Tarawa Shermans




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


The assault on Tarawa, took place on the wretched coral atolls in the Gilbert Islands starting on November 20, 1943. This was the first use of Marine medium tanks, the new M4A2 tanks of the I Marine Amphibious Corps (IMAC) Tank Battalion, and the first operation where the Marine tanks were obliged to disembark from their landing craft in the face of hostile fire. The tanks assigned to support the 2nd Marine Division landings were the M4A2 medium tanks Company C of the IMAC Tank Battalion followed by M3A1 Light tanks of Companies B and C, 2nd Tank Battalion.

The initial tank landings on Beach Red I were six M4A2 medium tanks that were dropped 1,200 yards offshore. As they approached the beach, the tank drivers saw a thick carpet of wounded and dead Marines in front of them. To avoid running them over, the tanks tried to move to the flanks of the landing area, only to fall victim to Japanese artillery or to drown in huge shell holes created by the pre-invasion bombardment. The tanks had not been adequately waterproofed and so engines became flooded and stalled. Only two tanks made it to shore. Chicago was knocked out, and China Gal’s turret ring was jammed by a hit from a Japanese Type 95 light tank. With its gun inoperable, China Gal rammed the smaller Japanese tank, putting it out of action. Eight more M4A2 medium tanks from 2nd and 3rd platoons were dropped off Beach Red-3, losing one of their number in a shell hole. The four M4A2 medium tanks of 3rd Platoon were all knocked out, mainly by an entrenched Japanese gun emplacement. Of the three tanks that reached the shore intact, one was knocked out by a Japanese infantryman with a magnetic mine and another became bogged in a shell hole. Colorado returned to the battle after an onboard fire was quenched by driving into the sea. By the end of D+1, there were only four medium tanks in action. No M3A1 light tanks got ashore on D-Day, as four LCMs carrying tanks of 2nd Platoon, Company C, 2nd Marine Tank Battalion were sunk off the beach. The first M3A1 light tanks arrived on D+1 but one was lost to a magnetic mine. The other two platoons landed all 12 of their M3A1s successfully on D+2. The 37mm gun of the M3A1 was ineffective against Japanese bunkers, forcing Marine tankers to drive right up to the bunker embrasure and fire high explosive rounds directly into the gun-slits. The tiny atoll of Tarawa was taken in three days of fighting at a horrible cost.

The lessons of Tarawa would strongly affect Marine tank policy over the next year. The standard equipment of the USMC tank battalions, the M3A1 light tank, was shown to be inadequate, but the M4A2 medium tank had proven far more valuable. Waterproofing tanks was essential for amphibious landings since there was no certainty that the landing craft could deposit the tanks in shallow water and they might have to wade to shore through deep water. Japanese magnetic antitank mines were a growing threat. Japanese bunkers were a principal tactical objective, and gunfire was not adequate; tank-mounted flamethrowers were a potential response.


TARAWA (NOVEMBER 20-23, 1943)

Tarawa Atoll lay beyond Japan’s Absolute National Defense Sphere. The function of its garrison was simply to kill as many Americans as possible before succumbing, delaying the advance of the Western powers to the inner Imperial defense zone so that better defenses could be erected there. An earlier American commando raid on nearby Makin Atoll in August 1942, encouraged the Japanese to reinforce Tarawa. The main prize within the Tarawa Atoll was Betio Island, just 300 acres or so in total area. Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki set up a complex defense-in-depth on Betio that began with offshore underwater obstacles and mines, leading back to concrete barriers intended to channel landing craft into presited killing zones. Breastworks at the rim of the beaches were made from logs, sandbags, and piled earth and debris. Deeper in, concrete pillboxes housed hundreds of machine guns and 200 cannon. But mine fields were incomplete and in some areas only fake defenses were set up, comprising Quaker guns and imitation mines and wire. Still, manning the defenses was a determined garrison of 4,836 Japanese, mostly Rikusentai and naval engineers, awaiting the first U. S. Marine Corps amphibious assault of the Pacific War.

The preparatory naval bombardment proved disastrously short and ineffective, as American admirals showed themselves more nervous about staying in the island combat zone than supporting the 2nd Marine Division assault force. Aggravating the problem was interservice rivalry in which the Navy refused to listen to Marine Corps requests for longer duration fire support. Lacking proper reef maps and tidal charts, many landing craft and amphibious tanks were hung up on a reef when tidal depth was misjudged. Nor were there enough of the valuable AmTracs (amphibious tractors) to carry enough marines in the first wave. As a result, the initial assault wave was caught on the high reef and suffered severe casualties. Follow-on waves of marines waded ashore, some for 600 yards while under fire. Others were ferried to the beaches by AmTracs at a second landing point, which permitted a flank attack across the face of the initial disaster that finally overcame Japanese resistance. Virtually no defender survived: Shibasaki and 300 Japanese were burned alive inside the command bunker on the first day. The cost to the Americans was 997 marines and 30 sailors killed (mostly medics attached to onshore parties), with nearly another 100 marines missing and presumed dead. In addition, 2,233 marines and 59 seamen were wounded, for a total casualty list of 3,407. It was a shocking figure at that point in the war. After Tarawa U. S. assault tactical doctrine evolved to emphasize longer and heavier bombardments, better advance intelligence, and more direct-to-beach amphibious vehicles. Most importantly, it was decided that not all Japanese-held atolls needed to be assaulted. Instead, a bold island-hopping strategy was developed in which only islands and bases deemed essential to further progress were attacked.

Suggested Reading: Joseph Alexander, Across the Reef: Marine Assault on Tarawa (1993). Articles Joseph Alexander, “Marine Tanks in the Battle of Okinawa”, Leatherneck, April 1995, pp. 20-23 Joseph Alexander, “Baptism by Fire: Sherman Tanks at Tarawa”, Leatherneck, November 1993, pp. 34-37 Patrick Donahoe, “Flamethrower Tanks on Okinawa”, Armor, January-February 1994, pp. 6-10 Kenneth Estes, “Marine Tanks See the Light”, US Naval Institute Proceedings, November 2000, pp. 48-52 Ed Gilbert, “Supplementary Tank Armor in the Central Pacific 1944-45”, IPMS/USA Quarterly, Spring 1987, pp. 35-39 Joe Struck, “Marine Tanks in the Pacific”, AFV G-2 (12 parts from Vol. 1 No. 9 [Sep. 1969] to Vol. 2 No. 8 [Nov. 1970] Books Kenneth Estes, Marines Under Armor: The Marine Corps and the Armored Fighting Vehicle, 1916-2000, Naval Institute (2000) Kenneth Estes, US Marine Corps Tank Crewman: Pacific 1941-45, Osprey Warrior 92 (2005) Oscar E. Gilbert, Marine Tank Battles in the Pacific, Combined Publishing (2001) David Harper, Tank Warfare on Iwo Jima, Squadron Signal (2006) Robert Neiman and Kenneth Estes, Tanks on the Beaches: A Marine Tanker in the Pacific War, Texas A&M University (2003) Gene Salecker, Rolling Thunder against the Rising Sun: The Combat History of US Army Tank Battalions in the Pacific in World War II, Stackpole (2008) Steven Zaloga, Armour of the Pacific War, Osprey Vanguard 35 (1983) Steven Zaloga, US Marine Tanks in World War II, Arms & Armour Press (1988) Steven Zaloga, Tank Battles of the Pacific War 1941-1945, Concord (1995)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *