the island officially became “secured” on  23 November.  Only eight of the 2,571 Japanese troops survived this fierce battle, a difficult harbinger of things to come.[v]

The beaches after the battle (USMC)

          A Commander's View

                 [The author has worked with Colonel Edward L. Bale on Tarawa and other USMC matters since 1999. That year, he related his personal account of leading C Company 1st Corps Medium Tank Battalion into action. Col. Bale completed a distinguished career in 1968 and resides today in New Mexico. He may be the last living Marine Corps tank company commander of WWII. He wrote this in May, 1999]

My company sailed from San Diego in July '43 and unloaded in New Caledonia in early August.  During the following  two weeks the remainder of First Corps Medium arrived. In late September, The Bn CO received orders to prepare to ship one company to the 2dMar Div.  The CO, Ben Powers, called a hurried meeting of the 4 tank company commanders.  I was in The field hiking with the troops and did not attend.  Ben said he was under orders to ship a company to an undisclosed location and that he and Jeb Stuart, XO, had agreed the best way to decide  which company went was to draw straws. Jeb was to draw for me.  You know the results.

We loaded out of Noumea and after a very stormy passage arrived in New Zealand. [2nd Tank Battalion CO, Major Al]  Swenceski met the ship and took me to Division HQ where we checked in with the Adjutant and proceed to the G-3 shop, where I met Shoup and [assistant Division Ops officer] Major Tommy Tompkins (this was the start of a long time relationship with both).  We were told that there would be a delay of a day or so in unloading and that I should give the troops liberty on a daily basis until we unloaded.

Strange things.  The Adjutant did not take even a copy of the movement order and it was very vague as to whom I reported.  I was instructed to report daily to Tompkins pending the unloading. Ski took me to the Tank Battalion where I met [Bn XO Maj Charles] McCoy, and Lt. Spike Hennesey the S-4, a mustang and long time tanker.  Following a late lunch in the Officer's Mess I was returned to the ship.  That was my last contact with the 2dTkBn in New Zealand.

On the fourth morning I checked in with Tompkins.  Tommy told me that the Div was going on an operation but we were to return to New Caledonia to await the arrival of a special ship which would transport us.  I was told that I was to unload 1 tank and turn it over to McCoy.  Upon returning to the ship, I found McCoy there and he explained that as soon as the tank was offloaded we would sail and our berth would be filled with an APA which would load the tank and an infantry battalion going to Hawks Bays on an exercise.  Off-loading was delayed.  I will never forget the tank coming out of the hold, the whistle blowing and the civilian dock workers taking off for "tea time" leaving the tank suspended in the air.

We returned to the First Corps Medium and were on standby. The CO, XO, S-3 and CommO of the 2dTkBn flew in from New Zealand, the Ashland, LSD-1,  arrived and we were off for Efate and the rehearsal.

At Efate, I met the staff of the 2d Marines and the Bn COs.The tank and personnel I left in New Zealand rejoined us.  There were two landings in Efate.  The tanks landed but were restricted to the beaches.  There was no tank infantry training, no attempt to work out communications and no conferences between the Inf Bn COs and the Tank Platoon Leaders.  No provisions were made for resupply of fuel and ammo. Much of the optimism of the Navy regarding the effectiveness of naval gunfire rubbed off on all hands from the Division Commander down.  Ski and I were present when the Admirals talked of "not destroying but obliterating".

Ground guides were not provided for the other 8 tanks of the second and third platoons.  From all of the intelligence data, including  an

hour spent with Australia Major Frank G. Holland,  Al Swenceski, McCoy, and I recognized that the water would be deeper and the fording distance further on the approaches to Red Beach 1, the right flank.  Major Tommy Tompkins, later LtGen, was our major contact with the staff of the Division.  He was the one that convinced Shoup to put the six tanks ashore on Red Beach 1 on the basis that the fortifications appeared to be heavier and the need for support of the infantry greater. 

The tech manuals and a test of the ability to ford, conducted at Hawks Bay, New Zealand indicated that the maximum fording depth, without deep water fording kit applied, was 40 inches.  We took large wooden blocks from the carpenter shop of the USS Ashland and attached 40 inches of line with weights on the other ends.  The Recon Section of the company, which was in the T/Os in those days, was to lay the floats for each tank to guide on.  I do not recall how many floats each man carried.

I had a boat hook, marked in 4 inch increments up to forty inches.  Had the depth of the water exceeded 40 inches we would not have landed.  The USS Ashland's Boat Officer, Noah Levine now living in Florida, and I measured a 36 inch depth and we disembarked.

Liaison with the Commanders was bad.  It was established through assigning my company  XO, O. F. Kent, to the Command Group of the Second Marines,  The Platoon Sergeants were assigned to each of the assault BLTs.  There was no means of communicating with the Platoon Leaders, individual tanks or with me.  We had no radios to provide them.  No comm plan included the tank company.

At the present time I know of no one who can say what happened to each and every tank.  I can say that we accounted for all in my handwritten "after action report".  I can also say that we left only one tank behind when we reembarked.  That tank, Cecelia, still in a hole, just a few yards off the beach, when I waded out to it on November 20, 1993.

While many of the tanks were hit by gunfire, including my tank, Cecelia, the major reason for disability was the water.  The junction boxes of the electrical systems were on the floor of the hull.  When water came in they shorted out. Cecelia was the company command tank, named after the infant daughter of the driver.  He was later killed on Saipan I was in Cecelia when we took the 37mm round from the Japanese tank.  It hit the end of the gun tube taking out a piece and came down the tube lighting the inside of the turret like a Christmas tree.  We pulled backto the beach and determined that the inside of the tube was badly damaged.  The Japanese tank appeared suddenly, exposing only its turret from a prepared position/revetment   We must have fired at the same time.

That is when I transferred to China Gal.  The turret of Cecelia was not jammed. That tank was used on D+1 until it ran into a shell  hole in the water attempting to get to a better location to fire on Japanese positions firing on troops wading ashore. The crew fired its coax, bow gun and 50 caliber into Japanese emplacements.  After the island was secure, I crawled inside and retrieved my two pints of scotch from my dispatch case.

We later became A Co, 2nd Tank Battalion sometime after arriving on the Big Island, Hawaii.  The original A Co went to New Caledonia and joined First Corps Medium after the embarkation of the 2nd Marine Division in New Zealand.  They went to New Caledonia  and subsequently moved to the Canal with First Corps. When First Corps was disestablished A Co rejoined the 2dTkBn in Hawaii, became Co D and was equipped with M3A1 light tanks converted to flame throwers in Pearl. 

[One company of 1st Corps Medium Tank Battalion transferred to 2d and 3rd Tank Battalions each as all USMC tank battalions received one medium company post-Tarawa.  Captain Bale then led his A Company, 2nd Tank Battalion at Saipan and Tinian and finished his WWII campaign on Okinawa, when the 8th Marines landed with his company attached,  making the final assaults in that battle]


Kenneth W. Estes


Further Reading: 

Alexander, Joseph H. Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995.

Bailey, Alfred D. Alligators, Buffaloes and Bushmasters: The History of the Development of the LVT through World War II. Washington: History and Museum Division, Headquarters Marine Corps, 1986. 

Croizat, Victor J. Across the Reef. London: Blandford Press, 1989.

Estes, Kenneth W. Marines Under Armor: The Marine Corps and the Armored Fighting Vehicle, 1916-2000. Annapolis: USNI Press, 2000.

_____________. US Marine Corps Tank Crewman 1941-45: Pacific. Oxford: Osprey Publishers, 2005.

Gilbert, Oscar E. Marine Tank Battles of the Pacific. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Publishing, 2001.

Zaloga, Steven J. U.S. Marine Corps Tanks of World War II.  Oxford: Osprey Publishers, 2012.

_____________.  Armour of the Pacific War. London: Osprey, 1983.


A website study of the IJN tanks at Betio:

The Leon Cooper film Return to Tarawa (47 min):

[i] Joseph H. Alexander, Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa (Annapolis, 1995), 99-100.

[ii] Alfred D.Bailey, Alligators, Buffaloes and Bushmasters: The History of the Development of the LVT through World War II (Washington D.C., 1986), 83-86.

[iii] Citation for Navy Cross medal awarded to Lawrence; Lawrence file, RefSect, USMC Historical Division.

[iv]  Alexander, 112-116; Croizat, 96-97; Henry I. Shaw, Bernard C. Nalty and Edwin T. Turnbladh, Central Pacific Drive, Vol. III, History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II   (Washington, 1966), 108;  Lawrence quote from Victor Croizat ltr to author, 4May99.

[v] Alexander, 121-205, 238;  Shaw, Nalty and Turnbladh,  53-109;  Steve Zaloga, Armour of the Pacific War, (London, 1983), 16-17; Shoup told Bale years later that he regretted the wording of the ‘tanks no good’ message; he had asked only that the halftracks be landed as the tanks had become disabled, but the message became transformed by his assistants or the radio operator; Ed Bale to author, 7Jun and 8 Jul99.

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