Prior to the outbreak of war New Zealand had a 18 coastwatchers stationed on the island, most of whom were civilian volunteers from the NZ postal service.
The Imperial Japanese Navy occupied the Gilbert Islands three days after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1943. They built a seaplane base on Makin and dispersed troops along the coastlines of the atolls to monitor the Allied forces' movement in the South Pacific.
After the arrival of the Japanese forces these coast watchers were captured and most were later executed by the Japanese.
John Jones was one of seven coastwatchers on Butaritari atoll in the north of the group. He was captured and taken to a prison camp in Japan. Seventeen others were beheaded by the Japanese on Tarawa atoll in August and September 1942 in retaliation for an American raid on the atolls. An eighteenth, Ron Third, was based on Ocean Island, now called Banaba, died in captivity after the island was captured by Japan in the August of that year. Five other civilians - three Britons, an Australian and a New Zealander - were also killed in the Tarawa massacre.
All those executed received a posthumous mention in dispatches and the civilian coastwatchers were retrospectively given military rank in 1944 so that their dependants could claim pensions and other rights. In 2014 their sacrifice was finally officially recognised in New Zealand with a memorial dedicated to them was unveiled in Wellington. John Jones, the last surviving Coastwatcher, then 94 years old, was able to finally pay tribute to his fallen friends and colleagues http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/10587923/WWII-coast-watchers-honoured.
However, the fate of the coastwatchers remained largely unknown here in New Zealand until recently and it was a long forgotten chapter of our wartime history. After having waited for so long for recognition of his comrades sacrifice, John Jones passed away earlier this year at the age of ninety-six http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/89163265/last-survivor-of-wwii-radio-operators-in-kiribati-dies
The Americans put up a memorial to the murdered coastwatchers after their forces retook Tarawa and this memorial was replaced in 2012 by a new memorial. It is interesting to note that is memorial was provide by the Australian government, not the New Zealand one!
The Battle of Tarawa Nov 20-23rd 1943
Tarawa was to become the southerly point of Japan’s defensive shield, and so its capture was seen as being important in keeping the lifeline between Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand open for the allies.
Like most islands in this region, Tarawa was actually a coral atoll and consists of 38 islands surrounded by coral reef. Betio island is the largest island group and lies at the southernmost reach of the lagoon, and it was here that the majority of the Japanese troops were based. Shaped roughly like a long, thin triangle, the tiny island is approximately 3.2 kms (2 miles) long and only 730m (800 yards) wide at its widest point. A long pier was constructed jutting out from the north shore onto which cargo ships could unload cargo while anchored beyond the 500-metre (550 yd)-wide shallow reef which surrounded the island. The northern coast of the island faces into the lagoon, while the southern and western sides face the deep waters of the open ocean.
Tarawa was selected for the site of one of the first amphibious landings to pierce the Japanese defensive shield, and as it turned out to be the first one where the beach landing was opposed by Japanese forces. Unfortunately for the marines who landed the planners had ignored the advice of a New Zealand expat who had lived on the islands for 15 years who had told them that the lagoon would be less than 3 feet deep at the time of the landing. Although the Am tracks were able to navigate the lagoon the Higgins boats and other landing vessels were unable to and so many marines found themselves floundering ashore and having to cross up to 1200 metres of lagoon, under heavy fire the whole way, to even arrive to the beaches. Many of them did not make it. Indeed about half of all US casualties were among those struggling to cross the lagoon.
The main value of the island was its airfield. Rear Admiral Shibasaki Keiji defended Betio with 4,836 troops of whom 2600 were of the Special Naval Landing Forces and about 1,000 were Japanese construction troops. There were also 1,200 Korean labourers on the island. At Keiji's disposal were also 14 large coastal defence guns, 50 field artillery pieces, over 100 machine gun nests, and 500 pillboxes dotted the landscape. To further deter landing attempts, the Japanese constructed a huge wall across the lagoons to the north.
The American 2nd Marine Division landed on 20 November and were met with fierce resistance from the Japanese defenders. indeed at the end of the first day the marines toehold was extremely precarious but luckily the Japanese commander had been killed while vacating his bunker to allow it to be turned into a hospital and this meant the Japanese were disorganised and did not launch a night counter attack, which could have had disastrous consequences for the Americans.
On the second day the Americas were able to consolidate their position and secure the beaches for reinforcements. By the end of the day, the entire western end of the island was in U.S. control though the position was still far from secure but the tide had turned in the Americans favour.
The third day of battle consisted primarily of consolidating existing lines along Red 1 and 2, beaches an eastward thrust from the wharf, and moving additional heavy equipment and tanks ashore onto Green Beach. During the morning the forces originally landed on Red 1 made some progress towards Red 2 but took casualties. Meanwhile, the 6th Marines which had landed on Green Beach to the south of Red 1 formed up while the remaining battalion of the 6th landed.
By the afternoon the 1st Battalion 6th Marines were sufficiently organised and equipped to take to the offensive. At 12:30 they pressed the Japanese forces across the southern coast of the island. By late afternoon they had reached the eastern end of the airfield and had formed a continuous line with the forces that landed on Red 3 two days earlier. By the evening the remaining Japanese forces were either pushed back into the tiny amount of land to the east of the airstrip, or operating in several isolated pockets near Red 1/Red 2 and near the western edge of the airstrip.
That night the Japanese forces formed up for a counterattack, which started at about 19:30. Small units were sent in to infiltrate the U.S. lines in preparation for a full-scale assault. The assembling forces were broken up by concentrated artillery fire, and the assault never took place. Another attempt, a large banzai attack, was made at 03:00 and met with some success, inflicting 173 casualties, including 45 dead.
The next day the island was finally secured. The Japanese fought almost to the last man, exacting a heavy toll on the Marines. The 2nd Marine Division suffered 894 killed in action, 48 officers and 846 enlisted men, while an additional 84 of the wounded later succumbed their wounds. A further 2,188 men were wounded in the battle. Of the 3,636 Japanese in the garrison, only one officer and sixteen enlisted men surrendered. Of the 1,200 Korean laborers brought to Tarawa to construct the defences, only 129 survived. All told, 4,690 of the island's defenders were killed.
As well as the Americans and Japanese losses the islands were home to an indigenous population who also suffered extensive losses during the battle, which, as so often in military history, is often overlooked.