|Tarawa’s brutality remembered
Nearly 1,700 U.S. troops died in battle
By Audrey McAvoy, The Associated Press
Photos by Audrey McAvoy/AP
Adm. Timothy Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, shakes hands with Roy Robinson, an 83-year-old veteran of the Battle of Tarawa. On Thursday, the 65th anniversary of the brutal battle, Keating said many lessons still could be learned from World War II. “Pay attention to the survivors while we can,” Keating said.
Master Sgt. James M. Fawcett, left, and Capt. Kyle Corcoran salute Fawcett’s father’s ashes on Red Beach in Tarawa, Kiribati. Fawcett spread the ashes on the beach where his father fought his way ashore 65 years ago on the first day of the Battle of Tarawa.
TARAWA, Kiribati — Master Sgt. James M. Fawcett got on his knees and gently mixed his father’s ashes with sand on the Pacific beach where the elder Fawcett fought his way ashore 65 years ago.
Maj. James L. Fawcett died in September at the age of 89. He wanted his ashes taken to the spot where half of the men in his 50-man platoon were killed during the first two hours of the Battle of Tarawa, one of World War II’s most brutal battles.
“What a great way to end a great life,” the younger Fawcett said Thursday after he fulfilled his father’s wish. He was “a guy that was just an incredible hero and an incredible father,” he said.
Fawcett later joined a ceremony observing the 65th anniversary of the Nov. 20, 1943, start of the three-day battle. The United States aimed to take Tarawa from Japan, which had controlled the island since Tokyo ousted the British three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The fight for the tiny atoll halfway between Hawaii and Australia was the U.S. military’s first major amphibious assault in World War II.
Victory gave the U.S. control of a critical airfield it used to launch planes to bomb new Japanese targets and spy on Japanese positions. It also taught the Navy and Marine Corps crucial lessons in amphibious warfare that would help the U.S. take island after island as it pushed west across the Pacific to defeat Japan and end the war.
But the gains came at great cost.
More than 990 U.S. Marines and some 680 sailors died, while almost 2,300 were wounded. Only 17 of the 3,500 Japanese troops — and 129 of the 1,200 Korean laborers forcibly brought to Tarawa by Japan — survived.
“The battle that unfolded here was one of staggering sacrifice, almost inconceivable challenge,” Adm. Timothy J. Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said at the ceremony marking the anniversary. “Their courage and commitment and sense of honor inspired a nation.”
Four Medals of Honor — the nation’s highest award for combat valor — were earned at Tarawa, one of them posthumously. Thirty-four Navy Crosses, the Navy’s second-highest award for valor, were issued along with some 250 Silver Stars.
The U.S. had expected to significantly weaken the Japanese position before the Marines landed by assaulting the island with long-range bombers and sorties launched from aircraft carriers. Battleships and cruisers lobbed shells.
The Americans planned to have 3,000 Marines on the beach in 30 minutes and 6,000 more in the hours that followed. Instead, the Marines took hours getting ashore, and lost hundreds of men doing so.
The U.S. made two especially costly mistakes.
One was dramatically underestimating how many Japanese would survive their aerial bombardments. The other was misreading the ocean tides, causing U.S. transport boats to get stuck on the reef. Many Marines were mowed down by Japanese machine-gun fire when they were forced to abandon the boats and wade ashore.
After assessing the results of Tarawa, U.S. commanders decided they would need more amphibious troops to invade Kwajalein and nearby islands. They also determined they would need to drop precision bombs over long periods to take out the concrete bunkers that had protected Japanese troops on Tarawa from aerial attack.
Keating, who commands 300,000 U.S. troops in the Asia-Pacific region, urged those working for him to learn from World War II veterans while they are still living.
“Pay attention to the survivors while we can,” he said.