Battle of Tarawa

  • When: Nov. 20-23, 1943

  • Where: Tarawa Atoll is part of what then was known as the Gilbert Islands and today is called the Republic of Kiribati. It's a collection of 32 pancake-flat coral atolls. The battle was fought on the island of Betio, which is 21/2 miles long and just 600 yards at its widest point.

  • What: It was the first attempt by the United States to take a fortified island stronghold from the Japanese in the Pacific Campaign of World War II. Japanese commander Keiji Shibasaki had boasted: "Let the Yankees come. A million men could not take Tarawa in a hundred years."

  • Battle: Over 76 hours, in some of the fiercest fighting of the war, more than 1,000 Marines and sailors died while taking the island. The numbers of the fallen vary, but Morgan Hill resident Bill Niven, who has spent years trying to find where missing Marines are buried on Tarawa, believes 1,106 Americans died. It has been estimated that half died trying to reach the beach as they waded through a lagoon amid a hail of machine-gun fire and artillery rounds after landing craft became hung up on a coral reef. Of the 3,500 Japanese troops, only 17 survived. Just 129 of the 1,200 Korean slave laborers lived.


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  • Significance: The debate over the strategic importance of invading Tarawa began when the reports of high casualties reached the United States. One New York tabloid wrote: "Our boys died for a few acres of worthless coral." But the lessons learned at Tarawa likely helped lead to later successful amphibious landings in the island-hopping campaign. "If you talk to military historians, we came very close to losing the battle," Niven said. "And if we had lost, it might have lengthened the war by another year or two, and many more Americans and Japanese would have died."

  • Medal of Honor: 1st Lt. Alexander "Sandy" Bonnyman Jr. was one of four Marines in this battle to earn the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award. Bonnyman, a combat engineer, died leading a successful attack to destroy a key Japanese stronghold.

  • Lost Marines: Some 560 U.S. servicemen remain unaccounted for from the battle. Niven believes 159 are still buried on the island.

  • Tarawa today: Kiribati, about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii, is among the world's poorest and least developed countries. It has become part of the climate-change discussion because of concerns that the nation eventually might be submerged. Thousands live on the densely packed island of Betio.

  • Search: The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command is sending a team, starting Aug. 25, to examine two sites where Niven believes 73 Marines are buried, including Bonnyman.

    Sources: Bill Niven, The Associated Press, "Tarawa: A Battle Report" by Irving Werstein, "Tarawa" by Charles T. Gregg