The Final Voyage 

The Gilbert Islands lie along the north side of the Equator in the middle of the Pacific Ocean midway between Hawaii and Australia.   They are a group of coral atolls and were held by the British until seized by the Japanese at the beginning of the war. The Japanese built an airstrip on Betio, the main island in the atoll.  It became increasingly important as U.S. forces began their movement toward Japan.  Betio is only about two-and-a-quarter miles long and less than a half mile wide.

Control of Tarawa and the Gilberts, according to the Navy, “offered the Pacific Fleet a platform from which to launch assaults on the Marshall and Caroline Islands to advance the U.S. Navy’s Central Pacific Campaign against Japan.”

The Second Marine Division was tasked to drive the Japanese from Tarawa, and the assault on Betio Island was scheduled for Saturday morning, November 20, 1943.  Its code name:  Operation Galvanic.” 

The Japanese were heavily entrenched on Betio with several thousand troops and an extensive network of tunnels and caves.  U.S. forces conducted air attacks against the island for several weeks prior to the amphibious assault.
One report indicated that as much as four million pounds of explosives had been dropped by air, and on November 19, Navy ships again bombarded the island.  Those attacks caused extensive damage and reportedly killed about half of the enemy forces.  Nonetheless, many bomb-proof shelters and pillboxes remained intact.  The surviving enemy troops concentrated their efforts along the only beach where a landing was possible.

After four hours of early morning bombardment on November 20th, the amphibious assault on Tarawa began. The down and dirty part of Operation Galvanic was underway.

Fae’s 2nd Battalion, Eighth Marines launched the first wave, supported by covering fire from Navy destroyers.

Fae’s unit landed on northeast Betio beach, dubbed “Beach Red 3,” before the Japanese could man their weapons.  That allowed the amphibian tractor landing vehicles (LVDs) to carry Fae’s Company E – along with two or three other companies – directly on to the beach.  Some Marines advanced as far as the airstrip.

But Operaton Galvanic was in trouble.

Tides were extremely low, and subsequent assault waves used traditionalHiggins Boats,” (LVCDs) which did not have the “tracking” ability to carry them over the outlying coral reefs.  Consequently, hundreds of Marines had to wade through chest-high water for 600 to 1000 yards to shore, many getting mowed down by Japanese machine guns and artillery before ever hitting the beach.

Although Fae’s unit made it ashore and secured a portion of the airfield, they were unable to hold their positions.  Simply put, Operation Galvanic did not yet have enough men or equipment on the beach.  It was not until afternoon that the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines came ashore.  They, too, suffered heavy casualties, but both battalions were able to gain control of “a large portion of Beach Red 3 and part of the Japanese airfield” by nightfall.

Within 76 hours, the Marines took control of Betio – but the cost was high.  Official U.S. Marine history lists 1,027 killed.  Decaying bodies, including about 5,000 Japanese military personnel and Korean slave laborers, posed a serious health issue for survivors of the assault. 

Many Marines were buried where they died and others were buried in cemeteries created by their units.   Bulldozers were used to dig burial trenches.  Tarawa was one of the bloodiest encounters of the war.  By many accounts, over 6,400 lives were lost, and some historians contend even that figure is too low.  Among the dead was Sergeant Fae Moore.

While there continued to be sporadic pockets of Japanese resistance for several days, the battle for Betio Island and the Tarawa atoll was effectively over by November 24.

Despite winning Tarawa and its strategic airstrip, there was soon considerable criticism about the planning of Operation Galvanic and the belief the assault was ill timed and that planners significantly underestimated the strength and resolve of Japanese combatants.