This month is the 75th anniversaries of the Battles of Tarawa and Makin here in Kiribati (or the Gilbert Islands as they were then known- Kiribati is Gilbert in the i-Kiribati language).
Butaritari lies a couple of hundred kilometres north of Tarawa. The atoll is roughly four-sided and nearly 30 km across in the east-west direction, and averages about 15 km north to south. The reef is more submerged and broken into several broad channels along the west side.
The Japanese landed on Butaritari on December 10, 1941, three days after the attack on Pearl Harbour and began to build a seaplane base on the island of Butaritari.
On August 17, 1942, Butaritari was attacked by Colonel Evans Carlson's 2nd Marine Raider Battalion. Landing from two submarines the 211-man force killed 83 of Makin's garrison and destroyed the island's installations before withdrawing. In the wake of the attack, the Japanese reinforced the Gilbert Islands. This saw the arrival on Makin of a company from the 5th Special Base Force and the construction of more formidable defenses.
Butaritari’s defences were centered around the lagoon shore near the seaplane base in the central part of the island. There were two tank barrier systems. The west tank barrier, which extended from the lagoon two-thirds of the way across Butaritari, was 12 to 13 feet wide and 5 feet deep, and was protected by one anti-tank gun, a concrete pillbox, six machine-gun positions and 50 rifle pits. The east tank barrier, 14 feet wide and 6 feet deep, stretched from the lagoon across two-thirds of the island and bent westward with log anti-tank barricades at each end. It was protected by a double apron of barbed wire and an intricate system of gun emplacements and rifle pits.
A series of strongpoints were established along the ocean side including 8-inch coastal defense guns, 37mm anti-tank gun positions, machine-gun emplacements and rifle pits. The Japanese expected an invasion to come on the ocean side of Butaritari, following the example of Carlson’s raid in 1942, and established their defenses two miles from where that raid had taken place. Without aircraft, ships or hope of reinforcement or relief, the outnumbered and outgunned defenders could only hope to delay the coming American attack for as long as possible.
The Japanese garrison on Butaritari consisted of 798 men: 284 combat troops of the 3rd Special Base Force-Makin Detachment along with 100 aviation personnel and about 500 Korean labourers. The garrison was commanded by Lt. j.g. Seizo Ishikawa.
The US 27th Infantry Division was a New York National Guard unit that had been transferred to Hawaii where it remained 18 months before being chosen to take part in the Gilbert Islands invasion.
On November 20th 1943 at the same time as the 2nd Marine Division landed at Tarawa the 27th Infantry Division's 165th Regimental Combat Team landed on Butaritari on Makin Atoll. infantry were supported by Lees and Stuart tanks of the 193rd Tank Battalion which were to prove invaluable in supporting the infantry.
The American plan was to overwhelm Makin’s defenders with crushing air and naval barrages followed by an amphibious landing intended to mop up any lingering enemy resistance. The U.S. planners hoped to lure the Japanese into committing most of their forces to oppose the first landings on Red Beach which would allow the troops landing on Yellow Beach to attack from the rear. The US commanders estimated it would take about two days to clear the island.
The Japanese, however, did not respond to the attack on Red Beach. Instead they withdrew from Yellow Beach with only harassing fire, leaving the troops of the 27th Division no choice but to knock out the fortified strongpoints one by one. Reduction operations were hampered by the frequent inability to use heavy support weapons, including tanks, because of the danger of cross-fire.
Japanese snipers hidden in the fallen trees and shell craters started were to take a heavy toll on the attackers and the American regimental commander was killed while rallying his troops.
Like Tarawa the Battle lasted three days and it wasn't until the morning of the 23rd of November when the troops of the 3rd Battalion reached the eastern tip of Butaritari and organised resistance was declared ended.
In the battle of Makin the 27th Division lost 66 soldiers killed and 152 wounded. Japanese casualties were 550 men killed and 105 prisoners of war, all but one of whom all but one were labour troops.
The Battle of Makin is less well known than the Battle of Tarawa but Makin is notable in that it was the first amphibious assault conducted by U.S. Army forces in the Central Pacific during World War II. Valuable lessons were learned that were to pave the way for larger operations on Saipan, ion the Philippines, and on Okinawa. Makin also marked the combat debut of armour in an Army-led Pacific landing and was the only time American-crewed Lee medium tanks were used in battle against Japan.
So why the sudden interest in the Battle of Makin? As mentioned this month is the 75th Anniversary of the battle, along with Tarawa, and next weekend I’m heading up to Buitaritari with some other kiwi volunteers for the weekend and hope to be able to explore some of the remnants of the battle. With a bit of luck I'll have a few pictures to post in a week or so.
A few useful links: